Duck and Cover

How to prepare for tonight’s presidential debate.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden square off in the first of three presidential debates tonight starting at 9 pm. And while I’d like to treat it like the fellow above, I’ve got to watch it so I can sound smart on the radio tomorrow. Because misery loves company, you should watch it too.

So what should we watch for? Well, the New York Times suggests this is Trump’s best chance to change the narrative of a race where he’s lagging far behind. So from Trump expect a lot of personal attacks on Biden and his family, and a loose relationship with facts and the truth. Biden has to avoid taking Trump’s bait and keep rein on his temper and emotions.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post points out that Trump hasn’t really prepared, believing his experience as president is preparation enough, and testing out attack lines on close aides and with rally audiences; moderator Chris Wallace doesn’t intend to act as a live fact checker; and any slips of Biden’s will likely pale besides those of his counterpart.

Over at Politico, the writers compile what they expect to be the “10 biggest whoppers” told on the stage tonight. Brace yourself for this, but they expect most of these — 7 out of 10 — will come from Trump.

John Dickerson at The Atlantic reminds us that debates are about more than facts. Rather they are a window into a candidate’s temperament, character, and style of leadership. As I suggested last week, I think we have that covered when it comes to Donald Trump. But we might see something interesting about Joe Biden tonight. Besides, the burden of fact checking really ought to be on us as viewers.

Finally, will tonight’s debate really matter? Well, according to the folks at fivethirtyeight.com, first debates tend to help the challenger more than the incumbent, though that may not play out this time around. There are frankly too few undecided voters left to be persuaded. And Biden may have the most to lose because he’s so far ahead.

So there you go. You can read all of that, or just take it like the guy in the photo. I know which one I’d choose if I could.

If you’re curious about that photo, it’s a still from the classic 1951 Civil Defense film “Duck and Cover,” starring Bert the Turtle. Watch it here.

The man he’s always been

The convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume for as long as they continue in office.

Henry Kissinger

Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.

Michelle Obama

I’m opening this post with these quotes because I’m spending a beautiful early fall afternoon depressing myself by reading over the last nearly five years of pieces I’ve written in this space about Donald Trump. I link to a bunch of them individually below, but if you want to suffer along with me, here’s a link where you can find all, or nearly all of them.

One thing is really clear to me. We have known all along who and what Donald Trump is, and we elected him anyway.

Take this example, from Dec. 7, 2015, my very first entry on him, right after Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States …”

And so Trump takes the fear and xenophobia already rampant in Republican ranks, already being stoked by his slightly less hysterical rivals, and ramps it to new, nauseating heights.

When he declared, most everyone, myself included, played the Trump candidacy as a diversion, an amusing little gag. Well the joke’s not funny any more. It’s really not.

As I wrote four years later, Trump’s pitch was not a bug but a feature:

Way back in 2015, Donald Trump began his run for the White House with a naked appeal to fear rooted in racism. And for the last four years, as he first campaigned and then as he has governed, his tune has remained the same.

In hindsight, the joke never was funny, no matter how many people fell for it then, and still fall for it now. Trump, ever the showman with the uncanny ability to manipulate the media while lying with the ease of one for whom it comes naturally, knew how to give the people what they wanted, and what they wanted was someone who appeals to their base instincts, angers, and resentments. And he knew then, and knows now, who his best friends are, European fascists and American racists and anti-semites.

Which squares perfectly with his fondness for and admiration of authoritarian strongmen, his lust for the adulation they can command, and his craving for the power they enjoy but our system (so far) has managed to deny him. His refusal to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose in November is no surprise given his refusal to commit to honoring the outcome in 2016 if Clinton won. That he has armed militia followers who might back that play in 2020 should not surprise either given the pro-Trump stance militias took four years ago.

So what are we to do now, with less that 40 days until the general election? My answer today is the same as what it was in March 2019, when Democrats were still entertaining the fantasy that Robert Mueller, or impeachment, or the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, or the 25th Amendment, or some other deus ex machina might rid the country of Trump.

We’ll have to beat him at the polls. By voting early and in person where allowed, by mailing in our absentee ballots as soon as possible to ensure our votes are counted, or by walking into our local polling place on Nov. 3 and filling out our ballots, which is what I am going to do.

Joe Biden wasn’t your first choice? Hey, mine either. But given the stakes, #ADWD.

A 27-year walk in the woods

Lena Friedrich’s award-winning documentary of the North Pond Hermit.

In 1986 a young man drove to the end of a dirt road, left his keys in the car, and carrying a tent he’d never before slept in, walked into the Maine woods. Over the next 27 years his personal interactions with other humans consisted of a single word, “hi,” to a passing hiker who took him by surprise.

Christopher Thomas Knight chose a life alone, camping in the deep forests of the Kennebec Valley, subsisting off the food he would steal from camps and cabins in the area, fattening up in the fall in anticipation of lean times over the brutal Maine winters. He was simultaneously myth and mystery, a legend in the region and an enigma to those whose cabins he’d burgle for boxes of macaroni and cheese, propane tanks, or batteries to power his radio and flashlight.

A beautiful short film by documentarian Lena Friedrich, embedded below, doesn’t so much as tell Knight’s story as it does the story of the people and the community whose lives crossed paths with his hermit ways.

In introducing the film, a featured documentary at The Atlantic, Emily Buder writes:

In the area near North Pond, Knight’s hermitage fomented outrage, intrigue, reverence, and every response in between. Filmmaker Lena Friedrich decided that she had to learn more. In her short documentary, The Hermit, she interviews residents of North Pond who piece together the fabric of a local legend.

“Everyone had a very strong opinion about Knight, and none of them had the same opinion,” Friedrich told me. Some residents viewed Knight as a villain; others saw him as a folk hero of sorts. “I realized that, as with every legend, this one had many versions and interpretations,” Friedrich said. “I tried to find characters who would provide personal layers of understanding to the enigma.”

There’s something deeply appealing about the idea of walking into the woods and disappearing, if only for a little while. This is even more true given what this year has brought. Not that I want to over-romanticize Knight or his experience. As Nathaniel Rich writes about him:

Knight’s hermitage was not entirely pure—he stole processed food and a twin-size mattress, listened to talk radio (a lot of Rush Limbaugh), played handheld video games, and even watched a miniature Panasonic black-and-white television, charged with stolen car batteries …

What Knight sought was solitude and peace, and for 27 years, he found it. Rich continues, “the forest granted him freedom, privacy, and serenity.” It’s not romantic to envy that even if it’s not a life I would choose for myself.

My weekend reading: Inside the Viking mind and world

What I’m reading: Neil’s Price’s “Children of Ash and Elm”

The Vikings are a people both familiar and unfamiliar to us. Familiar through all manner of popular representations on television (Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Norsemen), in the movies (The 13th Warrior, The Vikings, Outlander, Valhalla Rising), and fiction (The Hammer and the Cross, The Golden Wolf Saga).

But unfamiliar in terms of our knowing of their minds, how they understood themselves, and how they understood the worlds through which they moved. Worlds both seen and unseen. This is where Neil Price’s new history of the Vikings, Children of Ash and Elm, truly astonishes, opening an inner window into a people whose minds are in many ways deeply alien to our own.

As Price, distinguished professor and chair of archaeology at Uppsala University, Sweden, explains in an early chapter:

[V]ery different worlds were being built inside the Norse mind. Here is another distinction between appearance and reality, between the surface and what it conceals. From the problematic medieval written sources, and occasional mentions in Eddic and skaldic poetry, emerges one of the most remarkable aspects of the Vikings: the fourfold division of being and an extremely complex notion of what might loosely be called the soul.

This fourfold division begins with their hamr – literally their shell or shape – what you would see if you met a Viking on the street. But this shape, or physical appearance, was not fixed. It could alter, allowing shape-changing into a wolf or bear, or other bird or beast. Not everyone could do this, it wasn’t necessarily voluntary, and whether this ability was thought a blessing or a curse is unclear. What is certain, as Price points out, is that Vikings absolutely knew this happened. It was just another aspect of life:

[I]t is possible, although strange to the modern mind, that such abilities were treated more as a sort of skill than anything else. Some people were good at carpentry, others had a fine singing voice, and your neighbor could become a bear when irritated.

Inside a person’s shape was the second aspect of their being, the hugr, a concept which seems to combine elements of personality, character, temperament, and mind. This was who a person really was, “the absolute essence of you,” distinct and separate from their mutable physical shell.

In the Viking mind, somewhere inside each of us, was a third element, a hamingja, the personification of a person’s luck. Fascinatingly, a hamingja could leave the body and walk around, mostly invisible except to those with the special sight to see them. In extreme circumstances the hamingja could abandon its person:

The English saying that someone’s luck has ‘run out’ is actually using a Norse proverb – except the Vikings meant it literally.

The final element of the fourfold Viking soul is perhaps the most interesting of all, a fully separate being that lived inside every human, inseparable but distinct. Most fascinating of all, given the extremely patriarchal hypermasculinity of Viking society, this separate being, the fylgja, was a female spirit – always a female spirit – even for a man. As Price puts it, “every single Viking man literally had a spirit-woman inside him.” This spirit-woman was a guardian in life and then at death moved on down the family line, a literal embodiment of ancestral connection.

Summing up this discussion, Price writes:

This sense of something utterly alien beneath the skin, occasionally manifesting itself in actions or words, may have been one of the most significant differences between the Vikings and the people they encountered. Certainly for a European Christian, the composite soul with its shapes and shells would have been deeply unnerving.

Simply put, this book is a treasure. Rebecca Onion writes, in her review at Slate, “Price has a talent for evoking the Vikings’ physical surroundings as they might have been—a gift for recreation that’s probably natural for an archaeologist accustomed to eking significance from the smallest bit of disturbed dirt.” She’s absolutely right, and I didn’t even touch on that aspect of the book here.

I’m only half way through at this point, just at the beginning of Price’s discussion of the Viking Age history we think we know best, their trading, raiding, and expansion from Eurasia to the shores of North America. Every page I turn brings a new revelation. This is, hands down, the best book I’ve read in a very long time.