#14: Check out my art show

Back on my B.S. (Boring Substack)

April 17, 2021 • Day 400

Hi friends. I know, it’s been a minute.

I was gonna do a thing where I put in the datelines from all six or seven of my abandoned Issue #14’s scratched out, but while Substack (apparently) does support transphobia or harassment so long as it attracts paying subscribers, they do not currently support the scratching-out of text for comic effect. 🤷🏻‍♂️

That today is Day 400 is just a coincidence, but while we’re on the subject: at some point, it was unthinkable that we’d still be in “lockdown” or “quarantine” longer than a few weeks. But almost immediately after that, it seemed inevitable that we’d be in this situation for at least this long.

At this point, my wife and I are both fully vaccinated (with the oh-so-fashionable, not-blood-clot-inducing Möderná shot), as are her parents, who are coming to visit on Monday.

We both became eligible in January, when New Jersey opened up vaccinations to people with preëxisting conditions. Here where we live in Essex County, most vaccinations are being done at a network of county-run super-sites. The Livingston Sears site is friendly, professional, and efficient — a model of what government can be, of how it is in places that care about taking care of people.

Also on Monday: our 6-year-old, who is obviously not vaccinated, is returning to (part-time, hybrid-model) in-person school for the first time in over a year. Life is returning to normal-ish, but as always it’s uncanny normalcy. My daughter will going to a classroom, but bringing her Chromebook so she can do her virtual lessons in the same room as her teacher and classmates, while masked, distanced, and snack-less.

Despite the vaccination floodgates now being open throughout metro NYC, my office remains closed with no ETA for reopening. I feel safe doing my own grocery shopping, but it seems like no one else does — except the Amazon Prime delivery shoppers, of course.

Data scientist Youyang Gu, whose track record for predicting the course of the pandemic has been pretty good, projected in February that the U.S. would achieve high enough levels of population immunity by July for things to return to “normal,” which Gu defined as the point where most remaining Covid restrictions could be lifted.

Based on where we are, relative to where Gu thought, that seems plausible… but it’s fair to wonder whether the absence of mask mandates or the ability to go to the movies are actually “normal,” or just another new world we have to learn to live in.

A Demaree & Demaree joint

For a while my six-year-old daughter, June, has been into reading comics and graphic novels. Most of the ones she gets are way over her head, with teen-friendly storylines and sophisticated jokes. But she loves (and can follow) the visual storytelling. And, being six, anything she loves she will ask for constantly on repeat.

I went to art school and received training in drawing, painting, and sculpture, and then went on to spend most of my adult life doing computer and business things and hardly ever drawing or painting. Having built all the Legos, perfected my WFH desk, and made most of the cocktails in all my books, helping my kid achieve her (TBH) insane creative vision has been a great pandemic project.

June loves bunnies as much as she loves comics. For one of the first comic strips she demand—I mean, requested, she asked me to make a comic about a bunny that lost its egg. I decided to have some fun with the bunny’s reactions to the situation.

Much later she asked for a comic about bunnies at “Easter Club,” which on subsequent pages of this four-page epic was retconned to the “Easter Egg Academy,” the organization that sends Easter Bunnies around the world to deliver baskets and eggs. As you can see, it’s time to discuss EGG BUSINESS.

In another multi-page comic, some kittens’ naps had been disturbed by one of their friends making a racket. Here, the friend tries many ways to make it up to them, to no avail.

This week, she asked me — where by “asked” I mean she walked over, placed my lap desk on my lap, then silently handed me a PaperMate Flair pen and a stack of Post-It Notes — to make a “Unicorn’s Handbook” with all the lessons one needs to be a great unicorn. This was lesson number one:

For a recent bathtime drawing, continuing a deep interest in cats doing things, June asked me to draw a cat scientist creating a cat robot, with a control panel on its chest. (That’s it, that’s the design brief.)

Later, she asked me to do a non-bath-tile-based version, which I used as an excuse to try out Adobe’s Fresco drawing app for iPad. Here’s the level of mad-scientist-cat-drawing I can achieve with time and extra layers to plan out my work:

Most recently, she asked for a comic called “Gross, Carlos!” which is ostensibly about a Corgi named Carlos who does gross things. That said, she then named six or seven other dog characters — all with elaborate hairstyles, for some reason? — who she wanted to see first, such as Ellie English Bulldog, Greg and Greta Great Dane, and Naima Newfoundland. (The little scribbly dog peeking at the edge is Carlos Corgi, crowded out of his own comic.)

My other current project is moving my website and blog to WordPress, and with all this new practice drawing, I decided that instead of an uncomfortably cropped or color-graded photo of myself on my new homepage, I would try making a self-portrait in Fresco (with a guest appearance by my dog, Johnny Cash). Look for a version of this drawing on my site redesign, coming soon:

Anyway, I hope all your side projects are going well, and that if you’re not already part of the Pfizer Pham, Moderna Mob, or Johnson & Johnson Blood-Clot Crew, that you get your shots soon.

Until next time,

#13: Happy birthday

Turns out I share a birthday week with SARS-CoV-2

November 30, 2020 • Day 263

This week there are some notable birthdays! I turn 40, and SARS-CoV-2 turns 1.

One year ago, more or less, a novel coronavirus spilled over from a bat or pangolin in central China to its first-ever human host, who passed it to others, who passed it to more, resulting in the first recorded cases of the illness that would later be named Covid-19. It would be over a month before reports of a new virus started to gain traction in Western media, over two months before the Diamond Princess or the Chinese lockdown and U.S. travel ban, all of which were before the first confirmed U.S. cases, before the outbreak in Italy, before everything.

It’s hard to remember now, but there were more than two months in 2020 where news coverage wasn’t just about the coronavirus or the election, and what virus or election coverage there was tended to have much narrower angles, because these stories hadn’t yet taken over the whole of human (or at least American) experience. This Feb 7 episode of the Eater podcast, featuring an interview with Hong Kong-based food writer Andrew Genung talking about the impact of Covid (which wasn’t yet called Covid) on the local dining scene, feels like a time capsule from another era.

The first Covid case was diagnosed on Dec 1, 2019; I turned 39 on December 3. This week I’m turning 40 in a world that has been turned fully upside down by the virus that emerged a year ago. Hopefully, next year I’ll turn 41 in a world where things are starting to turn back toward normalcy. And there’s reason to hope that’ll be the case.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this tweet, and huge scientific achievement represented by the list of dates and vaccine milestones in it:

As impressive as it is that medical science will have gone from the first known case of a novel virus to the first effective vaccinations against it in just 376 days — beating the previous record for vaccine development by more than 3 years, which was for a disease (mumps) that had been around for ages — that timeline actually obscures the real achievement here.

Moderna and the NIH designed their vaccine just five days after the virus’s genome was sequenced, which in turn was a little over a month after it was first discovered, which was likely delayed by an initial cover-up or reflexive denial by Chinese health authorities. The vaccine they designed in January is more or less the same one that will be deployed starting this month; everything since then has been testing and validation.

I think there’s a story in there for tech folks about the value of platforms. mRNA vaccine tech (as used by both Moderna and Pfizer) has been around for years, but never used in a shipping product. It’s a new ‘tech stack’ for vaccines, which means it’s relatively expensive, and the viruses for which we’d most need a new, rapidly developed vaccine are complex ones like HIV, Ebola, or Zika that are harder to vaccinate against. In a way, Covid is the perfect target for this kind of approach: it has exactly one weird genetic trick (the spike protein, which binds hard and fast to our ACE2 receptors if our immune systems don’t know to block it) and it mutates slowly (meaning that an effective vaccine is likely to stay effective longer than, say, a flu vaccine).

Today’s episode of the NYT’s Daily podcast is all about when and how we’ll get these vaccines. Pharma reporter Katie Thomas cites a recent CNN interview with Dr. Moncef Slaoui, head of the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed program, who says we could achieve a herd immunity threshold (of around 70%) in the U.S. as soon as May 2021 — months earlier than previous estimates. That seems wildly optimistic, but so far nearly everything in the timeline for these vaccines has gone according to plan, which only underscores the scientific achievement.

Of course, even the best plans seldom survive contact with the enemy, and we’re overdue for a real setback. Maybe it’ll be people not wanting to get vaccinated. Maybe it’ll be major logistical problems delivering these vaccines and administering the cold-frozen, two-shot doses to everyone who needs them. Maybe Republicans will shut down the government just to make Joe Biden look bad.

But for now I say we take the win. This will have been a lost year for many people. I owe my wife an answer about whether I want takeout or a home-cooked meal for my birthday — both sound good, but neither is what I really want, which is a meal out of the house in a restaurant that is full of people and not under threat from a deadly virus.

The day when we can all do that again is coming, if not in May than by this time next year.

Here are some things I’ve been into and up to this week:

I’ve been playing a lot of Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity on my Nintendo Switch. It’s a spinoff/prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, set during the war against Ganon 100 years earlier that kicked off the previous game’s story. Hyrule Warriors is a “hack and slash” game, not an open world adventure — you control a party of playable characters (Link, Zelda, the four Champions, others too) and just go to town on monsters, trying to clear levels and rack up as many KOs as you can.

In the middle-to-late game, part of the challenge is multitasking: you’ll have to defeat multiple bosses at different points on the map, while also defending a position or protecting someone — if you can’t manage to do it all, you lose. Winning means not just beating the shit out of Guardians and Lynels, but making the best use of your multiple characters and deploying them to the right places on the map.

In other levels, you control one of BotW’s giant robot animals, the Divine Beasts, the object being to defeat literally tens of thousands of monsters — whole armies — within a time limit.

The game is developed by Koei Tecmo, not Nintendo, but the Zelda creative team (and BotW’s voice actors) were involved. It’s not as perfect or engrossing as Breath of the Wild (I mean, what even is?) but it’s lots of fun.

Somehow I made it to now without ever using a Samsung device. That changed a couple weeks ago, when I got a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2 (😅) for work “research.” (I kid, it actually is for a work project.) It’s a really weird, interesting device — folded up it’s a weirdly tall and thick candybar-shaped smartphone, that unfolds into a square-shaped, Kindle-sized tablet.

I can’t say I recommend this phone — it’s $2,000 unlocked (though Samsung offers trade-in deals and payment plans that lower the price) and one could get literally any other flagship phone on the market and still have hundreds of dollars left over. And because it’s Android, and my family is so bought into Apple’s ecosystem, it’s hard for me to fully commit to using it — I end up also carrying an iPhone for iMessage, Things, Apple Watch stuff, etc.

On the other hand, it’s really cool to show off, and the Kindle-ish shape and size are surprisingly appealing. It’s not quite big enough to be used as a tablet, but a nice size for a really big phone that collapses into a smaller phone, and the cameras are pretty nice.

Lastly, for a long Thanksgiving weekend project, my 6-year-old and I built the enormous, 4,000 piece LEGO Disney Castle. Once upon a time our family was slated to go to Disney World this week (as our backup plan for an originally scheduled trip in April). When those plans (and all the plans) fell through, I snagged this set over the summer so we could build a bit of Disney magic at home.

Stay safe and happy, everyone. Talk to y’all again next week.


#12: The reality issue

On Covid denial, "hyperfreedom," and hoping reality will stage a comeback

November 17, 2020 • Day 250

I skipped last week’s newsletter because, frankly, there were already too many takes flying around, and I didn’t have the energy to shoot one off myself. You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted saying, “don’t talk unless you can improve on the silence.” Researching this just now I’ve seen it attributed most often to Jorge Luis Borges, but also to American politician Edmund Muskie, spiritualist Anthony de Mello, generically as a “Spanish proverb,” Anjelica Huston’s character in the movie Ever After, and really to whoever someone heard say it last. I think I heard it last from designer Mike Monteiro, or maybe on Instagram.

Anyway, there isn’t nearly enough silence in our lives right now, so maybe we need a corollary saying: don’t talk unless you can somehow improve on the noise. One advantage of this being a small list for about 25 friends, as opposed to (say) a paid newsletter going out to hundreds or thousands of subscribers, is that I can take a week off without having to tell anyone about it if I don’t think I have anything interesting to add.

After skipping a week, I decided to hold this one for a couple of days to mark a milestone—250 days since my family began staying home because of Covid. Everyone else’s ‘lockdown’ may have begun at different times, usually a bit later, some a bit earlier. But we’re all at or close to hitting 250 days of this. Sometime in January it’ll be 300; in March, which is not far off at all, it’ll have been a full year.

The best news of the past two weeks, other than Biden winning the election, has been that the first two U.S. Covid vaccine trials have returned early efficacy data — and both look really, really good. Pfizer’s vaccine looks 90% effective, and Moderna’s looks 94% effective (and theirs remains stable under normal refrigeration, unlike Pfizer’s which requires cold storage and special handling). In an interview this week, Dr. Fauci subtly revised his estimate for when the U.S. will return to normal from late 2021 to “the second or third quarter,” based on the strength of these results.

But this ray of hope depends on people taking the vaccine, which in turn depends on some entity like the U.S. government coordinating a vaccination program, and citizens being willing to show up to get vaccinated.

The biggest threats to the former are Donald Trump’s continued lack of interest in doing his job, and stubborn, dangerous refusal to hand that job off to Joe Biden. The biggest threat to the latter is many Americans’ wild belief that Covid, and this whole pandemic, are a political hoax.

Trump and Republicans have now spent over a week refusing to concede. GOP leaders keep saying they want to “count every LEGAL vote” (which, like most of what they say, is doublespeak), that the election isn’t over and they’ll honor the result when it’s finalized.

More reasonable Republicans (a group that apparently includes Trump’s National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien) have adopted this wishy-washy, ‘Schrödinger’s election result’ position, saying that there should be a smooth, stable transition to a Biden administration — if he wins, when (or if) the election is finally settled. This way people like O’Brien get to acknowledge norms and probabilities, while also stating a preference for an outcome that has already been ruled out.

In a New York Times op-ed published today, Portuguese politician and author Bruno Maçães proposes that what Trump is selling to his rabid fanbase — which other Republicans are trying to leverage and get a piece of — is an extreme form of freedom, which Maçães calls “hyperfreedom:”

What Mr. Trump promised was the power to create imaginary worlds and the freedom to unleash a selfish and extravagant fantasy life, free of the constraints of political correctness or even good manners, the limits imposed by climate change and the international rules tying America to the ground. This extreme form of freedom — call it hyperfreedom — appealed to Greenwich, Conn., financiers no less than to West Virginia coal miners. It was also, as we found out in the election, attractive to some minorities.

In the traditional way to think about freedom, we want to limit or even eliminate obstacles to individual choice, but ultimately we must deal with reality. Mr. Trump’s example is to take it an extra step: Why not be free from reality as well? Indeed, this may be the ultimate goal of contemporary America: a society that is pure fantasy life, free from reality.

Covid-19 is perhaps the best lens through which to view Mr. Trump’s hyperfreedom — and its limits. Mr. Trump seemed to take the pandemic’s arrival on American shores as a personal insult. If only he could wish it away, re-election would be assured. He tried: the questions about its seriousness and lethality; the outdoor and indoor rallies and gatherings (sometimes, as with the announcement of Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee, both on the same day); the refusal to model simple public health tactics like masks; the drumbeat of assurances that it would soon pass.

It’s worth noting that Maçães, while (apparently) anti-Trump, is not necessarily a friend. His recent book History Has Begun imagines a bright post-liberal future for America; it’s been described as “brilliantly contrarian” and has blurbs from folks like Niall Ferguson (a scholar at the same conservative think tank that gave us Scott Atlas) and Marc Andreessen.

But Maçães does at least appear to be pro-reality, and with this phrase and framing he elegantly explains the lens through which Trumpers (and anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, Birthers, truthers, and other reality-deniers) view the world.

Trump and his most ardent followers believe in whatever reality is most convenient, whatever requires the least of them. It’s an extreme but also extremely lazy kind of libertarianism. Where ‘classic’ libertarians have to struggle to form a political and moral framework within the bounds of real-world society, hyperfreedom fans can just do whatever the fuck they want, without regard to constraints or consequences, because none of that shit is real to them. Hyperfreedom is the freedom to not think.

A few weeks ago, my wife’s parents (both over 75, one in poor health) attended an indoor party near their home in Michigan. This despite their children asking them to please take Covid seriously, for the sake of their ten grandchildren. About 2 weeks after this party, my mother-in-law had to be hospitalized with pneumonia; it turned out two other people who attended also came down with pneumonia. None of them tested positive, and one doctor suggested it could be Legionnaires Disease. Maybe it was Legionnaires Disease. But when three people develop a severe respiratory disease around the same time, during a global pandemic of a respiratory virus, how likely is it that this wasn’t a mini-superspreader event?

My in-laws don’t have a good answer for why they attended an indoor gathering during a pandemic. As far as I know, they don’t regret it, because it doesn’t occur to them that they made a choice that may have had consequences — they just did what felt right and normal. You can’t feel guilty for something you don’t recognize that you did.

That’s hyperfreedom for you. Hyperfreedom makes everything someone else’s problem, which in practice means it’s no one’s problem because the problems aren’t real. Either way, hyperfreedom means the freedom for important things to be none of your business, even if the world would be better off if they were your business a little bit.

This tweet thread has been making the rounds today, from an ER doctor in South Dakota who’s treated many Covid patients who, despite them or their loved ones suffering and dying from Covid, still do not believe that Covid is real:

It’s become a cliche to call Republicans and their supporters a “death cult,” which seemed a bit of an extreme label before Covid, but now seems tragically apt. It seems there are two kinds of right-wing viewpoints on Covid:

  1. It’s real but not a big deal, liberals and the media are exaggerating it to score points and take down Donald Trump

  2. It’s not real, liberals and the media invented it to destroy freedom and take down Donald Trump

I worry this is a bit reductive — I’m reading WaPo literary critic Carlos Lozado’s book What Were We Thinking, a survey of Trump-era books, where a recurring theme is authors and pundits using Trump and Trumpism (which may not even exist as a coherent ideology) as support for whatever viewpoint they held previously. Religious conservatives think the Trump era means we need more religion; progressives think it means we need to go all-in on progressive policies.

No one seems to have adequately done a root cause analysis on American’s extreme distrust of one another along partisan lines — obviously race and class are factors but neither racial nor economic resentment work on their own to explain how we got here.

So, on one hand, I’m hesitant to paint “conservatives” with any particular brush (other than expecting they think I hate them and want to take away their freedom).

On the other hand, clearly some strain of “conservatism” has broken with reality and — either out of a sense of hyperfreedom or a cultivated hatred of liberals — will deny Covid is real even as it kills them. If they won’t believe in Covid while being treated for it, the odds of them willingly being vaccinated for it seem impossible.

And while those people lay claim to the freedom not to believe in the virus, unfortunately, the virus can still lay claim to their bodies. As far as I know, several of our extended family members are still gathering in Michigan for Thanksgiving next week, and in the meantime are still going out, meeting up, living their hyperfree lives. The winter is going to be very, very bad.

I don’t remember where I heard this line, but it’s stuck with me: you should tell the truth, if for no other reason than it’s easier to remember than whatever lies you’ve told.

In a recent Gallup poll — conducted after the election, but before Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccine results were made public — 58% of Americans said they would take a Covid vaccine, up from 50% before the election. Progress!

What’s changed since then? Covid has gotten much worse, and lies about it from Trump and mainstream Republicans have slowed. Also, people can see a near future under the Biden administration, where the FDA and CDC are not politicized and can be trusted again. Word that the vaccines are approaching readiness is coming not from Trump — who nonetheless is trying to claim credit for them as if he’s still running for something — but from pharma companies and science reporters. Reality is resurgent, at least a little bit.

To be sure, Republicans are still nutso on this issue — when MI Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reinstituted quasi-lockdown in response to the rapidly rising infection rate, Trump’s favorite quack Scott Atlas tweeted that people should “rise up” and resist the public health measures. Trump himself has not changed his mind, but may be too distracted by his election loss, whatever graft he can get done before January, and golfing to be as aggressive about spreading misinformation.

Many people are being admitted to Covid wards and ICUs not believing Covid exists. Some of them will never be discharged, leaving the hospital in a body bag to be loaded onto a refrigerated truck. Some will come home still believing the virus is fake but Joe Biden’s plot to hand America over to communists is real. But some will come home having been reminded firsthand what is real. Hopefully they’ll tell their friends about their experiences, and that their friends care enough to listen.

#11: Cheesequake Service Area

Some last notes on voting and democracy before… well, you know.

November 2, 2020 • Day 235

Well, folks, we made it. Tomorrow is Election Day—one way or another, the U.S. presidential election will move out of the realm of hypotheticals, of polling models and insane debating strategies and threats to not concede, and into concrete reality.

There are folks on Twitter convinced that not only might the polls be wrong, but that polling doesn’t even matter, because the election will be decided by legal strategems, voter intimidation, and strongman tactics by an emboldened, all-powerful conservative gang. This Twitter crew are not just skeptical of models and data, they’re angry at the suggestion of anyone talking about this election as if it will be decided by the voters.

Then again, that was Saturday, when it looked like Texas Republicans were poised to get 127,000 Harris County ballots cast at drive-thru early voting sites thrown out the day before the election. As I wrote here last week, in discussing the SCOTUS ruling in DNC v Wisconsin Legislature, GOP lawyers and jurists’ big new strategy to get “the ballots” thrown out is to argue that local election authorities can’t change election processes or rules in response to the pandemic, because the U.S. Constitution only allows state legislatures to do that.

Something I didn’t appreciate when I wrote that other post is just how brazen and extreme this argument is—sure, the Constitution doesn’t explicitly guarantee a right to vote, but no one has ever tried to put these principles in conflict with each other in a Chewbacca Defense-like maneuver to throw out thousands of votes. A lot of our anxiety has come from believing that all these courts that Trump and McConnell have been packing all these years would, naturally, issue partisan decisions and side with Republicans.

Which is why it’s such great news that both the (all-Republican) Texas Supreme Court and a (Republican-appointed, very Republican) U.S. District Court judge shot the Harris County case down big time. As reported by the Texas Tribune (bolds mine):

In his ruling from the bench, Hanen said he rejected the case on narrow grounds because the plaintiffs did not show they would be harmed if the drive-thru ballots are counted. He noted, however, that the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals could think differently if the cases reaches them. The Republican plaintiffs are appealing the decision.

If he had ruled on the larger issues in the case, Hanen said he would have rejected the request to toss out votes already cast. But Hanen said he would have shut down Harris County's drive-thru polling places for Election Day, because the tents being used for the sites don't qualify as voting inside a "building,"a requirement under state election law.

It’s indecent that the plaintiffs would even bring such a lawsuit, and unsatisfying that Judge Hanen rejected it for technical reasons (the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the suit and could not demonstrate harm) while signaling an openness to the absurd argument that it matters whether or not voting happens inside a “building” or not.

But he echoed part of SCOTUS’s Oct 6 ruling regarding South Carolina’s witness requirement in saying he would not have thrown out ballots already cast. While conservative judges have been willing to limit and even roll back COVID-era changes to voting access, they’ve also not let these cases serve as pretext to throw out votes.

All to say: yeah, Trump says this election may end up in the Supreme Court. It’s actually already ended up there six or more times, and will probably be there again. Depending on which places have which vote margins tomorrow (and beyond), there may be court battles that shape the outcome of the election. Or there may not be. There are some glimmers of life left in our institutions and rule of law. And, in all likelihood, the next president will be chosen by voters, not Federal courts.

As historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote in her newsletter:

But on this night of calm before the storm, I am the opposite of discouraged.

I am excited about our democracy and our future. … We are taking back our country, and once we have done so, we will find that no problem is insurmountable.

Democracy is rising. It might not win on Tuesday—no jinxing here!—but if not then, the week after that, or the month after, or the year after. After more than thirty years studying our country's history, I have come to believe in American democracy with an almost religious faith.

I know it’s frightening to hear the stories of Republican leaders trying to get ballots thrown out, and right-wing thugs intimidating Biden voters, and so on. But that Republicans feel the need to engage in such tactics despite their ongoing voter suppression and gerrymandering is a tell-tale sign that they know their party has lost any hope of winning a majority of voters, and that the only way they can win an election is to cheat.

That strategy is not sustainable.

Today it’s been reported that Trump is having “un-scalable walls” built around the area surrounding the White House where he plans to hold a victory celebration tomorrow night. (Is Mexico paying for these walls too?) Not a great look for someone who will, in all likelihood, claim to have been re-elected legitimately as leader of a democracy.

Likewise, while people have asked with actual concern if things are okay here in New Jersey, given news reports that a Trumpist truck caravan shut down traffic on the Garden State Parkway, I agree with NJ Governor Phil Murphy who said “boy, to me that was was silly.” It sure will be awkward when a bunch of these people get traffic citations or court summons in the mail. Trumpism is fundamentally ridiculous and, yes, unsustainable. Obstinately shutting down things the public relies upon is their only move, and it’s really stupid. (I mean, could they have maybe chosen a less silly place for their brave stand than a rest stop in a place named Cheesequake?)

Anyway, we’ll — finally — see what happens this week.

#10: Getting out the votes

A bonus edition about voting in America. Fun fact: did you know that the Constitution doesn't actually grant anyone the right to vote???

October 27, 2020 • Day 229

Here in the U.S., Election Day is one week from today. I started writing this for next weekend’s newsletter, but, I mean, this is a long piece about voting, and what if you haven’t made your plan to vote yet?! So I decided to send it today as a special bonus edition.

Every year, but especially this year, even though we talk about Election Day as if it’s the only day when Americans choose leaders, it really marks the end of voting for an election. Early voting has been happening for weeks; mail-in voting started even before that.

In a normal year, poll closings on Election Day would mark the deadline by which everyone who wants to vote must vote, as well as (in some states) the postmark deadline for absentee/mail-in ballots, or (in others) the receipt deadline for those ballots. This year, some states have extended those deadlines and others haven’t. Some of those extensions have been challenged in court; some of those challenges were successful, some weren’t; some unsuccessful challenges have been overturned on appeal, some are still pending.

In the last few weeks/months, I’ve picked up the bad habit of saying/tweeting things like 40% of Americans support Trump and his agenda whyyyyyyyyy. But it’s important to remember that in the United States voting is optional. In a normal year, up to half of all eligible voters skip the election. Why? Because voting is harder than it ought to be, and people don’t feel they get much out of it.

There were a few different articles about this in the last week (mostly just Sunday and yesterday):

The NYT went to East Stroudsburg, PA — incidentally, the literal first town across the border from NJ, or the least far from Manhattan an NYT reporter would have to drive to talk to Pennsylvanians — and spoke with people who not only skipped the 2016 election but plan to skip this one too:

They expressed a profound distrust of politics and doubted their vote would have an effect. They felt a sense of foreboding about the country and saw politics as one of the main forces doing the threatening. Many were not particularly partisan, and said they shrank from people who were.

FiveThirtyEight (with the polling firm Ipsos) surveyed voters about their plans to vote or not, and also analyzed publicly accessible voting records, and found that Americans fall into three categories: always-voters, sometimes-voters, and nearly-never-voters.

People who sometimes vote were a plurality of the group (44 percent), while 31 percent nearly always cast a ballot and just 25 percent almost never vote. … Many of the people we spoke with described their decision to vote as very personal, boiling down to the specific candidates, their own ability to navigate the electoral system that year, or whether they thought their vote would matter. But for others, being a “nonvoter” or a “sometimes voter” wasn’t really a choice. There are clear barriers to casting a ballot that many of them experienced.

Meanwhile, Terry Nguyen — who writes gen yeet, a newsletter about Gen-Z culture — wrote about the other side of the coin: people and brands who’ve deputized themselves “voting influencers”, and the ways that America and her voting process are “federalist as fuck”:

Everyone and everything within a 2-mile radius of my Brooklyn-based universe has spent the past month reminding me to vote. I walk past “VOTE” signs and stickers plastered on the sidewalk and construction plywood. Through e-mails and Facebook ads, Nike, Chipotle, Lyft, and Amazon urge me to check my registration and vote early if I can. On Instagram, a girl from my high school who I haven’t seen in 8 years posts voting PSAs and state-by-state registration deadlines.

… Voting is not compulsory in the U.S., nor is voter registration automatic or simple. There isn’t a federal holiday for citizens to take time off from work to vote, and thanks to a law passed by Congress in the 19th century, Election Day always falls on a Tuesday in November. Sure, our corporate overlords have stepped in, effectively branding themselves as stewards of democracy, although if you scrutinized some companies’ Election Day policies under a microscope, they’re usually not as flexible as advertised. 

That means, at a federal level, workers and students don’t have mandated time off (although laws for voting leave do vary by state, because again, we’re federalist as fuck). 

All of this has a significant impact on young voters, who have historically been blamed for their apathy or ideological disengagement towards the political process. But neither are accurate diagnoses for the bleak 46 percent turnout rate among voters ages 18-29. It’s a pretty bleak number, but one that can be improved by reducing systemic barriers and implementing same-day voter registration.

In a low-turnout year, with only 50% of eligible adults voting, that can mean as few as 20-25% of the electorate are the ones actually deciding things for all of us, and they — we? — tend to be individuals who already have a lot of political and social power: people with money, people with free time, white people, older people.

Minority rule has been a feature of American democracy from the jump. The framers probably thought this was a feature, not a bug, because it meant that only the most engaged, informed citizens would be able to set the direction of the nation. But that implies they thought it wasn’t enough to just live in a society to have a say in how it runs. Decisions in the U.S. are made by those who show up to vote, and those who don’t or can’t show up have to rely on the good grace of those who do.

We haven’t done a great job.

Did you know the Constitution does not explicitly grant a right to vote?

The text of the Constitution says more about protecting slavery than about anyone being guaranteed the right to vote. Seriously, the word “vote” appears in the document only in the context of how our elected officials vote toward certain ends; it’s silent on how we, the people in whose name the Constitution was adopted, pick those officials.

Not even the Bill of Rights — which covers many of the individual rights and freedoms not mentioned by the main Constitution, which was mainly concerned with how to design a government to replace British rule — enshrines anyone’s right to vote. The 15th Amendment, which guarantees former slaves the right to vote, was in fact the first time voting rights were codified in the Constitution for anyone. And, if we’re being pedantic, the 15th and 19th Amendments don’t guarantee the right to vote so much as require that it not be limited on the basis of race, gender, or ‘previous condition of servitude.’

I’m not a Constitutional or legal scholar, so I’m not qualified to speak to what writings or judicial precedents have held over the years, but as far as I know no one has ever had to worry about the Constitution not being explicit enough about the basic right to vote, because it’s clearly the foundation of everything. The Constitution doesn’t say that citizens can vote, but it guarantees a “republican form of government” to all states, and what kind of willful idiots would read that and grow up in this nation and not simply assume that individuals have the right to vote, or that that right should trump everything else because it’s the bedrock on which our republic was built?

Conservative constitutional ‘originalists’ — that’s what kind of idiots. Originalists, and the ‘textualists’ that preceded them, believe that the Constitution and all other laws mean exactly what they say, no more and no less. Rights that are not explicitly granted are up for debate, and arguments that hinge on what the framers thought but did not write into the document itself can be batted aside as hearsay.

Now, there are some implicit rights that it would be absurd to say don’t exist. The right to vote is probably one of these — the text of the 13th and 19th Amendments make no sense if there is no right to vote. But because the individual’s right to vote is not explicitly prioritized over, say, states’ rights to govern their own elections, there’s plenty of fertile and dangerous ground where an originalist could deny people — maybe a lot of people — their votes, so long as such denial was based on procedural grounds, and not explicitly on the basis of race or sex.

Originalists, being willful idiots, are willing to allow systematic vote suppression or gerrymandering so long as the suppressors don’t admit they’re trying to prevent Black people or women from voting.

This is a good time to pause and acknowledge that, last night, Senate Republicans representing a minority of U.S. citizens — but a majority of U.S. states — voted to confirm now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Barrett has only been a judge for three years, and prior to that had (like her colleague Brett Kavanaugh) worked as a conservative legal scholar, with little or no trial experience in her career to date. Barrett and Kavanaugh are both originalists, and Barrett is furthermore a religious ideologue.

They serve alongside an O.G. originalist, Clarence Thomas, and two other (slightly) less dogmatic but equally conservative judges, Alito and Gorsuch. Chief Justice John Roberts is, by the warped standards of this court, the ideological center, and was until last month the swing vote. There is a solid 5-4 majority (likely to be joined often as not by Roberts) who interpret the Constitution — a document shorter than most “1-pagers” at my work — so narrowly as to deny rights to basically anyone and everyone, although conveniently they tend to only use this superpower when it benefits the GOP’s political base and donor class.

Only two of those six conservative justices were appointed by a president who won the popular vote: Thomas (by George H.W. Bush in 1990) and Roberts (by George W. Bush, during his second term following his clear election win in 2004). Three of the six were appointed by Donald Trump, and all were confirmed by Senate Republicans representing a minority of U.S. citizens (but, of course, a majority of U.S. states).

I actually read DNC v Wisconsin Legislature

Some legal writing is opaque and impenetrable, but appellate court decisions and opinions — a genre that includes all of SCOTUS’s ouevre — tend to be readable, clear, and mercifully concise.

Yesterday, SCOTUS ruled to overturn a District Court decision in Democratic National Committee v. Wisconsin State Legislature, allowing the Republican-dominated Wisconsin legislature to enforce a strict Election Day deadline for receipt of mail-in ballots. Justice Gorsuch, concurring, wrote:

The Constitution provides that state legislatures—not federal judges, not state judges, not state governors, not other state officials—bear primary responsibility for setting election rules. And the Constitution provides a second layer of protection too. If state rules need revision, Congress is free to alter them. … Legislators can be held accountable by the people for the rules they write or fail to write; typically, judges cannot.

These are some good points! They seem reasonable! And it’s quite reasonable to suggest that the DNC’s case here was weak and did not hold up to the same judicial scrutiny it would have gotten in a less fraught era.

And yet, it’s a little bit more complicated than this. Wisconsin’s legislature is the most gerrymandered in the country—despite Democrats having a majority of votes in the state (as evidenced by a Democratic governor, Tony Evers, winning the last election in 2018) Republicans control 60% of the legislature. These principles Gorsuch applies to this case, of legislatures being accountable to the people, are bullshit if, in fact, legislatures are not accountable to people they disagree with. It’s true that legislatures and Congress can change rules that “need revision”, but if they won’t on ideological or political grounds, and individuals’ right to vote is not given at least equal stature to legislatures’ right to control elections, what’s the fucking point to any of it?

But wait! There’s more! There’s also a concurring opinion by Justice Kavanaugh, which you may have heard about on Twitter. He writes:

When an election is close at hand, the rules of the road should be clear and settled. That is because running a statewide election is a complicated endeavor. … Even seemingly innocuous late-in-the-day judicial alterations to state election laws can interfere with administration of an election and cause unanticipated consequences. … It is one thing for state legislatures to alter their own election rules in the late innings and to bear the responsibility for any unintended consequences. It is quite another thing for a federal district court to swoop in and alter carefully considered and democratically enacted state election rules when an election is imminent.

Here he’s repeating Gorsuch’s reasonable — and, it must be admitted, legally defensible — argument that the District Court overstepped, exerting power it did not have over the running of an election. But here, again, is the naive assertion that election rules enacted by state legislatures are necessarily democratic and subject to the people’s accountability. Sure, in states like New Jersey they are. In Wisconsin they are not.

Here he acknowledges that our patchwork of election laws — some of which have been adjusted for COVID, some of which haven’t — is, in Nguyen’s phrasing, federalist as fuck:

To be sure, in light of the pandemic, some state legislatures have exercised their Article I, §4, authority over elections and have changed their election rules for the November 2020 election. … a few States such as Mississippi no longer require that absentee ballots be received before election day. Other States such as Vermont, by contrast, have decided not to make changes to their ordinary election rules, including to the election-day deadline for receipt of absentee ballots. The variation in state responses reflects our constitutional system of federalism. Different state legislatures may make different choices. … But the Wisconsin State Legislature’s decision not to modify its election rules in light of the pandemic is itself a policy judgment worthy of the same judicial deference that this Court afforded the South Carolina legislature.

Kavanaugh and the majority are unconcerned with whether, as a practical matter, Wisconsinites are served by Wisconsin’s election process. Their constituency here is the state legislature, because the Constitution gives them standing.

Lastly, here’s the part that had everyone’s head exploding today, bolds mine:

For important reasons, most States, including Wisconsin, require absentee ballots to be received by election day, not just mailed by election day. Those States want to avoid the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after election day and potentially flip the results of an election. And those States also want to be able to definitively announce the results of the election on election night, or as soon as possible thereafter. Moreover, particularly in a Presidential election, counting all the votes quickly can help the State promptly resolve any disputes, address any need for recounts, and begin the process of canvassing and certifying the election results in an expeditious manner.

A lot of people read into this passage, seeing echoes of Trumpist rhetoric about late-arriving ballots “flipping” the election and states announcing election results “on election night,” and assuming this meant he was laying the legal groundwork for some future ruling declaring any votes counted after EOD next Tuesday invalid, because states must certify their results in time for Trump’s evening shows on Fox News.

Call me naive, but I tend to read Kavanaugh’s opinion here more colloquially: he’s factually wrong that states announce and certify results on election night, but in practical terms he’s right that states want as speedy and efficient a count as possible, so that “canvassing and certifying” can proceed in accordance with statutory deadlines. The “or as soon as possible” and subsequent mention of post-count election certification procedures offset the clumsy mention of election night.

I take no pleasure in finding that, on reading an opinion by one of Trump’s SCOTUS nominees, it seems to hold up. This decision, like the other election-related ones, is founded on the principle that rules are rules, and people (for better or worse) have to live by the law as written. It would be a stretch for even Kavanaugh or Barrett to find an originalist, textualist argument forcing state election agencies to end vote counting sooner than their state laws require. Hopefully we won’t get to find out how far they and their colleagues are willing to stretch.

What can we learn from this?

Back to that 40% who even now, after everything, still support Donald Trump and the GOP:

First of all, it’s important to remember that it’s not 40% of Americans who support that horrible orange man, his horrible nihilistic party, and their horrible failed policies. It’s 40% of the people who are willing and able to vote — which in a good year excludes at least 25% of us. Even then, everyone feels so disillusioned by the process that it’s hard to say what they’re voting for. The true silent majority (or plurality) in American politics are the ones who look at voting and politics and decide to opt out.

This is expected to be a high turnout year — possibly the highest in U.S. history, despite the pandemic and legal challenges like that which led to the Wisconsin Legislature decision. But that may just mean that 75-80% of eligible voters will have voted. Regardless of whether Biden or Trump wins, they’ll have been elected by a mere plurality of voters.

I have a few reactions to all this.

First of all, sympathy for the non-voters. Confession time: I did not vote for Barack Obama in 2008. That year I messed up and failed to register to vote before the deadline, and so even though I wanted to vote for Obama I couldn’t. Well, I could have voted provisionally, but that seemed like a hassle, and he was going to win Illinois anyway, so… boom, that year I too was a non-voter. We do not make this as easy as it needs to be, and most people are not as nerdily wrapped up in U.S. politics as I am.

Second, sympathy for those so disillusioned by the process or our politics that they cast protest votes — to a point. There’s something really hypocritical about telling people to vote as if their lives depended on it, vote to save democracy… then also tell them that they have to rally around a candidate or party they may not like, because at least they’re not horrible. I don’t want to still be mad at Nader voters in 2000, or Gary Johnson voters in 2016, or Bernie voters from the ‘16 and ‘20 primaries. It’s not their fault that our system grants massive structural power to two major parties, one of which in turn has massive structural advantages over the other. It’s a fucking mess. I understand wanting to exercise democracy, even though our system kinda punishes it.

But, third, I am still mad at those third-party or protest voters. I am mad at non-voters. I am mad that, for my entire adult life, politics has been almost entirely a game of motivating base voters and encouraging turnout, because the true opponent is never the other candidate, it’s folks staying home. In our system, when you don’t vote you’re not abstaining, you’re handing your political power to whoever wins the larger share of people who show up. I know it’s contradictory, and maybe hypocritical, but in order for folks to be free to vote for whatever gonzo candidate or platform they want, first they need to vote for someone like Biden, then raise hell at him about voting reform.

And, lastly, I’m mad at all the ways that people who want to vote simply can’t, or who do vote but their votes are erased by our fucked up system.

Voting is a right, a privilege, and a duty

Last week my 6-year-old daughter walked in while I was listening to a NYT The Daily podcast about the Electoral College; she was shocked when the guest said only six states truly choose the President. She asked me why, and I explained a bit, and then (because she’s 6, and doesn’t know that it’s a bad thing for only six states to choose) I told her that it was unfair because it means Trump voters here in New Jersey don’t get a say in whether Trump gets re-elected.

Don’t get me wrong—I do not want Trump to win. But Trump voters here, as horrible as I find their candidate, have common cause with Biden voters in my home state of Alabama, who will cast ballots that have zero chance of affecting the outcome. Democrats in Wisconsin are stuck with a Republican legislature basically forever — SCOTUS is one of the few entities in America with the power to impose change on states, and as they’re showing us this year, they consider hyper-gerrymandered legislatures like Wisconsin’s every bit as legitimate as the others.

All of us need to prioritize voting. We need to vote now (especially if you haven’t yet — vote right fucking now, in person if possible), but also next year, in two years, in four, and beyond. Voting rights and, probably more importantly, fair and easy voting access need to be a major issue that Democrats prioritize.

We can’t afford for every election to keep coming down to who can get out the vote. That’s ultimately a war of attrition; every time we take our eyes off the ball, Republicans swoop in, steal the ball, run all the way down the field with it, and next thing we know some Federalist Society assholes have been lifetime-appointed to the bench and are using the world’s tersest basic law to argue that acknowledging LGBTQ rights infringes on some asshole cake baker’s freedom of religion.

Many friends are standing in hours-long lines in places like NYC and Chicago to make sure their voice will be heard this time. I’m glad they’re doing it, but if we succeed and Trump is indeed defeated, we should accept no congratulations for how deep we dug to make it happen. People having to stand in 2-hour lines in the bluest of blue cities to vote is really really bad, whether it’s the result of bad actors in red states trying to suppress Democratic votes, or because of corrupt or incompetent election agencies not giving a shit.

I don’t know how we do it, I barely know who needs to hear it, and I know that it seems far less urgent than COVID, economic recovery, or climate change. But voting access and equity needs to be at least as important to the next non-asshole U.S. administration as those are. So, yes, vote. But then, however it goes, keep voting, encourage others to vote and keep voting, and if you’re able, put whatever pressure you can muster on leaders and lawmakers to protect voting rights and improve voting access.

When the dust finally settles on this election and this hell year, we’ll still be living in a democracy that’s a work in progress. And it’s true, and fair, that decisions are made by those who show up — so we’ve got to show up, keep showing up, and then we’ve got to make it easier, safer, and fairer for everyone to show up, and enshrine those as basic rights that cannot be easily dismissed.

Whew. That’s all for now. I’ll be back on Sunday with more old memories and cocktail recipes.

Stay safe,

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