Larry Bensky Original

Plague Journal #22: Hot Time at the Old Conventions

Were it not for the overwhelming fact that a more-than-usual death cycle will be going on as this year’s conventions come and go, one could attach the appropriate meaning to them — i.e., mostly none.
U.S.A. Miami. Republican Convention. August 1972. Women anti Vietnam war militants pass in front of a squad of policemen holding riot sticks. The militants are dressed like Vietnamese peasants and carry maimed dolls to symbolise the horrors of the war. [Abbas/Magnum]

“I often reflected upon the unprovided condition that the whole body of the people were in at the first coming of this calamity upon them, and how it was for want of timely entering into measures and managements, as well public as private, that all the confusions that followed were brought upon us, and that such a prodigious number of people sank in that disaster which, if proper steps had been taken might, Providence concurring, have been avoided, and which, if posterity think fit, they may take a caution and a warning from.”

Daniel Defoe, “A Journal of the Plague Year” (1722)

The 1918 Influenza pandemic is the deadliest in modern history, claiming an estimated 500 million lives worldwide, including 675,000 deaths in the United States. But “what we’re seeing now is basically the same,” says Dr. Jeremy Faust in a new analysis from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, “It’s truly historic.”

The New York Times, “In N.Y.C.’s Spring Virus Surge, a Frightening Echo of 1918 Flu” (8/13/20)

“The poor results in the United States stem in substantial measure from the performance of the Trump administration, In no other high income country – and in few other countries period – have political leaders departed from expert advice as frequently and significantly as the Trump administration. President Trump has said the virus was not serious; predicted it would disappear; spent weeks questioning the need for masks; encouraged states to reopen with growing caseloads; and promoted medical disinformation. With only 4% of the world’s population the U.S. has accounted for 22% of coronavirus deaths.”

The New York Times, “The Unique U.S. Failure to Control the Virus” (8/6/20)

By Larry Bensky / Berkeley, August 10, 2020

Berkeley, California, August 17, 2020 – This week, the other spectre lurking everywhere decided to make itself more widely noticed. There could hardly be a worse time for climate change to be upon us forcefully, yet here it is. Unendurable heat in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Almost unendurable heat widespread in the United States.

Some people, people in power, thought we could get away forever with despoiling the planet. “Our species has relentlessly expanded into previously wild spaces,” writes Ed Yong in The Atlantic. “Through intensive agriculture, habitat destruction, and rising temperatures, we have uprooted he planet’s animals, forcing them into new and narrower ranges that are on our own doorsteps. Humanity has squeezed the world’s wildlife in a crushing grip – and viruses have come bursting out.”

The heat everywhere has caused not just inconvenience, like the power being shut off for Californians in order to avoid fires from poorly designed and installed electrical wiring. Nevertheless, sparked by some atypical lightening storms and fanned by high, hot winds, the fires arrived in my region in abundance, spreading a choking haze and the funeral dust of ashes across Northern California which seems to match our national mood. 

The heat also is likely pushing people to huddle inside with their fans and air conditioners — which may increase the chance of viral spread. The indoor spaces, Yong writes, “in which Americans spend 87 percent of their time [are the] staging grounds for super-spreading events. One study showed that the odds of catching the virus from an infected person are roughly 19 times higher indoors than in open air.” 

High-rise office and residential buildings have been built worldwide (as in San Francisco) on what was once open space or small residential neighborhoods. Yet, while urban density can decrease emissions and slow suburban sprawl (with its attendant high auto use) into the remaining natural environment, as currently constructed (crowded together in concrete “heat islands,” covered in sealed glass and not designed to disperse heat) they are enormous consumers of energy, both during construction and in use, and contribute to urban air pollution through their effect on air flow. And, the taller they are, the less efficient they can be.

Outside, where they can, animals are reclaiming or extending their traditional range – though they are also increasingly being driven to extinction while trying to do so. “Compared with the monkeys of the forest, their urban contemporaries, macaques in Thailand, have less muscle and are more susceptible to viruses, hypertension, and blood disease,” reports the New York Times. “Recently a truck loaded with crates of produce pulled up to a traffic light. One monkey spotted it, leaped on it, and began ripping the crates open. The one expeditionary macaque drew dozens more. By the time the light changed the crates were cleared and the gorging began.”

The day this is written the temperature in Bangkok is in the mid-nineties, as is the humidity. Such oppressive conditions are present year-round. How much “herd immunity” do people there have? The Thai government didn’t wait to find out. A nationwide lockdown was ordered and enforced in May. It seems to have worked. But it has had the kind of economic consequences that seem to far outweigh the importance of citizens’ health for those Trumpists who determine what passes for policy in this country.

“Thailand’s relative success in containing COVID-19 is being overshadowed as the pandemic’s impact on the kingdom’s devastated economy becomes more glaringly apparent. Since the pandemic hit in March, 70 percent of Thailand’s national workforce has seen its average monthly income decline by 47 percent,” reports Asia Times Financial. “Eleven percent of micro and small businesses are verging on permanent closure and 75 percent of small tourism related businesses have had their revenues decline by at least three-quarters.”

As everywhere there is pressure, from agribusiness to hotels, to “re-open” immediately. But Thailand is in the same region as Vietnam, and its government knows what happened there. A lockdown “flattened the curve.” Opening up meant international travel and trade. Quickly, a second wave of COVID-19 arrived, and new cases and deaths spiked to levels even greater than before the lockdown.

Fearing (finally!) such an outcome here, both “major” political parties (“minor” political parties in this country are quickly suppressed by the Democratic-Republican politico/industrial complex) cancelled the presidential conventions that were supposed to start this week. Super Bowl-type audiences are not expected for the Democrats or the Republicans (who begin their 2020 nonevent a week later).

Viewed through the TV star optic which is how the made-for-TV Trump views everything, the Dems would seem to have a decided advantage in these convention weeks. Speaking for and about them will have been Bernie Sanders, Michelle Obama and her husband, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bill Clinton and his wife, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg. Speaking for the Republicans (they can’t talk traditional Republican talk because the Trump party can’t even pretend to be a part of all that) will be … who? Mike Pence? Sean Hannity? Benjamin Netanyahu? Jerry Falwell? Vladimir Putin? Or one of their Governor Death elites from Florida, Georgia, Arkansas and Texas? It would be wonderful if the Republicans at least put up images of Richard Nixon, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and both the Bushes. But even the most dimwitted and mouth-agape TV anchors might find such a display a bit much, given how Romney and Bush have said they won’t be voting for Trump this time. McCain would likely have said the same.

Were it not for the overwhelming fact that a more-than-usual death cycle will be going on as this year’s conventions come and go, one could attach the appropriate meaning to them — i.e., mostly none. Few people know that presidential conventions were not a part of our political life until 1832. Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, and Andrew Jackson were selected by elite, sometimes secretive, gatherings of politicians. But once they got accepted as part of the quadrennial procedure, presidential conventions became a sometimes critically important part of our governing structure.

Like a lot of elements in politics these days, the conventions evoke memories for me.

My first time at a presidential convention I was actually at two of them, since the Democrats and Republicans held their events just weeks apart, in Miami Beach, in 1972. They were strange events, even by U.S. standards. Four years before, the Chicago “police riot” took place as the Democrats were nominating Hubert Humphrey. In 1972, the tear gas and billy clubs were a virtual, if not an actual, spectre. To avoid the worst, local, state, and national officials had worked out a plan to thwart protestors and, they believed, control law enforcement. 

However, demonstrators had evolved over the four-year period from an oddball gang led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who weren’t leaders and didn’t want to lead, to a much tighter and experienced cadre led by battle-tough Vietnam War survivors. Miami Beach law enforcement was as inept as in Chicago, with elements of organizations like Fish & Game Wardens and Immigration & Naturalization Services workers given guns, masks, and tear gas, with which they had little or no familiarity. 

I arrived with a core group of radio technicians, reporters and editors a week or so before the fun began. At that point, Pacifica Radio was a relatively widespread and moderately well-funded community institution, with stations and affiliates in around 20 cities, some large (NY, LA, SF Bay Area) some small (Columbia, MO, Blue Hill Harbor, ME). We rented a suite (i.e., 3 rooms) in a downtown Miami Beach hotel, and built a radio studio (a complex task in those hard-wired, pre-digital days). We began to send out news feeds several times a day, building up to our complete multi-hour live coverage of the conventions themselves.

As soon as demonstrators, led by Vietnam combat veterans dressed in remains of their battle gear, frequently complete with battlefield ribbons, left Flamingo Park near the Convention Center, motorcycle cops began confronting the marchers. Behind them were lines of troops with tear gas and “rubber” bullets (which can, and did, cause serious injuries).

Me, I was “armed” with a World War 1 gas mask, and a 50-pound tape recorder, which I had to manipulate while running away from the “law and order” uniformed gangs in the 90+ degree heat and 90+ humidity that was and is Miami in August, even before the world’s warming started to accelerate.

The overall slogans of the protestors were “No Business As Usual!” and “End the War Now!” The usual “business” was the convention. The demonstration leaders had vowed to see that it wouldn’t take place.

There were many problems, though. Only a few hundred demonstrators had arrived. They had been surveilled and infiltrated, and people in the few car caravans that left “movement” headquarters in places like New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco were arrested on the long drive to Miami by various police departments and kept in jail until the conventions were over. 

There was a split between the pacifist militants (like Alan Ginsberg and Dave Dellinger) and the Viet vets, some of whom were dangerous. Having been trained to wound and kill (and often haunted by having done so in Vietnam) they were determined to wound and kill in Miami Beach, if necessary. Each of them had to be watched by calmer souls, usually other Vietnam vets, who, as medics, had developed skills to quell anger eruptions. Massive amounts of weed was smoked, some of it sold to protestors by undercover cops, who then arrested their customers, further increasing the already elevated paranoia level.

Nevertheless, protests, nonviolent marches by a few hundred mostly young people, occurred. Confronting them was a large ring of buses that were parked bumper to bumper. Whoever designed that strategy failed to allow for entrances to be left between some buses so that the several thousand delegates and spectators who wanted to get in could do so. In the melees surrounding the few access points, delegates, protestors, and cops mixed it up, cursing and sweating and getting roughed up and gassed.

I had no contact with the real business of the conventions, because of our predictable obsession with street theater. We had just a few people among us who could do anything resembling deadline research and reporting, anyway; Pacifica had its own internal imperatives about who got to go to these events, which did not necessarily include relevant skills.

It wasn’t until the Republican Convention in Houston four years later that I was able to focus on the real “business” of these events, something which the party activists and legions of advisers/consultants/pollsters wish they were able to do this year in Charlotte and Milwaukee, the original host cities of this year’s now-virtual conventions. I spoke to dozens of people in Houston, who were usually quite open about what they were doing and how they hoped it would work. (It helped that I wore the right costume – suit and tie; that I had given up my beard and long hair, and that I had the right neck plastic to identify me as part of the official media horde.)

What I learned from all those encounters, and what I was able to learn further at the presidential conventions for the next couple of decades, was just what an extensive and expensive industry electoral politics had become. And it has metastasized since: this year will probably see $3 billion spent to elect Trump or Biden. Neither will significantly outspend the other. (With all the internet scams, tax dodges, “bundling,” “dark money” etc., the real total is impossible to even estimate.)

Platform committee hearings, generally ignored by the media, are a trove of indicative goodies. At their beginning, in 1832, they were meant to cheerlead for a party’s central elements. The first platform was admirably brief: “The Convention reposes the highest confidence in the purity, patriotism, and talents of Andrew Jackson and most cordially concurs in the repeated nominations he has received in various parts of the Union as a candidate for reelection to the office he now fills with so much honor to himself and usefulness to the country.”

By 1976 when I caught up with them in Kansas City, they had morphed into a week-long parsing of policy points done by 40 or 50 party stalwarts. They met in public, heard expert witnesses, and then voted. (Votes were nearly always unanimous or close to it.) It was tedious work. But if you cared about things like whether your kids were going to fight in wars, how high your taxes might be, and whether politicians or medical professionals would play determinative roles in reproductive health, attention needed to be paid.

I remember fighting slumber at a Republican Platform Committee hearing after having endured discussion about whether it was scripturally correct and politically appropriate to refer to the United States as “a Shining City on a Hill.” That was one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite tropes: to hold up the United States to the world as an exemplar. (Never mind that the rest of the world had already experienced the United States as less than exemplary, having had a key role in mass slaughters in places like Indonesia, Guatemala, Iraq, the Philippines, etc., etc.) Bibles – almost everyone on the Platform Committee seemed to have one at the ready – snapped open. There it was, in Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” (As to the appropriateness of Bibles being foundational documents for secular government, nobody was about to bring that up.)

The main event, the big battle over reproductive choice took place next. Seeking to present unanimity, the committee chair called for an immediate vote, without debate. A few hands, however, were raised in opposition. Had that chairman been a follower of Congressional procedure, in which people like him ignored minor dissent, slammed down their gavels, and moved on, he could have avoided the situation. But he didn’t. And an elderly delegate started talking, in a barely audible voice, which I was close enough to hear. 

The exact dialogue I no longer remember. She presented herself as a retired medical doctor, a general practitioner. She also said she was a lifelong Christian. But, that in her experience, there was no evidence that life begins at conception. That the Bible was not a medical text. And that she had encountered numerous situations where the physical and/or mental effect of an unwanted, sometimes dangerous, pregnancy were decisive.

A hastily called break. A cluster of delegates around the doctor, who she conversed with, as some quoted from their ever-handy Bibles. She left, in the company of two women she seemed to know. They never came back. The anti-choice resolution passed unanimously.

Such a sequence won’t happen this year, and indeed hasn’t happened for decades. Platform committees started decades ago mostly “meeting” by mail, not at the convention sites. Delegates arriving were presented with slickly-bound books with many pages containing the platforms, which only the party elite had read. “Approved!” With a stamp of the gavel what could not, in any case, be altered at that point, passed into history.

As in much else in current electoral politics, a fire has now been lit from the embers of yesteryear’s platform committees. Progressive Democrats have serious reservations about Biden and his ilk. They want the Green New Deal, Medicaid for All, and Defund the Police to be in this year’s document. Biden, Pelosi, Feinstein, Schumer, Cuomo and Newsom are nervous about taking any principled stand outside of what they regard as part of the electorate’s affinity for mild reforms, at best. 

In addition to the platform and speechifying activities, there was another major focus at presidential conventions. Money. Legions of lobbyists, corporate attorneys, and representatives of “interest groups” attended the events. There were endless meals, cocktail hours, late-night frolics. Limousines would frequently whisk away delegates, many to patronize prostitutes, paid for by those lobbyists, attorneys, and “interest groups.” 

Given all else going on this year, it’s only mildly surprising that the conventions will have snuck up on many people. In one way, the much reduced network TV coverage may mean we’re seeing the death of this convention dinosaur. It’s part of a trend where, as with so much else, human interaction has atrophied. COVID-19’s shrinking our relationships to the virtual rather than the actual is a logical extension. So is the omission of any mention of the conventions in our leading comprehensive media outlet, the New York Times, this past weekend. What we’re left with is the motor-mouthed TV and cable “stars” elbowing each other. Accompanied by zoomed-in politicos from everywhere. It seems like just another coda to a world gone by.

“The taverns are full of gadabouts making merry this eve. And though I may press my face against the window like an urchin at a confectioner’s, I am tempted not by the sweetmeats within. A dram in exchange for the pox is an ill bargain indeed.”

Note from Twitter account @Pepys_Diaries, a spoof of The Diary of Samuel Pepys, from the 1660s, which included reports of The Great Plague of London, 1665-6.

Larry Bensky has been writing his “Journal of the Plague Year” since mid-March for the Anderson Valley Advertiser and Scheerpost. He welcomes your comments and suggestions:

To read previous entries of the “Journal of the Plague Year” click here.

Larry Bensky
Larry Bensky

Larry Bensky is a literary and political journalist with experience in both print and broadcast media, as well as a teacher and political activist. He is known for his work with Pacifica Radio station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, and for the nationally-broadcast hearings he anchored for the Pacifica network

Copyright 2020 Larry Bensky

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