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The Last Democrat in South Carolina


Part 2

Back in New Ellenton cousin Willie gave me heck. “Reverend Dennison sure likes you a lot!” he giggled, as we trudged our way through the slush of Lee Meadow heading up to the school. We was gonna meet some of our friends there and then do who knows what.

“I bet you gonna be doin’ the Holy Rollin’ by the time he done with you,” Willie teased.

“Now don’t you be actin’ so superior like,” I replied. “He just want to help me pray.”

That was on Friday. Two days later I told momma I was gonna take my bike and go to Jackson, and when she asked why, I explained that Rev. Dennison had told me he wanted me to pray with him. Momma knew who Rev. Dennison was. The grapevine in that rural part of the state is pretty good. Momma was, like I said, religious in her own right, but she’d heard that Rev. Dennison was “one of those,” which is how the ladies of the Second Methodist Baptist Church referred to Pentecostals, whom they regarded as just a little too eccentric to be proper Christians. She was quiet for a moment, eying me the way I knew so well: the left eyebrow arched higher than the right, her lips tight and disapproving.

“You sure you want to go?”

“Well, momma, I said I would, and besides, Auntie Esmina wants me to.” The eyebrow remained arched; momma was not a big fan of Esmina Hunke.

“All right. But don’t you dawdle, and you be back here by three or your poppa’s gonna be angry with you. We eat proper at four.”

I can’t say I really wanted to go see Rev. Dennison, but I also can’t say I didn’t. After all, he’d singled me out, not Willie, not even Uncle Mitch. That was sort of special recognition, I guessed, and besides, there’d been something about Rev. Dennison I liked. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe it was his hair that went over his collar. All the other adult men in the area kept their hair close cropped. Some of the younger ones, who’d been in the world war or Korea, even had what we called buzz cuts. It was unusual for a grown man to let his hair grow out. (Ten years later, mine would be halfway down my back, but that’s another story.)

Rev. Dennison had told me to go up to the rear of the church, where there were two little steps leading up from a muddy yard that led to a screen door. I rattled on the screen and a second later he opened it. He was wearing what looked like pajamas, which surprised me because he was supposed to preach. He must have seen the surprise on my face, because he looked down at himself, then back up to me, and laughed. “Oh, I canceled the service,” he said, almost apologetically. “Weather’s too bad. Didn’t want to make folks come out in this slush and mud. I don’t think our Lord will mind.

“But come on in, Bertram, make yourself at home.” He was allowed use of the small apartment at the rear of the church, which had a tiny kitchen and a Murphy bed, as well as a T.V. set. An old wooden dresser with a mirror stood by the wall. I wiped off the mud on my boots on the mud scraper and then Rev. Dennison told me to sit down on the couch. “You wanna watch T.V. or something?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. Rev. Dennison said he was just scrambling up some eggs and hash browns and would I like a plate. I’d already had breakfast, but the trip from New Ellenton—about ten miles—had made me hungry again, and besides, I was growing like a weed in those days and always seemed to be famished.

As he stood at the little stove and cooked the eggs, his back to me, Rev. Dennison kept up a steady pace of conversation. “I recall bein’ your age, Bert. You prefer Bert, or Bertram? Okay, Bert it is. I couldn’t wait to grow up and start going out with the young ladies. Know what I mean?” He turned around and winked at me, then back to the eggs and taters. “There was this one gal, Katharine Ann, we called her Katie-A. She was a beauty. Only eleven, but she was already fillin’ out. My oh my, yes, she was a special little gal. You got yourself a sweetie?”

“No, sir.” I replied.

“Well, that’s all right. Plenty of time for that. But I bet you think about it, don’t ya?”

I squirmed a little. “Well, to tell you the truth, sir, there is a girl I kind of fancy. Her name’s Betty Lou, you might know her daddy, he’s the deputy sheriff.”

“Betty Lou,” Rev. Dennison repeated, tasting the words in his mouth as though it were the eggs we were about to eat. “All right, Bert, grab yourself a plate from over there by the sink and let’s dig in.”

We ate away. Rev. Dennison turned on the T.V. but the reception was terrible, just a bunch of gray static and wavy lines, so he gave up. “I need to put up some kind of antenna but I never get around to it,” he said, absent-mindedly. Then: “You’re an athletic kind of boy, ain’t ya?”

That caught me kind of by surprise. “A little bit, sir.”

“What’s your sport? Or sports, as it may be.”

“Well, sir, I like fishin’, and ice skatin’ when Crockpot Creek is all froze, and baseball in the summertime.”

“What’s your position?”

“Third base, mainly, but sometimes I pitch.”

“Ah, pitchin’,” he said. “Pitcher’s gotta be in prime shape. You lift any weights?”


“You know, barbells, dumbbells, that kind of thing? At the gym?”

“No, sir. We aint—uhh, don’t got no gym in New Ellenton.”

“That’s a shame. A damn shame. We have a couple in Aiken. Myself, I worked out a lot at the Y.M.C.A. Great place for a young man to meet other men. Pool, Turkish bath, dry sauna. Meet some mighty nice folk there.”

I didn’t know how to reply to that. I didn’t even know what a Turkish bath was. So we was silent for a couple seconds.

“Tell you what. I got some weights over in that there closet. Just a couple of five-pound bells, but I like to have ‘em around. Let me show you how to use ‘em.”

Rev. Dennison proceeded to teach me bicep curls and tricep curls. “Whenever you work a muscle, you gotta work the opposite muscle, or you get unbalanced. See?” He did ten quick curls in both directions. “Now you try it. Take off your shirt, Bert, and stand there in front of the mirror and watch your muscles as you work ‘em.” As I watched my bicep tense and bulge, then relax, Rev. Dennison kept talking. “You see, God wants us to have perfect bodies. He gave us perfect bodies when we was born—well, most us, anyhow. But too many men let it go to pot, what with all their beer guzzlin’ and bacon eatin’ and such, ‘til by the time they’re thirty they got these great big bellies. It’s an affront to our Creator.” I thought of poppa.

“Keep on doin’ it, Bert,” Rev. Dennison instructed. My arm was getting tired. As I strained, Rev. Dennison put his hands on my arm, lightly, just enough for me to feel his fingertips on my aching bicep. It was warm and strong. “See? You gotta do it until it starts to hurt. No pain, no gain.”

An hour flew by, maybe more. Then I told Rev. Dennison I had to go home because we ate Sunday dinner early.

“Sure, sure, Bert,” he said. “That’s a good boy. You be careful, lots of slush and ice out there. Two weeks time, you come back now, y’hear? We gonna work on your lower body.”

It wasn’t until I reached Jackson, halfway home, that it occurred to me we hadn’t prayed at all.

The Last Democrat in South Carolina


Part 1

Crockpot Holler is just a bend in the woods in southwestern South Carolina, hard by Crockpot Creek. Its 457 souls live mostly along Route 278, a two-lane blacktop that winds along the Georgia border from Bluffton up to New Ellenton, which is where I’m from. I never would have had any reason to go to Crockpot Holler if it hadn’t been for Willie Hunke.

You see, Willie was my cousin, on my mom’s side. He was from Jackson, just a toad hop from New Ellenton; his mom, Essie, my mom’s sister, had married a farmer, Mitch Hunke, who had a little auto repair shop in his garage. He also grew alfalfa and corn in the summer and Christmas trees for the holiday season. Willie and me was best friends from the time we was babies. I used to help Uncle Mitch harvest the Christmas trees. He’d pay me $5 a day, a lot of money for a 12-year old kid in 1958. Mitch was originally from Crockpot Holler.

Now, long before I ever went to Crockpot Holler, I’d heard it referred to as “Crackpot Holler.” That was what the kids in Jackson and New Ellenton called it. You see, Crockpot Holler was famous for its Pentecostals. Now there was a bunch of holy rollers fit to be tied! We had some pretty good Christians in New Ellenton and my mom, Winona, read the Bible a lot, but she never whirled and spun like a dervish the way the Pentecostals was supposed to in Crockpot Holler. So one cold December day, when the snow was piling up in the Blue Ridge and the wind ripped right through you, Mitch told Willie and me to hop into his old Chevy pickup because we was driving down to Crockpot Holler to visit his momma, Willie’s grandma, Esmina.

The three of us squeezed into the front seat. Route 278 was a mess, with slush and patches of black ice, and Mitch almost went off the road two or three times, but we made it to Esmina’s little house. The old lady came out to meet us, wrapped in a black shawl that had seen better days. Snowflakes flicked through the air and dotted the shawl. I knew she was a widow for a long time; her husband, Floyd, had died during the War, in a place called Iwo Jima. Mitch was her only child.

We went into Esmina’s house, where a hot wood fire was burning in the old potbelly stove. Esmina invited us to take off our boots and coats, which we hung on hooks by the front door, and then she said she had oatmeal cookies and coffee for us, but first, she wanted us to know, we would pray. As she was talking, I noticed someone in the parlor, a tall, middle-aged guy with black hair parted in the middle that swept below his neck over his collar and a black suit that made him look like a scarecrow.

The man was Reverend Dennison. Esmina explained that the Reverend had recently arrived in Crockpot Holler from Aiken, which was a big city by our standards—population 30,000. He had come to Crockpot Holler, she said, because the Lord had whispered to him that’s where his ministry lay. “And I knew,” Esmina told us, smiling, looking at Rev. Dennison as though he were her own flesh and blood, “as soon as I set eyes on him that he was a holy man God sent to us, praise Jesus.”

Rev. Dennison beamed. “Well, howdy, boys, nice to meet y’all. Y’all set to open your hearts and talk to Jesus?” Now, I knew that Mitch wasn’t big on that old time religion. In fact, I’d heard him call the place of his birth “Crackpot Holler.” Neither was I, nor Willie. But this was Mitch’s momma, and he had that respect for her that even the roughest, toughest southern men have for their mothers. So we gathered in a little circle near the stove, got down on our knees, took hands, and waited for Rev. Dennison to begin.

There wasn’t too much fire and brimstone; I expect he held that for Sunday mornings. Afterwards, we sat down at Esmina’s little table, with its cracked formica top and stained plastic doilies, and Esmina served everybody up their coffee and cookies. Rev. Dennison seemed especially interested in me.

“Well, there, young man—Bertram, you say, right? Now what grade would y’all be in school?”

I wasn’t used to being questioned by preachers. I expect I muttered something under my breath. Esmina said, “Bertram, speak up. We can’t hardly hear you.”

“I’m in seventh grade, sir.” Rev. Dennison took that in. “Seventh grade. Well, I’ll be. That sorta puts you right in the middle of bein’ a boy and a man, don’t it.” He looked right at me, and that’s when I noticed his eyes were blue, like a robin’s egg you find in the woods that dropped down out of the nest. “You got right with the Lord, boy?”

No one said anything but I could hear Willie chewing on his cookie and Uncle Mitch slurping his coffee. I didn’t know what to say so I kept my mouth shut. “I asked you, you got right with the Lord, Bert?” Esmina was looking at me in such a way as to make me feel I had to answer the question, but I didn’t know what to say.

“I don’t know, sir.”

“You don’t know? You don’t know if you right with our Lord and Savior? Well, Bert, how long’s it gonna take before you know? Because you’re gonna be a man soon—I ‘spect you already are in some respects—and every man’s gotta know if he’s right with his Lord and Savior, ‘cuz that’s what it’s all about. Am I right, Brother Mitchell?”

Uncle Mitch put down his coffee cup. “That’s right, Reverend,” he replied, without, I thought, much conviction. I noticed Willie out the corner of my eye. He was delighted it was me, not himself, that was being picked on.

“Tell you what,” Rev. Dennison said. “You live in New Ellenton, right? Why, that’s not too far from Jackson, and you know every two weeks I travel up there for some preachin’ at the old church, right there on 278. Tell you what, next Sunday I want you to come, and we’ll spend some time afterwards, jes the two of us, talking about gettin’ saved and repentin’ your sins and all that. All right, now, let’s enjoy these fine cookies that dear Esmina baked herself, God bless her.”

And that’s how it started.

9/16/20: Did Trump just declare war on blue states?


Here’s another stupid thing Trump just said and, typical for him, his words contain troubling meta-meanings.

According to Axios, “President Trump said in a press conference Wednesday that the U.S. coronavirus death toll ‘is very low … if you take the blue states out…’”.

Let’s think about that. Once upon a time, American Presidents thought of themselves as President of all the States. George Washington fought to create a union. Thomas Jefferson governed to strengthen the union. Abraham Lincoln sought to preserve the union, Wilson and FDR to protect and defend it. Even Ronald Reagan saw his job as representing the country, which is to say the 50 states and U.S. territories.

Kiss all that goodbye. Trump just “took the blue states out,” not just from the coronavirus death count, but from the country he purports to lead. Blue state deaths are not of Americans, but of Democrats, of sinister, anti-American radicals—people he doesn’t like or care about. “If you take the blue states out…”.

Look, to “take something out” also means “to kill, destroy or disable it,” as in “the mob boss ordered his goons to take the witness out.” At this very moment, insane far right paramilitry groups, such as the so-called “proud boys,” are arming themselves as fast as they can, holding paintball drills, planning, planning, planning for their violent activities pre- and post-election. Like dogs, they keep their senses attuned to signals from their fuehrer, Trump. And he just told them, “If you take the blue states out…”

Trump didn’t complete the sentence. He didn’t have to. If you’re a rightwing paramilitary white nationalist, you know the rest of it. “If you take the blue states out, I’ll be very grateful. You’ll help me save America—our America—from them: the foreigners and terrorists, from ANTIFA and the fags who are coming after your children, from the meddling social scientists who want to destroy your way of life, from the atheists who would burn your Bibles, from the Blacks who want to invade your suburban neighborhoods and build slums, from the Mexican hoards who are rapists and criminals, from—” well, from whoever is the enemy-du-jour in Trump World.

What can one even say about the callousness of Trump’s words? “If you take the blue states out…’”. Besides, Trump’s statement is objectively false—surprise, surprise! As Axios points out, The big picture: New York (D), New Jersey (D), Texas (R), California (D) and Florida (R) have to date reported the highest number of deaths from the virus in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University. These are the states with the largest populations in the country. (And) red states and battlegrounds, such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Arizona and Michigan were also in the top ten (states with the worst COVID cases), USA Today notes.”

“If you take the blue states out…” As usual, Trump can’t even get his propaganda straight, unless he’s pre-conceding election results that turn Texas and Florida blue, not to mention Louisiana, Mississippi, Arizona and Michigan.

Maybe Trump’s onto something! Could any of those states turn blue? Here are the latest poll results, courtesy of FiveThirtyEight:

Arizona: Biden 50%, Trump 44%

Florida: Biden 43%, Trump 42%

Michigan: Biden 53%, Trump 44%

Texas: Biden 46%, Trump 46%

Mississippi: Trump 53%, Biden 43%

Well, there’s never been any hope for Mississippi, a state burdened by some of the worst rates in America of disease, poverty, adultery, births-out-of-wedlock, opioid use, and school dropouts. (Maybe Democrats will start saying, “If you take Mississippi out of the country, our national health and wellbeing rates will rise dramatically.”) For Trump to be so utterly, damnably wrong about blue states and COVID isn’t surprising: he’s damnably wrong about most things. For his base to accept such preposterous ignorance also isn’t surprising: they’ve accepted his crap from day one and aren’t about to change. What is surprising, though, is that he manages to get away with these monstrous lies, not so much because a craven media lets him—although they do—but because today’s monstrous lie is smothered by tomorrow’s even more monstrous lie which is obliterated by the next day’s monstrous lie, until, according to The Washington Post’s latest count, Trump has told more than 20,000 lies, a “tsunami of untruth” unprecedented in American history.

In a sense—a very real sense—Trump has declared war on blue states with his fake coronavirus allegation. Of course, he’s been declaring such a war in stages for years. We’re not going to have a date like Dec. 8, 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt formally declared war on Japan. Trump’s war on blue states is more like the Vietnam War: it accretes slowly, incident by incident, over time, until one day, the shooting is for real, even though Congress never used its powers under Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution “to declare war.” History does not record “The Vietnam War began on such-and-such a date.” Nor will history record that “Trump’s war on blue states began on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.” But it did. That’s the date Trump admitted (although he didn’t really intend to) that blue states are his enemy, and he’s prepared to “take them out” using any means necessary.

God loves America

1 comment

Oh my name it ain’t nothin’
My age it means less
The country I come from
Is called the Midwest
I was taught and brought up there
The laws to abide
And that land that I live in
Has God on its side

Bob Dylan

The British journalist Robert Fisk, in his epic “The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East,” describes an interview he conducted in 1993, in Abu Dhabi, with a man named John Hurst, who was a vice president of the American arms dealer, Lockheed Martin. Hurst was representing his company at an international munitions exhibition—tanks, missiles, body armor, that sort of thing—where military officials from around the world were buying weaponry from arms sellers around the world. Hurst, who had earlier worked on developing the Pershing II nuclear ballistic missile, was now selling Lockheed’s Hellfire ground-to-air missile to “friendly” countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—yes, the same UAE that recently partied with Trump at the White House.

Fisk had seen, as he writes in his book, “thousands” of dead, torn and mutilated bodies during his years covering the Middle Eastern wars (and he was to see lots more in the years that followed). Appalled, he asked Hurst, respectfully, about “the morality, or immorality, of his work.” After all, Hurst’s descriptions of the Hellfire’s “percentages and development costs and deals” essentially “stripped (it) of politics and death.”

Hurst was thoughtful, Fisk writes. “I’ve had great debates (about that),” he replied. “On a religious basis, too.” He went on to explain his point of view. “I’m a very strong Christian. I’m Episcopalian. You can look through your entire New Testament and you won’t find anything on defending yourself by zapping the other guy. But the Old Testament, that was something different. There’s plenty there that says God wants us to defend ourselves against those that will strike us down. In the New Testament, it says the Lord wants us to preach his Gospel—and we can’t very well do that if we’re dead. That’s not an aggressive posture…the guy that wants to hurt me has to think twice…the Lord wants us to defend ourselves and arm ourselves so that we can spread his Word.”

Yes, an eye for an eye, in the name of Jesus. And there you have it: the basis for American defense [i.e. killing people] policy in the 1990s, according to Lockheed Martin, was so that America could spread Christianity throughout the world, especially in the Muslim Middle East.

Do you need me to point out the insanity of Hurst’s statement? At the very moment he was making it, Osama bin Laden was living not far away, in Sudan, planning his expansion of Al Qaeda into a terror organization. That same year would come the first bombing of the World Trade Center, as well as the ambush of U.S. soldiers in Somalia (“Black Hawk Down”), both attacks planned by bin Laden. And eight years later, of course, came World Trade Center attack #2.

And how was bin Laden justifying his attacks? “God willing, our raids on you will continue as long as your support to the Israelis will continue.” And here is what he said a few weeks after Sept. 11: “There is America, hit by God in one of its softest spots. Its greatest buildings were destroyed, thank God for that.” Can the Hursts of this world not see the irony? Hurst—echoed by U.S. Presidents—insists God is on America’s side and America is thus justified in using weapons of mass destruction against its enemies. Bin Laden insists God is on the side of the Muslims, who thus are justified in using their own forms of weapons of mass destruction to use against us. And so it goes, round and round, an insane, out-of-control merry-go-round of death, spiraling out of control.

What I’m writing here has little or nothing to do with America’s national interests. Perhaps we do sometimes have to fight “just” wars. We were right to defend ourselves after Sept. 11, and after Pearl Harbor as well. I’m not a rigid pacifist. But can we please move away from this silliness about “God”? People have differing understandings of God. No one’s view of God is better, truer or realer than anyone else’s. That should be obvious to any rational person. As soon as someone insists his “God” is the one, true God, and the other person’s “God” is a fake, we should move away from that person and not listen to him anymore, because he’s suffering from a mental condition. Yes, that includes, especially at this current time, idiots like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., who happily no longer is around to plague us because his “God” failed to warn him that having polyamorous sexual affairs would get him in trouble. And this also includes, more than anyone else, the imposter Donald Trump, a lifelong agnostic who, having discovered what useful idiots evangelicals are, never fails to hoist up Bibles (upside down) and claim they’re his favorite book.

It’s people like this—the militant preachers, the sociopathic politicians—who keep getting us into trouble. This election is about a lot of things, but to my mind one of the biggest is that it represents a chance to begin to isolate these warmongering religious frauds. If we can’t get rid of them entirely—and I guess we can’t—we can at least make them irrelevant.

On Trump’s phony “Mideast peace plan”


In politics, they say, timing is everything. Today, less than 50 days before the election, Trump is enjoying a spectacle of great pomp and historicity: the signing of a Mideast agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Of course, the timing is blatant: with this move, Trump not only cements the support of his evangelical base, he picks up some Jewish votes and furthers the possibility—a dim one, in my estimation—of winning a Nobel Peace Prize, when the winner is announced on Oct. 11.

Trump wouldn’t be the first politician to time good news with an upcoming election. That’s how the game is played. And he’s pulled this one off rather well. The peace agreement will receive widespread news coverage, especially in conservative media, where they’re already touting this as the equivalent of Teddy Roosevelt ending the Russo-Japanese war (for which T.R. got his own Nobel Peace Prize). Trump knows how to do this kind of stuff. It’s all part of getting the T.V. ratings, and I don’t fault him for a moment for doing it.

The problem, from the point of view of this Jew, is that Trump’s Mideast policy is a catastrophe. It gives Israel everything it has always wanted—formalizing Jerusalem as the capital and letting Israel “immediately” annex its West Bank settlements. More importantly, the Trump plan basically jettisons a two-state solution forever. The Palestinian people have thus been robbed of the goal for which they’ve fought for the last seventy years; Trump has essentially told them to forget about ever having their own country.

I’m no hardline lefty, but I do read history, and I don’t like the fact that Israel, with United Nations connivance, has purloined the land the Palestinians have lived on since time immemorial. This is a people, the Palestinians, who through no fault of their own have been robbed of nationhood, been consigned to the most dismal poverty, and have had their hopes and dreams stolen from them. Yes, it’s true that the Palestinians have been some of the most recalcitrant people on earth. Their insane vow—to drive Israel into the sea—has never been reneged. Their obvious hatred of Jews is psychopathological, but then, so is Israel’s obvious hatred of the Palestinians. The latter have done some of the most egregious things against Israel for decades, a period of time in which they could have reached some kind of settlement with their neighbors. But what was offered to them was never, in their estimation, what they really wanted and deserved: their own country.

Who can criticize a people for rebelling against having their nationhood taken from them? Can you imagine how the armed militias in our own country would react if, somehow or other, another country seized control of large parts of America? The Proud Boys and their ilk would launch their own Intifada and the fighting would be horrendous. I was totally shocked when I heard of Jared Kushner’s “peace plan,” which predictably drew howls of outrage from the Palestinians, who will never support it. Far from being a “peace plan,” this is simply a continuing step towards war.

To understand why Trump and Kushner did what they did, you have to understand two things. First is Trump’s reliance on the evangelicals, and vice versa. The evangelicals believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. We all know the Bible can be interpreted pretty much any way anyone wants; in the case of the evangelicals, they think that Jesus won’t return for a second coming until Jerusalem is restored as Israel’s capital (check that one off as accomplished) and Israel is restored to her Biblical borders, including Judea and Samaria, i.e. the West Bank. Again, mission accomplished.

But you also have to understand that Jared Kushner’s brand of Judaism is very similar to the Wahhabi brand of Islam, which is to say, one of its most fundamentalist, militant and irrational sects; Osama bin Laden was a Wahhabist. Most American Jews properly shun the Kushner brand of Orthodox Judaism, which, while not as extreme as the cult-like Hasidic forms of Judaism, nonetheless sees the Bible as literally true, and Israel as the most important country in the world. That this makes Kushner something of a dual-allegiance American is seldom discussed, but there can be no doubt that he views Israel’s Jews as a superior class of human and the Palestinians as a lesser form, not deserving of the same rights and privileges as Jews.

This runs counter to everything I’ve ever understood about my religion. We believe in fairness, in equity, in righting historical wrongs, not continuing them. We believe in compassion for a slighted people, the Palestinians, who have been kicked around by the West for centuries: by the Ottoman Turks, by Britain and France during their heyday, and, since World War II, by Israel and its patron, America.

The plight of the Palestinian people has not been abated one bit by this fake “peace plan” of Trump and Kushner. The day of reckoning hasn’t even been postponed. The Palestinians aren’t going away. Their birth rate is one of the highest in the world; Israel will continue to be surrounded by hostile Muslims made even angrier and more desperate by Trump’s betrayal of the Palestinians. It’s sad to see history being raped in the way that Trump currently is raping it, and it’s even sadder to see the news media not telling the truth about the “peace deal.”

Is 2020 the new 1939?


Today is an emotional down day. Polls tightening everywhere. 538 has Trump’s disapprovals shrinking, his approvals ticking up, amidst reports he’s making inroads with college-educated white and Latinx voters. Today’s Chronicle has a headline “Independents veering to GOP.” Anecdotes say Trump’s threat that Antifa will invade the suburbs is working. The anti-mask, “COVID is fake news” movement is spreading. The crowd booed the “Moment of Unity” at the Texans-Chiefs game. All bad omens. Meanwhile, where is Kamala? She’s become the invisible candidate. And while they’re getting Biden out there, and he’s saying the right things, he still—to me—seems wobbly. I’m not sure I’m looking forward to the debates.

Of course, I have to take this depression in context. After six months of shelter-in-place, my mental state is increasingly haggard. The air this morning in Oakland is the worst in a week—which is saying a lot. As soon as I woke up, I wondered who the hell was barbecuing at 6 in the morning? It wasn’t barbecue: it was smoke, thick and acrid. Like everyone else in this situation, I don’t know whether to stay in the house all day—with the windows shut–or put on my mask and venture outdoors to stretch my legs. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Four years ago, Trump’s impending victory (I knew it was coming) landed me in the hospital with heart valve trouble, brought on by stress and worry. This time, I’ve vowed not to let it happen again. Maybe, on some subconscious level, I’m preparing myself for a Trump win, so that when/if it happens it won’t catch me by surprise. If he does win, I ask myself, what do we—Democrats and anti-Trumpers—do? Take to the streets? Give up? Keep on keeping on? I don’t know. And in that uncertainty, all the creepy things in my feral imagination crawl out: after Trump’s second term comes Don, Jr. Or maybe Ivanka. Or Jared, building on what increasingly looks like his successful Middle East intervention. Or maybe collective Trump family leadership. Are we looking at decades of Perons, I mean Kims, I mean Assads, I mean Trumps? What does that even mean? They continue to stack the courts with Kavanaugh-type rightwing judges. Hitler did the same thing. One of the first things he did, on becoming Chancellor in 1933, was to institute Gleichschaltung, the “reorganization” of German culture and society into the Nazi mold. That was bad news for German liberals, socialists, Communists, artists, trade unionists, and of course Jews. The actors change, but the plot remains the same.

I had a dream last night—actually, it was in the hypnagogic period before the onset of full sleep—in which Trump was in charge of everything, and he ordered his MAGA troops to arrest undesirable elements. They came for me. I suppose reading, in The Great War for Civilization, of Saddam Hussein’s murder squads rounding up and slaughtering Kuwaitis, Shiites and Kurds in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when we allowed his Republican Guards to escape and regroup, made me jumpy. Saddam didn’t want to give up power, and he was really pissed at what he thought were his enemies, whom he proceeded to eliminate as ruthlessly and efficiently as the West allowed him, which was completely. Trump too doesn’t want to give up power. And he really, really hates his enemies—Democrats, liberals, LGBTQ people, environmentalists, human rights activists. And his own Republican Guard—an increasingly strong, restive internal militia—would, I think, have as little interest in keeping me alive as Saddam’s thugs had in allowing Shiites and Kurds to survive. That was the sum and substance of my dream. And it was, needless to say, scary.

Frank Figliuzzi, a former Assistant Director for Counterintelligence at the F.B.I., told Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC that “2020 will go down as the year the truth died.” 1933 was the year that truth, and democracy, freedom and sanity, died in Germany. If 2020 really is the death of truth in America, then we are in for a very tragic time. But, hey, maybe this is just my boredom and depression, worrying about nothing. Let me look at the positive side. Don’t worry, be happy! (insert happy face emoticon)

The Stately Mansions of Piedmont and the Wealth Gap


The small city of Piedmont is one of the richest in the Bay Area. The median household income is $212,000 a year. More than half the adult population earns over $200,000 annually. Piedmont sold the first $1 million home in the East Bay years ago, although today, a million bucks won’t buy you much. Zillow reports that current home listings in the 1.7 square mile city range from $1.4 million to $6.2 million. Seven of the ten most expensive Alameda County home sales in 2016 were in Piedmont.

I can walk to Piedmont from my home, in the Adams Point section of Oakland, in ten minutes, and I frequently do, for my daily stroll. I enjoy wandering its quiet, hilly streets, with their big trees, huge homes with immaculate grounds and gardens that bloom all year. Piedmont is a world apart from Oakland, even though the city of 10,809 is entirely surrounded by Oakland. Piedmont was recognized by California as a city in 1907, because even then its residents wanted to dissociate themselves from the bigger, dirtier, poorer city around it. They still do.

It’s funny: Piedmont, as I said, is a ten-minute walk from my home, but if I walk ten minutes in any other direction, I come across squalid neighborhoods of run-down homes, brownfields of homeless encampments and trash-lined gutters. There is no trash in Piedmont. It’s as manicured as any rich suburb in the country. When I walk its avenues, I admire the stately mansions, which have been built in all styles, from Georgian and Spanish Colonial to Arts & Crafts to ultra-modern.

Piedmont is Pacific Heights in the suburbs, and with better weather. Porsches and Lamborghinis line the driveways and curbs; the hoi polloi drive BMWs and Mercedes. The population is, as Tom Wolfe wrote of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, radical chic: Lots of pictures of Breonna Taylor, “Say their names” signs, BLM posters, and of course Biden front yard placards, although I do wonder how many of the Piedmontese would be embarrassed to put out a Trump sign. I have to assume the BLM signs at least are sincere. When I walk through downtown Oakland and they’re in every store window, I get the suspicion some are for insurance, to keep thugs from smashing their windows during the next riot, which is never far off. But the Piedmontese needn’t worry about riots in their bucolic streets. The local polizia, with the mutual aid of the Alameda County Sheriffs Department, simply wouldn’t allow it.

I myself could never afford to live in Piedmont, and I suppose there’s some envy on my part, gazing at those stately mansions. It’s clean and refreshing to get out of the inner city when I stroll there, but I always know that I’m going to have to return to Adams Point, where a growing homeless camp is a block away. If there are any encampments in Piedmont, I’ve never seen them, and I rather doubt that there are. In my head, as I walk though Piedmont, I can’t help but think about the wealth gap in America. We read about how foreign cities like Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg and Nairobi are infamous for having privileged neighborhoods jeek-by-jowl with some of the poorest slums on earth, but we seldom think of U.S. cities in that context. We should.

I’m not a reflexive “raise taxes” person. I believe Americans who work hard and achieve success should be able to hold onto their gains. We’re all created morally equal, but not physically or intellectually equal. I recognize that most rich people got what they have through their own efforts, and that the inverse of that is true: many poor people failed to work hard and take advantage of the American Dream, which is why they’re poor. I recognize that there are structural inequities in America, and we have to identify them and rectify them. We’re doing that as a nation, although I also recognize that some people think we’re not doing it fast enough. What is “fast enough” anyway?

So I don’t resent the good burghers of Piedmont. Still, this begs the question of what is the right, fair way to bridge the wealth gap. I’m no Communist; I don’t believe in seizing rich peoples’ wealth and redistributing it to everyone else. At the same time, I’m no royalist. Rich people have an obligation to share the wealth, especially when the wealth gap in America is so big. What is the just, ethical proportion of their wealth that should be shared?

The California State Legislature—which is to say, Democrats in our heavily Blue state—in July passed a measure that would raise taxes on the state’s richest people from the current 13.3% rate to 54% for the uber-rich, raising an estimated $6 billion a year that could go to schools and other services for the poor and struggling middle classes.

That’s not a huge amount of money in a state with a $202 billion dollar budget, and it’s hard to argue that the extra money isn’t needed. But already the anti-tax forces are fighting back. Their main argument is that “top earners could more easily leave the state and work in places with no income tax, like Nevada and Texas.” And I suppose there will be some rich people who emigrate if the tax proposal actually happens. I don’t want to see that, and I don’t want corporations to leave California for Nevada and Texas, which is already happening. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that taxing the rich (and the richest corporations) is the right thing to do. The proof, for me, is in those leafy Piedmont streets. Does the owner of that three-story Palladian mansion really need a new Porsche Taycan 4S? Could he part with another $35,000 a year if he knew the money was going to inner-city preschools, or forest firefighting, or pediatric healthcare for poor kids? If he says he doesn’t want to pay higher taxes, and would rather move to another state than to share the wealth, what does it say about him and about his moral or religious beliefs? Not much, if you ask me.

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