Searching for Bobby Fischer and American Sanity

(Photo: David Attie/Getty Images)

Our son Nick recently visited us for the holidays.  We both like to play chess, so we had a couple friendly competitions in the family room.  Now that my brain is atrophying due to age and excessive amounts of social media, he destroyed me.

But it got me to thinking about a guy who was once a sort of chess-playing pop star: Bobby Fischer.  Bobby was an American chess grandmaster who won the U.S. championship in 1956 at the cheeky age of 14.  Overall, he won eight U.S. championships, including a rare 11-0 victory in 1963-64, the only perfect score in the tournament’s history. He’s mainly known for his Cold War rivalry with a Russian named Boris Spassky.  In 1972 he defeated Spassky to become World Chess Champion.

Fischer had his title revoked in 1975 after making outrageous demands prior to a match with Anatoly Karpov.  Some think he did it deliberately because his chess skills were so far beyond anyone else, and he had nothing else to prove.

I didn’t learn chess until I was 15, but I competed for my high school chess team, and wore out the book Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.  These days, since my wife refuses to learn the game, the only time I drag out the chessboard is when Nick visits.

Fischer died of kidney failure in 2013.  I already vaguely knew of certain “personality quirks” of his.  Wikipedia filled in the details.  They’re not pretty:

  • Although his mother was Jewish, Fischer was a vehement anti-Semite and Holocaust denier
  • Fischer believed in an international Jewish conspiracy
  • He agreed with Nietzsche that religion was used to dull the senses of the people, but then joined the evangelical Worldwide Church of God in the mid-1960s
  • Fischer believed that the world would soon come to an end
  • He became Catholic at the end of his life and believed “the only hope for the world is through Catholicism”
  • Fischer got along well with Jewish chess players, but at the same time wrote that “It’s time to start randomly killing Jews”
  • After 911, Fischer applauded the attacks and said “What goes around, comes around”
  • Fischer openly hoped for a military coup d’état and execution of Jews in the United States

Fischer was never formally diagnosed, but some people have speculated on his sanity.

Check.

***

Last night I watched news coverage and analysis of last year’s January 6 insurrection against the U.S. Capitol, and it struck me that Fischer might fit in well with a lot of people in America today.  Not so much because of his anti-Semitism and religious obsessions—which are bad enough—but because of his anti-rationalism and conspiracy obsessions.

Today, America has an entire political party—the Republican Party—that has hitched its wagon to an autocratic demagogue who continues to spread a Big Lie about an election result.  Not to mention who once ridiculed the coronavirus threat as being a Democratic conspiracy (and views man-made climate change as a worldwide liberal conspiracy).

The PBS show Frontline just aired a documentary that reveals conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremism have only gotten worse since a year ago.

And House Republican Liz Cheney was unseated earlier this year from her conference chair because she condemned Trump for instigating the January 6 riot and implored her fellow Republicans to stand up to him and his catacomb of lies. (Obviously, they haven’t.)

Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most conservative Republicans during the Bush II era (and called “Darth Vader” by critics for his hawkishness and advocacy of torture as policy), was quoted as saying today’s Republican leaders don’t resemble “any of the folks I knew.”

The two Cheneys were surrounded by Democrats and the only Republicans present in the House during a moment of silence yesterday.

***

One would think things couldn’t get much worse than January 6, 2021.  But according to George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic and part of a panel on PBS Newshour yesterday, the insurrection is probably just a harbinger, a “warning shot”:

How can one overreact to a mortal threat to American democracy, the first in my lifetime that actually seems to be on a road toward making it impossible for the popular will to be respected at the ballot box?

That’s been the goal of all these bills passed or debated across legislatures in Georgia, in Arizona, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, which are not just about restricting access to the ballot, but are about putting elections in the hands of reliable partisans, so that, next time around, we will have states that claim that the election was somehow wrongly held, and that it’s thrown into the hands of a partisan legislature, which sends its own electors to Congress to choose the next president.

When you have a compelling but divisive leader, and a political party that falls in behind him, and you can convince enough people to believe in unfounded conspiracies…anything can happen.  Witness 1930s Germany. Witness 2022 America.

While you can’t formally diagnose a nation, some people (like myself) have speculated on America’s sanity. 

Checkmate.

COVID-19 in Cartoon America

Watching “CBS Sunday Morning” this morning drove home a startling statistic: the United States ranks number 48 in the world for percentage of citizens who have been vaccinated for COVID-19.

I knew things were bad here.  A story on that same program revealed that the social media platform Facebook is, once again, under fire.  This time it’s for permitting the spread of misinformation on COVID-19—such as that the vaccine contains a microchip allowing the government to monitor us—that is leading directly to people’s deaths.

Researchers analyzing Facebook misinformation, not surprisingly, had their Facebook accounts shut down.  And Facebook, not surprisingly, declined a “Sunday Morning” request for an interview.

I’m far from being an admirer of Mark Zuckerberg, and I have a lot of issues with Facebook, despite being a moderate user.  But one thing Zuckerberg said hit me in the gut.  He implied maybe the problem isn’t so much Facebook, but America, since other countries are less inclined to get suckered by false information on social media platforms.  Ignoring his garbled English, he said “I think that there’s that’s something unique in our ecosystem here.”

My position is that, like other deadly pursuits such as tobacco use, hard drug experimentation, and irresponsible sex, if adults exercise their freedom of choice by choosing ideologically-driven rumors, conspiracy theories, and cartoon science, we shouldn’t bemoan any consequences befalling them.  The problem is, their “viral” stupidity have consequences for the rest of us.  And maybe there is something unique here in America that contributes to our embrace of lies and the lying liars that tell them.

What might this unique condition be?

I’ve always believed that education, not military or economic might, is the key to a population’s well-being.  However, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that, while the U.S. scores high in upper secondary education (i.e. high school) graduation rates, it is below average in student reading, math, and science skills.  Per the OECD’s latest (2015) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, the U.S. ranks 25th out of 40 OECD-member nations. Just behind Latvia.

In other words, we’re spitting out high school graduates like assembly line widgets, but many of these widgets are flawed and mucking up the entire machine.

Certainly there are other factors in our embrace of polluted information: an inordinate (or perhaps warranted) distrust of government compared to other countries; a gaping ideological divide that drives the most fanatical ideologues toward irresponsible leaders and media outlets; deep-rooted cultural fears and prejudices.

But doesn’t education overcome much of the above?  Maybe not.

Just yesterday I learned that the father of one of our daughter’s friends tested positive for the coronavirus and is now resting not so comfortably in a hospital bed.  Of course, he’s unvaccinated.  Evidently he has, or perhaps had, a strong ideological opposition to vaccines (and evidently doesn’t care about spreading the virus to others).  His daughter, at one time livid with him for being so stubborn and selfish, is now wringing her hands with worry.  I don’t know his educational background, but his daughter attended one of the best and most expensive private schools in the city, so I’m assuming this guy has a college degree, or at minimum a high-school diploma.

And I have an old schoolmate who graduated with honors from high school, attended an Ivy League university, and who works in health care, yet who consistently lampoons the president’s Chief Medical Advisor and his attempts to educate Americans with scientific data on the coronavirus.

So maybe education isn’t a match for dogmatic ideology.  Or maybe American schools these days are less about knowledge and more about job training and income earning potential.  I don’t know. Does anyone?

Speaking of cartoons, where’s Mighty Mouse when you need him?

Talkin’ Middle-America Unemployment Pandemic Blues

Some of you might know I’ve been unemployed since June 2020. I like earning income, having benefits, and keeping my brain occupied while producing something. But this layoff has had unintended benefits. It effectively obliterated certain duties and certain office and cubicle dwellers that were beginning to feel like a millstone around my neck. Plus, the time off has allowed me to stretch out.

Anyway, while I hope to be shackled to the 9 to 5 a few more years before limping into the sunset, I want to share what I think might be a typical unemployed weekday in the life of a 60-something, college-educated, middle-class American male in the era of the pandemic.  Perhaps my mundane ritual can provide some humor or consolation for others in a similar state.  In this global village, we need to stick together. So here’s my routine…with a shout-out to my retired blogging chum Neil at Yeah, Another Blogger for his Seinfeld-styled inspiration.

Greenpete’s Day:

8:00 – 8:30: roll out of bed, shower, brush hair, remove hair clumps from brush, shave, floss

8:30 – 9:00: fix Seattle’s Best coffee (YES!), eat Cheerios, watch a Leave it to Beaver rerun

9:00 – 12:00: read/delete emails, visit social media sites and Amazon (sometimes).  Search for work, though this activity is dwindling. Maybe write, like what I’m doing now

12:00 – 1:00: eat lunch, usually peanut butter sandwich with potato chips, or leftovers

1:00 – 4:30: VARIES WIDELY. Maybe read book. Maybe play with visiting granddaughters. Maybe revisit social media or job hunt. Maybe write. Maybe practice guitar. In warmer weather, yardwork. Eat a banana or Gala or Fuji apple

4:30 – 5:00: change into running clothes and do two-mile run in neighborhood (YES!)

5:00 – 5:30: take dogs on walk around neighborhood while scooping poop and chatting socially distantly with neighbors

5:30 – 6:00: shower and stretch, concentrating heavily on back stretches

6:00 – 7:00: eat appetizers (almonds or cheese/crackers), drink Yuengling beer (sometimes), watch reruns of The Rifleman starring Chuck Conners

7:00 – 8:00: swallow senior multi-vitamin and eye meds, eat large bowl of leaf spinach, eat dinner (often black bean soup, usually whatever my wife has fixed). Watch PBS Newshour featuring my girlfriend Judy Woodruff, and often yell at the interviewee

 8:00 – 10:30: read book or watch either PBS or old movie (“old” being 1940s-70s). In winter, watch/ogle alpine skier Lara Gut-Behrami or biathlete Dorothea Wierer. Eat small piece of dark chocolate

10:30 – 11:00: drink MiraLAX, head upstairs, swallow Echinacea pill (great for warding off colds, possible COVID-19 preventative), brush teeth, crawl under covers

11:00 – 8:00 or 8:30: sleep, wake up, pee and rehydrate with diluted orange juice, sleep, wake up, pee and drink again, sleep, perchance to dream. (Had one of my best a few nights ago. She was a redhead.)

8:00 – 8:30: begin ritual anew.  NOTE: this ritual changes significantly on weekends. For one thing, more beer is consumed

In addition to Neil, I thank my wife for accompanying me in some of the above endeavors, and for her understanding regarding women news anchors, skiers, and overnight redheads.  Without her, I don’t know where I’d be. 

And, please, if anyone has suggestions for improving my above ritual, or would like to share their own routine, add a comment! As humorist Red Green used to say, “Remember, I’m pullin’ for ya—we’re all in this together.”