election anxiety countdown

66 Days: Grit

Continuing through Charles Portis’ 1968 classic True Grit with A Public Space’s #APStogether quarantine reading series…

Under cross-examination, Rooster Cogburn is asked about his use of excessive force under oath in a Little Rock, Arkansas courthouse. We are learning about the Federal Marshal’s toughness as our heroine Mattie Ross seeks out his services at the outset of her quest to bring her father’s killer to justice. But, the fact that he’s killed twenty-three men in less than four years on the job is hard to read as a plus for the good guys from the vantage point of late August 2020 with indiscriminate police shootings and unaccountable deployments of Federal forces against peaceful protesters.

How much truth is in Portis’ fictional portrayal of the 1878 U.S. Marshal Service? And how much of that truth has been carried forward in traditions through generations of Marshals? How much of the myth-making in fictional cops and robbers and western outlaw tales have present day police internalized since childhood?

Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing, traces the origins of American policing in part to the early days of Southern and Western frontier justice. Southern slave patrols and the Texas Rangers protected the interests of wealthy white landowners and terrorized Black, Mexican and Indigenous resistance. This story, taking place in Arkansas and “Indian Territory” — between the geographic jurisdictions of those two traditions — already borrows from both.

Rooster Cogburn is cross-examined by defense counsel for Odus Wharton, who Mattie Ross sees this way:

”If ever there was a man with black murder in his countenance it was Odus Wharton. He was a half-breed…. Creeks are good Indians, they say, but a Creek-white like him or a Creek-Negro is something else again.”

So, we have a Federal Marshal who shoots first in a culture biased against people of color.

True Grit debuted in 1968, a year that has come up again and again in this 100-day series of mine. It was first published in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post. Hard to imagine Portis’ writing is not informed in part by the Civil Rights movement. Little Rock became synonymous with segregation ten years earlier as the site of the Little Rock Nine — Black students who were prevented from attending Little Rock Central High School by the Arkansas National Guard under the orders of segregationist Governor Orval Faubus.

Portis writing is sharp and often funny despite the heavy themes I’m pulling out here. Hard to put down between chapters. I will learn more about Portis — who died in February in Little Rock — and what he does with these loaded building blocks of character and story as I (and those reading along at #APStogether led by author Ed Park) work through the novel in the next couple of weeks. I expect we’re being set up for a few surprises in this exploration of revenge and justice.

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76 Days: Convening

The Democratic Convention is underway in… the internet. It was supposed be in Milwaukee, but Covid-19 pushed it online, as it has pushed so many things.

This smaller, studio- and home-taped version is working. It is more intimate and faster-paced. Perhaps the days of expensive conventions are over. Decades ago, the convention floor ceased to be a place where the parties conduct the messy business of politics in public. The purpose of party conventions today is to create made-for-TV (made-for-streaming-video?) moments that give voters a formal (re-) introduction to the nominee and kick off the urgent work of the final weeks of the campaign.

I attended the 2008 and 2012 conventions. Witnessing Barack Obama’s acceptance of the nomination at Denver’s 76,000-seat football stadium is a moment I’ll never forget. I’m sure that everyone there that night went on in some small way to contribute to Obama’s victory, the historic gathering fueling our work. But it was a moment made for the screen, made for home audiences first, and the cumulative efforts of the millions watching at home surpassed those in the packed stadium by far.

It is expensive to rent out stadiums and convention centers, to fly your most engaged supporters across the country, buy up all the hotel rooms within 100 miles, feed and transport everyone for several days, pay for security and policing for an entire hotel and convention district, or an entire downtown. There have to be better ways to spend the money on winning the election.

Then there is the carbon footprint. Recent Democratic conventions have made a push to be more sustainable. This is to be expected from the party that has the common sense to acknowledge the urgency of the climate crisis — but the hundreds of delegates and groups who seek to influence the party each have an impact that is harder to measure. I still discover worthless plastic trinkets with corporate logos and advocacy slogans from those conventions a decade ago in odd corners of my apartment.

In the big picture, whatever carbon cost is associated with the Biden campaign will be trivial compared to the impact his administration will have if it rejoins the Paris Climate Agreement and implements national policies that help flatten the curve of a warming planet. Then again, if Coldplay is committed to figuring out how to have a carbon-neutral or net positive concert tour, I’m sure Democrats can do the same.

The carbon footprint of a virtual convention might be much lower, but what is lost when a convention is not held in person? The most engaged members of the party from all over the country do not have a chance to meet in person, to talk about ideas, break bread together, drink and celebrate and strengthen ties across different parts of the country.

But also, a less expensive convention may mean less fundraising from big corporations. A virtual convention means there are no social events sponsored by big donors after the night’s speeches. No need to see progressive governors show up at a cocktail hour sponsored by the oil industry.

But also, those who disagree with the direction of the party are not on camera. No dissenting t-shirts or signs. No acts of protest on the streets outside. I am continuing my way through Timothy Denevi’s Freak Kingdom, and have just read the section on Hunter S. Thompson’s day at the Chicago convention of 1968 when anti-war protesters and bystanders (and Thompson, with a press badge) were pinned down and beaten by Chicago Police.

With a virtual convention, reporters like Thompson (and unlike Thompson) will be forced to do more work to cover the story of dissent. How do protesters march on a video that was taped hours or days earlier in an unknown location? I’m sure new ways of marching, disrupting, and dissenting will emerge. We may see some of that next week when Trump’s version of a virtual convention takes place.

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77 Days: The Next Generation

A few weeks back I pressed play on part one of Jacques Rivette’s epic 1971 film Out 1. I knew little about it other than the brief introductory sentences in the art cinema app Mubi. I saw that it had ties to the French New Wave and was promoted with stylish images of Jean-Pierre Léaud and Juliet Berto. Eight episodes? Thirteen hours? Perfect quarantine viewing.

The film introduces us to two experimental theater groups exploring the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus through long exercises that are physically and emotionally grueling. Not your typical easy viewing Netflix serial. The antics of two outsider loners running separate scams in the streets and cafés of Paris (Léaud and Berto) provide more familiar New Wave cinéma vérité fare, and relief from the rehearsals. Each uncovers clues about a shadowy group calling themselves The Thirteen. The rest of the eight-part film involves the slow revelation of connections between the actors, these outsiders, and the Thirteen.

The film debuted in France in 1971. The Paris uprising of May 1968 was a fresh memory, but having not met its revolutionary goals, a generation of activists were unclear on what — if anything — had been achieved, and what would come next. One reading of the film casts the mysterious group of Thirteen as the 1968 uprising. The others, younger, are drawn to The Thirteen’s mystique, to the hope of exercising influence and control, unaware that — spoiler alert — The Thirteen never accomplished anything.

A generation is typically defined as a 20-30 year age cohort. Those of us born between 1965 and 1980 are Generation X, those born up until 1997 or so are Millennials, etc. But we also use the word to speak of the next people to take on a job or role. In Out 1, a new generation is exploring the formation of a Thirteen, or joining The Thirteen. Will they achieve things the previous generation failed to achieve? What lessons would be useful to hear from someone who has been there before? What lessons are irrelevant given today is a new context? What lessons are simply “learning the ropes,” hardships every generation has to go through?

Sometimes I think these thoughts about the jobs I held in 2008 and 2012. Countless groups aligned with progressives and the Democratic Party are doing similar work. I do not think I was the least bit important in the grand scheme of those elections, but something is lost when people who have been there before move on.

Do I have any wisdom to impart that would be helpful? I’m certain any technical knowledge I once employed — how to use blogs, Twitter, graphics, and email to achieve campaign goals — is either obvious, or antiquated. But are there broader life lessons, perhaps?

Then again, I have these same thoughts when I walk in to coffeeshops I once worked at as a barista. Yes, the shop might have done business differently if I’d stayed on another twenty years. But the city did not suffer caffeine withdrawal when I moved on.