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The New Abnormal

by on November 14, 2018 5:00 AM

As one who spent a chunk of his professional life covering fires in California, I always pay close attention to news of the latest blazes in the Golden State. This week I’m even more interested than usual because I’m heading that way over Thanksgiving. Though I’m not going near either of the fires raging in the north and south, I hear smoky air is everywhere and I worry that a new burn could ignite close to where I’ll be staying.

On Sunday night I listened to Gov. Jerry Brown talk about what he called “the new abnormal” – huge, fast-moving fires throughout the year. Expect worse as California gets hotter and drier, he warned: longer fire seasons, larger more destructive fires.

Harsh though the message was, it was refreshing to hear a politician neither sugarcoat the facts nor distort them beyond recognition. You could say, well, an octogenarian who is down to the final months of a long career can afford to be a truthteller. But the Jerry Brown of 2018 sounds like the Jerry Brown who ran for president in 1976, 1980 and 1992.

(He might have made it, too, had Chicago columnist Mike Royko not decided that this was a nutty guy from a nutty state and dubbed him Governor Moonbeam. Royko later changed his mind about Brown, but the nickname stuck.)

Also refreshing was the contrast between Jerry Brown and Donald Trump, the man without empathy, the man who knows nothing about climate science, forestry or fire behavior, yet blamed the fires on forest mismanagement and threatened to withhold federal aid. Just what the people burned out of their homes needed to hear.

When I lived in California in the 1980s and ‘90s, there were wet years and dry years. During my 10 years as a reporter in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I can recall two really bad fire seasons. Now just about every year is a drought year and every summer and fall bring conflagrations. It used to be that only houses in the woods were at risk. Now no place is safe, which is why we’re seeing record numbers of lives lost and homes destroyed.

With a few word substitutions, the preceding paragraph could apply to hurricanes. We’re frequently cautioned not to mistake short-term weather weirdness for long-term climate change, but even here in Central Pennsylvania you have to wonder if our long, warm, wet summer, with leaves staying green into November, is our own new abnormal.

And what about the new abnormal in our politics? Crooked pols have been around forever, but their skullduggery used to be more furtive. By flaunting his lying, cheating and abuses of power to a degree that strikes his supporters as admirably transgressive, Trump has ushered in an era of breathtaking shamelessness.

In San Diego, people have gotten so inured to political corruption that they reelected Congressman Duncan Hunter, recently accused of spending $250,000 in campaign contributions on a vacation in Italy, private school tuition and, everyone’s favorite, buying a plane ticket for the family bunny.

In Iowa, people have gotten so inured to expressions of hatred toward everyone who isn’t white, Christian and born in the USA that they reelected Congressman Steve King, who says America is committing “cultural suicide by demographic transformation.”

As for Trump’s cabinet, if Washington was a swamp before, it’s a sewer now.

Finally, there’s the ultimate new abnormal: gun violence. True, it’s been a half century since H. Rap Brown said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” And it’s been that long since columnist  

Pete Hamill wrote these lines:

“We will have our four-day televised orgy of remorse about Bobby Kennedy and then it will be business as usual…While the cops made chalk marks on the floor of the pantry, the brave members of the National Rifle Association were already explaining that people commit crimes, guns don’t.”

And it’s been 38 years since Jimmy Breslin ended a column written from the point of view of a couple of New York City cops thus:

“And Jim Moran and Tony Palma, older now, cops in a world with no fun, stood in the emergency room as John Lennon, whose music they knew, whose music was known everywhere on earth, became another person who died after being shot with a gun on the streets of New York.”

And it’s been 37 years since columnist David Broder pondered the near-assassination of Ronald Reagan:

“This society, which stubbornly resists even the most modest effort to discipline its own appetite for handguns, had once again paid the price for its folly. It appears that a sick man, arrested once before in threat-to-the-president circumstances, had procured a new weapon with ridiculous ease – and this time had struck.”

As with fires, hurricanes and political corruption, the only thing new about American gun violence is the increase in its frequency and intensity.


A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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