Remember 911? You haven’t seen nothing yet!

I moved to Spain in September 2000. Almost a year to the day later 911 hit and the world changed. Once I made all the necessary calls to make sure my friends and family were safe, my next thought was that this was going to be really, really bad. I never considered that the terrorist would win but that the U.S. would over-react, ignore its traditional allies and take revenge. That is in fact what the U.S. did. We singlehandedly destroyed Iraq and went on to occupy Afghanistan for 19 years and counting, the longest war in American history against an enemy that likely cannot find the U.S. on a map. None of the terrorists were even from those countries!

And now nineteen years after 911, the U.S. and the world are facing another unique national security and health crisis. Again, I am sitting in Spain watching it all unfold before my eyes. Already the U.S. president is calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus”. Why is only the U.S. president trying to turn this into an enemy with a name and place? Besides obvious concerns that China will benefit from the outbreak, when American leaders feel threatened outside of their control (and/or it is an election year), their instinct is to fabricate a new enemy, take advantage of the situation and then funnel trillions of dollars to the benefit of special interest groups and government contractors. Covid-19 will surely kill more Americans than at 911 and all the terrorist deaths since 911.  So forget the Patriot Act, enhanced interrogation, or warrantless surveillance (the kind Trump thinks were unfair when applied to his campaign staff). Expect our leaders and their donors’ companies to have a field day! Any criticism of the steps they take will be tantamount to blasphemy. Have you seen this movie before?

You ain’t seen nothing yet.

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If you think the Cure is Worse than the Disease You are either a Psychopath or in Self-Destructive Denial

UPDATE BELOW

Are there really lots of smart people debating whether the economic pain is worse than the cure? I honestly don’t think that anywhere where people are dying in the hundreds per day anyone is having that argument. That argument is murder. Make no mistake.

This is funny coming from people who claim to be Pro Life or who complained that Obama Care would create Death Panels. But precisely what these people are saying is that we should sacrifice potentially tens of thousands of lives (maybe hundreds of thousands) in order to avoid short or mid term economic loss. That is literally the government deciding who lives and who dies.

But before we get there, a little context: I live in Madrid, Spain. In a country with a population of 40 million, as of March 25, 2020, some 3,400 people have died in the past two weeks (more people than died in China). Today alone, 738 people – all human beings like you and me – died. Life over! Yesterday the number was +500, the day before +400, the day before +300. So many people have died in Madrid that there is no place to put the bodies. In fact, they have converted the shopping center literally across the street in front of me – the only place I go these days to buy groceries and to go to the pharmacy – into a make-shift morgue. I kid you not. This isn’t a fucking joke. This isn’t a fat lady that Trump can insult.

A friend’s sister is a nurse here. She says that her hospital sees 4-5 new ICU patients every hour. These are not just grandma and grandpa. They are people of all ages who desperately need respirators. All of the medical staff at her hospital have tested positive, but they work on. They have no other choice. Either they work or even more people die. Again, this is not a fucking joke. This isn’t a fumbling, senile Democratic presidential candidate Trump can make fun of.

Just to give you another quick example, I spoke to two people on the phone today who are positive. They haven’t been tested because hospitals and the authorities don’t have time to waste testing people. They ask you a few questions about your symptoms and make a quick determination. Both of these people are at home, their children are also positive, but the hospitals won’t take them until they are on the verge of respiratory failure. There is just no space in the hospitals. Not enough doctors. This is not a fucking joke. This isn’t CNN you can whine about on Fox News for treating you unfairly.

Sorry, but if your biggest concern is the economy, then you are a psychopath. According to Wikipedia, psychopathology is “a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits.”

OK, maybe saying that we should prioritize jobs over the lives of tens – maybe hundreds – of thousands of human beings in Trump and Biden’s age range is rational and not psychopathy. Fine, I will concede that point if those making the argument agree to forgo treatment if they become ill. Any takers? And guess who is infecting all of the elderly? You guessed it: younger people who are asymptomatic or have yet to show symptoms.

So far the best article I have read about the current predicament is the Hammer and Dance. If governments and people take responsibility now – meaning that they engage in extreme social distancing and make some economic sacrifices, in a few months this pandemic will likely be under control. In the meantime, governments should be using what resources and expertise they have to ramp-up medical supplies like protective gear for health care workers, urgently manufacture mechanical respirators, and order tests. After they have taken those measures, then they can engage in aggressive spending initiatives to protect business and individuals affected by the short and mid-term economic impacts of the absolutely dire measures to protect lives. But saying that we should merely accept the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives (which would otherwise be preventable) for short term economic stability and to maintain the comfort of our daily routine is EXTREMIST by definition. It is also delusional.

Imagine what would happen if we did nothing. No quarantines. We let people go to the stores, get on planes, hang out at Mar-a-Lago. What would the economic impact be? Clearly it would be worse than the cure. Not only would more people get sick, more people would need hospitalization and instead of people Trump and Biden’s age dying, people in their 30s and 40s would be dying because the current infrastructure simply cannot manage the increased volumes of patients. The infrastructure can’t manage under quarantine conditions, so it certainly cannot manage without them.  What would happen next? People would start social distancing anyways. People wouldn’t go to the store, to a hotel or get on a plane. It would never be worth the risk! The hospitals would be so overloaded that they would have no bandwidth to manage even the run-of-the-mill medical emergencies you have during normal times, like kidney stones, appendicitis, car accidents, or kids needing stitches. Unless of course you just stop treating anyone with Covid-19 and left them to die on the streets.

Even in places like Hong Kong, South Korea or Singapore where they have engaged in less social distancing, they have imposed very strict testing and control measures, and no one is traveling. No one! I was told today by a colleague in Singapore that anyone entering the country is put in a hotel for quarantine for 14 days, and if you are a non-citizen resident who leaves the country and comes back infected, the national health care system will not cover you. Everyone wears masks to work, and everyone wipes the button on the elevator with alcohol before selecting their floor. Is America ready for that?

So please stop saying that the cure is worse than the disease. It is bull shit propaganda. It is about politicians who are too scared that that an increase in unemployment or a poor economy will ruin their chances at reelection. If they are not sociopaths, then they are in absolute denial – straight from The Plague — that their own lives are at risk. Don’t ask me, walk across the street from where I live. It is full of dead bodies.

If you are not convinced then ask yourself these questions: are you willing to reject a respirator in favor of helping the economy? Would Trump reject a respirator to protect the Dow Jones or his chances at re-election? Would you rather save your job or your parents’ lives?

I can promise you that until it hits your neighborhood – and when it hits, it hits so sudden you never saw it coming — you have no idea what you are up against. This is no joke.

And what is the US government about to do? It will pass the largest stimulus bill in American history. But it will do so without first taking the absolutely necessary measures to protects the lives of its citizens. It will prioritize the livelihood of its economy first. That is by definition … well I don’t need to say it. You already know what it is.

UPDATED March 26, 2020:

Let me explain it another way: Covid-19 presents the moral test of our time. The only way to save lives is for individuals — people like you and me — to make sacrifices to our normal, daily way of life. We need to stay indoors, limit our outings to a bare minimum and to the bare necessities. We need to manage life with our children at home, instead of outsourcing their care to schools. More importantly we must assume that we ourselves are infected but asymptomatic. Therefore, we — each one of us —  are the biggest risk to our fellow human beings and to society. If all you care about is your job or your routine, then you are the one killing your neighbors. This will only be resolved by each individual taking personal responsibility for the situation.

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Will China Emerge from Covid-19 like the U.S. did after WWII, the Indispensable World Leader?

There are already conspiracy theories out there that Covid-19 – what only Trump calls the Chinese Virus – is either a weaponized virus created by China or one that leaked accidentally out of Chinese laboratories. I am not one for conspiracy theories, but when reading yesterday news stories about China – not the US – coming to Spain’s rescue, it became clear that China will end up being the great victor when the dust settles and all is said and done.

Let’s look at the current situation. The U.S. (and many European countries) have known at least for 2 months about the impending humanitarian and economic crisis that Covid-19 presented. Nevertheless, they sat on the information and did not take urgent steps. In the meantime, China – a country with significantly less political restraints – was able to take drastic and extreme measures, all of which in hindsight seem reasonable. Now we are starting to see the fruits of those measures with factories coming back online and the number of new infections dropping.  In other words, China will be able to prosper while the rest of the world, in particular the U.S., is devastated.

Does this sound familiar? After World War II, the U.S. became what Americans called the world’s “indispensable” nation, taking on the role of global leader. Americans often think this is because of some inherent merit or intrinsic moral superiority of democracy or American values. But this is not the case. The U.S. was simply the only industrialized nation not in rubble after the war. We were the last man standing. In John W. Dower’s Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II about the U.S. military occupation of Japan following the war, he writes,

“What made America “great” was that it was rich; and, for many, what made “democracy” appealing was the way to become prosperous.

The U.S. walked away from World War II (without the preexisting conditions of World War I) unscathed, with the positive aftereffects of having put the economy into overhaul to build and supply the war effort abroad while suffering absolutely no infrastructural damage on the mainland. We were young, thriving, optimistic, ideological and ready to rebuild the world to our own massive benefit.  We have reaped those benefits until today: economic, military and cultural dominance.

While the first impression that the rest of the world had of China three months ago when reports came out about the Covid-19 was that China was a totalitarian regime covering up a major PR nightmare and lying to the rest of the world – flash forward to the end of March, and let’s not lie to ourselves. European democracies and the U.S. have engaged in the same type of political deception. In Spain – where I live and am in total lockdown – the Socialist government is taking major heat from society for having waited so long to react – even though Spain has imposed some of the strictest measures in Europe. Meanwhile, the Trump administration spent the last two months assuring Americans that Covid-19 (which again it suddenly dubbed the Chinese Virus) was absolutely nothing to worry about, that soon zero Americans would be infected, and that the good weather would make it dissipate.

Unless the US intelligence community, national security team reporting to the President and the President are idiots, then they must have known since the beginning of the outbreak in China months ago that there was a risk of pandemic and that China were covering it all up. The US leadership may have had good reasons to lie -like to avoid a panic or economic meltdown – but they lied. In other words, Americans have been just as dishonest as the Chinese, either that or they have been fatally incompetent, with a potential death toll that will outnumber 911 and terrorist-related deaths by the thousands.

Now the world is watching. They see the incompetence of the Americans and the Europeans. At the same time, they see the Chinese coming out of their nightmare able to lend material support and medical expertise, all while the Americans are arguing over how much money to give to corporate slush funds. I am already hearing people say that the democracies of the world are not able to achieve what the totalitarian Chinese could. So when all is said and done and countries are decimated, who will they look to for models of success and for a helping hand?

It is as if everything that was achieved since World War II to improve civic and political rights, peace and prosperity has ended in a last few desperate gasps of respiratory  failure.

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How are those Tax Cuts looking today?

Tax cuts are always popular. Big government is always the enemy. Yet in times of real crisis Big Government – think the massive military operation at Normandy – comes to save the day. And when there is a massive tax cut – like the one passed by Trump – no one ever asks who is going to pay for it or how will we afford the next big crisis.

As I have seen posted by a number of people on Twitter in recent days, “everyone becomes a democratic socialist when a pandemic hits”. Everyone wants governments to step in and bail us all out.

Those tax cuts you all wanted don’t seem so smart now do they?

And what about all those conspiring Deep Staters? Who do we want telling us how to stay safe? Politicians – who told us this was not biggie — or the professional health experts who have dedicated their professional lives to civil service?

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Living The Plague

A week ago – based on other global realities – I started Kim Ghattas’ Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East. But sometimes the world changes, and sometimes it changes so quickly and so all of a sudden that you have no chance to adjust.

As you may know, I live in Madrid, Spain, and we are living in total lock-down. I could write (and still may) volumes about the Quarantined Life, but let me just say that as quickly as Covid-19 changed my world, I lost the ability to focus on the problems of Iran and Saudi Arabia regardless of how engaging Ghattas’ work was.

Then I was reminded of one of my favorite books from my late teens. When I was a senior in high school, now 30 years ago (!!!), I was a die hard soccer jock who paid little attention to school. One day I found myself injured, sidelined and with little to occupy my time. Cliché as it was, I turned to the existentialists: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and Miguel de Unamuno. For a guy who never studied, I started getting to school early every morning. I’d park myself in front of my locker and start the day reading The Stranger or Nausea and not be able to put them down. In fact, a teacher kicked me out of class one day for reading a poetry book during Trigonometry. All these years later, I had almost completely forgotten that Camus’ The Plague was one of my favorites.

Until last week. I picked up the book, and it is the world I am currently living in:

The word “plague” had just been uttered for the first time. At this stage of the narrative, with Dr. Bernard Rieux standing at his window, the narrator may, perhaps, be allowed to justify the doctor’s uncertainty and surprise, since, with very slight differences, his reaction was the same as that of the great majority of our townsfolk. Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

In fact, like our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence. When war breaks out, people say, “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

In this respect, our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences.

A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore, we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.

Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free as long as there are pestilences.

Nevertheless, many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families would be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits as yet. Plague was for them an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come. Alarmed, but far from desperate, they hadn’t yet reached the phase when plague would seem to them the very tissue of their existence; when they forgot the lives that until now it had been given to them lead. In short, they were waiting for the turn of events.

Two years ago when I visited Normandy where so many young Americans sacrificed so much, and I already had the feeling between Brexit and Trump trashing NATO we were taking for granted the long, unique arch of peace that had covered so much of the world since World War II. As Camus explains, no one expects war and no one expects a pestilence and when they come we are always left dumbfounded.  This is where we are today.

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My Year in Books 2019

 

This year I felt like I was way behind in my reading. Maybe this was because of some longer books like The Brothers Karamazov or Embracing Defeat about how the US occupied Japan following WWII. Also some of my reading capacity was cannibalized by the My Brilliant Friend and Casa de Papel TV series. So I was quite surprised when I did the actual count: 29 books which is more than my usual average of 24 book per year.

Here is what I read (in reverse chronological order):

 

  • The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power
  • The Big Blowdown by George Pelecanos
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • What You Have Heard is True by Carolyn Forché
  • The Man Who Say Everything by Deborah Levy
  • I Wrote This Book Because I Love You by Tim Kreider
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer
  • Down by the River where the Dead Men Go by George Pelecanos
  • Nick’s Trip by George Pelecanos
  • Genesis by Eduardo Galeano
  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
  • A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mizra
  • Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John W. Dower
  • You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
  • A Firing Offense by George Pelecanos
  • The Night Tiger by Yangzse Choo
  • River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon by Buddy Levy
  • Kitchen Confidential by Antony Bourdain
  • A Dance to the Music of Time: 1St Movement by Anthony Powell
  • The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
  • The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie
  • Conquistador: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy
  • We Cast Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • If Beale Street Cold Talk by James Baldwin
  • The Street by Ann Petry
  • North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

The year had some definite winners and one major disappointment. I was so excited to finally read The Brothers Karamazov yet found it very dated and slow moving. It only became interesting during the last fourth of the story. By far my favorite books this year were the two Buddy Levy histories of the Americas: Conquistador and River of Darkness. I also loved Carolyn Forchés memoir about El Salvador, What You Have Heard is True, and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Honorable mentions go to Educated, the incredibly moving You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, and Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans. I am always so impressed how each Lalami novel has a different voice and timber.

Finally as in other years, I always seek refuge in George Pelecano’s novels. This year I read four, including The Big Blowdown which may be along with The Turnaround my favorite to date. I don’t know what I will do when I have finished all of his work.

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Y2K 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago as we were about to enter the new century, as my hometown and place of residence Washington, DC was preparing for fireworks and a jubilant New Year’s Eve’s celebration on the Mall, all anyone was talking about was Y2K.

Not me. My mind was on other things. I had my first real law firm job and we were in the middle of heated litigation. As I was learning, litigants used filing motions to ruin each other’s holidays. If I recall correctly I had to file responsive briefs on the days just proceeding Christmas and immediately following New Year’s day. In fact, by December 31st, I had worked eighteen days straight including weekends, with the sole exception of Christmas Day. Even though my client was winning in court, the opposing party was putting lots of political pressure on our client to drop the case. In fact, the heat was getting to our client and our client – who until then had been extremely supportive – had suddenly starting taking their frustration out on us.

Like I said, I was a junior lawyer completely new to what I was doing. I had been working close to eighty hour weeks for the entire year almost exclusively on this one client’s case. During this time, my girlfriend had left for a job in Europe (and for good) and I barely saw friends or family. Yes, my bank account was growing. But when the clock struck 10:30pm on December 31, 1999 and my boss came to my desk to cheerfully suggest, “why don’t you find the security guard to see if he’ll let us on the rooftop to watch the fireworks at midnight,” I thought I was going to cry.

I searched the desolate building for the security guard but could not find him. As you can imagine, my boss and I were the only two losers in the building on New Year’s Eve. I finally got the courage to go to my boss and say, “if you don’t mind, out of principle I am not going to spend this change of the century in the office.”

“That’s fine. I will see you tomorrow morning at 9:00am. Happy New Year,” she replied.

By 11:15pm, I was back in my tiny studio apartment, sitting at my tiny table feeling awful about my predicament. I called up my friends Jeff and Rasdy with whom I had spent the previous four New Year’s Eves. Each year it was exactly the same. We’d plan to meet at one of their places, then an hour before we were supposed to be there, they’d get in a big fight, cancel the party only to make up 30 minutes later. By midnight we’d end up at Sesto Senso making the best of what was always the most disappointing night out of the year.

I can’t remember whether it was Jeff or Raz who answered the phone, but they said come on over, we’re waiting for you. Like always, we ended up at Sesto with Jeff and I making fools of ourselves on the dance floors while we made fun of everyone around us.

The next morning, I was at the office at 9:30am. I went on to work the next 15 days straight, responding to more motions and attending court proceedings while sick with the flu.

Y2K turned out to be the biggest much ado about nothing of the 20th Century. Later that year, I moved to Madrid. But ever since that night of Y2K whenever it is time to plan for New Year’s Eve, I always play Ella Fitzgerald signingWhat Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” and think of Jeff and Rasdy.

 

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