Public Art and the Homeless…

This is public art (and science). Like all good art it’s unique and thought provoking. It sits in one of the less visited corners of Magnuson Park (the old Sand Point Naval Air Station) in Seattle.

Briefly… the artist, Perri Lynch, crafted 12 limestone pillars along a 1- kilometer line called the Sand Point Calibration Baseline where surveyors’ measure, test, and calibrate their equipment. There are about a dozen such baselines in the State of Washington, but some local surveyors worried that this one would be destroyed by unknowing visitors. They lobbied for public art monument to raise awareness and prevent its accidental destruction.

The Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs and Seattle Public Utilities commissioned the work in 2007 with $40,000 from SPU’s One Percent for Art fund. A surveyors association and a private survey-equipment company also contributed.

Its nickname is Linehenge; a 10-foot-wide, kilometer-long swath straight through Magnuson Park from south to north, it goes unnoticed by thousands of people every day. The accuracy of the Sand Point line is said to be within half a millimeter. Lynch also played with perspective, doubling the distance between one pillar to the next in the line with each one having a small peep hole sighted along the line.

M and I discovered it on a walk through the park earlier this week and wanted to know more. It has its own Wikipedia page with information about the art and artist – but it doesn’t mention that several of the pillars have been defaced with graffiti “tags.” It pisses me off. I don’t get it but it’s only the latest example of the rant/rage response I feel when I see graffiti on the side of monuments, buildings, homes, and road signs. I’m probably making more of it than I should, but it seems disrespectful and a symptom of something bigger. Probably a more complicated social problem – one that may reveal a something about me I’d rather not look closely at.

That problem, as I see it, is the way Seattle parks, playgrounds, and city sidewalks are being taken over by the homeless. 

My heart goes out to Seattle’s ever-growing homeless population. I know it’s not their choice to live in squalor without running water and proper sanitation. On the other hand, I hate the idea that parent’s can’t feel safe taking their children to a playground filled with homeless tents and vagrant-looking men? On Thursday around noon, M and I watched a man urinate in the center of a circle of tents at Albert Davis Park in Lake City.  

For two weeks, we’ve been driving around to see various encampments. Over the last 3-5 years we’ve watched them grow along the sides of I-5, as garbage and litter spread along the hillsides, and tents appeared under the freeway at James Street and along Alaskan Way. Now their tents are taking over city parks and rundown RV’s, are parked in clusters near Fred Meyer in Ballard and the stadiums in SODO. The police have given up enforcing the health and safety ordinances. It’s the Wild West again.

I came of age as a student in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, but the Seattle City Council makes Berkeley look like a bunch of rubes – defunding the police, forcing the resignation of Chief Carmen Best, dismantling a specially trained Navigation Team, composed of outreach workers paired with Seattle Police Department (SPD) personnel that connected unsheltered people to housing and critical resources, and bitching at the mayor.

What does the Sand Point Calibration Baseline have to do with the homeless problem? Very little, but I see its defacing graffiti as a symptom of the bigger problem. Our roads and bridges are falling apart, roadsides and median strips are untended, garbage covers I-5 sidehills, and the homeless are urinating and defecating in city parks. Government has let us down and we no longer trust that it will be there for us.

Income inequality is tearing at the social fabric. No one wants to pay taxes; the poor can’t afford to, the rich don’t have to, and those who control the public purse are hiding behind the rubric of “fiscal responsibility.” Now they’re blaming the pandemic for their inaction and our plight. City, county, and state coffers are drained and Seattle looks more and more like Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic cities with roving nihilistic provocateurs providing fodder for the Trump law and order campaign.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had Bill and Melinda’s resources? They almost conquered smallpox, but even they can’t do what we need government writ large to do. They’re doing their part though QAnon is even throwing shade their way – another example of lack of respect and trust.

M and I would have been great philanthropists. We know it. We talk about it. We fantasize. But, we will do what we can within the system. We’ll vote. We’ll express our opinion. We’ll make charitable contributions. We’ll exhort our friends to participate, and we’ll write blogs and letters.

After looking at a dozen homeless camps, I had this thought; at the height of New York’s Covid-19 spike in April, a 68-bed field hospital was erected in Central Park. and here in Seattle a 250-bed non-Covid field hospital was established at Century Link Field. Ohers were established in El Paso and other locations across the country. And, they were erected in a matter of days – not months.

Yes, they were an emergency solution to overstressed hospital facilities, but couldn’t they also be deployed to temporarily house the homeless? Wouldn’t it help if we provided them shelter through the winter? Wouldn’t safer, sanitary housing be better than a trashy tarp covered hovel on the sidewalk? Providing shelter doesn’t address the larger problems of mental health, drug dependence, health care, and other social services but it would be a place to start. Shelter first and then work on the rest. We need to look out for each other.

“Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm”

Bob Dylan (Shelter from the Storm)

It’s worth thinking about.

True Believers…

In 1951 Eric Hoffer, a San Francisco longshoreman, wrote The True Believer, one of the seminal works of 20th century political philosophy. In 1964, he left the docks to become a “research” professor at UC Berkeley. I was there, and by then he and the book were legendary.

The book analyzes historical mass movements, including Christianity, Communism, and National Socialism–their causes, how they arise, who joins, and the social psychology of their challenge to the status quo.

This morning I thought of Hoffer and The True Believer as I watched a CBS reporter interview Pennsylvanians waiting to cast their vote for Donald Trump.

One of the mysteries surrounding the Trump “army” is their support for a candidate who by all measures has done nothing to maintain or improve their quality of life–healthcare, employment opportunities, wages, or standard of living in his four years in office.

Their responses made no sense to me, until I imposed The True Believer template. Hoffer lays out the elements of a mass movement, whether it’s Mussolini’s fascism, Lenin’s Bolshevism, Hitler’s National Socialism, or Jim Jones’ Jonestown as follows:

  • It needs a leader who capitalizes on frustration
  • It is grievance based
  • It is rooted in a feeling of rejection
  • It blames others for the problem
  • It needs a common enemy
  • It is intolerant because hate unifies.
  • Its followers are fanatical and enthusiastic
  • Followers adopt slogans
  • Followers need faith, a holy cause
  • Followers are fearful of free choice
  • Followers are often willing to die for the cause

For four years, I tried to understand the Trump follower. I wanted to believe Americans would see through the Trump façade, to see the emperor without his clothes. The fault was mine. I failed to see the true mass movement connection. I couldn’t believe an ignorant hollow grifter had what it takes to inspire a mass movement. I was wrong and I wasted a lot of time thinking the minds of his followers could be changed. The Trump “movement” is a minority movement, but it is fanatical and enthusiastic, and it will show up at the polls.

Eric Hoffer points out that “It is a perplexing and unpleasant truth that when men “have ‘something worth fighting for’ they do not feel like fighting. People who live full worth-while lives are usually not ready to die for their own interests, nor for their country…” but the presidential election of 2020 not normal. Your worth-while lives are in danger. I’m not asking you to die but I am asking you to go an extra mile in order to vote. The Biden-Harris voters need to generate the same enthusiasm as the Trump movement. It’s too important. We can’t be complacent.

On Sunday I received two remarkable publications that address the Trump phenomenon and the mass movement it spawned. The first publication was the Sunday New York Times including a special Opinion section entitled End Our National Crisis: The Case Against Donald Trump. The second, a collection of essays published in The Atlantic magazine called The American Crisis: What Went Wrong. How We Recover. Together, they distill the chaos of the last four years under Donald J. Trump’s presidency and make the case for his defeat on November 3rd.

If we survive, and I believe we will, it will take generations to repair the damage caused by the Trump phenomenon. In 2020 alone, 215,000 Americans have died from the deadly virus he failed to manage and protect them from.

As the 2020 election approaches, the virus spreads, vigilantes and militias proliferate, Antifa-squads pillage and burn, voters line-up, unemployment grows, renters are evicted, homeless campsites fill public parks, city streets and the sides of freeways, the Senate rushes a Supreme Court nominee through the confirmation process while Congress dithers over an aid package. It’s Mad Max meets The Apprentice

Immigrants have been banned. Families separated. Children as young as 5 taken from their mothers. Others caged. Residents deported. Green card issuance has been halted; so have H-1B visas for skilled technology workers, H-4 visas for their spouses, H-2B visas for seasonal workers, L-1 visas for transferred managers/executives, and J-1 visas for interns and work study visas. Educational visas are limited. Thousands of asylum seekers remain stranded in Mexico. Yesterday, it was revealed that 545 children are still separated from their families and Trump’s government has been unable to trace and reunite them with their parents.

To this American, two things are clear: this is not the country I thought it was and there is a clear and present danger if Donald Trump is re-elected President of the United States. Four years ago, I tried to support the American dream but woke up hallucinating. 

The carnage and incompetence of the Trump presidency is unacceptable. I don’t understand it. It’s an aberration. It’s some kind of herniated kink in the body politic. The question is will we turn him out? Don’t be among those people Eric Hoffer noted were living such a “worth-while life” that they let a mass movement take over the country. Get off your butt and vote. It’s your responsibility. Don’t take it for granted. Vote!!!!

The New Stress-Test…

Stress has various meanings. Some are personal, some material. The personal involves a feeling of emotional or physical tension. Material stress refers to external or internal forces on an object. We all feel the personal kind at times—even normal times—but these are not normal times. Stress is overwhelming us now. Pandemic stress. Racial stress. Economic stress. Healthcare stress. Education stress. Upcoming election stress. 

Back in 2008, following the collapse of the US economy we were introduced to a new application of the material kind of stress. Combined with test it morphed from noun to compound verb, and rather than denoting a condition of personal health or material pressure it became checklist of steps used by regulators to measure the stability of banks. The Federal Reserve, US Treasurer, regulators, bankers, and Congress needed a new vocabulary to cope with the financial devastation and prevent a repeat of the crisis. “Stress test” became the nomenclature used to measure the safety of our banking institutions. In July of 2010 Congress enacted the bipartisan Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act to prevent a reoccurrence.

The mechanics of stress-testing the banks is not relevant here. Capital reserves were increased, commercial and investment banking activities separated, and other protective measures instituted. Since then Dodd-Frank has been tested, tweaked, and reworked. So far, so good. I bring it up to suggest the concept might be useful in discussing the state of our democracy today, because there are similarities

James Madison articulated and defended the new nation’s system of checks and balances in Federalist Paper 51 as incorporated in the US Constitution. The founders gave great thought to the balance of the new government’s institutions. The language is comprehensive but not granular. It includes checks on executive power but never anticipated an Attorney General intent on making the executive branch dominant in the institutional triad. Nor did they foresee a greedy, corrupt and ignorant executive. It presumed he or she would be an educated leader with a good faith commitment to Constitutional principles and the welfare of the nation’s citizens.

Just as relaxation of banking regulations destabilized those institutions through corrupt and abusive practices, the Trump administration’s corruption, abrogation of treaties, embrace of dictators, attacks on Congress and the judiciary, abuse of the pardon power, and attacks on the electoral process has raised questions about the stability of our own government institutions.

For the past four years, American democracy has undergone an ad hoc stress-test. Mr. Trump has bypassed the legislative branch to rule by Executive Order – banning Muslims, closing the border to amnesty seekers, separating children from their parents, rescinding the designation of protected lands, stealing funds from the Defense budget to build his Wall, and opening wilderness areas to oil and gas drilling.

Republicans told us in 1999 that banking regulations were burdensome and unnecessary. The banks, they claimed, were capable of regulating themselves. It wasn’t true but Congress bought it, repealed Glass-Steagall and let the gypsies into the palace. The rhetoric hasn’t changed—only the subject has changed–we have many examples of the need for regulation. Voting rights. Environmental regulation. Immigration. Consumer protection. Gun regulation. Carbon emissions. These areas are the responsibility of the legislative branch, but the majority leader of the Senate has deferred to the executive branch and blocked legislation in these areas.

The three co-equal branches of government are no longer co-equal. The executive is now “dominant” (to use one of Mr. Trump’s favorite words.) Congress is stalled and hunkered down in its respective camps, while we await Senate confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. If confirmed, the lopsided conservative majority will likely become a “handmaiden” to the executive branch.

November 3, 2020 is Election Day.

President Trump has told us he will not accept the results if he is not reelected and will not commit to a peaceful transfer of power if results show Joe Biden is the winner. This is unprecedented but not unexpected given his past rhetoric about election fraud. It’s impossible to predict how this will play out. Will he refuse to leave the White House? Will federal marshals be dispatched to enforce the results and perp walk the 45th president from the residence? Will the “Trump Army” the ragtag assembly of right-wing militias take up arms to defend him? It’s crazy to even mention scenarios like this, but as he says, “It is what it is.”

As with almost everything in the past four years, we are in uncharted waters. It is likely that when this “stress-test” is over, coordination between the branches will resume, albeit in a altered state. We may see an effort to reform the Electoral College. We may get legislation to deal with foreign interference in our elections. We might see election security reform at the state level including some uniformity in mail-in balloting procedures. We may also see an effort to set protocols that establish when the President’s is unfit to continue his duties under the mandates of the 25thAmendment. 

The Trump presidency has shown us how much the functioning of the American “experiment” depends on its participants abiding by the rules i.e. understanding the system and acting in good faith for the benefit of all Americans. Donald Trump did neither and the consequence is a stress-test of our institutions and norms. I pray it holds together.

The Great Escape…

When I was 19, I ran for sophomore class president at the University of Washington. The night before the election there was a convertible caravan through the campus ending at a bonfire and outdoor stage where we candidates were to give campaign speeches. Great theater. The only complication was that I was a patient in the University Hospital. I had a classic case of mononucleosis – the kissing disease – and with swollen neck glands and a small fever university doctors thought it was serious enough to keep me in the hospital for a few days.

But the campaign was nearing its end and I wanted to ride in the parade and give my campaign speech. The solution was to have my buddies engineer an escape from the hospital – down the fire escape in my pajamas, stick a wedge under the door so I could get back in, a quick change in the car, and on to the parade. It was great. I sat up in the back of the convertible, waving to the crowd with friends who knew about my hospitalization cheering wildly as I drove by. 

I gave my little campaign pitch and the escape team drove me back to the hospital. Unfortunately, the wedge was gone, the fire escape door was locked, and I was out of luck. The only way back in was to ring the night bell and deal with the staff’s anger to re-enter. They let me in reluctantly and I sheepishly returned to my bed in the student ward.

Does this resonate with you – a person with a contagious infectious disease hospitalized for his own health and the protection of others who rebels against his doctors’ judgment and escapes to make a public appearance and showboat for a crowd of his supporters? Yup!!! 1957 meet 2020.

I was 19, and recklessly selfish. I was contagious and didn’t think about the effect on others. I was out of line but didn’t suffer any negative consequences for my indiscretion. I stayed in the hospital for two more days and was released for the last month of the school year. And…won the election for class president.

Donald Trump was also recklessly selfish He should have known better and others are telling him so. But, he’s a willful 74-years-old and his contagious disease is not mononucleosis. He has a virus that’s killed 214,000 Americans, yet three days after his diagnosis he’s claiming victory over the virus and using his hospitalization to grandstand with two finely choreographed entertainments – a joyride in a Secret Service vehicle to wave to supporters demonstrating outside the hospital, and a grand moment with helicopter arrival, slow walk up the White House stairs to strategically positioned American flags on the Truman balcony, where he theatrically removed his face mask, followed by a super salute to the helicopter after moving the photographer for a better picture.

He really should have stayed at Walter Reed. Instead, he’s back home where a lesser group, the White House medical team, is monitoring his vital signs –mental instability, steroidal manic episodes, verbal diarrhea, obesity, bone spurs, heart disease, and lack of empathy. 

Can he possibly think that his approach to coronavirus pandemic is a success when these friends and family have all contracted the virus? Melania, Hope Hicks, Stephen Miller, Senators Mike Lee (UT) Ron Johnson (WI) Thom Tillis (NC), Kaylie McEnany and three of her staffers, Ronna McDaniel (RNC Chairperson), Chris Christie, Bill Stepien (campaign chairman), Kellyanne Conway, Nicholas Luna (Trump’s “body man”) and John Jenkins (Notre Dame president).

I’ve always been embarrassed and astonished at my incomparable immaturity and disregard for putting the health and safety of others at risk in 1957. It is no longer incomparable. The comparable is a 74 year-old man-child who is neither embarrassed nor contrite for his callous disregard for the health and safety of others in order to stage two more photo-ops.

The government of the United States is not reality TV, although he has definitely shown himself to be “The Apprentice,” Hopefully he will not be renewed for next season and we can all breathe again.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Playbook…

As November 3, 2020 approaches, I’m reminded of Edgar Allen Poe’s horror story The Cask of Amontillado in which one character exacts revenge on another by enticing him into a wine cellar chaining him to the wall and then bricking up the entrance. I feel like the guy chained to the wall with William Barr, Louis DeJoy, and Mitch McConnell wielding the trowels and mortar.

Morbidly, I think Poe is the perfect author for this election, and whether it’s The Cask of AmontilladoThe Pit and the Pendulum where the prison walls close in on the helpless victim, or The Masque of the Red Death in which a plague (the Red Death) visits Prince Prospero’s masquerade ball there are a series of doomsday scenarios. Think Rose Garden super spreader!

Poe is a master of horror and all three stories resonate; I feel the walls closing in, the door being mortared shut, and Red Death stalking the once healthy American landscape.

Today, Donald Trump is receiving the world’s best medical care at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He’s there because his gross negligence and willful disregard of scientific evidence put his life and the lives of all Americans at risk for Covid-19. He failed to protect himself and the country by ignoring the mitigation strategies recommended by the world’s best epidemiologists and infectious disease scientists. Now we, the American taxpayers, are paying for an emergency helicopter ride and the Presidential Suite of a hospital committed to the care of the military. The same military he declined to serve when called and whose heroes he disparages as “suckers” and “losers.”

Meanwhile, the country is breathlessly awaiting word on his progress. His presidential campaign is on “pause.” Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, all of whom he vilifies, have wished him a speedy, successful recovery, and Joe Biden has pulled all his negative campaign ads. John McCain, Herman Cain, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are rolling in their graves.

Ironically I hope he survives; despite the fact that he is the primary reason 209,000 other Americans are dead from the “China virus.” I want him to see how we feel at the polls and understand that no one is above the law – not even the President of the United States. 

Nevertheless, if he does recover, he’s already warned us he won’t accept the election results unless he wins. His Postmaster General is busy dismantling the US Postal Service and slowing the mail. He has spent two months attacking mail-in balloting though the FBI and Federal Election Commission have assured us that there is virtually no fraud associated with mail-in ballots. He has alerted his followers and militia groups that he wants them to act as poll watchers i.e. to intimidate voters of color. 

The Trump playbook is available to all:

  • Question the legitimacy of the election. “If I lose it’s because it’s rigged.”
  • Voter intimidation
  • Claim victory on election night before all the ballots are counted
  • Challenge all mail-in ballots as invalid
  • Challenge all ballots not received by election night as invalid
  • Challenge all ballots not counted on election night as invalid
  • Refuse to accept a Biden victory
  • Refuse to leave the White House
  • Sue all states that he does not win for a recount
  • If there is no clear winner take the case to the Supreme Court
  • If there is no Electoral College winner, it goes to the House of Representatives where each state has one vote (there are 26 Red states and 24 Blue states currently).

As the walls close in and the pendulum swings, it’s incumbent on us to learn how the system was designed to work. I strongly recommend Bill Petrocelli’s book, Electoral Bait and Switch: How the Electoral College Hurts American Voters. The system is out of date and flawed, but until we get true electoral reform it will determine the winner on November 3rd

Edgar Allen Poe’s stories capture the drama of the current election. Let’s not let the Red Death or Covid-19 cheat us out of a legitimate election and an honorable president – Joe Biden.