Tech changes. Cop culture doesn’t.

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Scott Olson/Getty Images

Swamp Rabbit was yapping about the Derek Chauvin trial. “Too bad he was wearin’ a mask. I wanted to see the look on his face when the judge read them guilty verdicts.”

I recalled watching Chauvin on TV last May, when his knee was on George Floyd’s neck and people on the sidewalk were staring at him. The look on his face said What are you going to do about it, call the cops? 

“Ain’t no way he gets convicted back in the day,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Maybe things are changing. ”

Don’t get carried away, I told him. Technology has changed — the pervasiveness of smartphones being the prime example here — but cop culture remains pretty much what it always was. Cops have each other’s backs, just like outlaw motorcycle gang members. Their unwritten code discourages reporting or testifying against brother officers (and sisters, sometimes) who commit crimes. Some of Chauvin’s brothers turned against him in the end, but only because his crime was on video and especially gruesome.

“You ain’t telling me nothing new,” Swamp Rabbit said. “But the pressure is on. What about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act?

“What about it?” I said. “Some state and local reforms have been made, but that federal bill won’t pass without support from Senate Republicans. The same gang that blocks all progressive bills. Some of them even fought to block the presidential election results.”

“But the Floyd verdicts change all that,” the rabbit insisted. “Republican will look like racists if they don’t do the right thing.”

“Most Republicans are racists,” I replied. “That’s one of the reasons you can usually count on them to do the wrong thing.”

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‘The Troubles’ in N. Ireland pale in comparison to ours

Boy and flaming car outside Divis flats.
Belfast in the bad old days. Photo by Jez Coulson

I was reading about the possible renewal of “the Troubles” that wracked the north of Ireland in the last three decades of the 20th century:

The instability has been accelerated by the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. From the moment Brexit was passed, concerns about self-determination and national allegiance again stood front and center in a society deeply divided between those who support Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the U.K. (unionists, most often Protestant) and those believing that the north of Ireland’s true home lies with the Republic of Ireland (nationalists, most often Catholic).

Unionists reject Brexit and the existence of an entity called Northern Ireland. Loyalists accept Brexit and want to remain British citizens. The two sides are unlikely to reconcile anytime soon. In fact, recent rioting might be a harbinger of the sort of strife that resulted in almost 3,600 deaths before a peace accord was reached 23 years ago.

“I wanted to go over there this year to find out if the Belfast Cowboy has lost his mind, but now I’m scared because of the Troubles,” I said to Swamp Rabbit. “Everybody thought they were over. How can people live with such madness?”

Swamp Rabbit put down his glass of Jameson and chuckled. “You must be trippin’. We had about 500 murders last year in Philadelphia alone. Don’t tell me about no troubles in Ireland.”

I took a minute to check the statistics. OK, the murder rate in the United States is much higher than it is in most developed countries. In recent years, there have been more than four times as many murders in the U.S. than in the U.K.

“But statistics can be misleading,” I argued. “The higher murder rate in the United States reflects our greater ethnic diversity and economic inequality. Murders in Northern Ireland during the Troubles tended to be politically motivated and reflected the –”

“Stifle it, Odd Man. A body is a body. The bottom line is you’re a lot more likely to get mowed down in North Philly than in Northern Ireland.”

Swamp Rabbit wanted me to name another so-called civilized country where cops get away with shooting unarmed kids. Where cops think it’s okay to slowly kill a handcuffed suspect in broad daylight, in front of witnesses. Where mini-massacres happen on a regular basis because of the easy availability of assault weapons.

“Biden has the flag at the White House lowered to half-staff every time there’s one of them mass shootings,” the rabbit said. “The way things are going, he might as well keep it there year-round.”

Footnote: The Troubles in Ireland arguably started hundreds of years ago. Troubled Belfast in the 1940s was immortalized in Carol Reed’s aptly named film noir Odd Man Out, about a disillusioned Irish Republican Army leader.

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Hey Joe, your name should be DINO

Swamp rats can sometimes be spotted from my backyard

We absorbed the pandemic’s impact in stages, imagining the tireless little beasties at the root of the problem. The billions of stealthy insurgents eager to bond with human cell receptors, using spike proteins as battering rams to enter the cells and pollute them.

Now it’s almost over, fingers crossed, and we can rest up at my shack in Tinicum and talk about the promises Joe Biden made while running for president. He has already delivered on the covid-19 relief bill and seems to be trying to get more stuff done, but a big obstacle threatens to undo him and the country.

“Ain’t no way around it,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Joe Manchin is a DINO — a Democrat in name only. He likes the filibuster rule and thinks raising taxes on the rich is radical.”

He read from a news story about how Manchin

…on Monday began raising objections to President Biden’s legislation to fund infrastructure investments by raising the corporate tax rate to 28 percent. Derailing the tax hike would be a lucrative gift to both corporate CEOs in general, and to private equity giants whose executives bankrolled the lawmaker’s 2018 campaign and funded a super PAC that boosted his closely contested reelection bid.

I confessed to being confused. Sure, U.S. senators typically have less integrity than crackheads. West Virginia’s Manchin, for example, is more beholden to his rich financial backers than to poor constituents who need the jobs that the infrastructure bill could generate. He’s clearly more concerned about corporate tax rates than about jobs. The question is, why do people who aren’t wealthy vote for such a man?

“Because they’re too dumb or lazy to know any better,“ Swamp Rabbit said. “Because it’s either vote for him or for some Republican who’s even more of a rat. Because he loves guns and the unborn. I live in a swamp, how would I know?“

I reminded him that the Senate has 50 Ds and 50 Rs, and that the infrastructure bill would crash and burn if Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema, the DINO from Arizona, voted against it.

“The media keep saying that the New Deal-era Democratic Party, the party of the working class, is making a comeback,“ I noted. “Do you think Manchin got the memo?“

Swamp Rabbit snapped open a can of beer. “He got the memo, but he ain’t about to let no new deal mess up his old deals.“

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Voting rights expansion vs. the filibuster

James Stewart filibusters as Mr. Smith. (Real filibusters are much less noble and don’t require speeches.)

We were watching the filibuster scene from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a hit movie in 1939 and a great example of director Frank Capra using his corny genius to convey big, inspirational ideas. His hero in this one is James Stewart playing a rookie senator who makes a marathon speech against corruption and then collapses in a heap on the Senate floor. Truth and the American way prevail despite this setback.

Swamp Rabbit looked puzzled. “If the filibuster is so great, how come Bernie and them other Democrats are trying to get rid of it?”

I explained to him that the filibuster, although it looks noble in the Capra movie, has rarely been used to accomplish anything good in the modern-era U.S. Senate. The rules allowing for its use are byzantine. Let’s just say that, thanks to those rules, most bills require 60 votes to pass (three-fifths of the Senate) instead of a simple 51-vote majority.

I told Swamp Rabbit that the filibuster was a favorite tool of segregationists trying to stop passage of civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960.

He looked even more puzzled. “Is that what Jimmy Stewart was doing? Trying to stop black peeps from getting their civil rights?“

“No,“ I said. “His filibuster was to stop a shady appropriations bill backed by a corrupt senator played by Claude Rains,“ I said. “Rains, you see, was trying to use Mr. Smith to — never mind. You’d better just watch the whole movie.“

But Swamp Rabbit was on to something. Democrats in the House recently endorsed a voting-rights bill called the For the People Act (House Resolution 1). Republicans want to prevent the bill from passing in the Senate (of course) but they can’t do this unless the filibuster rules stay in place. The ball is in the Democrats’ court. They won’t be able to pass any progressive legislation unless they use their slim 51-vote majority to kill the filibuster. As recently noted in the progressive publication Jacobin:

[The Democrats’] hemming and hawing over the filibuster is needlessly stalling the implementation of huge swaths of their agenda during what could be the only, brief opportunity they have during Biden’s presidency to put their platform into law. Their majority is so razor-thin, after all, that it could end at literally any moment.

The headline on the Jacobin article put it this way: “If the Democrats Don’t Kill the Filibuster, They’re Screwed.”

James Stewart couldn’t have said it any better.

Footnote: Democrats can’t use the reconciliation procedure to pass the For the People Act with their slim majority because the bill isn’t budget-related.

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South Dakota lawmaker channels ‘founding fathers’

“Check this out,” Swamp Rabbit said.

It was the sort of message you might see from a grumpy old white guy at a run-down barroom in, let’s say, South Dakota:

“Wait a minute,“ I said. “This guy is really a senator? A member of the United States Senate? This tweet must be a joke.”

“Mike Rounds is a member of that august body, and that ain’t no joke,“ Swamp Rabbit said. “Look him up.”

So I did. Rounds is a standard-issue empty-suit Republican in a sparsely populated Republican state where being ferociously pro-business counts for everything. He’s a college graduate but he apparently didn’t take any American history courses and possibly couldn’t pass a basic civics test.

A respondent to his tweet noted that the last of the Founders, James Madison, died 50 years before South Dakota became a state. Another tweeter facetiously asked, “What did the Founding Fathers think about Hawaii, Alaska, or any of the other 37 states that have been added since their time?”

Yet another noted that the Founders didn’t intend for slavery to end or for women to get the vote, so basing your arguments on what the Founders would have wanted is a dubious exercise. And that Washington, D.C. (pop. 700,000 or so) is just as deserving of statehood as South Dakota (pop. roughly 900,000). Rounds, of course, wouldn’t dare admit this because D.C. is heavily Democratic and Black.

“He’s tapping into the two major Republican concerns,” I told Swamp Rabbit. “One is fear of a permanent Democratic majority in Congress and the other is, as Public Enemy would say, fear of a Black planet.”

“My fear is that Republican crackers like Mike Rounds are gonna hold on to the power even though most peeps in this country are against them,” Swamp Rabbit said.

“The Democrats in Congress are in charge for now, so it’s up to them to be bold and make the necessary changes,” I noted.

“Right,” he said. “That makes me even more scared.”

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Anti-vaxxer? Not me. Go ahead and shoot.

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The new catch-phrase in the news is vaccine hesitancy, as I told Swamp Rabbit before I jumped on my bike and headed uptown for a shot in the arm. “It’s a medical condition common in places where people are too stupid or paranoid to separate facts from propaganda.”

“I don’t know,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Remember this time last year? There was a hog monster in the White House tellin’ everybody the virus was no big deal, he had it under control. And all them news networks just let him keep tellin’ lies. So you can’t blame the peeps who don’t believe anybody now.”

I told him that I did remember this time last year. The death count was still low, but the virus was already ubiquitous. It pushed aside all other news stories, chased office workers out of skyscrapers, shuttered restaurants and theaters, broke the gridlock and the public transit system. It padlocked arenas and imposed eerie silences on empty streetscapes that looked like settings for an end-of-the-world movie. It slammed the brakes on ambition and prompted potential victims to burrow deep into the Internet, or to re-examine their real-life routines and general purposes. Who is this person who shares my bed every night? What was I thinking?

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Ain’t no woman wants to share a bed with an old, broke-ass dude like you.”

“The point is that almost everybody knew the Covid-19 was deadly and would remain so until the scientists came up with a vaccine,” I replied. “The people who didn’t know didn’t want to know. They believe in conspiracy theories, or in the Republican Party. Same thing, almost. Please don’t tell me you’re vaccine-hesitant.”

“Let’s just say I’m skeptical,” he said, stroking his pathetic chin whiskers. “I’ll let you go first. If you don’t drop dead, maybe I’ll get a shot.”

It was a five-mile ride from the swamp to the Pennsylvania Convention Center against heavy traffic, but I made it on time for my appointment, locked up my bike and got into a series of fast-moving lines supervised by polite people from FEMA and the U.S. Army. This was the two-shot Pfizer vaccine. I got the first shot and made an appointment for the second and was out of there in 45 minutes.

Swamp Rabbit sized me up when I got back to the swamp. “You look okay, but how you feel? I still think its dangerous to get injected with all them little beasties.”

“I’ll tell you what’s dangerous,” I said. “Riding a bicycle in Center City. But that’s another story.”

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The ‘millionaires against a $15 minimum wage’ club

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“There’s a lot of peeps don’t mind believing the end is near, so long as it ain’t too near. The Apocalypse is a comfort to them. The alternative is to walk around thinking we might be able to patch things up for future peeps if we make the right changes, and who needs that noise?”

Swamp Rabbit was trying to explain the mentality of those who oppose big government projects like the Green New Deal and coronavirus pandemic relief bills. The planet will take care of itself even if we continue using fossil fuels, they say. The virus will go away on its own and all those lost jobs will magically return, even if the vaccines haven’t kicked in yet. Masks and distancing and relief money are a waste of time and a glaring example of gov’mint overreach.

“Yeah, but who really thinks like that?” I said. “You’ve got your mask-burning potato heads in Idaho and your wind turbine haters in Texas and so on, but most people are cool with clean energy and social distancing and extended unemployment benefits. Two-thirds of the country supports boosting the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour, which is still about ten dollars short of a genuine living wage. What kind of jerk would not support a fifteen-dollar minimum?”

“Small business owners,” Swamp Rabbit said. But he changed his mind when I showed him evidence that the negative effect of a minimum-wage increase on small businesses has been exaggerated by Republican politicians and the billionaires who own them.

Then he said, “The Republican senators ain’t on board. Neither are Joe Manchin and them seven other DINOs who voted against it.”

I informed him that at least seven of those eight Dems were millionaires and wondered if they might form a club with the Republican millionaires. Big money trumps party affiliation most of the time.

“All’s I know is the Dems got two years to win over some of them suckers who voted for Trump,” Swamp Rabbit said. “If they don’t, they might lose the Senate and the House. And they ain’t gonna win ’em over by punking out on the minimum wage increase.”

Update: Swamp Rabbit reminded me to cheer the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, a big step in the right direction for the Democratic Party despite the exclusion of the $15 minimum wage provision. Not a single Republican in the House or Senate voted for the relief bill. But they all voted for the $2 trillion tax cut for the rich a few years ago.

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Coping with pollution in a post-postmodern world

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I was driving fast and lamenting life’s unfairness. “There are 12-step groups for drunks and druggies, smokers, porn addicts, compulsive hand washers, you name it. But what about me? Hello, my name is Odd Man Out and I’m a climate curmudgeon. It’s been eight hours since I last insulted a climate change denier. Help me, somebody.”

“I’m sorry I called you a curmudgeon,” said Swamp Rabbit, who was riding shotgun in my 2002 Vendetta. “You wanna slow down now?”

I ignored his request. “I’d be a polite, green-minded neolib if I had money in the bank. I’d use recycle bins and carbon credits. Paper bags and metal straws. Pat myself on the back and pretend I wasn’t polluting the planet like everybody else.”

A newspaper story previewing a climate summit this summer had set me off. It seems many of the countries involved in the summit have not cut their greenhouse gas emissions enough to significantly reduce climate change:

Even if countries follow through, their combined impacts would put the world on a path to achieve only a 1 percent reduction in global emissions by 2030, compared to 2010 levels. By contrast, scientists have said that emissions must fall by nearly 50 percent this decade for the world to realistically have a shot at avoiding devastating temperature rise.

We parked at Smashy’s Auto Glass on Junkyard Row in Southwest Philly, where a workman replaced my cracked windshield with an intact windshield from the lot full of junkers across the street.

“I shouldn’t even be on the road,” I said after using my debit card to pay for the glass. “How can I be pro-environment if I drive an old boneshaker?”

Swamp Rabbit shrugged. “At least she ain’t gonna fail inspection. The question is, can you afford to gas her up?”

“Haha,” I said, glaring at him. I’d paid $150 for the windshield, $1,500 for a new exhaust system the day before. Tomorrow I’ll spend another $100 or more on a state inspection sticker. I’ll continue polluting the planet with my rattletrap while at the same time advocating for clean energy and other conservation measures. What a mess.

“Save your pennies and buy one of them electric cars,” Swamp Rabbit said. “Volvo will be all electric by 2030.”

We got back into my rust bucket. “If I could afford a Volvo or Tesla or whatever, then I probably wouldn’t have a job that requires a car. I’d just Zoom into the office now and then. But computers cause pollution, too, did you know that?”

Swamp Rabbit shrugged. “There ain’t no easy answers in the post-postmodern world. No irony, either. Why don’t you start a Curmudgeons Anonymous group?”

I steered my moldy chariot back onto Junkyard Row. “You mean keep polluting and vent about it at meetings? That would just make me a hypocrite, rabbit.”

“That’s okay,” he said. “At least you’d be an honest hypocrite.”

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Everything is bigger in Texas, even the lies

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“Okay, climate warrior, what do you make of them Republican frauds trying to blame wind turbines for that cat-ass-trophe in Texas?”

I had just rewarded Swamp Rabbit with a pint of Wild Turkey for helping me clear ice off the roof of my shack. He told me he’d seen Greg Abbott, the voter-suppressing, climate change-denying governor of Texas, dissing the Green New Deal on Fox News. The governor didn’t mention that the wind turbines wouldn’t have frozen if cold-weather equipment had been installed to keep them operational.

“Most of the power in Texas comes from oil and natural gas,” Swamp Rabbit said. “The oil and gas lines froze, too, on account of there ain’t no infer-structure in that state.”

“That’s the way Republicans like it,” I replied. “There’s a lot more money to be made if you privatize utilities and neglect stuff like maintenance and safety and long-range planning.”

Swamp Rabbit was getting feisty as he drank, and I could tell he was itching to have an argument. “Okay, Mister Know-It-All. How come the peeps in them red states don’t get wise to them Republican con men?”

“That’s a big question, rabbit. There’s no time to answer it here.”

“They like being told that power companies should be deregulated,” he said, answering his own question. “It sounds good until there’s a disaster and they end up with an $8,000 electric bill.”

I told him Texans might be waking up to what suckers they’ve been. Sleeping with six layers of clothes on and having to melt snow because there’s no running water will do that to you. What if they start believing they can use government to build a green infrastructure to protect against disasters and generate jobs?

“Never gonna happen,” he said. “They believe in Donald Trump. They believe in Ronald Reagan. He told them government is the problem.”

“Reagan and his stupid ideas are dead, but his disciples don’t realize it yet,” I replied. “That’s the problem.”

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‘Philly-delphia’ lawyer stars in impeachment farce

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Farce — a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations.

We were still arguing about Donald Trump’s impeachment farce. I thought the crowning moment came when Mitch McConnell condemned Trump as “practically and morally responsible” for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, just minutes after he and 42 other Republicans ludicrously voted “Not guilty.”

Swamp Rabbit contended that the highlight was Michael van der Veen’s crude characterization of a defense lawyer. Van der Veen threatened to make potential Democratic witnesses travel to his law office in “Philly-delphia” to be deposed. His outburst sparked laughter among the senators, and van der Veen scolded them for ridiculing him.

“He thought they were laughing at his empty threat, but they were laughing at the way he pronounced Philadelphia,” Swamp Rabbit explained. “And I think they were laughing because he got picked to work the impeachment. He’s one of them personal injury lawyers — you know, car crashes and dog bites and such.”

“That’s pretty farcical,” I admitted. “And van der Veen wasn’t the only Philly lawyer on Trump’s team. I guess Trump is still trying to give our town a bad name.”

For Swamp Rabbit’s parole officer, Victor Cortez, the most improbable moment occurred when Republican senators Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham and Mike Lee met with Trump’s bottom-of-the-barrel legal team to discuss strategies for winning Dear Leader’s acquittal. The senators were supposed to be serving as jurors!

“Yeah, that’s beyond farcical,” I conceded. “It’s theater of the absurd.”

We discussed the acquittal. The House impeachment managers presented solid evidence that Trump had incited an insurrection but the vast majority of Republican senators ignored it, just as they ignored evidence at Trump’s first impeachment. I asked Swamp Rabbit if he agreed with Marx’s notion that tragedy tends to repeat itself as farce.

“I live in a shack,” he shrugged. “I can’t tell the one from the other.”

Footnote: It looks like the half of the country that accepts the Big Lie — i.e., that the presidential election was rigged — has unofficially separated from the half that doesn’t accept it. Is this marriage worth saving?

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