A Little Uncanny

They say a party can kill you

Dear Friends - 

Ah, 2020. What a year. This New Year’s Eve I’m thinking of a sculpture I saw years ago at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. “Milkstone” by Wolfgang Laib is a large square slab of white marble sitting on the floor of an empty room, rising just a few inches above the cement. At first, it seemed one of those all-too-clever echoes of Duchamp. But a tremor echoed across the surface of the marble -- maybe someone walked across the room and the floor shook ever so slightly -- and I realized that it wasn’t just marble; it was also milk. The marble slab is actually a shallow bowl and every few hours a curator cleans the stone, pouring in fresh milk until it looks like a solid slab of marble again.

It is hard to describe the effect of this piece; this short video comes closest (although the Milkstone I saw was much larger). The milk is soft, liquid, and short-lived; the marble is hard, solid, infinitely eternal. Two things that could not be more different, really. And yet they’re the same thing, for a few hours. 

2020 was like a milkstone. So much squishy, short-lived stuff on top, always about to sour, constantly more being poured in, cleaning out what was there before. But underneath some rock solid fundamentals, not about to go anywhere, hard truths with us for the long haul. Which is which? 

As I’m sure you’re tired of hearing, it is going to get crazier. I’m quite certain Rule 1 will hold in 2021; if anyone was under any illusion that now things will return to “normal”, let me outline just a handful of things that have happened in the last seven days while you were enjoying your holiday fruitcake and trifle:

  • Next week’s fireworks: When Congress meets next week to certify Biden’s victory in the Electoral College, it looks like as many as 100 Members of Congress -- more than 20% of the legislative body -- will seek to overturn the results of the election. (If you want to know how we get to that number, listen to this podcast with Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL); the Hill is tracking the number of on-the-record Members here.) At least one US Senator plans to contest the Electoral College results, and I’d wager good money he won’t be the only one. While I’m confident Biden will still win, chaos will roil the halls of Congress, and Trump and his friends (and enemies!) in the media will have months, years, even decades of grievance with which to undermine President Biden and those that follow.

    Meanwhile, Pelosi is going to honor the results of a House race that is still contested and seat a GOP Member of Congress -- a courtesy not extended to the President-elect by her colleagues across the aisle. But one newly elected Republican Member of Congress won’t be there for his swearing in: 41 year-old Luke Letlow, a newly elected Representative from Louisiana, just died of COVID -- before he was even able to be sworn in.

  • Also, the Pandemic: While Trump uses the media to demand tests of loyalty from sitting Members of Congress and stir up vast reservoirs of grievance, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage. An estimated 70,000 people will die of COVID-19 between today and the inauguration. Meanwhile, America’s vaccine roll-out is already a disaster.

  • Threat Matrix: Perhaps most troubling is the subtle undercurrent of potential violence. The conservative Republican governor of New Hampshire has canceled his inauguration because of ongoing harassment from armed militias angry about mask-wearing and social distancing. The most unnerving news of the last week is from the Secret Service. They’re changing which agents are assigned to protect President-Elect Biden because of concerns about the loyalties of some agents.

  • The Lost Census: For the first time in American history, the Census isn’t done, and nobody knows what to do. The Census shapes the next decade of Congressional districts and the distribution trillions of federal funding and we’re in completely uncharted territory. The Norm Fairy won’t be showing up to solve this one with some Establishment pixie dust, not even if you leave a tooth under your pillow.

  • QAnon Grows: As I’ve written about here and here, conspiracy theories and information pollution corrupt the country on a daily basis, slowly consuming what’s left of our addled brains. A pretty decent poll (1,115 adults) from NPR asked whether Americans believe that “a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.” A whopping 37% of Americans said, “I don’t know…” which in this context is a way of saying, “I know I shouldn’t believe it, but I do.” Wherever would they learn that response? “I don’t know, but a lot of people are saying…” 

And what of Georgia, you ask? Too close to call. Georgia, like the country, is 50/50. Trump’s demand yesterday for the Governor (a long-time Trumpist) to resign is the latest round of madness. The political noise down there is so fierce it’s impossible to figure out what’s going on, but I know one thing: the Devil has indeed gone down to Georgia.

And while the outcome of the elections in Georgia matter (remember Amy Coney Barrett, anyone?), Democratic control of the US Senate does not augur a return to anything resembling “normal”. As I wrote to you in my last missive:

If Biden tries to play the Acela Corridor Consensus game, he’ll lose -- and so will America. The winner-takes-all-by-peeling-off-the-margins version of American politics offers no hope for the challenges we face as a country. As I’ve said frequently (and even wrote a book on the subject), America is a failed state. And the current political layout offers little hope for any long-term substantive change. 

And this, dear reader, is where you come into the picture. Only one thing gets us out of this cul-de-sac — you. Start a local news co-op. Take over your local Democratic Party. Get involved in your community and start to change things. It will be a lot of work; it will be, at times, infuriating and pedantic. But personal courage, sound nerves, and stark beauty will change things for the better. Keep fresh before me the hour of my highest resolve. And let’s take on 2021 with verve, wit, clarity and resolve for the challenges ahead. 

Lots of love, nicco

PS. I know, you think this email is too depressing. Inspired by this passage in Dame Edith Sitwell’s book “The Eccentric English”, I have done my best to convince my wife that we need a both a tame fox and a coffin that can double as a liquor cabinet, but she has vetoed both acquisitions:

His household staff consisted of a valet, a female general servant, a tame fox, and an otter, whilst he possessed, as well, a large stud of mules and dogs. The house itself was rendered cheerful by the presence — in the dining-room, which was redolent of leather, and was hung about with rusty agricultural instruments — of a large coffin. Mr Hirst had shown a long foresight in buying this coffin, for he was to live till the age of ninety years; but meanwhile, it proved useful as a sideboard, and Mr Hirst, when visited by his racing friends and others, would produce spirits from the inner recesses of this. 

If perchance you might speak with my wife, and she seems unlikely to yield on the tame fox and a coffin/liquor cabinet, you might explore her willingness to acquire a “large stud of mules and dogs”. You could suggest we consider putting a toe in the water by acquiring a German Shepherd puppy. I’d be eternally grateful.