Monday, 3 October 2016

All Politics Is Personal Now - Umberto Tosi

My daughter Alicia with her 'Nonna' Alba
at Easter 1963 at the L.A. house I used to rent.
Funny how, over the years, you remember some minor happenings in a crisis so much more vividly than momentous ones. It's as if time slowed down and magnified the minutia. For example, I'll never forget stopping at a hardware outlet on my way to work one crisp, deceptively sunny October morning in 1962.

I needed some extra strong, fast-drying glue to repair a fractured slat on my then little daughter Alicia's white wooden crib, and I knew I'd work too late that night to buy any on way home. My daughter had turned an energetic 2 years old just six weeks earlier, and liked to run gleefully about our rented suburban house testing, rattling and sometimes breaking things – and of course, saying no a lot.

That particular day I doubted she would make it to 3, or, indeed, whether any of us would be around much longer. We had all seen a somber President John F. Kennedy on black-and-white national TV the night before – on October 22 – announcing the U.S. military blockade of Fidel Castro's Cuba to interdict the installation of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles on that island. Doomsday seemed at hand. I was a staff writer and news editor working the foreign desk at the Los Angeles Times then and I was well aware of the deadly implications as I read wire service and correspondents' dispatches from all over the world. I don't know which scared us more, the prospect of hotheads in Washington or the Kremlin going to war over this and ending it all.

That's refreshing,” said the hardware store checker, when I went to pay.

I laughed. “Well, I don't really sniff glue, except maybe on holidays.”

No,” she responded, taking my cash. “You're the first one through here that hasn't bought a gun.”

Well, I wish them all good luck with that in the nuclear holocaust,” I mumbled on my way out the sliding glass doors to my temperamental, 1959 green-and-white Fiat 1200, a signature eccentricity.

I slid my gray tweed jacket over the back of my swivel chair soon as I got to the Times – no chatting in the coffee room. I loosened my striped necktie and set to sorting through the piles of copy on desk at the Times. Amid the rat-tat-tat of city room typewriters, I flourished my No. 2 copy pencil set to work on moment-by-moment reports off the teletype machines. Like Londoners in the Blitz, we would keep calm and carry on. We'd get out the edition, and the next, and the next, if we could, as the world ended. I couldn't call home and say goodbye because the local lines were jammed – with frantic callers, I supposed.

We went about our business for those thirteen days, keenly aware of the nuclear sword of Damocles that, in reality, has hung over our heads since 1945, and remains so, sometimes more visibly than others. How ironic, perhaps fitting, I thought, that better-dead-than-red jingos and warmongers might soon be incinerated right along with pinko Ban-the-Bomb peacenics like myself.

I'm a writer, I thought. I keep writing. One way or another, I held true to that personal myth before and after October 1962, through personal and public calamities, real and perceived: through assassinations, riots, wars, recessions, terrorist attacks, epic foolery in high and low places, births, deaths, divorces, ups and downs. As Billy Joel put it: “We didn't start the fire, no we didn't light it, but we tried to fight it.

Women's Strike for Peace
during Cuban Missile Crisis
Now, fifty-four years laterhere's what looks like yet another another pervasive, existential threat – that transcends personal, local and national boundaries. Blow-dried talking heads on cable news trivialize this election with false equivalency and sports metaphors, it actually is a struggle for the soul of American public life. President Obama is correct in framing it as a turning point from which we go forward or backward. It's not even about the obvious, tried left-right policy issues. It's not even about personalities. It's about competing mind-sets and basic philosophies. lt's about walls, borders and personal boundariesopen and closed worlds, all about unity and nihilism, feminism and machismo, interdependence and social Darwinism, big ideas and small minds. It's about respect. 

It's a crisis in the full sense of that word. And somehow, it feels worse than any in a very long time. Okay, it lacks the military drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We don't see any missiles, tanks, bombers and warships mobilizing because of it, only televised hoo-haw rallies, chattering pundits, political debates and a demagogic reality TV clown with orange hair whose rise is a worldwide embarrassment welcomed only by – I'm sorry – American fools, bigots and select billionaires – and, oh yes, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.

I apologize to my overseas friends. I bow out of meetings. I donate to get-out-the-vote drives, write letters and sign petitions – not only in opposition to Herr Trump but in genuine support of Hillary Clinton, the most maligned political figure of our day, who, despite 25 years of right-wing misogynist sliming and double standards. She keeps on ticking. Yes, she's a politician – a master at it, thank heavens, because that's what it takes to get anything accomplished in a world of priorities, power and money.

Mexican literary magazine, Letras Libres'
October issue cover image.
Like the comb-over Hitler that he is – and has, they say, read assiduously – the more egregiously Trump seems to get away with behaving, the more his millions of followers seem to love him. He is obviously narcissistic and delusional – possibly a cocaine addict. Comparing him to Der Fűhrer and his movement to Nazism no longer sounds like hyperbole. His horde of haters is storming the gates of American democracy. With a compliant Republican-dominated Congress and the Supreme Court they will be able to stack in their favor, he will have the power to replace this 230-year-old republic – already under siege by the forces of obscene wealth – with a Trump Tower empire as surely as any Caesar.

Hillary has pulled only slightly ahead in a race that is far too close for comfort, considering that Donald Trump is, in my opinion, actually more dangerous than Hitler. The America that he is within reach of making over in his image is infinitely more powerful that the Nazi Germany of 1933, or even of 1941 at its zenith.

Of course, there is nothing new about what Trump represents – the racism, misogyny, xenophobia, authoritarianism, bellicosity. Right wingers hated JFK just as much as they hate President Obama today. But most of us trusted him to do the right thing – and, by god, he did avert a nuclear war by dint of his leadership, his quick and precise judgment. One wonders if then hawkish cold warrior Richard Nixon, who had built his reputation as a red-baiter during the1950s, would have been able to show the same balance of verve and restraint that saved the world from disaster as the JFK who had defeated him for the presidency in 1960. And let's face it, with a President Donald Trump we'd all be dead right now. Even a Tweet will set him off. Yet his Republican supporters seem ready to vote for him because they hate Hillary Clinton and dream that he will destroy what's left of the welfare state and bring back everything about the stratified, white-privileged America of the 1950s, a wet dream evoked by Trump's red baseball hat.

It's particularly frustrating to watch the current electoral drama from the perspective of a former journalist, second-guessing the coverage I see unfolding. With newspapers a shadow of what they were in the 1960s, I watched the dew-eyed television news media give Trump millions of dollars worth of unfiltered free air time for a year before most of its reporters finally dared to challenge his blizzard of lies, cowed perhaps by the predictable Republican bullying of the so-called "liberal" press. 
Edmund Burke, 1771

Over and over, they treated Trump as a jokey celebrity, with that garish hairdo and "unconventional" moves. People thought Hitler was funny too. But this time around there is no excuse, because unlike people in the 1930s, we already know how fascism gains power and where it leads. Trump's neo-fascism should have been obvious from the very start of Trump's current campaign to gain the GOP nomination last year, as thousands of his followers emerged from under their rocks and cheered him for slurring Mexican immigrants as rapists and murders and advocated the mass deportation of more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, topped off by saying we should kick American-born children of immigrants out with them. And that was only the beginning!

Newscasters reported this as if it were just another immigration reform proposition, rather than what it plainly is - a final solution. "It will never happen," the pundits opined. The talking heads preferred to analyze the showbiz aspects of Trump's reality-style TV performances, his "political outsider appeal." They skipped over the horrendous humanitarian implications of Trump's declarations and pored over the entrails cost projections. They patronized and excused his follower's embrace of Trump's obvious racism as the natural reaction of a blue-collar working class short-changed by trade and automation. 

Yeah. Germans were having a hard time back in 1933. And John Wayne Gacy had a rough childhood. Point is, most people find better ways of dealing with life's ordeals and challenges - individually, socially, and yes, politically. Ginned up fear and loathing aside, present-day America and the world aren't going down the tubes by any legitimate measure. Au contraire! There are far fewer conflicts worldwide than any time since we started keeping track, despite Syria and Yemen; economies growing, incomes are rising, poverty levels are declining. Even terrorism is down. Americans don't need to be rescued, especially not by a sleazy, bloviating billionaire on a cocaine-white horse. 

The commentators along with most political and religious leaders outside the Latino and immigrant communities themselves have remained in denial about how Republican-backed mass deportations would rend families and communities. Meanwhile, the press dwelled on the ludicrous aspects of Trump's grandiose border wall, and his simple-minded mantra that "Mexico will pay for it." 

They seemed to forget that Hitler talked about deporting Jews to Palestine, not concentration camps when he first came to power in 1933. We all know how the gradual tightening of state-sponsored racial policies led to the Holocaust. Many of our leading newspapers dismissed Hitler's rants as politically astute maneuvers, just as they have dismissed those of Trump and his surrogates. It's a no-brainer to realize that a Trump Administration immigrant round up would surely devolve into an enforcement nightmare, the formation of paramilitary Gestapo-like police squads and would quickly transform the already odious private detention centers (that Hillary Clinton intends to dismantle) into concentration camps. What happens when the deportation system becomes hopelessly congested? Bloody horror, that's what. Crimes against humanity by those who say they are only following orders.

It's only been a week since the New York Times finally dared to use the word "lie" in describing Trump's most egregious public falsehoods and legitimately question his fitness. Meanwhile, the media obsessed on Hillary's shortcomings and the "baggage" of her few, but overblown "scandals" -- e.g. Benghazi and emails, email, emails, even after a year-long FBI investigative probe yielded nothing to prosecute. Nevertheless, a handful of stalwart print journals - including the Washington Post, Rolling Stone and most recently, Newsweek -- along with overseas papers like the Guardian - have been offering their readers trenchant investigative pieces on Trump and the rise of the fascist alt.right in America. amplified on social media, but only recently getting the television news attention they deserved. 


Spanish-language media, on the other hand, have put Trump under the hot lights from the start. Telemundo, the largest Spanish-language network in the U.S. and Mexico, cut business relations with Trump last year, refusing to carry his Miss Universe pageant because of his anti-Mexican racial slurs. There has been no love lost between them ever since. The network has pushed hard to register new voters among the country's fastest-growing minority, with more than 27 million Latinos already eligible to cast ballots. Latino turnout has lagged behind that of other minorities historically, but they are expected to vote in record numbers next month. Latino animosity towards Trump cuts across the Spanish-speaking media spectrum in the United States and Latin America. The cover story of this month's Letras Libres, a noted Mexican literary magazine, excoriates Trump as a man who "thinks all politics is business and all business is stealing."

Okay, I admit that I'm addicted. I've crossed the line from observer to activist. I confess, with chagrin, that the political drama is affecting my work. I feel stuck, barely inching along, neglecting stories I've set myself to write. Hey, I've always been a deadline guy, a shirtsleeve journalist, admiring of those prolific geniuses who churn out works like star bursts once they get started. Social media are my bane. Lately, I'm doing most of my writing on Facebook and Twitter, posting mini-screeds and comments. 

Regrettably, I'm obsessed with this epic presidential struggle, that is something much more than the clichés applied to it daily in the news media. I'm watching way too much cable news and net surfing through far too many news and opinion sites from the caravan of opt-in feeds stuffing my inbox daily. I've become a politics junkie, or maybe just fallen off the wagon in a bad way. Help! I don't know any sure remedy except carry on, vote on November 8 and get through it all. Not that a Clinton victory will make Trumpism go away. His movement started well before Trump ran for office and will remain virulent if he is defeated, its resentments fanned by the conspiracy theories already rampant in the land. It behooves us not to take any naps after November.

Call me a snob, but it's always a shock to realize how many of one's countrymen carry torches and pitchforks (and automatic rifles) of resentment and racialism and how many more of them are just plain ignorant and proud of it. This has nothing to do with disagreements. Too many people just don't bother with informed opinions and practical considerations. 

But Trump's base of alt.right fanatics isn't the whole problem. They don't have the numbers to hand him the White House. It's the slackers, cynics, pouters. doubters and perhaps well-intentioned Bernie-or-bust holdouts who either won't vote on November 8, or they plan to throw their votes away on Koch-Brothers-funded, right-wing dunce Libertarian Gary Johnson or looney anti-vaxxer Greenie Jill Stein. They could well tilt the balance Trump's way. As the great Irish statesman, Edmund Burke observed, "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

The other day, I watched a cable newscaster interview a pro-pot millennial in Las Vegas about Nevada's ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana. The newscaster asked her if she also planned to cast a vote for president, and if so, which candidate. "Hey. Are we talking politics here or weed? No. I'm not voting for president." She smirked, apparently self-satisfied with her coolness. The elementary follow-up question would have been to ask her why she thought voting to legalize marijuana was not also "politics," but predictably, the reporter failed to ask her that.

Two days ago, black activism icon Angela Davis declared her support for Hillary Clinton at an African American studies conference at the University of Texas, Austin. She said that while she had her differences with Ms. Clinton, Trump is far too dangerous. "I'm not so narcissistic" as to say she'd just couldn't vote for a Hillary.

The legendary 1980s Speaker of the House, Tip O'Niell (Democrat from Massachusetts) famously (and ungrammatically) quipped that "all politics is local." It's time to update that to: "All politics is personal."  This election is more than a video game or a reality TV show. It's not an exaggeration to say that it will have consequences for each of us individually. I know that it will impact me personally, for better or worse, in large ways and small, along with most of my friends and family, particularly those who depend to one degree or another on various state-provided medical, disability, social, college loans, family and retirement benefits and services - not to mention whether economic growth, climate change, the environment and world peace. Yes, I know that they say that about every election. But this time, it's for real. That rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches closer and closer to Bethlehem, my friends. 

-------------------------------------------------------
Umberto Tosi's novels and novellas include Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street, Our Own Kind, and Gunning for the Holy Ghost. His short stories have been published in various journals and anthologies, including AE's Another Flash in the Pen and Ghosts Electric, out this month, plus Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review, where he is a contributing editor. He was a Los Angeles Times staff writer for ten years during its celebrated Otis Chandler era and an editor of its Sunday magazine, West. He's also been a contributing writer for Forbes magazine and editor of San Francisco magazine. His articles have been publishing extensively on line and in print. He has three grown daughters, Alicia, Kara and Cristina, and a son, Zach. He resides in Chicago with noted visual artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris.

13 comments:

JO said...

Those of us across the pond are cheering you on - we are as frightened at the prospect of Trump winning as you are.

Susan Price said...

What Jo said - and a wonderful piece of writing, Umberto.

Jan Needle said...

Frighteningly fantastic piece, Umberto. I've put it on my Facebook thingie.

Marsha Coupé said...

While the topic of Trump is exhausting in view of the billions he receives in free, non-stop publicity, I share your obsession with the upcoming presidential elections. I too am chronically distracted and unusually stressed about the state of America. Politics decide absolutely everything, from our food and water to our living conditions and health. Like you, my wise and wonderful friend, I will never understand how anybody can NOT be interested in politics.

Penny Dolan said...

I'm finding it hard to comment, Umberto, as everything you say here resounds with the anxiety, grief and terror of this political moment, not just for the people of America but for the world.

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this so expansively and thoughtfully, too, as the media here seems fill air-time with clips of the most awful Trump supporters - the election as entertainment - rather than the awful situation many Americans must find it.

(And voting for weed more important than voting for their President? Words fail.)

John A. A. Logan said...

Bravo, Umberto.
Yes, the paucity of serious journalists/analysts/thinkers, whose task it would have been to stand up to and query the progress of this phenomena, to expose the lies and evasions...that's Danger Number 1...
But then, as you say, Danger Number 2 is a public so disaffected and removed from any sense of politics being "real" any longer...that many of them (and not only Millennials) may sleepwalk into the Rough Beast's ante-natal Chamber, and even perhaps assist at the Birth...not knowing what they do...

Dennis Hamley said...

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, Umberto. The most eloquent expression of the things I fear and detest in one amazing statement. I remember the Cuban crisis so well, and walking down Deansgate in Manchester thinking 'take a last look at it, because next week it will be a radiation-fill crater but you won't be here to see it.'

I follow the whole Trump debacle on the Daily Kos, which you will know. I'm not quite sure how I became a subscriber, but I somehow am and find it unmissable. What worries me more than anything is that this is not just a US phenomenon. Since Brexit, the cockroaches are coming out of the woodwork and a frightening scenario of racism, bigotry and moral blindness is developing here too. And now the news is filled with the certainty of a 'hard Brexit' and the pathetic illusion that somehow this is going to make us 'great again'. What sort of world will it be when everybody is 'great again'?

Thank you for referring to Yeats's 'second coming' again. It's almost becoming the AE signature tune. First Bill, then me and now you. And a good thing too. As Wilfred Owen said, 'All a poet can do today is warn.'

Reb MacRath said...

I'm glad you stood up here, Umberto. I rushed right off this morning to buy the new Rolling Stone, its lead story being Clinton vs the Hate Machine.

Jan Needle said...

Possibly a bit early to mention it, but I've just finished a cut-down-rewrite of my Wind in the Willows 'spoof' (in which Toad is the villain and the Wild Wooders are the downtrodden and revolting rural poor) starring an extraordinary new Toad character called Ronald T.Rump. My son Matti Gardner is working on the technicals, and it will be going live well before the Presidential election. Golden Duck, the publisher of Wild Wood, are dubious to put it mildly, and they may well be right. But my feelings about Trump and America have been so lacerated, in ways so beautifully delineated by Umberto, that I'm prepared to do almost anything to express my fear and contempt. Fear mainly. As Brecht said at the end of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui - The Bitch is in Heat Again...

literaryleila said...

Umberto, I am holding my nose and voting for Hillary. However, for the record, the Democratic elites sat happily by, collecting their graft and bribes, while the Repugnicans gerrymandered every district in the country to make sure an obstructionist House and Senate would be elected in every election in the foreseeable future; that voting rights for minorities and the elderly could be restricted by unconstitutional voter identification requirements; and that women and minority candidates could be contained. They (the elites) dreamed up idiotic educational schemes (and supported public tax dollars going to unscrupulous profiteers in the form of Charter Schools and for-profit "universities") to the end that America's public schools, supported by what few tax paying citizens remain, have drop out rates in excess of 50%; have graduates reading at a 6th grade level; eschew science; no longer require Civics and Government classes. That is why the generation of "slackers, cynics, pouters, doubters and perhaps well-intentioned Bernie-or-bust holdouts" arose. They were interested, and with good reason, in free tuition to the exclusion of most other issues. We have allowed even the tax-payer funded colleges to raise tuitions to exorbitant levels. That is also why (besides gerrymandering) that we have dunces like Gary Johnson (a former governor - so other dunces voted for him) "shaping" the national political dialogue. Facebook and twitter "screeds" will not change the mind of a single one of those people. Getting out in the neighborhoods talking to people, correcting any of your young friends about Trump's background and intentions when they give you some half-baked reason they support him; volunteering for the phone banks - those are the ways to reach voters. And after Hillary is elected, holding those Democratic elites accountable by writing to Senators and Congress Representatives and showing up at public meetings; voting against school board idiocy - those are the only ways to change the world. It's hard work.

Susan Price said...


I think Colinvaux's Fate of Nations, which I review over on on sister site, Eclectic Electric, explains much of the upheaval and trouble we're going through, not only on both sides of the Atlantic, but all over the world.

I warn you, it's not happy reading...

http://authorselectricreviews.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/the-fates-of-nations-by-paul-colinvaux.html

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you all - Susan, Leila, Reb, Dennis, John, Penny, Marsha, Jan and Jo - for your high praise and thought-provoking comments! It's particularly gratifying to engage such a distinguished group of colleagues as yourselves. I will definitely read Fate of Nations, Susan. Thanks. Leila, I agree with you in pointing out the culpability of too many duck-and-cover, go-along Democrats in allowing the Tea-Party-alt.right movement to grow into the Frankenstein that it has become. I thought of mentioning this, but the blog was already longish, and I wanted to stick to the point of politics being personal, whether it's trendy or not to acknowledge, and the consequences of that.
Jan, I'd love to read your Wind in the Willows parody. Hope to see it soon!
Again, thanks to all!

Jan Needle said...

Hallo Umberto. This is the link to Wild Wood. The Trump version's not up yet

http://amzn.to/1tDreex
P/b http://amzn.to/1lJRUEX