Swamp Rabbit was hungover and tired of my blogging choices. “How come you gotta do two posts in a row about Manchin? What about all them other creeps in the U.S. Senate?”
So I told him for the tenth time: “Because no other Democrat who will vote on the Build Back Better Act has a more damning and documented record of personal corruption than DINO Joe. He pretends his opposition to the bill has nothing to do with the coal industry being the source of his wealth. He’s not only a liar but also an enabler of the companies that are polluting his constituents.”
“Ain’t no big deal to me,” Swam Rabbit said, wincing at the sound of my voice. “I’m already polluted.”
Footnote: Why did the Washington Post recently re-investigate the old story about Garrison Keillor groping women coworkers but not thoroughly re-investigate Manchin’s lucrative relationship with the coal industry? Why is there more comprehensive information about the Manchin family’s corruption in Don Winslow‘s two-minute video (posted above) than in thousands of words from the Post or the New York Times? Just asking.
“Lighten up, Odd Man,” Swamp Rabbit said as he stepped into my shack with a bottle of Wild Turkey. “You can’t call Joe Manchin a moral midget. What’s moral to him might not be moral to you, and vicey-versey.”
“No relativism, please,” I replied. “That pompous hick opposes sufficient funding to fight climate change because it would hurt the coal industry, where he made his millions. He says his investments are in a blind trust, but that’s a lie. He knows his dividend checks are coming from the coal industry. He’s close to the profiteers who are stalling to prevent the replacement of fossil fuels with clean energy. If he had an ounce of moral sense, he would recuse himself from working on on any legislation that concerns the environment.”
“Then the Dems would lose for sure,” Swamp Rabbit said. “They need his vote. They ain’t got no choice but to cut the climate change budget.”
I asked my mangy neighbor if he remembered when I noted in April that Manchin, the senior senator from West Virginia, was likely to destroy any hopes Democrats have of passing strong progressive legislation. Sure enough, Manchin hasn’t budged in his resolve to neuter the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act, which would “expand the social safety net” and combat the impending climate crisis. The Senate is split 50-50 and all 50 Republicans will vote against the bill, so a “no” vote from Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema, his fellow Democrat In Name Only, would send the bill down in flames.
Joe Biden and company have tried to ignore this reality for months but it hasn’t gone away. So here we are, all of us, living in a so-called democracy but with no power to overrule corrupt officeholders who place their own interests above ours.
No one else was around, so I blamed the problem on Swamp Rabbit. “It’s cynics like you who allow the Joe Manchins of the world to seize power and wreck the future,” I said. “You could fight to elect more progressives, but you’d rather remain comfortably numb.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Swamp Rabbit said as he broke the seal on his bottle and poured himself a shot.
This is a follow-up to a column Odd Man Out wrote last summer.
A bizarre psychodrama was unfolding in South Philadelphia while Swamp Rabbit and I worked a dull sales event in the suburbs. Hundreds of people had gathered to celebrate Columbus Day with a parade near the statue of Christopher Columbus that stands on Marconi Plaza. But the Columbus statue was encased in a plywood box and confined behind a metal fence, as it has been since last summer. Someone had hung a “Free Chris” sign on the fence.
Like I said, bizarre.
I showed Swamp Rabbit a newspaper account to bring him up to speed on the years-long fight to remove the statue of Columbus, a hero to many Italian-Americans and a villain to activists who cite evidence that he played a central role in the killing, mutilation or enslavement of large numbers of Indigenous people. Bowing to pressure from the activists, city officials earlier this year canceled Columbus Day. From now on, the holiday on the second Monday of October will be called Indigenous People’s Day. Columbus remains in solitary confinement. His fans are not happy.
“I don’t blame ’em,” Swamp Rabbit said. “The guy discovered America, and so what if it was by accident? He had a lot of guts, sailing into the unknown and all that. The city should give him his due.”
“He didn’t discover America,” I replied. “He confirmed its existence for Europeans. And so what if he had a lot of guts? Stalin had guts, too. Should the world celebrate a Joe Stalin Day?”
But I was being too glib. The Columbus Day cancellation is still being disputed in court, and the dispute will never really end because it’s rooted in a moral dilemma. Why should city officials single out Columbus when so many other revered historical figures are guilty of similar crimes?
A Columbus fan at Marconi Plaza told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the famed explorer was “not the monster everyone has made him out of be.” This is exactly wrong; Columbus was the first of many European adventurers who, in their lust for gold and glory, sparked a genocidal effort to replace Native Americans with Europeans.
But the fan made a sensible suggestion: Why not take the lid off the statue, leave it where it’s at, and add a display that lists the explorer’s transgressions but also explains that his voyages set in motion a mass migration to the “New World” of millions of people who would have endured a bleak future in overcrowded Europe?
Swamp Rabbit agreed. “We wouldn’t be in this here country if it weren’t for Columbus,” he said. “Besides, he ain’t no worse than Thomas Jefferson and them other rich white guys who preached equality but kept slaves.”
He was saying that history is a lot like marketing. It’s almost always written by or for the victors, whose natural instinct is to downplay the great crimes they committed while building their empires. They can’t sell their myths to the masses unless they leave out or distort information that would cast them in a bad light.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with myths,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Them Italiano-Americans need their heroes, just like us. You take away Columbus and who’s left? Next thing you know them activists will be knockin’ down statues of Rocky Balboa.”
Oh no, anything but that. I repeated what I said last year: “Sometimes the revisionists go too far.”
A typical September day in Philly. Oppressive humidity. Swarming flies. Cicadas making eerie outer-space sounds. In the media, another story about bad cops:
The city of Philadelphia will pay $2,000,000 to a Black woman who was pulled from a car, beaten by officers and had her toddler used for social media fodder by the police union, officials say.
A month earlier, the cop news was just as awful. A grand jury recommended that perjury charges be brought against three now-retired Philly homicide detectives who testified in the 2016 retrial of a black man who has since been exonerated after serving 25 years on rape and murder charges. The exonerated man sued the city and settled for $9.8 million in 2018. (Above, my response to an Inquirer writer who tweeted about the case.)
Whites who sympathize with Black causes also get the treatment. Last week came news that Philly was being sued by a White woman who was tackled and injured last year (there is video of the incident) by a “notorious” cop during a protest of the police killing of George Floyd. The same cop, now retired, will stand trial for assaulting another White protestor (also on video) at a separate protest against police violence.
“I don’t get it,” I told Swamp Rabbit. “These cops live in the age of camera phones but they behave like it’s 1971. The cop labor union defends them. They act like thugs and cost Philly taxpayers about $10 million a year.”
“Same old, same old,” Swamp Rabbit replied. “The peeps who actually run this town, and most other big towns, would rather keep paying out millions than try to make cops behave. They figure most peeps — white peeps, that is — will take the cops’ side when somebody gets their head kicked in.”
It’s true. White America was shocked and then disgusted by the Floyd incident last summer, but the outcry for reform fizzled after certain activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement unwisely said they wanted to “defund the police.”
Naive white liberals don’t want to believe it, but we’re back to Square One. Last year, a black writer at The Nation put it this way: “…When it comes time to deal with institutional purveyors of racism, as opposed to individual bad actors, the outrage and support of the white community is not there.”
I showed the article to Swamp Rabbit and said, “Read this and you’ll know why Donald Trump is talking about running for president again.”
Covid-19 was surging again but Swamp Rabbit and I were back on the road, selling environmentally friendly products upstate at a vegan fest. Most of the vegans were polite and receptive, but it was my misfortune to cross paths with an ultra-orthodox member of the tribe who couldn’t abide anyone who doesn’t follow a strict vegan diet — no meat, no fish, no dairy, no arguments.
I told her I’m partial to fruit and veggies and grains but I’ve been known to eat a hamburger now and then. And eggs in the morning. I’m an active guy who needs high-energy foods, you know what I’m saying?
She scowled. “You present yourself as pro-environment but you’re not vegan. That makes you a hypocrite.”
“I was a pescatarian for awhile,” I said. “Before that, an Episcopalian.”
She said I shouldn’t be allowed to participate in vegan events. Animal species all over the world were going extinct, thanks to me and other meat eaters. The Amazon rainforest was being destroyed to make room for cattle grazing and soybeans for livestock.
I told her I was against destroying rainforests, against factory farms, against all the creeps who are wrecking the environment for the sake of their profit margins. It was like trying to convince an anti-vaxxer that Covid-19 vaccines save lives.
“You look faint,” I said, losing my cool. “How about a hard-boiled egg? I’ve got one in my backpack.”
At that point Swamp Rabbit noticed the ruckus and intervened. The uber-vegan marched off and I let flow the stream of curses I’d been holding back. Most of them started with the f-word.
“How many times I gotta tell you?” Swamp Rabbit said. “A big smile is the best way to say ‘eff you’ to kooks. You ain’t never gonna be a good salesman if you don’t know that.”
He was right, I guess. Frowny faces inflame kooks but smiles pacify them, especially if you have good teeth. If a kook approaches, smile and be serene. Do not engage. I will never master the art of the automatic smile, but maybe I can learn to use serenity as readily as I use anger, and so what if I reach the point where I can’t tell the one from the other.
Footnote: Swamp Rabbit had a scary thought. “Are most vegans also anti-vaxxers?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I said, “but make sure you get that covid booster shot.”
We were still trying to clean up after Hurricane Ida knocked down power lines and flooded our shacks last week as it swept through the Tinicum swamp. Meanwhile, Covid-19 raged on and random bad news dominated a high-pressure zone that stretched from Washington, D.C., to Kabul, Afghanistan.
“What good is the news if it’s presented without context?” I asked Swamp Rabbit as he was dragging his waterlogged straw mattress into the sunlight. “What good is the news media if reporters don’t re-examine past events to help explain how we got from there to here?”
My mind wasn’t only on climate change. I was thinking of a recent news story about Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who blamed Joe Biden for the clumsy withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan but failed to mention that her father, former VP Dick Cheney, a war profiteer and war criminal, played a major role in suckering the U.S. into the multi-trillion-dollar quagmire in Afghanistan and the even more costly debacle in Iraq. The writer of the story didn’t mention her father either.
“The media rarely report on Evil Dick these days,” I said. “Or his boy George W. Bush, a war criminal who took up portrait painting when he retired from creating international chaos. Or Paul Wolfowitz. Remember that weasel? Or that double-talking old buzzard Donald Rumsfeld, who died in obscurity this summer. I couldn’t remember his name at first, but I knew he used to be on TV every day lying about both wars as the death toll grew.”
“It’s only natural we should want to forget them miserable bastards,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Here, help me with this mattress.”
But I wasn’t done complaining. I reminded him that the U.S. Supreme Court had just conspired with the new Confederates to help outlaw abortions in Texas, even though Roe v. Wade is still on the books. The new Texas law allows bounty hunters to turn in anyone who aids women who seek abortions. It’s eerily reminiscent of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which arguably helped start the Civil War. But that’s ancient history, right?
Speaking of history, there seems little chance congressional Democrats will unite to block the new Jim Crow voter suppression laws being passed by many of the Republican-run state legislatures. And the Dems are unlikely to follow through on much of their $3.5 trillion reconciliation plan, which includes initiatives for paid family and medical leave, expanding Medicare, creating good jobs for the poor, making sure the rich pay a lot more in taxes, and coping with climate disasters like Ida, which wiped out large sections of Louisiana before it headed north.
“In the end, the Dems may do very little to change things, even though they have majorities in both houses of Congress,” I said. “They’ve forgotten how the Republicans made fools of them when they had majorities in 2008, and the media aren’t inclined to remind them. The Dems will never get hip to William Faulkner’s great insight: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.'”
“I hate when you lecture me about the past,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Just hold this here ladder for me so I can climb up and fix my shack.”
“Hold your own ladder,” I said. “In a few years your shack will be gone and the swamp, too. The media will still be reporting the so-called news without context and with no respect for the lessons of history. The Democrats will still be losing battles they could have won if they had any vision or spirit.”
“And you will still be a doom prophet and a pain in the ass,” he replied.
“All the great ones are checking out,” I said to my neighbor Swamp Rabbit after hearing that Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts had died Tuesday at age 80. “It’s the end of an era.”
Swamp Rabbit sipped whiskey and shook his head. “That’s what you said when David Bowie died. End of an era. Maybe it’s just the end of your era.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass,” I said, fighting an urge to kick him off my porch. “Charlie Watts was the timekeeper for the best rock & roll band ever. The consummate pro, cool without trying to be. Hard-driving but tasteful, always in control of the unruly forces around him.”
“OK, Charlie was cool,” Swamp Rabbit said. “But rock & roll drummers are a dime a dozen, doncha think?”
He was trying to annoy me. I told him Charlie’s style was spare, his fills sharp and often surprising. His playing was essential to the Stones’ sound. He joined the band in 1963 (!), when the young Brits were covering songs by bluesmen and early rock and rollers. The Stones evolved around him. He was at the top of his game when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards started writing great songs: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “Paint It Black,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Brown Sugar,” on and on. You can’t have a great band without a great drummer.
Swamp Rabbit, who is at least 20 years my junior, refilled his dirty glass. “You’re living in the past,” he said. “The Stones ain’t made no great songs since Reagan was president.”
I told him great songs still sound great decades after they first appear, which is why many young music fans like old Rolling Stones hits. Music that fades quickly into the past is often music that wasn’t very good to begin with.
He stroked his skimpy goatee. “Blah blah. Every generation thinks the music they grew up listening to is special.”
I lost my patience. “You came of age with rock & roll from the late 1990s. Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, Korn. That ugly Woodstock ’99 festival. Music for spoiled, clueless white boys pretending to be rebels, with no knowledge of rock and roll’s roots. I’ll bet you all go to Trump rallies now, not music festivals.”
“You’re crazy,” he said. “I like them old blues and folkie records. Pete Seeger was my hero. And Mississippi Fred McDowell: I do not play no rock and roll.”
I calmed down and realized I’d been equating the death of Charlie Watts with the end of rock & roll as a medium for thoughtful, free-spirited outsiders. With memories of giving the finger to the dreary institutions that controlled my early life. With sitting in my sixth-grade Catholic school class drumming on my desk as “Let’s Spend the Night Together” played in my head.
“I ain’t got no use for your nostalgia,” Swamp Rabbit said. “All’s I want to know is who’s your pick in the ‘Last Stone Rolling’ pool? I’ll bet you a case of Jack Daniels that Keith outlives Mick.”
I gave him the evil eye. “I’m not sure, rabbit. but they’re both gonna outlive you if you don’t shut up or get off my porch.”
America’s 20-year war and nation-building experiment in Afghanistan came to a predictably bad end over the weekend. Since then, foreign policy “experts” have been speculating what went wrong, but few are admitting the effort was a colossal mistake from the start. Today I asked a local expert, my neighbor Swamp Rabbit, to shed light on this dauntingly complex subject.
“Afghanistan wasn’t a mistake,” he said. “It was a money grab.”
Asked to elaborate, he noted that the U.S. spent well over $1 trillion dollars on Afghanistan since the initial invasion. Many billions went to military equipment and social programs and infrastructure projects, he added, and billions more to people connected to for-profit companies that provided services to the U.S. military — everything from cooking and laundry to the trucking of vital supplies. A significant amount was used to fund protection rackets that ensured safe passage for the trucks by paying off the Taliban.
“That’s crazy,” I said. “Sounds like something out of Catch-22, the Joseph Heller novel.”
“I don’t know nothing about no Catch-22,” he said. “But I know big money is gonna tempt all sorts of peeps to forget their loyalties and line their pockets. Civilian contractors, U.S. soldiers, U.S. government flunkies, Afghan warlords and political big shots, the Taliban — ain’t nobody immune to big money.”
He read from a 2016 article by a New Yorker writer whose words resonate five years later:
Within the U.S. government, there is growing recognition that America’s vast expenditures in Afghanistan have been self-defeating, and that the conflict is more complex than simply fighting the Taliban or terrorism.
“A sad truth, but why were we in Afghanistan in the first place?” I said, paraphrasing the question Norman Mailer asked a half-century ago in his famously incoherent novel Why Are We In Vietnam? “We should have left after failing to get Osama bin Laden when he was there. We were fighting for unclear reasons for people who had contempt for our way of life and a long tradition of successfully resisting foreign invaders.”
“Just follow the money,” Swamp Rabbit said, belaboring his point. “The dough could have been assigned to our own inter-structure and climate change and whatnot. To helping poor peeps at home get decent houses and healthcare. But at-home spending is too easy to track. It’s a lot easier for contractors and everybody else to steal money that gets sent to the other side of the world.”
“But it’s not just about money,” I said. “It’s about ignorance and arrogance. It’s about the mainstream media, which only reports the truth about our wars when the wars are winding down. It’s about America’s refusal to learn from the Vietnam debacle. How did we end up in Afghanistan and then Iraq, an even bigger mistake?”
“Iraq wasn’t a mistake,” Swamp Rabbit countered. “It was a –“
“Don’t say it, you’re driving me crazy,” I said. “Better to call attention to that New Yorker piece and the Washington Post report called the Afghanistan Papers. Maybe people will be on their guard the next time the experts try to start a war.”
“I doubt it,” he replied. “But at least they’ll know it’s nothing but a money grab.”
“What exactly you mean by yahoo?” Swamp Rabbit said, sounding defensive.
I’d just finished telling him that yahoo-ism is a syndrome that’s been trending for years in this country. That the yahoos among us became louder and more conspicuous when the pandemic hit and Republican politicians began mocking everyone who believes in masking and vaccinations.
I told him Jonathan Swift coined the term “yahoo” in Gulliver’s Travels to identify the disagreeable humans who constantly make messes in the land of the Houyhnhnms, an enlightened, evolved race of horses (maybe a bit too evolved). Swift’s yahoos climb trees and “discharge their excrements” at Gulliver when he encounters them.
“Yahoos are humans who are proudly and stubbornly ignorant,” I explained. “They delight in activities that are mindless and cruel. They have a strong tribal instinct and a countervailing contempt for undertakings that might serve the common good. Yahoos in our country are easily led by unscrupulous cynics who want to retain political power by exploiting their fears and misconceptions.”
“They’re Confederates,” Swamp Rabbit said, catching on. “They say don’t tread on me, don’t try to feed me no Yankee medicines, don’t tell me Biden didn’t steal the election… I stay away from peeps like that.”
I shook my head. “They’re all over the place, not just down South. You can’t ignore them, but you can’t talk to them either. If you try, they drive you to drink.”
I told him about a recent encounter between New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and a gang of yahoos at an event where Murphy gave a speech in which he took a minute to urge the unvaccinated to get jabbed. When the yahoos heckled him, Murphy lost his cool and said, “You’ve lost your minds! You are the ultimate knuckleheads! And because of what you are saying and standing for, people are losing their life!”
Murphy meant there is a direct link between people who refused vaccination and the latest upsurge in covid infections and deaths. His frustration stemmed from knowing that yahoos always argue they can say “no” because the government effort to accomplish universal vaccination is a violation of their liberty. And so what if liberty, as they define it, amounts to a license to harm others? So what if it’s nothing but the lowest sort of selfishness?
“What would your boy Swifty think of today’s yahoos?” Swamp Rabbit said. “Would he be able to spot ’em?”
“Oh sure,” I replied. “All he’d have to do is watch for the good old boys and girls who are discharging their excrements at doctors and other health professionals who are trying to save their lives.”
I told Swamp Rabbit that the country is in a one-step-forward, two-steps-back historical loop, and there’s no reason to believe things will get better anytime soon. He didn’t want to believe this, so I summarized some news stories for him that illustrate how grim the situation is:
Sane Floridians are struggling to resist the policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Donald Trump wanna-be who continues to oppose mask and vaccine mandates even though his state recently broke its own record for most covid infections in a single day.
Everyone knows “extreme heat events” are becoming more severe because of global warming, but the much-balleyhooed “bipartisan” infrastructure bill includes no money for climate measures.
The Biden administration continues to voice support for passage of voting rights legislation but has yet to explain how this will happen unless Democrats strike down the filibuster and win cooperation from Senate DINOs like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
“There’s a lot of wishful thinking going on,” I said. “Some Democrats think they can shame Republicans into doing the right thing. They think they can sweet-talk fossil fuel freaks into agreeing the climate crisis is a top priority. They think bipartisanship still exists. No, no and no.”
“Your problem is you ain’t got no patience,” Swamp Rabbit replied, just to be contrary. “You gotta give peeps a chance to be reasonable.”
I waved him off. “Reasonable people already know that not being vaccinated is a danger to public health. That humans will be baked like clams unless the climate crisis is solved. That Republicans have no time for policy ideas that don’t bolster white supremacy and states’ rights, and help the rich get richer.”
“That’s some bleak shit,” Swamp Rabbit said, shaking his head. “How you expect anything to get done if there ain’t no compromise? No bipartisan pow wow?”
I almost told him that you can’t compromise with Confederates. You can’t haggle with people who don’t accept the results of a fair election, who blame the country’s problems on black people, and who refuse to raise taxes on the rich to improve the country’s infrastructure. But he’d already heard all that, so I figured brevity was best.
“Bipartisanship is bullshit,” I said. “The longer it takes Democrats to admit this, the longer it will take them to pull together and get this country out of the loop it’s stuck in.”