AE2. "Sometimes, the left is addicted to despair"
Lookback at 2020 with journalist & 2018 NY State Senate candidate Ross Barkan + a 2020 playlist "better than obama's"
After Joe Biden got elected America’s 46th President, POTUS 44’s Presidential memoir, A Promised Land, released as if to timely launder the characters getting assembled in the new President-Elect’s cabinet. More than anything else, Obama’s book rubbed me the wrong way with its least consequential aspect: the playlist it came with. Having developed a codependency with my $15 headphones since lockdown discovering a new album every day on my morning run, I saw Obama’s curation as yet another instance of the limitations of neoliberal individualist vision, where Disney-Marvel’s The Avengers-styled perfect-on-paper individuals collectively create nothing larger than the sum of their parts.
Rather than merely represent neoliberal individual excellence in form of the playlist curator’s taste, I set out to create one that could showcase revolutionary imagination in the larger story it tells. So, here’s music that’s probably closer to your experience than one that accompanied jet skiing vacations with Richard Branson, which I can personally vouch for after seeing how smoothly these songs went down with everyday bustle at a New Jersey park in the company of all kinds of people and geese. Within the force-field of the routine I created with the help of these artists, I started a practice of interviewing people for publications last year, which in turn germinated this Substack where I will feature artists, activists and professionals I see as truly “revolutionary.”
Therefore, interjecting this lookback at 2020 with my friend Ross Barkan—columnist at The Guardian, The Nation and Jacobin; 2018 New York State Senate candidate (NY-22); and author of the baseball time-travel novel Demolition Night (Tough Poets Press, 2018)—will be some highlights from the playlist, plus by my ten-second takes on them. Hopefully the pacing of the songs will augment your reading pleasure as Ross and I take you through the phases of 2020, from fear and reclusion to confusion and a glimmer of resolution as a vaccine appears on the horizon.
Ross, always a pleasure. We’re at the end of a year that was always going to be historic, and now it will be known as the year of the pandemic. Despite that grand narrative flattening our lives, 2020 for me has also been a year of never-before-seen fear, isolation and reflection. How has it been for you?
I was fortunate to have had work. I was doing a lot of reporting and writing, and I was lucky that those opportunities remained despite so much loss in the industry. Having lived through 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy and seen trauma in New York, I can say that the pandemic really has no reference point. It’s a new long-running fear that has no obvious end. Life is just a shrunken version of what it was a year ago. Day-to-day, I have curtailed my encounters with people. I don’t see friends very often, if at all. I taught in-person at NYU and St. Joseph’s College in the fall semester, which was my only real interaction with people other than my partner, or occasionally my parents. For all the trauma and carnage out there, I am lucky I still have my health. I’m able to do the things that I enjoy professionally and make a living, which a lot of people are not able to do, so the pandemic has helped me appreciate a lot of things I have in my life, and also appreciate sights and sounds that the city had to offer, about which I thought less before the pandemic. I’ve really taken to parks. I went to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx for the first time in over a decade.
On the flipside of isolation, I also feel more reclusive. I go to parks a lot around where I live in New Jersey, but I came into the city three times in the entire year. I’m reluctant to be in public, but am trying to be more proactive with virtual friendships. How have your relationships been, professionally and personally?
I have been forced to accept that whether it’s with good friends, casual acquaintances, or people through work such as editors, there will be no face-to-face interaction. As a journalist who contributes to various publications, I haven’t worked in an office for a while since 2016. I don’t see editors regularly anyway, but I used to look forward to events whether it was held by Jacobin or The Baffler. I have pitched stories that way, and all that is gone. Spontaneous interactions are all but eliminated. For every interaction now, you must intentionally send an email, a DM, or a tweet. I think about our own relationship, which came out of an event that you curated in Manhattan, where you interviewed [Craigslist founder] Craig Newmark. I had never met you before, but you invited me, so I sat in a room full of people, spoke to everyone, and we ended up doing an event together right before the pandemic in February.
On the other hand, I have a peaceful personal life with my lovely fiancée. Our bond has only gotten stronger. I’m fortunate to have someone to spend my days with. For those who don’t have that, it can be a challenge. As someone who has written forcefully in the early days of the pandemic about the importance of the lockdown to stop spread, I think we haven’t given nearly enough thought to the mental health consequences of living this way, and to making sure that we as a society are helping, providing for, and reaching out to people; not leaping headfirst into the old way of living—which during the pandemic is dangerous—but acknowledging that humans need interaction to stay alive. I haven’t seen statistics, but I shudder to think about the number of suicides and people who overdosed.
Watching “Hang on Tight” by Wild Americans grow from the goofy rhyme it was when I first heard it barebones acoustic sitting next to a turtle, to the beast it is now, which sounds like it’s from the ghost of Robert Hunter & played by a funk-meets-Americana band that could be called “The Grateful Alive,” has been a real magical experience
In addition to widening the cracks in the capitalist system, the pandemic has also shown how unwilling states are, worldwide, to take bold action. This was a chance for humanity to take a long, hard look at its weaknesses, deliberate oversights and overt wickedness. Do you think we have collectively done any introspection, even if as individuals we might have been forced to?
I have written very critically about the handling of the pandemic in the US, specifically by Donald Trump and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. In defence of humanity, and not just America or any other country, I would say this has been a very difficult, highly contagious virus. You have seen some real success stories in the east, like Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore. I’m not interested in the example of New Zealand because it’s an island nation of 6 million people, which is quite small and can easily shut itself off when other countries can’t in the same way. One thing I noted recently was this bent among certain liberal writers as if Coronavirus was only an American failing. UK, Italy and Spain are also countries that struggled with the virus. America was terrible. Donald Trump was terrible. I’d not defend him at all, but America is a very large, unwieldy country that has 50 governors. We have federalism.
On the optimistic side, in the US, there were aspects of the CARES Act that was passed in March, which would look very ambitious and forward-thinking in history. It was a much bigger stimulus bill that anything Barack Obama ever supported. You think of how polarized our politics are, how difficult it has been to do anything of consequence in America for the last few years beyond the tax cut, but you had bipartisan support for a multi trillion dollar stimulus. The $1200 checks to every American would have been unthinkable a decade ago—you would have been laughed out of the room if you had suggested it to the Obama administration in 2009. The enhanced unemployment benefits are also a success. The problem was, they weren’t extended for a longer period of time, but they helped arrest the total collapse of the American economy. Even the PPP program for businesses was far from perfect and was somewhat disorganized, but it did keep some businesses afloat. We didn’t get the stimulus we should have gotten in an ideal world, which would have been one that continued throughout the pandemic, also provided health insurance for free which we should have in this country, crisis or not.
“For the most part the media is fair, there are a lot of great reporters, and the media itself is an important institution, which is why I support public funding for the media. At the same juncture, there needs to be a reckoning over Trump, and there needs to be a reckoning over how public health was communicated to regular people”
Yet, we have a reality where Republicans and Democrats now believe in giving money to every American. Bernie Sanders has allies on the left and the right. As a leftist, I’m not interested in politics for politics’ sake; I’m interested in outcomes. How do we get to universal healthcare; how do we get to a jobs guarantee with universal basic income; how do we get the social safety net that we deserve, as the richest nation on earth with unlimited amounts of money, and the ability to print even more with low interest rates and inflation? If you told me that the way to do it would be Bernie Sanders teaming with Josh Hawley, the Republican senator from Missouri, I welcome that. The reason I have a lot of disdain for the Republican party is because they have been committed to austerity politics for 40 years, and have also led attacks on women and minorities. Mitch McConnell is perhaps the worst political actor we have had in the last 40 years, and honestly I include Donald Trump in that formulation. But if Republicans want to step forward and build the social safety net with the left, I welcome them to do that. So, I do try to be optimistic despite the defeat of Bernie and real setbacks for the left. I see the growth of Democratic Socialists of America, which has over 80,000 members, and I see a movement towards a consensus around building the social safety net, which is something we didn’t have in America in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s easy to forget that George W. Bush was talking about privatizing Social Security, or that Bill Clinton was gutting welfare and supporting free trade deals with bipartisan majorities. Those days are done, and I’m very thankful they’re done, and I’m looking forward to a better politics, and I, unlike some others, think it’s possible.
The Main Squeeze gave me the rare experience of a YouTube classic rock cover band leading to a richer & more versatile body of work, as evidenced by this song that personifies the wild, explosive glee “Karma” might feel when it comes back around to bite you
Political parties love turning elections into existential crises that they allegedly are the best to resolve, like in the movie Our Brand is Crisis. Yet, in an actual crisis, both dropped the ball. Is it fair to note that the corporate-sponsored US government has been ineffective, and countries that had nationalized programs such as Vietnam, South Korea, or even Cuba, have done better?
I think the more coordinated a national response, the better. In America, if we had national unemployment insurance, it would be better off than if we left it to each state to figure it out. If you’re unemployed, depending on where you live—New York included, where you have understaffed bureaucracies—you could be waiting weeks or months to get UI (unemployment insurance) benefits. If we nationalize that, it’d be like Social Security. When they sent out $1200 checks, it was efficient, whereas UI is not. Likewise, a strong response to a pandemic comes from a unified federal policy, but in America it was left to the states. Some states did well, and some states did horribly. New York was in the “horrible” category. Gov. Andrew Cuomo should have been aware that we are in a federal system where Trump would not help you, so you have to manage accordingly.
It seems like the countries that have been able to perform better are those who have unified national governments that took public health experts communicating with the public seriously, and took mask-wearing seriously. Masks in the US are stigmatized, which I hope changes, and we saw horrific public health guidance, where experts were saying not to wear masks in March. Of course, Trump was a disaster, but public health experts need a reckoning too. I know this wasn’t a part of your question, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how we bring accountability here like it had been brought to the executive branch. Rather than include public health experts in this Democratic mantra of “Listen to Science” as if Science were a God or religion, we should ask the public health experts where they get their information from, and why they are telling us one thing today and another thing tomorrow, as it happened with masks. It seems either that they didn’t know in March that wearing masks is crucial, which is implausible, or that they were deliberately misleading the public to preserve PPE equipment, which is not really defensible.
“Even the flowering of Occupy Wall Street, which I wrote about and participated in a little bit, was a shout into the abyss. It felt good, it was very important, and we can see in the long run, it’s been pivotal in planting the seeds for Bernie, for this left movement, and the DSA. At the same time, when you were in the park, the answer to “What next?” wasn’t leftist Presidential candidates; the answer was we’ll organize and hope for the best. Now, we have an opportunity for a follow-through, even though it could feel at times like you’re running into this immovable wall.”
My biggest concern is, I can’t tell what’s true, which has been the case for a while since news itself has been culturized, if that’s a word—stripped of meaning and material reality. Experts behave like influencers, right? Now, considering this has been a trial run for the crises that await us because we’ve fucked up the planet so much, the lack of accountability is pretty scary. How do we even begin to ensure it?
That’s a good question. The loss of trust in institutions has been an ongoing issue. It’s not just people who are poisoned by propaganda rejecting institutions. It’s people rightfully turning away as well, which gets lost in the landscape where media distrust is treated as just a Trump problem when the problem predates Trump by decades on the left and the right. I tend not to blame people for the individual actions they take because most people mean well and want proper guidance, whether you’re working-class, poor or wealthy. People want to know, as you said, what the hell to do. For example, at the beginning of lockdown, outside gatherings and anti-lockdown protests were being discussed as if they were promoting genocide—someone was dressed as the Grim Reaper, running around Florida beaches. Personally, I found those protests disconcerting, and certainly there were dangerous far-right elements egged-on by Trump, but there were also people who were losing their livelihoods. So, we were told, maybe rightfully so, that public gatherings were dangerous. Then, when BLM protests began—which I have empathy for, understand and support—we were told they were acceptable now because the cause is good. Science doesn’t care about the cause. The virus doesn’t listen to your values. It’s going to infect who it is going to infect.
The school reopening debate is another wonderful example where the left and the right got scrambled, and it can be blamed on both Trump and what we have come to call “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” where no matter what he says, large swathes of the country have to immediately feel the opposite way. He could point at the sky and go, “That’s the most big beautiful sky I have ever seen,” and a certain section of the population would say, Actually, the sky is green, and here’s my 12-part Tweet thread that explains why. The school reopening debate is an incredibly complicated question. Remote-learning was a disaster. We had to close schools in the spring in NYC in particular because the virus was spreading. It was a very difficult decision, but at the time it had to be done. We had to keep people home. Do you do it a second time in the fall and do an entire year of remote learning? That’s not a question that’s going to fall on easy left-right fault-lines. But Donald Trump tweets “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!” and suddenly we have a culture war—school reopening is called human sacrifice and you have DSA out protesting, but it turns out school reopening was relatively safe. Bill De Blasio has been a very flawed mayor, but he has tried to do the right thing and get kids there in person, for which he has been denigrated. Now, what was the science here? As I said before, it’s not a religion. It’s a method that’s about testing and peer review. I don’t fault scientists for reevaluating their proclamations in light of new evidence. What I do fault them for is putting politics ahead of science, and I definitely think we as a society are definitely bereft of reliable communication. For the most part the media is good and fair, there are a lot of great reporters, and the media itself is an important institution, which is why I support public funding for the media. At the same juncture, there needs to be a reckoning over Trump, and there needs to be a reckoning over how public health was communicated to regular people.
“For a While” by TORA is a contemplative song where the arrangement itself illustrates the concept of “needing space” through a cramped rhythm guitar evolving into a flowy guitar solo that, given room to flourish, sounds as freed as a house-pet seeing a field for the first time
Asking you because you’re a city journalist who ran for State Senate and you write about local politics, so realistically, how do we build strength from the ground up ever to have this reckoning?
I don’t think we’ll get accountability from media and public health officials. The media has a tendency to move on, as they showed by not necessarily learning the lessons from Trump’s 2016 win. Unlike some on the left, I do think “cancel culture” exists, but for the weak and the powerless, not for the powerful. The journalists and pundits who supported the Iraq War were all immediately rehabilitated despite the fact that they had endorsed the worst foreign policy catastrophe in a half-century, whether it was [The New Yorker Editor] David Remnick, [The Atlantic Editor-in-Chief] Jeffrey Goldberg, or [George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speechwriter] David Frum.
On the policy front, I take a bit more of an optimistic view, where I do think there is a broad-based—I wouldn’t say “bipartisan” because the Republican party is still committed to austerity politics—recognition among the American people that the economics of this country are quite screwed up and there’s far too much income inequality, and there’s really no popular opposition to any expansion of the social safety net. We know how much Reagan and Clinton poisoned the American imagination about the welfare state in the 1980s and 90s, but now there is popular will for direct cash programs, expanded UI benefits, even student debt cancellation, which was once a fringe idea. Joe Biden is being criticized for saying he’ll only cancel $10,000. Barack Obama did $0, let’s not forget. The neoliberal pro-austerity consensus has been very much rebuked by a lot of people. You even see voices in the Republican party such as Marco Rubio or Josh Hawley, speaking out against it. There are bipartisan coalitions that can be built around this—Bernie did it in the past few weeks, teaming up with Josh Hawley to push direct payments into the stimulus bill, and it was a success. We have to recognize it as success, and let’s hope we get to $2,000 now.
At the local level, electing more leftists to state legislatures, city councils and town councils, wherever you are. I don’t always agree with DSA’s approaches necessarily, but I do think they have been very good at sustaining growth. They have a lot of members. They have been winning elected office, in New York and elsewhere. So you can really seed the bench and build a generation of left politicians by winning local now so you can have committed leftists who are interested in broad-based economic policy, competing for Senate seats and the White House. It’s easy to despair, and I do my fair share of it, but we have to recognize where the left is in 2020 versus where it was a decade ago. Even the flowering of Occupy Wall Street, which I wrote about and participated in a little bit, was a shout into the abyss. It felt good, it was very important, and we can see in the long run, it’s been pivotal in planting the seeds for Bernie, for this left movement, and the DSA. At the same time, when you were in the park, the answer to “What’s next?” wasn’t leftist Presidential candidates; the answer was we’ll organize and hope for the best. Now, we have an opportunity for a follow-through, even though it could feel at times like you’re running into this immovable wall. I think sometimes people on the left are addicted to despair.
“The major problem with small businesses in New York is not that they aren’t successful, but that their rent would go up by some astronomical figure. Doesn’t matter how good your business is, if you don’t pay the rent, you go out of business. That’s not a sustainable way for a city to handle its business ecosystem, so I’d like to see commercial rent control, and a bailout fund for businesses.”
Let’s return to the local. Your district in Long Island is an interesting microcosm, where I believe there’s a significant Republican population. New York is popularly imagined as a liberal paradise, but Republicans were running the state, disguised as the “Independent Democrat Conference,” until democratic socialists began unseating them. That means “democratic socialism” is successful in districts where Republicans win, right?
In the State Senate district in which I ran in 2018, Trump improved his performance in 2020 over 2016. New York City, as was true of many cities, trended to the right. Trump has definitely retained support with, I would say the “white working class,” but they are usually people with some money or are property owners. He has maintained support among people who support law enforcement, who I think were very critical of the protests this summer. He has also grown his support with Latino voters, particularly those who are religious. I think his commentary on the culture wars and their microtargeting has been very successful.
Whether in Southern Brooklyn where I grew up or anywhere else, the only way you can build a broad multiracial coalition is through a commitment to strong economic policy. That’s how you build large Democratic majorities, as Bernie understood in 2016. But we’re a long way away from that, because Republicans have messaged very effectively around culture, which in the absence of institutions that organize democrats like unions, has been good at filling the void. I think Democrats need to attack Republicans better, and sell themselves better. Republicans could take an idea like “universal healthcare” and say, “They want to take away your private insurance.” And I think Democrats have to think the same way and say, look, this party is going to rip away your healthcare completely. They want to destroy your livelihoods. Democrats took the lesson from 2018 to be, we’ll talk about Obamacare and just win that way; the ACA beats whatever we had before, but that doesn’t mean there’s great solidarity with Obamacare. It’s quite expensive for a lot of people. So, a lot of these races are won based on national issues because politics is increasingly nationalized, which is unfortunate, but that’s the world we’re in now.
Big Beat is a 19-member jazz band for whom my snarky description is, “they’re like if Snarky Puppy had soul,” but jokes aside, the band’s “soul” is singer Allison McKenzie, heard here urging “Miss America” to do better as a disheartened parent would a misbehaving child, to which the band responds by tilting towards chaos winding up with brief bursts of harmony
How do you bring attention back to the local? Do you think a candidate such as Andrew Yang, owing to national popularity, bring more attention to New York City local issues, and more generally the concept of “local issues,” by running for Mayor?
Because of the nationalization of our politics, someone like Andrew Yang has a shot. He comes in with a real advantage. Because of how big New York City is, and how dominant, there is still potential for local issues to have real sway in the 2021 election. Trump will be out of office, so it wouldn’t be enough to say I’ll be a bulwark against Trump. Big picture issues start with recovery from the pandemic. The death toll was over 25,000 people in the city alone. The economy was ravaged. Recovery and how we do that has to be at the top of the agenda. Housing is a perpetual issue. The city is still not cheap enough. In most cities across America, there has been an increase in crime this year. Homicides and shootings have been issues in every major city, not just New York. Certainly there’s a link with the pandemic. What sort of link? What’s going on? That’d be something to unravel. And, the MTA is a budget-hole…
Wasn’t Bill de Blasio interested in making it fare-free at one point?
Not really. What happened was the city council, eventually with the Mayor’s support, funded discount metro cards for low-income New Yorkers. Some people on the left have called for a fare-free public transit. It’s not happening anytime soon. It happened with buses during the pandemic, but that changed. Now they do charge again, and the MTA has a pretty big budget hole so I can’t imagine that they can really think about that right now. I support the idea of fare-free transit, but it’s not viable right now.
Yang was the only Presidential candidate who talked about automation killing small businesses because they can’t outcompete chain stores. Arguably the pandemic put one of the final nails in the coffin of small business culture itself, beyond boutique consumption. Are we about to lose the “mom and pop shop” completely because it wouldn’t be feasible? What would recovery mean from a small business standpoint?
First, the pandemic has ravaged small businesses. Those that survive and are able to reconstitute themselves in the next year or so will find an environment of cheaper rent in Manhattan specifically, because the commercial rents have gone down. The rent market is changing, so that could help small businesses in the future. That being said, two things must happen. One is a bailout fund for restaurants in particular. The state should take the lead on that, setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars for grants—straight cash to get them back on their feet. The second element would be a form of commercial rent control. Tenants should have the right to renew their lease, and there should be a limit on what landlords could do to raise their rent. The major problem with small businesses in New York is not that they aren’t successful, but that their rent would go up by some astronomical figure. Doesn’t matter how good your business is, if you don’t pay the rent, you go out of business. That’s not a sustainable way for a city to handle its business ecosystem, so I’d like to see commercial rent control, and I would also like to see a bailout fund for businesses. I think the new stimulus bill has some bailout fund, but certainly in New York, there should be money as well.
Few artists have earned the right to wear hats with feathers in them—Treya Lam is one. Backed by Resistance Revival Chorus (of which Treya is also a part), “Dawn” has a spaghetti-western slow-burn quality that highlights how much patience anybody with revolutionary imagination ought to have, for their vision to actualize
Let me end on a note I know nothing about. You’re an avid baseball fan whose first novel, Demolition Night, is a dystopian time-travel sleuth story centered on the 1979 MLB promotional event. I believe you support the New York Mets, right?
A lot of people think that, but I support the Yankees.
I’m coming at it from the standpoint of how these are tough times for anyone whose livelihood depends on public gatherings. More than politics is in this hyper-engaged post-Trump era, baseball has always been the original “American pastime.” How has the baseball world handled the pandemic, and how does the near future look?
It’s a tremendous challenge for American professional sports. In baseball, they were able to have a 60-game season; they usually have 162 games—and they were able to do it with only a few COVID outbreaks. Maintain players’ health enough to finish the season was an accomplishment. The big question for next year is when the season would start and how long it would be. There’s a conflict between the owners of the teams who really don’t want to play any games without fans in the stands. They want a shorter season, and they don’t want to do anything until the population is vaccinated and is able to crowd in the stadiums. So, we don’t know when the baseball season will start, we don’t know what the economics will look like. There’s a lot of misinformation going around about how much money the teams made. The owners always cry poverty in particular now because they didn’t have fans in the seats, but baseball, like most major American sports, makes its money on television through very lucrative cable contracts with local TV providers. I’m skeptical that the teams lost money; I think they just didn’t make as much as they usually do. Once there’s a vaccine, the recovery will be swift. I don’t think there’s any existential challenge here. Fans want to go to ballparks, they want the distraction, and they miss the action, so I certainly think in a post-vaccine world in which COVID is actually like the flu and becomes a minor threat, you will see crowded stadiums and people will be happy to be back.