Melville’s Time Warp Again

When my friend Louis hears of a book about to be published, he goes online and puts a hold on it at his public library.

That’s a step ahead of my habit.  My local library has a “New Books” display in its lobby that I veer right toward, always finding at least one appealing title.

Today, however, I went online looking for a specific edition of Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade published in 1857—on April Fools’ Day to be exact.

What filled my screen was a book of the same title published just last month:  Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America.

Call it inevitable:  Ever since the Calf of Babel descended the golden escalator in his own tower in 2015, he has gained comparisons to characters created by Herman Melville over a century and a half ago.

A bitter and bemusing irony cannot be lost on Melville fans recalling that the author of Moby-Dick and “Bartleby the Scrivener” died in obscurity in 1891, all his books long out of print.

So estranged was he to public life that he ordered a tombstone with a blank scroll for his final resting place. A middle finger to the world? A white flag?

 Not until the Roaring 20s did an admiring grad student write a biography that set off “The Melville Revival.”  Not sure if this has lasted into the 21st Century, but at the time I left teaching in 2002, several of his titles were still staples of school curricula—“Bartleby,” “Benito Cereno,” and Billy Budd.

Wouldn’t surprise me if college teachers, for the sake of immediate relevance, added Melville to their reading lists soon after the “American Carnage” inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2017.

Or high school teachers if they have anything that can honestly be called academic freedom, as this is the stuff that those who harp on “Woke Culture” do not want young people to hear.

Most everyone I know agrees that there was no redeeming quality to the Trump Administration. A few exceptions will cite his business deregulations, overlooking consequences to the environment, to workers, to consumers.

As I’ve started telling these folks, it’s a bit like crediting cancer as a weight-loss program.

However, for us Melvillians, maybe there is a redeeming quality if we take some consolation in a second revival for our guy.

A character who is part of American mythology and known even to those who haven’t read the book, Moby-Dick‘s Ahab was cited from the start of the MAGA campaign all the way to this month’s election.

Trump’s claim that he “could shoot someone” echoed Ahab’s “strike the sun” boast, and in reference to Trumper Kari Lake’s refusal to accept defeat, Nicole Wallace of MSNBC quipped that “Arizona is Donald Trump’s white whale.”

Between those were essays in several publications.  Under the headline, “What Melville Can Teach Us about the Trump Era,” Ariel Dorfman of The Nation tells us that:

Melville could have been presciently forecasting today’s America when he imagined his country as a Mississippi steamer (ironically called the Fidèle) filled with “a flock of fools, under this captain of fools, in this ship of fools!”

So, yes, it was inevitable that a book with a Melville title would describe him.  And it’s no surprise that a large chunk of the promo for Haberman’s book applies just as much to Melville’s:

The through-line  is the enduring question of what is in it for him or what he needs to say to survive short increments of time in the pursuit of his own interests. Confidence Man is also, inevitably, about the world that produced such a singular character, giving rise to his career and becoming his first stage.

As you might guess, I put a hold on the new Confidence Man and am now awaiting its arrival in any of the 36 members of the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium.

But I won’t be holding my breath.  According to the MVLC website, mine is the 166th hold on just 36 copies—one for each library—none of which have yet arrived here in the northeast corner of Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, I’ll content myself with Melville’s trip down the Mississip, grateful to him for limiting it to a single day—April Fools’ no less—while bracing myself for the seven-year-and-counting ordeal outlined by Haberman.

By that time, Louis might be able to tell me all about it.


Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. Photo by Michael Boer:

Mob Myth

So many punchlines, so little time.

A friend notes that Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley “kept blaming ‘the woke mob’ for the fact that his book didn’t sell.”

For starters, he can’t help himself. As a Trumpster, blaming others is in his DNA.

Second, his base is the MAGA crowd. For him to expect readers is like an arsonist expecting snowmen at a housewarming.

Third, with a title like The Tyranny of Big Tech, he forgets the sacred precept of the lobby his Republican Party best serves: Guns don’t kill people, people do. Hey, Josh, Big Tech doesn’t kill books, hysterically bad writing does!

Fourth, when a video of his impersonation of a jackrabbit in the Capitol emerged from the Jan. 6 investigation, the public judged his book by his run for cover.

My friend sent the note in response to my last blog regarding the word “woke” as constantly used by the Republican governor of the oversized, dual-purpose shooting range and golf course we call Florida. But I was more taken by the other word Hawley used.

The irony could not be more rich: The guy who raised his fist to the “tourists” at the Capitol in DC on Jan. 6 using the word “mob” to explain something (book sales) that did not happen.

Reminds me of people who insist that the Electoral College protects us from “mob rule,” as the framers intended. By the time the debate gets past all 18th and 19th century considerations, you realize that “mob” to them means “urban.”

Challenges aimed at Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona in 2020 were more specifically attacks on Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Phoenix. And who lives in cities?

The claim of “States Rights” was nothing more than a disguise for their attack on cities–just as it once was for the South to justify slavery.

Democrats need to keep this in mind in preparation for 2024. While it’s true that there is a racist motive for the voting restrictions recently passed in Republican controlled states–and that those motives should be addressed–most of those restrictions target urban populations at least as white as minority when taken as a whole.

Who lives in cities? All of us.

Let Republicans use the word “mob” all they want. Bend it with irony, and it soon becomes a joke: Ads, all set in cities, showing lines of people waiting patiently at a polling place, enjoying an outdoor concert, coming together at a public celebration, cheering at a high school game, grieving together at a funeral, making their case peacefully at civic meetings. All with the word “Mob” superimposed on the screen and heard in laughing voice-overs, followed by the word “city” voiced with point and purpose.

In short, make a mockery of claims by a political party that is itself a mockery.

Bottom line: For all our talk of “inclusion” and “diversity,” the words “race” and “racist” by definition divide us. “Urban” and “city,” meanwhile, leave no voters behind.


Wake up to Woke

For those who missed it, Gov. Ron DeSadist’s victory speech in Florodor harped on a single word: “Woke.”

He used it at least a dozen times, most sound-bitingly when he sneered: “Florida is where woke comes to die!”

Harping on charged words and phrases has been Republican MO for over 40 years when Ronald Reagan turned “liberal” into a synonym for “socialist.” It worked well for him, but it wore thin by 1996 when Republican presidential nominee Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas thought he could unseat Pres. Bill Clinton by using the word “liberal” two or three times in every sentence. If you think I’m exaggerating, check youTube.

From then on, Republicans paired “liberal” with other buzzwords–radical liberals, liberal extremists, socialist liberals, etc.–and helped it along with a resolve to keep using “extreme” and “hardline” every time they mentioned environmentalists and feminists, as in feminist extremist and hardline environmentalist.

So it was until 2016 when Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders hit the national stage. Sanders made liberalism appear to be a humane, acceptable degree of socialism. Trump turned extremism and radicalism into the Republican brand.

No wonder that the Republicans who hope to survive Trumpism need another buzzword.

Rather than waiting twenty more years to feel another Bern for what is actually being said–and spread–Democrats should embrace the word “woke.” Do they recall that “Obamacare” was coined by Republicans as a slur before Pres. Obama himself started using it as matter-of-fact shorthand?

More to the point is Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court in 2010. In his announcement he praised Kagan for her “empathy,” a word on which Republicans pounced as if it were a synonym for “communist.” They got some traction because it’s not a common term, and Kagan herself had to reassure them in confirmation that empathy would never override law in her decisions.

“Woke” is a slang term for “aware.” Whether it originates from politics or music, from the media or from a minority group is of no matter to Republicans. While repeating it, as DeSatan always does, in menacing tones and contrived contexts, they count on woke’s unfamiliarity for traction. In another kind of word, Republicans are making “awareness” ugly.

Like saying DeSanctimonious, DeSatan, or DeSadist for DeSantis. Or hailing King Ron the Wrong of Florodor when you want to give them a taste of their own snake oil.

Democrats, therefore, need only call the word “woke” what it is. Who can argue with anyone being aware of things?

I suppose that the Hershel Walkers and Sarah Palins of the world could argue that “woke” is a word they never heard in the Bible, or that it does not appear anywhere in the US Constitution. I’ll leave the good book to ministers and rabbis and priests to confirm the first claim, but the First Amendment’s provision for freedom of the press tells us that self-government depends on what Jefferson called “an informed citizenry.”

Woke is how democracy stays alive.


From Hear to Fear

What we hear of polls worsens every day.

Friends tell me they fear a red wave from New Hampshire to Nevada in three days that will nail the coffins of reproductive rights, voting rights, and the teaching of anything but thoroughly whitewashed American history.

“Fear” is the operative word here, but we can’t get there until we hear “hear” itself.

What most folks don’t hear is how these polls are compiled. And how mainstream news sources then report them, often taking averages of many to create what, mathematically, should be a fair single picture.

And many who are aware of that much are not aware of the sources of the individual polls.

Along with Gallup and Quinnipiac pollsters, along with polls taken by newspapers and television stations, are polls taken by the campaigns of individual candidates and the political parties and PACs who support them. Yes, both Democrats and Republicans take them, and the wording of questions plus the selected demographic will tilt results in their favor.

Here’s the rub: Thanks to Citizens United, the highly-financed right-wing PACs behind Republicans take far more polls than Democrats. When added to other polls, these warp the averages that are reported in newspapers as varied as the Newburyport Daily News and the New York Times.

As a result, we actually believe there as as many voters in Georgia who will vote for Hershel Walker as for Raphael Warnock, or in Pennsylvania for Dr. Oz as for John Fetterman.

By itself, this illusion will not work. But Republican’s ulterior motive might succeed.

Their polling data, before it goes into any “objective” national average, goes to would-be donors, all of whom are more likely to give, and give more, to candidates with good chances of winning. As we have seen since the Willie Horton ads of 1988, Republicans do not hesitate to distort facts to their favor. By distorting polls, they pump up donations.

Especially with polls that emphasize inflation with no mention of record corporate profits, price gouging, or record-high employment rates. But that’s the point: Republican polls are not meant to inform, but to influence.

Unlike many of my friends, I remain optimistic. The huge numbers for early voting bodes well for Democrats, and I just cannot imagine that the Supreme Court verdict on Roe v. Wade will not compel voting by people, male and female, who would otherwise stay home.

Enter fear into the equation.

There’s no little irony in that Republicans’ money-making polls are throwing fear into Democrats, Progressives, and Independents. Judging from their ads, the fear is intended for their own base. Fox News is now a 24/7 MAGA-Republican ad that runs crime, immigration, and inflation on a loop. All of it grossly exaggerated, none of it fact-checked.

As Hillary Clinton told CNN this week, “They’re not concerned about voter safety. They just want to keep voters scared…”

Her echo of Franklin Roosevelt makes it doubly ironic. For decades, at least since the likes of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan steered the GOP away from the moderation of the Eisenhower Administration, the Republican Party has committed itself to the dismantling of FDR’s New Deal.

You could say that FDR himself told them how to do it: We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Republicans have taken that warning as a blueprint.

But by FDR’s standard, a call to action beginning with ballots, there’s no need to fear Tuesday when no red wave will break Roevember.

After Tuesday? Never short of litigating tricks up the sleeves of judicial robes, Republicans have prepared for losses. They need only claim fraud, and then cite those very polls now showing their candidates doing so well as “proof.”

Early voting turnout has prompted them to file dozens of lawsuits already, and they have candidates across the country saying they will not accept results unless they win. One in Wisconsin vows that Republicans will never lose another election in that state if they vote him into office. Many others dodge the question. Moreover, we have already heard the threats and tasted the violence that will ensue.

The impasse bound to happen after the election will be solved only by those who do not identify with any party or ideology. To offset the fear cast by the other side, those folks need to hear from us.


Time to Use the F-Word

My good friend Helen Highwater, who lives on a handsome pension provided by a most productive career as a writer and editor, was not pleased by my recent use of an f-word to describe one of America’s two major political parties:

Here and now, if THEY are fascists, are WE not socialists? Both terms can be justified from grains of the truth. Both fan the flames on the other side, pushing us apart.

To me, use of the word fascism seems increasingly ineffective rhetoric. Both sides use it against the other. What is fascism? My favorite definition comes from The American Heritage Dictionary.*

In my own words: The wedding of capitalism and government, under which lies and fear-mongering are business as usual.

That was a reference to my blog’s claim that lies and fear are all there is to Republican political ads, as if they turned FDR’s claim on its head and are campaigning entirely on fear itself. Helen did back off a bit:

Maybe I am lily-livered. Does sound a lot like Trump & MAGA.

Our 2 parties are both fluid enough (and corrupt enough) to reverse their principles in a relatively short time. Both sides are against it until they are for it . Both sides have their own vision of what freedom means, and it always means contradicting the other side.

Meanwhile, Bernie remains the most clear-eyed pol on the scene.

Yes, we are socialists, I answered, referring to roads and bridges, airports and railways, fire and police protection, public schools and libraries, Medicare and Medicaid, public parks and restrooms, water fountains and snowplows.

Being upfront about it–calling things what they are–is precisely what makes Bernie “the most clear-eyed pol on the scene.” That was all I said at the time, still taken back by her “both sides” remarks. I’ve never claimed the Democrats are or ever were anywhere near blameless, and I certainly have a public record of criticisms of Obama, both Clintons, Al Gore, all the way back to Michael Dukakis. And I still think Debbie Wasserman Schultz should be in jail.

But to imply that Democratic faults and missteps in any way offset attempts to overturn an election, to discredit elections before they happen, and elect candidates in swing states who vow to control the vote in 2024? Can I compare Newburyport’s Turkey Hill to Alaska’s Denali? It has snow. Sometimes.

Such talk is paralyzing at the very worst time for us to be paralyzed.

Before I made this case, Helen wrote again:

Watched the DeSantis v. Crist debate.

Moderator was from a Sinclair affiliate. Looked like a Barbie doll with extra eye make-up. BUT she handled it fairly and firmly.

Sinclair is a right-wing chain of news outlets. The “Barbie doll” look of news anchors at right-wing outlets was the subject of my recent blog, “Lashing Out.”

Like other debates this season, the format does not give the candidates more than 60-seconds for any response, with 30-second rebuttals. Brutal. Even closing statements are 60-seconds. There are no opening statements–they go right into questions, but every candidate I have seen uses their first 30-seconds for a standard thank-you opening statement.

Seems designed to elicit sound bites. Or is it “out of respect” for the short attention spans of R candidates and most of the audience?

Like Demings at Rubio, Crist was very aggressive against DeSantis. And effective in my view. DeSantis actually called him a donkey at one point. He just smiled, and said he could take the heat, then blasted DeSantis for being a bully toward women, students, and minorities.

“”Donkey”? When DeSantis was asked about Dr. Fauci, he said he wanted to “throw that elf across the Potomac.” Belittling names and thuggish insults are a hallmark of fascism, and upwards of 40% of American voters relish it.

As I’ve written before: We should not have been surprised in 2016 when Trump “got away” with his ridicule of a handicapped reporter and his “grab ‘m by” comment. Not only did he not lose votes by those remarks, he gained from them. DeSantis has learned the lesson quite well, which is why just yesterday Trump excluded him from a Florida rally where he appeared with Marco Rubio.

I noted the difference between the American Heritage definition (below) and Helen’s (above):  Violence.

Can anyone name a single Democrat anywhere since George Wallace who threatened, implied, or hinted at it?  Meanwhile, even lily-livered Lindsey Graham hints at it.  Poll workers have quit in droves, some run out of town. Been to any town hall meetings lately?

All these years, it’s been an absolute that nothing be compared to Hitler and the Nazis.  Today I wonder just how much that self-imposed mental blinder helped pave the way for 2016.  Of course they call us fascists.  All while swastikas appear on the banners, the bumpers, and the tattoos at their rallies.

Now we know what the lyric “look away” in “Dixie” really means.

Helen herself pointed out the tactic regarding Cheney over a decade ago:  Accuse opponents of your own crimes. Hell, they go further.  Biden, Hillary, Pelosi are pedophiles. Should we speak more guardedly to accommodate that?

Speaking of Pelosi, I sent that answer just hours before a thug broke into her San Francisco home and beat up her husband while yelling, “Where is Nancy?” Like the armed and masked “poll watchers” in Arizona this week, this is the ripple effect of January 6. Seems to me that if elected Republican officials can continue to call Jan. 6 a “normal tourist day,” then we should be calling it exactly what it was and still is.

Helen and I aren’t all that far apart in this debate, and I have to admit that she’s the more pragmatic. As she just responded:

I’ll practice guarded restraint to get along with various family, friends, & strangers. Still, when they are willing to talk, I am too.

Maybe I’ve been listening to too many friends in self-help programs, but I’ve come to believe you can’t solve problems until you call them by honest, accurate names.

But if you want to know how I really feel, make it two f-words.


* Fascist (n).

1. often Fascism

  • a. A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, a capitalist economy subject to stringent governmental controls, violent suppression of the opposition, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.
  • b. A political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a system of government.

2. Oppressive, dictatorial control.

Get in the Ambulance

Seems everyone I know is freaking out that Republicans are going to gain both the US House & Senate in next month’s election.

One friend says he has suicide pills ready for Nov. 8, a joke in character for him. My plans for Nov. 8 also include going under, no joke. Not any suicide pills, but a colonoscopy. Call it metaphorical medicine.

This general demoralization has been gradual. Only recently, I’ve started thinking I was the only one left counting on the repeal of Roe v. Wade to save us. More recently, phone calls and emails from as far the redwood forests and the Gulfstream waters have me worried.

It may well be that nothing we call issues will drive this vote, not even reproductive rights. Issues may be the tires, the transmission, the brakes, the lights, the mirrors, the radiator, and of course the exhaust system. And we may take any combination of them–as in “culture wars”–and call it the engine. But where it all goes will be determined by what’s behind the wheel:

How many Americans want to replace democracy with fascism?

Too strong a word, you say? What is fascism but a combination of lies and fear? Watch any Republican TV ads. Any of them. State or national offices. Mass or NH where I am, sometimes Georgia. Lies and fear are all the Republicans have.  It’s as if they’ve turned FDR’s “nothing” into everything, a blueprint to rule with “fear itself.”

If they outnumber us in the Rust Belt, our redwood forests and Gulfstream waters won’t matter any more than Black Lives at a NASCAR rally.

Then again, the Republican candidate for the US Senate in Pennsylvania may have helped us out last night with his statement in a televised debate that reproductive decisions should be made by “women, doctors, local political leaders.”

And when Texas schools are sending DNA kits to parents of K–12 students to identify their children’s bodies in the event of mass shootings–yes, that’s how thoroughly mutilated kids at Robb Elementary were last May–maybe those who always yawn “all the same” will wake up to the difference between the letters R and D on the ballot.

Would they trouble themselves to vote for candidates who might limit the access that 18-year-olds have to automatic weapons?

Or would they just as soon let it all slide? Maybe Republicans can reassure them by writing thoughts and prayers on those DNA kits.

But I snap out of these dark moods. With grandkids in elementary school–not in Texas, thank my daughter and son-in-law–pessimism is not an option.

And to be perfectly honest, some of these Republicans are hilarious: Dunces as ridiculous as Hershel Walker and Tommy Tuberville, plus all the QAnon quacks in congress. Yes, I know that the lunacy–like the lies, the fear, and the frequent hints of violence–is part of fascism’s makeup.

Still, laughter is a form of thought, and if we could treat Dr. Oz’s “women, doctors, local political leaders” prescription as a joke–the more offensive and alarming the better–we may have so many women behind the steering wheel on Nov. 8 that we realize it’s not just a car, it’s an ambulance.

Call it comic medicine.


Something So Lopsided

When I first heard that Hershel Walker was running for a US Senate seat in Georgia, I went rooting through my old, faded newspaper clippings.

Long before newspapers started keeping electronic files, and in a day when I was still pecking at an Olympia typewriter, I went into the offices of the Newburyport Daily News for the first time ever with a commentary on the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner.

Not to the editorial desk, but to the sports desk when I introduced myself to the late Kevin Doyle who accepted my take on Walker’s decision to join the newly-formed United States Football League rather than the long-running NFL.

Can’t recall the headline when it appeared in print, but according to my own log, the headline I submitted was “The Tragedy of Hershel Walker.”

In a writing class I taught at South Dakota State University a year earlier, a star of the Jackrabbits football team wrote of a similar decision. A far smaller scale of money or tragedy, but it was a lens for comparison that Doyle found clear and convincing.

As for Walker, it seemed shameful to me that a player who led Georgia to a national championship in 1980, and whom some jocks were calling the greatest running back ever to play in college, would turn down a chance to rival and set running records–and to play with and against the best players–for the sake of a slightly higher than already very high contract offer.

Oddly, the USFL had already pledged not to draft underclassmen when that was still a heated issue, but the owner of the New Jersey Generals, one the dozen new franchises, never cared much for rules or ethics and could not resist Walker. His name was–and still is–Donald Trump.

The league caught on briefly, and other college stars, including Boston College Heisman winner, Doug Flutie, would sign. Jocks both in print and in broadcast called the Generals the USFL’s “glamor team,” though the Philadelphia-turned-Baltimore Stars dominated the league.

Walker was the highest paid player in all of pro-football, though his team never won a playoff game. When the USFL folded in 1986, he joined the NFL for 13 seasons during which, in 1989, he was traded from the Dallas Cowboys to the Minnesota Vikings for five players and six draft picks.

The stunt failed Minnesota who thought he was all they needed. Walker was good but not that good, and those draft picks would eventually propel Dallas to three Super Bowl victories in 1993, 1994, and 1996.

As one of the network commentators for NFL games implied just this past weekend, Hershel Walker is best remembered not for his play on the field, but for being on the losing side of the most lopsided trade in the history of professional sports.

I never found it. Perhaps because it wasn’t a column for the editorial page, but a feature for the sports page, I was careless in filing it.

And in February of 1983, it was five months before the Daily News initiated its guest column feature called “As I See It”–at a time when many newspapers and magazines were following the lead set by Newsweek magazine’s “My Turn” feature open to freelancers from all walks of life, including Yours Unruly in June of 1986.

Sports Editor Doyle made sure I stopped to chat with the editorial desk to see if I’d join the team they planned to launch that summer.

Today, I’m one of just two remaining originals writing for “As I See It.” This morning I bet I looked at every one of over 400 columns I’ve had in print trying to find that forerunning commentary that led to it all.

No luck, but I still revel in the idea that, four decades later, the same guy is yet again on the wrong side of something so lopsided. Can anyone not laugh at his performance in the debate with Rev. Warnock? Following that embarrassment, he now declines to debate Warnock a second time.

Several weeks ago, Walker refused a debate because, he claimed, everybody would be watching Sunday Night Football. The debate was scheduled for a Thursday night.

What more clear and convincing lens could any writer ever find?


Play the Winning Card

If a travel agent insists that Florida is north of Maine, you don’t stay on the phone to plan your winter vacation.

Sounds absurd? Yes, but it is the level of delusion and derangement to which many if not most Republican candidates want to reduce this election.

Television ads for Republican candidates on Boston stations tell us that the Democrat running for Massachusetts governor and the incumbent US senator from New Hampshire are not just soft on crime, but pro-crime.

Video clips show riots in city streets as a voice-over trembles in haunted tones calculated to give the impression that this is daily life wherever there’s anything large enough in America to be called a downtown. All Democrats are accused of wanting to “defund the police,” no matter how much most of them–including Joe Biden–denounced the idiotic slogan as soon as it appeared in 2020.

Somehow this is connected to “open borders” with videos just as menacing.

Apply this same “logic” to baseball, and Red Sox fans could select a single inning in which the Sox exploded for six or seven runs. We could then claim that the Sox are the best team in the major leagues. A crafted video of that one inning–played repeatedly–would prove it.

But more: We could then claim “scoring fraud” to insist that the Sox, and not the NY Yankees should be playing the Houston Astros on their way to the World Series. Just look at the video! The Red Sox are constantly running the bases and scoring runs! They never make outs!

Ah, but those other eight innings! And those other 161 games!

Like videos we never see, or may not exist, of so many families fleeing violence in Central America being detained in Mexico until they can gain legal entry, not to mention others in not so dire straits who are denied entry.

Open borders? Only if truth is selective.

Both surreal comparisons dawned on me Monday night at a Town Hall meeting in the Massachusetts coastal city near me when the Republican challenger asked our Democratic incumbent US Rep why he refused to meet in a debate.

The Democrat, Rep. Seth Moulton, said he’d be willing to debate on any substantive issues, but he “will not give a platform to an election denier.”

Late that night, I posted a report on the meeting on a Newburyport social media page, and that exchange drew an immediate debate between a man who called Moulton a “coward” and a woman who credited the representative for sparing us from “unhinged” right-wing talking points.

Name calling aside, both sides of this argument have merit. A debate would further expose flaws in candidates who sow distrust in elections. However, there are basic facts that must be observed for debate or discussion of any constructive kind. Put another way, you can’t plan for the future if you don’t agree on what happened in the past and what is true in the present.

As Pres. Obama once peevishly quipped about addressing climate change, “We can’t waste time debating whether or not the Earth is flat.”

As for the name calling, the name-caller insisted that candidates “must being willing to face voters.” Well, yes, and that’s what Moulton did Monday night. As for the name called, the most unhinged remark I heard last night, from May himself and at least one supporter, was calling Moulton a “coward.”

The veteran of four tours in Iraq did not blink.

Targeting a veteran or not, cowardice is a strange charge coming from Republican candidates who deny the validity of American elections. Also, there have been at least 19 state legislatures controlled by Republicans that have passed laws restricting access to the polls.

Both of these betray a fear of voters.

Making the rounds to justify election denial is a video of Kari Lake, the Republican nominee for governor of Arizona. In it she cites election complaints made by Democrats.

All of them, from Stacey Abrams to Hillary Clinton, had reasons: Georgia Gov. Kemp did purge voting rolls, disenfranchising African Americans far more than white voters. Trump did receive foreign assistance. There is evidence of both. Whether that evidence is enough or not is another question.

Meanwhile, Republican election-deniers have no evidence, nor do they care about evidence. They can’t even be bothered to wait for evidence:

Going even further than her surface whataboutism, Lake has already said she will not accept results of the Arizona election if she does not win–an echo of Trump in 2016 when he was crying about a rigged election before he won it.

The claims prove that the aim of Republicans is not to debate or govern or engage the public in any honest, constructive way. It is to throw all elections–past, present, and future–into doubt.

If they succeed, what is left of democracy?

Omitted from all the Republican TV ads and from grievances aired at Seth Moulton’s Town Hall Monday night is any mention of reproductive rights. That’s understandable.

The Democrats seem to take the issue for granted. That’s dumbfounding.

Won’t be the first time Democrats fail to play a winning card. Michael Dukakis in 1988 didn’t touch the Savings & Loan scandal only because a few Democrats were implicated. And if Hillary Clinton had picked Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio as a Rust Belt running mate, she’d be in the middle of her second term right now.

More than one friend worries that Roe v. Wade has been lost as an issue. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s anti-choice decision this summer and the numerous state bans that followed it all seem buried under news of inflation–and we can only wonder why mainstream media barely mentions the corporate price-gouging that exacerbates it.

Still, the media will report what candidates say. To motivate voters, Democrats should start talking about price-gouging, but they should be harping on reproductive rights.

It doesn’t matter if those on the other end of the megaphone know which way to go on US 1 to land in Florida or Maine. All that matters is that they know where the polls are.


A poster last month in Montclair, New Jersey:

Of, by, and for the Empty Seats

When I planned to attend US Rep. Seth Moulton’s Town Hall in Newburyport tonight, it never occurred to me that the opposition would show up and attempt to turn it into a right-wing rally against him.

But there they were on all four corners of a downtown intersection with their signs for Bob May, Moulton’s Republican opponent on next month’s ballot, an hour before City Hall opened the auditorium doors.

Sometime after I entered, they followed.  Even May was there to shout into one of the mics passed around for questioners, so loud that I wondered if the man knows what a mic is–or if he has a severe hearing disability.

His question was why Moulton would not debate him.  After stating it, he occasionally repeated it while going on and on listing right-wing talking points about “open borders” (which they are not), “sexualized education” (which it is not), and “critical race theory” in public elementary and high schools (which it never has been).

Had he stopped talking, Moulton could have answered it much sooner than he did:  “I will not give a platform to an election denier.”

That may have been the loudest applause of the night, as the Town Hall was effectively scored by dueling applause.  At times, there were laughs and giggles at the nonsense that came from May’s supporters, including a woman who quoted Pres. Biden welcoming anyone anywhere to cross our borders.

As Moulton pointed out, no such statement was made.  When the woman insisted on it, Moulton dismissed her with the late NY Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-cited: “You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

That drew the second-loudest applause of the night.

The most shocking claims came from a man who condemned Ukraine and President Zelenskyy for genocide against ethnic Russians.  Carried away by his own delusion, he claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Putin’s war.

No one laughed at what he said.  In fact, it was dead silence until Mouton answered: “Pope Francis has supported Ukraine.”

Must admit that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, which set off a chain reaction.  For all my years as a teacher (and as a projectionist who often watches a film in the back of a small cinema), that’s embarrassing.  Maybe it was involuntary relief after the shock of just having heard a pro-Putin position expressed in Newburyport City Hall.

Near the end, Moulton kept referring to the first question, how can we make politics more civil.  The congressman, a veteran of four tours in Iraq, listed instances where he has worked with Republican congressmen on issues such as China’s threat to Taiwan and support for veterans.

He did qualify his quest for bipartisanship with a rhetorical question:  “How do you work with Ted Cruz?  (Pause.)  You don’t.”

That drew the loudest laugh of the night.

But I had stopped laughing.  Instead, I was scanning the balcony where every seat was empty.  On the floor were barely a hundred moveable seats, a dozen or two remaining empty.  Judging from the applause, I’ll guess that May’s alternate-reality crowd was a quarter of those in attendance while the rest were either Moulton supporters or people looking to learn something.

Judging by the volume and sound of voices, you may have thought that the MAGA crowd had us outnumbered.

Before you dismiss this with the old “squeaky wheel” adage, please consider:  If those are the numbers in Massachusetts, what must they be in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania?   You know, the usual suspects where new voting restrictions could make them the places where democracy goes to die.

To borrow a phrase that he used when addressing the MAGA crowd at least a dozen times tonight, with all due respect to Rep. Moulton, the solution to the obstruction of congress is not in bipartisanship.

It’s in filling those empty seats and raising more reasonable voices.


This was Seth Moulton’s last Town Hall meeting in the Merrimack Valley, over in Amesbury, pre-pandemic. I was seated in about the same place, front row, far to his left. Photo: Newburyport Daily News.

Lashing Out

Among Mark Twain’s least read, least known, least referenced, least critically regarded, and never anthologized stories is a wild, raucous scream titled “Journalism in Tennessee.”*

Thought of it today when I was dispatched to Connecticut, the state with a name that contradicts itself, and had yet another spanakopita at the Vernon Diner, one of my fave pit stops just this side of Hartford.

Behind the counter where I always belly up hangs a fair-sized, silent TV broadcasting Connecticut news. Biggest story here is the trial of Alex Jones, the popular right-wing radio host, frequent Fox Noise guest, and devout Trump ally who insists that the massacre of children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 is a hoax contrived by the liberal media to bring about gun control.

Who needs sound? Just as they tell us on the national cable stations, you can clearly see him–scowling face, jabbing finger–play his role of defendant as if warming up a rabid crowd at a Trump rally.

Subtitles as enraged, distorted, and ugly as his face translated the hate and mockery he kept flinging at the Sandy Hook parents, as well as his fundraising when out of the courtroom talking to the press. If Trump doesn’t run in 2024, Jones is primed to nail the MAGA vote in Republican primaries. At the very least, he’d be a well-matched running mate for the neo-Nazi governor of Florida.

Cut to the reporter at the scene, and connect to the anchor, both women with eyelashes that might make you think you’re listening to a pair of lawn rakes standing on end. Next story is an imminent nurses’ strike at a hospital in Willimantic. Another pair of upside down rakes so we can tell her apart from the nurses.

Before a commercial break comes a segment called “Trending,” popular Conn videos found online apparently. From the degradation of Sandy Hook parents and aggrieved Willimantic nurses, where else to go but 60 seconds of a dog jumping and barking (“dancing and singing” per subtitle) to the music of its owner squeezing a rubber duck?

Following the commercial break–silly ads with bright colors and people of various ages making silly faces–came a story about recent bomb threats at high schools in Waterbury, Watertown, Storrs, Canton, and Manchester, right next door to Vernon. The reporter looked like this:

Yes, Mark Twain would connect these dots only to cut deep into the heart of journalism in Connecticut. Me? I’m too content to cut apart Vernon’s spanikopita and connect it to my taste buds to do anything other than just rake it all in.


*Mark Twain’s “Journalism in Tennessee”:,Glory%20and%20Johnson%20County%20War-Whoop%20as%20associate%20editor.