The Mummers strutted up Broad Street a day late, in balmy weather that felt more suited for an Easter parade. Hours later, the Philadelphia Eagles clinched a playoff spot a full week before the end of the regular season, leaving their confused fans with little to complain about. Is it me, or does everything about 2022 seem a tad off so far?
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If Christmas wildfires don’t make America act on climate, maybe a hit Hollywood movie will?
Some strange, otherworldly things happened across America this Christmas season, as 2021 finally ground to a conclusion. For example, in the small town of Unalaska, Alaska (yes, that’s really its name ... I did a double-take, too!), children woke up on Christmas morning to full stockings and a balmy temperature of 56 degrees — the highest ever posted in the state on the holiday.
In the Lower 48, though, the loopy December weather was neither cute nor tolerable. Across Colorado, an unusually dry month devoid of snow ended with the kind of hellstorm never before seen this time of year, as wildfires fanned by 105-mph winds, which likely downed power lines, spread rapidly across brush made tinder-dry by a year of record drought and unseasonably warm temperatures. Roughly 1,000 homes were completely destroyed.
“There’s a numbness that hits you first,” Rex Hickman of Louisville, Colorado, told the Associated Press this week as he sifted through what little was left of the home that he and his wife had fled with their dogs, their iPads, and the clothes they were wearing. “You know, kind of like you go into crisis mode. You think about what you can do, what you can’t do. The real pain is going to sink in over time.”
Oh, and there was one other unusual thing about Christmas season and the end of 2021: The most popular movie in America — at least as measured by traffic to the widely used streaming site, Netflix — was about climate change. OK, actually the words “climate change” aren’t ever uttered in Don’t Look Up, the satire about how America reacts — or doesn’t react — when scientists discover that a planet-killing comet is hurtling toward Earth. But we all know it’s about climate change, just like we all knew that Korea in M*A*S*H was really Vietnam.
If there’s one thing about America that I’ve learned in these (almost!) 63 years, it’s that pop culture often captures, and explains, the national zeitgeist a lot better than politics ever will. For at least a generation, those of us concerned about greenhouse-gas pollution and its impact on the climate have been waiting for some kind of tipping point that would get the public to support serious solutions for a serious problem. In recent years, killer floods and unthinkable wildfires haven’t moved the needle much, but maybe a funny movie watched by millions finally will. It sounds crazy, but I’m clinging to hope as we enter 2022.
Maybe that’s partly because it feels like the weight of the early years of the 21st century — the endless, demoralizing debate with America’s large legion of climate deniers, like nowhere else in the world, drunk on oil-fried pseudo-science and right-wing media — is lifting in the fog of this winter’s unnatural heat.
“Just look up!” the movie’s scientists and their allies, like the singer played by Arianna Grande, implored, but you can really just look outside. I was already writing this piece when I learned from an email that last month’s average temperature here in Philadelphia of 45.3°F was 6.7° above normal, in a December that also saw just 41% of its normal rainfall. If there’s serious evidence that the planet isn’t generally getting warmer, it’s getting a lot harder to find.
But what really jumped off the page in 2021 was the spectacularly weird and dangerous weather, like the winter wildfires in Colorado and also the recent spate of killer tornadoes — fueled by masses of that unseasonably warm December air — that swept across Kentucky, Illinois, and other Midwestern states in a season where such twisters were once unheard of. And the next shoe to drop could be far, far worse. Scientists are worried that a so-called “doomsday glacier” in West Antarctica could collapse in the near future, which they also fear could cause rising sea levels to inundate cities from Miami to Shanghai. That would echo the Twitter meme that Don’t Look Up is really a documentary.
Meanwhile, there’s some news that President Biden and Capitol Hill’s decider-in-chief, West Virginia Sen. (and coal-company millionaire) Joe Manchin, are holding talks about reviving the legislation program known as Build Back Better. In addition to some hotly debated social spending, the legislation also includes the bulk of the Democrats’ climate agenda. Reports suggest Manchin could be open to the original bill’s $325 billion in green-energy tax credits for clean electricity, energy efficiency, transmission lines, and electric vehicles.
It’s hard not to think that images of death and destruction from Colorado to Kentucky that have occurred since the first round of talks on Capitol Hill collapsed in mid-December — not to mention the popularity of Don’t Look Up with the young voters who Democrats so desperately need in November’s midterms — is increasing pressure on Manchin. The West Virginian’s brain isn’t so soggy from life on his Potomac houseboat that he forgets his vast influence will vanish if Democrats lose control of the Senate.
The climate problem is much bigger than $325 billion in tax perks, but any positive moves inside the Beltway will keynote a virtuous cycle of executive action from Biden, state and local initiatives, and savvy investments in our green future. It’s why I can’t help but wonder if things are — dare I say it — looking up.
Yo, do this
I probably do 90% of my annual new-movie watching in December and January, the pre-Oscar months when the tiny sliver of grown-up films are released. I finished last year with Licorice Pizza (in theaters) — an oxymoron, and I don’t just mean the title. I rather liked some of the San-Fernando-Valley-in-1973 slices of life (not to mention the music), but others in my household were gob-smacked by the relationship between a 15-year-old-boy and a 25-year-old-girl at the heart of the film. Go see it and tell me what you think.
While I went back to 1973 in the cinema, my latest book pick took me back to 1873, give or take. The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915, by Jon Grinspan tells a little-known tale of how the nation’s political passions boiled over in the latter 19th century, and how forces including “progressive reform” tamped that down, along with voter participation. It’s a slice of history (and Grinspan centers much of it in Philadelphia) that will make you think a lot about the health of U.S. democracy in 2022.
Ask me anything
Question: What Republican politician from the past 100 years would be most influential to the good of the party and counteract 45′s negative influence? They would have to be dead because if alive we would know who it is. — Via @JoanneJHenry on Twitter
Answer: That’s a great question, Joanne, but also one I didn’t have to think about very long. To me, Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th president who defined 1950s’ America, is something of a no-brainer. Sure, Ike had his flaws — saying “yes” to too many hare-brained CIA coups, and moving glacially on social problems such as racism — but he also understood the prevailing notion of a “public good,” not only preserving the New Deal but expanding it to build the interstate highway system. When he warned Americans in his 1961 farewell about the growing influence of the military-industrial complex, he was both prescient and painfully honest, the quality that went so missing in the Age of Trump.
Backstory on how America shrugged over a shocking mass killing
“Aggro white males ARE violent & will be more violent as they are made irrelevant by a country that HATES them. Their limbic system is in revolt against the modern world. War is coming.” When a 40-something Denver-area man named Lyndon James McLeod wrote that on Twitter a couple of years ago, few people paid attention to the rants of just another angry misogynist and white-supremacist dude. But McLeod, a tattoo-shop owner who also self-published violent novels under a pen name, would make good on his martial vow. On the Monday night after Christmas, he went on a deadly shooting spree across several locations — mainly tattoo parlors — in Denver, leaving five people dead or dying before McLeod himself was killed in a shootout with cops in the nearby suburb of Lakewood. It later came out, sensationally, that the gunman had not only described the murders but actually named some of his eventual victims in his fiction.
There was a time when a story like the Denver murders — in a kind of nether world between mass shooting and terrorist attack — would have received major airplay on cable news and in other media outlets, especially during a slow holiday news week. But near the end of a very violent 2021, America shrugged this one off. When I went on Twitter to post my surprise at the lack of coverage of either the shootings or McLeod’s history of right-wing extremism, a number of posters replied with shock because it was the first they’d even heard of the Denver mayhem. Maybe if, heaven forbid, McLeod had been a Muslim, or hadn’t murdered people he already knew, he might have crossed the invisible line into “newsworthy.” But it seems to me like the problem of “aggro white males” going online to threaten war has been growing exponentially in recent years, and more mass murders seem linked to the toxic stew of misogyny and racism that McLeod was stirring. It’s going to be hard to prevent them when we pretend it’s not even happening.
Inquirer reading list
Not surprisingly, January 6 has been on my brain on the eve of the one-year anniversary. But my thoughts on what’s most deeply behind the Capitol insurrection took me to a somewhat surprising place: America’s decades of disinvestment, both financially and morally, in public education. I contrasted the stunning exchange in the ongoing trial over Pennsylvania school funding — including the question of whether some kids are on “the McDonald’s track” — with the lack of respect for learning that’s led to vaccine denial and finally a wide embrace of the Big Lie.
To start this week, I went from the 37,000-feet view of January 6 to an extreme close-up of the Former Guy and his possible role in a criminal conspiracy to foment the insurrection with dreams of blocking the certification of Biden’s election victory. Specifically, is a key witness’ acknowledgement of a draft letter for Donald Trump to declare “a national emergency” and seize “evidence” of (non-existent) voter fraud “the smoking gun” that could make a felony case against POTUS 45? And will the public ever see it?
Typically, I use this space to highlight serious pieces of investigative journalism — and why not, since we never want Philadelphia to get too corrupt or too contented. But the City of Brotherly Love is also pretty weird. So weird that a veteran Inquirer journalist, Stephanie Farr, covers this beat, full-time, and her 2021 year-end round-up was a long, strange trip from the now-iconic Four Seasons Landscaping to the swimming hole that was the Vine Street Expressway, at least for a day. All weirdness is, at the end of the day, local — and without local journalism this bizarro world might stay forever hidden. So keep Philly weird — by subscribing to The Inquirer.