Homelessness is the central issue driving the recall — At the 11th hour of his political career Bonin spins a decade of failure
But people will never forget the night “Bonin turned his back” and a thousand other betrayals
CD 11 residents have seen well how Bonin responds to homelessness. In October 2019, while homeless fires and wildfires were raging statewide, he was captured literally turning his back on a mentally disturbed homeless man in his district as the man started a fire next to a propane tank. Stills from a video by Christopher LeGras
As first reported in the Westside Current, on Wednesday proponents of the campaign to recall Los Angeles city councilman Mike Bonin turned in 39,403 signatures to the City Clerk’s office, representing more than 143% of the number required by city law to trigger the election. Ominously for the councilman, 20% more CD 11 residents signed the recall petition than voted for him in his 2017 reelection. Viewed yet another way, 18% of the entire adult population of the district signed — not 18% of registered voters, 18% of everyone over 18.
It was and is a grassroots effort in every sense of the word, lead by a pair of lifelong Democrats in a district that doesn’t just lean Democrat but positively topples over the left side of things on the vast majority of issues. So much for Bonin’s vast right wing conspiracy.
As the Current described, “The scene that unfolded on Wednesday is true to the grassroots campaign that Ruderman and Schmitt, both lifelong Democrats, have run since taking over the recall campaign this summer. ‘We didn’t have political operatives or consultants working with us,’ said Schmitt. ‘Our community did the work and we got it done.'”
And so, predictably as Groundhog Day, Mike Bonin is blaming his failures on his own constituents while lashing out at them from the safety of social media (Bonin has always been a telephone tough guy).
As is his wont Bonin has responded with nonsensical attacks against boogeymen in his own fevered imagination. He claimed, without substantiation, that the recall is being funded by “dark money.” Which is quite something coming from an elected official with a track record of betraying his constituents’ trust with millions in dark money of his own (it would be fascinating to see how much he’s received from the likes of Thomas Safran and Aaron Sosnick alone). And he points people to donate via ActBlue, a notoriously shady Leftist fundraising aggregator. RealClearPolitics has reported, “ActBlue’s structure could easily allow illegal donations made online to be broken down into smaller gifts from claimed U.S. sources with little chance of exposure. ActBlue’s design would allow large donors to exceed contribution limits without even triggering the threshold for public reporting.” A psychiatrist might suggest Bonin is projecting a bit by accusing the grassroots recall effort as being floated by dark money: He doth protest too much.
Bonin asserted that the 39,403 residents of CD 11 who want new leadership are actually out to “criminalize” homelessness. Which, again, is quite an assertion given that one of the recall leaders is a social worker with a decade and a half experience working with marginalized people.
Which is where his narrative crashes into the shoals of reality.
Bonin can’t spin his way out of reality
As with so many political falls from grace Bonin’s downward spiral can be traced to a single moment. On the evening of October 15, 2019 he staged a community walk to highlight planned pedestrian and bike features on Centinela Avenue in CD 11’s Del Rey neighborhood (more on Bonin’s anti-car zealotry in a moment). The tour included Bonin, three staffers, and maybe two dozen community members. Halfway through the walk, on the grassy center median on the corner of Culver Boulevard, the group encountered a homeless man trying to start a small fire. He (the homeless man) was clearly mentally impaired, shouting gibberish and laughing as he spilled some kind of accelerant onto the fire and the flames nearly singed his own face.
Mr. Bonin and one of his staffers stood silently, watching the man as he seemed to imitate Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar aflame at Woodstock. After less than 30 seconds Mr. Bonin turned his back and walked away, leaving the man to his fire and propane tank. The punchline, there was an LAPD station directly across the street, 100 feet away. Yet Bonin didn’t so much as send one of his aides to get help. The next day he claimed on social media that he had connected the man with services — a story that residents quickly disproved with a photo of him roaming the area with a huge Bowie knife.
“Bonin turns his back” trended on social media and local news reports. The scene confirmed everything residents had come to believe about their councilman. Some context is important: In the fall of 2019 fire was on everyone’s mind. Homeless fires in CD 11 had become a major concern, with units at Station 62 in Venice routinely handling as many as 10 a day. Meanwhile California was barely 10 months removed from the horrific Camp Fire in Butte County, and the on night of the walk itself the Saddleridge Fire – which would injure eight firefighters and kill one — was reaching its apex in the San Fernando Valley. You could smell the smoke.
Many paths and myriad converged on that grassy median that evening — and Bonin walked away.
Now, at the 11th hour of his political career, he is trying to reframe the conversation. Maybe Mike Bonin really believes he can erase ten years of failure with a few Tweets. Maybe he thinks a few tree giveaways, a few treacly pictures at elder care facility will blight people’s memories, say, of the time he accused his own residents of planting an explosive device at his precious Bridge homeless shelter. Maybe he thinks lashing out at the grassroots neighbors who collected more support for the recall than he mustered in his last election is a winning strategy.
Maybe he thinks voters in CD 11 have extremely short memories. In that case, below are a few snapshots of “Mike Bonin’s Greatest Hits,” from his shameless hoovering of developer money to his staffer’s assault (captured on video) of a local news reporter, to his attempt to buy neighborhood council votes with In ‘n Out, to his routine lashing out at his own constituents.
Never forget, CD 11, this is the kind of individual you are dealing with. The recall organizers have done their part, now it’s time for the voters to do theirs. Remove Mike Bonin before he does any more damage to the communities and neighbors we love.
Calling L.A. a Third World city these days is an insult to most Third World cities — The City of Angels is on the precipice of anarchy — Yet people keep electing the same politicians who got us into the mess in the first place — What will it take for us to wake up?
Photographs by Christopher LeGras, unless denoted “*”
Dear Los Angeles,
You know I love you. I was born and raised here, fifth generation, and I can’t possibly imagine living anywhere else.
I love your mountains and beaches, your sprawling open spaces and endlessly multifaceted neighborhoods and enclaves, the myriad hidden and not-so-hidden places where collective history lives and breathes and writes its own chapters. Your contradictions, your make-believe. I love how you are a place where people can endlessly reinvent themselves, the rare global metropolis that perpetually forgives and (mostly) forgets. I love four million maniacs from every corner of the globe, speaking every language known to humankind, that make us the teeming, evolving, constantly striving people we are. I love how sometimes driving north on PCH when there are no other cars around you can gaze at the rocks above Point Dume where the highway swings inland and imagine what this place was like before civilization. I love even your tortured history, because it’s a story of human progress and potential, frailty and fallibility.
All of which is why it breaks my heart to see what’s happening to you. Or rather, to see what you’re doing to yourself. You are in desperate need of help, an intervention. Maybe just a good old-fashioned smack upside the head. What in the hell is the matter with you?
Over the last five years you have broken my heart a hundred different ways….
Over the last five years you have broken my heart a hundred different ways, from your callous disregard of the hundreds of thousands of homeless languishing on the streets to the rampant crime wave consuming our neighborhoods to the garbage, graffiti, and vandalism that have become the hallmarks of our once-great open spaces, parks, and even highways. It breaks my heart to drive down the Arroyo Secco Parkway to see it tagged and crumbling, dying trees and green spaces that once made it a parkway and not just another slab of tarmac.
It breaks my heart every time I see another human being reduced to weeping or screaming through their days and languishing in their own filth at night. Those who are lucky to snatch a few hours of actual slumber, that is. Quality sleep is a rare commodity in Hell. You break my heart when I see those people and know that you offer me no way to help them — in fact, quite the opposite. You have created a system that actively impedes people from helping their neighbors.
Long past the blame game
With apologies to Leo Tolstoy, these days America’s broken cities all are broken in the pretty much same way. Overrun with political hysteria, teeming with politicians professing obsession with centuries-old transgressions that haven’t been relevant to actual human beings in decades, while pursuing policies that create the very harm they claim to remedy. They and their cronies come into office trailing the odor of campus politics and the paranoia, secrecy, expedience, and corruption that stain the modern political class. Cities awash in dubious and flat-out illegal campaign money that flows from quite literally every corner of the country and globe through a system no one even dimly comprehends. Entire ecosystems of overfunded, ineffectual, and self-dealing “nonprofits” like PATH, SPY, St. Joseph Center, Homeboy Industries, and the rest. Government bureaucracies with org charts like MC Escher sketches, populated by self-interested, unaccountable employees whose sole interests are keeping their jobs and protecting their pensions.
Those are the ingredients, these are the inevitable results:
Officially, more than 1,300 homeless people died in L.A. last year, an increase of some 30% over just two years earlier. The real number, like the actual number of homeless overall in the city, is several times higher. Based on the fatally flawed annual point in time (“PIT”) Count the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority reports there were 41,290 homeless people in the city, and 66,590 in the county. Those are the kind of too-precise government numbers that obscure a far more horrifying reality. According to the Los Angeles Unified School District, as many as 75,000 children experience homelessness every year.
Let that number sink in a minute: 75,000 homeless children in Los Angeles. If you can read that sentence and not taste blood, you and I do not occupy the same place in reality. If you can imagine the tens of thousands more children in this city living in marginal conditions and abusive households, experiencing food insecurity, walking with their heads on swivels in their own neighborhoods, and not want to roast Mayor Eric Garcetti’s political career on a white hot spit, I no longer understand you as a human being. What is it going to take?
Let that number sink in a minute: 75,000 homeless children in Los Angeles.
At this point we all know the responsible parties — just re-read the first part of this essay. We know that the people we have elected are nothing more than career politicians for whom talking points and hashtags are more real than reality, a majority of whom have never held real jobs in their lives. In other words, parasites. We all know that illegal encampments in public spaces, which have engulfed virtually every corner of the city, are a profound, historic societal failure. And we all know how we got here, or should.
Which is when the heartbreak begins metastasizing into something else, something darker: Rage.
Which is when heartbreak begins metastasizing into something else, something darker: Rage. Because the thing is, it no longer matters whose fault it is. We are too far down the rabbit hole, conditions on the streets have deteriorated to post-apocalyptic mayhem. It’s no longer a matter of assigning blame, it’s a matter of dismantling those people and the bureaucracies, and replacing them with a new generation of — dare we say it? Actual leaders.
The frightening thing to consider: Looking at how bad things have gotten, and no one has yet risen to the challenge. When did we Angelenos become so meek?
Worse than the Third World
Calling L.A. a Third World city these days is an insult to many Third World cities. I’ve traveled fairly extensively in developing countries. Nothing I saw over the years in places like Nepal, Morocco, Indonesia, Tanzania, or Xinjiang Province, China prepared me for what I encounter quite literally on a daily basis in the richest city in the richest state in the richest nation in human history. I use that phrase often, for the simple reason that it can’t be emphasized enough.
Look at the picture below. It’s a still from a resident’s security camera in Venice Beach in 2018. Taken at 1am, a naked toddler holds on to a wrought iron fence to stand up while her mother lays next to her in a drug-induced stupor. This is Venice, the place that gave the world The Doors and Gold’s Gym, where God alone knows how many thousands of movies and TV shows have reflected, refracted, and amplified the beach as one of the most free spirited, open-minded places on earth. And it’s home to scenes that you would expect to see in places like Port-au-Prince on late night infomercials from Children International.
Calling L.A. a Third World city these days is an insult to many Third World cities.
Look at the pic, then look at the IRS filing from one of the organizations that’s “fighting homelessness.” For $40 million a year they can’t so much as ensure that homeless babies have someplace to live. That’s not hyperbole or melodrama: Organizations like St. Joseph Center are predatory, seeking out the weakest and most vulnerable in our society the way carrion beetles seek decaying flesh. In the midst of the COVID pandemic they enjoyed an $11 million year on year funding increase, good for nearly a 30% boost at a time when thousands of real businesses were dying.
Actually, that’s unfair to carrion beetles, who serve an essential purpose in the circle of life. There’s something hideous about what the homeless nonprofits do: They conduct “outreach” in encampments and on the streets, usually going wherever the local councilmember directs them to go. They log people’s identities and whatever information they can extract, then toss those helpless souls into the maw of the machine, the Homeless Industrial Complex that views them not as human beings in desperate need of a simple helping hand but as “clients.” Chits to be logged into intake software and tallied on spreadsheets, then agglomerated into funding requests when the season comes. They do it by the hundreds of thousands.
It is, in a word, fucking monstrous. And, fellow Angelenos, clearly you are just fine with it.
It is, in a word, fucking monstrous. And, fellow Angelenos, clearly you are just fine with it.
I know this, because you’re not doing anything about it. I know as much because you keep voting for the same people. You may give your annual charitable contributions (probably to the very nodes on the complex that perpetuate the misery, but I digress) and go about life. Maybe you volunteer for a couple of hours at a soup kitchen from time to time.
It isn’t enough. Nothing you have done, or are doing, is enough. Unless you are one of the vanishingly few who have dedicated your time to your community and your city, you are not doing enough. And even if you have dedicated that kind of time, it still is not enough. Were it not so, but it is.
At the end of the masterful miniseries Chernobyl, Dr. Valery Legosov tells Dr. Ulana Khomyuk, “I went willingly to an open reactor. I’ve already given my life. Isn’t that enough?” To which Khomyuk replies, “No. I’m sorry, but it is not.”
We are at the same precipice today, we in the City of Angels. The reactor core is open, spewing poison everywhere. Like radioactive fallout the political poison is itself invisible, though its effects quickly, hideously manifest. The difference is radiation poisoning kills in days or weeks, while the Complex tortures people for years and decades. Meanwhile every hour of every day we are all in mortal danger, whether we realize it or not, starting with the most vulnerable among us. The body count already is in the tens of thousands, and it grows — every hour of every day.
The only remaining question, then, the only one left for a sane person to ask, is what each of us is prepared to do about it.
Very truly yours,
Christopher D. LeGras
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The 2021 trilateral agreement among Australia, the UK, and the US for nuclear submarine and other military technology is part of an historic geopolitical realignment — Marks the emergence of a New Anglosphere
To know a nation’s geography is to know its foreign policy.
― Napoleon Bonaparte
The 2021 tripartite security agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia marks an historic inflection point, and the beginning of the end of the international system based on countries and capitals that has dominated the globe for nearly half a millennium. It is as consequential as the Treaty of Westphalia that concluded the Eighty Years War in 1648, ushering in the modern, country-based international order. It is far more consequential than the Treaty of Versailles that ended the bloodiest conflict in human history up to that time while inadvertently paving the way for far bloodier conflicts to come.
Make no mistake: The inelegantly-named AUKUS security agreement challenges the fundamental assumption that countries are the irreducible building blocks of international relations, and that national borders mark the extent of those blocks. In the process it begins the demolition of another fiction, the ideological conflict between so-called realism and liberalism. AUKUS embodies and modifies essential aspects of both traditions while fusing them to a new ecosystem of political as well as ethnic, linguistic, historical, and, to a lesser extent, geographic bonds. As we’ll see it also marks the birth of what may be called the New Anglosphere, which in turn is triggering realignments and cooperation among erstwhile rivals elsewhere in the world. History is back, and it’s pissed.
Modern international relations is premised on a mythology
Since the middle of the last millennium the global geopolitical system — to the extent the near-entropy of international relations can be called a “system” in the first place — has operated according to two foundational myths. The most essential is that there are these things called “countries,” defined by agreed-upon borders (or at least disputed borders where everyone agrees upon the general parameters of the dispute), coherent systems of laws, and relationships with other countries. The second is that international commerce is the salve that can end human conflict once and for all, since nations that trade with one another are loathe to wage war upon each other. These founding myths in turn begat the fables still taken for granted by the seven billion-odd residents of planet earth in 2021, notions that there are things like “international law,” “global human rights,” “free trade,” and even “laws of war.” It’s why Twentieth Century schoolchildren in the United States began their study of history by learning about classical “nation-states,” the precursors of modern countries. A mythology needs its origin story.
Accordingly, the balance of power largely has been a mathematical matter of amassing as many allied, satellite, and dependent countries in as many parts of the world as possible. It is a chess game played in hegemonic capitals according to rules so hopelessly malleable — like so many of the borders upon which the game hinges, about which more presently — that it led to humankind’s first two global wars, a third global cold war, and thousands of regional and local wars and conflicts, not to mention precursors in the Seven Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, and, arguably, the American Revolution. The Twentieth Century saw by far the highest body count to directly result from geopolitical myth-making, well over 100 million souls.
Scholars make careers exploring why this system, which theoretically balances the historic chaos of relations between peoples and modern neo-liberalism’s notion of enlightened self-interest, failed so often and so horrifically. But it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in political science to appreciate that the (overwhelmingly Euro-centric, albeit with a strong if unintentional assist from China after the Opium Wars) mythology was hostile to the national, much less ethnic or tribal identities, customs, and histories that still comprised the essential organizing principals of the vast majority people on the planet, a hostility that was often intense bordering on evangelic.
Today we might see it as a conflict between “elites” and “the masses.” The elites preached enlightened self-interest from ivory towers in world capitals, particularly in the Bohemia of Central Europe, which was a sort of Greenwich Village writ large of the era, while on any given day the vast majority of the human race was still fighting over food scraps. The vanguard fanned across the world both literally and figuratively, armed with books and studies and theories, convinced in their heart of hearts that they could import the nation-state mythology and its scientific base all but unmodified from the campuses of Cambridge, Paris, and Munich and the cafés of Vienna and Prague to the frontiers of Africa, the mountains of the subcontinent, the jungles of Asia, and the steppes of the Americas. How foolish they were.
This land is your land, this land is my land
While the concept of nation-states, much less countries, arrived relatively recently in human history, the notion of individual human beings “owning” land and chattel to the exclusion of others is probably as old as the species. The story of the human race often boils down to a story of “my stuff versus your stuff.” As portrayed compellingly in the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, at some point three or four million years ago there was a moment when the first Australopithecus afarensis or Kenyanthropus platyops humanoid picked up the first rudimentary weapon and a synapse fired in its rudimentary neocortex: Mine. Even otherwise communal cultures, like the peaceful Tongva and Chumash peoples who lived in Southern California for at least five thousand years before the arrival of Europeans, recognized the concept (it is for this reason that indigenous people assert the United States was built on their land).
Tribalism is another evolutionary fact: Archeological discoveries have revealed conflicts between Neanderthal tribes in Europe some 80,000 years ago. Indigenous peoples in North America likewise organized into tribes that warred with each other over territorial, chattel, and other disputes. Indeed, territorialism and tribalism are innate. Territorial conflicts are intense in our closest relatives, chimpanzees. Male chimps routinely gang up to attack and kill males from rival bands, behavior scientists have described as strikingly (not to mention distressingly) similar tohuman warfare.
The story of the human race often boils down to a story of “my stuff versus your stuff.”
The occasional Code of Ur-Namu or Hammurabi aside, tribal, ancestral, and eventually religious bonds remained paramount in most human civilizations until relatively recently, and outside a handful of (relatively) stable cities and city-states the world was awash in blood. One of the biggest challenges confronting medieval European monarchs, for example, was how to prevent families and tribes from perpetuating and escalating historic blood feuds. The seeds of western democracy and modern nation-states were sown in an effort to replace that most fundamental of human transgressions, the taking of a life for a life, with compensation schemes for victims’ families called wergild. Ironically (or perhaps appropriately) Norse and Danish Vikings developed the concept. Similar evolutions were occurring around the same period elsewhere in the world: In China the Han Dynasty introduced the “Five Punishments” that the state endorsed for various crimes. In the 12th century the Japanese Samurai established the first rule of law in that country, and in India the highest castes made their first halting steps toward formalizing rights for the lower castes (albeit not the untouchables).
The results were not enlightened government or transnational peace. Organizing people into nations instead of tribes simply supplanted tribalism with nationalism. With the exception of those quasi-mystical things called “borders” it’s more or less been the same thing, just with bigger caliber weapons. Human beings can be agonizingly predictable.
History’s relentless practicality
At any given moment human beings may be prone to emotion, and in short spurts groups and mobs of them can inflict unimaginable harm on each other, but over a longer timeline history is a relentlessly practical schoolmaster. Cultures began to impose rule of law the way nuclear engineers introduce control rods into a reactor, to slow and control the otherwise entropy that would destroy the system from within. While some leaders acted out of genuine moral or religious conviction the vast majority simply wanted to maintain a modicum of order, not to mention preserve their own dynastic privilege. Turns out, an independent legal system, enforced by independent militias (later sheriff and police forces), are the best way to do that. Thus was a mythology born.
The 1648 European Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Eighty Years War among the kingdoms of Spain and France and the loosely allied principalities of Germany and western Poland drew the world’s first internationally recognized sovereign boundaries, and, more consequentially, established international legal norms by which they were enforced. Westphalia was fatally flawed from the start in that the new state boundaries were by necessity often arbitrary and poorly sited. For example, France obtained for the first time a firm western frontier in the Rhine Valley. Westphalia gave it sovereignty over Alsace, while confirming its possession of Metz, Toul, and Verdon (which it had in turn seized a century earlier). One hundred seventy years later some four million soldiers and half a million civilians would die in those very places in a war over those very borders.
[With Westphalia] France obtained for the first time a firm western frontier in the Rhine Valley…. One hundred seventy years later some four million soldiers and half a million civilians would die in those very places in a war over those very borders.
Nevertheless, over the next 250 years the nature of international relations underwent a profound transformation. Human civilization, not to mention human conflict, increasingly centered on questions of boundaries, state identity, and sovereignty. Religious, tribal, and even ethnic conflicts slowly retreated from the world scene – at least, they seemed to. All that was left was for the major European colonial powers to export the Enlightenment thought of Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Rosseau and the rest to their neatly carved-out possessions around the globe.
The ascendance of the evangelical technocracy
Export it they did, with a vengeance. By the time of Westphalia the Age of Exploration was more than a century under way. Geography was nearly as irrelevant to those European mapmakers as ethnicity and history. Colonial powers dispatched boundary commissions by the thousand to survey and confirm on the ground what already had been determined in those capitals thousands of miles away. Never mind that in many places the exact locations of borders were, and in many cases remain, known only to those bureaucrats and mapmakers, European colonial powers bisected, trisected, and quadrasected entire continents with lines that bore little if any resemblance to reality.
It was the apotheosis of the European technocrat. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a modern state bureaucracy and foreign service were as essential Great Power accoutrements as colonies and fleets of battleships. Indeed the latter begat the former. These bureaucracies, populated as they were by educated, theoretically impartial men (almost always, with an occasional woman) whose loyalties were to science and the state rather than the vagaries of human passions and emotions, were part of the brave vanguard who, with enough treasure expended in their general direction, would at last transcend those passions and emotions in an idealized world of scientific reason. The result would be a rational, scientific Utopia.
Ironically, modern European technocrats proved more orthodox, and their theories less adaptable, than the Arab, African, Oriental, and American cultures and empires they sought to supplant, or “civilize.” Muslim Turkish sultans and even Catholic Spanish conquistadors generally were more tolerant of other religions than humanistic European technocrats were of other political theories (which is not to say tolerant by modern standards). These days historians love nothing more than a good religious punching bag to explain the world’s woes, when in reality it was coldblooded secular politics that caused the most harm. The genocide of American indigenous peoples had far less to do with religious fanaticism than the political and territorial will to power (which, again, isn’t to suggest the expansion of the United States was not often viewed as nothing short of a holy crusade to individual settlers and the occasional President). Then again, throughout history religion has been conscripted into the service of secular ambitions far more often than vice versa.
This work was largely completed just in time for World War I to engulf many of those brand-new, make-believe countries, the violent death spasm of the very order the technocrats represented. Yet the global order on the morning an excitable young Australian Navy gunnery crew fired the first shots of the war at a German merchant ship SS Pfalz at 1245 hours, 5 August 1914, was still a hybrid. The vast majority of “countries” were under the rule of ancient, ossified European monarchies and empires. One of the great ironies of the Great War was that in destroying the last of old European order once and for all it perversely reinforced the notion that countries were not only real, but essential. After all, civilized peoples wouldn’t slaughter 20 million of each other over myths, would they? And so those mythological countries bestrode the world, zombie-like, for another three-quarters of a century.
The mythology proved stubbornly durable even after it gestated and birthed a second global war that this time culminated in the unleashing of weapons of unthinkable destructive power, the reality that humankind had arrived at — or perhaps more accurately, stumbled to — the precipice of its own suicide. The fact that atomic weapons have as much regard for lines on maps as the winds that disperse their radioactive fallout might have given European technocrats and their global counterparts some pause. After all, atomic bombs dropped in eastern France, southern Germany, or western Poland would have killed and maimed people in a dozen countries, including artifices like Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.
Yet the ink on Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu’s signature was barely dry aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay when a new generation of foreign service professionals started drawing new lines on new-old maps. Again, the seeds were there all along: At the height of the French Resistance Charles de Gaulle himself schemed for France’s post-war primacy in the Middle East, a French ambition dating back to, appropriately, the Gallic era (aside: de Gaulle arguably is modern history’s Donald Trump prototype — it is difficult to conjure a more nation-first leader than the Tall Asparagus).
It didn’t matter that Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, not to mention Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Vietnam, Korea, and dozens of others were creations of European foreign service bureaucrats and mapmakers, many of whom like their forebears had never ventured beyond the borders of their own countries. Describing one of these arbitrary lines, the demilitarized zone that has divided the Koreas since 1955, Robert D. Kaplan wrote in the Preface to his 2012 book The Revenge of Geography, “like the Berlin Wall, [it] is an arbitrary border of no geographical logic that divides an ethnic nation at the spot where two opposing armies happened to come to rest.” History is replete with such banal happenstance, from the Great Wall of China to the nation of Kuwait.
If World War I was the decisive nail in the coffin of the old world’s system of monarchs and empires, World War II and the Cold War were the apex of nation-state-based international relations, a period in which the threat of nuclear Armageddon made the chess game seem almost rational by comparison. And yet the fully-realized edifice, enforced by history’s first global intergovernmental organization, the United Nations, showed cracks almost immediately. America’s disastrous adventures in Vietnam, Iraq (x2), and Afghanistan stressed the myths to breaking point, at the cost of many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of lives. Our ignominious final withdrawal from Afghanistan was followed with equally head-snapping rapidity by the (re-)arrival of Russian and Chinese for whom the region is the site of ancient battles and prejudices of their own. There are few places where history has reasserted itself as quickly, consistently, and ruthlessly over centuries as it has in the Graveyard of Empires. Likewise, history will regard it as no mere coincidence that AUKUS was consummated exactly 15 days after the last U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster went wheels up from Bagram Air Base.
Blood is thicker than international commerce
And so, with apologies to James Joyce, our story brings us now by commodious vicus of recirculation back to the agreement. Look at the map of Asia, Russia, the subcontinent, and Europe. The myth is right there, in the division of a single land mass into two distinct continents. It’s anyone’s guess where “Asia” ends and “Europe” begins, and always has been – just ask the Kosovars or Turks. Or, for that matter, the Asian minorities who populate much of Siberia, or the Mongol peoples sandwiched in between “Russia” and “China.”
Now look at a map of the whole world, consider AUKUS, and travel west to reach the east. From the UK to the United States and Canada, thorough Australia the agreement covers roughly three-quarters of the globe. Add in treaty and other alliances like NATO and SEATO, bilateral military alliances with the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea in Asia, a 75-year military presence in the Middle East, and de facto (albeit untenable over the long term) hegemony over Central and South America, and the full scope of the New Anglosphere is readily apparent – as are the threats it poses to rival powers China and Russia (India, as it has been since independence, is a geopolitical wildcard, a nation that spends billions earned in trade with the United States to purchase Russian tanks and warplanes to secure its borders with China and Pakistan).
For China in particular AUKUS disinters particularly horrifying ghosts thought to be long decayed and gone, memorialized only in schoolbooks and state propaganda: The ghosts of the Opium Wars, the Middle Kingdom’s ultimate humiliation at the hands of European savages. In this context, Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, while providing hand-wringing material to western foreign service types who even today still insist on viewing the world as a collection of “countries,” fits perfectly into history’s pragmatic arc. China’s humiliations came from the sea in the form of British man-o-war’s and French frigates. In contrast its triumphs have come from the western mountains and upon the Mongolian and Xinjiang steppes. Mao’s stronghold in the early days of the civil war was in the Jinggang Mountains between Jianxi and Hunan provinces, the same natural barrier from whence Chinese and American pilots and crews in the legendary Flying Tigers squadrons helped block Japan’s advance into central China (this history, and its ancient rivalry with India and the Muslim world, brings Beijing’s obsession with Tibet into relief).
History is not politically correct. It cares not one whit that the New Anglosphere is based on a common language imposed over a period of centuries by colonial and imperialistic powers that slaughtered and enslaved millions. It is immaterial that Japan and the United States are among the world’s strongest allies in part because the U.S. obliterated two Japanese cities in the process of defeating it in a total war, subsequently occupied the country, and wrote its constitution. History cares only that the New Anglosphere is connected not just militarily and economically but linguistically and culturally. English is the first or second language in all of the countries that comprise it, and English is the lingua franca of trade and travel between them and the rest of the world. Meanwhile, these days American teenagers are as likely to listen to a K-Pop playlist or Dubai-based DJ as the latest Beyoncé album. Cultural and economic intercourse within the New Anglosphere moves as naturally as the trade winds themselves.
Perhaps most consequentially of all, in the United States our greatest strength, our diversity, means that we remain the heart of this ecosystem. Tens of millions of families are deeply connected to two and often more than two countries other than this one, and often via multiple generations. The increasing irrelevance of “countries” is apparent on our own southern border, where networks of migration are concerned with borders solely to the extent they present nominal physical obstacles (not to mention opportunities for human-based commercial activity like human smuggling). Cross-border connections between communities and families go back generations and are more resilient than the vagaries of immigration policy and enforcement at any given moment under any given administration. Many connections, and even physical routes, date back to the days of Spanish migration and the misións (this aspect of California history is another example of history’s contempt for concepts of human rights and international law. Californians of all stripes are connected by a common history of aboriginal extermination, a fact that demands equivocation when it comes to notions of systemic racism. After all, the impoverished undocumented Latino migrant trying to cross the border from Mexico into California exists because her ancestors exterminated Mayans and other first peoples in central and South America, raising the question why she has any more (or less) right to live in California than descendants of Anglo-Saxon and other Europeans who followed later and exterminated other peoples. Toss in centuries of intermarrying and mutual assimilation and it gets very confusing very quickly).
The extent to which the country’s diversification has strengthened our bonds with our allies cannot be overstated, not to mention the rate at which it has and continues to happen. The geography and history of that process are by now impossible to deny, nor is the fact that the English language is the common denominator.
What remains of the old order?
There are two glaring omissions in AUKUS, France and Germany. This is not an accident. The French and the Anglos share a distrust that dates back 1,500 years. They are currently at odds over a range of economic and security issues as a result of Brexit, as exemplified by fishing rights disputes in the English Channel. Paris claims Britain is unlawfully (there’s that word again) withholding fishing permits for French vessels, and has threatened retaliation in the form of sanctions, power interruptions, even a blockade. Make no mistake, the debate has little to do with halibut. History is reasserting itself in the Channel and North Sea. The dispute is a microcosm of the bigger historic shift: It is an argument based on national fishing rights, that is, which “country” has permission under “international law” to harvest which clupea harengus where, while meanwhile on the eastern frontier Vladimir Putin is simply taking large chunks of other nations’ territories based on an argument that borders do not — or at least should not — reflect reality. Putin recognize that borders violate history, while the rest of Europe is obsessing over whether certain “countries” have a right under “international law” to leave alliances with other “countries.” The disputes are identical, it’s just a matter of semantics.
France’s bellicosity is also a bit of political theater. AUKUS replaced an existing bilateral deal between Australia and France for conventional diesel electric submarines. When Sydney ejected that deal (which under its terms it was within its rights to do) it didn’t just cost France’s defense industry some $60 billion. It effectively ended France’s military relevance in the Asia Pacific theater, reducing it to a bit player in a huge and growing new global alliance. For the French, a prideful people who never quite gave up their global aspirations and for whom the loss of their Asian colonies in “Indochina” remains a source of national humiliation, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. The fact that one of the parties taking their place at the table is their ancient rivals makes it that much more noxious. They are left with the consolation prizes of a few island territories and the occasional strategic exercise — when they’re invited.
President Joe Biden may have made sure to stage a photo op with French President Emanuel Macrón within weeks of the agreement, but it was just that: A photo op. France, along with all of Western Europe now has to decide where its fate lies, whether to look farther west and north for its security, as it has for the last 250 years, or return its gaze east and south, as it did for the 1,750 years before that. Germany faces a similar inflection point: Are they still part of Western Europe, as has been the case since World War I? Or are they the primary power in a new Central Europe, neo-Prussians and neo-Bohemians using main battle tanks and free trade to balance the culture of the west with the civilization of the east? Or perhaps we need to ask a more basic question: Is post-war, unified “Germany” sustainable as a concept at all?
History is forcing these decisions upon those countries and peoples because there is no other set of alternatives. France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and the rest are too small to go it alone and too limited to form their own independent alliance. NATO minus the United States and Canada is a regional alliance at best that, among other deficiencies, fields a total of three light aircraft carriers capable of deploying roughly 50 aircraft in local and regional conflicts, and a small handful of (French) strategic nuclear weapons. During the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbian forces in Kosovo, the United States dropped 60% of all ordinance and provided 70% of logistical flights — in Europe’s own backyard. In the context of 21st century international relations those individual countries amount to prey, and in a North America-less alliance they are the equivalent of herd animals circling around the young as the lions close in.
In contrast, the U.S. fleet alone includes a dozen supercarriers that can deploy nearly 1,000 aircraft in sustained strategic operations over a quarter of the globe at a time. America also possesses more than 3,700 nuclear warheads deployed among the triad of submarines, aircraft, and ICBMs. The UK has four ballistic missile submarines and two blue sea carriers, and Japan has 12 conventional attack submarines and two “helicopter cruisers,” aka the world’s worst kept secret aircraft carriers (even though Japan isn’t signatory to AUKUS it is party in all but name; it could be called AUKUS-J). Again, it is no accident that even as the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan stalemated we were pouring resources into a new alliance that makes far more strategic sense than either of those (mis)adventures ever did. History may well come to regard 2001-2021 as a strange sort of pause d’action on a global scale, when places like Syria, Serbia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Bosnia-Herzegovina seemed not just relevant but immediate and militarily essential. The New Anglosphere makes far more sense.
Does all of this mean that the world is returning to a state of perpetual entropy, chaos, and conflict, exacerbated by climate change into a Malthusian battle over dwindling resources? A cynic might apprehend the coming of a new era of bureaucratized Orwellian mega-states and mega-alliances. AUKUS even sounds like a country straight out of 1984. Meanwhile the emergence of the New Anglosphere is in turn provoking strange bedfellows, pushing China and Russia closer together. China also is engaged independently on the so-called “Belt and Road” initiative, seeking nothing less than the restoration of the ancient Silk Road and the Middle Kingdom’s access to the Middle East and Africa. Could this hearken the dawn of a new sort of Pax Tartaria in Eurasia concurrently with the New Anglosphere, each with allied (or at least non-bellicose) peripheries comprised of historic rivals with nevertheless deep historical and cultural ties?
The answer points to one area in which the old, “country” based order was onto something. The relationship between the United States and China, for example, has proved more durable than many observers predicted three decades ago at the cusp of the last (minor) geopolitical realignment at the end of the Cold War. Far more durable, in fact. It has weathered actual military crises like the downing of a U.S. spy plane by Chinese warplanes in 2001 Hainan Island Incident, conflict over human rights abuses in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and elsewhere, and routine saber rattling by the nuclear armed rivals over various disputes in the Pacific Ocean. As in the Cold War deterrence has worked, so far (that conclusion comes with a sizable asterisk, as the flood of illicit drugs from China to the U.S., particularly fentanyl, increasingly, and increasingly disconcertingly, resembles a sort of reverse version of the English-Chinese opium trade leading up to the Opium Wars, but that’s a story for another day).
There is another layer of insurance, however, in the countries’ economic entanglements. Trade between the economic superpowers is on course to surpass $1 trillion annually by 2030, and likely well before. So dependent are we that it would be a serious question whether we could actually declare war on each other without decimating each other’s economies before the first shot was fired. In a sense, Washington and Beijing are the geopolitical equivalent of Alexander Dumas’s Corsican Brothers, fraternal twins who feel each other’s physical and emotional pain, even from far away. An U.S. attack on China is an attack on our own industrial base; a Chinese attack on the U.S. is an attack on its own economic heartbeat.
Human beings may at last be discovering a natural balance between the realities of global power politics and the needs and wants of the human beings upon whose shoulders it rests (and, equally importantly, without whom those global power politics are meaningless). It’s comforting to think, and of course it’s an open question. What is settled is that the old order is giving way to something new, that “countries” are slowly morphing into a new form of organization and even governance. Perhaps for the first time in the history of our species, with the information of the world available to all who care to look at the tap of a screen, we will be able to listen to history and enter the new era with a scintilla of humility.
We had better get it right. Because history is back, and this time it’s armed with hypersonic nuclear weapons.
He isn’t good at his job, it’s as simple as that — A community in pain — To understand the desperation and fear just walk the streets of CD 11 — You won’t believe your eyes — This recall is different from the others in California’s recent “recall fever” — Nonpartisan effort led by two members of Mr. Bonin’s party
The people of Los Angeles Council District 11 have some questions. They live in the wealthiest district in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest county in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in human history. Why, then, they ask, have large swathes of the community come to resemble war zones, with accumulating body counts?
Actually, forget “resemble” — large swathes of CD 11 are literal war zones, blocks and neighborhoods contested by gangs and cartels that prey on the homeless and terrorize the housed. Residents want to know why people die on the streets, the vast majority of preventable causes, on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Why are the nights filled with the tortured screams of lunatics and addicts left to languish and perish in their own personal hells, with nary so much as a bottle of water offered by one of the myriad nonprofits and city agencies that circle the district like jackals around a dying animal? Where have the billions voters approved out of their own wallets to “solve homelessness once and for all” ended up?
Why are the most hideous of crimes — gang rapes, gunfights, stabbings, brutal assaults, violence of every sort — no longer so much as remarked upon? In February 2020 a 29 year old graduate student was beaten, gang raped, and left for dead in a public bathroom in Venice. A horrific crime that in any rational society would be front page, even national news — and one single obscure local blog even bothered mentioning it. It was just another day in Mike Bonin’s paradise: he’s turned Venice Beach into Rape Town, USA.
All of which raises the biggest question of all: In the midst of the accelerating decline of one of the world’s most beautiful places … where in the bloody Hell is Mike Bonin?
A recall motivated by facts, not politics
An elected official’s job is to be visible and available to his or her constituents, to assure them their concerns are being heard by their government. In the parlance of our times, people expect their leaders to be present. It’s the reason people remember the councilman’s predecessor Bill Rosenthal fondly. Mr. Rosenthal was a politician and a gladhander, but he cared for the district and the people he represented. And he was smart enough to know that the way to keep his job was to deliver for them. He didn’t change the world, he did his job. An obituary in a local blog remembered him as an “honest man.”
Mike Bonin is not a leader nor an honest man. As covered by the Westside Current earlier this month recent public records disclosures provided fresh insight into his character. In January 2020 he concocted a story about a bomb threat at the soon-to-open “Bridge Home” homeless shelter in Venice. He strongly implied that his own constituents had planted it. He doubled down and amplified the lie even after the LAPD emailed him and also went public with directly contrary information based on their investigation. His bald-faced lie — one that amounts to an accusation of a federal act of terror, planting a bomb on government property, worse yet as an act of political terror — stands to this day.
That’s just a recent example of the kind of person who represents CD 11. It’s as if Mr. Bonin is playing a political version of stop hitting yourself with his own constituents. An accounting of his deceit would require chapters and go back years. Witness his craven flip flop on public safety, when in the space of a few weeks he went from LAPD champion to posting “F**k the police” on his personal twitter feed.
All of which explains why, as the recall campaign progresses, you’ll encounter individuals of all political stripes who are unified in their desire — indeed, their sheer desperation — for leadership in their community. For an object lesson in how badly Mr. Bonin is faring, ask homeless folks in CD 11 what they think of him. In 2019, a transgender man died of an intentional heroin overdose in an encampment in front of the Mar Vista Library. I visited the camp the next evening along with community leader and former city commissioner Lydia Grant. We handed out blankets and hygiene kits and spoke to individuals living in a small row of tents on Grand View Avenue.
For an object lesson in how badly Mr. Bonin is faring, ask homeless folks in CD 11 what they think of him.
A man who identified himself as “Hippie” was as blunt as could be: “F**k Mike Bonin.” Hippie, who was a line order cook before a pair of heart attacks cleared out his bank account, had a lot to say about the MIA councilman. He said that he had never been offered services of any kind. An admitted heroin addict he said he wanted to get clean.
Two other individuals in a nearby tent shared similar sentiments. While homeless people, particularly addicts, can be notoriously unreliable storytellers these guys came across as sincere. I believed them when they said Mr. Bonin and his confederacy of taxpayer-funded nonprofit profiteers are what stand between them and the hope of recovery. In any case, regardless of the veracity of the details of their lives their disdain for Mike Bonin was as true as the day is long.
As encampments proliferated and human misery metastasized throughout CD 11 the councilman responded with an ambitious program of … carefully scripted, self-aggrandizing town halls. His public appearances had the sincerity, spontaneity, and human warmth of Soviet Komsomolrallies. As conditions deteriorated in the community and his constituents pressed him for solutions he restricted even those limited appearances. And when people began actively criticizing him he vanished like an apparition into the dusty bureaucracy that constitutes Los Angeles city government. Over the last two and a half years his public appearances have been so rare that they’ve become a sort of political Groundhog Day: If Mike Bonin emerges from his Mar Vista bungalow and sees his shadow CD 11 is in for six more months of spiraling social decay.
The only times he does appear publicly these days are when he is shamed into it. This summer, after years of neglect he moved to clear the worst encampments and most troublesome individuals off the Venice Boardwalk. The reason was that his colleague on city council gave a press conference on the Boardwalk where he called out Bonin. A week later L.A. Sheriff Alex Villanueva began his own enforcement program. Only then did Mr. Bonin act.
Over the last two and a half years his public appearances have been so rare that they’ve become a sort of political Groundhog Day: If Mike Bonin emerges from his Mar Vista bungalow and sees his shadow CD 11 is in for six more months of spiraling social decay.
By any reasonable metric he is a failed leader. That isn’t a political statement, it’s the only possible conclusion based on facts. Nor is the recall borne of some personal vendetta — though there are plenty of people in CD 11 who have ample cause for personal grudges against the councilman. He’s just not good at his job. It is as simple as that.
A feeling of desperation
Every so often a person does something so horrifically beyond the pale that it exposes something essential about their soul. Mike Bonin inadvertently does this sorts of things with startling frequency. Everyone in CD 11 remembers the night he quite literally turned his back on a mentally distressed homeless man who was attempting to start a fire with his bare hands. Mr. Bonin encountered the man in the course of a walking tour of yet another planned “road diet” in Del Mar. The man was pouring some sort of accelerant onto a small fire and rambling incoherently. Mr. Bonin stood over the man for a few seconds as the flames expanded, then turned on his heel and walked away. Mind you there is an LAPD station directly across the street from where the incident occurred. All he had to do was pause his political event for five minutes to help a fellow human being, and he couldn’t even muster that scintilla of humanity.
That single moment is all anyone needs to know about Michael J. Bonin. Someone who treats another human being like that, least of all one who is helpless and suffering in plain sight, has no business representing the people. That kind of icewater blood makes for bad, bad decision making.
Someone who treats another human being like that, least of all one who is helpless and suffering in plain sight, has no business representing the people. That kind of icewater blood makes for bad, bad decision making.
There is genuine fear in the air in CD 11 these days. Fires, break-ins, assaults and attacks, rapes, even murders are weekly and daily occurrences. Residents, women in particular, often are afraid to venture outside. And yet the worse things get the less engaged the councilman becomes.
In council he consistently opposes even incremental efforts to address illegal encampments, such as a motion introduced in September that would allows the city to start cleaning up larger camps upon sufficient notice, offer of services, and the like. Despite overwhelming public support, particularly among his own constituents, Mr. Bonin was one of two councilmembers to vote no.
The most dangerous individual in Los Angeles
When all is said and done the issue boils down to what people see in their own neighborhoods with their own eyes every day. It’s what their children see, scenes that no child should witness are horrifyingly quotidian in Mike Bonin’s CD 11. The degree of sheer human misery and depravity on display on the streets of CD 11 rivals anything you’ll find in the most desperately poor third world countries. I should know, I’ve traveled through many of them. In fact, CD 11 homeless camps are in some ways worse than what you’ll encounter in places like Malawi, Nepal, Burma, or Xinjiang Province, China. In those places people are desperately poor and often lack basics like clean water. But they also have communities, neighborhoods, families. Social structures and support networks often composed of generations. In contrast, the men and women languishing on the streets and in public spaces throughout Mike Bonin’s CD 11 are alone.
When it comes down to it, Mike Bonin is a predator. He has built — oh, let’s call it a “career” — on the backs of the weakest, most vulnerable, and most helpless. Addicts and individuals with crippling mental, psychological, or physical disabilities are essential to his political life, and he devours them the way Freddy Kruger devours souls. Actually, as between the two most people would take their chances with the latter — at least there’s a fighting chance, and at least the death is relatively quick. Under Mike Bonin people are tortured for weeks, months, and years, for their agony is succor for the multibillion dollar Leviathan known as the homeless industrial complex, for which Mr. Bonin is Exhibit A.
It is no stretch to say that Mike Bonin is the most dangerous individual in Los Angeles. Which is what makes this recall different from all the others. The Gavin Newsom recall was led by conservative Republicans, and the flailing effort to recall George Gascon smacks more of sour grapes than anything.
When it comes down to it, Mike Bonin is a predator.
In contrast, the effort to recall Mr. Bonin is nothing less than a matter of life and death. Every moment he is allowed to remain in office, thousands of lives are at risk, and thousands more are at risk of being victimized by horrific crimes. Our environment and open spaces will continue to be defiled by illegal camping, cooking, dumping, defecation and urination, drug manufacturing and use, and the steady accumulation of trash, detritus, and contamination. Multiple destructive, often toxic homeless fires will continue to burn every day and night.
And unless and until he is removed from office those nights will continue to be filled with the screams of Mike Bonin’s innumerable victims.
Where are the Boston Celtics? Where’s ESPN? NBA.com? U.S. network coverage?
In a rational world this man would be front-page news. File photo
In a rational world Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter would be front-page news. His biography is an American Dream for the global age: The journeyman player is Turkish, was born in Switzerland, went to high school in Southern California and college in West Virginia, and has played professional basketball in Turkey, Greece, and a half dozen American cities. He will become a U.S. citizen sometime in the next couple of months. These days he plays for a team in New England named after an ancient Irish tribe. He is truly a man of our age, with a global platform.
Kanter, who is Muslim, is also the only player in the National Basketball Association who has spoken openly and defiantly about the Chinese government’s brutal oppression of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and other ethnic minorities primarily in the Middle Kingdom’s west provinces. On Wednesday he tweeted a 2:46 minute video of himself in a black t-shirt featuring an image of the Dali Llama. The video was entitled “Dear Brutal Dictator XI JINPING and the Chinese Government.” Even before the first viewer clicked play, in nine words Kanter showed more backbone than the rest of the NBA ecosystem combined.
He eviscerated Beijing and its treatment of Tibet and its people. “I’m here to add my voice and speak out about what is happening in Tibet,” he began. “Under the Chinese government’s brutal rule, Tibetan people’s basic rights and freedoms are nonexistent.” He detailed the abuses, from denial of basic rights of speech, association, and religion to the arrest, “reeducation,” torture, and murder of Tibetan civil leaders. He said that as a result of “stifling cultural genocide” more than 150 people had burned themselves alive in the hope that their dramatic sacrifice would call attention to their cause.
He concluded his video by addressing Xi Jinping personally, gesturing with a brawny forearm and stabbing a finger toward the camera, “Brutal dictator of China, Xi Jinping, I have a message for you and your henchmen. I will say it again, and again, and again, and again, loud and clear. I hope you hear me: Free Tibet, Free Tibet, Free Tibet.” If the video doesn’t move you check your pulse.
On Friday he doubled down by tweeting a second video. In the new video, which clocked in at 3:16, Kanter wore a shirt emblazoned with “Freedom for Uyghur” and spoke about China’s equally brutal suppression of Uyghurs as well as Kazaks, Tajiks, and other Muslim minorities. He called out leaders of Muslim countries worldwide, telling them their silence was complicity. He ended by again calling out Xi personally. By the end of the day the video had nearly half a million views.
Kanter is no stranger to this kind of crusade. In 2013 he tweeted criticisms of Turkish president Recep Erdoğan. After a failed coup in 2016 Erdoğan purged political opponents in the country’s bureaucracy, judiciary, and police and military and jailed tens of thousands of perceived political enemies and other dissidents. As a result of Kanter’s tweets the country revoked his citizenship and briefly imprisoned his father, who was released only after Kanter brought international attention and pressure to bear. Vox has called him a “major enemy” of the Turkish leader, and he regularly receives death threats. He cannot leave the United States until he becomes a citizen, because Turkey has issued an international arrest warrant for him, the political equivalent of the fatwah the Ayatollahs issued against Salman Rushdie in the 1990s.
Courage in an age of cowardice
It’s telling: The more Xi Jinping drags China toward tyranny the more supine the U.S. political and business classes become. An internet search for “Enes Kanter NBA Tibet” returns stories about “backlash,” “the NBA’s China problem,” and how China has blacked out Celtics games. NBC News ran a headline, “NBA facing fresh China backlash after Enes Kanter slams ‘dictator’ Xi over Tibet,” complete with scare quotes around an accurate description of the Chinese leader. Back in 2019 the Washington Post and others criticized presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg for claiming Xi was not a dictator. In 2018 NBC itself ran an extensive opinion piece about Xi returning China “to one-man rule” not seen since Mao Tse-tung. What a difference a couple-three years make.
The one story you won’t find is about Kanter’s courage. You won’t find any stories about the actual human rights abuses he raises, which occur by the million on a daily basis. Though his videos already have attracted over 1.5 million views and have thousands of comments, you won’t find statements of support from his employers, his league, or his teammates and peers. All are silent. Then again, Kanter so far is faring better than former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who the league forced into a humiliating apology after he tweeted tepid support for human rights protests in Hong Kong.
Fact is, aside from the uniqueness of his life story Kanter’s words and actions should not be notable in this country — or rather, he should be a voice in a chorus. That he is an island is itself an indictment of American corporate and political leadership.
When was the last time you saw a “Free Tibet” bumper sticker in Hollywood or Manhattan? When was the last time an A-list celebrity stood with Tibet, or a famous rock band — say, one that call themselves “Rage Against the Machine” — played a Tibet benefit concert? For the record that would be 1999. These days you won’t hear much about Tibet, much less Xinjiang, but you will see the sorry spectacle of A-listers begging the Chinese Communist Party’s forgiveness for horrific transgressions like once inadvertently calling Taiwan a “country.”
The fact that calling a brutal dictator a brutal dictator is controversial in the United States of America in 2021 shows just how far down the path of illiberalism we’ve traveled. Self-censorship on behalf of an adversarial power that recently tested a hypersonic, globe-spanning, nuclear-capable missile. It makes people like Kanter that much more essential. Hardly a week goes by without a headline about another American corporation selling out to China in the name of the almighty bottom line. In a coincidence worthy of The Matrix, on the same day that Kanter posted his Tibet video the considerably less stouthearted CEO of the country’s third largest corporation announced a new round of self-censorship at Beijing’s behest. Apple has blocked the Yahoo! news app from Chinese devices. This is a particularly dire step because Yahoo! was one of the last foreign news services available to the Chinese public.
America desperately needs more Enes Kanters, just like we need more Dave Chappelles, Joe Rogans, Bari Weisses, Joel Kotkinses, and others. It’s not just the right thing to do: Every American corporation that bows to China is not just selling out its own country, it isn’t just hammering another nail into the coffin of global human rights. It’s selling out its own long-term viability. China’s interests in foreign corporations are precisely coterminous with the extent to which those corporations provide some benefit to the Chinese Communist Party, whether in revenue or, more often, China’s ability to copy and duplicate those corporations’ products. To not realize as much is to be reckless or mad.
The NBA seems unaware of the profound asynchronicity of its relationship with Beijing. China doesn’t need the NBA, and as the government’s response to Kanter’s tweet shows it can terminate the relationship quite literally with the flip of a switch. The NBA is an entertainment property, and China’s government has made development of its own domestic entertainment industries, including sports, a national priority. The China Basketball League already is the preeminent men’s sports league in Asia, with further international ambitions. And the NBA isn’t just self-censoring, it’s self-sabotaging: Prostrating to China has helped to wreck the league’s reputation here at home and contributed to record low ratings.
The saddest part of America’s ongoing capitulation to the Chinese government, up to and including the dictatorial thug Xi Jinping and his Beijing mafia, is that we’re selling our own future. Americans should stand with Enes Kanter. In a rational world he would be the toast of the NBA. Hopefully being the toast of sane people the world over is some consolation.
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More companies have fled the city so far in 2021 than in all of 2020, itself previously the worst year on record — Flight from Frisco as companies recognize employee mobility in the tech era — The cloud is replacing office space
Like the Motor City, the City by the Bay became a victim of its own success and excess
In 1960 Detroit was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States, placing it high in the running for wealthiest worldwide. A staggering 93% of all automobiles sold domestically and nearly half sold overseas were manufactured in the Motor City, which dominated not just the domestic economy but the nation’s psyche for a quarter century after World War II. Automobiles suffused popular culture and affected every aspect of life, from pop music to movies to political movements. Many believe that the Civil Rights Movement would not have been possible, or at least would have taken substantially longer, without automobiles and resultant innovations like the Green Book.
Flash forward to 2008 when the city declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. A combination of international competition, technological innovation, and institutional hubris (both on the part of management and employee unions) doomed the glory days of the domestic car business. Toss in a healthy dose of old fashioned Rust Belt political corruption and spiraling crime rates and today Detroit ranks as one of the poorest, most dangerous, and worst run cities in the country. It’s a place where once-grand homes routinely sell for pennies on the dollar.
Warning signs of excess and decline emerged relatively early in the post-war era. In 1958 a 3.5 million square foot Packard factory shuttered after the company’s ill-fated merger with Studebaker and subsequent bankruptcy. Its demise foreshadowed systemic issues that lurked just under the surface of the flood of post-war productivity and cash. By the early 1960s, competition from Japanese and European marques that emphasized efficiency, reliability, and modern technology over sheer size and power gnawed away at Detroit’s biggest advantage, its centralized production model. The auto industry had painted itself into a corner: At the very moment this new competition was changing customers’ expectations the domestic Big Three were locked into supply contracts that sometimes extended over a decade or more. In a head-snappingly short period of time Detroit’s biggest strength became one of its biggest liabilities. The oil crises of the 1970s and labor disputes of the 1980s accelerated the decline. By the late 80s “innovation” in Detroit often was reduced to a matter of badge-swapping.
The most infamous example, and a perfect symbol of Detroit’s decline, was the flaming pile of Cadillac known as the Cimarron. The luxury marque’s entry offering literally was a Chevy Cavalier economy car with a Cadillac badge and some leather. Suffice it to say, consumers noticed. The Big Three would lose market share consistently until well into the 2000s.
San Francisco’s parallels in the 2020s
Early mover advantage. Near monopolies. Complex supply chains with interlocking dependencies. Rapid national and even global dominance. Immeasurable cultural and social impacts. Early signs of overreach and hubris. Detroit at the start of 1970s sounds eerily like San Francisco entering the 2020s.
Entire websites are dedicated to tracking the exodus. The frightening thing to consider, at least if you love the City by the Bay and care about its future, is the sheer variety of reasons people are leaving. There’s no one issue policymakers can address: The exodus is as broad as it is deep. Families are fed up with mortgaging their children’s futures to reside in a city that’s become infamous for a “poop app” that warns people where the latest piles of excrement have been discovered. People are fleeing out of control crime, a homeless crisis that qualifies as a humanitarian disaster, crumbling infrastructure, and decaying public spaces. They’re escaping the tech industry’s incorrigible “bro culture” and the stifling groupthink in which careers can depend on saying the right things and donating to the correct causes. Some are just fed up with the lousy weather.
That’s another similarity with Detroit in the 1970s and 80s. People left the Motor City for a similarly wide range of reasons. Crime was a huge issue, identified as the city’s most pressing in numerous polls. The school system was buckling. Living costs remained stubbornly high even as good-paying jobs started vanishing.
Some people were just fed up with the lousy weather.
The double-edged sword of market dominance
When I lived in San Francisco in the early 2000s, if I’d told someone I was moving from Nob Hill to Fort Worth, Texas half the heads in the room would have exploded and the survivors would have beaten me to death with fresh warm baguettes. Yet over the last five years scores of companies with thousands of employees have done just that. Texas has become one of the top destinations for people and organizations fleeing the Bay Area. The COVID-19 crisis injected steroids into the situation as Americans nationwide migrated out of big cities en masse, many permanently. It’s a profound change. Today there are some 17 million vacant square feet of office space in the city. That’s almost 700 floors, the equivalent of seven World Trade Centers and good for a 30% vacancy rate in some of the most expensive buildings in the world. That’s a lot of space to fill as more people leave all the time.
Detroit learned the hard way that monopolies don’t last forever and usually not even for very long, and that they tend to sow the seeds of their own demise (an irony of anti-trust law is that the government almost always begins busting trusts well after technology and the market have done most of the busting – witness the railroads, the legacy telecommunications companies, airlines, Microsoft, etc.). Cars can be built anywhere there’s room for a factory and a workforce able to run it. San Francisco is learning the hard way that tech companies are far more ephemeral, often needing nothing more than some computers and an internet connection.
One big concern is the departure of anchor tech companies and investors. Palo Alto’s famed Sand Hill Road is no longer the only place startup founders flock, one less reason for companies and entrepreneurs to establish in the Bay Area, least of all its most expensive city. Today the world’s biggest tech fund is the Japanese owned, Saudi backed SoftBank Vision Fund. The annual Web Summit in, of all places, Portugal, is now considered the single most important tech deal-making event.
Last week Tesla became the latest company to announce its relocation, to Austin, Texas. Will the carmaker prove to be the canary in the coal mine for San Francisco the way Packard was for Detroit?
During the early 2000s dot-com boom there was an obsession with “first-mover advantage.” At the very beginning it meant literally that: The first company to start a website that sold books, the first to offer online banking services, the first online music platform. It didn’t take long for it to become apparent that being first was not so much an advantage as a near guarantee of failure. The streets of Silicon Valley are lined with the corpses of first movers, from pets.com to MySpace to the Microsoft Zune. It turns out that the first mover also makes all of the original mistakes. Competitors from around the country and around the world watched the first dot-com boom, and learned.
Empty citadels of capitalism
Here’s a funny joke: Become the biggest employer in a city. Build the biggest, most obtrusive, and expensive building that city has ever seen. Then, less than three years later announce you’re leaving and that none of your workforce will ever work in that building or that city ever again.
Depending on who you ask Saleseforce Tower is the tallest building west of the Mississippi, and also one of the most despised. San Francisco’s biggest building is a giant empty phallusdisembodied demonic eye skyscraper named after a company that no longer has its headquarters in the city.
The canary just hooked its beak up to a 5,000w amp.
A toxic brew of income inequality, political corruption, economic stasis, and crime ultimately destroyed Detroit, and they’re destroying San Francisco
Detroit might have survived the decline of the auto industry. Factories can be repurposed, workforces retrained. For half a century the city had some of the best-trained, best-paid, and most productive workers and managers on the face of the earth, led by a generation of men and women who’d prevailed over a depression and a world war. That workforce was eager to return to the glory days, or at least something better than what they saw and experienced starting in the 1970s.
Instead, Detroit became a case study in how mismanagement can destroy a city. The Motor City was hollowed out in significant part by residents fleeing the twin scourges of political corruption and urban crime. Thomas Sowell has said that the summer of 1967 in particular, when riots left 43 dead and some 1,200 injured and damaged more than 2,000 buildings, “marked the beginning of the decline of Detroit to its current state of despair.” In 2016 San Francisco achieved the dubious distinction of the highest per capita property crime rate among the country’s 50 largest metro areas, a trend that continues to this day. In the summer of 2020 the city endured waves of violence and rioting unseen since the bad old days of the 1960s and 70s.
Meanwhile, a person called Chesa Boudin was elected San Francisco district attorney in 2019 on an anti-incarceration, anti-prosecution, and anti-police platform. In particular he promised to eliminate enhancements – increased prison time for hate crimes, gang-related crimes, sex crimes, and cases of multiple recidivism – and the use of cash bail to ensure that defendants appear in court. From the beginning, Boudin – a prosecutor who has never prosecuted a case or gone to trial – announced that his office would not prosecute quality-of-life crimes such as disturbing the peace, offering or soliciting sex, public defecation/urination/intoxication, or public camping. The results have been predictably Detroit-like. Through August of this year, homicides were up 23% over 2019, burglary increased 43%, and car theft went up 34%. By December, home and commercial burglaries had soared by about 46%.
The final Detroitian touch is San Francisco’s rate of poverty and income inequality. The city by the bay is the second most unequal city in the country. Only Atlanta — hardly a bastion of progressive politics — is more unequal. The results are visible everywhere in the city, from the grand palaces of Pacific Heights to the squalor of the Tenderloin less than half a mile away. Bedizened billionaires picking their way past prostrate bodies en route to opening night at the Opera House.
There are a lot of smart people in San Francisco, and a lot of money. It’s entirely possible, maybe even likely, that this pre-obituary will prove premature. But there are a lot of reasons to worry about the City by the Bay. Detroit was sufficiently integral to the U.S. economy that its decline helped precipitate three decades of economic struggle and working class wage stagnation. A declining San Francisco would do the same to the modern tech economy, to the detriment of the nation.
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For my twelfth birthday a family friend – who apparently had better insight into my calling than I would for another 25 years – gave me a 1951 Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter. It was a unique and wonderful gift for an 80s kid who was otherwise living at the dawn of the digital era, a time when digital beeps produced an increasingly permanent sort of white noise that has come to characterize our daily lives. Had I known the machine’s life story I’d have realized that my friend also gave me a piece of history, not to mention a piece of her own soul.
Alas, twelve-year-old Christopher had about as much use for a forty-year old typewriter as he might have had for a wind-up Victrola. Even our family’s modern Smith-Corona electric typewriter (so advanced it had a white-out key) had been relegated to the bottom shelf, for we had just gotten our first home computer. I was busy learning to work the Apple II+ word processor, turning my thoughts into green letters, then print-out’s I handed into my teachers. It was 1987 and dot matrix reigned supreme.
Designed in Italy by Marcello Nizzoli, Olivetti was a popular portable brand in the 50s and 60s. In 1951 a brand-new Lettera 22 lightened your wallet by $75 to $90 (roughly $700 to $800 in today’s dollars), making it something of a luxury product at a time when an IBM Selectric only set you back ten bucks. Present-day Olivetti aficionados include Cormac McCarthy, Tom Hanks, and the late Leonard Cohen.
Sleek Olivetti typewriters were unusual in an age when most of their brethren were all angles and black-and-white practicality. In contrast to the stern, colorless façade of a Remington Soundless or the blank institutional stare of an Underwood Touchmaster, the Olivetti 22’s curved, almost sensual metal sheathing evoked the world’s growing fascination with all things aerodynamic. After all, it was the dawn of the jet age and even Buicks were getting vertical stabilizers. As the opulence of the Art Deco era gave way to Modernism’s sleek lines the Olivetti 22 was one of the machines for the moment.
It’s not just a looker: Even by today’s standards its mechanisms are wonderfully balanced, each keystroke producing a precise snap from finger to page. It’s a sublime linkage of thought and expression, a tactile echo of the synaptic sparks that create words (or at least midwife them into the real world).
A couple of years later we moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area and the Olivetti vanished among boxes of books and clothes and model airplanes, packed with scrunched–up newspaper care then deposited in a corner of the basement.
Which, looking back, is a shame. Because even though I spent the first fifteen-odd years of my adult life in the practice of law my destiny was always with the written word. If I’d tried out the Olivetti sooner I might have discovered that fact and saved everyone a lot of trouble.
I’d also have discovered that it’s almost impossible not to get a good story out of the Olivetti. It’s not just any old typewriter. The friend who gave it to me was Steffi Duna, a Hungarian dancer, singer, and actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Her career read like movie script: Born in 1910 to a family of vintners in a village outside Budapest, by the time she was 20 she had danced in most of the capitals of Europe. At 22 she debuted on the London stage in Noel Coward’s Words and Music, becoming one of the four actresses who breathed life into Coward’s most famous song, “Mad About the Boy.” Before retiring in 1940 she had starred in numerous films and worked with actors including Lucille Ball and William Boyd. She starred in the first Technicolor talkie, 1927’s La Cucaracha.
She was still using the Olivetti in the 1980s, eschewing technological advancement for the simple pleasures of the typewriter. It’s amazing to think how many thousands of letters she must have written over the years. How many did she compose to Lucy, with whom she starred in 1939’s Panama Lady and maintained a lifelong friendship?
Steffi’s husband was Dennis O’Keefe, an actor whom IMDB describes as a “Tall, cheerful outdoorsy leading man of Hollywood B movies,” and lists 278 movie and TV credits over his 30-year career. He was in some big films, too. In 1944 he was in a pair of war pictures, alongside John Wayne and Carol Lombard in The Fighting Seabees and with Gary Cooper and Laraine Day in Cecile B. DeMille’s The Story of Dr. Wassell. In the 1950s he wrote and co-wrote screenplays and teleplays, composing many on the Olivetti, often with Steffi’s help. My humble little typewriter may once have put words in Alan Ladd’s mouth. O’Keefe also was known to be generous with friends and co-stars. Maybe The Duke himself borrowed the Olivetti on the Seabees set to dash off a letter home. It’s portable, after all.
The typewriter weighs 4.5 pounds and comes in a rugged, steel-framed canvas carrying case with a leather-wrapped steel handle and a heavy zipper. The case itself is a sort of Greatest Generation khaki, the handles and stitching saddle-colored. There’s a water ring on the back-left corner, smudges of what may be charcoal, grease, or mascara on the back, and faded immigration stamps across the top including Cuba, Italy, The Maldives, and Mexico. It’s vaguely redolent of an incense hard to place.
It might have remained in storage for years or decades more had fate not intervened. My father died in 2006, and when I visited my mother in the ensuing years I often took time to sort through some of the accumulated family ephemera in the basement. It was during one of those dusty, spider-intensive, beer-assisted forays into the past that I opened the box containing the Olivetti, like a domestic Indiana Jones unearthing a long-lost treasure.
The first thing I noticed was the smell: Incense, metal, canvas, oil, and history.
I think the smell of history peaks between 50 and 100 years. It’s the smell of an old room in an old building where something once happened, the smell of memories being freed. The smell when you went down into your grandparents’ basement full of boxes of old books and toys, the wooden skis leaning against the wall, the sewing machine encased in dust. My dad’s high school yearbook still smelled of Salinas summers and Chevy axle grease fifty years after he graduated.
After a century the essences begin to depart. That’s why when the wind is right you can still catch whiffs of cordite and internal combustion on the Normandy beaches, while Antietam smells only of chestnut pollen and dry wheat.
The Olivetti is 66 years old. A history-minded sommelier might say its bouquet is in its prime. For me it’s the smell of my own grandparents’ basement in Puyallup, Washington on a rainy day. It’s the smell of old books, real books, books that told stories apart from the ones in their pages. The smell of everything the color of childhood, a cartoon of Snoopy typing It was a dark and stormy night in the 40-year-old book that belonged to my aunt, a stain from a lollipop or Popsicle on the cover smack in the middle of Charlie Brown’s bald head. A dark and stormy night can mean anything to a child, and lead anywhere.
The smell is also one of the secrets that makes writing on a typewriter unlike any other form of composition. It’s magical, because a typewriter engages all five senses. It’s a total physical immersion in the written word.
There are the smells of the particular machine’s unique history, along with ink, oil, metal, and paper. After a while the scents accumulate as a vague taste on the tip of your tongue and the roof of your mouth. You may find that your next meal is tinged slightly with ink dust (a dish featuring tomato sauce is recommended, primed with a vodka-based cocktail and assisted by plenty of garlic). There are the sounds: The type bar mechanism, carriage movement, spaces, shifts, inserting and removing pages, and of course the keystrokes and the ding! at the end of each line. The rattle of the table. So many vibrations in a single letter!
The sense of touch is acute with a mechanical typewriter. The paper itself is different, lighter and rougher than soulless laser printer stock. It’s more like – well, paper. The Olivetti requires moderate key pressure such that typing with all five fingers is impractical unless you’re Dwayne Johnson. I find myself typing Hemingway-style, middle fingers reinforced by index fingers, my right hand handling carriage return. The task is visually engaging, eyes shifting constantly among page, keyboard, and machine. The Olivetti’s European-style QZERTY arrangement keeps the American writer alert; it also lacks “1” and “0” keys, requiring a lowercase l and an uppercase O. The motion of the type bars and carriage is hypnotic, choreographed to the action and movement on the page.
The sensory immersion creates a meditative state ideal for creativity. Each keystroke requires particular attention, since there’s no delete key and white-out is a time-consuming thought-killer. Freed from the tyranny of constant electronic revision the additional mental engagement focuses the mind. It gives the conscious and ego something to do and lets the writing id take over.
Which is the most magical thing of all about the Olivetti: It’s a fool-proof cure for writer’s block.
Composing drafts in different media allows the writer to experience a story from a variety of vantages, different nuances and facets emerging in the progression from storyboard to handwriting to computer screen and finally print copy. At any point in the process, when I come to a stumbling point, when an outline isn’t coming together or I can’t quite seem to hear a character’s voice, I sit down at the little wooden desk occupied by the typewriter, a ream of (real) paper, an ash tray, and a few hardcovers between a pair of antique bronze bookends shaped like elephant heads.
Sometimes I light a cigarette because sometimes a writer has to, Surgeons General and healthy old age be damned. What of the troublesome character, scene, or moment that brought me here? It recedes, ceding consciousness to the thrill of inspiration. A drag on the cigarette, the smoke pinches the lungs and nicotine tickles the brain.
A question, then, to my trusty old friend: Where were you, fifty years ago today? Who was spilling their guts to you? What did the traffic sound like that night?
Where did she sleep?
The Olivetti has stories to tell, if the writer will listen. Listen I do and it begins to answer my queries. Slowly at first, one letter at a time, Ouija-like. A scene never beheld or a character never encountered emerges from the void between me and the machine, assumes shape and form and action. I’ve been here before, though we’re here for the first time.
She leaps the railroad tracks and runs through thick fog beneath an orange streetlight, pursued by a faceless man in a blue trench coat. She clutches a package wrapped in newspaper under her arm, holding it like it’s her own child. Beneath the distant wail of a locomotive, out of the corner of her eye at the edge of the light she sees me watching her. She brushes her red hair aside. We make eye contact, and in an instant I know everything.
Or, if you prefer, more simply: It was a dark and stormy night….
William Shatner will be aboard the next amazon.com publicity stunt “Blue Origin” flight — An actor who inspired generations to imagine that humankind would one day travel to the edge of the universe and beyond will spend a couple of semi-weightless minutes kind of close to space — Instead of a ten-year mission, the “up and down” flight will last ten minutes
I was never a Star Trek fan. I knew it primarily by reputation and from the handful of episodes I watched as a kid on sick days from school. Nevertheless the characters and, more importantly, the Star Trek universe, made as indelible a mark on my young imagination as any cultural phenomenon could have. It was part of a broader American hopefulness that managed to survive into the 1980s. When I was growing up science fiction was synonymous with human potential, the idea that we could slip the surly bonds of Earth and humankind’s petty quotidian divisions to reach our fullest blossoming in the endless vacuum of space. When the Space Shuttle Columbia made its maiden orbital voyage on April 12-14, 1981 it confirmed everything young people like me had been raised to believe, hope, even expect about humanity and particularly the collection of people known as the United States of America.
It was a nice dream, while it lasted.
When William Shatner rides a tiny “Blue Origin” rocket up into the sky sometime in the next couple of weeks he will not be in the company of a diverse crew of best and brightest who embody and represent the planet he will briefly leave behind. He’ll be with an executive from amazon.com “Blue Origin” and a couple of other CEOs whose primary qualifications are the checks they wrote to amazon.com – dang it! – “Blue Origin” to cover the fare. The company is calling the passengers “customers and astronauts,” which is kind of like calling the flatulent fellow in 37C on the Southwest flight to Kansas City a “passenger and pilot.” The final frontier it ain’t.
In fact, it’s not even clear that Shatner will reach “space.” There’s no universally-agreed upon boundary, relegating the various corporations and their CEOs to debates over whether or not their “customers and astronauts” went to space at all (rendering the “astronaut” part of the appellation problematic).
The whole point of Star Trek was that space exploration was a cause and mission too great for any one country, much less corporation. The starship Enterprise wasn’t just a marvel of (make-believe) technology, it was an interstellar declaration of human freedom. amazon.com’s “Blue Origin’s” New Shepherd – oh, let’s call it a “spaceship” – is a for-profit space tourism proof-of-concept. It’s the beta version of a new era of capitalistic exploration in which the moon is reduced to little more than a tripadvisor.com bucket list destination (“Online pictures looked amazing. Reality was cold and indifferent…..”) and the cosmos are accessible to the highest bidders.
It’s as if the last 50 years came up with the perfect synecdoche for themselves: An actor who inspired actual astronauts and pilots, who gave millions of young people the raw material to dream their biggest dreams no matter the risks or costs, hitching a ride on a for-profit publicity tour sponsored by the world’s second richest person. Captain Kirk, boldly going where quite a few men and women have gone before.
Then again, it’s rather what we’ve come to expect out of this particular moment in U.S. history, which is the bigger issue with Shatner’s flight. For the last quarter century or so we’ve less and less intent on exceeding and expanding humanity’s notion of the possible. Quite the contrary: If the first two decades of the new millennium will be remembered for anything it will be for kneecapping Americans’ sense of what we can accomplish. No wonder we can’t get to the moon anymore much less the cosmos. No wonder we no longer talk of slipping those surly bonds.
“Blue Origin” won’t reach the altitude the Mercury 7 mission attained 60 years ago in 1961. During that flight Alan Shepherd (who unlike “Blue Origin’s” “customers and astronauts” was an actual astronaut who piloted his own vessel) traveled more than twice the distance Shatner’s will. Nor will “Blue Origin” enter low earth orbit the way Yuri Gagarin did, also in 1961.
It’s not a stretch to say that when it comes to space flight human progress, at least in this country, has stalled. In fact, we’re going backward. In a destabilized and competitive multi-polar (in more ways than one) world that kind of technological loss isn’t just unfortunate, it’s dangerous. One of the reasons NASA sustained the Space Shuttle program for years beyond its expected service life was that there was nothing to replace it, no technological leap. We had gone from Explorer 1 to Apollo 11 to Skylab to the Space Shuttle to – the Space Shuttle. When the Columbia disaster forced the end of the Shuttle program in 2003 the US space program went into a decade-long dark age. We were reduced to purchasing fare on Russian heavy rockets, the ultimate humiliation.
Into that void have stepped billionaires celebrating feats that others with more moxie and at far greater risk achieved generations ago. At this rate Bill Gates soon will announce a radical new plan to transport human beings in machines that soar through the skies, followed by competitor Tim Cook’s declaration that Apple is on the verge of mastering the wheel and Mark Cuban’s daring effort to harness the power of fire.
There is a glimmer of hope. Regardless of how one feels about Elon Musk, SpaceX may well be the last best hope for the future of the US’s presence in space. That maniac pothead may get us to Mars yet. And there’s ample reason to believe in the eventual triumph of that incorrigible and incorruptible fact of existence, human curiosity.
Look skyward next week. You might see the last flicker of a dream crest the horizon on its way to oblivion. Then turn your eyes toward the California coast. That’s where from time to time at night or in the early morning you might catch the smoke trail of a new one rising from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
With the governor’s signature on SB 9 and SB 10 last week, California Democrats have made trickle down economics their core economic platform — 50-year transition from warriors of the working class to guardians of the gilded class
They’ve shed even the pretext of concern for low income Californians, except as (highly profitable) pawns in the homeless and poverty industries
History’s greatest political satirists couldn’t come up with this stuff
Here’s a funny joke: Have a political party spend a half century as the avowed “slow growth” environmental party, the party that creates regimes of coastal, air, water, soil, wildlife, and other protections in the name of planetary emergencies both real and imagined, bureaucratic ecosystems consuming hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars annually and employing hundreds of thousands. For fifty years have that party impose height, density, and other land use controls at the local and county levels so that both the supply of multifamily homes and the infrastructure that sustains it max out by the early 2000s. Simultaneously, have this party quietly loosen many of those same kinds of land use and environmental controls in suburbs and exurbs where an ever-increasing portion of its base resides, even as it publicly decries the alleged environmental depredations of those places.
Meanwhile, at the macro level make sure the party imposes policies that create more low-paying jobs and fewer good-paying jobs than the national average, somehow managing this feat even though California ranks as the world’s fifth largest economy and is a global center of innovation in everything from aerospace and technology to entertainment and finance. Just as this confluence of wage stagnation, regulatory stasis, and below-average housing production collide with one of the worst recessions in recent history and – as always happens – lower income and impoverished people are the first to start looking for help, have that party dismantle the agencies responsible for distributing block grants for affordable housing, business improvement districts (BIDs) and replace them with — nothing.
For good measure, have that party turn once thriving inner city school systems into unionized institutions of mass produced failure, hopelessness, and dependency that overwhelmingly hurt black and brown children, crippling entire generations, while middle and upper class white families with more money flee to the better school systems of the (publicly hated but secretly coddled) suburbs. Last but not least, have that party oppose even the most moderate efforts at wildfire control and preparation measures until fuel loads build to the point that a cubic foot of mountain deadwood can have the same BTU potential as a cubic foot of crude oil.
To top things off, have this party support so-called “criminal justice reform” that unleashes heretofore unimaginable postmodern hellholes in dozens of cities, releasing criminals by the hundreds of thousands to both become and prey upon the homeless population and terrorize law-abiding citizens, then impose a series of draconian, life-crushing, scientifically laughable COVID-19 health orders that further decimate urban cores and send people fleeing to the suburbs and exurbs by the million. As the cherry on top, ensure that party brahmins enforce those rules on others while themselves enjoying a carefree, mask-free, debt-free life of wine country fundraisers and late night dance club parties.
The punchline and the 1% payoff
The punchline: When the inevitable consequences of this half-century experiment start playing out in the form of unaffordable housing, living, food, and other basic expenses for tens of millions of ordinary Californians, pushing the state to the brink of economic collapse, have this party take measure of the situation and declare without reservation that it has all been caused not by decades of misguided, often contradictory, frequently corrupt, and ultimately counter-productive legislative meddling but…..racism.
You may have thought that single family houses were inanimate objects. Intimate, emotionally essential inanimate objects, but inanimate just the same. In this joke you’re wrong. Single family homes are racists, products of decades, centuries, even millennia of injustice. You might as well drape a white hood over your chimney (California pretty much won’t let you use it for actual fires anymore anyway).
This punchline gives this political party – let’s call them “Democrats” – free reign to pass hundreds of laws and thousands of pages of new regulations that all but ensure future generations of Californians will live in cramped, low-quality-but-still-hideously-expensive shoe boxes with all the charm, character, and soul of Soviet row blocks. Because, again, houses racist.
Lost in the political hullabaloo is the fact that this joke is being played by elected and appointed politicians entirely bought and paid for by the 1% — in many cases by the 0.01%. By effectively eliminating local control over development, housing, and land use those hundreds of new laws and thousands of new regulations amount to open season on every single family neighborhood in California. Urban, suburban, exurban, rural, agricultural, mountain, every kind of zone you can think of is about to be opened up to the highest bidders. That’s because, with apologies to the late Senator John McCain the Democrats’ new core philosophy amounts to “Build, baby, build.”
The first few years will be very good for a very small number of very well-connected people. The headlines below are from across the political spectrum. As the real economy and the Wall Street economy continue to diverge there is enormous, albeit artificial, pent-up demand in the form of inflated stock portfolios. Hedge funds, venture capital firms, pension funds, and other institutional grade investors have accumulated hundreds of billions just in the last two years. All that money is looking for somewhere to go — and California’s “progressives” just completed a housing policy superhighway for them.
Make no mistake: These opportunities will not be available to average families. Anyone who thinks mom and pop homeowners will have the wherewithal, much less the expertise and time, to develop duplexes, fourplexes, and up to 10 or more units on their single family properties — there’s a bullet train in Fresno for sale. No, it will be investors with zero connection to or concern for the neighborhoods where they’ll be hoovering up single family homes, demolishing them, and building more of those shoe boxes for other investors with zero connection to or concern for the neighborhoods to then purchase and rent (or, more likely, hold for a decade or two while the chaos plays out).
Mark the date: On September 17, 2021 California Democrats completed their journey to the dark side. In the midst of a global pandemic and economic crisis, given a choice between millions of working and middle class Californians and the party’s benefactors in the 1% of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Wall Street, the party have chosen the latter. Resoundingly. Unequivocally. And unlike World War II, it wasn’t even close.
Senate Bills 9 and 10, better known as SB 9 and SB 10, are the penultimate nails in the coffin of California’s urban and suburban single family and smaller multifamily neighborhoods. They are further proof that the dream of home ownership for millions of people of all demographics is effectively dead.
Make no mistake: California Democrats have set the stage – down to the minutest local details – for a new California gold rush. Only this time prospectors and speculators won’t be digging into the ground in far-off mountains, they’ll be coming for your neighborhood.
None of this is opinion. State legislators have openly — one might say gleefully — declared war on single family neighborhoods and openly, eagerly embracing Reaganomics, the Democrat housing policy that dare not speak its name. The tell is that they’ve unleashed the same bag of tricks they deploy on issues from immigration to education: Create a crisis, then set up a system that richly rewards politicians, bureaucrats, nonprofits, and parasitic phalanxes of lawyers, consultants, advisors, experts, academics, and bean counters, all supported by even larger armies of administrators, support staff, IT staff, and inscrutable contractors. Fortify this new branch of the Establishment by howling racism at the most pedestrian critique, the most anodyne questioning of the political class’s authority and expertise. Claim you are on the side of the downtrodden and historically marginalized even as your policies manifestly drag them even further to the margins.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Education. Environment. Business regulation. And, now, inevitably, the very ways in which we live, work, and get around. It’s the biggest gold strike yet for the new gilded class and their political enablers. And it’s just getting warmed up.
It’s time for Californians to reckon with this new reality. The party that gained a supermajority on issues including civil rights, environmental protection, and racial equality has failed spectacularly on all three. As Leonard Cohen sang, The poor stay poor, the rich get rich. That’s how it goes.
The only question is whether it was the plan all along. Was California’s progressive Utopia a lie from the start?
The annual homeless count is designed to produce outcomes officials want — Big enough numbers to shock the conscious and loosen taxpayer billfolds, but not so big as to expose the true scale of the humanitarian crisis in the world’s fifth largest economy
In 2020 there were 161,458 homeless people in California, officially. If that strikes you as a peculiarly precise number your spider senses are tuned up. The true number is much, much higher, like by an order of magnitude or more. That’s the conclusion of numerous studies going back decades, including data-driven analyses by the nonpartisan Economic Roundtable, the National Institutes for Research, scholars at Cornell University, and many others.
Consider: According to the California Department of Education, in 2018 more than 204,000 students experienced homelessness in the state, a number that has grown consistently over the last decade. Obviously, both of those numbers – 161,458 total homeless in a state where more than 200,000 children alone experience homelessness every year – cannot be true. And the Education Department’s numbers are based on actual reporting from school districts based on personal interaction with students. In contrast, official total numbers are based on what can only be described as glorified tea leaf reading.
That’s because pursuant to federal mandates, every year cities nationwide engage in an elaborate act of performance art called the homeless point in time (“PIT”) count. On the surface it’s a census of the unhoused, used to guide policy and – crucially – government spending on the crisis. In reality it’s designed to produce the numbers officials want, numbers big enough to shock the conscious and loosen taxpayer billfolds but not so big as to reveal the true scale of the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding every second of every day in the not-so-golden-anymore state.
Official counts are not just unreliable, they’re disastrously misleading
The PIT count fundamentally distorts our understanding of homelessness because it only captures a small and very specific subset of the population, those living openly outdoors. The so-called “hardcore homeless.” Given that the vast majority of homeless people – as many as three-quarters – have some form of shelter at any given time, the magnitude of this limitation can scarcely be overstated. The PIT count actually ignores most homeless people. Worse, it ignores the ones who can most benefit from early interventions to prevent them from falling into street life. And equally importantly, regardless of population dynamics there are monumental policy differences between assisting 161,000 people versus a million or more. We’re collecting the wrong data in support of the wrong policies.
There are other methodological problems with the count. The “raw” data – the chit sheets volunteers use to record their counts, about which more presently – passes through several levels of custody: Volunteers do the counts, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) employees collect and collate the data, then hand it over to experts at the USC School of Social work to crunch the actual numbers. And while the core methodology hasn’t changed procedures vary slightly from year to year and city to city, making comparisons all but impossible. That last fact is crucial: Without meaningful comparisons over time, it is literally impossible to know if billions in taxpayer dollars are having an impact. Of course, that sort of accountability is kryptonite to government bureaucracies like LAHSA.
Like the data the quality of volunteers also varies widely. I volunteered for the 2019 and 2020 counts. The experiences felt more like a matter of doing something for the sake of doing something than serious efforts to assess the population. There are no prerequisites, anyone can sign up. Consequently the vast majority have no experience with census-taking or any particular familiarity with the issue of homelessness. There were small numbers of “old hands” who had participated in multiple counts, as well as a couple of employees from a local homeless nonprofit. But most depended on a 45-minute training session.
The training was like a bad SNL sketch. Both years they started late and were comically mismanaged, to the point that in 2020 the city workers doing the training couldn’t agree on the rules. In the middle of the training in front of 50 or more people two of them got into an argument about the rules regarding counting disabled homeless people. I won’t describe the physical appearance of these two taxpayer-paid city employees, but trust me when I say your imagination doesn’t have the range. Mine certainly didn’t. You can’t make this stuff up.
The count itself was unserious, again feeling like doing something to do it. Teams of three people drove or walked around designated areas, at night. I was in a car group both times. The driver drove, the front passenger counted, and rear passenger made chit marks on the LAHSA form (apparently officials believe the average Angeleno would be overwhelmed by the dual tasks of counting and making pencil marks on a piece of paper; then again if their trainers are any indication of the general quality of LAHSA employees you can see where that concern might originate).
There are more restrictions on the process than in a TSA security line. Volunteers are told to have zero contact with the people they’re counting. Those in cars cannot get out of their cars and those on foot cannot look inside tents or knock on the doors of buildings or vehicles to assess how many people are inside. They are told to assume one to a tent or car and two to an RV. Buildings are completely off-limits, which means by definition people with temporary lodgings – a family member’s couch, an empty building – are missed. There could be a warehouse with 50 people squatting inside and not one would be counted. Likewise, entire areas are excluded from the count altogether, including national and state parks where many people camp.
As noted, the PIT count’s shortcomings are well-documented. It’s not some wacky conspiracy theory – it’s been studied by researchers and scholars for decades. That it continues to be used is an excellent example of the homeless industrial complex at work. At this point, after a half century of “fighting homelessness,” there’s simply too much money and too many jobs at stake for the establishment to admit they’re lying dog-faced pony soldierswhen it comes to the true scale of the crisis. It’s a matter of producing the desired outcomes to sustain public sector jobs and billions in federal, state, and local spending.
We’ve been here before
The other agonizing truth is that we’ve been down this path before, with the so-called War on Drugs. That half-century effort did nothing to stem drug use and addiction but did produce millions of hideously unjustified, life-destroying prison sentences that support the multi-billion dollar public defender, bail bond, and incarceration industries. It also created a massive federal bureaucracy called the Drug Enforcement Agency as well as a new branch of the Justice Department, and birthed an entire industry that today employs hundreds of thousands of lawyers, administrative law judges, clerks, recordkeepers, analysts, and the rest of the usual bureaucratic rogues’ gallery. The one thing it most assuredly did not do was end the drug crisis.
Before the War on Drugs was the War on Poverty, which did reduce poverty somewhat in its first decade (though how much of even that success was due to governmental efforts versus the once-in-history postwar U.S. economy remains a matter of debate). In the decades since it has become another hydra-headed government patronage system, the precursor of the modern homeless industrial complex.
Anyone watching the homeless industrial complex metastasize should not be the least bit surprised. Homelessness is the new crack – that the government’s failed War on Poverty begat the failed War on Drugs which led directly to the current failing war on homelessness should, again, surprise no one. They’re the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan of domestic policy. Like those foreign failures these domestic disasters unequivocally are bipartisan (less so in California, where the other party – what are they called again? – has not the slightest relevance). Keep your eyes on the appropriately Byzantine-sounding United States Intergovernmental Council on Homelessness, which currently sports a mere $3.8 million budget and 20 employees. Check back in four or five years.
Unless and until policymakers begin dealing in reality when it comes to the true scope of the homeless crisis California – and the United States – will continue using bad data to support bad (and expensive) public policy. In a sense the political class has painted itself into a corner with the PIT count. They’ve relied on artificially low numbers for so long, at least two decades, that if the true number were to become widely known it would destroy their credibility on the issue that a majority of Californians rank as their single biggest concern.
Or would it? Californias are proving a shockingly apathetic lot. As our streets are handed over to mere anarchy, as crime spikes everywhere, as quality of life plummets by virtually every measure we keep electing the same people who got us into this mess, while the opposition party continues its death spiral into Trumpian irrelevance. So perhaps it doesn’t matter, in the end, what the true number of homeless is in California.
After all, at the rate we’re going the difference between housed and unhoused will soon be all but irrelevant.
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