The Mission

Mort Rosenblum / Reader Supported News
The Mission Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson on Capitol Hill on March 9. If confirmed, Jackson would be the sixth female justice in the court's history, the third Black justice, and the first to have been a federal public defender. (photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

American life, present and past, gets no more real than in the Mission District, where I occasionally escape into a hidey-hole off 24th Street to try making sense of it all. This time, I emerged half full of joyous inspiration. My other half is damn near suicidal.

It is my sister’s place, chock full of wise, witty old books, from Virginia Woolf to MFK Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf.” Henry James is on one shelf, James Thurber on another. Our grandma’s samovar from Ukraine sits under a colorful Twins Seven Seven painting I sent her from Nigeria.

Jane Kay, a celebrated environmental reporter, cooks sumptuous meals on an ancient enamel stove and laughs a lot with friends. She is the glass-half-full one in the family, seeking solutions while her brother catalogues glass-half-empty doom and gloom. But even she is troubled.

Two deranged men, vastly different yet eerily similar, have our world hanging on for dear life. It is no wonder Donald Trump is Vladimir Putin’s fanboy. Despots are despots, whatever the human toll of their self-obsessed depredations.

People in authoritarian countries mostly suffer in enforced silence. Americans only need vote for leaders who put the nation above themselves. But for a range of reasons, many don’t. And many others don’t bother to show up at the polls. The potential consequences are unthinkable.

Trump, increasingly buffoonish, may float off in hot air. But others preening in his shadow — bad shepherds eager to fleece a nation of sheep — could be worse. Jane and I watched Republican senators grill Ketanji Brown Jackson with blatant hypocrisy, an appeal to ignorant bigotry.

Tom Cotton, a Harvard law graduate, made my skin crawl. He called her explanation for once working as a public defender at Guantanamo “procedural gobbledygook.” With a smirk, he concluded: “It sounds like debate about how many terrorists can dance on the head of a pin.”

After Josh Hawley and Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz surpassed himself. He held up a book for kids titled “Antiracist Baby” that he said is taught at Georgetown Day School and asked Jackson, “Do you agree with this book…that babies are racist?” Ruth Marcus wrote in the Washington Post:

“What does this possibly have to do with Jackson’s suitability to serve on the high court? To ask that question is to miss the larger point: That is no longer what this exercise is about.”

Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee made clear it wasn’t about truth. She asked Jackson why she thought dangerous criminals should be released because of Covid-19. The judge replied that she didn’t and cited her past remarks. Blackburn ignored the answer to fire off other baseless slurs.

The Mission is a telling microcosm of a diverse America that is changing fast. The district’s name refers to Mision San Francisco de Asis, built in 1776. While 13 colonies arose against Britain, Spanish missionaries backed by soldiers converted indigenous tribes, who were obliged – some say enslaved — to build settlements from Mexico to northern California.

Jane left Tucson to work on the San Francisco Examiner in 1986. She gravitated toward the Mission, redolent with the aroma of roasting green chilies, alive with Mexican music and color. But it has changed beyond recognition with the technology boom and widening income gaps.

Real estate prices soared for classic three-story residences, now mostly separate single-floor apartments. Porsche SUVs and clapped-out bangers compete for street parking. Pricy eateries offer food of every sort along Valencia. On Mission, high rents drove off the neighborhood mechanic, the pet store and much else.

Mexicans are joined by Central Americans in growing numbers. At the BART station plaza, I picked my way among hawkers, panhandlers, and street people dozing off a drug high. The whiff is strong from the place that sells greasy donuts and greasier Chinese food. Down 24th at Wise Son deli, I ordered my pastrami on rye in Spanish.

That’s the obvious part. At Chava’s, my favorite hangout, the breakfast crowd includes old-line blueblood “Hispanics” and young Chicano entrepreneurs who drive long distances for the spicy pozole or succulent goat-meat birria.

Shortcut stereotypes and collective labels mislead. There is no “Latino” vote in America. The Mission is a long way from Miami, where so many Republicans descend from families who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba and now want to close the door behind them.

Mexicans are hardly encompassed as “aliens,” let alone “rapists” as Trump depicted them in his virulently racist Trump Tower speech in 2015. Remember? Mexico would pay for the Wall. (I’ve attached a Washington Post factcheck of that rant two years later. In retrospect, his skewed worldview and fabulist “facts” are hair-raising.)

San Francisco is “liberal,” and California is bluer now than when the state gave the country Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Biden should be a shoo-in. But leftwing Democrats fault him for not doing the impossible; their own campaign rhetoric produced a deadlocked Congress.

In a nation where people make ironclad fact-free snap judgments on single issues, all bets are off.

Many well-heeled Mission dwellers fear higher taxes and loss of privilege. Trumplicans are on a tear to game elections and overturn their outcomes. The “GOP” is now hardly grand.

Reagan drove a widening wedge between the rich and desperate, but he played the role of president well, and he was no crook. Tricky Dick was crooked all right, but when reporters finally got to those suppressed White House tapes, he resigned.

This time we are playing for keeps against a flagrant serial high-crime offender and his complicit cronies. They thwart Congress and the courts, stalling for time as they stir up their bases with yet more preposterous lies. And, inexplicably, Attorney General Merrick Garland has yet to act.

Trump ought to be laughed into history just for being a selfish chiseler. Photographers in previous administrations have produced revealing books with presidential blessings. Trump is muscling aside a book by Shealah Craighead, who has snapped pictures of him across the world.

The New York Times reports that Trump first asked her to share her advance in exchange for a forward by him and White House promotion. Then he blocked her book so he could use her pictures, among others’, in his own $320-a-copy tome. But that is de minimis.

The president who demanded jail for Hillary Clinton over what Bernie Sanders dismissed as “those damned emails” has disappeared seven hours and 37 minutes of White House logs during his violent Jan. 6 attempted coup d’étât. As much as he wants to be Putin, he isn’t.

There is so much else revealed not only by reporters but also in sworn testimony and official documents that Republicans ignored in two impeachment trials. None of those brilliant authors in Jane’s library could have invented this plot.

Biden is blamed for doing what he said he would do in Afghanistan, end a pointless war he opposed from the beginning. Trump’s total surrender is why that withdrawal began so badly. Now Trump says U.S. troops should go back to Afghanistan.

Crippling inflation that mars Biden’s dramatic economic successes is because of the Covid-19 pandemic Trump willfully mismanaged for his own purposes. Now, citing high gas prices, he crows: “Miss me yet?”

But his assault on NATO and subservience to Putin tops the list. We now see how badly Volodymyr Zelensky needed that $400 million in arms that Trump held back to extort dirt on the Bidens.

This is guesswork, but I am convinced that Putin invaded Ukraine because he thought the United States was so involved with itself and oblivious to the real world because of Trump that he expected little NATO resistance.

And now — this is not guesswork — after Trump declared the Ukraine invasion an act of genius, he is asking Putin for dirt on the Bidens.

I could go on with enough to fill a fat book — documented sexual assaults far beyond peccadillos that sidelined politicians and journalists, gross violations of the Hatch Act among other dubious dealings, favoritism, nepotism and more lies than the Washington Post could tally.

Anyone who paid passing attention to actual news since 2016 could do the same.

Now a decent president and a promising vice president have gotten America back on track. They have restored 93 percent of the jobs lost under Trump. They passed a generous rescue package without a single Republican vote (although Republicans claim credit for its benefits).

Far more than American democracy and global geopolitics are at stake. I cover climate collapse on a worldwide scale. Jane watches up close as the Golden State turns brown. The Colorado River is nearly too low to power turbines that light up much of California and Arizona. Agriculture, urban areas and new mines are thirstier by the day. And drought is getting worse.

This year, the snowpack California needs to recharge reservoirs and aquifers is 4 percent of the recent past normal. Industrial farms and orchards drill ever-deeper wells at a rapid pace. Rivers are diverted and dwindling fast to the growing alarm of ecologists who fear for the future.

That is on a small patch of a large planet that is alternately frying and flooding.

All these issues are interlinked. Imagine, for instance, if Florida Republicans had not put thumbs on the scale in the 2000 election. Al Gore, the jolly green giant, would have attacked climate change, not Iraq. Instead, George W. Bush blasted open Pandora’s Box in the Middle East.

This is no time for corrupt leaders guided by ideology, religious zealotry, greed or blind ambition.

Jane’s books include Upton Sinclair’s muckraking, and a lot of others that expose corporate abuse with governmental connivance. But the key is in two slim volumes I brought with me, essays Marcus Tullius Cicero inked on parchment two millennia ago.

“How to Grow Old” ought to be required reading in America: “It’s not by strength or speed or swiftness of body that great deeds are done, but by wisdom, character, and sober judgment. These qualities are not lacking in old age but in fact grow richer as time passes.”

His analogy rings true. Young people can scamper up the ropes and man the cannons. A seasoned admiral must steer the ship. By Cicero’s reasoning, it is folly to bet on an untested Democrat in 2024. Biden is not in it for the glory. If he needs to step aside early, he will have had time to train a successor.

It took a generation for America to lose its way. Only better schools that teach civics can steer it back on course. The Electoral College is a dangerous anachronism. States are preposterously gerrymandered. Crucial legislation is blocked by a false-flag Democrat, a coal baron senator from a state that has less than a third the population of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Washington reporters jumped on Biden for calling Putin a war criminal unfit for office. Tortured bound bodies near Kiev bear him out. Now what? Dealing with today’s world is skilled labor. Americans need to elect competent leaders and let them lead. Official crimes need punishment.

The danger is clear in Cicero’s second essay, “How to Run a Country”: A democracy corrupt at the top is doomed to fail, as Rome’s did. He wrote: “Our republic looks like a beautiful painting faded with age...The reasons our customs have faded away is that the people who once upheld them no longer exist.”

Guilty leaders, he said, should face trial for capital crime. But there is no defense to give. “Our country survives only in words, not as anything of substance. We have lost it all. We have only ourselves to blame.” America is not there yet. But it is close.

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