Thursday, March 19, 2020

Keeping the Curve Flat

Much of the Bay Area, including Berkeley, is under "shelter-in-place" guidelines at least through early April. It's basically semi-compulsory social distancing: we're not locked in our houses, but we're only supposed to leave for grocery shopping, medical services, or to go on a walk (six feet distant from any fellow pedestrians).

The goal of all this is to "flatten the curve" of new coronavirus infections. It won't stop new infections, but it will spread them out so the medical system isn't overwhelmed.

I'm supremely lucky in that shelter-in-place isn't a huge burden on me -- I work from home anyway, and I'm enough of an introvert that I frankly don't leave the apartment as often as I should even under the best of circumstances. But society-wide this sort of living arrangement will be tough to maintain over a long period of time. Yet I don't have a clear sense of what sorts of conditions would signify it's safe to lift the guidelines and let public events (anything from sports to school) proceed again. Even if the guidelines work to flatten the curve, wouldn't it get pointy again the moment people started congregating in masses again?

Put differently: shelter-in-place and social distancing rules are a holding pattern. But it's not clear to me at least what we're holding for. Anybody have an answer to that?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Jelle's Marble Runs

This is a YouTube series -- several of them, actually -- featuring marbles racing against each other in a variety of competitive events. The current season is "Marbula One" -- a Grand Prix where sixteen marbles go down MarioKart style tracks (first in qualifying heats, then in a free-for-all multi-lap race). Prior seasons have featured the Marble Olympics, with various teams ("The Green Ducks", "The Rojo Rollers", etc.) competing across events ranging from the 5 meter sprint to a giant maze to a rafting course.

It's brilliant. It's got high production values complete with time splits, medal podiums, stands filled with (marble) fans, inspired courses, and an announcer who makes it sound exactly like you were watching the Olympic games. Much like LegoMasters (which is or will be another PlagueWatch recommendation), it sings because brings to life our childhood imagination -- these were not the tracks and events you actually built, these are what you had in mind when you were building but never could reach because you were nine and time is limited.

It's a perfect filler for the sports void we're currently going through, and is just the right mix of competitive and silly to serve as an antidote to these anxious times. Pick a team (I'm partial to the "O'rangers" -- pronounced "Oh Rangers" and chanted "Ohhhhh Rangers!"), settle down on the couch, and prepared to have your heart leap surprisingly high in your chest as two marbles criss-cross for first place on the final home stretch.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Avenue 5

If there's one thing I do a lot of, it's binge-watch television. And that is a skill that is suddenly in high demand, as we all hunker down indoors (you are doing that, right?) and hope that 'rona doesn't take us.

So -- in what may but hopefully won't(?) become an ongoing series -- I'll offer you some quick thoughts on some of the shows I am, or have just recently finished, watching with an eye towards answering the question: Should I PlagueWatch it? First up: HBO's Avenue 5.

So first -- this a show with a stellar comedic cast, many of whom turn in standout performances. Hugh Laurie is great and it's a ton of fun watching him switch accents from scene to scene or even sentence to sentence. Zach Woods brings great Jared-from-Silicon-Valley energy (Advertising the bar on-ship: "Do you like to drink? I know my dad did."). Suzy Nakamura scratches an I-didn't-know-I-had-it-but-makes-sense itch for "what if Melinda May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was every bit as scary, but entirely in the service of being an enabling corporate sycophant?"  And new-to-me Lenora Crichlow is perhaps my absolute favorite as the only truly competent member of the crew (who nonetheless is by no means perfect).

I also like that the stakes are weirdly kept pretty low given the core premise (a space cruise ship is knocked off course and a two month cruise now is projected to last several years). It's only vaguely alluded to but the ship appears to be somewhat self-sustaining with respect to supplies, so the main "threats" are panic and idiocy among the crew and passengers. Which certainly quickly becomes threatening, but it's a comedic threat, not an existential "death inevitably bores down upon us" type of threat. I prefer that greatly.

That said, given the comedic talent on the show and the great individual performances, the whole does feel like less than the sum of its parts. Many of the individual episode plots never quite gel, and so one ends up watching for one-off moments of great comedy rather than an overarching story. Meanwhile, quite a few of the characters are (intentionally) very grating, and there isn't a ton of effort expended on why they're indulged so much. We've seen Josh Gad's character (the pampered idiot rich kid owner of the cruise line) a million times before, and -- no disrespect to Gad's performance -- I've never once found it anything but aggravating.

It's also fair to wonder whether "we're trapped indefinitely in a defined enclosed space with a vague but certainly real threat of doom hovering around us" is the vibe you want to run with at this particular moment in time.

Still, it's a relatively quick nine episode season, so it's an easy binge. Overall, I give it a qualified recommendation -- not a must-see, but can definitely fill a gap in your schedule if you're running low on more satisfying fare.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Will Liberal Zionism Be the Bundism of the 21st Century?

Born in 1907, Isaac Deutscher was one of the more prominent Jewish Marxist intellectuals of the 20th Century. Prior to World War II, his commitment to Marxism caused him to oppose Zionism as antithetical to the cause of international socialism. After the Holocaust, however, he lamented his prior position, writing that "If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s, I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were to be extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers."

I'm inclined to think Deutscher was a little too hard on himself. It's not just that nobody can predict the future. It's that many political positions, plausible in the particular historical moment they were adapted, turn out to lead to dead-ends or calamities -- not because of an intrinsic rot in their views, but because of the unpredictable contingencies and choices and events far outside the individual capacity or reckoning of any one person to influence.

There are ideologies that are wrong "in the moment", such that we can justly judge harshly someone who adhered to them without demanding clairvoyance as to the ultimate route of history. But the Jews, such as the Bundists,* who opposed anti-Zionism in the early 20th century because they believed instead that Jewish equality should be fought for "here" rather than "there", are not I think culpable in this way. They believed that equality and security for Jews could come via liberalism and humanist values in any state. Zionists believed they could only be guaranteed in a Jewish state. "In this controversy," Deutscher wrote, "Zionism scored a dreadful victory, one which it could neither wish nor expect." One understands Deutscher's feeling of guilt. But I don't think it was wrong for Deutscher, sitting where he was in 1927, to argue for what he did. His political vision was plausible and defensible. He was entitled to fight for it. But many plausible and defensible political visions, which people are entitled to fight for, do not come to pass -- and this was one of them. History's weave took a plausible, defensible position like Bundism and wrecked it.

Bundism effectively was killed in the Holocaust; only today is it seeing the tiniest stirrings of resurgence in the West. But I wonder if Liberal Zionism -- which I'll summarize as comprising the ideas that a Jewish state in Israel (a) is legitimate as a means of instantiating self-determination for the Jewish people; (b) is compatible with and obligated to secure full democratic and political equality for non-Jews in the state of Israel; and (c) should co-exist side-by-side and peaceably with a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza -- will be this century's Bundism.

I don't mean that it will collapse in a historical calamity as grave as the Holocaust (pray not). What I mean is that, like Bundism, Liberal Zionism is I think a plausible, defensible vision which simply may not survive history's weave. Certainly, those who've always opposed Zionism in any form (and often reserved especial contempt for the liberal variety) have been quick to sing of Liberal Zionism's demise, and to deride those who purported to think of it as anything but a masquerade for oppression. But those of us who genuinely held to Liberal Zionism as our vision of the future are today gripped with an unprecedented wave of pessimism and despair, as we find it harder and harder to see a viable path forward to actualize all its commitments. We can squabble all we want over who is to "blame" for its infirmity -- Israeli maximalism versus Palestinian intransigence; Bibi versus Abbas; Trump versus Obama; Arafat walking away at Camp David or Kushner pulling the rug out with his "peace plan" -- but Liberal Zionism's vitality as an achievable political future seems to be shriveling with every passing day.

And so we're left wondering what our legacy will be in a world where a core political commitment of ours simply ... failed. Probably (hopefully) not in such a cataclysmic fashion as Bundism did, but failed nonetheless. Deutscher was left to wonder what might have been different had he not chosen a failed path. Liberal Zionists may well have to ask ourselves similar questions.

History always feels inevitable in retrospect -- we know, after the fact, what the "right" and "wrong" choices were. But as I said, I'm inclined to be more charitable. That a political vision failed does not mean it was baked into the political universe that it was always doomed to fail. Humans make choices; political action always depends on the choices of others and so carries the unavoidable risk that they will choose in such a way as to close off even plausible, defensible paths. The Bundists lost, but they were not shown to be fools or villains -- and they were entitled to at least view their failure as a tragedy.

Perhaps Liberal Zionism will lose too. If it does, those who held to it will not be fools or villains, and we will be entitled to view our failure as a tragedy. And who knows -- like Bundism, Liberal Zionism may see its own resurgence sometime far into the future. Stranger rebirths have happened.

* Deutscher himself did not join the Bundists either, being uninterested in its attachment to Yiddishism.