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Opinion: The thunderbolts we never saw coming

Shelley is far from alone in her co-location of creativity with chaos. James Baldwin rendered this tension in prescient terms in his 1962 essay, “The Creative Process”: “A society must assume that it is stable,” wrote Baldwin, “but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”

After this week, surely many around the world have received Baldwin’s message and taken it to heart.

The week began with a horrific mass shooting at an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Illinois, that left seven dead and dozens wounded. On Friday, the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot to death at the age of 67 by an assassin wielding a home-made gun in Nara. This act of violence on the other side of the planet was “shocking to people around the world,” noted Frida Ghitis, and was especially “devastating in Japan, where gun violence is essentially non-existent. Abe’s killing would have been appalling at any time,” Ghitis continued. “Now, however, it adds to the sense of an unstable world in crisis — in which democracies, in particular, appear to be under siege. … Whatever we learn about Abe’s killing, it’s not occurring in a vacuum.”
Project Syndicate resurfaced Shinzo Abe‘s own previously published words. His death will be felt in the US in particular, asserted John R. Bolton, former President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, who first met the Japanese leader during the George W. Bush administration. Bolton wrote in a remembrance in the Washington Post that “Americans should appreciate how important Abe was for our nation. … I never saw Abe lose his sense of humor or his patience. … We could have used more of his wise warnings over the coming years. Now, that is not to be.”

Them’s the breaks indeed

The rollercoaster of Boris Johnson’s tenure as UK prime minister came to an end this week, as Johnson’s dissembling over a deputy’s groping scandal did what boozy hypocrisy in flouting Covid-19 lockdown measures, Brexit-related lies and shenanigans and a previous no-confidence vote apparently could not: oust him from power. Johnson’s response briefly broke the internet: “And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world. But them’s the breaks.”

“The final lie that brought down the pyramid of untruths that sustained Boris Johnson’s premiership was a particularly unedifying one,” wrote Rosa Prince. “Why would a prime minister risk his leadership by appointing an alleged predator to a minor role in his government? Why lie about it when, inevitably, his folly was found out?” According to Prince: “Since childhood Johnson seems to have found it easier to reach for a preposterous lie than tell an obvious truth — and has yet to meet a rule he didn’t seek to break.”
In both his exposed mendacity and longtime lack of accountability for it, Johnson is redolent of America’s own tousle-haired populist, contended Julian Zelizer, who asked whether Johnson and Trump’s “fall from power mark a new era in conservative politics.” Looking at both men’s fates through the legacies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Zelizer concluded it’s not likely: “Trump’s political future remains uncertain, but a number of other Republicans are stepping forward to promote what might be called Trumpism … in more polished and politically viable ways. … We’re probably going to see a similar scenario in the UK following Johnson’s resignation.

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A battle for America

Irina and Kevin McCarthy. Katherine Goldstein. Jacquelyn Sundheim. Stephen Straus. Nicolas Toledo-Zaragoza. Eduardo Uvaldo. They were all fatally shot on July 4 by a gunman in Highland Park, Illinois. After mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas — along with those in countless communities that do not make national news — the reality could not be starker, wrote Jill Filipovic: “We don’t have to live like this. We are an extreme international outlier when it comes to guns. And we could radically decrease gun deaths if we wanted to. But we have to want to.”

Guns are no longer a debate, she maintained, but a question: What kind of America do we want? “Obviously, America’s out-of-control gun culture costs lives. But it also costs us connection, community and the basic ability to feel safe gathering in public. … Events like school plays, weekend markets, music performances and Independence Day parades knit us together around shared experiences and shared values. They create a sense of mutual investment in a place and in the other people who make up that place. They’re not just random fun; they are the glue that holds a place and a people together. And when we lose our sense of safety at them, we lose much more than just a parade.”

Documentary photographer Gabriele Galimberti, whose portraits of Americans with their gun collections have gone viral after recent mass shootings, reflected in a July 4 essay for NBC Think on the popularity and effect of her images: “I think my photographs shock people because they highlight the extent to which guns are embedded in so many everyday lives. This isn’t just about mass shootings. It’s about the very identity of America. On a day meant to symbolize independence from tyranny, I hope that my photographs can inspire deeper reflection and, perhaps, change.”

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Warning signs for democracy

The increasingly explosive January 6 select committee’s hearings are ongoing, and many Americans are tuning in with the hopes that Trump may be held accountable. Don’t hold your breath, argued Diane McWhorter, who cited the GOP primary in her home state of Alabama as an illustration of how old-school Republicans bear responsibility for American democracy’s perilous moment. Drawing insight from a 1956 letter from William Faulkner about the North’s failure to understand the South, McWhorter warned that “more than Trump, it is” these so-called thinking Republicans “who will have to answer for the death, if it comes, of our republic.”

Another potential minefield? The administrative state — which the GOP has been striving to dismantle, making accountability even harder to secure, as Nicole Hemmer pointed out after reports of the Internal Revenue Service’s audits of former FBI leaders James Comey and Andrew McCabe became public. Wrote Hemmer: “If it turns out the former president did play a role in the audits … it would come as no great shock,” since “presidents have long availed themselves of the Internal Revenue Service and other powerful agencies to target their political opponents.”

Citing examples ranging from the 1940s and 1950s to the Kennedy and Nixon administrations and beyond, she observed: “That history is not exculpatory of Trump, but rather reminds us that these agencies remain vulnerable to manipulation by bad actors. And that’s a particularly worrisome flaw now, given widespread right-wing efforts to raze the administrative state. … Americans concerned about those efforts … need to push for reforms, like stronger safeguards against political interference and more oversight from independent watchdogs to protect and legitimize these agencies that enable the federal government to function.”
Sen. Mitt Romney put the dangers to democracy in broader context in The Atlantic, where he asked: “What accounts for the blithe dismissal of potentially cataclysmic threats? The left thinks the right is at fault for ignoring climate change and the attacks on our political system. The right thinks the left is the problem for ignoring illegal immigration and the national debt. But wishful thinking happens across the political spectrum. More and more, we are a nation in denial. … If we continue to ignore the real threats we face, America will inevitably suffer serious consequences.”

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A term to remember

The superlatives for the most recent Supreme Court term continue to pile up, a common description being “like no other.” On top of seismic rulings on abortion and guns, the Supreme Court limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to push toward carbon neutrality, a development that John D. Sutter called a “painful reminder” that there is no person, technology, strategy or institution “that could bail us out of the climate crisis. … Our best hope is that the outrage about the Supreme Court’s shortsighted, dangerous decision … will fuel not the fossil fuel industry but the energy of the American public. It’s hard to feel that now, but the feeling will return. Because the truth is that if the branches of the US government won’t stop global warming, then people must make it happen. Not by swapping lightbulbs and buying new cars. But by gaining and then asserting political power.
Other cases this term revealed a landscape where “brick by brick, if not by bulldozer, the wall between religion and government is collapsing,” observed Barbara Perry, who noted that in “in each of the four religion cases this term,” the conservative-majority court “adopted an accommodationist posture. … As the founders feared, when religious faith becomes the guiding force in politics, the historic American experiment in creating a pluralistic republic is most at risk.
Concerns went beyond First Amendment interpretations; people of faith also had something to say. Anne Lamott, writing for the New York Times after the Kennedy v. Bremerton decision in favor of a football coach who lost his job after praying on the field, affirmed: “Many of us who believe in a reality beyond the visible realms, who believe in a soul that survives death, and who are hoping for seats in heaven near the dessert table, also recoil from the image of a high school football coach praying at the 50-yard line. It offends me to see sanctimonious public prayer in any circumstance — but a coach holding his players hostage while an audience watches his piety makes my skin crawl.”

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Real lives after Roe

With the end of Roe v. Wade and the closure of Mississippi’s last abortion clinic, Jackson’s “Pink House,” W. Ralph Eubanks wrote that “we are witnessing how ideas nurtured in the bosom of the American South are taking a national stage. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all live in Mississippi now.” Eubanks, a native Mississippian, converted to Catholicism in 1975 and returned to the state in 2016 after many years away to find its Republican politics (and most of its Catholic faithful) “dominated by four issues: guns, God, gays and abortion.”

Now a self-described “pro-choice Catholic,” he mourned having avoided the Pink House’s neighborhood after moving back, because he could not stand to hear or witness the vitriol hurled at the women visiting the clinic. “What the end of Roe made me realize,” he concluded, “is that by setting the South apart and marginalizing it as a part of the American psyche, we as a society have for too long neglected the power and magnetism of the region’s cultural and political reach. … Mississippi is no longer a world unto itself.
What’s at stake going forward, insisted CNN’s Mayra Cuevas, “isn’t just the constitutionality of regulating abortion, but the right of all women to wield control over their bodies — a right that is already eroded daily in classrooms across the country.” Cuevas recalled her own experience being sexually shamed by a teacher and cited research showing how policing the dress and self-presentation of young women of color and those who are gender non-conforming is a systemic problem that stands in direct relation to broader fights for bodily autonomy.

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Don’t miss

W. Kamau Bell: What ‘desert Florida’ taught me about America’s ‘woke war’

“‘Wokeness.’ ‘Wokesters.’ ‘Wokerati.’ ‘Woketember.’ ‘Wokeuary.’ Okay, I made the last two up,” wrote W. Kamau Bell in advance of the season premiere of season 7 of “United Shades of America” — “It’s easy to do because everybody seems to be making up variations on the woke theme. Everywhere you look someone is worried that America has gotten too woke.” As Bell noted, “Woke is just another example of the White dominant culture taking a word Black people invented and then twisting it beyond recognition. Woke was a word first attributed to the singer Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter in the 1920s.”

For the season’s first show, “The Woke War,” Bell traveled to Arizona and talked to people of all walks of life, including LGBTQ students who are some of those bearing the brunt of the classroom battles that come with the so-called war on woke. “While fear of ‘woke’ is the battering ram to get our attention,” Bell argued, bad actors in politics, media and elsewhere are “just trying to distract us from the fact that this country is on fire. And the only way we’re going to put it out is if we learn how the fire started. But the more we learn about the fires, the real ones, the metaphorical ones, the historical ones, the better able we are to put the fires out.

“Don’t let people use kids as the shield. When people say, ‘think of the children,’ I say, ‘Yeah, I am thinking of the children. My children. And I want them to learn all about this country. I want them to learn about slavery, algebra, January 6, Frank Sinatra, great trans folk in history, Janelle Monae, the pet rock, the war in Ukraine, science and much, much more. You want your kids to learn much, much less? Ugh, I feel bad for you. Why would you raise kids like that?'”

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