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Shoes on the Highway

Categories: A Day in the Life, Primary Sources, Telling Stories, Tags: , ,

Shoes on the Highway
by Storey Clayton
6 April 2017

I saw two shoes on the highway
one
and then another
as I sped up the overpass
they were strewn, not placed
on the road, not the shoulder
clearly flung from great speed

and I stopped to imagine
the scene
kids or friends or frenemies
careening through the night
one joking, one not amused
as the joker hung them by the laces outside
to wave tauntingly in the windy wake

did they let go or lose control
the question
and how real was their contrition
confronted by the anger of the shoeless
saying I’m sorry through uproarious laughter
you don’t mean it, the retort
I do, I’m sorry, but did you see those shoes fly

I think this is always
the way
when someone loses something
when it’s taken and thrown out the window
someone thinks it’s funny
the loser knows it isn’t
and the rest of us have to swerve to dodge the fallout

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School Protection in Out-Rounds at NPDA Nationals 2017: an analysis

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: ,

While my overall interaction with 2017 NPDA Nationals was overwhelmingly wonderful, some of the joy was marred at times by confusion over a very strange tab policy that was included in this tournament. The tab policy was to protect schools against hitting their own teams in elimination rounds, breaking the bracket to do so.

Here’s the official wording of the policy:

In the event that two teams from the same school meet in elimination rounds, brackets will be broken according to the following criteria: (1) protecting the highest seed; (2) changing the fewest number of brackets; (3) preserving original bracket order.

Now in most debate tournaments, it’s normal to try to prevent teams from the same school from competing against each other (“hitting” each other) in preliminary rounds. APDA makes an exception if a team is the majority of a given bracket, but APDA also has a much larger appetite for school/school “civil wars” than NPDA. In NPDA, these rounds are never actually held, but one team (almost always the higher seed at the tournament) is simply chosen by the coach to “walk over” the other team. And while I can sort of understand a distaste for a coach’s decision walk-over ending someone’s career or Nationals run, school/school protection to upend the bracket seems to be a really extreme reaction to that distaste. And the effect is very imbalancing, strongly favoring schools who bring and break a lot of teams.

But when one subjects this year’s NPDA Nationals tournament’s application of their own policy to rigorous analysis, it doesn’t necessarily even hold up as consistently applied, which is even more problematic. This post will examine the bracket-breaking switches made by the NPDA Nationals 2017 tab staff and their subsequent impact on the tournament and competitive fairness for all teams participating. And while the goal is to be objective and submit this with few comments, I must say that the data leads to the conclusion that this policy is sub-optimal for future such National Championships.

Let’s first examine the base bracket:
Partial Triple-Octofinals

It’s probably worth noting at the top how many schools broke teams to the elimination rounds as context for this policy and its impact:
Washburn: 6
Concordia: 4
Utah: 4
Lewis & Clark: 3
Point Loma: 3
Rice: 3
Texas Tech: 3
Berkeley: 2
Idaho: 2
Kansas City Kansas: 2
Mercer: 2
Pacific: 2
UT Tyler: 2
Western Washington: 2
12 other schools: 1 each

So fully forty of the fifty-two teams involved had teammates in the break! This demonstrates that the scale of magnitude for this question is not small. And with six teams in the break, including the 1 and the 4 seeds, it is unsurprising that Washburn will be a major player as the drama of bracket-breaking unfolds.

Now as we look at our partial-triple-octos bracket, we find that the two Mercer teams have been paired to hit each other, which would be pretty bad luck were they allowed to actually hit. But under this policy, the following swap is made:

This seems pretty reasonable on face – the teams are in neighboring brackets and the 40 is switched with the 41. Interestingly, however, it violates the stated first priority in the protection policy, namely to protect the higher seed. In this switch, the higher seed (#24 Mercer AL) now gets a moderately higher draw, #40 Rice PT, instead of the #41 seed. Granted, this is a very minor difference in opposition quality, but it still punished the higher seed. Worth noting, at this point, that to not punish the higher seed, you would have had to swap the #42 seed with the #41, but then that punishes the new higher seed involved (#23 Lewis & Clark MM), so this problem cannot actually be solved without kicking the can down the road all the way to the top of the bracket. Which basically shows that the “protect the higher seed” priority, despite being first, makes no sense.

So, partial-trips happen and, as luck would have it, both Mercer teams drop. Turns out they’d have been better off with the walk-over after all, but good news for Grand Canyon RS and Rice PT, one of whom really should be out of the tournament. On to double-octos:

Double-Octofinals

Again, we have one problem to resolve in the school/school protection question, where Pacific’s two teams are set to hit in round 22. And there would be a danger of a Rice/Rice round just below in round 23, but this has been conveniently resolved by the previous swap of a Rice team in to upset Mercer. So, here’s the switch still necessary:

This looks dramatic, because it switches the teams all the way across the brackets, but the 15/18 match is the natural cousin of the 16/17 match. Here, the higher seed is actually protected, because they now get the 18 seed instead of the 17, but that’s only because the actual team entitled to the higher seed is #50 Lewis & Clark BM, the lowest seed left in the tournament. They inherit the #15 seed slot, so they should probably get protected, but no matter.

Of course, you know what’s going to happen, right? We can’t just have things resolve cleanly. Both Pacific teams pick up their rounds (tough luck to the #50 seed and to Puget Sound’s lone team who should’ve hit them). And, for extra fun, both Rice teams that couldn’t hit also pick up their rounds, slotting them to hit one round later than they would’ve anyway (bad news for UT Tyler and Grand Canyon, one of who should be through instead). At this point, Challonge won’t even let us express the bracket as it’s been altered because of too many swaps, so we have to start over in doubles with manual seeds listed.

Thus, here’s how things stand going into octos:
Octofinals

The problems are multiplying. The Rice teams that should have hit last round again are hitting this round. And now we have a double Washburn match to take care of as well. Teams are going to be sent flying to other bracket halves again. And it’s worth nothing that #17 Pacific PV, the second overall team in the season-long rankings, is now stationed in place of the 15 seed, staying on the other half of the bracket from where they should have traversed the tournament. This will have major consequences for #2 Nevada AM, as we’ll see in a bit.

So here are your swaps for this round:

First, the Washburn/Washburn round:

This is where we became aware of the switching. We even called tab to ask because we thought we were supposed to hit Idaho and they said “there’s no bracket that we’ve released, so you shouldn’t expect to hit anyone”. They could have just explained that there were school-switching swaps here, as stated in the packet, but they chose to be cagey. It’s worth noting here that, while this is the technically least invasive switch, both Tulane and Idaho can have a legitimate concern with this swap. They are both supposed to hit teams lower in the seeding order. In fact, Idaho has gone from hitting a 37 seed to a 4 seed just to protect Washburn. By comparison, our swap from a 21 seed to a 13 seed looks relatively fair. But this still concretely hurt both team’s competitive chances, favoring Washburn significantly by both sparing them the harder match-ups and preventing them from eliminating each other.

Meanwhile, here’s the Rice/Rice resolution:

Again, some upset teams from get penalized for their wins here. Not systemically, mind you, but by happenstance that nonetheless risks impacting their tournaments significantly. Rather than the 23 and 26 seeds enjoying their 7/10 octofinal as a reward for upsetting those teams, the 23 is shipped off to face the #8 seed, while the #40 gets the #26 instead of the #8. This is ostensibly a reward for both the #40 and the #26 to get each other, but also ships the #40 to a whole new half of the bracket where, like #17 Pacific PV above, they never would have been but for all these switches.

Here, the Cinderella teams maintained their runs, as #37 Tulane upset the #13 seed, and both the #40 and #23 triumphed over their higher seeded opponents. But this also offers us a rare situation where exactly one of the protected school teams in each instance won their rounds, meaning that restoration of the bracket should be possible in the quarterfinals. For the Tulane/Washburn quarter, this is irrelevant, but for the Rice and Lewis & Clark teams, this mattered very much indeed.

So, let’s see where things stand going into quarterfinals:

Here is where the most obviously problematic decision was made in the whole tournament. The tab staff chose to leave this bracket alone. But the problem is that #23 Lewis & Clark MM belongs in quarterfinal match 11 as listed in the above link, being in the bottom half of the bracket. And #40 Rice PT belongs in up in match 9 on the top half. They both just swapped with each other to avoid a Rice/Rice round. So why were they not restored to their original brackets? Surely that is preserving original bracket order as stated in the policy. And it doesn’t create a school/school conflict, because Washburn can safely hit Rice while Pacific hits Lewis & Clark.

Of course, it’s worth noting that Pacific PV also belongs in the top quarterfinal there: because of all the bracket-breaking, three teams from the same quarter of the bracket are now in quarterfinals. Here, let’s flash back to the opening of the tournament when all the seeds were in order:

So really, all three of those teams should be squeezed into that one match-up. But that’s not clean and that’s not really doable at this point, so leave Pacific PV where they are. Restoring the bracket is clearly the least disruptive action here as it regards Rice and Lewis & Clark, since their bracket switch just happened the previous round and puts each of them in their rightful position without creating additional conflicts.

Nevertheless, they left the altered bracket as-is and ran these quarterfinals. The lower seeds were both bounced, though Lewis & Clark nearly upended the top seed, so we can surmise they might have had a better chance against Pacific. And the top seed should have been “protected” by getting the easier and rightful draw of #40 Rice.

So here’s where we were going into Semifinals:

And here, as you can imagine, what proved to be the last two rounds of the tournament were, again, switched to protect Washburn. #6 Berkeley traveled up to hit #1 Washburn BK instead of the #17 seed and #4 Washburn BS came down to hit the #17 instead of the #1. Both Washburn teams triumphed, yielding the first closeout in NPDA Nationals history and cancelling the final round.

Once again, the competitive disadvantage for Berkeley and Pacific is clear. Each should have had an easier path to the finals. Meanwhile, both Washburn pairs were rewarded for having their teammates still in the tournament, receiving a much easier draw.

I want to be clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that anyone involved with NPDA Nationals deliberately took any actions to favor Washburn, or any particular school. However, it is clear that this policy directly contributed to Washburn being able to closeout, as well as favoring Washburn teams generally. Washburn can attribute much of their top two teams’ ultimate outcome to getting 6 teams into the break in the first place, maximizing bracket-breaking that ultimately worked in their favor.

The main counter-arguments that could be levied to my concerns are, as I see them, twofold:
(1) Schools should be rewarded for breaking more teams.
(2) Teams still failed to win the rounds they were in to advance and should not blame the bracket.

As for (1), I think it’s a little silly. For one thing, the standard bracket does reward them, slightly, by guaranteeing in the instances where a school would hit the same school that one of those teams definitely advances. It’s an advantage – ask Mercer if you don’t believe me. But there’s still a difference between a reward and being able to negatively impact the fates of several other teams in the wake of getting you to avoid hitting your own school. I know it’s sad to leave your last tournament on a walk-over, but it’s also sad to hit a much better team than you deserved to. When both of these are sad outcomes, it seems like honoring the original bracket is best, especially when not doing so leads to subjective judgment calls like failing to restore the bracket for quarterfinals.

I find (2) to be a little more compelling, but ultimately a red herring. Obviously we care very much about honoring seeding and the bracket in general at tournaments. We don’t break brackets at other tournaments, for one thing. But we also spend eight (8) full preliminary rounds determining how the seeding should be allocated. Teams have worked hard to earn their seeding and their position. And teams that have won big upsets deserve to get rewarded for those upsets. If they didn’t, we would re-seed the bracket every time and #40 Rice PT would have had a date with #1 Washburn BK back in octos (presuming they’d gotten by #2 Nevada AM in doubles). We don’t force Cinderellas to do this, any more than the NCAA basketball tournament forces you to hit a one seed after beating a one seed. So the instances above where upset teams were supposed to hit each other and were instead switched to hit higher rated teams – it seems these squads have a legitimate complaint.

The past is the past. We’re not going to re-run NPDA Nationals. Some of the teams were little impacted, but many arguably would have gone further or less far based on this bracket decision. Ultimately, all the rounds were won and lost and judged fairly as they were announced. But in future years, it seems obvious that the NPDA should at the very least clarify what these alleged tab priorities mean when breaking brackets (addressing, for example, bracket restoration and what exactly “protecting the highest seed” really means). And most likely, they should just scrap this school/school protection scheme altogether and let the seeds fall where they may.

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Tulane Debate Reaches NPDA Nationals Quarterfinals in Historic Upset

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Primary Sources, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

The Tulane University Debate Team on Sunday at NPDA Nationals. Left to right: Alexander Parini ’18, Ben Ozur ’18, James Capuzzi ’17, Sina Mansouri ’17, Khristyan Trejo ’19, Michelle Daker ’17, and Claire Kueffner ’18. (Not pictured: Elise Matton ’14)

The Tulane University Debate Team reached the quarterfinals of the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) National Championships last Sunday at the Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The partnership of Claire Kueffner ’18 and Khristyan Trejo ’19 finished in the top eight of the title tournament, besting more than 125 rival teams from more than forty schools across the country.

After 8 preliminary rounds of competition, Tulane KT broke to partial-double-octofinals (52 teams) with a 5-3 record. Their preliminary run included an opening round win over the 15th ranked partnership in the nation, a team who had just made the quarterfinals of the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence (NPTE) the prior weekend. Tulane KT entered the single-elimination playoff as the 37th seed. They proceed to knock off #28 Utah HH (#7 in the season rankings), #5 Berkeley GY, and #13 Washburn PH in three consecutive elimination rounds on Saturday night and Sunday morning. They were finally eliminated by #4 Washburn BS (#6 in the season rankings), a team that went on to win semifinals and share the National Championship with other teammates from Washburn.

This was the first time Tulane won an elimination round at NPDA Nationals at only the second NPDA Nationals the team has attended. Trejo and Alexander Parini ’18 made the double-octofinals last year, losing that round to Nevada. Trejo was the top novice speaker at that event.

This year, Parini attended the tournament with Ben Ozur ’18. Seniors James Capuzzi ’17 and Michelle Daker ’17, the team’s President and Vice President, also competed. The combined results for the three pairings gave Tulane overall a twentieth ranking in the tournament’s sweepstakes.

Not only is the quarterfinal finish an amazing result for a team competing in its second NPDA Nationals, the top eight finish placed Tulane among several elite teams at this culminating event. The seven other teams in quarterfinals were all ranked in the top twenty in the season-long rankings; Tulane KT was ranked 456th. The other teams were ranked #1, #2, #3, #6, #10, #14, and #19.

Full tournament results can be viewed here.

Tulane has been competing in both NPDA and the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) this year, two national leagues of parliamentary debate with some stylistic differences. The school as a whole finished the NPDA season ranked 47th on the NPDA circuit out of 179 schools. The school is ranked 26th on APDA. Tulane will finish the debate season this year with trips to the William & Mary APDA tournament and the APDA National Championship at Rutgers University.


Tulane University has only had a debate team for six years, at least in its modern incarnation. The team has a website, but in one of those administrative confusions that seems universal to college campuses, we’ve been locked out of the ability to update it. And while there’s a lot on Facebook and in various places about how this past weekend happened and felt, I felt compelled to put a little write-up here for posterity as well, since this has been such a big part of my life so far in 2017.

Alex and I have been coaching the Tulane team for almost two years, invited to help late in the year prior by their then-coach, Andrew Bergman, a Pitt (APDA) dino who graduated from Tulane Law last spring. Last year, we volunteered and this year we are receiving a nominal stipend for our time, which largely consists of coming to two out of three weekly practices and the occasional tournament, plus generally trying to support the tournaments we don’t attend as much as possible. We’ve also been offering logistical help to their hosting of tournaments and navigating various debate leagues. The team started out competing in IPDA, then went to NPDA, and now sits at a crossroads between NPDA and APDA where it’s finding success in both formats.

I did not travel to Colorado with the team for this tournament, a decision I quickly came to regret as the successes piled up and our pre-round calls became increasingly excited and frantic. But in some ways, it was still a perfect tournament, even to be appreciated from afar. Below, I’m including my public thank you to the team who went (and Alex), as I posted on Facebook yesterday…


Y’all, please allow me to give some individual thanks in a public venue to a team that did something really incredible this weekend…

Sina Mansouri, it has been a real pleasure to work with you this year and observe your intense dedication to fostering this team and ensuring Tulane’s debate legacy continues to grow. I’m so glad you got to be on the ground this weekend to coach and be a part of this incredible accomplishment for the team you helped start.

Alexander Parini & Ben Ozur, I know this weekend didn’t go as well as you’d hoped for y’all individually, but I know you met your challenges with resilience and high spirits. I can’t wait to work with you on APDA next month and everything next year as we build toward what I think will be Tulane debate’s finest hour yet.

Michelle Daker & James Capuzzi, I am so glad you won your last NPDA round ever and that this weekend proved to be a holistically good experience for y’all. This accomplishment is a testament to your leadership this year and I appreciate all the time and hard work you’ve put into the team. I am so excited to see how y’all do in our upcoming April marathon swing through the mid-Atlantic!

Alex Jubb, I still maintain that you had the single best suggestion for every single round from the bubble through quarters. You have been an amazing coach for this team, even when they’re competing in a style that we’re both still learning. As sad as I was to not be in Colorado this weekend, it was a joy to share the vicarious excitement with you here in New Orleans.

Elise Matton, I don’t think this could have happened this weekend without your presence. When Alex first told me she’d met someone who went to my high school, was in her TFA cohort, and had founded the Tulane debate team, I couldn’t believe it, but I knew you would immediately be a person I shared a real connection with. I am so glad that you were able to lend your expertise and wisdom to the team this weekend, that you were the team’s leader throughout, and that you got to see firsthand the results of your creation.

Finally, of course, Khristyan Trejo & Claire Kueffner, I am simply in awe of y’all. I am still coming to terms with the magnitude of what you accomplished, for a partnership ranked 456th in the season standings to finish in the top 8 at Nationals among teams all ranked in the top 20, for a total outsider student-run team to crash a party reserved for teams that fly every weekend on the school’s dime with mammoth professional coaching staffs and scholarships. And that you did it your way, talking about what you feel is most important, *convincing* people that it *is* most important, makes it all the more special. You are the change we want to see in the world. Thank you.

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Seventeen Years of Blogging

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Let's Go M's, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Here are two relatively unflattering portraits of me, seventeen years apart. What can I say – blogging hasn’t always been pretty.

Yesterday was the seventeenth anniversary of Introspection, my first blog. It lasted for just seven years and change before the daily short-format gave way to this more haphazard long format, now nearly ten years into process. My first post was mostly about dreams and teeth. My first post on StoreyTelling was mostly about Introspection, but also my larger history with blogging and the web. Today’s post will be about neither, really, but it felt like an anniversary to mark, not least because of the significance the number 17 plays in my life. But I haven’t posted in a while and that’s partially because I’ve had only a bunch of micro-post ideas flitting around in my head and that reminds me of Introspection and its flitty, flighty, one-liner format. So here we go:

-Mardi Gras was great for parades and great for Uber and kind of terrible for Uber. I gave multiple $150 rides and also had half-hours where I went six blocks without a rider the whole time and wanted to tear the steering wheel out of the car. Ultimately, it was still a very very good couple of weeks. I got pretty Zen about the traffic once I saw just how much I was making on most of the rides that I actually was able to give. I’ve also never had so many cancellations and frustrations since both Uber and especially Lyft had no real idea how to line people up with a pickup spot that made sense given parade routing. Driving during the parades was the worst; just after was much better.

-After a fantastic January for writing, February and March so far have been dismal. I partially blame Mardi Gras, but also wedding planning and also that it’s just flipping hard to focus on writing and anything else. Like yes, Uber is both a pretty easy casual job and the subject of my book, but it still consumes 35-45 hours a week, depending, and that’s time that really needs to be close to empty for me to write effectively. And/or I am also wrestling with too many internal confidence demons to really commit to writing fully and effectively. And/or there is too much variation and too little routine? I am inclined to think they are all factors, in the order presented. The book remains half-finished, but feels over the tipping point and should still be available to my loyal friend readers by summer at the latest (no whammy).

-Today was one of the first times I’ve ever delivered rolled change to the bank and they didn’t kind of whimsically roll their eyes at me. This is kind of a thing that I do regularly, in part because I find rolling change relaxing and re-ordering for me. I was almost heartbroken when Capital One briefly decided they weren’t accepting rolled change anymore and had me actually unwrap and unceremoniously dump all my change into a bucket so it could be fed into their automatic coin-sorter. By the next time I was ready to turn my change into electronically tracked currency, however, their coin sorting machine was out in the shop, perhaps indefinitely, and they were back to asking me to roll it. The bankers are always kind of bemused by me bringing in rolled change like I’m some sort of crank, but then again, most all commercially available change starts in rolls – someone is doing it somewhere, regularly, to keep the economy going, right? Is it so weird?

-Another relaxing and re-ordering practice for me is reading, which has been even more dismal all year than writing in the last forty days. I blame my ambition as a reader – I’ve spent most of the year allegedly reading The Familiar, vol. 1, a gigantic graphically bedecked book that looks like an elaborate prank. It was a mistake to try to read this, especially at a time when I want to be writing, but I really liked House of Leaves by the same author. The last renewal ran out at the library today and I returned it, having done about 160 pages in two months. I’m sure it’s brilliant in some way and I found some of the characters intriguing, but it just hadn’t spoken to me sufficiently to make it worth the work. I need to be reading regularly, though, and it needs to feel like a joy and not a chore. I may return to it someday, but long after I’ve written a couple more books.

-I am so insanely jealous of the folks living in the path of the snowstorm that’s about to batter the eastern seaboard. There’s a lot I don’t love about the northeastern United States, but the regular access to blizzards is not among them. I keep repeating the promise to myself that someday I will live in a place where I don’t have to anxiously anticipate snow, but it will be a regular occurrence with no possibility of not happening. I worry that places that used to be on this list are starting to fall off of the list, but no matter. Next year in Murmansk.

-Was there ever a more short-sighted decision than to decline to name that British ship Boaty McBoatface? Now the yellow sub they allowed to be called by said moniker is getting all kinds of press its expedition never would otherwise. Sometimes you have to steer into the curve. People are so often their own undoing by taking themselves too seriously.

-The Louisiana state government is having massive budget shortfalls this year because gas prices are low. This prompted them to try to charge state taxes from me from 2014 on all of my New Jersey-earned income. My only Louisiana income that year were some poker winnings from a large payout at Harrah’s. They sent me a bill for nearly $2,000 a few months back, including fees for failing to file and interest (as though interest were something that exists in the world these days). They sent multiple threats via certified letter. After three responses from me, all also sent certified, they sent me a check this weekend for $108, which was actually what they owed me for taking too much out of the poker payout in the first place. I was happy to let this money go in exchange for not filing a Louisiana return back in 2014. But they wanted to push it, so I’m happy to make them pay. Of course, in reality, it all feels like a huge waste – of state employee time, of my time, of the certified mail system. But I know to them it’s not a waste, because like all made-up bills, 80% of people probably just get scared and pay them no questions asked. And we wonder how the poor are kept poor in our system.

-Something I have been doing a lot lately is play chess. It’s not quite as relaxing as reading or walking or even writing sometimes, but it’s good for me. The problem is that I should spend more time between chess club “tournaments” practicing, but that would cut into time potentially writing or driving. This is actually an argument that cuts into a lot of things lately, including a pretty successful video-game moratorium I’ve put on myself for all of 2017 till the book is finished. Chess, like all games, is great patience practice, even the fifteen-minute games I favor and we play on Monday nights. The problem is that I still am spending more time looking at my mistakes and how to get out of them than not making them in the first place.

-I lost about an eighth of a tooth the other day. I think I swallowed it. I have an impacting wisdom tooth that’s pushing its neighbor on a tilt out of position, and I’ve just realized that this has made my bite sufficiently uneven so as to hammer into the tooth below with every chew. As a result, the top corner of the tooth below finally gave way. Luckily the root was not exposed; unluckily I have not had dental insurance since 2014. Trying to get into the LSU dental clinic is proving to be a chore, but at least after three days my tongue toughened up enough so that the newly jagged tooth edge stopped serrating it. It was an ugly couple days at first adjusting to the new reality.

-The Mariners lost their Spring Training game today by a score of 24-3. That said, all their best players are at the World Baseball Classic. They were doing really well before the WBC started. I am irrationally exuberant for the lineup of Dyson, Segura, Cano, Cruz, and Seager.

-Peak Trump Outrage seems to have passed. I know a lot of people want everyone to stay angry and vigilant, but I feel like Trump has slowed down into a kind of plodding pace of not being able to get any of his agenda done. I had long predicted that a President without either party really behind him would have a lot of trouble getting anything done and I think that’s coming to fruition. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stay vigilant or react strongly to the truly bad stuff that comes out of the administration, but a half-assed tweak on a bad healthcare law to make it slightly worse doesn’t pass muster on that for me. Especially when the best analysts don’t think they even want it to pass in the first place.

-Speaking of which, “Get Out” is one of the most flawlessly executed movies in recent memory. Right up there with “Arrival”. However, the former’s third act is its weakest point while the latter’s third act is its best, so just keep that in mind. “Weakest” in this context, however, is still mighty strong.

-I feel supremely lucky to live in a time when the Lumineers can be as popular a band as they are. The Lumineers being popular feels like one of those things that shouldn’t be able to happen – they defy all the tropes of what you’d expect of rock music success. And yet, there they are. Alex and I saw them ten days ago in the UNO basketball stadium and it was incredible. They seemed to express the same kind of incredulity at their success and following that I felt. At one point, referencing the time that they used to spend playing in living rooms and similar tiny venues, they came out into a literal pop-up stage in the center of the arena, closer to our seats, and played part of their set there. It was magical. The Lumineers feel magical in the way that New Orleans does when it’s at its simplest, most historical, and most charming. They seem like they shouldn’t be real. They aren’t passing Counting Crows or anything, but I forget how transporting and inspiring music can be sometimes. It can get so habitual and dull or so processed and rote. The discovery of music, the reimagining of it, makes me supremely sad that I didn’t end up in music somehow even though I have no natural ability there whatsoever…

Submarines
Flowers in Your Hair
Ho Hey
Cleopatra
Gun Song
Dead Sea
Classy Girls
Where the Skies are Blue
Charlie Boy
Slow it Down
Sleep on the Floor
Angela
Ophelia
Big Parade
In the Light
My Eyes

Long Way from Home
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Stubborn Love

-Nothing compares to the magic of having by far and away your favorite song from a band close the encore. Especially the first time you see them. You’ve spent the entire show wondering if they’ll play that song or not, with the drama increasing the whole way. And then finally it happens and it’s their sign-off and you don’t even want them to keep playing after because it’s too perfect. I think this has literally only happened to me one other time, the first time I saw Counting Crows. That was in November 1999, notably just more than seventeen years ago. You would think that means you can’t read what I thought of it at the time online now. You would be wrong.

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They Showed Us Our Past

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, Primary Sources, Tags: , ,

When we found them, we were not thinking of our history, even while we were watching theirs.

We were thinking of visitation, of proof of life, of how similar or different they were from us. We were thinking of little green men and ominous grays and the slim possibility that the similarity in their planetary structure might mean similarity in species structure as well. Maybe Star Trek would be proven right after all, that the greatest variation would be in skin color or pointiness of forehead, that something ape-like would win the evolutionary struggle on every sphere, if only to reaffirm our perceived inevitability. We were not prepared for the victory of their cephalopods or cetaceans or proboscideans, much less the co-existence of all three. We were not prepared for how long or how carefully they had been watching us.

We wanted them to show us our future, to show us possibilities. To show us solutions for problems we had not solved, to show us the way forward, to show us how to get to other planets and survive and thrive, to live long and prosper, to be fruitful and multiply among the stars. Instead, they showed us our past.

It turns out the speed of light is an absolute barrier after all. There would be no real-time two-way street, no communication that built relationships between live members of contrasting planets forty light-years across the universe. We opened with a simple hello and it was eighty years before we got hi back and by that time the first hello’s author was on her deathbed in a beepy antiseptic corner with barely the muscles left to smile. And it’s not like they were all living to four-hundred over there, that was one of the lessons that was slow to sink in, that lifespan is meant to be finite, that something else always gets you in the end, that appreciating what you’ve been given requires not always ungratefully trying to negotiate the terms. But that came later, much later, after the videos.

The realization first occurred to us when we realized that the forty-year lag-time meant they were watching our past in real time while we watched theirs. We quickly surmised that the opportunity of space travel, of interstellar communication if not physical relocation, was actually a question of time travel. Until we could summon a craft ready to traverse forty years into the unknown with no hope of return, we would have to settle for the slow and unsettling dialogue. It actually took us about a hundred and sixty years to realize we could send questions rapid-fire, that we didn’t actually have to wait for a response before sending a follow-up question, that we could bombard them with inquiries in the hopes that they would respond in turn. I wish I could say this was borne from ingenuity, but it was much more that eighty years after hi back, the second response was somewhere between “what?” and “I don’t understand.” And we just got fed up and greedily asked them to send us blueprints for their faster-than-light ships, which of course they didn’t have. But if we kept our inquiries short and declarative, they could respond in sequence and then, at least for the next generation, there would be news from beyond every day.

By the time they got around to asking whether we would like to see our past, their existence had been inculcated as both a regular part of life and a mammoth disappointment. We had spent so long imagining interstellar space travel that we’d assumed this would immediately follow contact with them, especially when it was immediately obvious that they were more advanced than we were. Which made it all the more surprising that it took them centuries to reveal the quality of their telescopes, the sophistication of their listening devices. But of course, they were smarter and more experienced. They knew it would take time to build up to the idea of viewing the reality of what they’d been watching all along. Turns out the prime directive, while not an absolute, was going in sort of the right direction. It is up to the weaker, less intelligent “civilization” to do the asking, to initiate. There’s too much potential for abuse the other way.

Before we knew about the recording device, when they threw in some idle commentary about when we sent the message or we asked them about things that were half a lifetime ago to the recipients, some of our philosophers got excited about what could be seen through this reflected lens. If we could ever, however frustrating it might be, make contact with species a hundred, two hundred, five hundred light-years away, then we could dip our oars deeper into the tide of what came before. Think of the possibilities! they declared. Imagine what we could learn. No longer would victors write the history books, for the books would write themselves, in technicolor video no less. Of course, the sad irony was that whenever contact was initiated and all that came before would be lost to history, to this process. We could only get history, only ask them to reflect our past back to us, once were dialoguing.

That, of course, proved to be untrue. It presumed that we were the more advanced tribe, that no one had been watching all along.

Their picture was incomplete, of course. They did not have ships just offshore from our atmosphere, hovering in some sort of invisible orbit. They did not have anyone anywhere close. They were locked into their fixed relative perspective, only a particular angle on our planet from the ships in their own star system. But oh, the rotation of planets! Every hour, we would show them a new face, a new vantage full of people and struggle and mistakes and triumphs. It was almost enough to make us believe that there was purpose, real intent behind the rotation of planets. That they spun to ensure that from any angle, everything could be seen.

It was not everything, of course. It was not an on-demand library of every event in history. For the first few centuries, in fact, they couldn’t even penetrate buildings. It was only the outdoor events that were recorded, only the declarations in full view of the sun that made it to the archive. It was enough, though, to get the gist. It always was. It turns out what mattered to us most was not the speeches whose memory still imperfectly trickled to our contemporary collective imagination, not the battles and names we’d grown up studying. It was the way we were, writ large, the toiling in the fields and the minor atrocities of daily living. An anonymous rape in a back alley. A botched robbery on a lonely dirt highway. The distribution of smallpox blankets at a formal trading session.

For a long time, we’d known and internalized that witnessed horror held so much more sway than mere described horror. That the thrall of the camera, much less with audio, created a truth we could not bear to deny or resist. We were wholly unprepared for the impact of this reality applied to a history before we’d invented our own means of recording.

It is vital to stress that they offered this with utmost neutrality. There were a mirror, not a documentary filmmaker. They showed us garden weddings and spontaneous beachside births as well, we were awash in humanity’s humanity as well as its inhumanity. But the overall message was somehow clearer than our own extensive efforts to self-monitor, to spread surveillance to every corner of our own little sphere. Someone is watching. Someone has always been watching. Someone far smarter sees what you are doing and so might your grandchildren’s grandchildren.

No longer was history a mere abstraction, something to be reframed and repainted. It was something living and breathing, in better quality than we could produce ourselves, even after its precarious journey across the empty echoes of space.

It made us take our present more seriously, as we pictured it re-refracted through the rebound from our newest neighbors, offered to our descendants with quiet condemnation, a condemnation made all the quieter for arriving without commentary. We could no longer use past precedent as a justification. It was future understanding we needed to appeal to.

We wanted them to send us blueprints for overcoming mortality and the speed of light. Instead, they showed us our past. And it was the only way we could finally learn how to build a brighter future. Not one of eternal life or instant travel. But one, more vitally, that future generations could be proud of. Or at least less ashamed.

by

Stop Calling Trump Incompetent

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

“There’s an old joke, um, two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort. And one of ’em says ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions!'”
-Woody Allen, “Annie Hall”

I know there are those of you who will be turned off by my even being willing to quote Woody Allen to prove any sort of point. It’s tempting to say, I guess, that this post is not for you if so. But I think, possibly, this post is precisely for you if you feel that way, because sometimes it’s important not to shoot the message even if you want to shoot the messenger. “Annie Hall” itself is hardly a vehicle I would often invoke – it’s one of the most profoundly disappointing movies I’ve seen, establishing a long line of popular films (e.g. “When Harry Met Sally”, “High Fidelity”, et cetera ad infinitum) that can be boxed up as “the asshole gets the girl” films. But that line, the opening salvo, I’ve always liked. And it’s never been more relevant than today.

You may have guessed that this post will be in the “critiquing Trump critics” box of my own burgeoning collection. And as always, it’s important to note that this is not defending Trump. It is pointing out that effective criticism of Trump requires logical consistency, forethought, and understanding. Frankly, most Trump critics seem short of all three these days in their haste to shout from the rooftops “THE END IS NEAR AND ITS NAME IS TRUUUUUUUUMP!” There’s a satisfaction in doing this that I understand. But it’s also helpful to remember that part of what you hate about Trump is that he can so sweepingly dismiss an entire estate (namely, the fourth) by calling them “the enemy”. It is perhaps just as rash and foolish to dismiss Trump wholesale and brand everything he does, including breathing, eating, and speaking, as innately evil and incompetent.

It is the and in that above sentence I want to focus on. Evil and incompetent. Because in the rush to throw all the spaghetti at all of the walls of Trump’s gold-embossed White House, most of that spaghetti is failing to stick because it gets hit, midair, by other spaghetti. If that metaphor sounds like a mess, it’s because it is. And the primary result of that mess is that Trump can give a press conference and rightly point out how messy and self-defeating all these noodles on the floor are, then leave everyone else to wonder how a President can withstand the onslaught of just so much pasta and come out unstained by sauce.

Either Trump is evil or he is incompetent. Or, I suppose, he could be both. But if he is both, you cannot blame him for being both, nor should you criticize him for being both. Put another way, if he is evil, you want him to be incompetent. And if he is incompetent, you want him to be evil. You don’t want him to be incompetent but good, right? That would just be tragic failure. And if he’s evil, do you really wish he were more effective? Really? You have to pick one.

It makes absolutely no sense to believe and perpetrate the idea that Donald J. Trump is a fascist mastermind who is hours away from closing his vise-like tiny hands around the last vestiges of the Constitution and that he is so utterly incompetent that he could not plan an intimate tea party for his grandchildren’s doll collection. One undermines the other. If he is truly that incompetent, then we have nothing to fear from his evil machinations. They will end in laughable failure to the obvious ridicule of all concerned. The only way we should fear his plotting and subterfuge is if he is, in fact, competent.

Further, it is simply becoming more unlikely that he is as incompetent as purported. This line of reasoning – that he’s a bumbling, narcissistic, possibly mentally unstable fool – has always been suspect, but downright absurdist since November 8th. You really think he just tripped over his own shoelaces into winning both the primary and the general election? He was so downright self-defeating that he just happened to crush the most experienced political machine ever assembled, the candidate who garnered an all-time record number of endorsements and dollars? Really?? You believe that he kept figuring out exactly what to say and how to react to attract huge crowds, divide and defeat all the establishment Republicans, completely dominate the media while criticizing them for over a year, and then become President, all by incompetent accident??? How?

People don’t like feeling stupid, I get that. In fact, it’s one of the things you probably criticize DJT for, his fear of seeming or being stupid in the public eye. So you look at this guy, you loathe him, and you know, you just know you are smarter and more effective than he is. At everything. So it can’t be that he tapped into an opportunity, understood it, planned for it, and exploited it. It simply cannot be that he is more in touch with America than you are. And it certainly can’t be that he has skills and strategy and deployed them to great effect. No, it must be that the guy won by sheer force of utter total luck.

Look, there’s an extent to which I agree with this line of logic. The role of luck is vastly under-rated in human life, especially on a societal level and in analyzing accomplishment. But at a certain point, even if luck is a factor, maybe someone winning three straight Olympic sprinting titles didn’t happen by accident. After Usain Bolt locks up a record number of Olympic running golds, it might be time to consider that the man is, in addition to being sometimes lucky (as are literally all successful people), fast. It’s just Occam’s Razor. At a certain point, it takes so much more work, so many hurdles, to come up with explanations for why someone has succeeded. Maybe they’re just good at what they succeeded at.

And look, being good at that does not make him a good person. In fact, the better he is at strategy and understanding the American psyche, the more dangerous and resistance-worthy he becomes. If you want to generate a groundswell of fear-mongering and terror in the land to bolster the resistance to Donald Trump’s America, by all means do not focus on his blunders. There’s plenty of ill will and mistreatment of people and concepts to focus on. But people aren’t going to rationally fear that if you zoom in on his lumbering incompetence. That just makes people laugh. And laughing people do not fear.

Say what you will about Donald Trump, but he is a masterful showman who understands the American mindset better than perhaps anyone who ever lived. People criticizing Trump often forget that Reagan, considered by a majority of Americans to be the most effective President of the past half-century, was an entertainer before he was a politician. He too understood that Americans love to be entertained, they love show business, they love the glitz and glory of celebrity culture. Reagan’s campy cowboy movies could never have presaged the degree to which this reality would accelerate during his presidency and beyond. The eighties took celebrity culture to an unprecedented level, an extent that would make the most decadent of Romans blush, and the Internet has only heightened the scope and reach of that broadcast signal. Crass consumerism, raw humor, glamorous wealth: these things have been methodically exalted by American culture throughout my (today observed as officially longer) lifetime. And no single human being in history better emulates and reflects these cultural priorities than Donald J. Trump.

To believe that he’s there by accident, that he built this empire and drove it down Pennsylvania Avenue by sheer happenstance, requires believing that he was some sort of ingenue in building his cult of personality in the first place. How many standard deviations of unlikeliness, going back how many decades, do we have to add here? Or perhaps the better question is, if it’s so easy to become one of the most recognizable, discussable, and ultimately successful people in history, why isn’t everyone doing it?

I know the main answer most folks give to that question is that they haven’t inherited $50 million. Fair point. That certainly sets DJT above everyone with less money (read: almost everyone) in terms of luck and positioning. No question. But in today’s America, no one else has done so much with $50 million. Not in terms of business, sure, he’s gone bankrupt a lot and famously under-performed the index funds and probably won’t release his taxes to cover up the fact that he’s kind of meh at business. But doesn’t that make his reputation as the best businessman of all-time, the best negotiator ever, actually more impressive? The greatest trick the devil ever pulled may have been convincing the world he didn’t exist, but that’s arguably a less challenging task than convincing the world that your bad judgment and loss of money makes you the foremost authority on wealth accumulation and business. Or in the nomenclature of the original phrase, the devil would have had an even harder time convincing the world that he was, in fact, God.

It is really important to get this right. Accusing Trump of being evil vs. incompetent is not just a matter of what looks better on a handmade sign. It is a question of how to defeat him and his agenda, because the prescription is totally different depending on which one he is. If you’re not sure if the patient has hyper-thyroidism or hypo-thyroidism, you don’t just apply both treatments and hope for the best. One treatment will defeat the value of the other and, more damningly, make the patient’s symptoms worse. Both can be damaging, both can have treatments, but you should be very sure which one is in play before administering treatment and then you should very consistently only administer that kind of treatment.

Perhaps you believe that the American voting public, the marketplace of ideas at large, is far less sensitive and precise than a human body. That we can actively tell Democrats that Trump is evil, but Republicans that he’s incompetent and this will somehow thread the needle of getting everyone to hate him. This falls victim to the same sort of solipsism so frequently exhibited by Hillary Clinton in the last campaign (and for years before), the belief that what we say and do can be compartmentalized and is largely targeted and private. (After all, the argument goes, HRC made the “basket of deplorables” statement at a private fundraiser, as though such things exist when you’re running for President.) The truth will out, people will talk, and everyone is always listening. The more you simultaneously promote both narratives about Trump, the more obvious it looks that you’re not actually sincere in your criticisms. You just hate the guy and will latch on to literally anything you think hurts him, no matter how trumped up (yup) or absurd or far-fetched.

The fact that the media has latched on to this all-spaghetti all-the-time strategy and embraced it as its sole civic duty is not helpful. It is, perhaps, literally the only way to prove Trump and his supporters right that the media is biased, unfair, and out to get him. I think it is far more likely that Trump realized, months or even years ago, that the media would take this bait if routinely provoked and fashion themselves as a more monstrous adversary to Trump than even he could fabricate, than that Trump just lucked into perfect messaging to win the White House in 2016. Every time the media exaggerates and willfully misinterprets what Trump says about Sweden for humorous effect, they are cementing the understood truth of what Trump says about them to everyone who voted for Trump and can re-elect him. This is not working. It is not helping.

I’m not saying that the media can’t say when things are demonstrably false. But they should also perhaps try to at least understand what Trump is trying to communicate when he says things. I watched the entire press conference that got so much attention last week. It was billed, long before I watched it, as “unhinged” and “insane” and “totally off the wall”. I saw none of those things when watching it. It was heated, yes, and adversarial. It presented viewpoints that are more tangential to mainline politics than is traditional, in a packaging that was far less conciliatory than politics as usual. But it was none of the outlandish adjectives used to describe it. And more vitally, Trump actually said in the middle of it that the headlines tomorrow would be “Trump rants and raves” which would mischaracterize him. He called his shot and he was right.

Now if I, someone who hates pretty much all of Trump’s policies, who would never vote for him, who finds him difficult to watch or listen to, who loathes all of his capitalistic values and New York perspective, if I feel like he’s getting a bum rap from the media on this, where do you think anyone who actually voted for the guy stands on this issue?

And it’s not just the media. If anything, compared to my Facebook news feed, the collective outcry of close friends and distant acquaintances, the media has been quite consistent and restrained. Most of my feed these days is spaghetti-slingers competing with each other to find new, innovative, and deeply self-contradictory ways to lampoon Trump. Some of this goes back to the old expectations of American power issue, wherein, e.g., people who oppose most of the CIA’s historical actions cry foul at Trump’s mishandling of all the all-important CIA. But forget self-consistency. If the national security apparatus of our nation mostly does harm, isn’t it kind of okay if Trump screws it up? How can you be equally upset that Trump is a nationalistic hawk and that he is insufficiently defending the nation against foreign threats? It doesn’t make sense. And people can see that and observe that you are being disingenuous and just trying to bash in a partisan way.

It’s this kind of behavior that convinces Senate Republicans it’s all just a partisan game and they have to stand by their man, and that means we get Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt. And worse, that you can believe that he just accidentally picked people who will dismantle their agencies out of incompetence rather than a well devised strategic plan to do so. I’m not totally convinced that Trump is actually as evil as those who say he’s evil think – I do think his values are detrimental and pretty diametric to mine, but I also think he prefers single payer and would never want to overturn major recent progressive court rulings. But he’s clearly smarter and more effective than anyone on Team Incompetence gives him credit for.

And even if you don’t believe any of this, if you think I’m dead wrong about him being competent or effective, there’s this. Good old Pascal’s Wager. Would you rather believe a cunning villain is just a fool and act accordingly or believe a fool is a cunning villain and act accordingly? The former is deeply dangerous. The latter is merely over-cautious. I think we’re all a lot better off, even if Trump is completely incompetent, believing and responding as though he deliberately planned all this, because it’s much safer.

But whatever you do, please stop doing both at the same time. Drop the and. End the and. Pick one and stick to it. Critiques of Trump, to be effective, must be ever simpler and more direct. There’s a reason that “lashes with a wet noodle” is a phrase to indicate failure to punish. No amount of spaghetti is ever going to be enough to defeat Trump, or anyone else.

by

Twisting the Night Away

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , ,

For more of my life than I care to admit, I was an avid player of Dark Age of Camelot, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG for, well, long). Dark Age, for the uninitiated, was basically the precursor to World of Warcraft (WoW), which you’ve definitely heard of, except the graphics were better (far less cartoony) and the game was harder. Much harder. When a former family member got me WoW for Christmas (perhaps the last thing I wanted at the time), I remember playing it and marveling at how little work everything took. Dark Age felt like work and, thus, in its weird way, was kind of rewarding.

In Dark Age, I primarily played a bard, who I named Fiver Mep, whose task was to sing and play songs to aid, comfort, and heal his friends. Bards in Dark Age were (I should say “are” because the game still exists and I still occasionally play the free months the remnants of the game offers me to try to get drawn back into the addiction) equipped with three particular songs: one providing power, one endurance, and one speed (of movement, not amphetamines). The intent was that only one of these could be played a time – it’s pretty hard to imagine that multiple songs offered by a bard simultaneously would be of any real value. However, at some point early in the game’s inception, a bard discovered that two songs could be played at once to mutual effect. This strategy came to be known in the gameplay parlance as “twisting”.

Because each task in the game was initiated by a keystroke, twisting entailed constantly pressing two buttons in a row, in a vaguely frenetic rhythm, permanently during the game. This while also peppering in other tasks such as, for instance, typing to chat with other players or pressing buttons to heal or conduct other magical activities entailed in the game. I tried twisting for an hour or two one night and quickly found that it wasn’t for me. Playing just one song didn’t involve any repeated keystrokes at all – just a single button to start the song, which would play indefinitely until you decided to stop. This differential in gameplay experience was easily the distinction between enjoying a game that still felt a little like work sometimes and working very hard indeed at a job that was supremely boring. Many players disregarded or refused to adventure with Fiver when he informed them, emphatically, that he did not twist. Others, who had actually played bards in other lives, were more forgiving.

I offer all this as a little metaphor, though one that most may find inscrutable, for the experience of simultaneously driving for Uber and Lyft. I have now been an Uber driver for just shy of nine months (!), but only recently finally got around to signing up for Lyft. The primary motivation was the emerging #DeleteUber campaign sweeping the nation in the wake of the startling discovery that a corporate CEO was not, in fact, a good person. While I myself was not about to delete Uber, I had long been wondering if Lyft was better in some way and was eager to not lose all my business, or at least all my business that hated Donald Trump (read: basically all my business). Plus, it felt like essential research for my book: it would be weirdly neglectful to write a whole book about driving for Uber and not even mention Lyft or detail the rival’s pros and cons. So a couple weeks ago, I began peppering in sessions of Lyft.

The word on the street has always been that Lyft pays better (including and especially because they enable tipping through the app), while Uber keeps you busier because many more people use Uber. I have since been told that this last part is a regional difference – there are apparently some US cities where Lyft is actually the primary service and Uber is struggling to catch up. But in New Orleans, Uber is completely dominant, or at least was before the advent of the Trump administration. In my time with Lyft so far, most of the stereotypes above have demonstrated themselves to be true, though the better money is somewhat inconsistent. There is a $1.25 fee built into each fare with both services – Uber pockets this, but Lyft splits it with drivers. Thus the minimum driver compensation for a ride is $3.75 with Lyft and $3.00 with Uber. For about six weeks, Uber actually upped theirs to $3.75 (for min-fares only, keeping the difference for all longer rides) in New Orleans and lowered the airport pick-up bonus to try to stop 80 people at a time from waiting 60-90 minutes in the airport lot for a single trip. Apparently, this brought about heavy backlash from the seeming majority of NOLA Uber drivers who just want to be airport shuttles and they reversed the change. No amount of praise for the change from me could stop it, so I was pleased to see the extra 75 cents a ride from Lyft, which really adds up when you’re doing short runs in the Quarter.

Tipping, however, has proven to be a bit of a red herring. While it is true that a much higher portion of Lyft riders tip than Uber riders (I would say roughly 40% choosing to tip as opposed to the 12-15% I’m used to), the tips tend to me much smaller. With cash tips, $5 is customary (people actually apologize for tipping less even though everyone tipping me exactly $1 per ride would yield more in total tips than I currently receive) and $20 is not terribly uncommon. It helps, I suppose, that it’s usually 2:30 AM and people are drunk out of their minds. Whereas the cold sobriety of the app, plus the option to decide on a tip up to 24 hours later, yields a ton of $1 and $2 tips. Now, don’t get me wrong, $2 tips are fantastic! But it’s not quite the difference of tripling my tip total vs. Uber that was purported. Additionally, of course, all the Lyft app tips are reported to the IRS, so that can be a difference depending on how you treat your cash tips (relevantly, many waitstaff and bartenders still give cash tips on Lyft). Though as I’m realizing doing my taxes this year, the US has lots of ways to make it basically impossible for anyone who claims to be in business to pay any taxes whatsoever. The horror stories and fears I had about a significant Uber tax liability have been pretty well put to bed by a quick tax session Uber hosted and a newly thorough understanding of Schedule C.

The really tangible potential differences in money break down as a comparison between Uber’s surge and Lyft’s Power Driver status. Uber’s (in)famous surge pricing squares up supply and demand and offers a real opportunity to make bank when driving during, say, Halloween weekend, or, as I can hardly imagine, the upcoming weekend featuring a full slate of Mardi Gras parades and the NBA All-Star Game. When demand is high, during such times or at the end of a game or concert, then Uber drivers can make a normal night’s worth of fares in a good few rides. This is definitely slightly over-rated as part of the income of Uber driving, especially with recent efforts by the company to nerf surge by making the zones much smaller and rebound on each other more slowly. But it can add up on Saturday nights and holidays and during events. Lyft allegedly offers PrimeTime as their corollary to this, but there’s only one problem. It is, apparently, a lie. When you agree to do an Uber pick-up, they tell you the value of the surge the fare will carry. I have done hundreds of surge rides and they’ve all added up to the total promised. When you agree to do a Lyft pick-up, however, they do not tell you if it has a PrimeTime value. And despite picking up many riders in the thick of a pink-shaded PT event, not one of my 88 Lyft rides to date has been deemed a PrimeTime fare. Some preliminary Internet research reveals widespread belief that PrimeTime is somewhere between a scam and a myth and my experience certainly correlates to this. More disconcertingly, many drivers attest that their riders have said they were charged PrimeTime for pick-ups that did not pass such bonuses on to the driver.

This would make Lyft super problematic were it not for the Power Driver status, which is almost enough and possibly quite enough to forgive them for lying about PrimeTime, if they in fact are. (It’s possible that it just doesn’t work somehow, given Lyft’s other technological inferiorities, below.) If a driver accepts 90% of their offered Lyft rides in a week, while completing at least 15 rides during peak hours (a narrow band of afternoon rush hours plus Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights) and 40 rides total, one gets an extra 10% of the total fares, getting 85% instead of the normal 75%. Bump those last two numbers up to 20 and 60 and you get another 10%, meaning you keep a full 95% of the fare charged to the rider (less whatever lying about PrimeTime may be happening, of course). For those of you used to Uber rates, this is the equivalent of getting 1.26x surge on every single ride for the whole week. That’s pretty great. The one week I made the grade here, it was worth an extra hundred bucks. Not enough to compete with surge during Mardi Gras, perhaps, but certainly something to boost a lot of Tuesday nights.

The problem, of course, is that Lyft is often slower than Uber, and more problematically is not afraid of sending you on a wild goose chase for a fare. Uber often strands riders with their requirement that every pick-up be 10 minutes or less from a driver’s current location. (Surge gets triggered if no riders are available within 10 minutes.) Lyft, on the other hand, has given me multiple requests that are 25-27 minutes away. Which is insane. Especially in New Orleans, where you’re always 15 minutes from everything. 13-20 minutes away is a regular occurrence. Of course, most Lyft riders don’t want to wait this long, so 85% of my requests that are that far away get cancelled within 3 minutes. Which just doesn’t smack of efficiency. And because acceptance rate is such a core part of Lyft’s access to the coveted Power Driver status, then you really can’t just turn your nose up at a 20-minute trek. With Uber, I often have enough work that I decline something 8-10 minutes away as requiring too much unpaid gas.

As a result, twisting becomes the norm, especially not on weekends or during events that are busier. In this instance, twisting entails keeping both apps on simultaneously and ready to go, then switching off one app as soon as a request comes in on the other. As I predicted when I first heard about this, this process is hectic and stressful, especially when you remember that you are also, y’know, driving while this happens. Usually driving just involves hitting the phone screen once and then a second time to navigate – not hard when the phone is mounted to the air conditioner or some equally accessible spot. But all the opening and closing of apps is challenging. Already, I’ve had two instances of basically simultaneous requests and had to cancel one (usually the Uber one because acceptance rate –> Power Driver) and just take the other. It’s not quite playing power song and endurance song at once for hours, but it’s not the easiest either. And at least that only impacted fake or simulated people, er, magical creatures?

Of course, the problem is that just choosing one of the apps now creates this insidious FOMO effect whenever one doesn’t immediately have a ride request. I am driving around just trawling for a ride, but I could have both apps on, my brain tells me. I bet there are constant requests on the app you have closed! Is it really that hard to twist?

A week before Saturday, I even was double-apping on a Saturday night, something I swore never to try because of how busy Saturday nights are ’round here. But that promise was so quickly broken the second I’d gone five minutes without a request.

As far as other empirics, there’s not a lot of difference. There seem to be more women traveling alone on Lyft, which is a big part of their marketing strategy for both drivers and riders. (Lyft actually conducts an interview, which Uber does not, though I would not exactly describe it as much of a screening process from my experience.) Lyft riders have disproportionately talked about how they don’t want to use Uber, or are trying not to, but many find it hard in New Orleans given the dominance of Uber in the market. Lyft riders seem much more diligent, on average, about being ready for their ride right away when I pull up, though this may be a product of the significantly longer wait times involved in sending drivers long distances to pick-ups. When the GPS or rider mess up on the map, Lyft automatically starts the ride when you leave to go to the right location. While this theoretically is to help the driver get compensated, it empirically just creates cancellations when the rider freaks out that they’re listed as riding in the car when, in fact, they are not. Lyft won’t let you text riders for some reason, which Uber insists is what riders prefer. Most riders on both platforms cannot remember which service they’ve used to hail me, which is something I definitely remember from just doing Uber as well. Though the ones that do remember and are not strongly anti-Trump have usually just had a bad experience with Uber, which seems weird to me knowing that so many drivers use both platforms interchangeably.

Many people in the cultural imagination, including a guy out front of a bar last night who saw both my signs in the windshield and asked me incredulously how such a thing was possible and wasn’t I a traitor to both companies, seem to not realize that one can do both, much less at the same time. For companies that brand themselves with such contrast, black vs. pink, businesslike vs. whimsical, pro-Trump (now not-un-pro-Trump?) vs. anti-Trump, the reality is basically the same. You are in a person’s car and they are taking you where you want. No matter how much corporate veneer and artifice we put on things, we remain, unflinchingly, just people in all that we do.

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This Land is… Your Land?

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , ,

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I feel about the United States of America. I suspect I am not alone in this.

In fact, I know I am not alone in this. Every post on Facebook, half of the reports on the radio, and a third of my conversations in Uber drives involve people thinking and feeling about America. This country, its values, and its way of doing business in the world have never witnessed such scrutiny in my lifetime. And on face, that’s a great thing. I have, in many ways, been wishing for an event to prompt this self-examination my entire life, or at least my whole life since I first took a serious history class.

But self-examination doesn’t only apply to others, of course, no matter my history of self-critical reflection on this nation and my role in it. Self-examination starts with… the self.

Last night, a paradox hit me that I am still kind of reeling from and can’t quite solve. And the more I considered the paradox, the more that I realized it’s the same paradox most Americans seem to have about America, except it’s inverted. And I don’t quite know what to do with this conclusion, other than explain it, offer it as lived experience, and try to see where other people are on this spectrum. I know how alone I am in most of my conclusions about the advent of the Trump administration, so I suspect I’m pretty alone in all of what follows. But I’m curious what this dredges up for anyone reading it. I’m curious what articulating it will dredge up for me.

I am someone who goes around saying that they hate America. This is not common. Increasingly, this might be dangerous. Hate is a strong word and most people who hate are prone to violence and violence against the country is the scariest thing anyone thinks exists since 9/11. Of course, I’m also a pacifist, but one who doesn’t aspire with the best of them to live without hate in their heart. I have hate in my heart. Lots of it. A lot of personal life experiences and impersonal history have combined to make me angry a lot of the time. When I’m not angry, I’m sad. When I’m neither sad nor angry, I’m usually really ecstatic. This is probably because I am a manic depressive. It might just be because I’m really aggressively not afraid of my emotions, which – near as I can tell – amounts to the same thing.

But this isn’t about mental health. It’s about hate. What does it mean to hate America? The conclusion most people have about people who hate America is that they hate freedom or that they are fanatically devoted to some sort of cause hell-bent on the violent downfall of America. This is not how I feel. I was born here. My parents were born here. Their parents were born here. I know that some of what separates me from most of those who don’t hate America is that I don’t feel like those facts make me in any way special. Lucky, yes, but not special. I know and have discussed how much I would’ve wanted to be born in America had I been born anywhere else, not because America is a place I would want to be, but because America is the seat of power of the world so far in my lifetime, and also the seat of harmful influence on the world’s people, and I would be committed to changing that. And I can imagine the angry quarrels I would have with friends in foreign cafes, where they would look at me bemusedly across the table and claim that if I were born in America, I would not be capable of hating it, because where are the Americans who hate America. And I would glare back at them and say I knew, I knew they were wrong. How could anyone be aware about the role of America in the world and not seethe?

Of course, the other issue with the chain of births in America leading to my own is that I lack contact with living ancestors who lived elsewhere and voluntarily came here. I don’t have a relatable ancestral story of someone clinging to a raft or looking over a boat railing or sneaking aboard a vessel or over a wall into what they thought would mean freedom. I did not grow up on stories of how much was sacrificed and forgone so that I could be here on this red, white, and blue soaked soil. I can understand how it would be different if I had. If dad or granny had sold all their possessions for a sketchy ticket to this nation under the cover of night so that their grandchild or child could be born American, then it would be harder for me to feel the way I do. It would feel ungrateful, no matter what else the facts or feelings about the country said. It would feel like betrayal.

So what do I mean when I say I hate America? If I don’t want it destroyed and I don’t wish to do it ill, what does my hate really mean? And if I don’t hate freedom or immigrants or the colors red and blue, how does my hate manifest? What is it I hate about America? Its people? Its ideas? Its success?

The best one-word answer I can give is this: hypocrisy. There are many things I wish America did differently, or had never done. But it’s the hypocrisy that really riles me up, gets me actually angry and upset. It’s that America parades around in the world pretending to be a beacon of freedom, hope, and light, while actually serving as a vehicle of empire, destruction, and manipulation. If America unapologetically embraced its imperial attitude in the world, it would actually make me less hateful. At least there would be some truth, some sincerity in advertising. At least other countries would know what was coming and why. It’s the old difference between a backstab and a “frontstab” as we used to call it in weekend games of Diplomacy in Albuquerque. You can have begrudging respect for a “frontstab”. A backstab is just evil. There’s a reason Judas is a greater villain in history than Napoleon, why Dante put the betrayers in the ninth (and worst) circle. If you’re going to do a bad thing, at least let people know. It’s the absolute least you could do.

This is why I have felt so powerfully alone in the wake of Donald Trump’s first fortnight as President of the United States. The people who love America, who feel like America really does represent freedom, hope, and light in the world, they only feel betrayed by the President now. This two weeks, or maybe the three months since the election, these are their introductions to the stab of betrayal I’ve felt since I first took a serious long look at the nation’s history. To them, the country is good and Donald Trump is leading it, single-handedly, astray. To me, of course, Donald Trump’s values look exactly like America’s values. Naked self-interest, self-serving hypocrisy, abridging rights and freedoms at will, bullying, manipulation, and intimidation in the service of empire. I can recognize that he is being more brazen and escalative about these values, but again, if anything, that makes it a little more like a frontstab. He’s not making much of an effort to dress the emperor in clothes, to cloak his actions in the finery of noble causes. He’s basically going commando to the world, nude and proud, saying “come and get it, this is what we are.” When you think it’s what we’ve always been, it just doesn’t feel like that much of a change.

If you’re sitting here wondering what I could possibly be talking about when I discuss America as hypocritical or problematic, then I don’t know exactly what to tell you. I guess my best recommendation would be to watch this video that Russ Gooberman and I made ten years ago about America’s transgressions against humanity, often including its own people. The motif of the commercial was making fun of Chevy ads with John Mellencamp’s insipid “This is Our Country” tune celebrating a nation that had just wrecked Iraq and conducted Abu Ghraib as standing beside “the idea to stand and fight”. Make no mistake, Photoshopping Chevrolets into a series of American atrocities was just a vehicle (!) for reminding people of said atrocities:

And that entire two-and-a-half minute barrage is pretty light on the last fifty years, leaving out the CIA’s role in destroying democracies across the globe, barely touching on Vietnam or Afghanistan, not engaging with drone strikes or corporate imperialism or police shootings. And if you didn’t watch the video, it ran through slavery and the Native American genocide, firebombing Dresden and nuking Japan, Japanese internment and lynchings, Abu Ghraib and mass shootings, 9/11 and Katrina, the Martin Luther King assassination and the Rodney King beating, poverty and Kent State, border guards and Donald Rumsfeld, the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church. If you think Trump is a betrayal of American values but those events don’t all make you want to throw up in your mouth, I don’t understand you. I just don’t.

From what I can tell, the way most people reconcile this endless history of human abuse and slaughter with loving America is precisely in the same way that I find America hypocritical. It’s because all those events diverge from the purported rhetoric of America. For some reason, America claiming to represent what’s good and right, claiming to represent democracy and freedom and openness, can forgive a million sins against those ideals. Because, according to this perspective, at least we’re trying. No matter that Soviet or Chinese shortcomings on their purported ideals of equality and freedom are written off as deliberate fraud while we make these claims. No matter how many people who observe this hypocrisy are branded as enemies and shipped to Gitmo or summarily executed by sky-robot. Our sexist and racist Constitution, our rosy image of the wealthy white male landowners who killed Britons over taxation with insufficient representation, our acceptance (and exploitation) of immigrants from select countries over the years, these are enough to absolve us of any missteps along the way. That, and we maintain the belief that we are always improving. No matter how many disastrous and catastrophic wars are fought by the last administration, no matter how many freedoms suspended in the wake of the last perceived threat to America, we always feel like we’re moving forward. Until now.

It doesn’t wash for me. I can’t do it. I can’t get through the mental hoops required to look at all that history, all those deliberate injustices and murders perpetrated in the nation’s name, and just write them off as innocent mistakes on the ledger of our role on the planet. Sure, this probably blinds me to some good that America occasionally does that I’m forgetting. But that’s just applying the same standard America does to every other leader and country on the planet as long as we’ve decided the time for them to face our wrath has come.

But the weird thing, the revelation the other night, the paradox, is this. I kind of love Americans. And I really love the place that is America. Like to a kind of absurd extreme in both cases. And driving for Uber has really reminded me, profoundly, just how much that is all the case.

I’ve been to 48 states and lived in nine cities. And I’ve been to most of those states three, four, five different times. I feel like I’ve done a tremendous amount of traveling, but it’s mostly been domestic. I really know this nation. I have been most everywhere and seen most everything. When discussing wanting to visit San Antonio a few months ago, I stated it’s the major US city I’m most interested in visiting that I’ve never seen. But then I had to pause to realize it may be one of the only ones. Indeed, after visiting Omaha this summer, San Antonio (7th) and El Paso (19th), also in Texas, are the only two cities among the US’ fifty largest where I haven’t logged time. Corpus Christi (60th) is next on the list after that. And one road trip, a pretty accessible journey from New Orleans, could probably knock all of those out.

I love road trips across America. I love the high speed limits and open scenery of the freeway. I love roadside truck stop gas stations with their cheesy trinkets and sincere drawling service staff. I love Waffle House, wherever it is, yellow beacon in the dark promising delicious cheap greasy food and heartfelt cooks and waitresses. I love Cracker Barrel and its hard candies and needlingly difficult little triangle-peg game. I love Taco Bell drive-throughs at three in the morning, often with an Uber rider or five in tow. I love unique diners and farmers markets and scenic overlooks and cheap roadside motels where insomniacs wait behind the desk for middle-of-the-night arrivals to talk to about their rambling thoughts.

I love specific places, too. I love every National Park I’ve ever been to (except maybe Cuyahoga Valley, because it just looked like a random unimpressive urban park and I think only exists because Ohio wanted to pretend it has nature). I love the perfectly carved depths of the Grand Canyon and the bubbling vapors of Yellowstone and the majestic cliffs of Yosemite and the alien landscape of the Badlands. I love other natural wonders less storied in our landscape: the waterfalls off the Columbia in Oregon, the golden beaches of Biloxi, the rocky windswept shores of Maine. I love the cities, so many cities. I’ve passed the cable cars traversing hilly San Francisco daily, reminding myself each time to appreciate how fortunate I was to see such a sight as part of a mundane commute. Ditto driving through the low-slung French Quarter each night, now, these days, in my life, past gaslamps and into narrow three-century alleys. Ditto hiking through the crooked streets of Santa Fe from its oldest hotel to the Capitol building to simulate representing a foreign country in annual Model UN competitions. Ditto driving through all those roadtrip hallmarks to college campus after college campus, full of old quaint chapels and high brick libraries and grand domed ceilings and modern glass facades. Ditto waking up each day for a year in the Castle, now doomed to be reunited with the gritty earth of Waltham, Massachusetts. I love Harvard Square and OMSI, the Georgia Aquarium and the L train, the dingy chess shops of New York City and the forgotten bookshops of New Orleans. Powell’s, the Frontier, the Smithsonian, the Gateway Arch, the Space Needle. Chipotle and Southwest Airlines ticket counters. I love so many places in this country that does so much damage.

I play a little game with many of my Uber riders. When they ask about my background, I see how long it takes before I can talk about a place that I know and love that they’ve been. Maybe they’re from there. Maybe they just visited. Maybe they’ve always wanted to go, but they’ve read more about it than I ever will. When it comes to America, I’ll put my experience here up against most folks. It’s rare that I get stumped, that someone’s mostly been in central Texas or the west coast of Florida or Alaska or North Dakota or one of the other small pockets I haven’t traversed. And when we find that connection, whatever it is, we usually bond over our mutual love of something there, or a shared memory of a place we visited separately. Sometimes it really hits home – a couple who grew up in Albuquerque or a woman who also did Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in her youth or a student who went to Rutgers or Brandeis. But more often, it’s just a place I’ve passed through, remembered, taken to heart. And in that process, I come to love these people too, these kind wonderful appreciative people swirling in their newfound awe of New Orleans as I drive them to their hotel or to another bar or to the show. They are good people who want good things for themselves and others. And I want that for them and theirs as well.

So what can I hate about America? Is it really so that what I hate about America is the idea of America? Or, more perfectly (!), how the idea fails and becomes the reality of our actions, our collective actions, our place in the world? Do I love the sinner and hate the sin, love the place where we commit the sins but hate the consequences? That seems about the size of it. I should hold these people more accountable for all of our collective actions, perhaps, but they seem so remote, so uncontrollable. Even with the soldiers or their families, even with the corporate attorneys.

This is what my best novel, still unpublished, American Dream On is mostly about. How bad things happen from good people. And how beautiful the backdrop is. I put so many of those little places that I love throughout the book. Not just because I wanted it to be an epic that encompassed the whole idea and reality of America. But because so much of the place is so memorable and so great. Is that really all that people who love America see? Or where they stop?

Of course, the more unsettling and alienating reality, for me, is that most people who love America and hate Trump increasingly seem to hate many places and people in America. And, to be fair, ditto those who love America and love Trump. The cataclysmic divide accentuated by this election and the string of shock doctrine actions by new President Trump has created an America united in its self-love, but bound in conflict by mutual loathing. Red America hates Blue America and vice versa. People lampoon the iconography and geography of the “other” America, discredit its people as unthinking or unfeeling, sabotage the other half as irrelevant or downright evil. I am not here to get preachy about why you feel that way and that you shouldn’t – I get it. I get why so many people say that anyone who even said the word “Trump” without hate in their heart during the year 2016 is complicit with his racism, sexism, and xenophobia. And I get why so many people observe this as hypocrisy when Obama did much that was similar, if more measured, muted, and dignified. I get where y’all are coming from. Maybe because I feel like I love all of you. Really.

What do I do with a country I hate full of people and places I love? What do you all do with a country you love full of people and places you hate?

You tell me. Because I really don’t know.

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When the Good Die Old: Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017) and Richard Adams (1920-2016)

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Primary Sources, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , ,

Richard Adams died on Christmas Eve last year. That will always be a fact of my life, that I got engaged to Alex on the night of the day that Richard Adams, author of my favorite book of all-time, Watership Down, passed away. I was sad, of course. Not sad enough for it to derail my planned proposal, or luminaria day, or anything like that. And not as sad as I wanted to be. Because, after all, the man was 96. It is sad to know that the world no longer contains a person who has done so much for you personally as to write your favorite book. But less sad to know that they got as much time as anyone would want here, and perhaps more.

Eighty is not ninety-six, certainly, and Mary Tyler Moore didn’t have quite the impact on my life that Richard Adams did. But I spent a lot of my teenage years watching Nick-at-Nite incessantly, hours at a time, and both The Dick Van Dyke Show and especially The Mary Tyler Moore Show were key features of the late-night network’s lineup at the time. I loved them both, but especially the latter, where MTM had been able to shed some of the sexist tropes of the DVD writers and really star on her own as a model of independence, talent, and humor. It’s not to say that the MTM writing was totally without sexism, but as people have observed the world over in the last 24 hours, Mary Tyler Moore was ahead of her time and a pioneer for feminism.

Of all the Nick-at-Nite shows I really liked (along with close second Get Smart, Dobie Gillis, Dick Van Dyke, Bob Newhart, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Taxi, and Cheers) I think I loved Mary Tyler Moore the most. Her show was fresh and funny and avoided a lot of traditional romantic arcs that one would expect from that kind of show. Mary Richards was not continually pining for one person in a will-they/won’t-they battle that where we all knew the ending on the second episode. She was independent, smart, and worked in journalism, but not as the flashy broadcaster you might expect for someone in her role. She was a producer, and one who can see the buffoonery of the pretty figurehead in the anchor role. She worked with a tough boss, an old-school journalist, and the insight into the world of the news and how it really gets made fascinated me. More than anything, Mary’s world felt real to me. Her effort to make it in the world of work, friendships, relationships, and what we now might call “adulting” resonated with my picture of what the future might look like. She, and the show, were eminently authentic.

Watching Mary Tyler Moore, growing up on the coming-of-adult-age story meant for a prior era, I found so much to emulate. I wanted to be like Mary. I wanted to be compassionate and emotional and independent and capable like she was. I wanted my life to look like hers. And not just because I wish I’d been my age in the sixties instead of the nineties.

I’ve probably seen every episode of the show at least twice. It’s in the pantheon with Gilmore Girls and Doctor Who and The Wire and Lost and probably a smattering of the other Nick-at-Nite selections listed above. I think of myself as someone who really doesn’t like TV, but I’ve honestly watched a ton of TV for someone in that category.

Richard Adams is not my favorite author of all time, any more than Mary Tyler Moore is my favorite actor. Adams’ other works are uneven, generally disappointing. He is one of those authors who possibly had only one truly great story to tell, his first, something crafted over years of oral storytelling in long car rides with his daughters. I tried to get into The Plague Dogs and couldn’t, largely because it was about dogs and not rabbits. (It prompts the question of whether I would have been deprived of the grand and life-changing allegory of Watership Down had it been about dogs instead.) I liked The Girl in the Swing, but it was a bit overly sensationalized. Even the sequel Tales from Watership Down, which I was so excited to hear of and read, rang hollow, felt a bit contrived, felt like an effort to tweak and/or cash in on the past, left me feeling pretty empty. None of this really cheapens Adams’ legacy for me, though. Just ask Harper Lee, whose only (until the cynically commercial effort to publish Go Set a Watchman) book stands atop the Blue Pyramid’s composite list of people’s top twenty-five books of all-time. You don’t need to write more than one book to change the world.

How do we mourn those who had a full long life? Is it okay to feel less sad? Having so recently experienced the sudden death of a 34-year-old, I can say that it feels different and it probably should. Of course, the other key difference there is that I knew Jon, while Richard and Mary only influenced my life as far-away strangers, through their art. As someone who hopes to be an influential artist, I can mourn this loss by proxy, while still recognizing that I would expect the sadness of people impacted only by art to be quite muted compared to those who actually know me in real life.

Perhaps a more apt comparison would be how I feel about Moore and Adams relative to, say, David Foster Wallace. They all impacted me from distance, but DFW, by his own choice, didn’t get the time he should have been allotted. Part of that loss, to be sure, is the pain of the books unwritten, the art unmade, the other things one could have enjoyed. And part of it, perhaps, is not being able to meet someone who influenced you so much. I never much carried the illusion that I could meet Mary Tyler Moore or Richard Adams someday. But DFW felt more accessible, gave me more time to get in a position where such a meeting would be more likely.

Which makes mourning all feel a little selfish, I guess. And stranger in light of my primary emotion at the loss of Adams and Moore being somehow sadder that I’m not more sad. But maybe being at peace with death, when it comes late in life and after it has been full, is okay. Maybe a little more acceptance is just what’s called for when the good die old.

Or maybe I should look to one of the most profound and powerful meditations on death I’ve ever read:

One chilly, blustery morning in March, I cannot tell exactly how many springs
later, Hazel was dozing and waking in his burrow. He had spent a good deal of
time there lately, for he felt the cold and could not seem to smell or run so well as
in days gone by. He had been dreaming in a confused way — something about rain
and elder bloom — when he woke to realize that there was a rabbit lying quietly
beside him — no doubt some young buck who had come to ask his advice. The
sentry in the run outside should not really have let him in without asking first.
Never mind, thought Hazel. He raised his head and said, “Do you want to talk to
me?”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in
a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears
were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said, “Yes, I know you.”

“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about
that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to
have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”

They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The
sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay,
keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to
Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the
edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get
used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing
inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.

“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right —
and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”

He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and
together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the
first primroses were beginning to bloom.

by

The Case Against Free Trade

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Primary Sources, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , , , ,

I spend a lot of time arguing on Facebook. It comes and goes as a use of time. It’s often frustrating, but in the best moments, it feels like there’s a real opportunity to change someone’s mind. Facebook has become this distilled part of the Internet where enough smart, thoughtful people spend enough time that it’s like tapping into a collective town square. The greatest democratic theorists always talked about the proverbial town square, the marketplace of ideas, a place where concepts are freely exchanged and rebutted and synthesized into the best decisions for our future.

Granted, my Facebook feed may be more like this than the average feed. In a world where people talk about their feeds being overly siloed and sectioned off from disagreeing opinions, the majority of my Facebook friends have been associated with APDA, the American Parliamentary Debate Association. This league of collegiate debaters has its flaws, but it does bring together a group of intellectuals who care about persuasion and the future of the planet’s people. And that’s pretty cool.

It also has plenty of people who disagree with me. Then again, the main reason my feed is probably not siloed into people who agree with me is because there are very few such people, if any. There’s a reason my site is called the Blue Pyramid, after all.

Anyway, a recent argument, primarily with some former Boston University debaters, but also with some former Cornell debaters, enabled me to distill a response to one of the most prominent arguments against free trade. And I feel like I want it to be in a more prominent and permanent place than a Facebook sub-comment thread. Both because I live to try to persuade but also because it proves that all the time spent arguing on Facebook doesn’t have to end fruitless with a feeling of unsettled angst. It’s not just wasted time. Even if a lot of it is.

As background, the initial discussion topic was Democrats and leftists, including Bernie Sanders, celebrating Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). I am one of those leftists celebrating this, as a lifelong opponent of free trade. We then got into a lot of the reasons I’m against free trade. Part of my case could be the entire book The Shock Doctrine. But I see free trade as problematic for even more reasons than Naomi Klein does. I see it as the proliferation of unfettered capitalism, the system that creates waste and worships waste as a value above all others. It places corporations in a superior position to nation-states – while I’m not a fan of either institution, I’d choose nation-states every time. They at least try to have popularly utile motives, whereas corporations care only about the bottom line.

But I’ve always believed the most damning thing about free trade, especially in its recent incarnations as something that mainstream establishment politicians want to see sweep the globe into one giant market where enormous Western multi-national corporations (MNCs) run wild and free, is that it’s telling a false story about competition. The narrative is that a level playing-field will enable those with the most talent and merit to rise and gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. The reality is that the playing-field purported as level is anything but. Free trade is giving some groups a 200-year head-start on a race and then celebrating how fair it is because everyone was allowed to run. Worse, those with all the monetary and power advantages of having been competing in a capitalist marketplace for vastly longer are the ones who write the rules of how the race will be run. The idea that this is passed off on the developing world as a fair fight is laughable.

I got two key counter-arguments in defense of free trade, though, which I want to reprint my responses to because I think they’re the most clear and cogent articulations of my beliefs on this complicated issue that I’ve put forward. And then I’d like to invite y’all to join the debate on this critical issue of our time if you have further counter-arguments.

The first counter-argument questioned, essentially, why I would advocate for protectionist trade when that essentially divides the world and what I ultimately want is a united world under the banner of a more socialist structure. Isn’t free trade a possible stepping stone to a united socialist world? Am I cutting off my nose to spite my face here?

My response:

Think of it like harm reduction vs. the AA model of addiction cessation.

Ultimately, I want the AA model for capitalism – no capitalism, nowhere. That’s my ideal. I recognize how unlikely it is, but that’s not going to stop me from railing against capitalism my whole life until other people see its flaws too.

But, in the meantime, we can also seek harm reduction. This is why I’ve spent most of my career in non-profits and why I’m not a pure accelerationist. I see protectionist trade as harm reduction. With free trade, the top-dog best-funded MNCs end up owning everything and superseding governments. They are able to make the rules and will turn the globe into an unfettered capitalist wasteland. Protectionist trade, while riddled with innate flaws of capitalism, curbs that outcome that the MNCs so desperately want. It enables some countries to protect themselves and their interests rather than being overrun by greedy colonialists.

Protectionism in America doesn’t really *directly* protect anything I care about, which is why people often assume I believe things I don’t when I align with Bernie and Trump on this issue. I don’t care about the American worker. I care about the Nigerian worker. And if the most powerful country in the world that holds most of the rapacious MNCs takes a big step away from free trade, it extends that trend around the globe, making it more likely the people I care about are saved from free trade’s devastation.

It’s kind of weird, I guess, that I vehemently agree with both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump about the importance of opposing free trade, but not for the reasons they do. But it’s also why the typical rebuttal to economic populism doesn’t resonate with me. People are basically saying “those jobs ain’t coming back, fools!” And it’s true. Automation has killed American manufacturing, permanently. But I don’t care about that. Automation and free trade are both killing everyone’s jobs, pretty quickly, and part of our thread was about the need to develop safeguards in a post-work society. Which, by the way, will not be aided by allowing corporations to sue governments for implementing protections that limit profits. If we need to give universal basic income or benefits or even just the right not to be enslaved by a corporation to former workers who have been edited out of the economy, we will need to tax corporate profits to do that. Both of those things could be clear violations of the TPP as written. This is bad.

But then I got the seminal argument, the one I see most proliferated in defense of free trade, the golden myth propagated by everyone to carry the torch of free trade forward for a new generation. And my response to it was actually liked by the folks asking the questions and arguing against it. If I didn’t change their minds, I at least offered something to give them pause. So this is the main focus of this post and what I want people to think about.

The question:
“What do you make of the statistics that show that this sort of trade and development has reduced extreme poverty ($1 or $2 a day) to single digit percentages in 30 years from 60-70 percent, if I’m right…for all its manifest problems? And before industrial capitalism virtually everyone that lived in extreme poverty.”

My response:

I feel like what’s being calculated is highly misleading. On a capitalist spectrum, the numbers have slightly increased. But people have traded functional subsistence economies for being enslaved by a capitalist machine that destroys their countrysides and makes them all the property of foreign sweatshop-owners and foreign resource exploiters.

This is a complicated question, but there are a few key points in evaluating this widely propagated (mis)perception of free trade:

1. Comparison to pre-colonialism. The only suitable comparison of current standards of living is to pre-colonial days. Because I see free trade and directly colonial ownership as two phases of the same trend. And if you started with chattel slavery and then went to Jim Crow, you don’t get congratulated because Jim Crow is better than slavery. You get blamed for enslaving people in the first place. Developing world poverty was not an innate state of being as it’s represented as being – it was manufactured by colonialism. A shitty quick fix that puts everyone in the GDP matrix does not count as “lifting people out of poverty”. It’s rearranging the deck chairs on an unending disaster.

2. What is counted. My argument would be that if you’re living in a functional pre-colonial barter economy, or even a somewhat feudal economy, all of your labor and standard of living is invisible to conventional contemporary capitalist metrics. You may be making $0/day because you’re not paid in money or you’re paid in a money worthless compared to the American economy. But this does not mean that your life is awful or that you are even functionally poor relative to your actual sphere. Globalization puts everyone in the same race without recognizing that there are different definitions and perceptions of the good life in other countries and different scales of magnitude.

3. Winners and losers. These averages and things are often calculated with the few robber barons of each developing country factored in. Not only can this skew the math, but it recreates the wealth inequality situation over and over again in societies all over the globe. This is deeply problematic because capitalism tends to recreate its own kind of aggressive feudalism where the few rich people functionally own everyone else in society and can abuse them and get them to do whatever they want. That’s actually somewhat new in the US and it’s giving us Trump, endless government corruption and cronyism, and will eventually replace democracy with kleptocracy. That’s bad for everyone’s quality of life.

4. Materialism. The problem with poverty and quality of life as measured by GDP stats is that it puts the innate value on materialism. The ability to own toasters and cars and other things, regardless of how wasteful and problematic these things are. Are these really necessary for the good life? Refrigeration increases the convenience of your eating experience so you can run back to your 16 hour/day job. But that 16 hour/day job in the West is prompting the world’s largest stream of anti-depressants and people trying to mortgage their schedule to have one day at home where they actually cook a meal and taste their food. How to compare this to a pre-colonial society where people lived on the land, took 3 hours for each meal in a three-generation family under one roof, and took time to appreciate each other as people? It’s a hard question. Capitalism dismisses the latter situation as poverty because it doesn’t cut the mustard in dollars and cents. I think it’s probably objectively a preferable way to live. I don’t see someone being forced out of that to go work in the sweatshop so they can eat processed food that gives them cancer in the middle of a tenement as being “lifted out of poverty”. But that’s how it gets calculated.

5. Access to health care, the internet, etc. This is the one area where I think there may be some ground to argue that modern life and culture does improve quality of life across the board. The problem, though, is that the more unequally things are distributed, the less you can make arguments from this vantage. If socialism were the overriding philosophy, or even protectionist trade, then equal access to improved modern medicine, the internet, and quality education would be priorities. Unfortunately, free trade has created kleptocractic neo-feudalism in most developing countries, meaning that these fundamental improvements are proportionately accessible only to the rich. This is part of why I’m advocating for protectionist trade. If you run the state-run oil company and have some capitalism, you can still use those oil profits to give everyone hospitals, schools, roads, and internet-accessible phones. If it’s everyone for themselves in the MNC-run rat-race, those are only going to be accessible to the people at the top. I think this is the best conduit to improving lives and the best argument for the capitalists. But free trade actively hurts this benefit.

What do you think? Is free trade an unfettered step in our ever-upward trajectory of progress that only Luddites and idiots would oppose? Or is free trade a bill of goods being sold to us by ever-hungrier MNCs controlled by a Singularity-like focus on cancerous growth? Or something in the middle?

I welcome your responses and thoughts. Send me something, post on your blog and send me the link, argue with me on Facebook. This is an important discussion to be considering as we face the future.

If you’re connected to me or the debaters I was debating against on Facebook, you can also see:
The original post with all comments
The specific comment thread where we discussed these aspects of free trade at length

Using this image ought to stoke some reactions!

by

Obama’s Legacy, Trump’s Window, and the Future of Hope

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

President Donald Trump shakes hands with ex-President Barack Obama after he took the oath of office at the Inauguration Ceremony in Washington, D.C. Trump became the 45th President of the United States
US Presidential Inauguration ceremony, Washington DC, USA – 20 Jan 2017 Photo by REX/Shutterstock (7945015bf)

I didn’t vote for Barack Obama in 2008, or in 2012. As regular readers will know, I also didn’t vote for the Republicans in those elections. I wanted to vote for him in 2008, came very close, but ultimately decided I couldn’t. I had been rooting for him throughout the primaries, I loved hearing him speak, but my calculus broke down as follows:

So while I’m excited about the upside possibilities, I have to decide based on what I can be confident Obama will actually do. He will surround himself with people like Joe Biden. Disaster. He will move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and accelerate hostilities there. Disaster. He will attempt to enact tax policy that is exactly right for this time. Good. He will support measures like the $700 billion bailout that passed Congress earlier this month. Disaster. He will increase the amount of healthcare coverage in this country, though he may use mandates to do so. Toss-up. He will talk about hope and change and sacrifice and be aware of the times we are engaging in, as much as most any politician could. Good. He will talk to foreign leaders. Good. He will not commit to ending the war in Iraq. Disaster.

That’s a lot of disaster. I could be accused of being close to a one-issue voter in many ways… war and violence are pretty much the only thing I care about at the end of the day. I think tax policy is somewhat important, and certain social issues here and there (gay marriage, for example). And there’s an increasing issue about who will have the dignity to allow America to step down from its throne of arrogance and superpowerism to gracefully withdraw without pressing red buttons and going nuts. On that last front, Obama clearly beats McCain, though there’s little confidence I have that any American politician can really do that.

Ultimately, I can’t end up supporting someone who has made one of their only concrete policy articulations a description of exactly how many Afghans they want to kill. You can say all you want about him having to say that to get elected and that he’ll actually end both wars, but I need to see that happen before I have any reason to believe it.

In the end, I feel good about my decision not to vote for Obama, not to support accelerating the war in Afghanistan and, as became more important over time, the unending war with everyone via drone strikes. But as I’ve discussed frequently here, the last two years of Obama’s term were his best, by far, and agreeing to release Chelsea Manning capped a run of commutations, negotiations, and executive orders that made me truly sad we couldn’t have had six years of that President beforehand. Had Obama’s first four years looked like his last two, I probably would have voted for him in 2012. The fact that he released Manning after years of punishing whistleblowers and tightening the screws on American secrecy indicates that maybe his heart really was in the right place all along. Or that Trump had shown him the danger of building up the executive’s power to persecute individuals without remorse.

But how I feel about Obama has always been hard and hard to talk about. On Inauguration Day 2009, I stood in Freedom Hall at Glide in San Francisco, shoulder to shoulder with co-workers, homeless San Franciscans, addicts, and leaders. I was swept up in the moment, in the vast unconditional love and admiration, in the tears of all the African-Americans present, in the shaking weeping of Cecil Williams as he watched a Black man become President. I could feel the pulsating hope, the unbridled joy, the feeling of unexpected fulfillment, and my heart, too, was full. I wanted so badly to be wrong about Obama, for him to be the Socialist visionary that Cecil was, that the Republicans accused him of being. He wasn’t, of course. But that didn’t make his Inaugural Address or the speech in Chicago on Election Night that much less magical. The man has always been magical. He captivated our hearts and minds and, for all this flaws, never let them go.

This is the problem of Obama for a radical leftist. The man is so damn likable. He’s a grand orator and an eminently reasonable person. His family is so charming. Michelle Obama is his equal and perhaps a braver potential leader. Her speech at the DNC stole the whole show. I want to like Obama and his cadre and his aura so much, reinforced by all these positive memes and posts and adorations from 95% of my friends. And yet, as it takes someone like Larry Wilmore to remind us, the man is an unrepentant murderer. He has used American power to accelerate and reinforce the post-9/11 strategy and doctrine that we should kill everyone who disagrees with us, that we should maintain and expand imperial power through the use of force. It’s hard for me to square, to reconcile, with all his other rhetoric and his lofty speeches about hope, about being the people we’ve been waiting for. But it’s the reality and one that I have to work hard not to forget.

The other issue, of course, is that Obama’s philosophy was to negotiate himself out of the room. It’s hard to say how much of this was naivete or blind faith that the Republicans would be as reasonable as he was trying to be and meet him halfway or even the surreptitious belief that Republicans had better solutions than Democrats. Regardless, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that most of his legacy is cribbed from the Heritage Foundation (the ACA) and the W Bush Administration (nearly all the foreign policy besides the Iran deal and Cuba). He didn’t write a healthcare bill he wanted to see as a strong step toward socialized medicine with a robust public option. He asked Congress to write it, then made even more concessions. He didn’t push for a strong reconciliation in the Middle East, at least after his Egypt speech, and allowed Hillary Clinton to convince the rest of the Cabinet to bomb wherever possible. He understood that a lot of the strength of power is found in not using it all the time, but in so doing handed it to people far less hopeful than he. The result was that most of his policies, especially in the areas I care most about, looked like eight more years of George W. Bush.

On the other hand, of course, now we have Donald Trump as President. Trump is everything that Obama is not, as a human being. He is crass and classless, entitled and boastful, sexist and scornful. Where Obama preached hope, Trump preaches doom. They both advocated change, but much of Trump’s change is a reversal of Obama’s legacy. Of course, when Obama’s legacy looks a lot like W Bush, what do you do with that? Trump says he can replace the ACA with something cheaper that covers more people. And Obama has said that if someone can actually do that, he’ll support it. There’s a window here, a narrow one, for some actual real change and improvement. But it requires working with and trusting someone who has taken every step possible to make himself appear as an enemy of the people who supported Obama, the people who I care about most, the people who I generally agree with in direction, though I disagree substantially with in degree.

It also requires Trump not being an instrument of the party that reluctantly, nay, almost at gunpoint, got him to the White House. Trump’s rhetoric has always been far more populist than Republican, a third road entirely from the traditional parties. But his appointments, from Vice President throughout most of the cabinet, looks like he’s trying to usher in a mainline Republican establishment administration. Far from draining the swamp, he seems to be pumping water in from other wetlands, doubling down on rich old white men who care only about themselves and their bottom line. This, obviously, is the opposite of populism.

Yet the fate of the Trump years, however long they last, relies on the extent of division between Trump and the Republican Party. Many of his speeches, as even a PBS commentator observed during the Inauguration, sound like FDR. He talks about getting America back to work with an investment in infrastructure, building roads and bridges and even railways! Unlike FDR, of course, he touts an isolationist foreign policy. And while I would love to see an America that invests in the rest of the world without fighting with it, I strongly prefer isolationism to the policies of the last sixteen years. America’s role on the planet since 9/11 has been to bomb and to bully, to use 3,000 dead as an excuse to claim a moral authority we abdicate daily. Withdrawing from that entirely, resetting the position of our empire relative to the rest of the world’s people, is better than continuing to accelerate it.

Of course, to build investment in infrastructure while withdrawing from the rest of the world, Trump will have to resist Republican machinations. There’s a reason that the Republican establishment coronated Jeb Bush before the voters revolted. The Republican Party, in 2017, is still the party of Bush. The last two Republican Presidents prior to Trump have their hold on the collective imagination of the the party leadership. And Jeb wants privatization. Jeb wants America to bully more and bomb more. Jeb and friends will pull out all the stops to make Trump’s rhetoric as meaningless as Obama’s promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

On the flip side, both mainline Democrats and mainline Republicans agree that many of Trump’s policies – the worst he’s advocated – are garbage. Building a wall on the Mexican border, Muslim bans and registries, cracking down on immigration. No one besides Trump and his most rabid voters think these are good ideas. Again, American progress from 2017-? will depend on Republicans ditching Trump when they actually disagree. There’s a narrow window here, a window of possible hope in the darkness, where Republicans ditch Trump on his worst policies, stand against their “own” President, but acquiesce on matters like building new trains and roads and bridges. Or that enough of them acquiesce there and that Democrats see the opportunity to implement FDR-like policies even during a Trump administration, that they get on board with the best parts of populism and help facilitate them.

The worst case scenario, of course, is the opposite. That Republicans get behind the Trump agenda in its worst ways to support the President, but that new infrastructure is a bridge (pun intended) too far for them, while Democrats just try to stonewall everything Trump says or does, regardless of its value as a policy. This is why I get nervous about the way people on “my” side of the aisle are talking about Trump. Yes, many Trump supporters represent racist, sexist, backwards thinking. Yes, Trump has manipulated these people into getting into the White House. Yes, Trump himself is a horrible human being who, like Bill Clinton, has committed sexual assault and bragged about it. None of this means that we should oppose a Trump plan to build new high-speed rail in the US, nor a Trump plan that replaces the ACA with something better. We don’t know that he will propose any of those things, of course – it may all be smoke and mirrors. But if he does, we should be ready to support it. Even if he’s a loathsome individual personally.

And this relates to the other main concern I have about the disloyal opposition’s approach to attacking Trump. I fear that people see Trump as the problem with America, not a symptom of its problems. In focusing so much attention on Trump as a person, on Trump’s supporters, on the worst aspects of Trump’s proposed policy and Cabinet, we are ignoring what about Trump is a natural outgrowth and evolution of the road we’ve been on since 9/11. And that, I fear, is very dangerous. Because if we think Trump is the problem, much less the genesis of the problem, and not merely a symptom, then we will think we are cured whenever we move beyond Trump. And that means we might celebrate someone who is only a couple minor steps to the left of Trump as a wholesale solution.

Trump offers us an amazing opportunity to see what is wrong with us, in full view. It’s not that Trump is good, by and large, though I agree with him on infrastructure, the TPP, and not doing a lot of interventionist wars. It’s that so many people from all walks of politics can recognize that Trump’s hateful rhetoric is wrong. That so many can see his bravado and authoritarian love of displays of military might and his appeal to traditional white male domination, to the rule of wealth, that all of these things are horrible. They are horrible. We are right to stand up and attempt to shout them down.

But it is not really about Trump. It is about an America that has always championed these values, has always believed in wealth and power and corporations and white men at the expense of those people they oppress. About an America that has always been racist and sexist and homophobic. About an America that has a long, long way to go before it can be considered good, much less great. This is why the attack, the Clinton slogan, that America has always been great was both insidious and a losing strategy. It’s not true. America is a force for ill in the world and we need to work very very hard to try to steer that ship in a new direction. Blaming the captain who is maintaining course and only accelerating it has truth to it, but only partial truth. The whole truth is that we needed to crank the wheel, regardless of speed. Yes, accelerating is a bad plan when we’re going in the wrong direction. But as long as we’re going in the wrong direction, the speed is actually a secondary issue.

In this way, the likability of Obama and the obvious odiousness of Trump almost work against us. They confuse the issue. As do all the comments about decorum and dignity of the office. One of the very very few things I actually kind of like about Trump is that he can’t be bothered to make nice with all the establishment traditions and norms. This is what his supporters adore about him. The “ain’t nobody got time for that” attitude is refreshing in the face of a government that cares more about appearances than actually helping anyone. But of course, Trump’s odiousness goes far beyond firing off tweets that always speak his mind. It goes to sexism and crassness and dismissing people’s rights and some stuff that is very important and very bad.

In this context, Obama was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or maybe a fox in sheep’s clothing, someone doing some really negative things with a lovable appearance. Trump, by stark contrast, is a wolf in wolf’s clothing. Or maybe a wolf in shark’s clothing, or T Rex’s clothing, the manifestation of a monster while his policies are perhaps just a little bit worse. By focusing on the costume, we avoid looking at the actual teeth, evaluating the actual danger. The danger is real with Trump, but it has always been real. We should not let the fact that Obama is smart and nice and looks the part get in the way of criticizing his failings. And we should not let the fact that Trump appears to be the devil incarnate get in the way of supporting the very few things he might suggest that are good.

And maybe there will be nothing. I am open to this unfortunate and scary possibility, that Trump is indistinguishable from Jeb, that he just saw an angle and a constituency he could galvanize and will then use his platform to aggrandize mainline Republican policies through and through. Or that he will make deals with the Republicans to those ends. I can’t imagine why the Republicans would have fought so tremendously hard to stop him if this were the case, but it could happen. Really, anything could happen. And in that uncertainty, we get the last piece of the puzzle that people hate about Trump. He’s unpredictable. They go to bed at night not knowing what will happen in the morning.

But change and hope and possibility depend on uncertainty. Maybe not Trump’s uncertainty, certainly. Maybe everything he does will be bad and awful and damaging. But with the fomentation of that uncertainty, there is real opportunity. Opportunity to enable Trump to show us the error of our ways, all of our ways, and chart a new course. Opportunity to accept and acknowledge anything Trump does that happens to be helpful. Opportunity, perhaps most importantly, to shift the landscape of how we view American politics, away from a bifurcated D and R and into a new road and new alignments that enable us to ditch time-honored traditions like murdering everyone who disagrees with us along with several wedding parties in countries where such people disagree.

It’s not much. It’s a cracked window opening, or perhaps a crack in a window. But it’s there and we can try to let a little light in as we steer the ship into rougher seas.

by

Start Walking

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Metablogging, Telling Stories, Tags: , , ,

By any metric, 2017 has been a great year so far.

Now that I’ve said that out loud (on print), in public, it feels like a jinx. And not just because of my erstwhile belief in Mack Truck Time, the notion (reinforced by countless events in my life, really) that as soon as things start to go truly and obviously well, there is a Mack Truck waiting to hit you around the next corner.

I’ve told people that my New Year’s Resolution was to write every day. Simple, no frills. But it’s also a little less absolute than previous such attempts, because I’m not actually trying to write literally every day. The problem with a resolution like that is that failure is cooked right into the formula. It’s not really possible to actually write every day, really. There are migraines and exhaustion, there are, say, impromptu trips to Atlanta, there are days where household chores take over any other possible priority. And for those of us with self-hating shame-spirals who rely heavily on self-intimidation to get anything done, being that inflexible about something important – something that feels like it could be renewing and even life changing – is a bad plan. Every day is going to be different. Every day is going to have its unique challenges. Writing every day is not really an option.

But writing just about every day is. And part of the magic here, the tricky alchemy of convincing oneself to take this seriously while still not holding it to be every every day, is expecting to write every day, but not being crushingly disappointed with oneself on the days when that doesn’t happen. To look forward to tomorrow’s writing if today’s didn’t happen. It’s very hard for a self-hating person to do this. But somehow, in 2017, I’m managing better than almost ever before.

The reason this really feels like a jinx is because the last time I talked about writing in this forum, it was a jinx. A gigantic one. In an effort to update friends and (more importantly) hold myself accountable, I chronicled the first fortnight of my work on the Uber book, which now has a tentative title: Driving for U: Behind the Wheel of a New Orleans Uber. I had written over 12,000 words at a nearly 1,000/day clip, which is often used as the over/under margin for a productive writer. The date was 20 September 2016.

I didn’t write another word of the book in 2016.

As October led to November to December, I spent a lot more time trying to parse why that had suddenly been the moment the wheels came off after I’d projected an end-of-the-year deadline for myself. The jinx theory is convenient and hapless, but of course not what I really believe. Though part of me felt like it was a factor, like looking too directly at my own methodology somehow abridged its ability to be effective. This would sound crazy if there aren’t a lot of real-world parallels: driving, typing, breathing. When one thinks too intently about things that are best done by effortless repetitive rote, they become suddenly challenging and, in some cases, impossible. If you start to focus on the mechanics behind driving a car or even the pulse of your heartbeat, you can think yourself into non-functionality mighty fast.

That was part of it. More of it was that I’d met a literary agent in my Uber and he’d seemed excited about getting a query letter and a little after I put that post up, it became clear he was never going to write back. It was a small stupid setback, minuscule really, not even worth thinking about for veterans of rejection. But it had been a while since I’d queried anyone and I was more fragile than I realized, especially in light of the tangible hope his (drunken) enthusiasm provided. There is a deep conundrum here, especially given that basically every successful writer in the past century has been rejected by virtually everyone in the publishing industry at least once and yet hope/daydreaming provides a profoundly large quotient of the fuel necessary to enable writing consistently significant quantities of text. Say what you will about writing for its own sake and to slake some inner thirst that needs no external validation. You’re kidding yourself, honey. If you felt that way, you wouldn’t write. You would think. That’s what internally motivated intrinsically rewarded writing is called. Thinking. Your urge to put it into text that lives somewhere (a page, a webpage, even someone’s ears for a fleeting moment) is directly correlated to your desire to impact other people. This doesn’t cheapen the exercise. If anything, it makes it meaningful, powerful, it makes it matter. After all, as I always say, there’s a reason we’re not all born on our own individual planet. We are here to save each other.

Did I get distracted by the political situation? Sure, everyone did. Did I get run down by the day to day of driving for Uber and playing poker again and trying to read and trying to coach debate and trying to keep up with housework? Definitely. It’s everything. Writing is the greediest habit I have, the greediest habit I can imagine shy of an addiction to an innately destructive substance. It even puts video games to shame. Those at least can be done casually, the voice trying to make them all-consuming does not actually require you to set aside other activities. Writing, however, demands to be a part of one’s attention all the time. And it requires silencing of distractions, quieting of other uses of time. You have to be bored to write in twenty-first century America, because otherwise more distracting excitements with shorter attention spans will consume your energy first. It is easier to read, it is easier to play video games, to watch TV (even if you don’t usually like it, which I don’t), to walk, to talk, to play, to do anything else. And it’s not that writing is some torturous event that is painful and torments the soul (I guess it is for some; this has never resonated with me). It’s just that writing takes time that is cleared out for no other purpose because it takes more effort and concentration than any other effort. And, frankly, because anyone who’s been through the American educational system associates writing with obligation and procrastination and burden, with getting that paper done at 3 in the morning, with chunking out all your thoughts after a long delay. All writing still feels a little like that. And that makes it very hard to just set everything else aside and be excited about doing it.

There is a counter-weight to this, however. And this, ironically, is what I was trying to gin up when I wrote that blasted jinx piece on 20 September, the piece I hope to God I’m not repeating in some way today. That counter-weight is, roughly, momentum. Because writing is actually fun in the throes of it and it is exciting when the words are coming down on a direct line from somewhere else, bypassing the critical brain, when your fingers are struggling to keep up. And as a project comes together, as the hope/daydreaming gets some flesh and teeth and energy into it, it starts to transform from a vision to something with real shape and substance and tangible reality. And that morphing is exciting as all heck. I’ve written three books in my life and at some point, the tipping point has always been hit where it’s easier to finish than to not finish, where the book is mostly out in the world, where the head is crowning and if the last few pushes are the most painful, at least we know there’s a baby coming so it’s all gonna be worth it. The real alchemy of writing, of being A Writer in the sense that everyone would agree with and no one could dispute, is being able to be in this state all the time. Which, of course, is best aided and abetted by being able to do it full-time, professionally, of knowing that you don’t have to trudge through another job or another use of time that takes away from writing. For some, of course, that kind of freedom and control becomes its own enemy and leads to a lack of urgency, to writer’s block, to stalling out. But for me, I crave it. The entire struggle to write is in drying out my mind enough to make the space available. To clear the decks of all the other life stuff that gets in the way, that requires an occupation to provide food and all the rest. There’s a reason all three books prior were written at times when I was making no income whatsoever. And why the current struggle, to do it with a pseudo-job (driving for Uber) is a key litmus test of transitioning to a slightly stronger model.

Momentum. 2017 has it, so far. No whammy no whammy no whammy.

First of all, here, on the blog, because that counts as writing and it kind of helps me excise other distracting thoughts so the writing on the book itself can be more pure. This is the fifth post of 2017 to appear here. It’s the 18th day. In 2016, my fifth blog post appeared on June 7th, nearly halfway through the year. My first didn’t even show up till March! And yes, I had a day job for that first half of 2016, one I was rapidly becoming disenchanted with. But you know when the fifth blog post after September 20th, 2016 was? It was a month ago. The sixth was two weeks ago. The tenth is this post.

How about the book?

I started writing it again just over a fortnight ago (no whammy no whammy no whammy), on January 5th. In the intervening two weeks, I’ve written 19,279 words (1,377 words/day), which is over 60% of the book’s total so far. This makes 31,700 words in two two-week sessions, with a high-end ballpark figure of 100,000 words total for the first draft. Which is a three-month pace. Which is what I do, generally speaking.

For me, this time, if I can keep it up, it was the promise of a new year. Say what you will about New Year’s Resolutions, but they’re a good excuse. Mostly, when we need to change something, it’s not news to us that we need to change it. We just need a good excuse to explain to ourselves why we’re only changing it now. Is it because 17 is my favorite number and this is the only year ending in 17 I’ll ever live through? Sure, I’ll take it. Is because I just got fed up with my own inadequacy but needed a better story to tell myself? Probably. But hey, we all live off of signs and meaning, whether real or self-imposed.

I haven’t been reading much lately, not nearly as much as I’d like, a casualty of writing and also trying to exercise again (Grand Canyon 2020, baby!) and just getting everything in order. But the other day, flouting the reality of how much energy I have for reading, I checked out The Familiar, vol. 1 by Mark Z. Danielewski. For the unfamiliar (ha!), picture a brick full of inconsistently typefaced, bizarrely laid out text, often spiraling into unreadability. Like a graphic novel without the characters, where the text itself is most of the illustration. This is apparently my light-reading antidote to an effort to write my first non-fiction book.

In my first 70-odd-page flurry of reading it, something fell out of another section of the book. It was the following hand-written note:

I’m going to transcribe it here, in text, for readability and searchability:

You know that thing you have always wanted to do, to be?

The path you were on as a little kid, before middle school, before you ever had a drop to drink or touched a drug.

That thing, that dream.

If you start walking towards that, now, a path will appear, seemingly out of nowhere.

It will. It will open up.

I promise you.

Start walking.

I’m not the perfect target audience of the note, having already never had a drop to drink or touched a drug. It’s New Orleans, after all. But that’s really just window-dressing on the overall message. The message is one I was already heeding, again again again but also for once, when the paper fluttered out of the book. But life is like a horror movie with a trick ending laden with clues along the way. Once you’ve figured it out, everything you see thereafter reinforces your having figured it out. Everything after is a reaffirmation, if you know where to look.

We are here to save each other.

Start walking.

by

Long Night’s Journey into Day

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Primary Sources, Tags: , ,

Content warning:  language, depictions of possible mental health breakdown(s).


2:49 AM.  I get a request for pickup at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.  It’s a little too early for it to be an airport run, though I’ve had at least one person go that early when they thought that Louis Armstrong International was not perhaps the fastest curb-to-gate place in the country (it’s up there).  I pull up to the curb ahead of a taxi driver cleaning out his car who glares at me slightly as I pull past.  He’s probably going to wait in front of the Ritz for the next hour or so until an airport rider emerges.  I feel a slight twinge of guilt and identify my rider, a huddled looking woman in a big puffy parka.  It’s sixty-two degrees out, mild for early January.

I confirm her name, a Russian name, and she agrees in a fascinating blend of Russian and Southern accents, with a hard-nosed edge to the delivery that would best be described as “urban” or even “gangster”.  Like she’s pretending to be in a movie about drug dealers.  But her face tells me she’s not pretending.

I swipe the green bar on my phone to start the ride.  The map zooms out to reveal the entire southeastern United States.  The destination is simply listed as Tucker, GA.  No address.  I blink once and feel that whooshing rush of adrenaline that comes with the unexpected, the verge of adventure.  But then I remember two nights prior and immediately tamp it down.

Two nights prior, I’d picked up a guy at a rousing French Quarter club toward closing, swiped the green bar, and seen the whole USA.  The destination was listed as an address in Tucson, Arizona.  The guy had no luggage, was boisterously amiable, talking mile-a-minute, and seemed impatient.  I felt a joke was the best approach.  “I assume we’re not going to Tucson?”

“Tucson?  Hell no!  Is that what it put in there?  Jesus.  I have a house out in Tucson, we could go check it out.  I guess it picked up on that.  No, just going around the corner to the Bywater.  You know where Markey’s is at?  It’s right around there.  God.  No wonder they wouldn’t give me the estimate of the fare and I had to say I was okay with that.  I’m just going a few blocks!”

I sighed with predominant relief, but there was just the tiniest bit of sadness in me that I didn’t get to be the guy who went on a two-day Uber roadtrip, who didn’t have that story to add to the collection, who didn’t contend for an all-time record-high fare.  I filed the thought away.  Alex needs the car in the morning.  I’ll be tired before too long and this guy is in no shape to drive.  I couldn’t have done it anyway.  When I drop him off three minutes later, he thanks me and says “Man, we woulda had fun going to Tucson.  Maybe next time.”

Back in front of the Ritz Carlton.  This rider also has no luggage, not even a purse.  I turn to ask the puffy-coated woman where we’re actually going.  She cuts me off, “Just to confirm, we’re going to Atlanta?”  Her sentences lilt up, but with emphasis, the pronunciation on Atlanta is At-LAN-ta, sounding almost like a curse word.

“Um.”  I hesitate.  “Let me just check how far away that is.  I don’t think I can take you to Atlanta.”  I’m stalling, but also in a bit of the shock that happens when unpredictable events unfold.  I know how far away Atlanta is, it’s 6-8 hours, depending on traffic, and it’s almost 3:00, and Alex needs to go to work at 6:30.  I would barely be in Alabama.  I confirm what I already know.  “Yeah, I’m sorry.  I can’t take you to Atlanta.  My girlfriend needs the car in the morning.”

“What, you could take me five minutes ago, but you can’t take me now?”

It’s a common misunderstanding that Uber drivers see the destination of the ride when they accept or reject the pick-up.  “No.  I didn’t know that’s where you were going until just now.  Drivers don’t see where you’re headed until you get in the car.”

“Sir.  I need to go to Atlanta right now.  And that’s your job, you have a contract, you have to take me where I need to go.”

I am half-turned around awkwardly in the driver’s seat, looking her in the eyes over my shoulder, somewhat imploringly.  She is staring back with a quiet, matter-of-fact desperation.  There is no fear there, but it looks more like this is because life has surgically removed fear from her than because she’s not in a situation that would make her afraid.  “I can’t take you to Atlanta.  My girlfriend needs the car.”

“Sir.  If you cancel the ride, they will hold my money.  The money I need to get to Atlanta.  And I need someone to take me to Atlanta.  Do you have the cash to give me back, sir?”

“I don’t have the cash.  But that’s not the way it works.”

“They will hold my money!  They said you would take me to Atlanta.”

“Look.”  I turn back to my phone, hit cancel ride, and hover over the reason for cancellation.  The ride is not actually cancelled until I submit the reason.  I point.  “You see that?  It says ‘do not charge rider’.”  That’s what I’m going to press.  Okay?  You won’t be charged.  It won’t charge you a dime or hold your money.  I’m really sorry.  But I can’t take you to Atlanta.  Someone will.  You’ll get a driver who can take you to Atlanta.  It may take two or three tries, but it’s not me.”

“Sir.  They will hold my money.  I need to go to Atlanta.  I’m not getting out of this vehicle until we’re in Atlanta.”

I look at her again.  She is resolute.  I know she’s wrong about the money, but in that kind of 98% way you know something, not absolute.  It’s not completely impossible that there’s a special hold for interstate trips.  But didn’t the Tucson guy say that he hadn’t been given a fare estimate at all?  How does Uber handle $500 rides for accounts linked to checking accounts that may have far less in them?

Of course, here is where I have to admit to myself that there’s been a small but rising voice in my head rooting for the woman refusing to leave the back of my Versa Note.  Because I do want this story, I do want to be the guy who gets the huge crazy roadtrip fare.  In all my months driving for Uber, I haven’t gone so far as even Baton Rouge.  My two longest trips were to La Place and Covington, less than an hour away each, still places classified as far-flung suburbs of New Orleans.  I sigh heavily.  I look back at the woman.  She is dug in, hands in her parka pockets, looking out the window.  My phone screen is still inquiring why I’m cancelling the ride.  I sigh again.

“Let me call my girlfriend.”

It is unclear to me whether I’m hoping to have Alex yell at me, perhaps audibly to the woman, on the phone.  Yell at me for waking her up at 3 in the morning when she has to teach at 7.  Yell at me for considering this idea to the point of bringing it to her attention.  Yell at me so I have an excuse to again reject the woman’s insistence and this time mean it.  I start thinking about what recourse I have if she persists in refusing to absent herself from the car.  I conclude, as the phone rings, that I am left with the police as the only option.  I immediately recoil from this thought, but then consider that the woman is not Black and, more importantly, most of New Orleans’ officers are.  Unlike nearby Baton Rouge, where protests and eventually violent recrimination erupted after the shooting of Alton Sterling a few months prior, New Orleans doesn’t have a police shooting problem.  It did during Katrina, but not since.

The phone near my ear tells me that the number doesn’t have a voicemail set up.  It did the last time I called Alex.  And then I remember that Alex is switching work phones today, that she gets the new one in the morning, that the service contract probably reset at midnight.  And her personal phone has had problems for weeks and is not receiving calls.  We don’t have a landline.  I have literally no way to reach her except in person.  And I can’t even think about heading to Atlanta without telling her.  Perhaps more importantly, she doesn’t have an alarm set to wake up if her work phone isn’t working.  Her number now directs to her new work phone, safely tucked away at school or perhaps the phone carrier.

I hang up.  I turn back to the woman.  “Okay, look.  I’m not promising anything.  I have to talk to my girlfriend because she takes the car to work and she has work in the morning.  And her phone isn’t working.  So we have to drive to my apartment.  I have to go talk to her.  She may say no.  Is that okay with you?”

“Yeah,” she says.  “I’m in no rush.  I gotta be there by 3:00 is all.  But I need to go to Atlanta.”

I relax a little and head toward home, trying to catch up to my competing thoughts.  Am I really going to do this?  Am I really going to embark on a 12-16 hour roadtrip?  How do I convince Alex?  What will the fare be?  It seems like it has to be at least $400 or $500.  The estimate on Waze said 484 miles to the destination, and $1/mile is generally a good ballpark.  Then again, that’s for slower city driving and time is also a factor.  We’ll probably average 75 mph on the way to Atlanta, so it might be closer to $400.  My record-high day of fares at this point (I’ve yet to drive a Mardi Gras) was Halloween, at around $350.  I’ve already made about $80 today in four hours, mostly in the wake of the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert at the Smoothie King Center.

Of course, it’s not really for the money.  Oh sure, I’ve been jealous of the stories I’ve read about big-ticket fares in online media.  The first big one that was popularly discussed was a trip from New York City to Buffalo, not even crossing a state line.  A friend of Alex’s family told me this summer about a ride he gave from Atlantic City to New York City.  But the fare always seemed dwarfed by the romance of the story.  And hey, I’m working on a book about this.  What material!

We reach my apartment building.  I decide not to bother with the gated parking lot and just park on the street.  I take a minute to gather my wits.  I’m about to leave a stranger alone in the car.  Admittedly I have her Uber identity, but still.  What are the vulnerabilities?  I make sure to grab my keys and phone and open the door.  “Give me ten minutes,” I tell the woman.  “No promises.”

I rush into the apartment and start calling Alex’s name.  I am trying not to sound alarmingly urgent, but I need her to wake up.  She rises, bleary, to a sitting position on the bed.  “Hi, cutie,” she says softly.  “What is it?”

I explain the situation, that there’s a woman who really wants to go to Atlanta, right now.  That it will be around a $500 fare.  “I wouldn’t be back until tomorrow night,” I conclude.

“So I’d take an Uber to work?”

“Yeah, probably.  And that or get a ride home.”

“Okay,” she says quietly.

“Okay?”  I am exhilarated and just the slightest bit disappointed.

“Yeah, if you want to.  You have to promise to be super-safe though, okay?”

“Of course, of course.”  I look back at my phone, at the map of the road ahead.  “Do you need anything before I go?”

“Just a hug.”

Before I go, I tell her that her phone alarm might not work because of the switch and that this also will put her out of touch with me till she gets the new one.  We test the alarm on her phone and it works and she admonishes me again to be careful.

I head back out to the car, glad that Alex seemed genuinely okay with it, excited that the woman will not be disappointed and, perhaps more importantly, that a confrontation about her removal from the car will not be necessary.  I wonder if I can go see anything in Atlanta when I’m there, if I’ll be up for it.  I consider, just before I see the car, that there is a small chance the woman will be gone.

She’s not.

“Okay,” I say.

“Okay?”

“We’re going.  You ready?”
“Oh, thank God.  I was so worried when you came out alone.”
I start the car and pull away from the curb.  “How come?”
“You came out alone.  I thought she was coming with us.”

Just the faintest drip of hesitation drops down from my heart into my gut.  This seems like such a strange thing to say.  I dismiss it.  “No, she has work here.  In New Orleans.  We’re going to Atlanta.  She has to be at work in a few hours and I had to make sure she was okay.”

“Oh,” she says absently.  “I thought we were picking her up.”

It takes me a few minutes to realize that she didn’t think Alex was joining us for the journey to Atlanta, but that I was running her to work beforehand.  I think about Alex sitting outside the dark school for the next few hours, waiting for the first person with a building key to arrive.  I relax a little.  This wasn’t such a crazy thing to think.  And after all, she doesn’t know she teaches kindergarten.  Maybe Alex goes to work at 4:00 and she’d just be a little early.

We ride in silence for a while.  It seems we are both collecting our thoughts.  My heartrate is calming down, the shift from the adrenaline rush of a momentous decision to the compartmentalization of mental focus necessary to drive for seven uninterrupted hours.  She seems relieved, but has withdrawn deeply into her own head, I guess with the primary worry of not being able to get out of town being sorted.  Twenty minutes into the ride, I realize that I should have packed a backpack and taken it along.  There is plenty of space in the car, I won’t be able to pick anyone up in Atlanta (or Alabama or Mississippi) anyway, and I may have to stay the night somewhere on the road back.  A change of clothes would be nice, but a book is completely essential.  Twenty minutes after that, I realize the ride will end during daylight hours, headed east in the morning, and I didn’t even bring sunglasses.

We keep going in silence, across Lake Ponchartrain, through Slidell, away from the city.

I ask if she wants to listen to anything, my way of saying I would like to.  She looks up.

“I just don’t know if they’re messing with me or if it’s real.  You understand what I’m saying?”

“Excuse me?”

“I mean, like the prophecy?”  She is speaking very rapidly.  “The prophecy.  I just don’t know if it’s real or not.  They’re telling me about the floods.  And like I don’t want anybody to get hurt, man.  I don’t wish that on anyone.  But I had to get out, you know.  Do you understand what I’m saying?   I had to.  Do you know the prophecy?”

I look out into the Mississippi night.  We are in swamp country, the kind of place where the highway is surrounded on both sides by alligator-filled bayou.  There are only a couple headlights, a couple taillights, visible at any given moment.  It is very very dark.  The situation has deteriorated quickly.

“Um.  I don’t know.”

“You know the prophecy.  They don’t mess with the old world.  It’s the new world they fuck with.  Like there’s the line through, what was it?  I can’t remember.  Phoenix I think it is.  That line that goes through Phoenix and all the way around to the other side.  You know what I’m saying?  And it covers the Pacific and California and Asia and all that shit.  And then on the other side you have here and New York and that Atlantic and, like, Europe.  And that’s the old world.  And they don’t fuck with the old world.  But they’re trying to destroy the new world. You understand what I’m saying?  With a flood.”

“Okay,” I say, trying to swallow my nervous sigh under the syllables.

“But they flooded here.  So I don’t know.  I get nervous that they’re going to do it.  You know, I don’t know who to trust.  They’re telling me this.  And they say it’s going to happen.  But I don’t know if it’s real.  You goddamn motherfucker!  Shut the fuck up, I’ll knock you out!”

I haven’t said anything.  I really hope she’s talking to the voice in her head.

“I don’t even know.  I don’t know who’s a clone and who’s real.  Barack Obama.  He’s a clone, right?  Do you know?”

Deep breath.  “I don’t know.”

“Why would they do that to him?  To be married to that?  You understand what I’m saying?  Do they hate him that much?”

“Um.”

“I think he’s a clone.  He’s a fucking clone!  I knew it.  Motherfucker.  But maybe they’re just trying to fuck with me.  I don’t remember.”

She withdraws into a bit of mumbling, then reclines slightly.  Silence takes hold.

I re-evaluate my options under this sudden barrage of new information.  My father’s voice is reverberating in my head with his most frequent and important adage, never get yourself into a situation you can’t get out of.

She has already refused to leave the car once.  We are now in rural Mississippi, the kind of place where there’s only an exit every ten miles.  Turning around or ending the trip early do not feel like real options.  They feel like they would risk jeopardizing my safety and causing further agitation in someone who is suddenly clearly quite troubled.  I calm down a little.  Aside from the shouted “motherfuckers,” there’s not a clear threat to me, especially if I don’t interrupt the ride.

Because of my history, because I play with worst-case scenarios in order to prevent them (another lesson from dad), I start trying to discern why she is here.  Why a ride that could cost her well more than $500 in the middle of the night was not only worth it, but desperately important.  Maybe she just committed a crime and needed to get out?  Am I facilitating a fugitive?  Is there a giant butcher knife packed into that parka?  Or is her assumption that she can do something to get out of paying for the ride?  That she can grab the phone when my guard is down and try to cancel the ride somehow?  I have often worried about this before when contemplating the big-ticket roadtrip ride that might come in the future.

The ride to La Place, my second longest prior to this trip, got cancelled in the middle of the ride.  Toward the end of it, actually.  We were on a minor highway in the middle of the night, swamp country again, and the disheartening but sudden sound of a cancelled ride rang out of my phone.  My heart dropped precipitously.  Usually this only happens if someone has picked up the wrong rider and the actual rider has seen that they are allegedly on a ride while they stand waiting.  They cancel the ride and the driver suddenly realizes that they have the wrong rider, that they are not getting paid for this ride, and, perhaps most importantly, that all of the protection that comes with Uber is suddenly lost.  Because now you don’t have the identity of the person in your car.  Now they could be anyone and there’s no way that Uber can look up who you drove and tie their identity to you being at this place in this time.

In that instance, the rider had been one of the most amiable and friendly riders I’d ever had, passing the long drive quickly with tales of work and growing up outside New Orleans.  Of course, con men tend to be talkative and gregarious.  That’s how it works.  He tried to re-request the ride from the freeway, but the app wouldn’t let him.  We pulled over and he tried again to no avail.  The app showed I had actually gotten paid for the first part of the trip up until cancellation and he said he had $8 cash on him and he’d pay me that to finish the ride.  It was almost exactly fair, so we continued on.  But I was still relieved when the address proved to be in a quiet neighborhood, not a rundown shack, and when no one emerged from the building to join him in stealing the car.

So theoretically this is a power a rider always has, to cancel the ride, though one at least gets paid for the time already spent driving.  But what if they took the driver’s phone and cancelled the ride there?  This was no minor investment I’d made in time and money, three tanks of gas to come, inconveniencing Alex, her extra spending to get to and from work without our car.

I assure myself I’m being paranoid, perhaps even more paranoid than my traveling companion.  I focus on my breathing.  I reset cruise control and try to play little mental games to compartmentalize the time remaining in the trip.  Hours past and hours to go.  Fractions of the trip.  Landmarks to come:  Biloxi, Mobile, Montgomery.  To try to predict where we’ll be at sunrise.

Periodically, she interrupts my little internal mental games with new rants.  Many of them center on clones and the idea that regular people are sometimes clones with no outward indication other than slightly aberrant action.  Many of them engage with voices in her head telling her to leave New Orleans.  At one point, I ask her if she has to be back for work at 3:00 PM, trying to center her on a more normal reality and she looks up blankly.  “No, I, I don’t work.”  I repeatedly try to ask why she’s going back to Atlanta, but she either ignores these queries of says “They told me to.”  It occurs to me she could have been fleeing abuse.  Some time passes in silence.

“Can I smoke a cigarette?” she asks.

“I’d really prefer that you don’t.  My girlfriend has asthma.  She’s allergic to it.  I’m happy to stop if you want.”

“Okay, fine.  Don’t bother.”

Another minute.

“But can I please smoke a cigarette?”

“How about I pull over?”

“Here?  No way.  Please?  I really need a cigarette bad.”

I try to calculate a number of cigarettes that this trip will require for her, given that it’s been over an hour before this request.  I think about the fabled calming effect of nicotine.  I think about the hypothetical butcher knife beneath her parka.  “Okay, if we roll the windows down.”

I do so and she lights up.  I think Alex is going to kill me if my rider doesn’t first.

Half an hour later, I’m glad that she hasn’t asked for another cigarette and that the smell is very faint already.  I tell her we’re going to pull over for gas soon, that she should get some snacks if she wants.  She has returned to something more normal.  “Okay.  I wish I had a few bucks to throw you for gas, but I only have a card.”

“It’s okay,” I say, thinking about the expense of the trip overall.

“You should smoke again at the gas station if you want,” hoping that this will buy me out of a few more requests.

I pull into the station, a Marathon just over the Mississippi/Alabama border.  Alex had Facebook messaged me from her computer when she got up and now I had the ability to reply…

Alex:  how’s it going?

Storey:  The rider is really odd.  I think she might be schizophrenic.

Alex:  What do you mean?

Storey:  I think she is clinically schizophrenic.  She talks about voices and doesn’t always make sense.  She might be tired or on something instead.

Alex:  You are being careful, right?

It occurs to me that it was a really bad idea to tell Alex all this before the ride was over and I was safe.  It also occurs to me that I wanted there to be a record of the rider’s behavior, just in case.  These things are in diametric conflict.

Storey:  It’s fine, it’s an adventure!  Getting gas and coffee now.

We pile back into the car.  My rider has smoked two cigarettes and purchased one small heavily doctored cup of coffee.  She has also removed her parka, revealing long curly dyed red hair that was previously invisible under the parka hood.  Also revealing no butcher knife.

We head northeast through Alabama.  The first glimmers of light are starting to emerge on the far horizon.  I forgot to buy sunglasses at the gas station.  We have, according to Waze, four hours to go.  Soon, rain starts, offering a reprieve from my oversight.

“Sir.  When’s the inauguration?  It’s in two days, is that correct?”

“No,” I say.  “It’s in nine days.  A week from then.”

“Sir, you are not telling me the truth right now.  You are lying.  It’s in two days.  Is that not correct?”

“Today is the 10th.  Well, morning of the 11th.  The inauguration is the 20th.”

“Sir, please stop lying to me.  We have 37 hours before the end of the world and we all die.  Is that not correct?”  Her agitation is growing.  I am becoming concerned again and realize that if she wants the inauguration to be in two days, it might as well be in two days.  It occurs to me that this is the best thing to do with people convinced of things whose reality is dubious.  You placate, you go along with it, you try to get on their level and reassure them in their terms.  It also occurs to me that the last reference I saw to this tactic was in the movie “Collateral Beauty” and that said reference was punctuated with the following joke:

“I thought you couldn’t afford therapy.”

“I can’t.  My Uber driver told me that.”

Here were are, at full circle.  “My mistake,” I tell the woman.  “It’s day after tomorrow.”

“Goddamn right.  I think.  Fuck, maybe it is in a week.  Motherfuckers!  Why are they messing with me like this!”  A pause.  “Barack Obama, he’s a clone, is he not?”

“I don’t know,” I say it as evenly as possible, as though I’m considering the possibility.

“He must be.  He’s a fucking clone.  And you sir, are you a clone?”

My heart palpitates exactly once.  “No.”

“Sir.  Are you a goddamn clone?”

“No.”

“Good,” she leans back.  “I didn’t think so.  Fuck.”

After a couple minutes, she puts some music on her phone.  It is, near as I can tell, Russian gangster rap.  The language is definitely Russian.  The cadence is definitely rap.  Some really fake sounding gunshots are peppered throughout the first three tracks.  I would normally, at this point, offer to hook up the aux cable, but four hours of Russian gangster rap through the speakers is a bigger commitment than I’m presently ready to add to this venture.

After a few songs, she asks for a phone charger.  I ask if she needs an iPhone or Android.  When she says Android, I reluctantly hand over my phone’s own charger, noting that I’ll need it back in about an hour and that we can trade back and forth.  She mumbles, accepting the cord.

The music goes off.  She leans back, her eyes close a little, even leans over on the seat.  I am pretty impressed that she’s been awake the whole trip.  Had I just booked a seven-hour Uber to Atlanta, I would probably have immediately laid out on the back seat and slept for a few hours.  That said, it occurs to me, again, that she may be harboring lingering doubts about me and feels compelled to keep her eyes open.  Maybe she’s fleeing some sort of abusive situation.  Maybe she’s been trafficked.  Maybe she has very good reasons to distrust men but has to rely on one now to get away.  Maybe she’s just hopped up on something.  But maybe not.  I ponder, hoping that she’ll feel okay enough to get some rest.  She looks like she needs it.

I don’t think she ever quite falls asleep.  Twenty minutes later, she pops back up.

“Sir.”

“Yes?”

“Sir.  What do you know about voodoo?”

“Not much, honestly.  There’s a lot of people in New Orleans who know about it, but I only know what’s in the movies, really.”

“Sir.  Do you know how to get a curse removed?”

“I do not.”

“Because I think I, I picked up something there.  I think someone.  They fucking did this to me.  You understand what I’m saying?  I am so confused.  I remember but I don’t remember.  You know?”

“I.  I guess?”

“Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“No, not really.  Who did this to you?”

“Don’t fuck with me like that.  You know who.  You fucking know.  They did it.  And now they’re talking to me but I can’t tell what they’re saying and I don’t know if it’s true.  Do you think it’s true?”

“I.  I don’t know.  I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think it’s true?  Man, I need someone to fucking take this thing off of me.  Fuck.  I don’t even know how I got this.  But do you know someone who can take curses away?”

“I don’t.  I’m sorry.  Maybe there’s someone in Atlanta who knows about voodoo?”

“Fuck.”

I keep driving.  She periodically leans forward and asks things which lead to five-minute conversations in the same style.  A sample of some opening lines:

“Sir.  When was it again that all the Nazis left the planet?”

“So, you’ve seen the movie ‘The Matrix,’ right?  That’s pretty much true, isn’t it?  How much of it exactly is true?”

“Sir.  Where did the neo-Nazis come from if they all left the planet?”

“What other movie is Keanu Reeves in?  Is he a clone?”

“I’m glad I’m an ugly bitch.  Thank God.  If I weren’t an ugly bitch, I’d be so arrogant.  And then they’d get me.  You understand what I’m saying?”

It is important to stress that her tone throughout these conversations is deadly serious, the way most of us would discuss a family member getting cancer or perhaps a recent mass-shooting.  It is delivered in the persistent staccato harshness of her overall demeanor, fast, a little angry, and laden with swearing.  When I respond at a pace even half as fast as hers, she responds simply with “Sir.” to indicate that she has not understood me.  The Russian gangster rap comes and goes.  A couple more cigarettes are smoked (she always politely rolls the window down first).  It occurs to me at one point that she might be trolling me, that she feels the most entertaining way to pass these necessary hours with a stranger is to rant and inquire about bizarre theories about the nature of the world and see how I react.  If this is the case, she is perhaps among the finest actors in the world.

Her most fervent phrase, peppered throughout the scattershot dialogue, is “You understand what I’m saying?”  There is always a special emphasis on these five words, an extra loudness, as though she can detect throughout that I do not, in fact, understand.  I still try to usually reply to this in a vaguely affirmative way, mostly for fear of being re-accused of being a clone.

When I ask her questions, such as for my phone charger back, she is usually non-responsive.  Occasionally she mumbles and then ignores me.  By the time my phone battery is getting dangerously low, risking both the GPS and verification of this trip with Uber, I get insistent and she finally lets me take it back.

A few minutes later, she asks if she can see my phone a second.  My heartrate surges again. “Why?  Is your phone not working?”  I am unable to keep the surprise/fear out of my voice.

She ignores me and stares out the window.  I am content to let this one drop.

The sun comes out from behind the storm.  We have made it through the vast majority of our trip.  I am starting to gain some confidence, in the daylight, that I will have the energy to finish the journey, that she will not attack me, that even if the ride somehow gets cancelled most of it has been logged and I will be compensated for this extraordinary experience.  In the back, my traveling companion is showing every bit of having been up as long as I have.  It occurs to me, for maybe the hundredth time, that she may be going through withdrawal.  A few minutes later, as though she heard my thoughts:

“Sir.  Can we.  When we get to Atlanta, can we go to the hospital?”

“Yes.  If that’s what you want, absolutely.”

“We can go to the hospital?”

“We can go to the hospital.”

“I’m sorry for freaking you out.  I’m.  I always talk too much.  I’m sorry for talking too much.”

I smile.  It’s been a few hours since that happened.  “Hey, it’s okay.  It’s a long ride.”

“I’m just.  I’m just trying to understand, you know?  You understand what I’m saying?  They’ve got me all crossed up.  I’m just.  I’m messed up.  I’m sorry.”

“No, no!  No problem.”

An hour goes by.  We cross into Georgia.  I try to confirm that we’re going to Tucker, Georgia.  The fourth time over the course of twenty minutes that I try to ask this, she says “Yes sir.”  I realize she may just have a hard time hearing, though I have been increasingly loud with my inquiries over the course of the trip.  I follow the GPS toward Tucker, realizing again that there is no address there.  I wonder if I should ask again about the hospital.  I wonder if she’ll want to return to New Orleans when we reach Tucker.  I wonder if I’ve come 484 miles to be in the same game of chicken with her about leaving the back seat.  I follow the directions my phone offers.

Soon, we’re in metro Atlanta, just behind rush hour, a fortuitous near-miss made all the better for the hour time-change at the Alabama/Georgia border.  Tucker appears to be a suburb nestled on the eastern side of Atlanta.  We proceed along a three-digit ring highway, I-285, south of Atlanta to get there.  As we approach the exit for Tucker, I ask her again to confirm where we’re going.  She replies affirmatively.  “You still want to go to the hospital?”

She is looking vastly better than when she made that request.  “No, I’m fine sir.”

“You sure?”

“Yes sir.”

I am trying, hard, to picture what the closing scene of this ride will be like.  I wonder if she has a home.  If she will just ask to be dropped off in the middle of Tucker, go sketch a sign on cardboard, and stand on a sidewalk.  This doesn’t square with reserving a $600 Uber at 3 in the morning under what appears to be her real name, but it would not be the first thing tonight that has failed to square.  We take the exit.  I ask for directions.  She responds quickly, with cogency, a series of turns that appear to be going in a direction, not in circles.  She is the same person who made it clear how important it was I take her to Atlanta in the first place.

We pull up to a run-down vinyl-sided series of apartments, four-plexes or so, in a vast sprawling complex.  The road through them is halfway to being reclaimed by the dirt.  The biome is piney, strewn with brown needles.  The road slopes gently downward and we are going to the very back, she assures me.  I briefly envision people jumping out at me, banishing the thought almost as soon as it comes.  We are so close.

We pull up.  “Right here is fine, sir.”

“Right here?”  I basically don’t believe it.

“Right here.”  She looks at me, sincerely.  “Listen.  I am so so grateful for you.  I just don’t even know what I would have done.  I had to get out of there.”

“Oh, you’re welcome.  I’m glad it worked out.”

“No.  You don’t understand.  I am so grateful.  Thank you.”  She opens her arms as though to hug me, an impossibility from the back seat to the driver’s seat.  I offer her my right hand instead and she clutches it fervently in both of hers.  “So grateful.”

“You’re welcome.  I’m glad we made it.”

“Yes sir.”

She opens the car door, gathers her parka, sizes up the building in front of her, and sighs.  “Thanks,” she says, closing the door behind her.

I sigh.  I swipe the red bar, untouched for seven hours and twenty-one minutes, to end the trip.  The phone, naturally, takes about 30 seconds to process this information.  It asks me to rate the experience.  I fall into a spasmodic laughter and pull away from the curb.

I click over to the Earnings tab on my phone, satiating my long-running curiosity.  Riders are always asking me how much a fare is, often so they can calculate a fair tip.  I always tell them honestly that I don’t know.  It sometimes takes half an hour for a ride’s fare to show up and one can never see it till the ride’s over.  This one populates pretty quickly.  $391.26 is my share.  She paid $521.68 for it.  Less than I thought.

In half an hour, I will be at Waffle House, eating for the first time in half a day, loading up on more coffee.  I’ll tell Alex I need to get out of metro Atlanta before rush hour starts and then I’ll evaluate when and where to sleep.  But I won’t sleep.  I’ll drive seven straight hours from Waffle House, stopping only for gas, to New Orleans.  It’s not rational.  It’s probably not totally safe, though I’ll have a surprising amount of energy throughout the drive and promise myself I’ll pull over if I start to fade.  But I don’t fade, even after 19 consecutive hours of driving, of 30 consecutive hours being awake.  It doesn’t make sense.  But sometimes, you’ve just got to be home.


This is an excerpted chapter of the in-progress book tentatively titled Driving for U:  Behind the Wheel of a New Orleans Uber by Storey Clayton. If you are in the publishing industry and would like to contact Storey about this book, please e-mail him at storey@bluepyramid.org.

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The Singularity is Already Here

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

The Singularity is already here. It’s corporations, not computers.

You’ve probably heard of the Singularity. It’s a hypothetical future event, dystopian in nature, wherein the need for human intervention in human affairs is swept aside by super-intelligent computers who self-teach, self-improve, and self-replicate their way to utter dominance. The idea is that if we create sufficiently smart artificial intelligence and give it the power to make autonomous decisions, it will eventually reach a critical mass of understanding that gives it unassailably more capability than humans could ever have. After all, computing power scales exponentially compared to human intelligence, or at least will in theory once we build a computer as impressive as a human brain. Given the history of chess computers starting out as pathetic and evolving into unmatched world champions, this is seen as academically a matter of time. The Singularity is taken as a when, not an if, by most serious scientific communities.

The scary part of the Singularity is not that there could be something more intelligent than human beings, either individually or collectively. It’s a blow to our ego we perhaps haven’t fully internalized, but the thing that really terrifies us is that we would be enslaved by our new hyper-smart robot overlords. It is a distinctly human fear that anything possessing more intelligence than we have wants to capture, kill, and enslave. Then again, we would have programmed the robots in the first place, so probably a legitimate concern that it would reflect traditional human values. And a lot of the doomsday scenarios proposed by scientists hand-wringing about the Singularity have this darkly comic note about what the robots might be trying to achieve. Because at the point of Singularity, the robot’s goal might just be to produce more cereal boxes or to organize the most efficient transportation system possible in Los Angeles, California. Yet with unlimited power fueled by unlimited intelligence, the robots could run wild, literally manipulating all human emotion and action into the cause of cereal box production or keeping the trains running on time. Robots and computers, after all, are not programmed with a multiplicity of functions and goals in mind. We teach them to value one thing at a time.

Let’s suspend, briefly, the obvious flaw in this theory, which is that something could simultaneously be smart enough to run circles around the collective intelligence of all of human history, yet sufficiently unsophisticated as to have literally one job. More advanced notions of the Singularity discuss a wider community of robots and computers all making each other more intelligent, but that also seems to conveniently leave out the ensuing debate they’d have about cereal boxes vs. LA transportation as priorities. And the idea that they might make their own decisions about what to value is often absent from the conversation entirely, though many observe that they are not likely to value human life with the same vigor that our own societies claim (yet fail) to. Then again, the movie adaptation of “I, Robot” offered a striking vision of the opposite dictum, namely a world where robots take the law “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” so seriously that they remove all free will from humans so they stop hurting each other. Which, hey, fair point. This is the same principle, near I as I can tell, that formed the basis of the Patriot Act.

But here’s what you need to know about what’s scary about the Singularity:
1. It’s a systematic structure that governs the goals and behaviors of all human society.
1. It manipulates and abuses human free will into doing terrible things to further its goals.
2. It cannot be stopped or reversed by humans.

What does that sound like to you?

Because to me, it sounds like free market corporate capitalism, circa 2017.

The programmed goal, of course, is the maximization of corporate profit. We live in a world where, under the label of “growing the economy”, maximization of corporate profit is seen as literally the only goal of individuals, groups, and government. Every speech by every Presidential candidate in 2016 (save for Bernie Sanders, and we all know how far he got) took for granted that this was the priority, nay, the purpose of government. Corporations are literally obliged to follow this dictate, under pain of lawsuit and removal from the economy. These same corporations and their minions are hastily trying to infuse the same goal into every government’s own laws, or supra-national laws, enabling people to sue the government for violation of the law of profit-seeking. The notion that profits must be made and must grow and that everything else good that can happen to people will flow from that fundamental principle stands as the unquestioned religious doctrine underpinning our society.

But here’s the insidious thing: no one is really making it happen. No one is pulling the strings. Oh sure, there are people like Milton Friedman and his henchmen who did the initial programming, that tried to plant as many people in as many positions of power to create this worldview. Like I say on the daily these days, read your Shock Doctrine. But the really dangerous thing about this world, now set in motion, is that there’s no one who feels like they are above the fundamental principle or has the power to stop it. We live in fear of “The Economy” like it’s a giant independent weather system or vengeful God, one that can be approached and we can react to, but is beyond our fundamental control. We don’t look at The Economy like a series of willful suspensions of disbelief or self-manipulations (you know, what it is). Instead, we see it as this all-powerful force of nature that governs who lives and dies, who lives well and lives poorly, who does what and how and why and every facet of existence therefrom.

But if you talk to a CEO, if you talk to a Board member, if you talk to the most powerful people on the planet, they will sigh and shake their head and try to convince you just how little power they have. A CEO will say they are hostages of the Board, of the profit mandate, of shareholders demanding growth. The Board will say the same about shareholders and legal obligations and that they can only do so much to influence the CEO they allegedly govern. And the shareholders will say they are just one of many in a sea of cacophonous opinions that only demand profit. No one is minding the store. The system is on autopilot, self-generating its goals. Even the Fed Chair feels pretty much enslaved by the whims of the market traders, who in turn feel powerless in the face of decisions made by CEOs and political leaders. It’s not even the tail wagging the dog. It’s the truly invisible hand.

Of course, this scenario is just as dystopian as us all being enslaved in the pursuit of cereal box production. Remarkably, that’s basically exactly what this scenario is. The pursuit of ever-spiraling economic growth is arguably the most destructive force in the history of humanity, jockeying to overtake nationalism with every passing day. (And it can’t be overlooked that this motivation fueled a lot of the greatest harms of imperialistic nationalism over the last half-millennium.)

For one, profit is literally waste. It is the money left over when everyone has already been fairly paid and accommodated. Seeking to maximize this is like programming the world to maximize trash accumulation. Which, not coincidentally, is also a major result of the infinite-growth profit motive. Profit is indifferent to consequences that are not in the realm of profit for the profit-seeker, from impoverishing others to creating literal miles-wide islands of trash in the Pacific Ocean to deforesting the entire planet. All that this motive cares about, like the production of cereal boxes, is the infinite maximization of money that is essentially waste.

Oh yes, I know there are theories that this waste will then get funneled back into the economy to help those poor people left behind. For one thing, this trickle-down notion had been thoroughly debunked even before the last ten years displayed a “recovery” that only helped the top 1-10% of the economy. But for another, even in the best case, this just funnels it back into a system that continues to have its only goal being generating more waste maximization for someone. If the someone rotates with the winds of The Economy, it can simulate the notion of upward mobility, but it’s still just choosing who gets to sit atop the largest trash heap. That person doesn’t end up really feeling any freer and any decisions they make to use that waste just go back into the same cycling system of waste creation.

Then we have environmental degradation. This is the most obvious and precipitous result of an infinite-growth model. As I’ve said repeatedly for years, the metaphor here is cancer. Infinite growth of cells that seemed helpful is literally what cancer is and it’s the deadliest and most intractable malady in current human existence. It’s almost like nature itself is trying to tell us something about how we live our lives! I mean, honestly, could the planet be any clearer? The growth model is unsustainable in every sense of the word, it is consuming resources the planet doesn’t have and converting those resources into poisons that are choking the planet and its inhabitants to death. And yet we blithely ride on autopilot, continuing to root for the cancer and fuel it in every way imaginable. Our best excuse for this is the idea that one of these cancer cells will grow big and powerful enough to come up with ways to defeat the cancer itself, while still not ceasing the necessary growth of the cancer. Or perhaps slightly more accurately, will come up with a way to enable the host to survive cancer while continuing the rapid reproduction and growth of the cancer cells. The premise seems deeply problematic. Even if this were theoretically possible, would we want to survive like that? Plenty of dystopian novels are engaging that question with a pretty universal two-letter answer.

This is to say nothing of wealth inequality, the other looming specter of unfettered capitalism. This is where the Singularity aspect of this charade starts to really ramp up, because the profit motive enables further and further consolidation of wealth. And that wealth is able to further and further buy off and corrupt elements of government control, regulation, and checks on power that would normally curb profit’s power. And this accelerates almost exponentially, where more money buys more power buys more deregulation to enable the accumulation of more money and repeat. It’s not a coincidence that Donald Trump, capitalist extraordinaire, is coming to power at this moment in human history. He may have technically spent less than Hillary Clinton on the campaign, but the popular thinkpiece meme that this means corporate spending on elections is no longer the magic bullet is dead wrong. He was the greater capitalist, the more accelerationist candidate for the corporate consumption of government. And many people are rightfully worried about what the country left to govern will even look like in four years after so much of its government has been chopped up and sold off to private interests.

Framing this as a partisan issue is deeply misleading, however. Bill Clinton, in the wake of Reagan’s popularity, championed privatization of everything and the reduction of government regulation as well. His slogan was not “It’s the safety net, stupid.” The fallout of violence, disenfranchisement, and poverty of his legacy is just now taking shape in the American understanding. He did just as much as Republican counterparts to dismantle any priorities for government that could rival the all-consuming profit-growth model. And now we have every government employee, literally and figuratively, deeply invested in the stock market. It’s a pyramid scheme I’ve discussed before, but the point bears repeating. When every worker in every non-profit sector, from government to schools to private non-profits, has their entire future invested, by mandate, in the world of publicly traded corporate profit, then there will be no one left to oppose the maximization of this corporate profit as an ultimate goal.

So stop your worrying about the Singularity! A far more insidious and dangerous Singularity is already here, already has lobotomized our collective imagination and replaced all of our hopes and fears with the generation of needless waste. Waste that’s killing the planet, killing those people who can’t keep up, and eventually consolidating all the wealth and power in a few small hands who still feel like those hands are tied to these all-powerful scheme. At least with cereal boxes, we might be able to see the absurdity of the system in practice. But when it’s as complex and self-serving as all the ways to maximize profit, when everyone is trained from birth to fear not having access to the wealth and privilege that comes with being on top of that profit ladder, it’s harder for us to see. Even today, as scientists rail against climate change and shout from the rooftops that something must be done, no one is connecting an end to climate change to the need to stop the corporate profit-growth model. We literally have a system designed to make humanity kill itself and its only known home in order to generate waste and no one wants to question it because the system seems even less controllable than the weather itself.

Think about that.

Again: We literally have a system designed to make humanity kill itself and its only known home in order to generate waste and no one wants to question it because the system seems even less controllable than the weather itself.

Of course, the problem is that, unlike robots that have us literally strapped into machines made to do their bidding, we can stop or reverse this Singularity. It gets harder every day, but we do have the power. We have to talk about this, have to observe the deep damage and destruction being done by the corporate profit-growth model, and start discussing better alternative ways of being. My favorite, as I’ve outlined before, is what I call The Maintenance Society. It’s a place to start. You may have a better idea. But any idea is better than this. As will become painfully obvious in retrospect to whoever digs up the carcass of this planet in a few millennia.

Maybe we just need to program super-intelligent robots to give us another priority. But I’d like to not count on that deus ex machina, or more accurately, that machinus ex deo. We can still save ourselves. We just have to recognize that the creation of ever more cereal boxes is not worth losing everything else.

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Haunted City

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Marching to New Orleans, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , , , ,

It’s Twelfth Night. Happy Twelfth Night, everybody! Here is my favorite song about Twelfth Night:

It occurs to me that posting links to things isn’t really good enough for the long-term posterity of the web. Sometimes I review old posts of mine and pretty much all the links are dead. It’s just about a universal. For all that people clamor in fear of a web that Never Forgets, it seems I spend a lot more time lamenting a web that has lost a bunch of information. Major websites are keepers of major information, but then they get caught up in IPOs and mergers and inevitable failures. The people who ran the show get away with billions and the grunt folks lose their jobs and all the creative energy and thoughtful exchange poured into that particular series of tubes is lost in a reshuffle. Remember how much original music was on MySpace? MySpace is just a butt of jokes now, but it’s also the Facebook of yesterday. Say what you will about creative destruction as a principle, but it’s got destruction right there in the description. It’s hard to know whether it’s reassuring or depressing that all the preeminent corporations of today will be gone in a century. Their infinite consumption and recomposition feels like a fitting metaphor for an ecosystem under heavy pressure to fold.

Anyway, for the future record, the song linked above is “Pieces of the Night” by the Gin Blossoms, written by the late Doug Hopkins, one of my erstwhile poetry/rock-n-roll heroes/cautionary tales. I am now older than Doug was when he killed himself, which is a little daunting. That said, I didn’t even like Doug’s music till after he killed himself, so what can you do? But the guy knew something about memory. And regret. Oh lord, the regret.

Twelfth Night is a big deal in New Orleans. It’s not just a Shakespeare play, but the opening of the Mardi Gras season, also known as King Cake season around here. People will sell you a King Cake before today, but you’re really not supposed to eat it until now. King Cake is basically New Orleans in a pastry, it’s decadent and overly sweet and purple, green, and gold. It’s got frosting and sprinkles and tastes a little like kissing a unicorn. You would imagine.

Here, have a look:

I’ve made that image permanently linked from the Blue Pyramid, so if somehow most of the web crumbles, but someone is left keeping up the maintenance fees on the Blue Pyramid after many long years, then future people will be able to see New Orleans Mardi Gras King Cake in all its sugary glory. There’s a lesson here about the fragility and temporality of an entirely electronic-and-connection based medium, but the only feasible alternative is to literally print out reams and reams of webpages on actual paper, which itself has longevity issues in most conditions. But, like mandalas and snow and luminarias and perhaps most things that are good in the world, maybe posts aren’t meant to be permanent. Maybe they’re meant to be made, consumed, and discarded all in a day. #snapchat

What can’t be consumed in a day is memory. I kind of meant to post this in Albuquerque, or post about this phenomenon, because Albuquerque really gets my senses going. But I realized, over time and missed opportunity, that Albuquerque is not the only haunted city. Any city can be haunted if you fill it with enough people and enough time for rumination. And now that I’m trying to exercise every day (he said as he looked out the window to a 40-degree thunderstorm, recoiling), there’s a lot more time for observational rumination. Which is perhaps good for writing but bad for my daily frame of mind. Putting those on a diametric axis is probably roughly accurate, regardless of situation, come to think of it.

Anyway, Albuquerque always feels charged and haunted when I first get in. Everyone I’ve ever loved has logged serious time there, and most of the people I’ve liked. There are few corners or streets or establishments that I can pass that are not encoded with memories or references or something that links in to a long and roller coastery past. This is a trope of homecoming, made all the more relevant for not living at home all the time, preventing an old haunted place from becoming mundane again since it does not inhabit one’s daily spectrum. Any landscape, from Manhattan to the Grand Canyon, becomes routine upon daily backdropping. I have had daily commutes past the cable-car turnaround in San Francisco, to the historic Old Queens building at Rutgers, now through the French Quarter at night, and I chant to myself to not let it become typical. It’s the fish, a la DFW, praying to the universe: “This is water. This is water.” It is a hard and thorny discipline, reinfusing the omnipresent magic in your daily normal. But in almost anywhere on Earth that is not war-torn or deeply impoverished, much less America in the twilight of its apex, it is a thing we can and should do. It is also a trope to feel blessed by the ability to exist, to think, to absorb, to move. But it is a trope we too often dismiss for failure to see the real power within.

There are times when the hauntedness of a place, especially Albuquerque, can become overwhelming. Times I wish I could look at a street corner or a building and just have it be a corner or a place. I’m sure German has a word for the deeply felt desire for a cigar to just be a cigar. But you know it’s not just a cigar and you can’t unsee it, any more than you can unsee the other half of a tessellation once you’ve unlocked its mystery. Then again, there are benefits to the inability to unsee. A connection to a sense of place and time and purpose and being on a journey. A real sense of identity and temporality and presence that can be hard for the overly ruminative mind sometimes. It’s not all bad.

In this state, and sometimes in others, I find that I am often almost seeing people. In crowds, in restaurants, on corners. Driving up to them to get in my Uber or driving past them to deliver the latest passenger. Walking around a corner shelf in a bookstore, past the endcap in a grocery store. I am in a near-constant state of being startled by visages of people from the past. This has been such a frequent reality for me that it made it into my first book, Loosely Based, under the theory that there are only a few templates in the world and people just keep recurring. It’s not true, of course, it’s much more that our pattern-seeking brains are trying to eke recognition out of an ocean of strangers. A world of seven billion souls is impossible to comprehend, much less process. We keep looking for flashes of recognition in a sea of empty anonymity.

What pulls me out of it, usually, is the sudden realization that the people I think I’m recognizing are not those people anymore. I will think I see a high school classmate and I will be startled, then curious, but what gets me to realize they are not a high school classmate will be the fact that the person in front of me is currently in high school. And, of course, my high school classmates are, like me, all in their mid-thirties now. None of them look like they’re in high school. My memory of that classmate is fossilized to them at 17, but I will never see them at 17 again. This can often be an actual wrestling match in my brain – the main thing that gets me to rule out the idea that the stranger is the person I first thought they were is the understanding that they can’t be that age anymore, not that they have some distinguishing feature from the person I mistook them for. Just yesterday, I stared at the spitting image of a college classmate for some time before being sure they were 22 and said classmate was, well, 38.

The grand irony of all this, of course, is that this pattern-seeking would probably keep me from actually recognizing many of these former classmates and acquaintances if I saw them on the streets of Albuquerque or New Orleans or Manhattan. They’ve aged, they’ve gained weight, they’ve cut their hair, their hair has lost color, they’ve acquired a string of kids or worries or responsibilities or all of the above. So I am traversing a city, continually starting at apparitions, while the real ghosts could lurk in plain sight, undetected.

We are not well built for change, we humans. We adjust slowly, painfully, and usually under duress. We fall back into habits, patterns, addictions, comfort. It takes so much self-encouragement, self-criticism, inner reflection and yes, resolution to get us to make even the tiniest of alterations. And yet change so often feels refreshing and rejuvenating, exciting with the promise that the old gnawing discomforts and annoyances we’ve mistaken for familiar don’t have to be omnipresent. It’s a familiar bear to wrestle around the early part of January. And here on Twelfth Night, especially, a night when revelers will take to freezing rain-soaked streets to honor Joan D’Arc, patron saint of New Orleans, of the misunderstood, of Pyrrhic losses and those who die before their time. When we defy the winter and its discontent with toothachey sweets and bright mismatched colors, with loud noises and glasses held aloft. Tonight, for the first time in nearly a decade, it may actually snow in New Orleans. Just some flurries, just some flakes, a brief taste of what’s burying the rest of the nation.

I’ll be out there to see it, driving in search of wayward souls looking to find their way home. Seeing them as my past once was, haunted by memory, chanting to myself to not miss the present. This is water. This is the French Quarter in New Orleans in 2017. This is Earth and we are all alive.

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Our Need for an Enemy: America’s Adversarial Obsession

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , ,

“Down the corner by the hotdog stand
I seen a man
I said ‘Howdy friend, I guess it’s just us two’
He screamed a bit and away he flew
Thought I was a Communist”
-Bob Dylan, “Talking World War III Blues”

I love debate. Debate is arguably (ha!) my favorite activity and the one I have probably devoted the most time and energy to in my entire life. Only three other efforts even come remotely close, those being, roughly: writing, friendship, and the pursuit of forging a successful romantic relationship. (Editor’s note: Storey got engaged on Christmas Eve! Yay!) Debate is great.

But I have often acknowledged that debate has one giant, glaring weakness that frequently manifests as a character flaw in those who love it best and do it most, or I should say, manifests in me. The best that a debater can do is to acknowledge this flaw, to approach it self-awarely, and to try to mitigate it wherever possible or wherever it does harm. I have not risen sufficiently to this challenge, as many friends and family are quick to observe over the last 24 years since I first became involved in debate. But I know what it is and I try to address it: seeing the world as binary. Right vs. wrong, black vs. white, and that middle grounds and compromises are the equivalent of losing.

Debate, for all its greatness, does not reward compromise. It can reward some mitigation and nuance, some acknowledgment of when one is wrong in the small picture, but only to advantage the larger picture of being eminently right. It does not reward acknowledging when the other side has a really good point that should be taken seriously. Most damningly, it does not reward the recognition that there are more than two approaches to any problem. Everything is reduced to A or B and, come hell or high water, your position has to be better than the other, with all other considerations ruled out.

The only advantage this gives debate over American political and international theory over the last century, near as I can tell, is that you don’t always have the same enemy for years at a time in debate. Indeed, debate mitigates its cardinal sin greatly by forcing people to debate on both sides of an issue, frequently putting someone in the position of passionately defending that which they loathe in the rest of their life. The spiritual, emotional, and intellectual growth that comes from this exercise is the primary reason I’m willing to forgive debate’s binary adversarial structure and keep spreading its message far and wide. Nothing else in our society really gives us a strong incentive to take the “other side” seriously and engage it as though we agreed with it. No matter how ardently you’ve made your new year’s resolution about leaving your bubble, I only have hope that it will stick if you have a history with debate.

Of course, Democrats and Republicans or some form of left and right is, as I see it, the far less insidious manifestation of binary adversarial culture in America. As much as I hate the two-party system and all it has created, its damage meter pales in comparison to our sequential choosing of a nebulous international enemy and then throwing a Two Decades’ Hate at that foe, punctuated by bloody wars and unending bombing campaigns. From 1945-1991, of course, it was Communism, the specter that haunted our dreams and mostly looked like the USSR, but was nimble enough as an ideology to allow for the Vietnam War and a bunch of shady CIA-led repressions, coups, and borderline-genocides. What makes Communism a more satisfying enemy than the USSR is how widely it can be applied with how little evidence. You don’t need to point your guns, bombs, and henchmen at a flag or uniform only, but you can draw nefarious imagined connections between any speech or its up-and-coming sincere orator and the red menace that is coming to eat (or worse, brainwash!) good, strapping democratic babies.

For about eight years, from the end of the first Iraq War till 9/11, we got a brief glimpse of what it would look like to not have a global enemy to rally around, something to justify all the killing in the world. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most Americans remember 1992-2000 as pretty great years. Democrats want to claim this as Clinton’s legacy as a President, that he was an economic genius who replaced years of awful Republican policies. The truth, of course, is far more ambiguous: Presidents have very little impact on the economy and most of Clinton’s policies were right-wing reversions, like the crime bill or repealing welfare. If anything, Clinton’s enemy was the poor and there’s a case to be made (read your Shock Doctrine, folks!) that non-free trade and non-corporatism was the de facto enemy of this interregnum. But it was much subtler, much less broadcast, and frankly less violent. Oh sure, we were still bombing Iraq to smithereens on the regular and kept sending bombers to Somalia and Kosovo and such, but compared to the overt wars that came before and after, it was relatively peaceful.

Then 9/11 manufactured the Terrorist Threat and ushered in 15 years and counting of endless war, escalating incursions on traditionally held American rights and values, and a general renewal of the beloved American war machine, generating fear at home and bodies abroad in equal bloody measure. The only disagreement among the parties has been whether it’s more useful to call it Terrorism at large and be able to apply the force and vitriol literally everywhere (Democrats) or whether to specify it as Radical Islamic Terrorism and target it “only” at the perhaps two-thirds of the world’s nations where Islam is prevalent (Republicans). In every instance, the primary strategy has been to bomb standing nation-states into a total power vacuum so the Terrorist Threat can take hold as the only form of leadership or government available, then fight a long, protracted, awkward war with the manifestation of that threat. The hardest part about keeping this shenanigan going is that the threats which win the initial vacuum are often so weak and ridiculous that it takes a significant amount of smoke and mirrors (and often American arms) to prop them up to sufficiently make them look like a legitimate thing to be afraid of. Fortunately, there are just enough masks and black flags in the world and the American imagination is so easily terrorized that this has not posed a long-term danger to the strategy.

But a funny thing happened in 2016. It seemed there was real, legitimate dissent about who the great American Enemy should be. While Donald Trump went around continuing to talk about Radical Islamic Terrorism, rattling cages with this ominous bogeyman, Hillary Clinton pivoted rather forcefully to the ultimate champion of our old ideological foe, Communism, now rebranded as simply Putin (or very occasionally, Russian Hackers). It seemed an odd move for one of the most significant fighters of the War on Terror strategy, someone perhaps second only to George W. Bush himself in the desire to bomb Islamic nations into chaos and then talk gravely about the need to intervene in the resulting chaos. (It remains the strangest footnote of 2016 American politics that Clinton was criticized by the right for being weak on Libya through the Benghazi incident when she was the strongest advocate of creating its power vacuum for long-term exploitation in the first place.) And yet as DJT stands poised to take the international stage and renew the War on Terror in its insidious glory for the next 4-8 years, leadership in both parties yearns for the middle decades of last century and wants to switch to Russia instead. Whatever else you may think is going on in our nation’s capital, I suspect this is the ideological battle that will have the most impact on the shape of the world in the foreseeable future.

I feel I shouldn’t need to explain exactly what’s so problematic about having an appointed enemy who is the visage of ultimate wrong in American politics, that becomes the target of all our weaponry and hateful rhetoric. But I can also hear sincere believers in the American Way clamoring that both ISIS and Russia do shady stuff and act with bad intent toward our people and should be “held to account” for this. (Sidenote: “held to account” is a phrase we use to indicate going through the justice system, such as it is, for Americans or people we feel have rights. For non-Americans, it usually means “having your neighborhood indiscriminately bombed until you capitulate”. Worth thinking about.) Yes, ISIS does do bad things. So does Putin. So does the United States. If you can’t honestly look at the Native American genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, Vietnam, the CIA, and the War on Terror and imagine what the US would say, think, and do about a country with that track-record that wasn’t the US, then there’s no point in having a rational discussion about this. Imagine you’re debating the position that the US has done more harm than good. Look at how many arguments are available to you! Look how easy this position is to defend! Now, do you think the US is best because it’s truly best? Or are you predisposed to think that because we all tell ourselves a story about who we are, where we were born, and what we deserve?

The problem with having a sworn enemy, whoever it is and whatever they’ve done, is that it blinds you to both your own flaws and to the other side’s good traits. It turns the world into good and evil, baddies and goodies, things that we think might be all right for five-year-olds to absorb as an introduction to the world but that lose their efficacy for explaining the world by middle school at the latest. This touches on a few themes I’ve hit before, but perhaps the most important is the idea that people who disagree with you are innately irrational. This is incited in the wake of every mass-killing, every suicide, every terrorist attack, and I have discussed this more than almost anything else on this blog. It’s always labeled as “senseless” and “irrational” and “unthinkable”. When we kill, we have reasons. When anyone else kills, they have no reasons. It’s the persistent mantra of our self-enforced superiority as Americans. And it’s bunk.

But it applies beyond just the international realm. It applies, most prominently, to Donald Trump and his supporters. The traditional media, the left such as it is, and more prominently the center-right masquerading as the left, all agree that Donald Trump and everyone who voted for him are unthinkably irrationally crazy. Just as Russia and Putin are our sworn new foreign enemy to be thwarted at every turn, so too are Donald Trump and his voters our sworn domestic foe. And everything he does, they do, must be immediately called out as the worst thing ever regardless of its actual content or value.

Look, I’m no fan of Donald Trump. And most every move he’s made since early November has made him seem even more problematic. But not every move. And not every thing. And certainly not everyone who voted for him shares culpability for his most problematic stances, any more than every Clinton voter should have been tried for murder in the wake of whatever wars she started. It’s a fine and subtle distinction I’m advocating, between being hyper-critical of that which is bad and literally believing that everything a certain enemy does is condemnatory evil. We shouldn’t have enemies, at least not ones that persistent and that incredible. Even in debate rounds, our enemies change, we befriend our enemies after some time, and we sometimes even debate our teammates, with them being the enemy for just one round. It is this interplay between friend and foe, this understanding that most people do things that are wrong and other things that are right, that is vital to remember. It also makes it much harder for us to feel good about killing anyone.

Which is good. Because we shouldn’t be killing anyone.

You can take that line at the top, from new Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, and replace “Communist” with “Terrorist”. It’s searingly relevant for the last 15 years. Or you can replace it with just “Russian” and it will serve as a fitting parable about the last year of American perception. Or how about “Trump Voter” and that will tell you all you need to know about a lot of America in the last sixty days.

Howdy, friend. I guess it’s just us two. Let’s take that obligation seriously, shall we?

by

What We Could (Should) Have Done for Aleppo

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , ,

As a pacifist, one of the most frequent criticisms I face is that I am advocating “doing nothing” in the face of atrocities near and far. There are just bad people in the world, the argument goes, who will kill you and take all your stuff if you’re not careful. And so violence is required in response, because the only alternative is to “do nothing” and “let it happen”.

This reality frustrates me for a variety of reasons, but the biggest is probably that it demonstrates how locked into fight-or-flight thinking we still are, despite several millennia of post-evolution attempts at being civilized. We are willing to apply all of our creative genius as a species to developing more sophisticated and efficient ways of killing each other, but refuse to spend any of that energy on developing meaningful alternatives to violence as a response to violence. The rapid development of technology in the last 150 years has only heightened this problem as we now believe that we will magic our way out of problems by developing ever more advanced technology, so we spend even less time considering problems of human mindset and organization. Most people who believe the extant models of catastrophic climate change seem to believe it’s more likely we’ll find some near-magic solution through technology than that we can alter our ways of thinking about societal structures to literally save the planet and everything on it. We’ll see, but my bet is not on technology that, throughout history save maybe the last thirty years, has failed to consider its planetary impact whatsoever.

Part of the problem is that humans tend to assume the way things have been is the way they will continue to be, despite all evidence to the contrary. We believe that the models that predicted the last election will accurately predict the next one. We believe that people will continue to feel as they felt before. We believe that our society will be just as stable and whole and coherent as it was in past decades. The obvious reality is that almost all conditions are fleeting and almost all of these things change, often with little warning. But that reality is unsettling so we prefer not to consider it, instead continuing to invest in the longevity of the status quo. Some of us get lucky and live in an ongoing status quo for most of our lifetime. Most of us are not so rewarded for our natural complacency.

Nonetheless, these assumptions of stagnation lead to further assumptions of greater stagnation. For example, humans have always done violence, so it’s inescapable. Humans have always eaten meat, so we can’t stop now. Humans have always been selfish, greedy bastards, so the best we can do is put systems in place that reward that behavior and steer it to be more profitable. There’s always going to be someone to mess it up for everyone else, so let’s construct society on the assumption that everyone is The Worst.

Not only do these assumptions ignore fundamentally good qualities of humanity, like charitable behavior and compassion, but they ignore really seminal events in rapid positive change. The rapid rise of the gay rights and gay marriage movement is an excellent example of something that was far more ludicrous than non-violence just decades ago, and has now become codified law in many leading societies. We do not have a long and storied history of religions and advocates noting how important freedom of sexual orientation is, yet now it’s come to be predominantly (though not entirely) accepted. Even the existence and proliferation of Wikipedia defies commonly understood norms about human behavior, the innate selfishness and money-motivation of humans, the inability of a democratized system to advance expertise and knowledge. And yes, technology played a role in the creation of Wikipedia, but it’s really more a restructuring of how we think about human structures and behavior that is the real catalyst. After all, there’s also a bunch of capitalist garbage on the Internet. Very little about the technology is innately egalitarian. What we assume will always persist as negative and necessary truths about humanity is just as valid as most of our assumptions about people.

That’s all part of it, these false assumptions. But I think the other part of it, and the one that I hope to address here in this post, is that people just don’t consider non-violent alternative approaches to violent situations that ameliorate them or minimize the loss of life. Other than King and Gandhi, basically no one has ever even attempted them in collectively remembered history. And despite the fact that those were super-effective models for creating revolutionary change in the face of overwhelming force, the next problem is always faced with the presumption that those were non-repeatable quarks, not blueprints for a better way.

One of the reasons for this is the old hammer-and-nail adage (“when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). In the United States, we spend more on “defense” (the military) than anything else in the budget, than everything else in the budget combined. We spend more than the next twenty countries behind us combined. We spend so many resources, people, political capital, and propaganda on having the mightiest fighting force the planet has ever known so we can use it to dominate global politics and influence events through what is functionally a might-makes-right paradigm. We are living in an era of one of the greatest proliferations of the concept of rule by violent force in human history. Even though it’s tagged as democratic and wears a smile and isn’t overtly conquering the rest of the world via armed invasion (only with ideological demands backed by implied threat), it’s still fundamentally about the force. And in this context, this world, especially when 9/11 quickly replaced the void left by the Cold War (a void that provided great opportunity for non-violent creativity because we had our mandate to live in fear briefly suspended), it’s hard to think of any thoughtful or creative ways of helping people avoid violence that do not cause violence.

This is all the more problematic because of how obviously flawed our violent solutions are. You don’t have to be a pacifist to recognize that almost every military intervention conducted by the United States in the last sixty years has been an unmitigated disaster. Vietnam, a seeming outlier of embarrassing defeat for the US military at the time, has ushered in an era where local insurgent fighters have the upper hand in every conflict and essentially make it impossible for any outside invading force to ever truly conquer a country. In a world where people learned quickly from their mistakes, this reality would be a recognized godsend, because we would realize that each nation has true sovereignty over their own affairs and that outside imposition by force is a fool’s errand, thus understanding that change requires more delicate and dignified approaches. Instead, we’ve continued to drop the hammer on a variety of nails that ultimately penetrate our own skin, from Latin America to Africa, Iraq to Afghanistan to Iraq again.

And where we have not directly bombed and invaded, we’ve meddled in violent ways that only escalate chaos. In the name of “regime change”, we armed bin Laden, Hussein, and ISIS, not to mention countless forgotten warlords and would-be dictators who seemed to align with our slightly preferred interests at the time. We gleefully drop drone strikes into Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan with only the vaguest understanding of the geopolitical situations there or the ramifications of turning yet another far-flung nation into a fiery fearful hellscape. For thirty years, the primary US intervention in other nations’ affairs has been to sell arms to rebel groups of some kind, just betting on the idea that more arms for more violence and chaos will destabilize the bad guys enough to make something better. It literally never works. Never. There is no instance where the US has fomented a violent revolution through arms sales and covert operations to spur a change in regime from something ruthless and dictatorial to something open, democratic, and truly free. It simply doesn’t happen. The situation is always more complicated, rights always get trampled in the few instances where the revolution is successful, and the backlash is always fierce and bloodier than the initial terror of the regime we’re trying to replace.

You can say it’s all motivated by money, a horrifically powerful military-industrial complex that profits on blood money worldwide, often selling the same weapons to both sides of the conflict. You can say, conversely, that it’s all totally innocent, that we really sincerely believe we can arm the rest of the world into oblivion and the right people will always win and the next time will be the precedent that proves it. Ultimately, I’m less interested in which side of it you believe. The reality is that it’s one of the most long-running and ineffective campaigns imaginable. If I were ever to advocate for continuing a set of policies and actions half that ineffective, you can only imagine how much flak I’d get for being a wide-eyed dreamer. But because their solutions involve guns and bombs, which we associate with “realism” somehow (does it all just devolve into macho stereotypes?), an utterly failed approach to the world that kills hundreds of thousands is reaffirmed as the only rational approach.

So what are the alternatives? Whether or not doing literally nothing would be better than throwing guns, drone strikes, and occasional full-scale invasions around (I think it clearly would be), are there actual concrete steps that can be taken that are both non-violent and would improve the situation?

Yes.

Let’s look at Aleppo.

The whole world is watching Aleppo now, watching tragic videos of people holed up and facing their impending death as the last major rebel stronghold in Syria falls under the regime’s brutal re-conquest. It is impossible to be a compassionate person and not feel torn apart by the news reports of slaughter, by the plaintive cries we can see on social media, then to immediately feel remorse at not doing more to help prevent this situation, to help come up with some way that all these innocent people didn’t have to die so horribly.

(Last little soapbox note here: It is of primary importance to remember these victims in Aleppo the next time we contemplate the US dropping the bombs or going house to house with military force. Just because the videos of victims of American drone strikes do not tend to go viral in America does not mean we are not directly causing lots of little Aleppos all over the globe. And often these victims have no warning, no time to prepare a farewell. They’re just snuffed out as irrelevant collateral in our quest for dominance. The scale of magnitude may be less than Aleppo, but the principle is the same.)

Diplomatic solutions are the traditional alternative that people would expect from someone like me. And I do believe there’s more – much more – we could have done through traditional diplomatic channels. Just as the US and Russia were able to swiftly work with Assad’s regime to destroy his chemical weapons stockpile, so too were there many times when Assad and Russia were willing (indeed eager) to come to the bargaining table to negotiate ceasefires and eventual peace. It was primarily our own stubbornness that Assad should not be part of any peaceful solution that facilitated where Aleppo stands today, at the bottom of a massacre. In demanding that we got to play a role in picking the ultimate winner of the conflict, we ensured our ultimate defeat and perhaps a million innocent Syrians are paying for that mistake with their blood.

I should be careful and clear here. Obviously the primary person responsible for the slaughter is Assad himself. In my haste to point out our own culpability, it sometimes can sound like I’m blaming the US for foreign atrocities more than those actually firing the weapons or giving the orders on the atrocities. I am not doing that. There’s plenty that we are primarily uniquely responsible for (e.g. drone strikes, see above) that I don’t need to lay the entirety of Aleppo at the feet of the US. However, I feel like the US had the power and placement to negotiate an end to this conflict that would have prevented this kind of horrific worst-case scenario. It’s hard to say whether the mistake was prompted more by hubris at assuming “our” side would eventually win and defeat Assad or by indifference to the fates of those who would lose the most if we were wrong.

But if nothing else, our own crimes against humanity should be evidence that a standard of us refusing to negotiate with dictators or terrorists or murderers is just laughably impractical. For coming from the school of so-called realism, it’s frighteningly unrealistic to just refuse to talk to some people because they’re so bad for killing innocents, especially when we kill our own fair share of innocents. Especially when the ability to talk would save innocent lives, which is supposed to be what it’s all about. There were ways to work out a compromise in Syria that spared both the Assad regime and most of the rebels, that could have avoided mass recrimination and punishment of rebels now being gunned down in the streets. That would have actually stabilized Syria and restored infrastructure to a people who have been suffering for several horrible years.

But let’s say you don’t buy that. You believe that the US did all it could, or for some reason Assad going was more important to stick to in principle than saving hundreds of thousand of lives. You believe that Assad would have just slaughtered everyone anyway after the peace deal. Whatever it is, you just think diplomatic solutions were a no-go. Surely no alternatives but bombs and guns then, right?

Wrong. The United States has an enormous navy. We have a huge disciplined fighting force that is advertised on American televisions and movie screens as a mere search-and-rescue team. It’s a feel-good story that usually doesn’t bear out in practice. But it could have.

The area controlled by Syrian rebels was in the extreme northeast area of Syria, running up from the coast to the Turkish border and then about seventy miles inland to Aleppo. They held this territory for years during which the conditions were deteriorating. The fact that the Turkish border was not hostile to these rebels is a big part of why so many refugees were able to escape through Turkey and head north to Europe.

So here’s what you do. You send the American fleet (not all of it, but a lot of it) to the coast. In the earlier years, you could have parked it on actual Syrian (rebel) territory, but later you’d have to use the extreme southwestern Turkish coast instead. And you tell everyone in rebel-controlled Syria that you will evacuate them, no questions asked. And you set up a US-run refugee camp somewhere. It doesn’t have to be the US, though that would be ideal, but you might have to pay an ally a billion dollars (you know, the cost of two state-of-the-art bombers) to set up the camp in their territory that’s ideally closer to Syria to save on transportation costs. And then you just run it, using the full force of the American military and all their logistical expertise, to ferry all the civilians out of harm’s way.

Any soldiers that hit the Syrian beach to help load up refugees don’t bring weapons with them as a show of good faith. You don’t send people further inland than the beach, though you provide logistical support and advice for how to set up the human caravan to get people out safely and quickly. You work with Turkey, an ally, to set up the pipeline through their territory, monitoring and stabilizing and helping all the folks along the way.

You think once you’ve started doing that that Syria or Russia are going to risk a war with the US by interfering with this operation? That they’re going to risk the PR nightmare of firing on the soldiers conducting a purely humanitarian mission, much less one of the ships? There’s no way.

At that point, rather than chaotically distributed refugees all on their own harrowing journey of woe, many of them drowning in the Mediterranean after handing their entire life savings to a smuggler, you have an organized camp somewhere safe and stable and you begin processing the refugees for eventual long-term placement. At the point when the US has stuck its neck out so far to help these people, it’s pretty impossible for Europe or other rich nations to just turn a blind eye and say they don’t have to help. You work with Germany, Canada, whoever will help, to safely process and transfer refugees. You take in a lot of them in the US. You meanwhile keep the diplomatic channels open to try to influence the eventual stable Syria so there’s a chance a lot of these folks can go home someday, will want to. But you set up a contingency for the idea that they’ll never be able to and that it’s obviously better to live free in the West than die captured in Syria. You recognize that if one or two ISIS fighters get caught up in the camp and end up committing an atrocious act of violence in the camp or Berlin or Iowa that it’s an acceptable price, that it’s still so much better than the human cost paid of actually doing nothing.

There’s the human benefits, sure. Totally enormous, incalculable. But if you want to be selfish, if you want to be a realpolitik American who cares only about America, here’s what else you get: the greatest optical boost to the US in seven decades. Suddenly, the US, target of terrorists around the globe and would-be forceful hegemon, has expended enormous human and financial capital in conducting the largest humanitarian rescue operation in human history, to save innocent victims in a Muslim country. Can you imagine? Can you imagine how that would change how we’re viewed in the rest of the world. Best of luck to al-Qaeda and ISIS recruiting new anti-American suicide bombers after that story sinks in across the planet. Oh yes, there would be propaganda and spin for a while that we were actually squirreling them off to live in human slavery or that the camp was a concentration camp. But in a world of social media, that spin would have a pretty short shelf life as pictures came back of a clean, well-maintained, well-organized camp meant to hold people only briefly before they were sent off to a new viable, safe life in a new nation.

Within a few years, any threat of terrorism against the United States would be gone. That single act of humanitarianism would erase decades of wrongdoings, bury so many hatchets and such ill will. It would be ludicrous to paint America as anti-Muslim, purely militaristic, hell-bent on world domination. The snowball effect of this great charitable act would allay nearly every fear we currently feel we face, roll back every doomsday clock to a comfortable hour.

Wouldn’t you rather live in a country that did things like that? Wouldn’t you rather vote for leaders who advocated such bold grand moves? Wouldn’t that news two years ago be better than today’s news out of Aleppo?

It doesn’t just apply to Aleppo, of course. The coast is convenient, but it probably would’ve been even easier to do something like this for Rwanda. Just paratroop some folks in to set up safe houses. You think people with machetes are going to attack uniformed US personnel keeping watch over safe houses? They don’t have to fire a shot, just be present. I would posit they really wouldn’t even need to bring weapons or be military personnel – we could have sent a corps of volunteer observers over there and accomplished the same results. Would-be genociders would never run the risk of provoking the most powerful country on the planet.

And this is where the great opportunity exists for American power. I ranted in my last post about how it’s never used for good and has been amassed for, at best, thoroughly selfish ends. But now that we have all this power and wealth and influence, we could use it for good. We have the power to mitigate and prevent the worst atrocities on the globe. But to do that, we have to stop leading with force first. We have to stop seeing ourselves as just part of the super-militaristic rat-race that everyone’s engaged in, because that only allows us to commit more violence, not bring more peace. After the ravages of ISIS across norther Iraq, even the most diehard neocon can now recognize that the Iraqi people have spent the last 13 years worse off than they were under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Our military policy makes the world worse: more dangerous, less stable, more prone to failed-state quagmires that fester in war and decay for decades. But the power we’ve put behind it, the power and capital and leverage we have across the world, it’s almost limitless raw potential to do and be good.

All we have to do is apply the same creative vision and risk-taking we laud in the corporate or military world and apply it to curbing the impact of violence non-violently. When stacked against profit or selfishness, it should seem infinitely more motivating. When stacked against decades of failed efforts to change regimes and quell countries through violence, it should seem infinitely more practical.

So what’s stopping us?

This is the kind of thing I hoped Obama meant by “we are the people we have been waiting for.” Despite his Nobel Prize, this has nothing to do with what he meant.

Obviously, I know Trump doesn’t have big plans to use American power in this way. But neither did Clinton.

We need leaders and leadership that have the courage to use our power to heal, not hammer. Until then, we have to look at the images of Aleppo, weep, and feel a tremendous guilt at our collective lack of imagination.

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Expectations of American Power

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

ampower

I almost titled this “Donald Trump and the Expectations of American Power”. Just as you could title anything in the last decade “Harry Potter and X” and have it be an instant hit, so too does placing a “Donald Trump and” in front of things currently buy you top billing in today’s media culture. There are several things I have seen being called “The Trump Effect” in recent weeks, from electoral surprises to proliferation of fake news to name-calling as discourse. But I think the biggest Trump Effect I see is his ability to crowd out the landscape of all other news, all other possible things to consider and report on. This impacts me as I consider what resolutions to set in debate practice or what to post about here (I’m not claiming to be an exception – scroll down and you will see Trump’s dominance in the last 18 months). A couple weeks ago, the BBC World Service overnight broadcast on NPR which makes my between-rides soundtrack when driving Uber was joking about how all their headlines were about Trump and they were scrolling to try to find one to report on that didn’t involve him just to break up the monotony.

And look, it’s explicable. Donald Trump’s election is perhaps the most unexpected event in American history since 9/11. And for a long time, American history has been offered as a proxy for world history, so that’s a pretty significant event. And it’s making people feel like they have no idea what his presidency will look like, other than a series of surprises, and that’s creating a bunch of uncertainty. And boy, do people, especially Americans, hate uncertainty!

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last month contemplating why I feel so disconnected from most of my friends on the political left in the wake of this election. It’s not like I like Trump or supported him, so I’m certainly not excited about his presidency. I already spent a couple thousand words on this subject a fortnight ago and illustrated how my extreme leftism helps keep me apart from mainline Democrats who are convinced that Trump is a disaster but Obama and Clinton have/would have had great policies. But I’m realizing that the issue is more fundamental than that. It’s really about the expectations one has of the uses of American power in the world. The thing that separates me from most people doomsaying Trump is not necessarily that I’m to their left, though that could be a contributing factor. It’s that most of these people fundamentally expect American power can and will be used for good. I can’t remember the last time I thought that. And that creates a huge divide indeed.

If you believe that American power is generally deployed as a force for good around the globe, liberating people, spreading justice, and serving as a positive model, then Trump’s election is indeed a shocking break with precedent. It’s true that Trump is going to do a lot of objectively bad things with American power, from making racist, sexist, and xenophobic statements to trying to make America more discriminatory and jingoistic to aligning and allying with bad actors to beefing up “law and order” policies to setting back environmental regulations. Lamenting the onset of Trump’s planned wielding of power to these and other ends is reasonable. But it’s only really reasonable on the scale of magnitude that I see if you think this a major shift from the way things have been. And, sorry, but I don’t.

Honestly, every time I’ve agreed with an American policy or felt it was a positive influence in the world in the last twenty years has been something of a shock for me. It’s been a surprise akin to the one most Americans felt when the media finally called the election for DJT. Most of these have come in the last two years and I think I can count the total in two decades on my two hands. Opening up Cuba, though it was painfully slow and meek. The Iran nuclear deal. The Syria chemical weapons deal. And I’m already running out of material.

Truth is, I expect American power to be used to abuse the rest of the world and, frankly, most Americans, regularly, as a matter of course. My baseline expectation is that American power is a force for grievous ill in the world, made more grievous by its self-adulating aggrandizement as being a force for good. The United States peddles influence and perpetuates a corporatist agenda with every move it makes at home and abroad, spreading its imperial tentacles into every corner of the globe and naming all resistance as backwards at best and terrorism at worst. If you’re about to virulently disagree with me, I really suggest you read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine before constructing your refutation, because even I’m shocked by its content (about 2/3 of the way through at present) and I’m one of the most cynical people about America who’s still a citizen. And it’s all the more shocking for pre-dating the further corporatist consolidation that came in 2008 and beyond through the financial crisis.

This issue really comes to a head when it comes to matters like security briefings for Donald Trump. DJT says he doesn’t want daily briefings and the Facebook public goes into a histrionic tailspin. Really, guys? What do you think America does with security briefings that are so important and good? Security briefings are ways of deciding who the US will personally assassinate today without warrant or trial, who we will scapegoat to the public so there can be backlash and recrimination, what covert operations we can conduct in foreign lands to fulfill the corporate state’s mandate. Skipping a few of these is not only perhaps my favorite thing about Trump (please note: I still do not like Trump), it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever heard about a US President.

And yes, I know Trump will still promulgate a corporatist and probably overly militarist agenda during his term(s) in office. But so did every President of my lifetime, with the possible very slight exception of Jimmy Carter, who presided over the first eleven months (exactly) of my lifetime. This is normal. This is normal.

Not normal, I guess, is saying he’ll open up relations with Taiwan. But this is what you want to get hot and bothered about? Really? I have been unable to see this news story without thinking, feeling, knowing that if Obama were talking about a two-China policy, every liberal friend I have would be crowing about his brave sense of justice and speaking truth to power. And like, yes, I get that you think Obama is smarter than Trump (he is) and that this means you trust him more to handle this situation. But it does not change the principle of the idea. Just because you think one person would handle the situation better does not change a good idea into a bad one or vice versa. It is so strange and almost cognitively dissonant to watch the same people decry Trump’s coziness with Putin and warn that he’s courting war by standing up to China. It makes me feel like opposing Trump regardless of situation or issue is all that matters.

Which, of course, is buoyed by what many people have explicitly said. This is the camp that believes Trump is, in fact, American Hitler, that it’s about to be the Reichstag fire, and that if we don’t fight literally everything the President-Elect thinks, says, and does, we will soon be trampled underfoot. My objection to this is less that I think it’s impossible (I do find it highly improbable) and more that I think Trump just clearly doesn’t depart that much from his predecessors. Obama famously expanded the scope and scale of Presidential powers vastly, especially around the key issue of enacting war and violence on the rest of the world. This was just following suit from W Bush, who used 9/11 to enact changes that we would call martial law in any other society. None of these changes have been repealed or revoked, save for the dubious claim that we have rolled back some of the worst abuses of the NSA domestic spying program after Snowden exposed it. If Trump is Hitler, the last two Presidents have been Mussolini at best and he’s just here to close the deal.

This also applies to claims about crony capitalism. Read The Shock Doctrine. The Bush administration was an unending reign of crony capitalism, bolstering my long-running claim that the Bushes sought power literally for the sole purpose of enriching themselves and their friends. And while Obama did not literally assign no-bid contracts and bailouts to his close personal friends, he certainly was in the business of picking winners and propping up a corporate agenda. No one in the financial crisis was ever held to account, just as no American war criminals since Vietnam have ever faced so much as a charge. The revolving door between financial regulation and Goldman Sachs just kept spinning. Rhetoric throughout Obama’s eight years continued to prop up the notion that the primary purpose of the President was to manually create jobs and grow businesses, no matter the overhead cost. The Carrier deal and other conflicts of business interest Trump will perpetuate in his term(s) may be slightly more aggressive in degree, but seem no different in kind from the stated purpose of American politics since Reagan: help corporations so they can replace government in providing for the American people.

What are these great uses of American power that I’m missing? What are you so sad Trump will not be doing that you feel previous Presidents have done that do good for people at home and abroad?

The environmental argument is maybe the one thing I really get. Obama broke with all prior precedents (and Presidents) in occasionally taking climate change and environmental concerns seriously. It was only very occasional and very slight, as he advocated Keystone (for 99% of the time it was an issue), “clean coal” (I can only assume it’s from the same place that Volkswagen got “clean diesel”), and the Dakota Access Pipeline. He did support the last climate agreement and he once in a while talked a good empty game about getting tough on pollution. Trump will probably do tangible damage here, though if the models are even close to right, any “environmental” policy that doesn’t dismantle capitalism is deck chairs on the Titanic. But I know the “first take your foot off the accelerator” argument and there’s probably something to that. Simultaneously, though, there’s something insidious about only lightly tapping the accelerator and passing that off as slamming the brakes. Like so many things, at least there will be widespread opposition to a slightly worse version of policy than no leftist opposition at all.

But I think the biggest issue is how tied to American Exceptionalism these positive expectations of American power are. Because if you really want Trump to go to these security briefings, to appoint more competent people to run the Defense Department and the NSA (and the CIA and the FBI and the DHS and good lord do we have a lot of ways to be scared of other people), to take more traditional approaches to foreign capitals, then well, what do you really want? Because those are all things that beef up American imperialism, that bolster our ability to control and manipulate other people, making their lives worse while trying to improve our society’s standing. Is that really what you want? And why? Is it just naked selfishness? Or do you really believe that somehow the US, who interfered with almost every democratic election in the last six decades worldwide and often overthrew the ones they couldn’t rig with military dictatorships, is going to do more good than harm?

If Trump takes steps, through incompetence or deliberate destruction, to reduce American power and influence, great. American hegemony has been terrible for the planet and worse for its people. Let’s give some other folks a try, or at least balance out the power a little so some new, non-corporatist ideas get a shot. If you think even Trump needs to do everything possible to consolidate and build American power, then what are you really rooting for?

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A Life Lived Out Loud: Remembering Jonathan Bernbaum (1982-2016)

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , ,

On Saturday morning, I woke up late, as I usually do these days. I’d been out driving till about 3:00 AM, wrapping up Friday night much earlier than normal. I was feeling a little sick. That night, I had nightmares, as is still pretty usual. As is the tendency these days, one of the first things I did after waking up was check my phone.

I saw the following update from Facebook: Elizabeth Turnbull marked herself safe during The Fire in Oakland. Elizabeth Turnbull is the married name of a Smith debater who was in the college class of 2004, who only recently moved to Oakland.

My first thought was of how many people I know in Oakland, how many I know in the Bay Area, and how catastrophic a fire would have to be to warrant that level of a safety check. I immediately went to Google News for more. I saw that it was an electronic music show and I immediately thought of Jon. Jon, or just Bernbaum, as I knew him, has been going by his fuller name of Jonathan Bernbaum for years as he became a world traveling highly acclaimed VJ, performing at dance parties, raves, and events of all kind all over the world. This seemed like exactly the kind of event he would be playing, or attending. But almost immediately thereafter, I banished the thought. He was almost certainly somewhere else in the world, anywhere but Oakland, playing in Dubai or Estonia or Shanghai. I went to see his recent Facebook posts.

He’d just returned from a multi-country tour of Asia, playing huge events, a few days before. His latest post, which I suddenly remembered seeing, was about divesting from Wells Fargo to a credit union. Above that, a few comments of concern from friends that he hadn’t yet marked himself as safe. And then I found the event page for the show where the fire had started and saw he was marked to attend. My blood froze. It wasn’t clear whether he’d been performing or just attending, but it looked like he’d been there. I posted on his Facebook page, then that of the Brandeis debate team, hoping someone else knew more, knew better than I did.

Jon and I weren’t close lately. We weren’t totally far, either, but we hadn’t seen each other in person in something close to a decade. This is the nature of the world of social media and Facebook, much like the slow-motion horror that unfolded above and in the 36 hours that followed before it was confirmed that he was among the victims of the fire. You don’t ever lose touch with people, unless you really want to, those connections to people you shared brief important times with can remain, unbroken and open, as you keep up with each other’s lives. We had recently touched base a few years ago when he was headed to Finland for the first time and asked for recommendations and I caught up on his incredible career as a VJ. Even more recently, he’d commented on my post just last month about the election wrap-up. A fellow far-lefty, a borderline (?) pacifist, an anti-establishment comrade, we saw the world in much the same way, both in those college years we shared and so many years down the line.

We met at Brandeis, the fall of his first year there, when he joined the debate team I’d been on for two years prior. He immediately established himself as an uppity novice, a big voice with big opinions who had a way of getting under people’s skin but was deeply committed to improving as a debater. He had bluster, bravado, stubbornness, intelligence, and will. He was, to most, an acquired taste who really grew on you. While he sometimes led with abrasiveness, he was passionately interested in ideas and how they worked, pushing people to their limit to see how they ticked. That spring, after Zirkin and I took a break from our failed TOTY run to try to qual teammates, Bernbaum and I debated together at the tiny Wellesley tournament.

It was a disaster. We went 2-3, one of my only losing records at an APDA tournament. But despite the poor performance, I found I loved debating with Jon. He was bold and brave in his argumentation. He was passionate and excited. He was as enthused for our 2-2 round, when we had no chance of breaking, as he’d been for our opening round, when we had high hopes. He brought his trademark intensity to every speech, every round, every recap of the round. Sometimes that intensity was a little manic, but he was determined to harness it to improve. And he’d earned 4th novice speaker in the process. I vowed that we’d return to another tournament the next year and avenge our record.

It was Amherst the next January where we attempted to fulfill this promise. The mid-sized field of 47 teams sported a veritable murderer’s row of debaters, including three debaters who would go on to win Nationals in the following two years. After a solid first round win, we hit the tournament favorite, that year’s second TOTY (Team of the Year, the annual overall rankings for partnerships on APDA, our debate league), Beth O’Connor and Adam Jed from Yale. Danny Schwarcz, a recent Amherst graduate and star of their team, was our judge. We were Opp and Bernbaum started freaking out a little that our luck from Wellesley was back. I started wracking my brains for what case they’d run against us, since I had hit this team about every other weekend all season. And then I remembered they had a case that many teams ran about eliminating victim impact statements, one they’d never run against either of us. We started discussing counter-arguments to this case.

When Danny got to the room, he asked what we were talking about so frantically and prepping so much since we were Opp. I told him we had a hunch about the case and Bernbaum flashed his trademark evil grin. Danny, to my chagrin, said he thought that case would be really interesting and he hoped they’d run it. We went back to prepping. When Yale returned to the room with their case ready, Danny observed that we’d predicted the case and our opponents immediately said that they doubted this was possible. He said “we’ll let you know when you read case statement” and Beth got up for her PMC. Before she was finished saying “We have an interesting case for you about the sentencing phase of jury trials,” Jon and I had both burst out laughing and Danny was trying to hold a poker face through giving her a thumbs-up. Only mildly flustered, she went on to deliver the case. Emboldened by our preparation, we went on to win.

We dropped round three to the team that would go 5-0 in in-rounds, consisting of Tim Willenken, who’d had only moderate success with his regular partner that year and his novice partner for the weekend, Josh Bendor. I forget who we beat round 4. In fifth round, we proved to be the middle 3-1 team and got pulled-up to hit the top team at the tournament, a 4-0 squad from MIT, who’d dubbed themselves the Ivy League Assassins for the weekend. They were drawing little stick figures of every Ivy League debater they bested that weekend beside their names each round. But, of course, Brandeis is not an Ivy League school.

The team, good friends Patrick Nichols and Phil Larochelle, who would go on to win the 2003 North American Championships as well as this tournament, ran an opp-choice case of whether a rebel movement in a developing nation should use violent or non-violent means to resist an oppressive government. They ran this as a trap, knowing I’d pick non-violent, presuming it to be the much weaker side. Christopher Russo, the ranking dino in experience and age on the circuit at the time, judged. The round was hard-fought and razor-close, but ultimately Jon and I were able to fend off Phil’s onslaught of examples with the notion that just because non-violence had been tried less didn’t mean it wasn’t more effective. I’m not sure I’d ever been in a round where both my teammate and I felt so passionately about a side we were arguing and the importance of its implications. Not only did we win the round, it was the only blemish on the Ivy League Assassins’ perfection that tournament. They won every other round with perfect ranks and finished as tournament champions and the top two speakers.

Despite the two utterly epic victories, Bernbaum and I broke to quarterfinals as just the eighth seed in the tournament, lining up for a rematch with Willenken and Bendor. I remember the round being pretty packed and we were both nervous as we waited, not being able to predict what this Yale team would run against as we had in round two. They ran opp-choice, should we value the letter or spirit of the law when they conflict, a classic LD resolution from prior years. I’m not sure we even deliberated before immediately choosing spirit. Jon was brilliant in the round, citing several instances of old racist and sexist laws whose letter is exclusionary but can be reinterpreted to be more inclusive in our more enlightened contemporary understanding of society. While we lost the round, I’d never seen him debate better and I was so proud to be his partner that weekend.

Later that year, we’d debate together officially just once more, defending the proposed Brandeis boycott of Kraft, the idea that good friend Ben Brandzel had championed as President of the Student Senate. This was in a public debate on campus, one of the first we ever did, and placed us, for the third time in a row, in the position of passionately defending a political position we staunchly believed in. It was practically like The Great Debaters, now that I think of it.

Our names on the board for the public debate on the Kraft referendum.

Our names on the board for the public debate on the Kraft referendum.

At the end of that year, at our senior banquet, Bernbaum won the Most Improved Debater award, a testament to his dedication, perseverance, and intensity. No one had any doubt that he was by far the most deserving recipient.

Jon stayed on the debate team his junior and senior year, but from what I heard his commitment to the club was variable. He was not always his happiest and most at home in college. While he loved Brandeis and his intellectual pursuits there, he struggled at times with his outlook on life, his weight, with finding a place and direction in his life. When we reconnected in 2005, when he’d graduated and moved back to his childhood home in Berkeley while I lived in Oakland, he seemed restless for his life to begin already. He became a regular at the Big Blue House poker nights, joining our teammate and good friend Zimmy, plus a variety of Seneca and PIRG friends and our landlord. We told old debate stories and laughed and joked and he perfected his wily and cunning poker faces, which were kind of the opposite of poker faces in trying to deceive you not with impassivity but with gregariousness. Such was always his wild, goofy way. That February, he, Zimmy, and Chris Russo took me out for Mexican food for my birthday and talked about everything and I remember it being one of those magical perfect nights of conversation, blending mundane personal insights with grand political hopes and all of us thinking deeply about our role in the universe.

Soon, of course, Jon found his role. His journey to USC to study film, then to Pixar, then to his incredible niche as an artist VJing shows, was a deliberate and chosen path that led him to a cornucopia of friends, accolades, and fulfillments. Like all of his paths, it was not entirely constructed or fully planned, but included whimsy, whim, and just a dash of madness. Simultaneously, he turned the path inward on himself, reshaping how he interacted with the world in drastic and important ways. He excised junk from his diet, losing an enormous amount of weight. He committed himself to pursue only the activities which he felt were valuable and important. Turning down a full-time offer at Pixar to pursue his creative vision to create wild visual displays for enormous parties is something no one saw coming, nor could anyone deny its obvious rightness once we saw his success in that scene. He had found his place, and tens of thousands of people were richer, more enthralled, and more thoughtful for his influence.

If there is a silver lining to this immense tragedy, a minor mitigation to the abyss of our loss in the wake of Jonathan Bernbaum’s death, it is the solace we can take in knowing that he had found his calling and had time to hone and develop it. That he was recognized for his creativity, intensity, and brilliance by so many in his short time here. In that enormous accomplishment, we can all take inspiration.

Jonathan Bernbaum giving a floor speech, Middlebury College finals, March 2002.

Jonathan Bernbaum giving a floor speech, Middlebury College finals, March 2002.

I have been overwhelmed all weekend by little flashes and snippets of Jon, mostly from the time we shared on the debate circuit. Jon giving a floor speech, cracking good jokes and bad ones, in his characteristic blustery high volume. Jon donning just one black glove, grinning creepily in a staring contest before he burst out laughing just before his opponent blinked. The sheer joy Jon expressed in the car the first time he heard the Barenaked Ladies song “I Know”, an irreverent romp through our cultural inconsistencies that I’ve never since heard without thinking of him.

Here, have a listen:

Beth Mandel and I making the impromptu decision to call the race of extraterrestrial aliens in our crazy new case “The Bernbaums” when running the case at Middlebury in front of Jon’s best non-Brandeis APDA friend, Sam Rodriguez. The hilarity that ensued, not least from Jon himself, who loved it. Some drunk MIT debaters at the epic Fairfield 2001 party asking if they could “haze Bernbaum” while I defended him against their onslaught. At one point, Jon actually said it was okay if they hazed him but I fended the MITers off anyway. Later, one MIT debater, having to be content with hazing his teammates, would stuff beans down the ear of another to the point where the latter would need surgery to remove them. Jon’s love/hate friendship with Zimmy, how the two grew close after college when they were both in the Bay Area, after years of being good but bickery friends. Jon’s penchant for accents, impressions, corny jokes, and arch facial expressions.

Bernbaum and I being goofy, Toronto Worlds 2002.  Photo by Beth Mandel.

Bernbaum and I being goofy, Toronto Worlds 2002. Photo by Beth Mandel.

More than anything, I am struck by how many people I would be worried about writing this remembrance for, in this way. It’s not always the most flattering picture of Bernbaum, but it was the Jon that I knew. And I know, unequivocally, that he would be more than okay with that. Because he was never untrue to himself or the reality of the situation. He was unflinchingly, bravely honest. He never ever cared what anyone thought of him. He was himself, only himself, and only ever wanted to be himself. The best possible, ever-improving version of himself, but not at the expense of total authenticity. More than anything, this is what I most deeply respect and love about Jon Bernbaum. He was unapologetically himself – goofy and intense, thoughtful and loud, a powerfully emotional intelligent human being.

He’s a human being I wish I’d known better. I wish you’d all had a chance to know him. I hope we can all be a little more like him from now on. I’ll miss you, Bernbaum. You made so many people so happy here. I hope you knew that.

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We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

cnbcscreenshot2a

Look at that headline. Look at it!

I know I was excited in my 6,000 word election recap to observe that the problems with our reported unemployment figure and its relationship to labor force participation data had become a mainstream understanding. But the headline of CNBC on jobs Friday? Wow. Now everyone understands what I first started talking about four years ago – the BLS headline figure for unemployment is not only not the whole picture of unemployment, it’s actively misleading.

Here, look, if we zoom out on the page, we can even see this headline in the sidebar:
cnbcscreenshot1a

Did you see it? The Labor Department says unemployment is at 4.6% — but here’s the bigger picture

It’s like Christmas. Well, it really almost is.

It may be weird or insensitive to gloat this much about something that represents the ongoing entrenched suffering of millions of Americans. But don’t misunderstand me. I’m gloating about being ahead of the curve on understanding a phenomenon that represents the revelation of past gaslighting of people who are suffering. This is a key distinction. I’m not excited that the unemployment rate has actually been above 10.6% for almost nine years. But I’m excited that people are talking about this fact widely and with greater awareness, because it means both that we are starting to get a better handle on the limits of capitalism and that other things I think may manifest themselves in the mainstream discussion. Like, for example, the idea that Donald Trump is a real threat to win the Presidency.

Oops.

While unemployment was reported to fall by 0.4% in November, it was one of those rare months where both Real Unemployment fell and the Reporting Gap increased noticeably. Real Unemployment did fall by 0.14% (to an 8-month low of 10.72%), presumably because seasonal hiring outpaced even normal seasonal adjustments in our consumer-obsessed culture. But the Reporting Gap increased by 0.16% (to a 6-month high of 6.12%), because holy hell is 4.6% not accurate.

Here are your charts:

Real Unemployment (red) and Reported Unemployment (blue), January 2009-November 2016

Real Unemployment (red) and Reported Unemployment (blue), January 2009-November 2016

Reporting Gap between Real and Reported Unemployment, January 2009-November 2016

Reporting Gap between Real and Reported Unemployment, January 2009-November 2016

The big picture is that an ever-increasing majority of the unemployed are invisible to BLS’ reported numbers, though are easily visible to a basic analysis of those same numbers. And really they aren’t invisible anymore, at the point where both the President-Elect and CNBC are talking about them all the time. And that’s something. Unfortunately, of course, it looks like the President-Elect’s prescription, much like adding even more cowbell to a Blue Oyster Cult hit, is going to be the same mistaken clang of lower taxes to bail out the rich and further inflate what is widely being seen as another calamitous bubble in our marketplace of exhausted ideas. The man who touted the problems with our current unemployment rate and painted himself the champion of the little guy remains a corporate kleptocrat with Reagany presumptions about how capitalism “works”. What else can you expect from our next Entertainer-in-Chief?

Have no fear, when Trump’s bubble bursts and unemployment, real and imagined, spikes further, I’ll be here to cover it in my dinky little Excel charts. Until then, let’s keep planning for the post-work economy, shall we? Stephen Hawking is starting to talk about it, but he still thinks that “retraining” is a good prescription for capitalism’s endless stream of “losers”, rather than realizing we need something to replace jobs and, ultimately, the whole system. But the surprise subhead is that Stephen Hawking is still a lot smarter than Donald Trump.


This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
May 2016
September 2015
July 2015
June 2015
March 2015
February 2015
December 2014 – labor force participation assessment
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014 – age assessment
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – age assessment
July 2012*

*My initial analyses led to a slight over-reporting of the impact of the reporting gap, so the assessments in these posts are inflated, as explained and corrected in the December 2013 analysis.

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