The other day, I went into the intensive care unit where our most acutely ill COVID-19 patients are being cared for.
The unit is full, busy, well-staffed. Life-saving personal protective equipment (PPE in the trade) is stacked at regular intervals along the hallway so it can be easily and quickly accessed and donned by staff as needed. The rooms have sliding glass doors and the unit is built on a gentle curve, so all the patients are visible from the nurses’ station.
All the patients are being helped to breathe by one device or another. Drugs, liquids and calories are being pumped into them via long tubes from devices outside their rooms – a distance that allows the nurses to attend to the machines without having to enter the patient rooms themselves, which would require the donning of more PPE, in very short supply.
The unit hallway is filled with beeping, blinking machines and the computers that monitor them. Like a sci-fi movie from the 1960s, it’s the very image of cutting-edge modern medical technology.
The nursing staff is busy, one sliding aside her facemask to get a quick gulp of coffee, another for bite of lunch in between direct patient care and impromptu unit meetings. Someone described pandemic response as a marathon but in this unit, it’s being run more like a series of sprints.
I expected all that.
What I didn’t expect was the feeling I had of being in a sacred space, filled with heroes. And I mean heroes in the literal, classical sense: people who know they’re exposing themselves to increased effort and risk but do it anyway, to serve their patients and the broader community outside these walls.
Most people will never see inside a place like this. They would have a heightened appreciation for the human beings who work there if only they could.
Most people have a pretty shallow view of my hometown’s political stripes and may have no idea how pro-military the history of San Francisco is. In the era of first European contact, the Presidio of San Francisco, the Spanish army’s garrison, was the city’s very first establishment (1776). Once California was admitted to the Union in 1850, San Francisco’s presidio served as the headquarters of America’s western army and was the headquarters of the 6th Army until the base was decommissioned in 1994. The city also served as a primary station of the US Navy’s Pacific fleet and the US Coast Guard. There are 3 Air Force bases in the greater Bay Area as well.
Many of the region’s past and current residents were first introduced to San Francisco as servicepeople, shipping to or from deployments overseas. There is genuine and heartfelt pride in the armed forces here, which have the San Francisco Bay Area as an area of particular recruitment focus.
My dad also served in the Navy as a ship’s engineer, during two wars. So, I have a more personal connection to those seafarers.
People who don’t know that history of connection might be surprised at the size and enthusiasm of crowds for San Francisco’s annual Fleet Week celebrations. This year’s event, just concluded, was no exception.
Each Fleet Week, in addition to public tours and the parade of ships from the navies of many countries including our own, we San Franciscans have become accustomed to the roar of the Blue Angels swooping and buzzing our city. Thousands turn out to line the waterfront for a glimpse of the F/A-18s in performance.
We had a couple of special guests in from out of town this past weekend, so we took them down to the Ferry Building for some good eats and a chance to see the Blue Angels up close. The show, of course, didn’t disappoint. It never does. The embarcadero was packed with folks trying to find the blue and gold air machines as they whizzed by, the roaring sound trailing them by several seconds. If you like crazy-fast speed and the sound of loud engines, this particular show cannot be beat.
But life sometimes reaches out in unanticipated ways to remind you of the importance of perspective, of the difference between entertainment and more important things.
I noticed the sound at first, in between the teeth-chattering roar of the jets; it was the whine of an old stringed instrument; a sound both familiar and foreign. I turned to see an old man in a old suit jacket hunched over an oud, playing something that reminded me more than a little of the old Greek and Turkish music that filled my grandmothers’ homes. The coffee can at his feet had a few scattered tips from passers by.
At that moment, the jets overhead became the distractions, this man the center of my attention. I walked nearer, listened more closely. And it was beautiful and moving. When he took a short break, I offered him a little cash and asked him,
“Turkish? From Turkey?”
“Syria,” he replied. He began to say a bit more when the Angels roared by again, causing him to wince a bit. When the noise diminished somewhat, he looked down and started to play another song.
I’d always loved watching the Blue Angels, been excited by their skill, thrilled by the speed and the roar of their engines. At that moment, though, I wondered what Fleet Week looked like through the eyes of this Syrian man playing the oud far from home. What feelings did he have looking at the parade of warships passing by his perch on my hometown’s waterfront? As the Blue Angels zoomed by, would he be thinking of loved ones being bombed back home? Did he know that half a world away, the Kurds in his homeland were at that very moment being betrayed by the American president, even as thousands wearing American flag t-shirts and baseball caps walked by him?
There’s an old saying that generals prepare to fight the last war, not the next one. And like most old sayings, there’s a kernel of truth packed in with the cliche. Case in point? The Democratic Party is preparing to fight the 2020 presidential campaign with the tools and assumptions of a now-dead American political past. Trump, together with constant support from the Murdoch media empire, has changed the way politics is done in this country.
Democrats seem incapable of understanding that basic truth. They seem to believe if only they disclose the right information to the public, Trump will resign, like Nixon did, or Republican elected officials will turn against him, like they did against Nixon during Watergate, or that he will be roundly turned out of office come next election.
Breaking news: There will be no silver bullet. Richard Nixon is no longer the president. Trump seems to have no dedication to civic principles, no personal sense of shame and doesn’t behave like Nixon would have done. Our electorate, media and political institutions don’t behave the way they did 50 years ago either.
Evidence? The Mueller Report changed nothing. Evidence of Trump’s long-lasting and deep corruption changed nothing. His dog-whistle calls of ‘nationalism’ and racism changed nothing. His ignorance of world events, macroeconomics and even basic governance have changed nothing. His demonstrated inability to articulate ideas has changed nothing. His overwhelming narcissism, sexism, bigotry changed nothing. His anti-democratic predispositions have changed nothing. His self-evidently staged inch-deep patriotism? Nothing.
Other than ulcers and teeth grinding among those already predisposed to vote against Trump, there’s only been marginal electoral movement. Yet, Democrats behave as though continuing to point out more of these now well-established truths will somehow make Trump’s unsuitability for the presidency obvious to either him, in which case he’ll resign, or to other Republicans, in which case he’ll lose support in the legislature, or to the electorate, in which case he’ll automatically lose in 2020.
Spoiler alert: It won’t.
We’re not in 1972 anymore. We’re not dealing with civic-minded, well educated, rational members of Congress. Today, we’re dealing with a religiously-fueled personality cult. Trump could literally shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose any support. And by literally, I mean literally.
It’s just a little over a year until our next presidential election and if I had to set odds right now on a Trump re-election, I’d put it at 50-50, or better. Time to wise up, Democrats.
There are people I like, people I respect, people I agree with and people I like hanging out with. And there are people I don’t. But I don’t have to agree with people to like them, at least not always. And some people who share at least some of my beliefs seem like creeps.
So where does that leave us?
I think it’s possible to see and even appreciate the humanity in many people who might pursue wildly different paths than we do, who believe in different visions of goodness, who articulate goals we cannot fathom much less align with.
And that brings me to David Koch, who died yesterday.
Koch and his brother, who took most of their income from hydrocarbons, funded some awful initiatives that contributed mightily to the ruination of the environment and harmed the health of a great many people. They skewed our American democracy in ways that served their interests and (I think) followed a twisted conception of what this country should be. And they funded a great many (again, from my perspective) good, beneficial and worthwhile organizations, most notably in the arts and in the field of cancer research.
The glee at his death and the personal demonization I’ve read about him today strikes me as beyond defense.
I been seeing some disturbing things lately under the general heading of conspiracy theories. So, I thought looking at classics might provide me some insight.
JFK – The assassination of President John F Kennedy was planned by the CIA and carried out by a large group of assets. Lee Harvey Oswald was set up to be the fall-guy, then murdered by a Mafia/CIA hitman before he could talk.
UFOs – The existence of UFOs has been known to government agencies for decades but the information has been hidden from the public for fear of widespread panic. Remnants of aliens and their craft are hidden in Area 51, in the desert southwest.
Paul is dead – Paul McCartney of The Beatles died in 1966 and the death was covered up by record companies to avoid a huge crash in sales. Faux Pauls were hired to carry on the charade. The Beatles themselves put coded messages into their records about Paul’s death, so fans would know the truth.
Apollo 11 – The 1969 moon landing was faked in a Los Angeles television studio.
Chemtrails – Chemical and/or biological agents are, without general public knowledge, being spread across the country by high-flying planes to achieve various evil purposes, such as weather modification, psychological manipulation, or population control.
Vaccines – Vaccines are not beneficial, or even benign. They are purposefully spreading disease and/or chronic illness. For example, vaccines were used by the CIA in sub-Saharan Africa to spread AIDS, and are spreading conditions, like autism, in the US.
New World Order and the Illuminati – A secret globalist power elite is conspiring to (or already does) rule the entire world through an authoritarian world government. The United Nations and European Union were harbingers of this secret movement and the process continues through groups such as The World Economic Forum (Davos), the annual Bilderburg meeting, the Bohemian Club, the Trilateral Commission and others.
Mass shootings – The mass shooting events seen in world media are fakes. Actors are hired to portray victims and their families.
9/11 – The terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center was actually conducted by either the US government or Israeli intelligence agencies, in order to create a case for increasing US military and financial support for Israel and increased US militarism in the Middle East.
Global warming/climate change – Climate change events, such as floods and hurricanes are reported inaccurately to either cover for super-normal inflation of energy prices, or to facilitate fundraising for anti-oil scientists and organizations.
Besides the fact that they’re all complete nonsense, what do these conspiracy theories have in common?
First, there are other, more fact-based, simpler and, frankly, better explanations available. There have, in fact, been a great many mass shootings in America, most recently, for example, in El Paso, Gilroy and Dayton. And there have been real victims. Because I work in an urban medical and trauma center, I have seen victims of gun violence and their families firsthand. No crisis actors.
Second, they suppose a world in which chaos is brought to order and the unexplained is explained. But this world does not exist in reality. The evidence of global warming/climate change is plain to see and obvious to markets. There is neither a cover-up, nor the artificial manipulation of prices. There’s no need. Energy prices and the ample profits earned by energy multi-national corporations are the result of very complex market forces, most notably consumer demand, not a backroom cabal of “globalists.”
Third, paying better attention to actual world events can help illuminate underlying forces a lot better than ginned up secret conspiracies only the smart or initiated know. Is there an actual global power elite? Sure as hell, there is. Are they hiding in back rooms or forested compounds? Nope. They’re right out in the open and they have and exercise political and economic power because they have money. You probably even know their names. No mystery in that to solve.
Now, let’s think about other, more contemporary conspiracy theories: Gun control, the deep state/QAnon, and elite pedophile rings.
Guns – Private citizens owning guns is part of America’s deep mythos, not so much its actual history. Some conspiracy theorists think of measures to regulate guns, even quite minor ones, as part of a larger hidden effort to completely disarm civilians in preparation for the world government (or federal government, for the smaller-scale thinkers among conspiracy theorists) takeover of the country and its citizens. Legislative efforts such as universal background checks, assault weapons bans and the regulation of ammunition are met as if they were the next coming of the Cossacks.
Here’s what is true and apparent: The US has many many problems with guns not shared by other developed countries. We openly demonstrate ourselves to be an immature and bloodthirsty people. For one thing, we use guns too often to kill each other, or ourselves. Almost ubiquitous access to guns (In some American cities and towns, you need only go to the local hardware or big-box store.) has made them the go-to tool for getting even and settling scores. I’ve written several pieces about them here, here, here and elsewhere. Historian Garry Wills wrote about guns as the American Moloch here.
Having a firearm in your home makes it very much more likely you’ll kill yourself – either by accident or purposefully – or your kids than that you’ll use it to protect yourself or your family from an intruder, much less government agents. Gun control measures are, in my opinion, reasonable solutions to the unsustainable levels of violence we create and experience in this country, not a path to world government hegemony.
Deep State/QAnon – QAnon is a unique animal. It details an alleged secret plot by the “Deep State” against Donald Trump and his supporters. Evidence cited by QAnon and its legions of “in-the-know” supporters include the tragicomic Pizzagate, a tale of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and a senior Democratic political advisor either running or facilitating a child sex-trafficking ring in the non-existent basement of a DC-area pizza parlor.
Is there a “Deep State?” There may be but there needn’t be. There are, in fact, plenty of people trying to undermine Donald Trump and they have very rational reasons for doing so, hardly any of them oblique or hidden. Trump has amply and publicly proven himself virtually illiterate, an oaf, a racist, a bigot, personally and politically corrupt, ignorant of the workings of his own government, uninformed about the basics of world affairs or even the real lives of his own countrymen, blissfully unaware of his actual job responsibilities, and using his position to enrich himself and his clearly ungifted children. I wrote about him presciently here.
Elite Pedophiles – And, finally, some thought about conspiracy theories supposing the existence of elite rings of pedophiles and their enablers.
American children are kidnapped, trafficked and used for the sexual gratification of sick or evil adults. Are they flown to private islands on private jets for those horrible purposes by global business and political elites? Possibly. But it is much more likely they’ll be abused and exploited by people they know best and trust the most: most likely of all, their own family members, or their teachers, coaches, or parish priests. For every Jeffrey Epstein, there are literally thousands of people who present greater and more proximate threats to children, much closer to home.
Almost every real story of the abuse of children involves numerous bystanders and enablers, many of whom know the child or children involved. And whether because of denial, discomfort, or fear, these individuals do not intervene. Our real history is full of examples. I wrote about this topic here. Why aren’t our biggest and baddest conspiracy theorists taking the big and bold action they call for so loudly in their own cities, much less their own churches, schools and homes?
And if we’re really interested in addressing the wholesale (and wholly preventable) abuse of children within our borders, let’s deal with the fact that 16 million US children are malnourished and 2.5 million are homeless.
And finally, let’s remember the cruel and vile treatment our own government is regularly dishing out to children on our border with Mexico – ripping them away from their parents, caging them, giving them insufficient healthcare, food and water, and physically and emotionally torturing them.
Here’s some tough-to-swallow truth: JFK was killed by Oswald. Vaccines save lives. Guns kill.
Throughout our history, I believe people have created and believed conspiracy theories, even in light of clear evidence to the contrary, for obvious reasons: reality is too bitter, active engagement is too difficult, looking in the mirror just too harsh.
George HW Bush may be the most underappreciated president in my lifetime. For my money, he was among the most intelligent, most thoughtfully connected to world affairs, and most humanly decent – in short, among the greatest.
Some might forget the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell during Bush’s tenure, not his predecessor’s. It was a singular moment in world history. In response, there was no chest-beating, no adolescent crowing from the American president, no showy rah-rah cheers but sincere offers of support and peaceful cooperation. A lesser person in the Oval Office might have used the opportunity for personal aggrandizement, or America #1 hyperbole. Bush was matured beyond that need. He personified the best of American strength: scale, connection, commitment, concern for others, and honor.
Some saw his deliberately measured stewardship of the Gulf War as a sign of weakness. In fact, it was a moment of extraordinary strength. He assembled a wildly diverse coalition to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait and kept it together and functionally effective. When the coalition’s objective was met, it stopped fighting was disbanded. Many in America thought Bush should have pushed on to overturn Saddam Hussein but he resisted, for the benefit of regional and coalition stability.
Some saw Bush’s backtrack on his ‘no new taxes’ campaign pledge as a breach of conservatism. It was, in fact, completely necessary after the blindly spendthrift policies of his predecessor. Bush knew it would finish him politically but took the sacrifice nonetheless, for the benefit of the country.
I had the pleasure of meeting Bush only once (with Barbara) but have met and spoken with a number of people who knew him very well. George HW Bush was, by all accounts, a thoroughly decent human being, a brilliant thinker, a mature self-aware person who personified the best of America – not our bluster but our honor and our human decency.
If, as many commentators have been saying over these last few days, he was a symbol of a political America that is truly gone forever, we should not expect to see his like in the Oval Office again, much to our loss.
This past week, NASA showed us very detailed photos from the surface of Mars from InSight, part of a substantial mission to better understand the mysterious red planet.
In the agency’s own words:
“NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is a science-driven, technology-enabled study of Mars as a planetary system in order to understand:
the formation and early evolution of Mars as a planet
the history of geological and climate processes that have shaped Mars through time
the potential for Mars to have hosted life (its “biological potential”)
the future exploration of Mars by humans, and
how Mars compares to and contrasts with Earth.”
All that is good and important, of course, but I’m going to be honest here. Even if we didn’t receive immediately valuable data from these missions into space, I’d still be squealing with delight. I love watching rockets take off. I love seeing pictures from space. I love seeing people float around in weightlessness, and have since I was a kid.
Back in the 1960s, you might remember, NASA was in high gear. Mercury. Gemini. Apollo. I was absolutely glued to our little black-and-white TV watching every second I could. Like a lot of kids my age, I dreamed of donning the silvery flight suit of astronauts and blasting off into the starry dark.
And when Apollo 11 took off for its rendezvous with the moon, well, I could hardly contain myself. I am likely one of many. According to NASA: “An estimated 530 million people watched Armstrong’s televised image and heard his voice describe the event as he took “…one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” on July 20, 1969.”
It’s hard, maybe even impossible, to describe to people not then alive what watching that event was like. To me, after many years and many missions, it was a glorious accomplishment but by no means did I think it would be the last. Just like the twelve-year-old fanboy I was, I envisioned continued space exploration going on forever. New missions. New technology. The solar system. The sun. Other suns and other worlds. An infinite pathway to the stars.
Not so much, as it turned out. You know, other priorities. Most people got bored with the repetitiveness of space missions and their relentless efficiency. A few more trips to the moon. All started to look the same. Once you’ve seen it, well, you know.
For me, missions like our exploration of Mars are thoroughly exciting. For the science, sure. But also because my fanboy self just loves to relive the time in 1969 when I and almost the entire world watched the absolute coolness of space exploration.
People have told me I’ve said enough about guns and the pain they cause in our country, that I have made my point and I should move on to more pleasant and useful matters. The truth is, I have written about gun violence so many times over the last several years because it’s an issue I feel passionately about, it is one that has touched me personally, and one that continues to touch me professionally. You can read some of my prior pieces here, here, here, here and here.
Turns out, there is no ‘enough’ with guns. There is no measured rationality. It is an emotional thing for Americans. Here, the gun is more than a gun. It is more even than a phallic symbol, as Dr. Freud might have observed. The gun is our nationally-worshiped idol, as historian Garry Wills suggested here.
The adolescent revolutionary wet-dream fantasies of the ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ crowd, the Oath Keepers, white supremacist militias and other wannabe Rambos keep feeding our national obsession and growing our civilian national arsenal.
Responding last week to increasingly urgent calls for the meaningful reform of gun regulation by the healthcare community, itself in response to yet another mass shooting, the National Rifle Association (NRA), just the latest in a long line of organizations which make their livelihoods from the misery of others, a diabolically effective lobbying organization for arms manufacturers, told emergency and trauma doctors: “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.” [emphasis added]
“Do you have any idea how many bullets I pull out of corpses weekly? This isn’t just my lane. It’s my f— highway.”
– Dr. Judy Melinek, San Francisco forensic pathologist
Doctors, many of whom have very deep experience with the business end of the whole gun-worship thing, were having none of it. Thousands took to social media (with the hashtag #ThisIsMyLane) to post their experiences and photos of their masks, gowns, shoes and floors, blood-splashed from victims of gun violence.
Here’s what I’ve personally seen in the past year:
The victims of mass shootings at a UPS delivery facility, YouTube headquarters, a high school and a local barber shop;
Countless shooting victims of lower-profile incidents;
Their blood, everywhere;
Their frightened, angry and grieving families;
Our doctors telling brand new widows that our staff did all we could but that their spouses died anyway;
Those widows, along with their children and extended family members screaming with anguish;
Our nurses desperately looking to colleagues for emotional support after too many hours of too much death;
A 13 year-old kid, who was sitting next to his dad when he was shot, shaking with fear and anxiety, refusing to leave his dad’s side even when he needed to go into the CT scanner;
A high school student sitting by himself in our emergency department, having just heard that his classmate and friend had been shot dead, saying over and over through sobs, “What am I going to tell my sister? What am I going to tell my sister?”
Our social workers trying to help families, insane with grief, through the first hours after a loved one has died.
And as we Americans purchase ever more guns, call for ever more people to be armed, supposedly for self-protection, arrange ever more gun-friendly playdates with neighboring militias, as mercenary spokespeople like Ann Coulter and Dana Loesch continue to purposefully inflame their audiences, the bloodthirsty maw that is this country looks for its next victims.
If you’d ever been to Spenger’s, an old school fish place at the foot of University Avenue in Berkeley, you’d know it. There wasn’t anywhere else like it on earth much less in town.
It was among the few spots Cal students would go with their parents and have an okay time and feel comfortable about the experience. It was an after-game destination for generations upon generations of Bay Area families. It was a hangout for some students and a place for a special occasion for others. It was a place you could take a professor to lunch without breaking the bank (even if you did have a drink or two at the bar while waiting for a table) and without feeling too weird about it.
I once shared an unforgettable meal with history professor Bill Slottman and fellow student Jim Crosby. If you knew either Bill or Jim (or, God forbid, both), you may already be seeing in your mind’s eye what kind of experience that likely was. To say it was both hilarious and insane is an understatement of colossal proportion.
But for our family, the place had an even longer history and deeper experience.
In the spring of 1941, my dad graduated from high school and entered the California Maritime Academy, in Vallejo, just up the bay from Berkeley, with the intention of becoming a maritime engineer, as his dad was. In December of that year, of course, those plans, and the plans of many other young men changed. The academy accelerated its course, to provide the American fleet with the many new officers it would need to fight the Second World War. Things around the place got really intense and really serious.
One night, my dad and a buddy had a night of leave, and ventured down to Berkeley to find some fun, or trouble, or whatever sailors at liberty do, and happened to pop into Spenger’s. They met a couple of girls and the boys were looking so good in their uniforms, and everyone was just so patriotic and, you know, one thing led to another and, the next thing they knew, according to my dad, the last bus back to Vallejo was gone, without them.
During wartime, such things as missing muster carry extreme penalties.
The boys began to sob and rend their garments and Mr. Spenger, himself an old salt, took notice. He knew, by God, the serious dutch these guys were in, so he lent them one of his fishing boats to get back to the academy, which they gratefully accepted.
As a result of Mr. Spenger’s generosity and trust, no cadet blood was spilt.
My beloved Erika played in the Cal Band while an undergrad. After every home game, her family would travel up from Fresno to watch her and the Golden Bears play, then adjourn, post-game, to Spenger’s for a meal, some drinks and other traditional merriment.
That last part often included her dad Dwight jumping up on a table with his buddy Gary and leading the place in Cal cheers. I’m told no blood was spilt on those occasions either.
The place meant so much to us and our families as a place of singular memories that Erika and I made Spenger our son’s middle name.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ), a public servant who personally inspired me, died this week.
Many people have taken this opportunity to express their admiration of him as a war hero who endured over 5 years of torture in a Vietnamese prison, their appreciation of him as an old-school legislator who could demonstrate respect and work with those of the other party, their gratitude for his humanity and dignity in trying circumstances.
Others have expressed their serious issues with McCain: he often lately criticized his fellow Republicans but fell short of taking action to stop most of their agenda, especially early in his political career he was known for his temper, his environmental record was unsatisfactory to many, his selection of Sarah Palin was both abhorrent and baffling to political supporters and foes alike.
All these beliefs about McCain can be true simultaneously. He was, by all accounts a complex character who was consciously aware of his personal contradictions. But he was, by any account, deeply committed to the idea of service: in the armed forces and in political life.
I cannot personally imagine the horrors of enduring years of imprisonment, torture and starvation in a foreign land. I cannot imagine turning down the prospect of early release because I preferred to model solidarity with my fellow prisoners. And I cannot imagine coming back from that experience and looking for ways to further serve my country.
That is an exemplary life, a life worth honoring, commemorating and imitating. Would that his fellow elected officials be inspired to more closely follow his example.
He left a final message, below, that an aide, through tears, read aloud today. May it represent a path forward for our injured republic.