Joe the Revelator

Image by Gayatri Malhotra.

“China has an overall goal … to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch.” Joe Biden, March 26, 2021

There it is, plain and raw, the abiding essence of the American elite’s foreign policy laid bare: maintaining their dominance over the world, for their own power and profit. (They certainly aren’t doing it for the sake of the nation, which they’ve turned into a rotting husk.)

In their mind, any perceived threat to this morally vacant domination is “evil;” any perceived ally in maintaining it is good. It doesn’t matter what other nations actually do; their role in supporting US elites is the determining factor in how they’re treated by the US government – and how they’re portrayed in the US media, including popular culture.

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Mad Dog Time

Photograph Source: Michael Swan – CC BY 2.0

In mid-January, Britain achieved the gruesome distinction of becoming the world leader in the Covid-19 death rate. No other nation is seeing a greater proportion of its people die of the disease, not even the Covidapalooza of the United States. It is now beyond any doubt that Boris Johnson’s Tory government has been following a stealth “herd immunity” strategy from the beginning: one which accepts (even welcomes) mass death on a horrific scale while doing the barest possible minimum of mitigation to keep health services from being completely overwhelmed.

Johnson signalled this at the very start of the pandemic, openly mulling the idea of “taking the blow,” letting the pandemic sweep through the country while keeping the economy open, unlike those loser nations such as New Zealand and China with their timorous lockdowns. Britain would then emerge “like Clark Kent turning into Superman” (he actually said this) to lead the world as a “champion of free trade.” But when his own scientific advisers pointed out this “strategy” would lead to at least 100,000 deaths or more, the public outcry forced Johnson into the stealth strategy he is still employing. The result has been an erratic minimalism, characterized by seemingly bizarre reversals and stupefying cock-ups, which have plunged the country into a spasmodic cycle of lockdowns, ever-deepening economic ruin and a death count of … yes, 100,000, and rising.

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Thirty-Six Hours Past Judgment Day

“The weight of this sad time we must obey;

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say…

And it’s thirty-six hours past Judgment Day.”

-William Shakespeare and Bob Dylan
In the mid-1990s, I lived in Moscow. It was the “Wild, Wild East” of Yeltsin time, in the post-Soviet breakup, the rise of the gangsters. Aged war veterans, their suit-coats heavy with military hash, selling watches and dried fish on the street. Gangs of homeless children roaming the city. Nuclear scientists and dress designers selling their labor cheap to Western firms as drivers and cleaners and gofers. Go-getters gunned down on metro steps, in restaurants, after falling out with their “partners.” Reporters letter-bombed in their offices for investigating army corruption. The sell-off of vast industrial combines to government cronies for pennies on the dollar. The collapse of civic society, of the structures and infrastructures that had knitted some kind of fabric – however tawdry in places, however ridden with its own injustices – for millions of ordinary people, who were now facing beggary, illness, epidemics, collapse and violence in the radical uncertainty of a world turned harsh and alien in what felt like the blink of an eye.

As for me, of course, my withers were unwrung. I was an American, working at an English-language newspaper owned by a Dutch go-getter, and living on a salary that would’ve made me a beggar in my homeland, but in the desiccated moonscape of post-Soviet Moscow allowed me to live in humble but decent comfort, sharing a rented flat still stocked with The Collected Works of Leonid Brezhnev: volume after never-cracked volume groaning in the Uzbek owner’s glass-fronted bookcase.

I had come to Moscow from the radical collapse of my own life, with everything I still owned crammed into two suitcases, and the vaguest promise of perhaps landing a job at that English-language paper. I went there in pursuit of a failing romance and, with wild improbability, found another romance, with an Englishwoman, that determined the course of the rest of my life. I was in my mid-thirties at the time – how impossibly young that seems now! – and, unmoored from all familiar surroundings, in a land that was itself unmoored and uncharted, I found myself experiencing life with a heightened sensibility, a sharpness and vividness I’d never known before.

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Springtime for Bojo

The first week of lockdown in Britain has seen the most sustained period of fine weather I’ve ever experienced in my 22-year sojourn on this island of perpetual wind and rain. Never has it been so bright, calm, temperate and invigorating. On solitary walks down deserted streets and river paths, keeping a careful distance from other humans when they sporadically appear, you find the air has the light crispness of early fall, while the sun – unimpeded by any cloud – imbues the body with the warmth of spring. As a friend remarked, it’s an inversion of the pathetic fallacy: while human affairs are falling apart, nature is at its most serene.

At the moment, Britain seems to have arrested its headlong slide into the “American Carnage”™ that Trump has loosed upon the unfortunate land in his charge. But it has been near thing. With the supreme arrogance that only comes from centuries of inbred elitist stupidity, the Johnson government of toffs and twits wasted weeks of precious time pursuing a course of “herd immunity”: essentially letting COVID-19 sweep through the populace and cull the old and weak, while praying that the rest of the population would build up a natural resistance.

This, you might think, would be a risky proposition, especially given the fact that no one knew exactly how this novel coronavirus worked or how it might mutate as it worked its way around the world. There was also the fact that the British approach flew in the face of WHO recommendations, which were proving effective in containing the virus elsewhere. But Johnson, a well-known, lifelong goof-off, was being led in this, as in all things, by his “special advisor,” Dominic Cummings. This creepy libertarian replicant has long advocated Steve Bannon-like principles of tearing down the “administrative state” – especially commie claptrap like the NHS – while exalting executive rule unencumbered by the pesky machinery of representative democracy. Just before the COVID crisis hit, Cummings had to fire one of his own special advisors: yet another cranky twerp who, it was found, had been a bit too open in his advocacy of good old-fashioned eugenics.

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The Buzzard in the Bardo

On March 27, Bob Dylan released a single called “Murder Most Foul,” centered on the assassination of John F. Kennedy but rippling far beyond that now-mythic event. For 17 minutes, Dylan sweeps slowly across a ravaged landscape, like an old buzzard peering down at the carcasses and smoldering ruins below. Voices rise up here and there, along with snatches of music fading in and out like the signal from pirate radio. Are they the cries of the living or the echoes of the dead, reverberating one last time before they dissipate forever? At some point, you finally realize it’s not John Kennedy being conveyed to the afterlife: it’s you, along with the particular jumble of history and culture that formed you, all of it now passing away.

“Murder Most Foul” is not a literary work, although Dylan is, rather infamously, a Nobelist of Literature. (An honor he himself seemed to treat largely as a joke.) It’s barely even a song, meandering with no firm structure, shifting in and out of viewpoints voiced by different characters: some malevolent, some mournful, some speaking with a sarcastic sneer, and some – or perhaps one, perhaps the main one – speaking like an old man meditating through a sleepless night, a whisky in hand as the fire flickers and the shadows dance.

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Impeachment’s Soggy Sanctimony

Some say property, some say money, some say the insatiable attempt to assuage psychosexual anxieties by a projected identification with monstrous edifices of domination and death is the true American religion. But I say it is what Americans love most: sanctimony.

You could soar like a far-seeing hawk across the entire political landscape of the United States and never spy a single spot not covered with the fine, strong moss of sanctimony. From the highest mountaintop of power to the deepest crevice of servility, from east to west, from north to south – and certainly from right to left – sanctimony will fill your eyes and cloud your head with its powerful savor.

Every issue, every public action, is informed by it – and deformed by it. In a land where both religious and secular people are indelibly imbued with the sense that they belong to a sanctified nation – whether the divine sanction comes from God or else emanates from the fetish object of an 18th century parchment – there can be no political contention that is not also a spiritual agon for righteousness. Whether knowingly or not, most Americans view politics in the words of Dmitri Karamazov: “God and the devil are fighting it out, and the battlefield is the human heart.”

The recent impeachment farce is a good example. As the spectacle slouched inexorably toward its preordained end of acquittal, the writer Jacob Bacharach made a very pertinent observation: “Pretending the whole impeachment and trial were some grave, solemn, and serious legal proceeding rather than just a perfectly normal parliamentary No Confidence vote that was never going anywhere is a total affectation.” And of course, this is true: having the legislature vote on whether or not a government should continue in office is ordinary if the infrequent matter in most countries that call themselves democracies. It’s a question of workaday politics, a calibration of coalitions and numbers that have nothing to do with the “soul” or “character” of the nation involved.

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