A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 158

The Spanish-American War Rough Riders, featuring publicity hound and future U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt.

Wednesday, October 14

Yesterday, Emily watched a Zoom panel discussion, sponsored by the New York State Bar Association, on the subject of the “presidential transfer of power,” and I eavesdropped a bit. Just what will happen after the election? A zillion thorny issues are likely to arise thanks to our screwy system. What if there’s confusion over the result of a popular vote and a state sends two sets of electors to the electoral college? What if a state legislature (majority Republican maybe) and a state’s governor (a Democrat perhaps) disagree about the result?

Many of these questions are likely to arise where it matters most—in such swing states as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where Democratic governors and Republican-dominated legislatures are sure to clash. Both parties are almost certain to take their grievances to court—after shopping for venues they think will be most likely to favor their arguments. So one goes to state court, the other to federal court—and the whole matter can only be solved in the U.S. Supreme Court, where currently there is a four-to-four partisan split.

In Texas and Georgia, early voting has already begun, and there were places where lines of voters stretched for blocks, thanks to intense voter interest, complicated ballots, and, I believe, rampant suspicion that officials intend to suppress the vote. In one Atlanta suburb, there was an eight-hour wait to vote, according to the Associated Press. A record 128,000 people turned out on the first day of early voting.

All of this in the midst of a global pandemic, a Black Lives Matter mobilization,  and a bitter fight over a Supreme Court seat, presided over by a mentally ill, rabidly narcissistic motormouth of a president.

As Charlie Brown might say: Aaaaugh!

It certainly makes one long for a simpler time. I recently watched an episode of the classic 1950s TV show The Twilight Zone on Netflix. It featured a harried urban commuter whose train once or twice made an unscheduled stop at a place called Willoughby. He’d never heard of the town, nor did he recall the train ever before stopping there. But when he glanced out of the window, he could see a Gay-1890s small town, featuring quaint shops, kids playing with ancient toys, and a bandstand featuring a cornball local musical group. Finally one day, he decides to get off and live in the peaceful village. I probably don’t have to tell you that, this being The Twilight Zone, the results are hardly what he expected.

In fact, the far-from-Gay 1890s were—much like our own time—a period of wild and unanticipated social upheaval. Urban and industrial growth, the appearance of vast private fortunes belonging to Astors and Vanderbilts, and depressed farm prices led rural Americans to feel that they were being slighted. A radical farmers movement, spearheaded by the Populist Party, threatened to upend American politics.

Meanwhile, there was startling industrial strife. A late 1880s general strike prompted a half-million workers across the U.S. to down tools. Police and workers battled at Haymarket in Chicago, resulting in numerous deaths, followed by the conviction for murder and the hanging of four “anarchists.” In 1892, a steel strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania featured a day-long gun battle between strikers and company-hired Pinkerton security men. The following year saw the beginning of a economic depression second only to that of the 1930s. The 1894 Pullman strike turned into another nationwide general strike with violence, deaths, and prison sentences for such national figures as socialist Eugene Debs. At the end of the decade came the Havana harbor explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine and war against Spain. 

Maybe there never were truly calmer times…but it’s pretty clear that a majority of today’s Americans are longing for such a period. 

Dinner: Lentil soup with wheat berries and kale, plus a green salad.

Entertainment: The penultimate episode of the excellent Danish political drama Borgen, plus a calming episode of All Creatures Great and Small.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 54

A Philadelphia rent strike poster.

Friday, May 1

There is apparently a major fire or some similar mishap in this neighborhood. Only a little while ago, there was absolute silence—now, there’s an eruption of fire-engine sirens and horn honking, all very similar to the cacophony that is common in the Union Square area of Manhattan. I’ve wandered around on the internet, looking at the local news site Long Island Patch and elsewhere, but so far there’s no indication of what’s going on. I suspect we may never know.

For the first time since 1998, the World Bank says, global poverty rates are forecast to rise. By the end of the year, 8 percent of the world’s population, half a billion people, may be pushed into destitution, largely because of the pandemic, the United Nations estimates.

There is poverty here too, in spite of the Hamptons’ reputation as a playground for spoiled kids and their rich parents. Mansions certainly do exist, but there are also modest houses and notices of food banks at the churches, libraries, and IGA groceries. “The need for food from our pantries has tripled,” says the Clamshell Alliance, a local charity.

In our immediate area, there are plenty of shotgun-style dwellings with pickups and vans in the driveway. Many of the houses seem too small to warrant the number of vehicles parked outside: mom, pop, and grown kids still living at home, maybe? Lots of these vans and pickups bear the names of small plumbing, construction, or electrician companies. Many of our neighbors appear to be representatives of an aristocracy of labor—people who are self-employed or at least able to avoid the most exploitative and punishing forms of work.

Labor Day—or May day—was once an occasion for working class protest and solidarity. Today, it is the date for a confounding and confusing set of protests: in Michigan, hundreds of protestors, some toting weapons, have invaded the state capitol, demanding an end to the COVID-19 lock-down.  According to Politico, “Operation Gridlock,” was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund, a DeVos family-linked conservative group.

Meanwhile, in New York, Pennsylvania, and California, thousands are protesting against the payment of rent during the pandemic. “The protest is expected to represent the largest coordinated rent strike in America in decades,” says The Guardian.

Ray Brescia, a law professor at Albany Law School, penned a rent-strike how-to that appeared in this morning’s New York Daily News. His bottom line: tenants must withhold rent, get landlords to negotiate with them as a group, and go to court together, taking advantage of a backlog of cases that could last for years, giving tenants even more leverage. But what could they get?  The author, who claims to have run rent strikes for 14 years as a New York City legal aid attorney, should give us a little more information about possible outcomes that are more than just wishful thinking.

Dinner: leftover meatballs and pasta, a lentil salad with roasted red peppers and pecans, and another salad of lettuce and avocado.

Entertainment: More episodes of Norwegian thriller Occupied, and the second episode of Brit police procedural Collateral.