Daily ‘briefings’ from the beast

Swamp Rabbit wore a surgical mask today when he went to the SuperFridge. To protect him against COVID-19, he said, but I figured he just wanted to rob the joint without being identified.

He brought ketchup and fish sticks back to the swamp, just in time to hear me ranting about Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Why did the liar-in-chief force the various states to engage in a bidding war for much-needed medical equipment and, in some cases, actually use FEMA to bid against certain states for that equipment? Why did he refuse for so long to invoke the Defense Production Act, which compels private companies to quickly make sure there is no scarcity of equipment needed for a national emergency? Is this a case of Trump being stupid and malicious, or just stupid?

“Don’t make no difference,” Swamp Rabbit said. “With a dude like Trump, stupid and malicious are the same.”

I showed him a Boston Globe editorial about Trump that doesn’t pull any punches. It starts with a famous literary line:

‘Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,’ wrote W.B. Yeats in 1919. A century later, it’s clear: The epicenter cannot hold. Catastrophic decisions in the White House have doomed the world’s richest country to a season of untold suffering.

The language is even stronger a few paragraphs down, just in case readers haven’t got the point:

The months the administration wasted with prevarication about the threat and its subsequent missteps will amount to exponentially more COVID-19 cases than were necessary. In other words, the president has blood on his hands.

Swamp Rabbit shrugged. “Trump ain’t no Lady Macbeth. If he gets blood on his hands, he just wipes it off and looks for something else to wreck.”

He suggested I check out Trump’s daily marathon “briefings” and remember how we wondered what would happen to the country if its fate fell into the hands of someone who can only wreck things. As Yeats asked:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

We’ve known for three years what the beast looks likes. The only question now is how much wreckage he will cause before he slouches in some other direction.

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Dylan’s JFK song is dizzy, Miss Lizzie

Swamp Rabbit wanted to know what was the big deal about “Murder Most Foul,” the Bob Dylan song about the John F. Kennedy assassination that he wrote years ago but didn’t release until now, when the country’s mood is arguably darker than at any time since 1963, when Kennedy got whacked.

“The big deal is that it’s about an event that probably changed the course of Dylan’s music,” I said, “not to mention the course of history.”

“Okay, Odd Man, but do you think the song’s any good? Seventeen minutes long, the same chords over and over, and it ain’t got no chorus. It’s like he’s telling a story, not singing a song.”

“It might grow on you, rabbit. At first it seems like a general account of the murder, like a news story. Then Dylan throws in all the mysterious details. They’re still mysterious. I couldn’t help but laugh.”

Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?”

I told Swamp Rabbit to listen to where Dylan gets in a groove and starts dropping names and free-associating. Stan Getz and Dickey Betts. Harold Lloyd and Pretty Boy Floyd.

You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzie
You fill me with lead
That magic bullet of yours
Has gone to my head.

It’s a loosely stitched tapestry, as much about the wildness of American pop culture as about JFK’s murder. Dylan jams in so many pop references that Rolling Stone felt compelled to issue an annotated version of the lyrics.

“It’s history, rabbit. Never heard of the magic bullet theory? Look it up.”

Thelonious Monk checks in. Etta James and Patsy Cline. Marilyn Monroe, of course. A critic in Vanity Fair wrote that the song reminds him of that scene in Manhattan where Woody Allen starts naming artists who make him feel life is worth living. Maybe, but I doubt that was Dylan’s intent.

What’s new, pussycat? What’d I say?
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay
And that it’s thirty-six hours past Judgment Day

Will “Murder Most Foul” resonate with most of those who aren’t old enough to remember the assassination? Probably not. The world today is caught up in a crisis even bigger than the JFK catastrophe. Everybody’s out of work, hiding in their houses. Maybe there’s an end up ahead for the pandemic, but no one can see it yet.

“Decades from now somebody’s gonna write a song about what the virus done to this country,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Somebody in the music business who’s the voice of his generation, so called.”

“That’s assuming there will still be a music business and more generations,” I replied. “Never assume, rabbit.”

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From out of the blue, new realities


I was reading to Swamp Rabbit from Albert Camus‘s The Plague:

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky.

I reminded the rabbit that he and I, along with tens of thousands of others, had been at the Flower Show in Philly less than a month ago. Even the most ignorant tulip watchers knew the coronavirus was coming, but hardly anyone at the event seemed worried. It was too hard to believe, in such a balmy setting, that a plague would soon “crash down on our heads from a blue sky.”

“Enough Camus,” he said, stretching out in a beach chair on my porch. “I don’t need no more existential dread. I’m depressed enough as it is.”

He was playing devil’s advocate, like last week. Or maybe he wasn’t.

“Camus believed in courage, not dread,” I replied. “He believed in fighting the good fight, even though the deck is stacked against you.”

Swamp Rabbit laughed. “It’s easy to feel courageous if you got groceries and the Internet and checks in the mail. It’s peeps like us who ain’t got no dough who feel the dread.”

I fetched a rusty milk crate and sat down six feet from him. “This is tough on everybody, rabbit, even those with money. People like privacy, but they also like to go to ball games and flower shows, and to their hair cutter and so on. They don’t like sheltering in place. They don’t like too much isolation.”

“Peeps don’t like forced isolation,” he said. “They like having a choice. The thing is, there ain’t never no choice if you got no money… Is my six-pack of beer still here?”

He was trying my patience. “Virus deaths are spiking in Europe,” I said. “The worst is yet to come over here. Trump has stopped saying the virus is a hoax and started calling it the invisible enemy. He wants his base to think it was planted by the Democrats and the Chinese.”

The rabbit sat up, angry. “Trump’s gonna do what he always does — blame other peeps for problems he’s too dumb to deal with. F–k Trump. He oughta be quarantined in some dungeon somewhere.”

“That’s better,” I said. “Anger will keep your spirits up, rabbit. We’ve got to grapple with the new realities, the opposite of what Trump’s doing.”

He slumped back into the beach chair. “You go right ahead and grapple with them realities, Odd Man. Where’s my beer?”

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Is social distancing here to stay?


I read aloud from a Washington Post story about our reluctance to maintain social distance from fellow humans during the coronavirus crisis:

Hermits aside, humans are social animals, even what some call “ultra-social.” For millennia, survival has depended on being part of a group. If distancing seems hard, it’s not just you: It’s human nature.

“Human nature, my ass,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Whoever wrote that article must be tripping. Or maybe she never heard of the suburbs.”

He sipped whiskey from his silver flask and jabbered on. If the post-WW II years have proved anything, it’s that many if not most people prefer to exist as far away from each other as possible. Sure, there are family homes and barrooms and sports arenas, but these are vestiges of an earlier era in which humans felt there was security in clans and safety in numbers.

The automobile and the highway system ended the notion that Americans were inherently friendly and/or group-minded, Swamp Rabbit added. Big cities emptied out as the middle class grew. Suburbs sprang up and metastasized into mega-suburbs where endless expansion is driven by the human preference for private space.

“City peeps ain’t much different,” he continued. “The more money you got, the more you avoid other peeps. If you’re rich in Manhattan you can go from one end of the island to the other without crossing paths with nobody but the doorman.”

I told him he was exaggerating, people really are upset about having to isolate during the pandemic in order to keep the infection rate down. Most humans don’t like social distancing. They like face to face contact with their fellow creatures. There’s no substitute for the human touch.

“What planet you from, Odd Man?” he said. “Where I live everybody’s on the Internet. They stream music and movies instead of going to record stores and theaters. They order groceries instead of going to the market. They socialize on Facebook. If they need the human touch, they go to one of them quickie sites, Tinder or whatever.”

“You’re too cynical, rabbit,” I replied. “When the pandemic fades, things will go back to normal.”

He shook his head and took another drink. “Normal today means staring at a smartphone, in case you ain’t noticed. Ain’t nothing you can do about that pandemic.”

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High anxiety goes viral

Swamp Rabbit was reworking his coronavirus song today. Last week it was a bossa nova, but now it’s a blues sung to the melody of “Corrina, Corrina”:

Corona, Corona
Gal, you’re on my mind
Corona, Corona
Gal, you’re on my mind
I’m a-sittin’ down, thinkin’ of you
I just can’t keep from crying

It must have dawned on the rabbit that we might be screwed, especially those of us who have to work and have no health insurance or well-off relatives.

I told him the good news: Universal health care will cover all costs related to citizens’ exposure to the coronavirus (covid-19).

Then the bad news: This is happening in Thailand, not America. The Thai government plan is for Thai citizens, period.

“I knew you were putting me on,” he said, putting down his guitar. “Ain’t no universal anything in this country. Most peeps got lousy insurance. Thirty million got no insurance at all. Trump don’t even want the peeps to have Obamacare.”

Don’t worry about insurance, I told him. Worry about treatment. The Trump gang watched the chaos in China but didn’t even think about making sure we’d have enough hospital beds to deal with the virus when it crossed the ocean.

Swamp Rabbit sipped his beer. “At least we can get tested for the virus. I heard it on the TV the other night.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, but there are hardly any test kits. Fifteen thousands South Koreans get tested for the virus every day, compared to a tiny fraction of that number in this country. No one knows how many Americans are already infected.”

Complacency has given way to high anxiety in recent days. South By Southwest was canceled, Tom Hanks has the virus, the NBA and NHL suspended play, Christian zealot Mike Pence is “spearheading” the White House’s efforts to defeat the virus. Help me, somebody!

Swamp Rabbit was depressed but defiant. “If I get sick, I’m gonna keep working.”

“Don’t be crazy, rabbit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says sick workers should stay home so they don’t infect others.”

Swamp Rabbit laughed. “That’s easy to say if you’re with the CDC and get benefits. Ain’t no paid days off where we work, Odd Man.”

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Big day for the ‘anybody but Bernie’ mob


The “anybody but Bernie” movement shifted into high gear Monday when two underperforming presidential hopefuls, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, quit the race and endorsed good soldier Joe Biden, the ultimate establishment Democrat.

The announcements moved Swamp Rabbit to get out his guitar and write a song about the smarter of the two dropouts. After a few whiskies, he started singing:

O Booty, we hardly knew ye!
You’re a nerdy guy
But you done well for a newbie

I shut him up after the first verse and read him a news update. A former Democratic candidate with the unlikely name of Beto O’Rourke (remember him?) had also endorsed Biden, disappointing fans who had assumed he would back Bernie or Elizabeth Warren, the other progressive candidate.

“Damn,” Swamp Rabbit said. “How come all them Dems who said they were running to change the system ended up backing the guy who might not change anything?”

The three of them aren’t exactly bomb-throwing leftists, I told him. Plus, Biden’s victory last Saturday in the South Carolina primary woke them to the possibility that he could still get nominated. If they backed Bernie and Biden won, they’d be on the outs with the good-old-boys network overseen by the Democratic National Committee.

“They’re hoping for a reward from Biden,” I said. “The VP spot on the ticket, or a Cabinet post.”

Biden’s South Carolina win was a shot in the arm not only for establishment Dems but also for the mainstream news media, which cranked out a lot of ominous-sounding anti-Bernie propaganda after the Democratic socialist’s early successes. Most memorably, a squeaky-voiced talking head on CNN ranted above a banner on the TV screen that read CAN EITHER CORONAVIRUS OR BERNIE SANDERS BE STOPPED?

“That reminds me,” Swamp Rabbit said. “I got another new song.” He got into a bossa nova groove as he picked the guitar strings and crooned:

Corona… She will not forget you
Corona… She’s coming to get you

“Cut it out, rabbit, that’s sick,” I said, placing my hand on the fretboard.

At this point the returns were coming in from the Super Tuesday primaries. Biden was doing much better than some people had thought he would. Most young people rejected him, but he got the black vote plus most old and middle-aged “moderates.”

“I’ll tell you what’s sick,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Biden will probably win the nomination, even though there ain’t a damn bit of difference between his politics and Hillary’s. The Dems are moving backwards again.”

“At least Biden isn’t Trump,” I replied. Not much of a comfort, but better than nothing.

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The Bernie dilemma spelled out

After the South Carolina debate I cautioned Swamp Rabbit against getting into a “Bernie Sanders or nobody” state of mind, because establishment Democrats are determined to sink Bernie’s candidacy and we might have to settle for a “centrist” Dem to bring down the Hog Monster.

I said, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good… A flawed Democrat is better than a Republican dictator.”

It took Swamp Rabbit two days and a quart of whiskey to come up with a decent rejoinder: “Bernie ain’t perfect, but he’s a lot better than the other Dems except for Warren, and she ain’t got no chance.”

He addressed my swamp cats, Thoughts and Prayers: “Young Dems prefer Bernie because he wants to make real changes. Why don’t them dinosaurs get on board?”

The cats stared at him but didn’t dignify his naïve question with a response. I answered him by reading aloud from a 2007 essay by Jonathan Schwartz, quoted in a column by Jeet Heer:

The people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution ‘fail’ while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to ‘succeed’ if that requires them to lose power within the institution.”

But there are less ignoble reasons why establishment Dems are reluctant to get behind Bernie. They’re afraid young voters won’t vote in large enough numbers for him to win, that he’s too “radical” for suburban moms, that he won’t steal back enough of the blue-collar white male Dems who voted for Trump last time. And so on.

“It’s complicated, rabbit,” I said. “There’s never been a president as slimy as Trump, or legislators as corrupt as the Republicans who kiss his ass every day. It’s fascism. If the Dems don’t win this year, it might be lights out for what’s left of democracy in this country.”

Swamp Rabbit tugged on his chin whiskers. “What if Bernie wins the most delegates but them superdelegates help nominate some other Dem at the convention, like in the old days? Is that democracy?”

“I’ve got to go to work,” I said, dodging the question. “I’ll get back to you on that.”

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