The Morning Jolt


Joe Biden’s Possibly Looming Threat

Former Vice President Joe Biden gestures during the second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates debate in Miami, Fla., June 27, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Kamala Harris must be elated this morning, while Joe Biden looks considerably less inevitable; the radicalization of the 2020 Democrats and the not-that-political message of Marianne Williamson; and clearing up an important point about the portrayal of a particular faith in Between Two Scorpions.

The Democratic Primary Race Looks a Little Different This Morning

Maybe last night didn’t change everything about the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, but Joe Biden definitely looks like less of a sure bet to be the nominee, and Kamala Harris reminded everyone she belongs in the top tier and can absolutely filet any rival who isn’t prepared. This is what probably has to have Biden fans most unnerved this morning. He and the debate strategists around him had to know that some version of the Harris’s attack on his views on busing in the 1970s would come eventually from someone. But when it came, he didn’t look ready.

And man, did Harris know how to position this obscure and long-forgotten issue in personal terms:

. . . it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing. And, you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me.

Shortly after her comments, her campaign posted an image of grade-school aged Kamala Harris on social media. It’s removed by about ten years from Norman Rockwell’s The Problem We All Live With.

Biden began by denying that he had praised racists, then added, “I was a public defender. I didn’t become a prosecutor. I came out and I left a good law firm to become a public defender when, in fact, my city was in flames because of the assassination of Dr. King, number one.” On paper, this is a good countermove, except . .  does Biden think that Harris becoming a prosecutor is some sort of flaw or weakness on her part? Does being a defense attorney automatically mean you’re friendly to the African-American community? Isn’t that line of defense sort of condescending to African Americans?

Biden went on to say:

I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That’s what I opposed.” Er, except back during the debate in the Senate in 1975, Biden declared, “I have become convinced that busing is a bankrupt concept that, in fact, does not bear any of the fruit for which it was designed.

So far in the 2020 campaign, Biden hasn’t done a lot of interviews and he certainly hasn’t done any contentious interviews. He hasn’t done a town hall on Fox News or CNN. His campaign’s fear of him going off-script and generating gaffes is obvious. He’s rusty, and or he’s just gotten older and now deals with questions like a 76-year-old man.

Harris looked relentless (almost too aggressive) and Biden looked shaky. Which quality do you think Democrats want on stage up against Trump in the general-election debates?

The Radical 2020 Democrats and the Not-That-Political Marianne Williamson

Ross Douthat offered two really sharp obserations last night. First:

The debates have certainly demonstrated Democrats are now basically committed, as a field, to decriminalizing illegal entry to the United States amid an unprecedented migrant surge and that several of their front-runners are committed to the swift elimination of private insurance. Those are clarifying pieces of information, to put it mildly.

I’d throw in the fact that they all also guaranteed taxpayer-funded health care to everyone who crosses the border. We on the right talk about the radicalization of the Democratic party, and a lot of people scoff, but . . . it’s right there up on that stage, people.

Secondly, “Seriously [Marianne] Williamson is, in fact, correct that America has deeper psycho-medical-social problems than the ones being discussed on the stage tonight.”

Right? If you really want to make the case for change in the United States of America, don’t go after the economy when unemployment is below 4 percent, a system of private health insurance that a lot of people are happy with or afraid to change, or promise the world to people who cannot legally vote in U.S. elections.

Argue that we’e become alienated from our neighbors, lost our sense of community and connection to others, and that a shallow materialism has displaced a key part of what made America great. Ask why the technology that was supposed to connect us made us feel so disconnected and alienated from everyone else. Ask why we’re so angry and envious and pessimistic during a time of prosperity and relative peace.

I have no idea if Marianne Williamson will rise above 1 percent. But part of me would not be surprised to see her have a breakout, because she’s offering a message that is only tangentially related to politics and governance.

A Point I Have to Explain about Between Two Scorpions

One of the Amazon reviews of Between Two Scorpions expressed disappointment that I made the terrorists “some kind of Zoroastrian death cult.”

I want to address this, but there’s no way to discuss it without getting deep into spoilers. So, self-serving as this may seem, everyone go out and buy the book, read it, and then I can discuss this without spoiling big twists and turns. Okay? I’ll wait.

[Insert Jeopardy theme here.]

SPOILERS AHEAD. Also, my guess is that if you haven’t read the book, what follows will make so little sense you may think I have had a stroke.

Okay, to be clear, the leaders of Atarsa are not Zoroastrian. They worship (and named themselves after) Zoroastrian demons. This is like having a bunch of characters named Satan, Mephistopheles, and Beelzebub and saying that they’re representing Christians. But I can understand the reader’s confusion, because at one point, the good guys intercept information from VEVAK, the Iranian foreign intelligence service:

VEVAK had indeed identified the woman calling herself Angra Druj in the video: Sarvar Rashin, an Iranian citizen who dropped off the grid several years ago. Not much was known about her, other than the fact that she wasn’t Muslim; she practiced the Zoroastrian faith.

Of course, VEVAK is run by a bunch of Islamic fundamentalists who don’t really understand other faiths and don’t care to, so they interpret what they know about her incorrectly. They’re like someone ignorant about Christianity who goes to a Satanic ritual and sees crosses, robes, and an altar and assumes it must be some version of Christian faith. The VEVAK guys never consider that she’s established (or reestablished?)  a demonic cult.

This is important, because it ties into the biggest twist in the book . . . (LAST SPOILER WARNING)

Merlin is right, or at least there is substantial evidence that his theory is correct: God and something evil – the devil, demons, etc. – are at work in the lives of humanity.

Atarsa’s cult worships something like the demon Legion described in the Gospel of Mark – depicted as the “cockroach God” statue in the village and manifesting itself as a swarm of insects or voices. Or as the two leaders call them, “the Voices.” My rationalist or atheist protagonists would argue each leader is just schizophrenic, but they’re hearing the same voices saying the same things. [Cue spooky music.]

Other clues about the closing twist:

  • The first time Jaguar sees Angra Druj, for “a split second, the woman looked otherworldly, as if her skin were green or scaled” like a mantis. Jaguar notices the Atarsa leaders “would pause midsentence when speaking, then exchange long looks to each other that seemed to replace spoken communication.” Jaguar “half-jokingly wondered if the trio  of Akoman, Angra Druj, and Azi Dhaka were some sort of aliens who had read extensively about how to host a human being but had never actually done it before.” Some readers may chalk this up to them being weird cultists, but I intended it to be to be a subtle evidence (apparently too subtle!) they’re possessed or influenced by demons who have forgotten how to act “normally” around human beings.
  • Katrina dreams of a giant insect in her nightmare, and she’s prophetic about a body being hung outside a McDonald’s.
  • When CIA director Peck freaks out, the drug that everyone thinks is a hallucinogen actually allows him to see what’s going on, which is why he describes bugs and people being puppets.
  • When Ward sees Norm Fein through his range-finder through the infrared, he’s sees the shape of a giant insect because he’s seeing Fein’s soul; Fein has lost his humanity and become an insect-like drone, devoted to serving the hive.
  • Finally, Ward sees Fabrice Vuscovi as a giant Termite, because he is, as Francis Neuse and Merlin described, seeing her soul.

On the flip side, Alec prays, and thinks he’s hearing answers from God, or at least he’s imagining/surmising/thinking how God would respond, and when Jaguar shoots at Alec, he misses in part because Alec is standing in front of a mural of the Virgin Mary.

This is a supernatural/theological thriller where none of the supernatural stuff is tangible and is only briefly glimpsed, and almost all of the people who see it figure it has to be a hallucination or have some other rational explanation.

ADDENDUM: Mark Hemingway, summarizing Bernie Sanders debate performance: “The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to sell America on socialized medicine.”

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