A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 174

Wednesday, November 25

In comparison with the parade-of-nonentities Trump cabinet, the partially announced Biden cabinet reminds me of JFK’s crowd: the best and the brightest. 

But which is actually better for the American public? A group of air-headed, self-dealing jerks like Jared Kushner and Steven Mnuchin? Or a group of knowledgeable, perhaps too self-assured Ivy Leaguers like Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken and possible Pentagon chief Michèle A. Flournoy? It was, after all, a similarly impressive JFK team—including Defense chief Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk—that got us into the Vietnam War with its 2.5 million dead.

Sometimes, there’s something to be said for ignorance and incompetence.

The Biden crowd, with the likes of John Kerry, is likely to be better for the environment than the Trumpists with their strip-mine mindset. Alejandro Mayorkas will bring a needed Latino perspective to the Department of Homeland Security.

But back to the foreign-affairs team: Flournoy, it must be said, seems to enjoy war. She favored the George W. Bush-brainstormed invasion of Iraq, U.S. military intervention in Libya, a doubling of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and a military buildup in the South China Sea meant to put the fear into China. Avril Haines, who will become director of national intelligence, helped shape the Obama administration’s program of targeted assassinations.

Honestly, where do the Democrats find these war-loving women?

Dinner: pre-Thanksgiving lentil soup and a salad.

Entertainment: Episodes from the Swedish Wallander series on Kanopy, plus Season 4 episodes of As Time Goes By.

A Journal of the Plague Year–chapter 173

American Express, the champion of mom-and-pop stores, offers a reminder.

Sunday, November 22

Two memories: When I first came to live in New York City, my boss described how he’d gone looking to match this very old and odd wallpaper from his house. And of course, he’d found it somewhere. “You can get anything in New York,” he’d said. I suspect that he’d found the wallpaper in one of the dozens of quirky small shops that then existed in the city. 

Then, in the early 2000s, I was visiting Chicago, where I attended the book industry’s annual convention, BookExpo. Leaving to go back to NYC, I took a shuttle bus to the airport and got into conversation with others. Talking about Chicago with a flight attendant, she said that she longed for the days, not so very long past, when every city she went to had different retail shops and individualized cultures. “Now, they’re all pretty much the same,” she said. The same clothing stores, the same chain hotels, even many of the same restaurants. 

My New York City neighborhood around Union Square has certainly been homogenized for many years now. Back in the 1980s, a lot of old and very quirky New York could be found in the area. But for some years, the real estate there has been dominated by many of the same stores that you’d find in a mall or shopping strip anywhere. Staples, Nordstrom, Best Buy,  Citi and Chase banks, Wells Fargo, DSW, Starbucks, Panera Bread, Dunkin’, Whole Foods, Walgreens, Barnes & Noble.

Will the pandemic’s shutdown only make the consolidation in retail and banking more intense, as the few remaining small and independent stores bite the dust? Or, is it possible that a combination of factors could lead to a revival of the small and quirky enterprises?

Time was, independent bookstores saw the big-box guys like Barnes & Noble and Borders as threatening to drive them out of business. Then came amazon.com. Now Borders is a distant memory, and  Barnes & Noble almost seems to be in some other, non-bookselling business. 

The online and home-delivering retailers, aided by COVID-19, seem to be on their way to driving big-box stores and retail chains out of business. But it could be a long time before any entities emerge that are able to absorb all the vacant NYC storefront space. But maybe, just maybe, once the pandemic passes there could be a renaissance of small enterprises, some initially as short-term, pop-up outlets. A lot depends upon whether big real estate sees fit to drop the rents. And they may not—Wall Street, which has securitized a lot of real estate, may not let rents fall lest the underlying value of the buildings be affected. A few years, maybe decades, must elapse before we’ll know the answer.

I’ve just received an e-mail from American Express (that champion of mom-and-pop enterprises) urging me to “shop small” during the holiday season. There’s a map attachment that lets you search a zip code to find a bunch of such small businesses. But when I enter 10003, the East Village zip code, a lot of what appears are restaurants. And that is certainly one of the most-endangered business sectors around—are they even allowed to be open? One day yes, the next day, no. 

Dinner: Latin American picadillo, rice, and a green salad.

Entertainment: more episodes of Netflix’ The Crown and more As Time Goes By.

A Journal of the Plague Year–chapter 172

A conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.

Friday, November 20

What is paranoia? In his classic and now much-referenced 1964 article “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter defines paranoia as “a chronic mental disorder characterized by systematized delusions of persecution and of one’s own greatness.”

Hofstadter makes it clear that he is not a psychologist and is analyzing only a paranoid style. He finds this phenomenon to have existed in various historical periods among a variety of figures, including 18th century worriers over the activities of the Bavarian Illuminati, a precursor of the fraternity known as the Masons. Primarily, of course, Hofstadter is focused on the activities and writings of the mid-20th-century wacko political right wing in the United States. In the essay, he details some of the proclamations of infamous Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and John Birch Society head Robert Welch.

McCarthy, of course, won notoriety for discovering Reds Under the Beds of key U.S. institutions such as the State Department and the Army. He accused Secretaries of State George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson of participating in a Red “conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” Welch proclaimed that “Communist influences are now in almost complete control of our federal government.” Former Supreme Allied Commander and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was, to Welch, “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.”

Setting aside the particular subjects of McCarthy and Welch’s broadsides, the hyperbole, urgency, and delusions are all reminiscent of Trump and his cronies. In his proclamations, Trump wins elections and all other challenges by almost unfathomable margins. Allies and appointees he supports are uniformly, unbelievably marvelous.

But Hofstadter discovers one key difference with the Trumpist proclamations. The mid-20th-century right-wingers were assiduous quoters of sources and wielders of footnotes. Trump never offers any support for his over-the-top claims; it’s as if a Trump assertion alone should be sufficient. And for many Trump rank-and-filers, it seems to be enough.

The pre-Goldwater right wing were no more prone to accuracy than Trump. They simply saw the need to mimic academic and legalistic forms. Thus, Hofstadter notes “the very fantastic character of its conclusions leads to heroic strivings for ‘evidence’ to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.” (Hofstadter’s prose is itself so heroic that the temptation to quote him is overwhelming.) So it is that a 96-page pamphlet by McCarthy contains 313 footnote references, while Welch’s assault on Eisenhower has a hundred pages of bibliography and notes.

Trump and his surrogates, meanwhile, offer only “evidence-free” (in the Times’ phrasing) outbursts about questionable vote-processing in Nevada, purportedly suspicious mail ballots in Pennsylvania, and alleged votes by dead people in Michigan. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has pressured Georgia election officials to throw out absentee ballots since, he says, they were likely phonies. Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani has asserted that Detroit voting was “a fraud, an absolute fraud.”

Again, there is no evidence for any of these claims, and whenever they have come before courts, judges have not hesitated to disregard them. Yet, a poll released on Wednesday by Monmouth University found that 44 percent of Americans think the election smells—they say we do not have enough information about the vote count to know who won. Nearly one-third of the public believes Biden won only because of voter fraud.

How can Americans be so gullible? Or maybe the right word is….paranoid. 

Dinner: a frittata with shallots, red bell pepper, and Dubliner cheese, along with braised potatoes and a green salad.

Entertainment: More episodes of Netflix’ The Crown.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 171

The former Horseman Antiques on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, November 17

Recently, Emily has decided that she must have a dresser or chest of drawers in order to store her clothes more handily. (In general thanks to the lockdown, our house has become more of a furnished residence and less of a make-do, weekend getaway.) She has found a couple of such chests for sale on eBay, but they are located far away—in Florida or somewhere—and sellers do little to facilitate shipping. We might arrange for such a piece to come here on a moving van that’s loaded primarily with someone else’s stuff. But even that would be likely to cost $200 or so, and the furniture we’re seeing isn’t free—even when the seller drops the price a bunch to entice Emily.

So I woke with a thought: What about that old strip of antique stores in Brooklyn that we often went to back in the ‘90s? Does it still exist?

It seems not. A 2008 article in a small Brooklyn publication describes a guy we bought stuff from on more than one occasion: “Norman Benjamin, the owner of Boerum Hill Restoration, says his store and others are closing or have closed because of shifting consumer tastes and the ‘upscaling’ of the neighborhood. ‘Twenty years ago, every address on the block was an antique store,’ says Benjamin, who opened his store in 1979 and will continue to operate a restoration business out of the back of 375 Atlantic. ‘There were easily 30 of them.’ Benjamin notes that most of the stores carried Victorian or turn-of-the-century antiques, which he believes have fallen out of favor with many consumers who now look for mid-century pieces.”

And that article appeared a dozen years ago! A 2018 article updated the sad decline of that antique-store strip. The 18,000 square foot Horseman Antiques closed after 53 years, selling its Atlantic Avenue location for $18 million, the article says.

Apparently the industrial-antiques City Foundry still existed in 2018, as did the curio-oriented Holler & Squall. But much of the commercial space along Atlantic had been taken over by trendy restaurants and clothing boutiques. Who knows what further damage the pandemic has wrought? Many of these spaces may simply be shuttered now, with their future unclear.

What happened to the vast inventory of desks, pianos, chairs, chests, and odds and ends that once filled such stores? Some may have gone upstate to shops in towns like Hudson or to Pennsylvania. Other stuff is probably just in cobwebby basements or Salvation Army outlets.

There are still a couple of antiques shoppes out on the East End, but their wares carry steep prices. Bridgehampton once sported a whole row of antiques stores, now all but vanished. There were a few more such places in Amagansett.

And the places that do still exist are open only a few hours a day on a couple of days each week. Don’t forget your mask.

Dinner: chicken paprikash, noodles, and a green salad.

Entertainment: Episode 3 of season 5 of The Crown, and more old episodes of As Time Goes By and All Creatures Great and Small

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 170

Sunday, November 15

There’s a dense mat of leaves on the ground. A pelting rain followed by wind whips the stuff around, sounding like heavy surf. No birds sing at dawn, and none come to the recently restocked feeder.

Such strange times. As I and many others have pointed out, time seems to have slowed to a near standstill. Yet we are almost desperate for it to pass—specifically into mid-December, when the presidential electors meet and we get to learn whether Trump and his enablers will try to pull something outrageous to detonate the public will.

These are the relevant dates: Up until December 11, states will be certifying their election results. On December 14, each state’s electors convene, cast their votes for the presidency, and send those votes on to Congress. They must arrive by December 23.  Congress is sworn in on January 3, and on January 6 the two houses convene jointly to hear the electoral votes counted and certify a winner.

So far, the most dire imaginings of violence at the polls or in the halls of congress have not come to pass. But given the extreme statements of several GOP and Trump administration figures–and the menace of Proud Boys and other bozos on the streets–many people are waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

In the courts, most challenges to votes have seemed little more than fantasies or wishful thinking on the part of the challengers. But beginning this past Friday, the Georgia ballots are receiving a second look in the form of a hand count. They must finish by Wednesday, two days before the state’s certification deadline. If Biden’s lead proves to be under half a percentage point, a third count—or a formal recount—can be requested.

Will Republican legislatures in key states ignore the vote and choose Trump loyalists to be electors? Apparently not. According to the Times, “leaders of the Republican majorities in legislatures in key states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona and Georgia” say they see no role for themselves in picking electors.

But Emily and I at least, and many others I suspect, won’t relax until Biden raises his hand and Justice John Roberts swears him in. And that should take place on January 20, 2021. 

Dinner: black beans and rice and a lettuce and avocado salad.

Entertainment: Season 4 of Netflix’ The Crown, plus episodes of To the Manor Born on Britbox. There’s never enough of the aristocracy it seems.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 169

An old tactic resurfaces.

Wednesday, November 11

Was Trump stabbed in the back? Did he actually win the election, only to have his victory stolen away by traitorous slime—including some turncoat Republican officeholders?

Let me ask you another question: Did Germany actually win World War I—only to have that triumph snatched away by a secretive cabal of Jews, anti-monarchist opponents of Kaiser Bill, and agents of the British Empire?

It’s pretty much the same scenario at work. Who can say just how deluded MAGA man might be—but he and his enablers sense that, whatever the outcome this time, they have in the past profited from proclamations of outraged victimhood—just as the Nazis profited in the aftermath of WWI.

Get ready for “fraud at the polls” and “stolen election” to become the bywords of GOP fanatics and Fox News commentators for years to come. Evidence? “We don’ need to show you no stinking badges!” A large number of Americans already feel victimized and are eager to shout from the rooftops a shared sense of outrage with the Big Orange man.

A Morning Consult survey conducted over the weekend found that seven out of 10 Republicans now doubt that the 2020 election was “free and fair.”

Prior to the election, 68 percent of GOP voters said they had at least some trust in the U.S. election system. Post-election, that dropped to 34 percent.

It’s not just the everyday wackos. In Georgia, the two Republican senators, both of whom face runoff elections shortly, have called for the resignation of the Republican secretary of state, who they imply presided over a corrupt election process.

Even more vociferous howling has taken place where the election officials happen to be Democrats. In Pennsylvania, the GOP leadership of the state legislature has called for the secretary of state, Kathy Boockvar, to resign. 

And in Wisconsin and Michigan, legislators are forming investigative committees and issuing subpoenas to search out “election irregularities.”

Trump himself seems focused on Nevada and Pennsylvania.

Recounts of ballots now cast won’t do much for the GOP. The former GOP Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, has pointed out that election recounts may differ from the first vote by no more than a few hundred votes—not the thousands needed by Trump to overturn the presidential election. 

So what? If Trump can’t get a reversal of the vote count, his peals of protest can probably win him a new slot on television or a megabucks book deal. Why not both? Ripped Off can command the No. 1 spot on the failing New York Times best-seller list and mega-sales at crooked Jeff Bezos’ amazon.com

Dinner: Avgolemono soup and a salad.

Entertainment: More of our marathon viewing of As Time Goes By on Britbox.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 168

Monday, November 9

Yesterday, I took a shower, washed and folded a load of laundry, and made beef stew. 


On Saturday, I anticipated all of this activity with a sense of dread.

Oh, and also Emily and I took a 20-minute walk in Maidstone Park, and I read the Sunday Times plus a few chapters of Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill.

In the normal world, I realize, that such activity wouldn’t count for much. But nowadays, when there is really nothing pressing to do, a very few activities seem all but overwhelming. Not really physically taxing, but grueling all the same.

Today, when I really have nothing to do, I slept until 8:30, then read the paper. I listened to the BBC World Service and Sirius’ jazz station. And I read a little more of On the Black Hill. I made canned soup for lunch and Emily and I discussed the electoral college. Before long, it was almost time to go to bed again.

Tomorrow, I will probably take some trash down to the dump.

Are other folks experiencing the lockdown in the same way? If so, the workforce won’t be able to do much work when so-called normal life resumes. A break-in period will be required; maybe a few weeks of half days, then 8-hour days with Fridays off perhaps?

The number of new COVID-19 cases is way up again. Biden, who may be the president-elect, has named a new pandemic task force. At least he, as opposed to some presidents and other pols, is acting like the crisis is real.

Dinner: leftover beef stew and a salad.

Entertainment: Very old episodes of As Time Goes By on Britbox.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 167

The Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.

Friday, November 6

With both political parties focused on the past, some Democrats, disappointed that their party didn’t do better, are blaming those who dared to contemplate the future.

Trump’s appeal has long been nostalgic. Make America Great Again was the slogan, while the subtext was: turn the country back over to tough-talking white men who will bring back the 1950s. Biden, meanwhile, offered very little in the way of a program other than promises to return the U.S. to the calm and sanity of the Obama years.

Democratic fantasies that Biden’s backward-looking approach would lead to a “blue wave” of U.S. Senate wins and statehouse takeovers did not pan out. Who is to blame? Must be A.O.C. and the Squad of socialist women of color. 

In California, where polls show that housing is the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds, a ballot initiative that would have expanded tenants’ rights and rent control was voted down. Also defeated was a proposition that would have given greater labor protection to ride-share and delivery drivers. In Florida, Trump won by a 3 percentage point landslide, thanks in some measure to the ongoing anti-Communist impulses of Cuban Americans and other Latinos. “I see the leftists in the Democrat Party,” the Times quoted one Trump voter as saying. Trump “has what it takes to be president, and he’s a strong man.”

Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, who represents a conservative district in Virginia, said the blame for Democratic losses in the House should go to those who promoted the “defund the police” movement and who failed to denounce socialism. South Carolina’s James Clyburn said Democrats couldn’t win if they favored Medicare for all.  Texas’ Marc Veasey said anti-fracking rhetoric hurt Dems as well.  

In response, Squad member Rashida Tlaib, a progressive freshman Democrat from Detroit, said “I feel like I’m being asked to be quiet” but her constituents “didn’t elect me to be quiet.”

In a Tweet, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez added: “honestly when it comes to Latinos the party’s just never seriously made an effort. Mexicans, Central Am, Caribbean, Chicanos—Cubans are not the only important community.”

So, once again, Democrats will be fighting each other. 

And it’s anyone’s guess what Trump, his enablers, and wacko family members will do in the years ahead. They could just shut up and spend the coming years on the putting green at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. 

Yeah…sure they will.

Dinner: We celebrate a midday Peapod grocery delivery with an Amy’s frozen pizza and a green salad.

Entertainment: In honor of recently deceased Geoffrey Palmer, we watched an episode of the very old Butterfly and two episodes of As Time Goes By.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 166

The election map from 2016.

Wednesday, November 4

When I first heard the term conformism, I thought: “Yeah—I know all about that.” I didn’t need a dictionary. I lived in Memphis, where the people I knew couldn’t imagine any place better to live.

History books said that American conformism had seen its high-water mark in the 1950s. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. The national preference for buttoned-down lives of prosperous ordinariness was, the books said, challenged by only a few, such as Greenwich Village beatniks. As Richard Yates put it in his bleak look at that period’s middle-class, suburban life, Revolutionary Road: “Nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity.”

The 1960s, on the other hand, were an era of non-conformism—or so the history books told us. The University of California’s free-speech movement protested against those who would fold, spindle, or mutilate the computer-generated Berkeley students. The Students for a Democratic Society’s 1962 founding statement declared war on the “loneliness, estrangement and isolation” that kept people from reforming society. Before long, hippies were promoting free love and free acid. Turn on, tune in, drop out, as Timothy Leary put it.

But conformism was far from dead in the era of feelin’ groovy. Most white boys in my hometown of Memphis wanted nothing better than a good paying job, an obedient wife, a suburban ranch house, and endless games of golf on the weekends—leavened with a few shots of Jack in the Black.

And conformism is still very much with us today—as one more national election demonstrates. I believe that it’s not ideology that compels all of the Northeast to vote Democratic—or the Old Confederacy to vote Republican. It’s largely conformism. 

I suspect few white people in Memphis even know anyone who voted for Biden. 

Certainly in New York, the expectation is for just the opposite—that everyone is voting for Biden.

These pleas that you hear from the various celebrities and pols that you GO VOTE—they’re not calls for good citizenship. No, they think they know who you will be voting for.

In The New York Review of Books, Yale historian David W. Blight recently wrote : “Democrats represent a coalition held together loosely by an ideology of inclusion, a commitment to active government, faith in humanistic and scientific expertise, and an abhorrence of what they perceive as the monstrous presidency of Donald J. Trump. Republicans, with notable defections, are a party held together by a commitment to tax reduction, corporate power, anti-abortion, white nationalism, and the sheer will for power.”

Well, I suppose. But I doubt that voters are really drawn by such abstract ideals. Instead, I think conformism—doing what your neighbors are also doing—has a lot to do with just which candidate’s oval one fills in on the ballot.

I believe this is especially true when it comes to the so-called red states. Maybe that just represents my own conformism to blue-state norms—along with a lack of understanding of how anybody could vote for the short-fingered, mentally-ill vulgarian, Mr. MAGA.  It’s that conformism that is pushing the U.S. toward an ever-greater sectionalism. Just look at the election-night maps on TV: big swaths of red bunched together, then big swaths of blue down the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

Dinner: Wine-braised chicken with artichoke hearts, quinoa, and green salad.

Entertainment: More election news, the Danish film The 12th Man,  and early-to-bed for two sleep-deprived political junkies.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 165

Kabocha squash and comrades.

Sunday, November 1

Aside from those of The New York Review of Books or the National Book Review, I rarely look at other folks’ blogs.

But today, not sure just why, I did. And I was surprised to find that some people stopped blogging altogether in April—just at the time that I was getting warmed up. Why?

Maybe they felt that the COVID-19 lockdown had robbed them of the experiences they needed to say something interesting. Many people report a sense that time has just stopped–or maybe that everything is just a blur now. Is today Tuesday? What did we have for dinner yesterday?

Or for some, it could be that increased family responsibilities—more cooking, more child care, etc.—meant they had less solitary time for writing.

I suppose some people found the interruption of life as they had known it left them too dispirited to do any scribbling. Between Trump’s dangerous ranting and off-the-wall behavior, the pandemic and attendant collapse of civilization across the globe, and the police killings that prompted the Black Lives Matter protests, it has seemed like the end of everything. (And suddenly, Tuesday is election day.)

My own blog began ten years back when my book publisher—Basic Books—hired a guy to walk me through the paces of social media. Posts on LinkedIn and Twitter, intended to spark interest in my book, required elaboration on a website dedicated to unadulterated self-promotion. My blog instructor said I must post something every day, even if that was just an interesting quote from somebody else. 

At first I did that—generally posting something about my book tour; about the book, reviews, and comments I was getting. Then after a few months, there was less and less to say. And the little that I did have to say could easily be managed within Twitter’s 140-character space (since expanded to 280).

A lot of individual blogs have expired quietly once their authors failed to find a mass audience or simply grew weary of the process. Mine seemed headed in that direction.

Then came COVID-19. As a sometime historian, I know that accounts of everyday lives during world historical moments can be of interest to later generations.

Moreover, I keep writing because I know a handful of people, most recruited by Emily, read this blog at least occasionally. 

And finally, it’s a bit like a diary: I’m writing for myself. To put my own thoughts in order, perhaps to give myself something to do. Admittedly, this blog doesn’t have the private, confessional nature of some diaries. I don’t commit things to prose that need to remain secret. Anthony Weiner I am not.

But I intend to keep writing—not posting everyday, but a few times a week. Election Day, and the inevitably rambunctious events accompanying it, should provide plenty of fodder.

Dinner: Lentil soup, Kabocha squash, and a green salad.

Entertainment: Back to episodes of Netflix’ Ozark and one aging episode of Vera on Britbox.