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 160

“Dear Diary….”

Sunday, October 18

Shouldn’t Mike Pence have a diary? These are historic times, and someday he’ll be able to publish such an account for big bucks. So maybe I could help him write it–give him some ideas right here on the blog.

That could be funny, right? Lots of ponderous piety (“I prayed hourly for the President to overcome his bout of the Chinese virus”); peculiar reflections regarding Old Testament quotes (“Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man” conjures thoughts about haircuts during the lockdown). Amy Coney Barrett’s much-reported life story could trigger memories of Pence’s college-years defection from Catholicism to evangelical religion. There could be comparisons of Pence’s own picayune misuse of political donations to Trump’s massive debts and scandalous financial doings. And of course, he’d share private doubts about the Commander-in-Chief’s depraved comments and debauched alley-cat behavior. 

But to write such a mock diary well, I would have to immerse myself in the true-life details of Pence’s life—and who could stand to do that? 

Better to devote my postings to interesting stuff, including articles I am reading.

The New York Review of Books daily newsletter recently ran a valuable article comparing health-care coverage in countries around the world. In a review of Ezekiel Emanuel’s Which Country Has the World’s Best Health Care? historian David Oshinsky discussed the merits and demerits of systems from the Netherlands to Taiwan and the United States. So, which is the best?

Naturally, it depends. Just what is your priority? Short wait times vs. the most professional and up-to-date care? So-called elective surgery? Universal coverage? Drug costs?

Not surprisingly, surveys put the U.S. at or near the bottom in most categories. But regarding first place, “there are too many variables and too few precise measurements to pick an overall winner,” the article says. Emanuel places Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Taiwan at the top. Personally, the book author has said, he’d pick the innovative Dutch system.

One of the surprise revelations of this piece is Oshinsky’s opening anecdote, which describes President Harry Truman’s late-1940s effort to enact an American national health care plan. It seems that, during World War I, Truman had been an Army artillery officer—and had become increasingly troubled by the poor health of recruits. Five million-plus draftees had been rejected due to poor health, and another 1.5 million inductees were soon sent home for similar reasons.

What was the problem? Americans couldn’t afford good health care: Two-thirds of the population lacked the means to overcome a health crisis. And there simply weren’t enough providers: Many rural counties had a 3,000 to 1 ratio of people to doctors. Once he was president, Truman resolved to do something about this. He wasn’t able to, thanks to the no-holds-barred opposition of the American Medical Association.

Oshinsky’s article is so quotable and informative that I am placing a permanent bookmark for it on my Internet favorites page.

Ever wonder just why GOPers and Trump are so fanatically opposed to the Affordable Care Act? I mean, the concept was invented by the right-wing Heritage Foundation and first put in place as Romney-care in Massachusetts.

 But Trump excoriates the ACA as “a disaster.” He’ll never tell you precisely why—just more invective, as we have come to expect from Mr. MAGA.

Well, here’s why: The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has an article showing that repeal of the ACA would dramatically cut taxes for the 1%—by an average of $198,000 per year.

 Moreover, “pharmaceutical companies would pay $2.8 billion less in taxes each year, even as millions of seniors would pay billions more for prescription drugs.”

So is the ACA a disaster? Maybe it’s just the 1% being forced to forego that third bottle of Dom Perignon.

Dinner tonight: all veggies. Stir-fried sugar snap peas in ginger and garlic, plus a baked Kabocha squash.

Entertainment: More episodes of of Better Call Saul and All Creatures Great and Small.