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Category: Life During Wartime Page 1 of 35

Facts, reality and what our own eyes tell us, matter in this space

Since its inception, the goal here at The Critical Mass has been to post at least one blog a week.

But it’s been weeks now. And silence…

What happened?

Is it writer’s block?

No.

Nor is it PTSE. Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience, that’s what the psychologists are calling it. An epidemic of “collective exhaustion.” Weariness that is the result of living and working through a year of uncertainty. Like so many Americans, I am exhausted by the past year. Here we are, it’s April, and last week the neighbors finally dragged their Christmas tree out to the curb.

When is this coronavirus pandemic going to end? When will things get “back to normal?”

There will be no “back to normal.” More than a half a million Americans are dead from COVID-19. What kind of unreal thinking allows us to fool ourselves into believing that society can simply shrug off so much human tragedy and get “back to normal?”

How do we recover what we’ve lost? Not just the lives. But all of the social constructions that were built, or have evolved, over the years? How long will it be before we see the re-emergence of our favorite restaurants and music venues? Or small businesses that were forced to shut their doors? How long before we’ll feel safe about utilizing services such as public transportation? How long before we are comfortable with getting on an airplane, breathing the re-circulated air of strangers? When will those of us who have been working from home feel safe to be among co-workers again? How do we reward front-line workers such as doctors and nurses, or the people who stock grocery-store shelves, for showing up for work every day? How long will it be before it’s safe to take part in vast communal events such as festivals or the opening of an exciting new museum exhibit? And how long will it be before all of the jobs that have been lost will return?

How will we react when a resurgence of COVID-19, or one of the variants now lurking on the edge of news stories, blossoms into yet another threat to our lives?

My losses over the past year of pandemic have not been personal. Parents of friends have passed away of COVID-19, and I miss John Prine. While some friends have contracted it, they have recovered, none have died. I still have a job. Forced to work from home, I’ve made use of the time as best I could. Recognizing the shortcomings of our house, we’ve invested heavily in home improvements: New vinyl siding, updated kitchen. I’ve been alphabetizing CDs and albums. Dusting out-of-reach places. Reading books I’ve been meaning to read for years.

I’ve been exploring movies. How did I miss this one: A low budget but effective comedy called “Spivak,” about a failed writer. That one hit too close to home.

I am wary of television. TV commercials are a place where, despite what specialists in bird anatomy tell us, a boneless chicken wing is a real thing.

Reality check: chicken wings do not function without bones. Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” has definitively illustrated that point.

Yet I’ve watched more television than I believe I ever have. While wondering whatever happened to Dennis Miller, it occurred to me that today’s successful comics – those working standup and as late-night talk hosts – offer only a very progressive point of view. Why is that? The answer seems obvious. Conservative politics and social issues generate a fresh and plentiful supply of new chum. And like sharks, comedians are feeding on it.

Yet something more dangerous is afoot. Unreal thinking is found not only in television commercials, and in the inability of the richest country in the world to deal with COVID-19, but among the people most responsible for our well being.

Case in point: While President Joe Biden was creating legislation that will have a huge and positive impact on Americans, Congressional Republicans were complaining that gender-neutral gremlins are castrating Mr. Potato Head. He’ll no longer be a “Mr.” Kids can now decide the gender of their Potato Head. Free to create same-sex Potato family units. At the same time, Republicans were bringing before Congress complaints that Dr. Seuss is a victim of “cancel culture” because six of his books containing racist imagery will no longer be published.

Reality: That’s not “cancel culture” at work, that’s the publisher’s decision. The “canceled” books are not strong sellers, and the Seuss empire no longer wants to be associated with the casual racism of the 1960s. Classics such as “Green Eggs and Ham” are safe, of course. If you want to share Asian stereotypes with your children, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” will be selling for insane money on eBay.

Unreality’s next-door neighbor is hypocrisy. Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and the Republican party welcome megabuck corporate donations. It’s about influence, those corporations want something for their money. Tax breaks, the loosening of environmental laws. But now citizens have begun taking note of Republican efforts to suppress the voting rights of likely non-Republicans. Pressure is being put on Georgia-based corporations such as Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines to get involved, and throw their economic weight behind the movement to protect voting rights. Major League Baseball responded by pulling the All-Star Game out of Atlanta. And McConnell squealed. Now that political free speech is running in the other direction, he’s warning these suddenly progressive-acting corporations to stay out of politics.

And finally, blindness sets in. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson saw the same domestic terrorists who attacked the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6 that the rest of us witnessed. “I knew these were people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law,” he said. Trump has spoken of Capitol police officers kissing and hugging those domestic terrorists, and holding the doors for them as they rampaged through the building.

Patriots do not set out pipe bombs, mix Molotov cocktails, and carry spears, tasers and bear spray to a riot that leaves five people dead and more than 140 injured, including police officers, and more than 300 rioters charged with federal offenses.

Polls tell us a majority of Republicans believe the election was stolen from Trump. Despite the lack of any evidence that this happened.

I guess what’s slowed The Critical Mass these days. Facts, reality and what our own eyes tell us, matter in this space.

I shall now resume writing about things that we really have to take a hard look at. Like Bigfoot.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

The fine whine of a stolen election goes sour

Facebook surveillance photos captured unrepentant journalist Jeff Spevak at Rochester’s Washington Square Park in January of 2017, doing nothing at an anti-Trump rally.

Sure, I’d shitcan The Critical Mass in a half-second if some irresponsible sentence I typed in a moment of intellectual laziness resulted in me being sued for $2.7 billion.

So it makes perfect sense that on Friday, Fox News cut the tether that bound it to “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” allowing the show’s host to drift away from the mothership of doom, and into the vacuum of empty space. The reason for Dobbs’ demise? It’s not because he’s some old man shouting conspiracy theories from his front porch, telling the libs to get off his lawn. His fall was due to someone finally called him on those lies. That someone, or something, is the voting-machine company Smartmatic.

The “stolen election” argument runs on the evidence-free notion that voting machines in swing states were manipulated in favor of President Biden (while overlooking the opportunity to rid us of Mitch McConnell as well). Smartmatic’s response to it being fingered as the villain in the vote-fixing scheme is to file a $2.7 billion defamation suit against Fox News and three of its malignant hosts – Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro. Also named in the suit are Trump lawyers – and coherent thinkers use that description loosely – Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell. Dominion Voting Systems, which also makes some of the voting technology used in this country, has similarly filed $1.3 billion defamation lawsuits against Giuliani and Powell for their baseless attacks on the company’s integrity.

During his radio show last week, Giuliani returned from a commercial break to be greeted by this surprise disclaimer:

“The views, assumptions and opinions expressed by former U.S. Attorney, former attorney to the President of the United States and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, his guests and callers on the program are strictly their own, and do not necessarily represent the opinions, beliefs or policies of WABC Radio, its owner Red Apple Group and other WABC hosts or our advertisers.”

We have watched, to what should be no one’s surprise, as the Trump years collapsed into satire. Mike Lindell is the CEO and TV pitchman for MyPillow, a product that My Friend Sarah bought and described as “a disaster.” How hard can it be to make a pillow? Despite this failure, Lindell was hanging around the White House during Trump’s final days like he had some kind of cabinet position. Perhaps Secretary of Interior Decorating. And now he won’t let Trump crawl off into the weeds, where we can forget about him. This week Lindell aired a three-hour “documentary” on how the election was stolen. Except, taking note of the lawsuits filed by the voting machine manufacturers, the unrepentantly conservative One America News Network, or OAN, suddenly found God. It insisted on introducing Lindell’s non-infomercial with a disclaimer that the “views, opinions and claims expressed by Mr. Lindell… are not adopted or endorsed by OAN.”

The fine whine of a stolen election has gone sour. In the judgment of the lawyers for Fox New and OAN, Smartmatic and Dominion must have pretty strong cases.

Most reporters and editors stand for professional impartiality in reporting (Fox News, you may sit down). Yet contrary to what so many news organizations would like you to believe, reporters and editors are not blank slates. As smart, informed people, they cannot help but form opinions. It’s the mechanisms of journalism that allow fairness to prevail.

As we watched the last four years unfold, we saw those mechanisms move too slowly. Trump wasn’t challenged enough. I experienced that myself in my former job, as music critic at what was once the pre-eminent voice in the city. Musicians and artists have always played a large role in amplifying public debate. Yet, as Trump closed in on what was thought to be the improbable – a reality TV star and fake billionaire accused of sexually assaulting women – winning the Republican nomination for president, the warnings of these musicians and artists were repeatedly edited from my interviews. Their voices silenced. Often without me being told. In a June 2017 interview with Joss Stone, who I found to be a delightful person, the English pop singer described our new president as “Hitler-ite.” Months later, while going back to the story for a year-end retrospective, I saw that the provocative quote had been cut. Again, without consulting me.

The weekend after Trump took office, I went to the Washington Square Park protest against Trump’s executive order temporarily suspending entry of refugees into the United States and barring citizens of predominantly Muslim countries from visiting. I saw women in pink pussy hats singing and strange men dressed in black, who I later learned called themselves Antifa, trying to start trouble. I didn’t sing, carry a protest sign or throw any punches. I just watched and talked to people I knew. The following Monday, after sharing with a few fellow reporters what I had seen, I was informed by an editor that I could no longer attend any civil protests.

Which means, I guess, if I wanted to know what my fellow citizens were thinking and saying and doing, I’d have to report on it from a second-floor office window.

I got laid off later that year. Freeing me to be a part of all the civil disobedience I wanted.

Now we’re gingerly emerging from a racist and misogynistic presidency that has seen environmental protections abandoned, cities set afire, the Capitol building trampled by a mob and a policeman beaten to death, and nearly a half-million Americans dead from a virus that we were assured would “just disappear.” Our world will never be the same.

It’s not impartial reporting when reporters or editors shape a story to avoid pissing off people who might… oh, ransack the U.S. Capitol building. The responsibility for lighting that fire lies elsewhere.

Silence is compliance. And it is especially dangerous when the other side speaks with a bullhorn.

Fox News, and right-wing media outlets such as One America News Network and Newsmax, aren’t about the truth. They’re about money. Truth is a proper defense when a media outlet is accused of libel or defamation. Fox News is quite aware that it can’t present the truth as a defense for the falsehoods that it throws at its unquestioning audience. At that point, it’s the money that talks.

The limits of free speech aren’t hard. The classic example is you don’t yell “FIRE!” in a crowded movie theater. If you’re Giuliani, speaking to thousands of easily-led, agitated people, you don’t urge them to engage in “trial by combat.” And, if you’re the president, you don’t tell those same people, “You will never take back our country with weakness.” And lie about accompanying them on a march to the Capitol building, choosing instead to go back to the White House and watch TV to see what he created.

And people were injured, and died.

The suits filed by Smartmatic and Dominion aren’t about the chilling effect that the threat of lawsuits would have on reporting the news. This is about solid journalism, and the truth. Which will stand up to scrutiny. If Hillary Clinton had hired some smart lawyers, she would own Fox News.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Rocking out with Black Sabbath Bernie, and Erskine Caldwell’s bag of turnips

The country appears to have united behind the Bernie Sanders meme. Bernie sitting in a folding chair, in his dazzling mittens, huddled against the cold, waiting for the start of the Biden inauguration.

Perhaps the pearl-clutching narrative of an American divide is overblown. In its first few days, we’ve watched the Biden presidency take on COVID-19, send relief to Americans whose lives have been upended by the loss of jobs, sign executive orders to protect the environment and reverse climate change, open pathways to racial inequality and transgender rights. Build a humane immigration policy. And, perhaps most importantly, level with the American people about the challenges we face, both in what he says and through a press secretary who seems to not be lying.

No one should have a problem with any of that. Biden’s merely building on four years of Trump accomplishments that include…

Oh, dear…

…a virus that has killed nearly a half-million Americans, cities on fire, white nationalists among  the “very fine people on both sides,” tear-gassing those who dare assert that Black Lives Matter, conspiring to overturn election results, embracing murderous dictators, urging crowds at political rallies to beat up protestors, ignoring science, responding to a hurricane wiping out much of Puerto Rico by tossing paper towels to people who had lost their homes, referring to the porn star that he had an affair with as “horseface,” holding the country hostage through the longest government shutdown in history, hiding his tax returns, mocking the disabled, ignoring domestic terrorists bringing their automatic rifles to state capitol buildings and threatening to kidnap and perhaps kill the governor of Michigan, urging a mob to ransack the United States capitol and hang the vice president. And, at our southern border, turning back people fleeing poverty and unstable governments, and sending them back to Guatemala. And keeping their kids locked in cages.

And lying repeatedly about all of this.

And on and on and on. It will only get worse as we learn more of what the most corrupt presidential administration in American history has been up to over the last four years. Thanks for trying to lighten things up a little, Bernie. But seeing you on the cover of a Black Sabbath album sets the right tone.

As honest, responsible adults, people who care about others, and who are still the majority here, what’s the secret to dealing with an America that has become one of those “shithole countries,” as Trump once so delicately characterized African nations?

Crazy. Prove me wrong, but it’s a Republican thing. Most recently, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose many batshit beliefs include her tweet in 2018 that it was Jewish lasers from space that ignited the worst California wildfires in memory.

Bernie! She’s talking Jewish lasers!

Crazy. Again, prove me wrong, but it’s mostly Republicans who adhere to the QAnon conspiracy that Hillary Clinton leads a cult of baby-eating pedophiles.

No sane person can survive in such an environment. There are times when I have to come up for air. Make it a practice to tune out the news for a while. Sometimes for a day or two, sometimes an entire week. I’m just now emerging from such a period.

I’m not alone in this practice of self preservation. Here’s something I read in cnn.com:

During a crisis and isolation, many take an inventory of their lives and dare to be themselves, and engage in weird, creative, and non-conforming patterns,” said Judith Zackson, a clinical psychologist based in Greenwich, Connecticut, via email.

Some of her clients are more outspoken than they were pre-pandemic, Zackson said. They have experienced changes in personal style, weird sleeping patterns and hobbies, and even sillier humor.

Of course, she also hears from people annoyed by their partners’ stranger tendencies, which include apocalyptically hoarding food and supplies, and hobbies like collecting stones or walking their cat.

Collecting stones, she says.

I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid, when my Uncle Joe gave me what’s called “A Golden Guide.” Profusely illustrated pocket books for kids, about things like fossils, the stars and zoology. This one was called “Rocks and Minerals” – Golden Guides get right to the point. They tell a kid how to identify a meteorite, although I never got that lucky. Most of my time was spent on pages 110 through 113. The igneous rocks. Granite. And pages 133 through 139. The metamorphic rocks. Gneiss and schist.

I still have the book. And I have never stopped picking up rocks and stones. It’s those years of walking my dogs. Following them on paths through the woods. Turning Point Park near my house is the usual place. Abbie will be trotting about 10 or 15 yards ahead of me when I spot an intriguing rock. She goes right on by it, intent on checking out something dead behind that tree. But I pick up the rock. There’s a lot of marble in Turning Point Park.

This weekend I was re-organizing some of the book shelves when I can across that old Golden Guide to rocks and minerals. And there, among those dusty books, rocks. Lots of them, tucked away behind Hemingway and Bukowski. Even a fossil of some kind of segmented marine creature that I found in the gravel parking lot at Darien Lake Performing Arts Center.

So I sorted out all of those rocks, representing years of wandering with the dogs. And rocks I purchased as well. Seems crazy, buying rocks. But that’s how I got my trilobite, about the size of a pet mouse. And a couple of red garnets that came from a vein deep in Idaho. The guy who sold them to me said they’re half as old as the planet itself.

About a dozen rusty railroad tie-dating spikes were in the book case as well. Spikes I pulled from the ties on the tracks that pass through Turning Point. The spikes have the date stamped on the head, so railway workers know how long that particular tie has been in place.

Well, I guess they would know, if those dating spikes weren’t sitting on my book shelf.

Taking inventory, Zackson said, dare to be myself. The books. I started sorting through them as well. There are a lot of them, downstairs and upstairs. I guess if I can lay any claim to being a Renaissance Man, it’s in my reading material. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, friends have been giving me books. Like they’re afraid I’ll get bored. I have a half-dozen going at the moment. I read whichever one is closest at hand. My Friend Sue gave me the Richard Ford novel “Independence Day.” Ford’s like me, a former sportswriter, so I guess there’s always hope a guy can move on to something serious. And there’s “The Wild Trees,” gifted by My Friend Michele, A fabulous narrative on the biology of California redwoods. I’ve learned things such as, when climbing a tree, any fall of more than 60 feet is not survivable.

And how do you feel about omelets? From Robert MacFarlane’s “Underland,” which I finished a few weeks ago, I learned that in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest there is a fungus, mostly just below the surface of the planet, that is 3.7 miles in diameter. And it’s not an array of mushrooms. it’s one single organism. One. Humongous. Fungus.

Erskine Caldwell.

I’d be done with the job of organizing that shelf if I wasn’t uncovering miracles that I didn’t even know I had. On Saturday I found a copy of “Three By Caldwell.” Three novels by Erskine Caldwell, all in one book. I must have bought it at a used book store, because it has $4.50 written on the flyleaf. I started reading the first book in the collection, “Tobacco Road.” And couldn’t put it down. More than 100 pages in, and the only thing these Depression-beaten, broken, hopeless Georgians had gotten around to doing was fight over a bag of turnips.

So that’s one thing that’s come out of this quarantine, and my need to duck out of reality for a few days. Who knew a man could write 100 pages about a bag of turnips? But damn if Erskine Caldwell didn’t do it, and do it well.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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