Letter from Washington: Disabled

Wheelchair-bound protesters return home
Wheelchair-bound protesters return home.

After pulling my calf, I’ve been biking even more than usual. Since it hurts to walk more than a block, I’ve been biking everywhere, door to door if I can, aiming to never let my feet touch the ground.

I was coming back from a happy hour for the Climate Ride. Cyclists did 208 miles over three days to raise money for climate change research. Once in Washington, they were greeted by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who insisted that climate change was a bipartisan issue and that there were Republicans who would be on their side, were it not for the pernicious influence of anonymously-funded PACs.

It was a sweaty day, unusual for the end of September, with temperatures in the 80s. The news has been filled with hurricanes, first Florida and then Puerto Rico, while Trump has tweeted slurs against NFL athletes.

After happy hour, I rode home as it got dark. Just off the National Mall, traffic was stopped.

Filtering up to the top of the queue, I saw why – a long stream of people in wheelchairs were rolling through the intersection. They were returning home to their hotel after demonstrating against the repeal of Obamacare. Imagine the level of commitment – and desperation – required to travel anywhere in a wheelchair, much less a strange city, to spend the day demonstrating against a government that wants to kill you.

The Metropolitan Police Department had blocked traffic so that these wheelchair-bound protesters could get home. Three cars were devoted to this purpose. The MPD has mastered this kind of rolling roadblock, gaining experience escorting the numerous anti-Trump demonstrations that have rocked the city.

A long silent moment passed as drivers, cyclists and pedestrians waited respectfully as the people in wheelchairs crossed the intersection. The protesters who came to Washington, the police protecting them, the people who waited – we represent the best of the country, while our leadership represents the worst.

Americans Will Believe Anything

Heather Heyer memorial
Heather Heyer memorial in Charlottesville, VA

Despite blackening the sky, the eclipse was not a transcendent moment for America. Within minutes of totality exiting the United States, we went back to business as usual, with a big chunk of this nation denying any fact they find to be inconvenient as “fake news.”

On the way back from North Carolina, I decided to stop in Charlottesville to see the Heather Heyer memorial. This anti-racist demonstrator was mowed down by a driver on a side street in the downtown of this beautiful Virginia city.

It’s chilling. She died just steps from the city’s pedestrian mall, on a narrow lane offering no escape from a driver with his foot on the gas. It was a deliberate act of murder from an extremist who hunted down protesters.

Heather Heyer died – but for what?

This week, Hillary Clinton emerged, hawking yet another autobiography. And worse – she endorsed a laughable web site, Verrit, which Jack Shafer memorably described as looking like North Korean agitprop. What’s different about this new site? It provided verified factoids, with their own Verrit code, enabling you to live in a Clinton-approved media bubble without any exposure to the messy real world.

Patronizing, clumsy and conflicted – it’s everything you hate about Hillary in a single site. This kind of top-down lecturing from our political betters (you will read what we want you to read) is why Hillary and her sycophants lost an election that should’ve been easily won.

This kind of appeal to authority no longer works in America. Kurt Andersen documents America’s slide into unreason in How America Lost Its Mind, a voluminous Atlantic article that comprehensively name-checks nearly political and cultural movement from the past fifty years, everything from chemtrails to Uri Geller.

Why are Americans so crazy?

The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned.

Andersen puts the American tendency to create our own beliefs in a historical context. It’s been with us from the start, with invented Thanksgiving myths and tall tales about George Washington.

We also have a rich tradition of con-men, Donald Trump just being the latest in a line which extends back to L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith and P.T. Barnum.

What Andersen misses is that Americans have good reason not to believe in American institutions. They’ve failed. American business has become parasitic, little more than Uber and AirBnB bros skimming value while employing only contractors. The American political class, as embodied by Hillary Clinton, has no core beliefs, other than getting elected (it’s her turn!). And our vast security state has given us endless war while failing to protect us from actual Nazis.

No room for racists

Posters reminiscent of World War II propaganda have emerged on the streets of DC. They are a call for resistance against Trumpism. The creator of this evocative art, Robert Russell, said:

In the the 1940s, America unified against an explicit and obvious enemy. In this case, the enemy is firmly entrenched in the White House. We’re inverting that message and saying the threat is right here, so look out.

But the posters do more than just target an incipient fascist. They remind us what Americans believe and what we’ve fought and died for – that we’re all created equal.

While Americans may hold their own idiosyncratic beliefs on the efficacy of vaccines or the possibility of alien life forms, this belief in democracy is a shared one and one that we must defend, whether we are Republican, Democrat or Independent.

America, Eclipsed

eclipse at totality

It was the Great American Eclipse, a continent-spanning solar event that would bring squabbling America together, if only briefly. And, who knows, the sight of forces much bigger than ourselves – the sun blocked out by the moon – might even cause people to put aside their prejudices and unite as one.

Novels are full of epiphanies, life-changing moments when characters realize the folly of their ways.

But real life rarely has those moments for most people never give up their guiding principles, no matter how misguided.

With friends near the path of the eclipse, I was determined to experience this unique event. Totality would occur just a few miles from their home in Waynesville, NC.

The morning of the eclipse, my friends demurred, seeing traffic backed up on the highway, afraid that they would be caught in a historic traffic jam rather than history. But me, familiar with gridlocked DC, was unfazed, reasoning it couldn’t any worse than the Beltway on any day at any time.

It wasn’t. I reached the campus of Western Carolina University with hours to spare. WCU was in the zone of totality and I had my friend’s parking pass so I could park on the closed campus.

The biggest problem I encountered was getting something to eat. It was the first day of classes at WCU and students were lined up everywhere for lunch.

Slowly, the sun diminished. By the time I finished my sandwich, it was as if the solar orb had been turned down by a dimmer switch, the light fading to the point that I no longer needed sunglasses.

Students watch the eclipse at WCU

Crowds in purple (WCU’s color) filled the center of campus, near the clock tower. Scientists from WCU provided color commentary while students lined up for eclipse glasses and moonpies. I settled into the grass and waited for the show.

Minutes before the eclipse I saw people heading indoors, bags of food in hand, choosing to miss this magical moment. It’s curious but there were some in the path of the eclipse who wouldn’t even look outside, annoyed at the impertinence of the sun. A friend’s mother couldn’t be bothered with it, thinking it all to be overrated. Fake News!

But on the packed campus at WCU, the crowd sighed as clouds washed over the golden orb. Apps were checked, as students counted down the moment to totality and willed the clouds to part.

the crescent of the sun during the eclipse

The moon ate the sun, until just a shining crescent remained, screened by the wispy cumulus. It was beautiful but there was more to come.

Seconds before totality, the offending cloud drifted off and the campus broke into relieved applause.

Then the sun was extinguished, disappearing, all but the sharp platinum ring of the corona. Students cheered, as if rooting for their favorite team. Eclipse glasses were removed. People stood and embraced, a rising tumult echoing off the mountains.

Seated on the grass, lens pointed upwards, I snapped photo after photo in happy disbelief.

It was night on campus, the clock tower lit up against the dark sky, stars visible in the blackness but light lingering in the west, like sunset on a strange world.

the sun returneth

After a minute of star-speckled darkness, the sun broke free from the moon’s grip. Another round of applause then everyone got up to leave, the sky still strangely dim.

Traffic going back was bad but moved steadily over Balsam Gap. My friends in Waynesville had seen a lot – like shadow bands and the mountain across the valley go dark – but had not experienced totality. An eclipse is like being pregnant. It’s either 100% or nothing.

The next night, Trump gave a speech so unhinged that commentators began seriously wondering about his sanity. The Mad King.

The eclipse did not fix America. It was not a transcendent moment that brought people together. No one questioned their beliefs following the cosmic occurrence. Despite science predicting the eclipse’s exact path across the United States, there are those who still cry “Fake news!” at any fact that they find disagreeable.

The Great American Eclipse will not usher in the Age of Aquarius. Instead, it’s an ominous portent that the ancients would recognize, heralding a time of troubles for the nation. May it just last a moment, exiting quickly and returning light and reason to the country.

Letter from Washington: Stranger than Fiction

crowd at Queen + Adam Levine

How do you write a novel in a time that’s stranger than fiction?

Queen + Adam Lambert came to Washington, DC. A friend had an extra ticket and graciously invited me. We sat in the upper reaches of the Verizon Center as Lambert and the group went through a fast-moving set, filled with the kind of lasers and stagecraft that’s expected from a band in 2017. It’s not enough just to be a musician, any more.

They played all the hits – Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen and Another One Bits the Dust.

It was not the same. Lambert is not Freddie Mercury, something he would be the first to admit – and did admit – during a tribute to the late singer early in the show. Queen + Adam Lambert made me appreciate the genius of Freddie Mercury, a man with an unreproducible vocal range but also an awkward shyness that’s missing in the age of the polished pop star.

The Queen show took place during the short-lived Age of Mooch. The reign of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director was far too short, a rich comedic opportunity that was thrown away before the Mooch even received his Saturday Night Live parody.

“Scaramouche. Scaramouche. Will you do the fandango?” Imagine the possibilities – Scaramucci singing the Queen classic live from New York.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” You can learn more about a nation from its artists than from politicians. Shakespeare does a better job explaining the English than some dry book of history.

But what happens if events progress faster than comedians, satirists and novelists can comprehend?  We barely had time to mock the Mooch before he disappeared.

I’ve written another novel: The Swamp. I started writing it a couple years ago, inspired by the tail end of the Obama administration. I wrote something I thought was outrageous – an errant drone lands on the White House, leading to the end of Washington as we know it.

After November 8, 2016, my idea didn’t seem so outlandish, as reality raced past the conception of the possible, devolving into a scenario that even the bleakest dystopianist would find implausible.

The problem with writing timely fiction is that times change. Does my novel The Swamp still make sense? After the election, I had to put aside the book and think about it.

I went on to write Victory Party, a short story that won the City Paper fiction contest. It’s another very timely work, for it concerns election night in DC and one person who’s happy about the result.

It’s a story that I wrote quickly and then ruthlessly cut, slowly paring away everything that was non-essential. I deleted exposition, explanations and any word that wasn’t necessary. It worked. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” according to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition.

So, I went back to my novel and I cut, reorganized and rewrote, aiming for clarity. Sections that I deleted went into a document called Remnants. Hurt less that way.

I also changed the title. My book was originally called Drone City, a title that I thought was clever. Drone City. DC.

I changed it to The Swamp, for the book is about the city that America has come to hate. My dark comedy follows swamp denizens – politicians, journalists, millennials – blindly chasing spoils, unaware that the world around them is about to turn upside down.

Trump, American Carnage, Spicey, Boy Scouts, Build the Wall, Russia, Deep State, Mooch – little of this makes any sense now and it will make even less so to future generations. It will be up to the artists, the legislators of our age, to explain the dark and confusing year of 2017.

 

Letter from Washington: Lotus Flowers

bee coming in to land on lotus flower

The lotus flowers are blooming, a sea of pink flowers emerging from the primordial muck of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. It’s an impressive sight, for the flowers are as big as plates, rising from lilies on massive stalks.

I biked to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – the only national park devoted to water-loving plants – early Sunday morning. The wetland is right off the new Anacostia Riverwalk Trail. The park service was prepared for crowds, even crowds of cyclists, for they set up a long row of bike racks for the two-wheeled. Despite the early hour, the ponds were busy with photographers angling for the perfect shot and tourists taking selfies with pink lotus flowers.

Looking at the exotic blooms against a backdrop of overwhelming green, with insects buzzing everywhere and humidity pouring off the shallow pools crowded with lily pads, Washington has never felt more like a swamp.

One of my friends was arrested recently, flying in from Arkansas for the privilege. She was protesting TrumpCare. In addition to spending a day in jail, she was mocked online, Trump supporters and other trolls doubting whether the people in wheelchairs crowding the hallways of Capitol Hill were really sick.

“Never read the comments” is one of the cardinal truths of our age.

There’s been much hand-wringing in the media about the need to understand Trump supporters. What motivates them? What do they believe? Why do they stick with him?

I tried my hand in understanding the phenomena in Victory Party, my short story in the City Paper, imagining who might be happy about the unexpected election result.

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter. There’s a hard core of people who will believe anything – that’s another one of the cardinal truths of our age.  They cannot be persuaded, despite evidence of Russian collusion from Trump’s own family. They will follow Trump to the end, even if it ends in resignation and defeat.

The Resistance is winning. Despite control of both houses of Congress, all of Trump’s plans have collapsed in disgrace. He does not know how to craft legislation or mobilize support for a bill. His ideas are so slapdash and badly formed that even Republicans reject them, especially when confronted with scores of the sick being arrested outside their offices.

Washington may be a swamp but occasionally it produces programs that ordinary people really value. Programs that save lives, like Obamacare. Like a lotus flower emerging from a dank pond, the underside of the program may look terrible, a morass of slime and waste, but after seeing it in person, how could you take it away from others?

The swamp is not going to be drained. While not pretty, Americans depend on it, an appreciation that has been forced on them by their President.

Letter from Washington: Erased from History

With TrumpCare, you won't be covered
Protester at the old Post Office

Following the election of Donald Trump, I was not discouraged. I wasn’t even particularly interested, as if I was watching a TV show featuring a car wreck rather than actually living through one. I even a wrote a short story that appeared in the City Paper, Victory Party, that was sympathetic to the misguided wishes of Trump supporters.

Once in office, I assumed Trump would be a new and better man, cognizant of history and burdened with global responsibilities.

We know how that worked out.

His derangement is such a weird outlier in American history that our system doesn’t know how to respond. What do you do if the king is mad? It’s a problem more out of Shakespeare than anything written in the Constitution.

Engulfed by scandal, a rational man would resign. A rational party would step in and force him to do so, like the Republicans did during Watergate.

Instead, Washington is powerless, the will of one man dragging the country into a political abyss from which both parties, and the country as a whole, will be irrevocably changed.

Not even six months in office and Trump recently held his first reelection fundraiser. Shamelessly, it was held at the Old Post Office, a historic building that he’s trimmed with gold and slapped his name on, the Emoluments Clause be damned.

On the street, a few dozen protesters, their focus being on the repeal of Obamacare and its replacement with the rump plan of Trumpcare.

There were two Trump supporters. The first, a homeless man who revived from his drug-induced stupor to stagger across the sidewalk and demand that we respect the President. The second, a tourist who shouted her love for Trump before her husband led her away.

The Presidential motorcade drove by, as if the protesters and supporters didn’t exist, their cries rising up to an empty sky, the interloper slipping into the grand old building that belongs to the public.

I took a few photos of the motorcade. I could see the Presidential seal but not Trump himself. I deleted the photos. Didn’t want them.

In ancient Rome, some rulers were so awful that their reigns were erased from history. Nobody wanted to remember them. Their temples were destroyed. Their burial places hidden. Their names scratched off monuments.

When this ends, and it will end, there will be a similar effort. If America had an undo button, we would hit it. Instead, we will try to pretend that this never happened, like the ex-wife nobody talks about or the house guest that stayed too long.

Of course, we won’t forget – nor should we, this hard lesson in democracy.

America First, Then and Now

America first
Newspaper headline from the Great Crusade exhibit

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

– Karl Marx

If the America First mantra of Donald Trump sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The slogan was used by American isolationists to keep America neutral in the face of Nazi tyranny. But the theme, with its small and fearful sentiment, comes from an earlier war.

Woodrow Wilson invented the mantra in 1916, covering the country with America First posters in one of the first modern propaganda campaigns. He kept us out of war, he claimed at the time.

But America couldn’t deny its global responsibilities forever. It had to pick a side in the European conflict. When it did, Wilson needed a whole new propaganda campaign. This time, with the aim to mobilize a reluctant American public to enlist and fight the Hun.

Mass media such as posters, songs and shows drew upon the 1776 spirit, the myths of the American Revolution, to join a total war against the Kaiser. “Lafayette, we are here!” the cry went up, as millions of American soldiers went to save a Continent.

Relive this momentous era in The Great Crusade: World War I and the Legacy of the American Revolution, now on display at Anderson House, the beautiful home of the Cincinnati House on Embassy Row in Washington, DC. It’s a small exhibit – just a room – but looking at the America First headlines and the debates about this country’s role in the world – it feels incredibly timely, as if we’re repeating history that was settled a hundred years ago.

Anderson House ballroom
Ballroom at the Anderson House was designed for inaugural galas and diplomatic receptions

And when you’re done, explore the rest of Anderson House, a Florentine mansion just a couple blocks from Dupont Circle.  Built in 1905, this grand home belonged to Larz Anderson, a wealthy diplomat, and his wife, Isabel, an author and art collector. With its drawing rooms and galleries reminiscent of the salons of Europe, the house was designed to host inaugural balls and diplomatic receptions. Anderson House was to represent the USA to the rest of the world, standing as a confident expression of a country that repudiated the small and fearful philosophy of America First.

As Marx wrote, history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. We’re living through the farce. But remnants of other eras remind us that we’ve had these debates before – and won them. America is not the fearful, closed realm of Donald Trump but the confident, open and generous country represented by diplomat Larz Anderson, his art collector wife Isabel, and their glorious house on Massachusetts Avenue.

Letter from Washington: Protest Fatigue

a smattering of Trump supporters

The weather has gotten warm, mild May days segueing into June humidity. People still come to Washington to protest, nearly every weekend, but with diminished fervor, everyone waiting to see what happens next in the unfolding story of collusion between Trump and his Russian masters.

A rare event occurred on Saturday – a demonstration in favor of the President, a small band of supporters from Virginia, kids mostly, holding signs and shouting on Pennsylvania Avenue.

You had to really look for them, hidden amid the Segways and selfie sticks of summer tourists that crowd the plaza. Only the presence of TV cameras hinted at the presence of the Trump group, a gaggle of photographers encircling the small protest. At its peak, the Make America Great Again crowd mustered 50 people from the red state across the river.

It was a mostly white crowd, but not entirely. What struck me, however, was how many high school kids and preteens there were, as if MAGA was a form of youthful rebellion, sticking it to teachers and authority figures.

There were counter-protesters, people who had come down early for the March for Truth. They stood a respectful distance away, for the most part not interested in mixing it up with the Trump folks, confident in the strength of their numbers. The one flare-up I witnessed was when a 14-year-old Trump girl began shouting “Build the Wall!” at Trump opponents. “You’re everything that’s wrong with this country!” one responded.

Still, the day lacked the raw tension of Inauguration Day, when you felt that violence was imminent (and it was). The reason is that the Trump people have disappeared from the streets. Nearly every weekend, a massive march has filled the broad avenues of the capital – Women’s March, Immigration Ban Protest, LGBT Makeout Session, The March for Science, Climate March – driving Trump supporters underground. The only time you ever see a Trump hat in DC is when it’s perched on the head of a red state sophomore touring the monuments with a school group.

The March for Truth

The March for Truth, which was not a march but merely a rally under the Washington Monument, had an exhausted quality to it. “Protest is the new brunch!” a speaker announced as the crowd emerged from the under the shade of the cherry blossom trees, as if reporting for duty.

The era of the mass protest is over. By filling the streets with hundreds of thousands of people for weekends in a row, the point has been made: we outnumber you.

Now, it’s up to the institutions. The men and women in the Congress and the courts who are entrusted to preserve our precious democracy. We wait for former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony on Thursday. Our system of government was explicitly crafted by men like Hamilton, Jefferson and Washington to prevent the rule of a tyrant. We’ll see if our current leaders have a fraction of the courage that these great men displayed.

I Hate South of the Border

A post shared by Joe Flood (@joeflood) on

Ever wonder what America would look like if the South had won the Civil War?

It would look a lot like South of the Border, the kitschy roadside attraction at the North Carolina-South Carolina border. A beloved landmark on I-95 for some, it’s an abomination for others (like me), its towering sombrero tower filling me with horror as it emerges on the horizon.

If Gettysburg had gone a different way, all of America would look like this – tacky, cheap and vaguely racist.

Sherman led his March to the Sea through South Carolina, famously offering Savannah, the birthplace of secession, as a gift to President Lincoln. General Sherman believed not just in defeating Southern armies, but destroying the Southern way of life by burning plantations and freeing slaves.

He didn’t do enough. More than a century later, vestiges of the Confederacy and its animating principles linger in city squares and the hearts of Trump supporters.

I long for a new Sherman to raze South of the Border. Consider it the ultimate highway beautification project. Let this vomit of technicolor along the interstate be replaced, even if it’s just with a simple welcome center, a recognition that South Carolina is just like every other state in the union.

Letter from Washington: Macron!

Saturday morning soccer

I’ve been to France a couple of times. It was my first real overseas trip. While England was interesting (I studied abroad there), it didn’t feel alien in the way that Paris did because I could speak the language.

In France, however, I had the experience of being immersed in a culture where I didn’t understand a word of what was going on around me. It’s an experience that every American should have because it makes you appreciate that the world is larger and more complex than you can possibly comprehend.

Fortunately, I was with a friend who spoke French. It was a feeling of agreeable helplessness, of being unable to even order in restaurants without my buddy translating for me. I knew the words for please, thank you and butter. And what more do you need in France?

We did all the tourist things – Eiffel Tower, Louvre, lunch in a brasserie – and everyone was lovely, maybe because I didn’t understand the blur of French around me.

My proudest moment came on the train back to Brussels. Speeding across the French countryside at 150 mph, I got up from my seat and went to order coffee unassisted:

Un café s’il vous plaît

Hearing me speak, the woman in the cafe instantly switched to English. She said my American accent was charming. Charmingly bad, I imagine.

But my biggest memory of France didn’t even happen there. It was 1998 when France won the World Cup. I went to Lucky Bar, after playing soccer that morning. Les Bleus won! Dancing broke out in the dingy bar, men still wearing cleats tangoing across the floor.

Later, I met my French-speaking friend at Au Pied de Cochon, a legendary French cafe in Georgetown. Open all night, it was where you went for steak and frites after everything else closed. Inside the bar, patrons were waving a huge tricolor and singing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. And then everyone left, marching up the street to the French Embassy.

That’s what today feels like, with the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential Election. The French have done what we couldn’t – turn back to the destructive tide of populism.

To quote Churchill:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.