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The Surprising Nourishment of Human Connection

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , , ,

NOLABridgeNightDrive

The world is a scary place. It’s always been a scary place, but 2016 is marking a transition where people in the traditionally sheltered and over-privileged “first world” (or “developed world” if you prefer) are having to feel the heat of its scariness as well. No longer are bombings and acts of violence something that happens “over there” in the bad neighborhoods or difficult countries, but the violence perpetuated by the leading countries in our world is coming home to roost. I say this not to celebrate the expansion of violence, but to put it into a context where we can understand it and start to unpack it. People all over America have grown weary of clicking on headlines about the latest mass shooting, the next terror threat or attack, the most recent bomb to go off in a country they may actually consider visiting, the late execution of an unarmed minority on the streets of our cities.

This is not going to be a primarily political post, but I wanted to start with that context because I think it’s especially pertinent in how we choose to respond to the burgeoning crisis of creeping violence in a world that should know better. It is easy to lose heart, to lose faith, to crawl back inside our living rooms and covers in fear. The major party candidates are courting and counting on that fear, both advocating stringent violent responses to every possible threat, real or perceived. There is little to no realistic hope that the years 2016-2020 will mark an era of peace and conciliation on the world stage. People are increasingly fearful, increasingly defensive, increasingly entrenched. So where to find hope?

For me, it’s been in the car.

I think it’s been surprising to a fair number of people that I’ve, for a time at least, walked away from the world of day jobs and the resume ladder to pursue modern day taxi driving through Uber. It’s surprised me, to be honest. And while I’ve spent my whole “career” looking for gigs that afford me the opportunity to work seriously on my writing and prioritize those goals, I can’t say as driving a taxi was even high on my “regular jobs” list of more mundane uses of time, like, say, postal worker (a two-year interest as a young child), or, say, hotel night manager.

Some of the appeal of Uber is more obvious and thus probably less surprising to those who know me best. It can be done primarily overnight, hours that I have always favored since I was first allowed to see them regularly. It has no direct manager or supervisor, as I have often butted heads with bosses, as have we all. It carries an utterly flexible schedule, offering the promise of time to write and pursue creative interests. And it doesn’t follow you home. Most day jobs, especially those high profile enough to be satisfying to serious people, carry substantial mission creep. In addition to their lengthy scheduled hours, there is endless mental and actual homework to be done, crowding out the ability to use any outside time for pursuits that are not sleep and recreation.

But the big surprise of Uber has been the actual satisfaction with the time spent driving. It’s not that I simply love driving, though night driving has always had a special place in my heart and it’s hard to argue with the scenery of historically gorgeous New Orleans. It’s the human connections that take place regularly while driving, while driving every night. And increasingly, in a world where I feel politically disheartened and depressed, this has been what sustains me. I get nightly reminders that people are fundamentally good, fundamentally interesting, fundamentally human. And I think that focusing on this reality and finding ways to remind ourselves of this key truth is one of the best ways to keep the best parts of our society going as we face the next few years.

Yes, there are plenty of people who are simply wasted. And I’ve had now three people drop the n-word in my car, the first two on the same night laden with violent threats and invective, the last one just last night, a semi-famous movie industry hack who added other racial slurs and gave me my first ever 1-star rating in revenge for me rating him that way (note to Uber: you need to fix the ability of riders to know that you down-rated them before they rate drivers). These experiences are disheartening: seven years in the Bay Area had almost convinced me that racism was largely vanquished in America, especially in the younger generations, but time in Jersey and New Orleans (along with all the horrible police shootings) has since corrected this gross misperception. People spill drinks in the car and don’t tell you, people rant and rave in their drunkenness, people spout drivel sometimes. But these experiences, combined, are the vast vast exceptions. Most people are amazing.

At least four or five times a night, every time that I drive, I have incredible conversations with people. And at least once a night, I have a really transcendent conversation, one that pushes past the typical initial small talk and into real human connection. I’m never going to see 95% of these people again, we’re never going to have more than the five to fifteen minutes we share on the quieting streets of 2:30 AM New Orleans, but we still manage to share intimate details of our lives, hopes, fears, and perceptions. It’s downright amazing.

There is an intimacy in a shared car ride that is hard to match in other environments in our society. And I manipulate the situation a bit by maintaining silence in the car unless people request music or unless efforts to strike up a conversation flag and the trip is going to be long. I have discussed my issues with our society requiring background noise in every environment before, and indeed many riders when I offer music say they just prefer the silence as a refreshing change from all their other experiences. But usually that little break from the bumping music of clubs and bars, the incessant beeping and blooping of our devices, that pause opens up the opportunity to reach out and talk about the things we don’t always discuss.

There is also the opportunity created specifically by strangers which is a fairly well documented phenomenon, but perhaps under-appreciated outside the context of professional therapy. It is precisely the fact that Uber riders are unaccountable to future interactions with me that makes it more likely for them to open up about specific grievances, troubles, or insights about the world and their lives. Granted, this avenue along with my whiteness also makes them guess I will be receptive to their racism, but that’s literally been three unfortunate rides out of 532 to date. In many more cases, however, it inclines them to open up about their relationship troubles, their proposed solutions for the ills of the world, their laments and dreams about their careers, their creative ideas. And those shared moments are solid gold. They are the fuel that keeps me going these days, not just to keep driving the lonely overnight hours in search of riders, but to continue to believe in the underlying goodness and progress of the human spirit.

There are a thousand ways in which technology has been blamed for pulling us apart, despite it shortening the distances of communication on our planet. We are absorbed with our mini pocket computers, we look down and not up, we argue anonymously or with our friends on Facebook when we could be making real memories. But I think Uber is a remarkable development that’s enabled us to restore some of those lost moments of true connection and even create the opportunity for previously impossible conversations. Yes, people have probably been having these chats with their taxi drivers for years, but it feels like there’s something about Uber and Lyft that makes it more likely. Perhaps it’s the human face that shows up on the app, transforming the driver into a real person. Maybe it’s the mutual-feedback system that triggers the urge for people to impress each other just a little bit, to reach out a tiny bit more. Indeed, the success in these operations overcoming the cardinal rule of our youth (don’t get in cars with strangers) is itself a giant exercise in restoring our faith in humanity. The world is not out to get you, with danger lurking at every turn. 99% of people are out there seeking to make your day better, to find something in common, to find a shared thought, belief, or feeling in the darkness.

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The Kid in the Hall

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, Tags: , ,

TheKid95

Any Mariners fan knows that 1995 was the most magical year of baseball in our history. The Mariners overcame a 13.5-game deficit (11.5 games on August 24th, with just over a month to go in the season) to catch the California Angels, beat them in a 1-game playoff, come back in the 11th inning to beat the Yankees in the franchise’s first playoff series ever, before finally coughing up the ALCS in 6 games. The comeback is perhaps the most legendary in baseball history, but it has a dirty little secret. While reputed as being a fundamentally miraculous turnaround, it coincided completely with the return of one legendary player from injury, who immediately transformed the team from a plucky .500 club to a team with a world-class centerpiece.

That same person ignited the first game that started the turnaround, which happened to be his first game back from an injury that had befallen him in May. He also scored the winning run in the Yankees series. And from today on, he’s a Hall of Famer.

Ken Griffey, Jr. is known for saving baseball in Seattle. The Kid, as he was called from day one in Seattle, debuted in April 1989 at the age of 19. I was 9 years old, living on the Oregon coast, and in my first full year of baseball fandom. I didn’t root primarily for the M’s at the time, but that season of hearing Dave Niehaus recite the dynamic accomplishments of the rookie was already helping turn me away from the team that would win the championship that season and to a lovable band of perennial losers. Of course, Griffey was determined to change the narrative in Seattle. He didn’t save baseball in the city, he created it.

He didn’t do it alone, surely. Edgar and Randy and all the guys had a big part to play in the 1990s Mariner squads that turned the tide of history for the club and kept them from moving to Tampa Bay, something that was all but a done deal midway through the ’95 campaign. But without Griffey, it’s hard to imagine any of that success. When he went down with his severe wrist injury that May, it seemed like fate was truly out to get the M’s. The 1994 strike had felled a team that had won 9 of their last 10 and was closing in on first, while Griffey was having a career year. Even 1995 was shortened by the strike, with the season getting off to a late start that made The Kid’s absence even more powerful. As soon as he came back, Refuse to Lose was born. So 1995 isn’t just the story of an unbelievable comeback. The comeback is made a little more believable by the infusion of one of the greatest of all-time.

It’s easy to see echoes of 1995 in 2016. Of course, as I’ve said in several of my “Let’s Go M’s” posts on this blog, it’s easy for a Mariners fan to see echoes of 1995 in every season. Once your team has overcome an 11.5 game deficit starting in late August, no lead in the standings feels insurmountable ever after. But after a hot start this year, the M’s have struggled mightily in midsummer, falling back to .500 after a year that promised to finally end our longest-in-baseball playoff drought. Of course, there’s a dirty little secret behind this collapse as well: the injury to Felix Hernandez.

On May 27 of this year (Griffey’s ’95 injury had taken place on May 26 when he crashed into a wall), Felix pitched his last game before going on the Disabled List with a calf injury. At the time, the M’s were 28-19, 1.5 games up on the Rangers in the AL West. In his absence, the team slumped back to .500, going 19-28, an exact mirror image of their hot start with Felix available. On Wednesday, he returned to action, with the team 47-47 and 7.5 games out of first (the team’s deficit peaked at … wait for it … 11.5 games). While his start was shaky, he overcame a rough first inning to keep the game close and the M’s were able to win on a walk-off in the bottom of the 11th. It was a game that looked so much like 1995, it gave me deja vu. The M’s went on to beat the Blue Jays 2-1 and 14-5 before slipping today. They’re 3-1 since Felix’s return and 31-20 overall with him on the roster. And the Rangers have been collapsing, not quite like the ’95 Angels, yet, but enough to let us in the door. Entering play today, the Mariners were just 5.5 out.

Am I reaching too hard for a narrative today, the day that Ken Griffey, Jr. was inducted into the Hall of Fame with the highest vote percentage in the history of the Hall? Perhaps. After all, Felix doesn’t play every day and there’s only so much impact any one pitcher can have on an entire season of games. But as The Kid surely knew in 1995, actual play is only a portion of a superstar’s impact on the team. They also teach and inspire their teammates. And their presence, their active placement on the roster and in the field, makes everyone else believe that greatness is possible. It’s easier to believe you can fight for that comeback when you know Felix is looking on from the dugout, that he’s going to be pitching every five days, that there’s always a chance.

It’s become fashionable in baseball this century to discredit such notions, to believe that baseball players are human beings on the field who are affected by emotions and momentum and environmental factors. I don’t know how these people explain Tiger Woods’ epic collapse that aligned with the collapse of his marriage and his public humiliation in the international media, nor even how they explain Griffey’s rapid deterioration when he left Seattle, let alone every change in approach made by players after trades, signings, and changes of all sorts. I think the real explanation is much more clear: baseball is still played by people, not robots. Sabermetrics may reveal some trends and statistical value where not previously seen, but the biggest determining factor in a player’s performance is still how they feel in that moment. And Griffey was a great not just for his stellar athletic ability. He was an all-time great for elevating everyone around him, making them better than themselves, making them want to be even better than that.

There are a million memories to recount of The Kid, none of which do full justice to him, and all of which are being covered by the mainstream media today as he goes into the Hall. Some I even discussed here when he retired as a Mariner in 2010. By all means, read everything you can about Griffey today.

The city of Seattle and the fans of the Mariners will never be able to do enough to thank Junior for all he did. But the best way to try might just be to make another storied comeback this year. The M’s made the playoffs just twice after he left the team, the first two years he was gone, inspiring the meme that M’s kept getting better without superstars. Randy Johnson was traded in 2000 and the M’s set a record for regular season wins the next year, after losing two Hall of Famers in back-to-back years. Of course, Ichiro had joined the team in 2001 at the peak of his career, so, y’know, we didn’t only lose future denizens of the Hall. But there’s a Mariners cap in Cooperstown, now and forever. My oh my.

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The Putin Playbook

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

TrumpPutin

“I always felt fine about Putin. I think that he’s a strong leader. He’s a powerful leader. … He’s actually got a popularity within his country. They respect him as a leader. … I would talk to him, I would get along with him. … He has absolutely no respect for President Obama.”
-Donald Trump, from two separate interviews, on Vladimir Putin

Donald J. Trump, Republican nominee for President, is not the second coming of Hitler. Sorry to disappoint, kids. I know Godwin’s Law says the first comparison we have to make is to Hitler, just as the Republicans themselves started drawing brushy mustaches on their Obama posters. And it’s not because it can’t happen here, because anything can happen here. We’re not special in America just because we were born into a rich country in love with its own image and alleged impact on the world. As the world’s leading exporter of imperialism and militarism, it’s certainly a stone’s throw to Hitler on a good day, so we should sure be vigilant.

But Trump’s model is a different strongman. One who is blonde, like him, like Hitler so desperately wanted to be. Vladimir Putin. Trump, like the Russian people, is obsessed with Vlad Putin.

Vladimir Putin may be the most authentically beloved leader among his or her domestic populous on the planet right now. While he has a strong and vocal group of dissenters, the Russians love the authority and respect he has restored to Rodina (the motherland, in Russian). They don’t care so much that he’s alienated a lot of foreign nations, for he’s done so by empowering Russia to be strong and independent, the idealized image of the nation fostered throughout the Communist years and well before. They love that he took back Crimea, love even more that no one was able to stop him. They like that he poses shirtless, does martial arts, purportedly wrestles bears to the ground between drinking sessions at his dacha. He exudes virility, strength, and power. What Trump wouldn’t obsess over such a figure?

But the biggest thing that Putin does best is push the envelope. For what greater test of power can there be than getting away with something more outrageous than anyone would have predicted you could? It’s all well and good to claim power in an atmosphere where you gladly offer concessions and make nice with other leaders at home and abroad. Quite another to demonstrate that power by doing something widely reviled and demonstrating that no one can stop you.

Well before he invaded Crimea, well before he praised Donald Trump as “brilliant,” Rutgers debaters Dave Reiss and Kyle Bomeisl wrote a case they wound up running in Maryland finals in 2010. The case was written in the midst of some minor spats between Putin and his puppet co-leader Dmitri Medvedev (speaking of wrestling bears – medved is Russian for bear) and proposed a hypothetical where Medvedev went so far as to publicly criticize Putin, which he did not do. The case we ran in Maryland finals was, in this hypothetical instance: “You are Vladimir Putin. Invite Medvedev to appear with you on national television. Then strangle him, on camera, with your bare hands.”

What the Maryland judging panel didn’t realize is that this was a serious suggestion and exactly in the wheelhouse of what Putin would do. For the lesson of the case was the same as the lesson of Putin’s entire presidency/prime ministership/presidency: get away with as much as you can. It will demonstrate that your enemies are powerless and make them look weak and terrified for trying to oppose you in the first place. It would be a whole new level for Putin to demonstrate that he could literally get away with murder.

This theory about Trump/Putin explains so many of the things that come out of the mouth of Trump and his cronies, so many things that otherwise baffle political pundits and observers. He’s not just a gaffe machine attempting to eclipse Joe Biden for foot-in-mouth moments. Because he doesn’t apologize for these gaffes or walk them back, almost ever. He’s just pushing the envelope as far across the table as he can reach, loudly testing the waters of how far he’s come and what he can get away with. Melania Trump lifting lines from Michelle Obama? Just a test. Claims about wall-building and Muslim-banning? Just tests. What can he get away with and still be popular, still be leading in the primary polls, still have a commanding presence on the world’s highest and most theatrical stage?

This is why people can seriously consider whether the whole thing is some master ruse: either a punt to old friend Hillary Clinton or a set-up for a shocking abdication between November and January (that theory must have died with the appointment of Mike Pence) or some kind of epic joke to demonstrate his superiority over the American people. Because this is not how we’re used to our serious politicians operating. We’re used to the pandering of the Clintons, the conciliation of Obama, the rallying cries of the Bushes, and the communicating of Reagan. We think politicians want them to like us and we forgot that the most popular people in high school were the ones who didn’t give a flying bleep what you thought of them. We have forgotten the first rule of affection: the less you show a desire to be liked, the more people crave your attention.

That said, Trump doesn’t always pull it off. He reacts defensively sometimes, a mistake Putin would never make. Putin’s response to accusations about small hands would not have been to awkwardly say there’s no problem there. He might have just leaked testimony from a former lover in some media outlet, or perhaps a nude picture of himself, doctored if necessary. He might have just ignored it and laughed off any future questions about it. Putin does not go out of his way to be loved. He shows his strength by pulling outrageous and unprecedented stunts, by speaking loudly and carrying a big stick.

Now, yes, this does not paint a very flattering picture of a Trump presidency. Keep in mind that all my efforts to both demonstrate the underestimated power of Trump to win votes and to compare him roughly equally to Clinton are not endorsements. They are not in any way, shape, or form, a desire to see Trump take the highest national office. But I do think it’s important that we realistically evaluate who Trump is, what he’s capable of, and what his intentions are for the nation.

Like Putin, Trump is an entertainer, a strongman, and an egotist. But he’s also a realist, one capable of measuring where the line ultimately is and ensuring that he doesn’t do something actually crazy and miscalculated. This is why Trump with his finger on the button doesn’t terrify me, any more than the existence of said button and egomaniacal American politicians always terrifies me. Putin has not nuked the US, or Ukraine, has not rebuilt the Iron Curtain, has not recreated the purges. He’s done some condemnable things, to be sure, but they’re within the range of normal US presidencies: invading some other countries, bombing still more, cracking down on some rights, possibly illicitly assassinating some citizens. All pretty par for what we expect from top-line world leaders these days.

Ultimately, though, the best check on Trump is one that truly does exist for Putin and pretty much anyone else who wants to win the beauty contests of contemporary elections in major world powers. Deep down, despite all the veneer of indifference to opinion and reaction, he cares very deeply about what people think. Donald J. Trump wants you to like him. Desperately. He has crafted an entire life around building an image, building up propaganda, and he really really wants you to think he’s cool. In that way, he’s almost indistinguishable from Hillary Clinton. He just knows that showing it less makes people like you more. Which is why he’s going to win in November.

Again, I don’t want this to happen. I also don’t want Hillary Clinton to win in November. Almost everyone I talk to agrees with this mutually assured disappointment. Except, of course, that it’s not assured. Just like in 1992, if everyone voted their conscience, for the candidate they truly truly truly wanted to win the White House, we would not be sending a Republican or a Democrat to the presidency this year. I think almost any moderately popular moderate could jump in the race right now, or in August (I know they literally couldn’t, because they wouldn’t get on the ballot in time), on a not-ClinTrump platform, and grab 300 electoral votes. Short of that, I think Gary Johnson or Jill Stein could each pull 20% and put the election in chaos. If one dropped out and endorsed the other, real third-party victory would be possible, if everyone actually voted and voted their heart.

Sadly, we’re too busy throwing around accusations of people being like Hitler (or of Benghazi), generating fear to insist that we vote for literally the second worst person we could imagine running for President. In that sense, this whole election cycle feels like it’s being run by Vladimir Putin on behalf of the two major parties. They are pushing the envelope as far as they can, offering up the two most hated people in American politics to demonstrate their stranglehold on power. We just keep taking it, eating up the lesser evil, believing in this false dichotomy and being surprised when things get worse. Wherever the line may be, I guess they haven’t found it yet. I sure wish we’d resist, though, so we’d start having candidates we didn’t have to compare to war-mongering power-addicts.

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The War at Home

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

MXJohnsonUSArmy

As you probably know, twelve days ago, five police officers were shot dead in Dallas. Ten days later, three more were shot dead in Baton Rouge. The alleged killers were both immediately killed, Micah Xavier Johnson and Gavin Eugene Long (a.k.a. Cosmo Ausar Setepenra) respectively. It has been reported that neither are linked to any extremist militant group. This is not true.

In fact, they are both linked to the same extremist militant group: the United States military.

No, I’m not trying to imply or state that these shootings were authorized military operations, though the thought occurred to me more than once that such a thing was possible. Not that our government is incapable of such sinister covert operations, having conducted its business this way repeatedly in countries the world over for most of the last century and well into this one. But I think the explanation is a far simpler one in the instance of these starkly similar shootings. And as we are taught in science classes, simple explanations are often the truest.

The military teaches you that violence is the way to solve problems. That there are good guys with guns and bad guys with guns and that the good guys with guns are morally obligated to shoot the bad guys with guns.

I’ve talked about this concept before, how mass shootings writ large in our society are inspired by a society that routinely preaches violence and murder as the way of getting what we want. Most clearly and simply, perhaps, in Violence is About Violence (26 May 2014), one of my many posts in the wake of a shooting incident. But it’s a lot clearer and more obvious when the killers are actually ex-military, veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq respectively, and actually took aim at a uniformed military force they found to be the enemy, namely racist police departments.

I’m not saying this action is justified. No killing is ever justified in any circumstances and this killing is no different. But the people who agree most ardently that killing is justified, the breeding ground for the whole notion that killing can be and routinely is bathed in glory, as long as it’s done by the “right” people for the “right” reasons, that’s the military. The Marines and the Army, where these police shooters were radicalized, where they were trained to believe that might makes right, that killing is good, that the ends justify the means, that the correct response to violence is more violence. And at least in this battle, the enemy was wearing a clear and visible uniform, wasn’t vague and shadowy and uncertain like the purported enemy in Afghanistan or Iraq. Wasn’t dubious like the 56 civilians slaughtered by US forces just today in Syria. No, these cops were clearly wearing the uniform that affiliated them with a group that has been executing Black civilians in our society for decades and caught on camera consistently for the last three years.

Does such affiliation deserve the death penalty? Of course not. Does it deserve any violent retribution? Never. But these acts are never “senseless” in the way they are bemoaned in the media. All these actions carry their own internal logic and to deny that is to willfully wish for them to happen over and over again. To attempt not to understand, to push away awareness, is to condemn ourselves to a permanent state of societal self-mutilation. Folks that the US trained to kill for their notion of liberty and justice applied their interpretation of that cause to the war they saw unfolding at home. Little could be less surprising.

I am hoping that this is the last such incident, just as I am hoping that the police have shot their last victim, just as I am hoping that the US will unilaterally stop murdering civilians at home and abroad. But I have a deep-seated fear that none of this will stop until we can face and engage our own priorities as a nation and begin to unpack the overwhelming glorification of murder that we put on such an elevated pedestal in the United States. There are a lot of steps, large and small, that we could take. Apologizing for the wrongs of the past, from slavery to conquest, genocide to nuclear bombing, would be a great start. Committing to never repeat those same mistakes, even better. Determining to come together to expend our immense wealth and privilege as a country on something other than imperialism, perhaps the best.

We still have the capability of being the country we imagine ourselves to be. We just have to wake up from our delusions first. If we don’t wake ourselves up, we run the risk of being awoken far more rudely and, well, violently.

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That’s Entertainment!

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Telling Stories, The Problem of Being a Person, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , ,

Trumpemon

When I was in high school, I had a discussion with my father about a long-prior discussion he’d had about the state of the world in the mid-1970s. He mentioned, in passing, that his conversational partner of the time had said what people really needed in the world was to laugh more. He then echoed this sentiment, circa 1997, as an obvious truth of the universe. My mind immediately went to the somewhat moderate bullies of my high school, the jocks and the idiots, and everyone I knew who seemed to make laughing a key priority of their existence. I thought laughter was, if anything, overrated in a very serious world. Being a bit stubborn and prone to engaging wherever possible in a keen argument, I intimated that the great problem with the world is that everyone needed to laugh less.

I raise this issue now not to pick or resurrect a generational fight two decades in the making, nor to pick on my Dad, with whom I agree about more things than I’d argue most of my (or any?) age agree with their fathers. But I think this moment of discord speaks to a larger perspective on the world that has changed, perhaps since the 60s or 70s, perhaps even more recently, about the nature of entertainment and its influence on our world, or the world of contemporary America as it now stands, embarrelled in choppy waters and facing what almost everyone can universally regard as a rather steep cliff, with barely any water in the fall to soften the rocky crags below. Far more recently than 1997, my father predicted that this summer would look a lot like the summer of 1968, the least stable of his lifetime to date. Halfway through the summer, that seems like a pretty safe prediction, as news of attacks, shootings, coups, and executions compete for headlines daily as we rush headlong into an election where the major party candidates make Nixon and Humphrey look like popular young gentlemen you’d want to bring home to the parents.

So what’s trending? Pokemon Go!

It is a sign of age, diving into my late 30s, that many of my friends have taken to the waves of the Internet to literally decry the children gathering on their lawns to play this latest video game to capture the American imagination. And also a sign of my generation that a nearly equal quantity are regaling us with stories of their own particular lawn catches. I am not here to moralize about the perils of Pokemon Go. While I am not playing (I just missed Pokemon as a phenomenon the first time around, entering college when it hit the streets. And the last thing I need is another excuse to haul out the smartphone [begrudgingly purchased for Uber] in public.), I definitely understand the appeal. And more importantly, it’s the first video game since Dance Dance Revolution that is getting its players off the couch and into something resembling physical shape. And the first ever (unless you count its natural predecessor Ingress, and nobody but Brandzy does count Ingress) that gets people out of the living room and into the real, living, breathing world where they might interact with other real people.

So, is Pokemon Go a giant scheme designed to replace our outrage with police killings, mass shootings, and an endless upward cycle of violence against seemingly everyone with, well, the digital equivalent of dogfighting? Or, perhaps more accurately, a dogfighting-themed scavenger hunt? Is the timing of its release sufficient to mollify a public fomenting with the desire to rebel, replacing the revolution with the placid need to “catch ’em all”? After all, the game is insidiously embedded in a very real and very corporate world, wherein savvy companies have already latched onto their geographic placement in the game to win friends and influence people.

I am inclined to believe that the release of illusory pocket monsters into the world is largely coincidental with the second coming of 1968 as it arrives on American shores nearly a half-century later. But I’m also inclined to believe that there are no coincidences.

Pokemon Go is just another aspect of our cultural obsession with entertainment. There was a time, I believe, when art was separable from entertainment in a real way, when politics also enjoyed a distance from the desire for laughter. It is hard to imagine what such a separation would truly look like at this moment, when the entire orientation of Internet culture around social media has turned us like plants toward the sun, seeking fulfillment and sustenance purely from the notion of being amused. Our educational system is rapidly trying to catch up, bringing games and electronics into the classroom by the armload in an effort to compete on the giant entertainment battlefield. Maybe everyone in the 70s really did decide that we all just needed to laugh more and they spent the next four decades making it so, ensuring that the concept of entertainment seeped into every element of our waking life, so we would judge each decision by how much comic relief it brought to our brain.

No wonder, then, that the major popular outlets of news in the last 15 years have all become comedy shows. That the nightly anchors of my childhood: Rather, Jenkins, and Brokaw (admittedly problematic in their universal conservative white maleness) were replaced with the guffaws and antics of Stewart and his many descendants. That Obama himself gets the most attention for the White House Correspondents Dinner, far more widely beheld than another boring dramatic turn at memorializing victims of a mass shooting. Indeed, I think the main reason so many of my friends are missing the fact that Trump should be considered the runaway favorite in the 2016 general election is that he is so much more entertaining than his counterpart Clinton. Since televisions became widely held items in American households, this is the metric that explains most every choice the general election populous has made at the quadrennial ballot box. I guess one could argue that Dukakis was more entertaining than Bush the elder in 1988, but in retrospect that was mostly at his own expense, so perhaps doesn’t count. And I don’t know exactly what to do with either of Nixon’s victories – his runs against Humphrey and McGovern were surely races to the bottom in terms of entertainment. But there are no other imaginable exceptions since the Nixon-Kennedy debates opened the television era: the more entertaining candidate always wins, which I think does more to explain the success of all the two-term Presidents since Nixon than any other single theory. Say what you will about Reagan, Bill Clinton, Bush the younger, and Obama, but they are all highly successful entertainers.

There’s a reason I have total confidence that Trump will win this November, barring assassination or other unforeseeable but still seemingly almost predictable upheaval. He is, like Reagan before him, an entertainer by trade. More than anything else that Donald Trump is or isn’t, he is a showman. And whatever the truth value of her given statements may be on a given day, the most salient and consistent critique that can be leveled against Hillary Clinton the candidate is her inability to entertain. Her most ardent supporters have tried to turn this into a strength in recent months, with a cascade of thinkpieces on how her wonky, unaffectionate demeanor is exactly what we should want in the White House. Little good this will do her after debates against Trump when the latter could literally roar, a la Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, a fitting avatar of our contemporary culture, “Are you not entertained?!” You can practically see the thumbs turning down on Clinton in the crowd, condemning her to political death at the hands of the latest champion of a very amused mob.

It is perhaps some small solace to my readers that I go on to believe that Trump is not the second coming of Hitler so much as the second coming of Vaudeville. Or, at worst, I guess L. Ron Hubbard, who called his shot about making a fortune on an invented religion and then put it into practice. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf as his declaration of intention. Trump said he’d try to run as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal on a ticket with Oprah Winfrey. No, the meme about him saying Republicans were dumb and easy to persuade isn’t true. It seems believable because he knows everyone is easy to persuade with enough money and entertainment value, even the Clintons themselves, as he will bring up even more in future debates.

Please don’t confuse my adamance about the future Trump presidency with support. I have no interest in seeing a Trump presidency, though I also have no interest in seeing a Clinton presidency. As I told Alex’s mother the night before last, I think either president would make the first six years of the Obama administration look glorious and I think those years were truly awful. I am not reveling in the future success of Trump, but I am trying to understand and explain its potency so others might harness that understanding to do some kind of counterbalancing good.

This struggle with entertainment as the dominant currency of our society and its potential battle with more serious, sober reflections on change is one that has impacted key aspects of my own life, and especially this website. While I never came up with the idea for Pokemon Go (like Uber, these ideas required a level of accuracy for GPS technology that doesn’t really predate the last five years and I think few people knew would be a certainty until then), I have concocted some virally entertaining quizzes over the years, the first couple of which were extremely well timed with the advent of Web 1.0 media like blogs, MySpace, and GeoCities. These quizzes first hit the scene when I was trying to promote my first novel and write my second, as well as make my way through life with day jobs in the so-called real world. Tired from my commute and the stresses of work, I would contemplate writing fiction that would be read by a few hundred or a quiz that would be seen by more than a million people within its first year. One would be laden with meaning that I found important to impart, the other would be infused with what little meaning I could stick between the layers of entertainment. My choice was usually clear: at least the entertainment would be absorbed by the masses. It wasn’t until quitting jobs entirely in 2009 that I could really get back to writing fiction seriously. And if my life hadn’t fallen apart at the end of that period, maybe I would have found some success then. At the same time, most of the folks who read American Dream On agreed on its biggest critique: too dark, not entertaining enough. My mother observed that I have a great talent for making people laugh in real life; why couldn’t I bring that over into my writing?

We’ll leave to the side, for now, that perhaps the primary theme of American Dream On is that our obsession with entertainment, along with the pursuit of money, is literally killing everyone.

I don’t think Trump or Pokemon Go will literally kill everyone, nor will terrorists nor the police. Though all four will probably take their cut of lives, with Pokemon Go being by far the most innocuous. And not even all the pokemon in the world will be enough to distract us from the blood taken by other forces in the world, at least not for more than a few hours at a time. And unfortunately, the structural differences between Trump’s eventual killings and the police’s ongoing murders and the terrorists’ showy acts of slaughter and Pokemon Go will continue to fade. It’s all packaged entertainment, destruction put out like a press release, neat little explanations and video and unfolding mystery to unravel like a video game. What is this latest killer’s motive? Where will Trump bomb next? Which terror group will claim responsibility for the latest attack? How did the police try to cover up their latest racist execution?

And the slew of reporters will trail after, with their graphics team and sound folks making it all as polished as the latest app to hit our phones. And we’ll take it all in, and I’ll try to write about it in a way that is just flippant and distant enough to be entertaining too. It’s not just our currency anymore, it’s our literal language, because every use of time, every decision to read or watch something is in competition with catching another Pokemon or playing a game on Facebook or downloading something more amusing. And increasingly the only way to change anything might be to win the entertainment wars first and use that to do good. Because holding the mirror up to society isn’t getting people to take things more seriously these days – it’s reminding us of selfies.

If you’ll excuse me, I should probably go work on another quiz. I wonder if “Which police shooting victim are you?” is still too macabre to be entertaining. Maybe it’s the best way we can get more people to say their names.

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Top Twenty Questions I Get Driving Uber in New Orleans

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Quick Updates, Tags: , , ,

NOLANight

In approximate order of frequency:

1. Are you from New Orleans originally?
2. Where are you from originally?
3. How long have you been driving Uber?
4. Busy night?
5. Are you doing Uber full time or do you have another job?
6. Where do you go out in New Orleans?
7. What’s the best place to hear jazz / eat seafood / drink in New Orleans?
8. How do you like living in New Orleans?
9. Were you here during Katrina?
10. If I want to add another stop, do I have to call another Uber?
11. How late are things going at [pickup location]?
12. Is Bourbon Street always like this?
13. Are things still happening on Frenchmen Street right now?
14. Can we stop to pick up water / alcohol / cigarettes / snacks?
15. Does it always rain like this in New Orleans?
16. How do you deal with the humidity here?
17. Do you have an aux cord?
18. Are there really no open container laws in New Orleans?
19. Do you mind if we have five / six people in this car?
20. Can you pull over so my friend can throw up?

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Deconstructing the Constitution

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

Don't let the wigs fool you.  These guys were radical hooligans!  They were also all white men, so, y'know, maybe change is good.

Don’t let the wigs fool you. These guys were radical hooligans! They were also all white men, so, y’know, maybe change is good.

It’s easy for us to forget that the founding fathers, now revered as the heart of a sage and long-lasting establishment, were actually a bunch of iconoclastic ruffians. I’ve discussed how they not only codified terrorism, but were actually basically terrorists themselves earlier, so no need to rehash that. It’s just become so easy for us to forget that they were, well, revolutionary. They were outside the normal bounds of their society, their beliefs were radical and different, and they similarly wanted to engender that same revolutionary spirit in future generations.

Instead, what happened in the wake of revolutionary fervor is what always happens: people forget that part of the revolutionary message is that spirit of ongoing change and instead settle down to revere every syllable uttered by that particular band of revolutionaries. This was never the intended message, but it became the message, especially by the time the dust settled on the Bill of Rights. People were so impressed and enamored with the ideas laid out by the early Americans that they forgot a core principle was a willingness to change and change and change again in exactly the same way that had first taken place. Many people can quote Jefferson’s line about renewing the tree of liberty with blood of patriots, but that gets mistaken as a call to violently defend Jefferson’s precise text rather than his real message of staying radically revolutionary in spirit, of always making changes.

Yes, some changes have been made in the 240 years since the Declaration of Independence. We took slavery out of the Constitution and even allowed women and eventually minorities the right to vote. Equality started to actually fan out to mean some semblance of equality among people, not white male landowners. But somewhere along the way, we completely lost sight of the notion that the Constitution was there to be changed, that it was written with specific procedures to make it a living document. Instead, we insisted on holding it up like any holy text: doctrinally perfect, to be interpreted perhaps, but never altered, never touched, only hallowed forever and ever amen.

It is bizarre that the calcification of the Constitution in our societal perception has coincided with revolutionary changes in the shape and nature of our society. We have become more diverse, more impacted by technology, more connected, more entertained. The social, technological, and economic changes of the last 16 years alone are breathtaking and beyond the average person’s full comprehension. And yet this time has brought the least legal change to our highest governing document, with the exception of a handful of Supreme Court cases that have upheld or struck down certain interpretations thereof. While the change brought about by some of these rulings has certainly been notable, it has only served to further crystallize the notion that the document they are interpreting is itself sacrosanct and that only these high priests we call justices are able to properly tease out any alterations in our understanding. This is not for mere mortals to take on.

We have amended the Constitution just once in the last 45 years. And that was to ratify an amendment originally proposed in 1789! It’s also the amendment of the 27 (17 since the Bill of Rights) that made the least tangible change, simply impacting the timing of pay raises for elected representatives. It is the amendment that is the most technical in our Constitution and the one that impacts by far the fewest people. It is barely an amendment at all, and it is one of the oldest ideas we’ve ratified. So leaving this very much aside, the last change we made was in 1971, dropping the voting age to 18 to match the Vietnam War draft. Those 45 years* are the longest streak of untouched time for our Constitution since its original ratification.

Perhaps worse, we haven’t even proposed an amendment since the 1992 technicality of the 27th amendment was ratified. That’s 24 years of total stagnation, without any formal process for change even being initiated. If we leave out the trivial ’92 amendment, we have to go back to a 1985 proposal to give DC representation in Congress. And before that was the Equal Rights Amendment, the 1979-1982 proposal that somehow failed. That was at least a sweeping potential change that would have fundamentally altered our understanding of our Constitution. And perhaps that’s why it failed despite being an obviously good idea. Maybe after 1971 and the demise of Vietnam, we gave up on change. Maybe that’s when our perceived duty to the original sacred text of America overrode the interest in making society better or, to coin a phrase, “more perfect”.

The founding fathers would not be happy with this state of affairs, folks.

It’s not just because they were revolutionary bandits, though that’s a big part of it that really cannot be said enough. They were the insurgents of their age, the rebels, the outlaws and outcasts. This simply needs to be understood by everyone trying to engage with American politics. But beyond that, they had the foresight to recognize that the world would change after their passing. In the wake of yet another mass-shooting in this country, many of my friends have again raised the rallying cry about how far 18th century muskets were from the semi-automatic weaponry available in today’s open market. This is true, but is only one example among thousands of critical things that they could not have anticipated. The state of our economy and corporations are surely beyond anything that Jefferson and Washington could have fathomed. Corporate personhood, the surveillance state, and even instant communication from radio to television to the internet, all would have dwarfed their imaginations. There is so much that they cannot keep up with. And this is a big part of why amendments were featured in the Constitution and taken seriously with a reasonable ratification process: they knew their own limitations in their ability to anticipate the challenges of the future.

Yes, we obviously need to eliminate or significantly overhaul the second amendment. That should be trivial at this point to anyone paying attention, unless we want to become a society where leaving one’s house carries a 1% risk, over time, of dying in a massacre. But we also need to think more broadly and sweepingly about the Constitution itself and what it does and doesn’t guarantee at this point. And imagine ourselves to be founders, or refounders, creating something more perfect that what we had before. Would the founding fathers really not have enshrined access to healthcare as a right in a world of today’s modern medicine? Would they not have taken steps toward codifying greater equality in a society so governed by scarcity, inequality, and corporate greed? And even if you don’t think they would have agreed with these principles, they surely would have wanted the radicals among us to speak up and stand up for them, to advocate radically altering the Constitution or even casting it aside altogether in favor of something, well, more perfect.

As long as we cling to the original verbiage of the Constitution like a holy and unalterable text, we will be beholden to looking at the world like it stopped in 1789, or at least in 1971. But the world didn’t stop there, it is living and evolving daily, just as the Constitution itself was intended to. You can’t simultaneously defend the America the founding fathers wanted and advocate prolonging this level of stagnation. They would be ashamed of you, ashamed of us. They changed far more in their time than Bernie Sanders would ever advocate. It is a disservice to the principles of this country, such as they are, to insist on not making significant and sweeping changes in our own time.

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A Pilgrimage

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, Marching to New Orleans, Tags: , ,

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Parish Catholic Church in New Orleans.

Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Parish Catholic Church in New Orleans.

On Saturday night, hours before the shooting in Orlando, I was driving for Uber. As I explained on Facebook at the top of the month, I have recently started driving for Uber while between jobs and possibly as the new quasi-full-time gig to enable more creative pursuits. The first step in getting back in a creative rhythm has been posting here more, which has itself been fueled by ideas from the many riders whose journey I help enable on a near-nightly basis while conducting this little experiment.

As I posted about in a later comment on that Facebook thread, these are the four key questions asked by the experiment:
1. Is this a sustainable way of replacing day job income?
2. Does this gig help facilitate a more creative/writing lifestyle?
3. Do I feel like I’m doing enough good? Or at least not doing harm?
4. Can I get a lot of writing material and inspiration out of the chance conversations that this gig creates?

So it’s Saturday, early evening, I’m just starting what I expect will be a long overnight shift and it’s not even dark out yet. It’s just after 5:00 PM and the French Quarter is crawling with tourists, locals, and attendees of the Creole Tomato Festival. I get a ping for a pickup at Cafe du Monde, the iconic open-air beignet restaurant, open 24 hours daily and boasting a line for many of them. I crawl slowly through the heavy traffic toward the green-and-white striped awnings.

A minute or so after pulling over, I’m greeted by what look to be three generations of women in the same family. The Uber was called by someone in her early twenties, while her mother and someone who could easily be her grandmother also pile in, the mother in the front seat and the others in back. However, the bespectacled potential grandmother is fully adorned in a spotless Catholic habit, modest shining cross at the center of a sea of black and white. She could have taken the veil later in life, but the dialogue later seemed as though she were a more distant relative of the great aunt ilk, while their status as family seemed almost undeniable.

They were relatively low-energy (a not uncommon trait of post-beignet du Monde pickups), but quite polite and clearly in awe of all the French Quarter had to offer in full bustle. I confirmed their destination as Canal and Broad Street, which already seemed of concern since the destination in the app just said “Canal Street, New Orleans” which is akin to saying “Main Street, USA”. They asked if I knew the whereabouts of the Seelos Church, which, through the nun’s particular accent, I couldn’t quite catch. I asked her to spell the location, but she said it was just on Canal and as long as we went up Canal, we’d find it. She said she thought it was near Broad or a little before. So off we went, slogging upstream through the Quarter like salmon climbing the waterless face of Hoover Dam. Once it became clear it could take us 30 minutes to reach Canal that way, I aborted (apologies for the turn of phrase, sister) and redirected eastward out of the Quarter to run back to the west and meet up with Canal around the freeway.

Once we hit Canal, it became pretty clear we’d misjudged the location of the church. A search revealed something about Dauphine Street, a fixture of the Quarter, and I despaired that we’d been just feet from it from the outset. They advised we redirect to Canal and Dauphine, but I pulled over and suggested we actually confirm the location of the church online before chasing more geese, already feeling a bit guilty I hadn’t done this in the first place. The youngest of the three pulled it up on her phone, discovered that there were two churches (a Seelos Shrine and a Seelos Parish) and after consultation about the relative locations, neither of which were remotely close to Canal Street, we opted for Seelos Parish as the more likely match. We were on a pilgrimage, it turned out, to where the nun had spent part of her early days, or at least visited decades prior. She said the church was very beautiful and she wished to see it again. It was clear in equal measure that her traveling companions were nonplussed about the church quest in their own right, but very much wanted the sister to feel fulfilled. We redirected in the direction of Seelos Parish, deep in the Marigny, and the sister confirmed that it had been close to the Mississippi as she recalled.

After a brief stint on the highway and a long stop-signy traverse through the Marigny, we pull up to a contrastingly glorious red brick church with a high steeple in the midst of a run-down neighborhood. Two robust heavy wood doors lie at the center and a sign on one side indicates that Saturday mass began two hours prior as it’s now just 6:00 PM. We’ve been on this adventure nearly an hour and the youngest is unsure the church is still accessible after the mass that must surely be over. She pops out to check the doors, crossing the street to the church, but finding no purchase on the unhandled wood doors. I’m just about to roll down the window to suggest she try around the side when a naked man rides by on a bicycle.

And then another. And a naked woman. And then a horde, hundreds long, of naked or nearly-naked bike riders.

After a gasp, the mother yells “Cover your eyes, sister,” a command which the latter ignores as we all half-stare at, half try to look away from the fleshy procession. The three of us in the car exchange periodic awkward expressions of disbelief, mine tending more toward the “that’s New Orleans” variety while the other two continually profess shock that such a thing can be happening. The awkwardness is pervasive for all of us, though when I steal a glance across the street through the flopping bodies, the shame/horror I see on the face of our stranded counterpart on the far sidewalk is enough to make anyone blush.

“Beautiful bodies, though,” murmurs the vaguely Caribbean accent of our elder pilgrim, prompting the mother to crack up in a mixture of nervousness and surprise. The nun, encouraged by this reaction, is then inspired to declare “The older you get, the more you see.” And then even I have to join in the laughter, because it’s all too real.

After the nearly interminable predominantly nude parade, the flashing lights of cop cars signal the tail of the bicycles, and the youngest of our cohort skips back across the street, looking older but otherwise no worse for the wear. She reports that the church is closed, deftly ignoring the 250+ unclothed elephants that just left the room. I suggest she try around the side, which she does, pausing only slightly at the notion of crossing this street again. Within minutes, she has discovered that it is indeed open for viewing and after a brief deliberation, they say it might be a while and they don’t need me to wait. I wish them a great night as they slowly exit the vehicle, still chuckling about this city of stark contrasts wedged between the waters of a sunken swamp.

Soon I was on my way, in search of the next person who needed to get to wherever they were going next.

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The Problem is Poverty

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

PovertyPic

Domestically, we have one disease that kills more people than any other. That imprisons people in a life that falls short of their potential, that forces people into crime, addiction, homelessness, and illness. It’s a scourge upon men, women, and children, the very old, the very sick, the disempowered, disenfranchised, and marginalized. It has one cause: the lack of money in a capitalist system. It has every negative symptom you can imagine: from despair to death, and every form of ruin in between.

And yet the way we treat this disease, the way we tackle this malady, is categorically different than the way we approach everything else. There is no race for the cure to poverty, no attempt to stop poverty in its tracks before it starts, no effort to eradicate poverty entirely. Instead, we just try to patch up the symptoms for any given person and lift them out of it, getting them over it temporarily so others can be threshed back down to take their place. Maybe this is actually a bit more like how Americans view other diseases too, but it’s a devastatingly ineffective way to deal with any problem. To change this ineffectiveness, we need to acknowledge the structural factors that ensure the existence of poverty and recognize that only when those are altered or eliminated can we actually move the needle on poverty as a concept, not just move poverty around between different people.

My convictions about poverty being the root cause of all our domestic American ills doesn’t just stem from a predisposition against capitalism. It comes from almost a decade spent as a non-profiteer at various levels, in both direct service and administration. The problem we were treating was always poverty. Whether it manifest in addiction, abuse, hunger, or dropping out of school, the critical problem putting people in toxically stressful situations that led to bad impacts was always a lack of money. This is not to say that the rich cannot be addicted to drugs or commit physical violence or abuse, but that the reason that most people are susceptible to these things is because they are poor. Some people use drugs purely recreationally and lose control, but most people use drugs as a way of medicating their impossible financial situations, of finding some glimpse of happiness amidst the despair of their everyday world. Hunger, homelessness, lack of medical care, and other issues are more obviously and concretely the result of poverty. Crime and cycles of crime are almost entirely rooted in poverty. Yes, there are poor people who still resist the temptation to turn to crime and there are rich criminals, but most of the people rotting in American prisons were put there by cultural and societal cycles that left them with few to no viable opportunities to get ahead financially. The correlation between poverty and dropping out of high school is mammoth. Ditto the correlation between poverty and criminal conviction. Not least because the rich criminals can pay someone to keep them out of prison.

And where other problems exist, the way they manifest their harm is primarily through the vehicle of poverty. Far be it from me to say that various forms of oppression, from racism to sexism to homophobia to imperialism, don’t exist. But they manifest in one of two ways: violence or poverty. And violence is a very real issue and problem that is sometimes separate from poverty and trust me, as a pacifist I believe in stopping violence in all its forms. But at least we all recognize, codify laws, and work together to stand against violence (in all forms besides wars). There is not a major groundswell in society that says a certain amount of domestic or racist violence is super-necessary to a well-ordered society and the proper incentives. But we do make this argument about poverty all the time. Or at least, those defending capitalism do.

Other than violence, though, the fallout from racism, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism is primarily economic: it’s forcing people into poverty. Purveyors of these ‘isms deny jobs and opportunities to their targeted groups, deny them possible benefits or social programs that would lift them out, and generally demean their worth in a way that manifests in keeping them ensconced in poverty. There is still racism against Barack Obama and it’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t meaningfully reduce his ability to impact the world, because he’s kept himself out of poverty. Same with Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Which is not to say that racism against them is still bad and something we should fight against, but they have largely been able to overcome its meaningful ability to negatively impact their life. Whereas the millions of their brothers and sisters who are being denied opportunities based on race do not enjoy this luxury.

Put another way, poverty is the enforcement mechanism for most of the harm done by ‘isms. The hate and myopia of ‘isms is obviously wrong on face, but it would have few to no teeth without the ability to keep people impoverished. Statistics that prove racism persists as a problem in our society tend to use poverty as the driving force of their proof, showing that traditionally marginalized groups enjoy fewer economic opportunities and experience worse financial outcomes than their white male peers. This demonstrates that most of the harm done here manifests in poverty. If poverty didn’t exist, haters would lose a key tool, perhaps the biggest single tool, in their arsenal of oppression.

The problem with how we approach poverty is that we see it as an individual issue. We take each person as a stand-alone case of poverty and then try to treat their individual symptoms, while ignoring the obvious fact that they suffer from a widespread and entrenched epidemic. This would be roughly akin to treating each individual person with AIDS as their own new unique case, trying to conquer the disease anew with each patient. It would be inefficient, ineffective, and unconscionable to take this approach with disease, and yet we suffer under the delusion that poverty is largely a choice and that a heightened sense of personal responsibility can defeat it.

This belief is exacerbated not only by Republican values, but by the fact that some people do seem to be able to lift themselves out of poverty by sheer force of will. Many of our stories about this phenomenon are exaggerated and even apocryphal, fueling our delusional obsession with this as the only viable solution to the problem. We ignore the real role of luck in their stories, or the hidden advantages they had over others that enabled their rise from poverty. And then we tout these few exceptional examples as proof that anyone facing crippling poverty can overcome it easily, with a little pluck or grit or a well-timed tug on the old bootstrap. We are a nation obsessed with this belief structure because treating poverty this way if it were a disease would be too horrifyingly callous and impossible to face. It’s tantamount to holding the few people whose inoperable cancers suddenly go into remission as the exemplars of how to treat and fight cancer. “Everyone can go into remission if they just try hard enough!” This is the brand of medicine we advocate for a whole society of people being driven toward untimely death by poverty.

Not buying that poverty is like a disease? It’s fueled by environmental and hereditary factors with statistical correlations nearly as high as transmission rates of most communicable diseases. People are vastly more likely to live in poverty if they are surrounded by people in poverty, if they live in high-poverty neighborhoods, if their family members (especially parents) suffer from poverty. It does irreparable physical, mental, and emotional harm to its sufferers. It is growing and spreading. Even when some people are able to recover, others become infected. Having suffered poverty makes one more likely to suffer from it in the future (making it more like a degenerative or recurring disease than, say, the chicken pox). If left untreated, it often kills the host.

Unlike disease, though, our capitalist society structurally requires a certain number of people to suffer from poverty in order to function in the image its constructed of itself. Capitalism hinges on people being driven into terrible and abusive jobs because they fear the impacts of poverty. It also requires them to not really realize that those same jobs keep them entrenched in poverty, clinging to a belief that if they work long enough or hard enough in those positions, they will eventually escape. This is roughly akin to downing placebos in the hope that they will cure a terminal disease. It might make you feel a little better in the short-term, but it won’t save you from what’s actually hurting you.

And yet even if you believe that personal responsibility is somehow a factor in someone being in poverty, the placebo treatment is an idiotic way to approach it. For example, lung cancer is a disease that we largely feel most sufferers experience because of choices they made earlier in life, and thus they bear some responsibility for it. However, we don’t thus say that the only solution we will offer lung cancer sufferers is to pop placebos and hope they get better or magically enter remission. We still treat their case like the disease it is, still spend billions seeking a cure for their ailment.

And yet the cure to poverty is staring us in the face. Create a system that doesn’t allow people to be poor. Where a basic standard of living cannot be infringed, no matter what choices or decisions you make. Where you will have a place to live, clothes to wear, food to eat, treatment of disease, and a safe place to be, no matter what. Less the safety part, this is literally what we guarantee prisoners, those most marginalized and maligned in our society, people who most would agree really have chosen to do something terrible with their lives. It’s sadly ironic that we feel that prisoners deserve a basic minimum and it would be inhumane to deny them these items, but children born into poverty deserve no such similar safety net. And we wonder why so many of those children grow up to wind up in prison.

The only argument I’ve ever really heard against guaranteeing a basic quality of life to all is that it costs too much and that it reduces the incentive to work. I feel like the folks making these arguments miss basic facts about human psychology. People are actually much more able to work effectively and more motivated to do so when they are not doing so at metaphorical gunpoint. And forcing people to work against their will is the moral equivalent of slavery. Actually, it’s the literal definition of slavery! The fact that slavery made some sort of unjust economic system appear to function is not a valid argument for slavery as a system.

But does this system actually work? A great deal of government and virtually the entirety of the non-profit sector spends their time and money fighting the uphill, ineffective battle with poverty. Treating one person at a time, one situation at a time as though it’s not part of a larger preventable disease, these groups spend billions and billions of dollars trying to eradicate poverty in a wholly ineffective manner. This would be saved in a system without poverty. Then there’s the prison system and police forces. Yes, there’d still be some violence and you’d need a skeleton crew of these industries even without poverty. But over 90% of crime would be eliminated. Which also would drastically reduce one of our most expensive industries – the court system. When you start to think about all the mechanisms and spending we have in place to reactively try to fight back against the tide of poverty rather than prevent it in the first place, you have enough money to fund poverty prevention many times over.

It’s only our belief that people in poverty somehow deserve it and/or our belief that capitalism as currently structured is intractably inevitable that keep us from changing this system, saving money, and saving just about everyone in our society. Both of these claims, about desert and inevitability, are facially laughable. The biggest single factor in determining whether one is impoverished is whether one’s parents are impoverished, the textbook definition of an immutable characteristic. A massive portion of those in poverty are children who lack the agency to make any decisions about their fate. And systems of society change constantly. We are constantly tweaking and altering aspects of our society, large and small, and every monarchy, dictatorship, and tribal structure that came before was equally convinced that they were at the terminal arrangement of human affairs before the next tide of change swept in. We are imprisoning ourselves in a myopic, idiotic, unnecessary cycle of disease. That is worse for most of its victims than prison itself. What will it take for us to recognize this reality and start working actively to change it?

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Bernie Sanders and the Future of American Democracy

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

When I was growing up in Oregon, I was an avid 4-Her. (That’s pronounced four-ae-cher, not four-her, if you’re not familiar with 4-H.) We had ducks, geese, rabbits, and chickens, and I would show them at the county fair every summer, especially the summer I was 12. During that year, we’d just formed the Beach Bunnies 4-H club after I’d spent a few years in a couple other clubs, and we won the coveted Herdsmanship Trophy at the Clatsop County Fair in what proved to be the only year of the club’s existence. And it was the only year we took Patty Duckworth to the fair.

Patty Duckworth is probably my favorite pet of all-time. She was our lone duck to survive an overnight raccoon attack that killed our three other ducks, including her brother, Patrick. She almost didn’t make it, living three months in our spare bathtub being nursed back to health as the skin on her neck re-grew and other wounds healed. This experience transformed her, making her believe that she was indeed a human just like us, that she belonged in the house, and giving her a taste, somehow, for rabbit food. She was a very attached animal, following me around all over the yard, constantly communicating, and showing some minimal PTSD by making warning quacks anytime anyone got near. We jokingly called her the guard-duck.

In the 1992 Clatsop County Fair, we entered her in the mallard category. There are generally two ways to show animals at the fair – entering them as examples of their breed (kind of like a dog show) and actually showing them, which is more about the presenter’s command of the animal and knowledge of how to work with their animal (which I guess is like a different kind of dog show). We did both with Patty that year, but her status as a mallard only mattered in the breed ribbon. She won a red ribbon, which roughly conforms to second place, for the female mallards.

The only trouble was, we soon thereafter found out that she wasn’t a mallard at all. She was a rouen, a similar but ultimately different breed. We’d been sold Patrick and Patty as mallard ducklings, but the distinctions in the yellow-brown balls of fluff they were at the time were probably lost on the farm store staff. Or maybe they just knew mallards were more popular since most folks haven’t heard of rouens. Rouens, in fairness, look very similar to mallards, including the distinctive green heads with little white collars on the males.

Bernie Sanders is a lot like Patty Duckworth. Not just in being one of my all-time favorites, but in being entered in the wrong category as a candidate. And like Patty, he earned a red ribbon. My liberal friends, tripping over each other to line up behind Hillary Clinton, have been maligning Bernie for everything he’s done lately, especially staying in the race, and even his allegedly poor showing in earning his narrow red ribbon to Hillary’s blue. I think this misses the real headline, which is that a rouen almost beat a mallard in a mallard contest. Bernie Sanders is not, nor has he ever been, a Democrat. He’s a Socialist. And he very nearly staged a successful takeover of the Democratic Party, despite having transparently joined for the sole purpose of doing just that. His near-victory* should not be processed as a crushing defeat so much as a very exciting signal to radicals, and a very scary one for traditional Democrats.

*It’s worth noting that he could still win the nomination, which is why he hasn’t dropped out. We have between now and Philadelphia for Hillary to get indicted. I don’t think it’s very likely, but if it happens, boy will all those liberals be glad that Bernie stayed in so Trump doesn’t win 47 states in November.

The Democrats have been a centrist party since Bill Clinton took them in that direction in 1992. No major nominee for the party in the intervening time could be confused for being leftist, let alone far-left, with the stated exception of Barack Obama, before we saw what his government actually looked like. The pattern of talking left but moving center-right has been well-established, underlined by the purported success of the Bill and Barack administrations, which actually amounted to sort of aimless rightward drift, with the notable exception of a few solid policies in Obama’s lame-duck half-term. The reforms to wage and hour laws and the reaching out to Iran and Cuba make me wonder what an actually progressive president could achieve. Sadly, there’s no way we’ll find out in the next four years unless Hillary gets indicted.

The craving people feel for a real progressive movement in politics is clear in more than just the Bernie movement. The success of Occupy that set the stage for Bernie, the advancement of Black Lives Matter, the brief but popular campaign of Howard Dean in 2004 (before he sold out), the immense popularity of who we thought Barack Obama would be, and the general rising disgust with a society built on debt and income inequality all speak to the potential power of a real progressive. And with a rising consciousness about climate change and real environmentalism, combined with the ongoing fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, it is becoming increasingly clear to many that capitalism is not compatible with progressive ideals. Indeed, that capitalism represents a very real destruction of human life, either as we know it or altogether, at least for the vast majority of eligible voters. It is painfully ironic that the only remaining messenger of this reality in the 2016 contest is himself perhaps the all-time poster-boy of capitalism, a charlatan and huckster who has crafted a lifetime of imagery around being the ultimate capitalist.

And, of course, his adherence to that message can be trusted about as much as anything Hillary pivots to in order to curry favor. The final general election choice being offered by the major parties is a race to the bottom between two inveterate liars, two individuals who embody self-aggrandizement and empowerment at the expense of all else, who radiate detestable self-promotion and opportunism, corruption and greed. One is popular because he was born into money, the other because she married into power. These twin titans of American folly are pitted against each other in a fear-fueled campaign to the death, one that opens with a near-majority of America probably hating both of them, 85% hating one of them, and this is before they throw the first real punch in their heads-up fracas.

If I were trying to disenfranchise an entire nation, to nullify hope and eliminate faith in politics for a whole country, I could not imagine two better candidates to wield the coffin-nails. I have quipped that by the end, about seven people will vote in each state.

That claim itself at this point is a bit of referendum on why we vote. Most of my cynical colleagues from various generations of APDA have insisted that people vote out of fear, not hope, despite what 2008’s turnout may say to the contrary. They insist there will be robust and enthusiastic turnout as people storm to the polls to reject Trump’s brand of bullying racist populism. I observe that Hillary is probably the most hated politician in America of the last two decades, so just as many fearful folks would turn out against her. But ultimately, I think this level of fear and exaggeration just leads to fatigue. Fatigue that does not inspire one to drive to the booth and pull the lever for the lesser evil. We shall, of course, unfortunately, find out.

I would say, today, that if it remains Trump vs. Clinton and remains a generally perceived two-person race (surely Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will exceed expectations, but probably not approach 10% each), that Trump’s about 62% to win. I don’t think the long race favors Clinton when she has to slog it out with someone who has made his life in show-business, someone who the camera and the soundbite favor, someone who has already made his living out of belittling people and remaking his image. They are both practiced liars, both skilled manipulators, but I think the fresher face to this particular scene has the edge, especially when Trump seems more in touch with the reality of 2016’s electorate and real financial situation. I don’t think it will be a slam dunk and I don’t think it’s guaranteed, but the Democrats are already underestimating Trump nearly as much as the Republicans did, and we all saw how that turned out.

(Incidentally, I still think, even as of today, that Paul Ryan has about a 30% chance of being the Republican nominee. It’s really up to the party how to proceed and they don’t have to follow their own rules. And Paul Ryan would beat Hillary Clinton in a Reaganesque landslide, if only because he’s totally avoided all the 2016 action and thus doesn’t symbolize this ugly year to voters.)

So what of people like me? Like so many of my friends, like so many people who know that the future is not capitalism but a turn toward something anti-corporate and truly progressive? Where do we go for help and hope, other than to the protest ballot for Jill Stein? Do we form our own party and start running for 2018 spots? Do we make sure to point out all of President Clinton’s flaws if she does get elected, relishing in yet 4-8 more years of being called a traitor every day and demanding too much of someone who allegedly represents us? When both parties insist on boxing out any voice we have despite the fact that we nearly took over a vaguely hostile centrist party, do we just give up on this groundswell of power and move on to knitting clubs and 4-H and other pursuits? Do we move to Europe?

I don’t really have an answer today. My Dad has insisted for twenty years that “there are no political solutions.” I’ve perhaps never been closer to agreeing with him. And yet the demographic trends point out that the balance of time favors the Bernie supporters and the real progressives, that this movement is only likely to grow more powerful over the next few years, not less. And more importantly, that power can’t help but be accelerated by a Trump or Clinton presidency, one that continues to pay off the cronies, the rich, the companies, and the greedy. Eventually, capitalism resolves to one person owning everything. The closer we get to that, the closer we get to either literally discarding democracy or witnessing some more serious backlash to capitalism within it.

There is a lot of reason to be hopeful about 2020, then, I guess, though it’s that kind of hope that involves thinking the war will be so bad that there must be a good peace settlement in four years. In the meantime, it might be a good time to unplug from all domestic political news entirely, lest you start believing all the impending insults and drama mean something to the real future of our country.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Unemployment

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Tags: ,

It’s been a while since I’ve visited the question of our unemployment figures in the United States and what they imply for the real state of our economy and our future, such as it is. When I first started posting about this four years ago, no one was particularly telling the story of labor force participation rates as a proxy for unemployment and how these rates were hiding the real story behind the glorious recovery narrative that everyone was being fed in the wake of the Great Recession.

Last week, somewhat hearteningly, almost everyone described a jobs report where unemployment purportedly fell from 5.0% to 4.7% as a disaster because of the corresponding drop in labor force participation. The narrative has finally largely caught up with the reality, even if the official numbers still enable media pundits to talk about “full employment” like it’s a stone’s throw away instead of the miles it actually is from nearly 11%. I don’t have enough of a readership to take any credit for the shift in the narrative cognizance, unless it’s as part of a much broader grassroots movement quietly observing that the BLS has no clothes in a country where tons of people have decided it no longer makes sense to even try to work. But it’s still great that people are talking about this more widely.

Part of why I haven’t posted in a bit is that unemployment numbers actually have been steadily falling in the last few months, at least through the March figures. The Reporting Gap, the distance between the reported percentage and the underlying reality when one accounts for labor force participation, was commensurately dropping, from a record-high of 6.52% in September to a two-year low of 5.67% in March. During this time, what I call Real Unemployment, accounting for those who’ve left the labor force, fell from 11.62% to 10.67%, nearly a full point. The reported figure in that span fluctuated between 4.9% and 5.1%, ultimately going from 5.1% to 5.0% from September to March.

This presents a damning flip-side to the problem I’ve been discussing here for four years. The media and the BLS were actually missing some real recovery and job strengthening that was happening during this six-month period. Granted that the larger headline might be unemployment remaining stuck above 10.5% for seven years and counting, but a 1% drop in six months was the second-best rally for employment during that whole span. Meanwhile, the media reported flatness and unchanged during this real improvement.

Of course, now we have the realization that 4.7% is not reflective of what actually happened in May. But it belies a more real story that the backtracking actually started in April. In April, unemployment popped back up to 10.96% from 10.67%. It was reported as steady at 5.0%. Then, in May, it was actually flat at 10.96%. This was the alleged disaster moment, when the 0.3% reported drop just showed fleeing the labor force. And that’s true, which is why the unemployment figure was actually flat. But the spike in unemployment actually happened the month before.

Here are your graphs:

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

Real Unemployment (red) and Reported Unemployment (blue), January 2009 – May 2016.

Reporting Gap between real and reported unemployment, January 2009 - May 2016.

Reporting Gap between real and reported unemployment, January 2009 – May 2016.

Do any of these little fluctuations matter that much? Other than the distance between the notion of nearly full employment and more than seven sustained years over 10.5% unemployment? I would argue they do, especially when trying to spot trends. Labor force participation had cratered to 62.4% in September, but built all the way back up to 63.0% by March (a two-year high). Now it’s already back down to 62.6%, dropping by 0.2% each month. What does this portend for the economy? Are things already unraveling again, finally exposing the alleged recovery as hollow, shallow, and only benefiting those at the top? How will this impact the upcoming election?

Maybe having a one-month jump on the trends in these figures isn’t that big a deal. Maybe everyone talking about labor force participation in the same breath as unemployment means victory on this issue has already largely been achieved. But if we are headed for another official recession, it’s meaningful to realize that we’re starting from a place of 11% unemployment, not 5%, and that the hit to the economy that’s coming is on top of a problematic environment, not on top of a healthy one. At least if we’re looking at the bottom line for the bottom 50%, not the corporate titans.


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):
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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Duckland

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Telling Stories, Tags: , ,

DucksOnAPond

When I lived in Oregon, I was in a lot of plays. I started (and ended) my professional acting career, serving in the ensemble for the Lewis and Clark Pageant, an annual summer play on the riverbank in Seaside designed to commemorate the expedition and desperately tie our little rural/tourist corner of the world to something monumental in history. I was one of two children in the play (we were both about 8-10 years old), and we danced in the scene in Missouri to celebrate the expedition’s departure, then played Native American children who encountered the expedition, and at one point I think I also played the equivalent of a cabin boy on the expedition itself. Mostly I was backstage and watched the various scenes as the real keelboat floated on its tether and various dramatic and vaguely historical happenings unfolded before the summer beachgoers. I also spent a tremendous amount of time with journeyman actors on the rural Oregon circuit, having some of my first non-school contact with adults who were not of my family. And I got a social security number and card, a prerequisite to collecting my nominal paycheck for the performances. I don’t know if it was standard procedure to not issue these things at birth in 1980 or if it was just that my parents resisted such norms at the time.

I also began my most serious and earnest writing project to date there, and one decidedly more original than the more substantial one that followed (that being The Legend of Enutrof, an embarrassingly derivative rip-off of Brian Jacques’ medieval fantasy novels starring talking animals). Enutrof was a few years later, dipping into the New Mexico years, and topped out at about 135 pages before I realized just how unoriginal it was. But the prior effort, crafted mostly during the mosquito-bitten summers in the twilight pageant of my 9th summer, was called Duckland. It reached about 50 or 60 pages before I gave up, though these were handwritten pages in my unimpressive scrawl, so it probably translates to something more like 20. This was based mostly on the largest and most vocal community to adorn the pageant’s stage, a flock of ducks.

(Incidentally, Google informs me that a flock is usually what a group of ducks is called in flight. Apparently it’s either a raft or a paddling in the water. If I’d just casually dropped “a paddling of ducks” there, though, I think you might have thought I was one of those kids who tortured animals from a young age. I was not. Without that connotation, though, I kind of like that. Though a raft is reminiscent of the omnipresent keelboat that was a key feature of the stage, so maybe we should go with that.)

The ducks were ostensibly wild, but functionally domesticated in the way that so many approachable animals become when they have ongoing contact with human communities that cultivate their presence. The riverbank where the pageant was held was reasonably traversed with tourist traffic taking in the pastoral scene even when the show was not on, and the show only increased this presence. Inevitably there would be a lot of children, or older folks, and they would bring bread, so by the time I met this raft of ducks (weird, right?), they were far more likely to waddle toward strange people than away from them. All while making that low murmuring sound that can be translated as a very soft quack, but really sounds more like Donald Duck at half volume and one-third speed.

The ducks were endlessly fascinating to me, even though I had ducks of my own at home to tend to and play with. These ducks could fly, though they mostly did so only when spooked to lift off the water, take a long arcing bank, and then land splashily again a few yards away. They had specific habits and social structures, unique personalities, and group tendencies. I got to the point where I could pick out many of them from the crowd between their appearance and proclivities and of course started naming them. Naming them quickly became a story and the story soon went into pencil-on-notebook-paper efforts that piqued the interest of many fellow actors as I chugged away at it.

Duckland‘s protagonist was Jimmy Richter-Duck (all of the last names were *-Duck, which I guess was a bit redundant, and there was definitely something about an earthquake in Jimmy’s past, maybe when he hatched?). An outsider and iconoclast, his primary issue with duck society was its slavish devotion to the cycle of the sun. Why should a duck go to sleep just because it’s dark out, Jimmy inquired of his fellow fowl. Jimmy stayed up late and even slept in during the morning, boldly resisting nature’s precepts. He started winning other converts to the cause of night-owling (-ducking?) when I ran out of steam on the project. There were other subplots too, but I’d have to dig through the archive boxes in Albuquerque to be sure of their nature. I think Jimmy had a romantic interest who he really wanted to stay up late with, as well as a rival duck of some sort who constantly derided him.

It’s much easier in retrospect, as it often is, to see echoes of my own arguments with my parents about bedtime reflected in Jimmy’s struggle, though that was a battle I won fairly early in childhood, unlike haircuts and the eternal skirmishes over food. (As I prepare for my own potential fights with a possible child down the line, it strikes me how my parents never had a chance on any of these issues in the long-term. Or would I have been so committed to them in adulthood had they not been arguments in childhood?) But I’d like to think there was also something more fundamental or universal in Jimmy’s resistance to nature, even amongst a more obviously nature-bound group like ducks (as opposed to how humans perceive themselves). Of course, it was pretty clear to me at the time that the ducks perceived themselves more like people do than like people perceive ducks. And this is more than a “what’s water?” query from a fish. It should be obvious to anyone whose spent extensive time with communities of animals that they have elaborate communication, something I think is only fit to call language, along with daily tribulations and variation to rival our own. Duckland at times felt almost as much like journalism as it did fiction.

I remember that my scribbling attracted the specific attention of a particular actor who I probably spent the most time backstage talking to. My image of him is a little hazy, but he was definitely overweight, with glasses, and a bit of a nerdy demeanor. He talked to me, as most of the actors did actually, like an adult, and even read some of my writing. After perusing some pages of Duckland, he asked if I wanted to be an intellectual. I said unequivocally yes. He told me that I was wrong, that one shouldn’t be too intellectual. Feedback that, when I relayed it to my father, he was horrified to hear. I still cannot think of this guy or even that whole summer without almost immediately thinking of that series of conversations, how passionately my dad defended being an intellectual and intellectual pursuits, and how hot under the collar I felt for even allowing myself to talk to someone who decried the approach.

I wish I could remember his name, but I don’t. We would play chess during longer stretches of waiting backstage. It’s also obvious, of course, that he was an intellectual, a serious and sensitive one, and that he regretted his own path at the expense of something more socially acceptable or popular. Or easy, perhaps. That he spent his time backstage of a vaguely dweeby semi-professional play hanging out with a precocious nine-year-old rather than, say, any of the actresses. That to the extent that he could pass on advice, it was to avoid his fate.

In the end, I’m with Jimmy Richter-Duck. You’ve gotta make your own path. Walking through Audubon Park yesterday, basking in the overheated glow of a gorgeous day filled with the freedom that only the recently resigned (and not destitute) can feel, I saw some ducks, heard the low murmur of their conversation. And hoped that the rest of that guy’s life was longer on opportunities and shorter on regrets. I’ve collected plenty of regrets myself, but being an intellectual isn’t among them. Nor is any single time I’ve gone on a walk in search of ducks.

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Prevention and Cure

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

PreventCure

We live in a cure society. Not just because we have races for the cure and build awareness for cures and believe that eventually every malady we face will someday be cured. Also for those reasons, but not even primarily because of that. It is reasonable to hope that we can discover, create, and utilize cures for the things that go wrong in our lives. But as the old adage reminds us, it is even more reasonable (and efficient) to aim to prevent those things in the first place.

We don’t believe in prevention in this society, though. I guess we’re starting to believe a little in the prevention of pregnancy and the transmission of STDs, but otherwise we’re not really into taking steps to keep ourselves from harm. We drive cars, we put the cell phone right up to our brain, we eat poorly, we live with chronic stress and pain and fatigue and anger. And whenever the inevitable things go wrong, when we have accidents or cancer or heart disease or panic attacks, we wait impatiently for the cures to come in and make it all better. To get us back in the game so we can head back out and reinjure ourselves and we can begin the cycle anew.

When I got kidney stones in 2010, my assigned urologist was uninterested in even examining what in my life might be causing the phenomenon. He rattled off a list of prescription drugs that would help combat the stones’ effects, as well as some advanced treatment options for splitting the stones into more manageable kidney pebbles. He rolled his eyes when I asked about side effects of these drugs, let alone the little lasers that could play Bruce Willis to the calcified asteroids in my organs. But the contempt really came out when I asked what steps I could take to keep from getting kidney stones in the future. Apparently I was his first patient to deign to ask why I was getting kidney stones in the first place, so I could attempt to stop doing whatever that was. Granted by the assembled populous of kidney stone and prostate cancer sufferers in the waiting room that I was below his average patient’s age by about four decades and this made me decidedly more invested in future behaviors than most of my comrades, but still. He blinked at me and acted like he hadn’t heard the question. When I made another pass, he mumbled something about eating more stone fruits and maybe less dairy. They are made of calcium, after all, those kidney stones. Not all of them, but the ones I had, according to a week of urine I collected in an orange bucket.

Turned out that the real issue was dehydration, the result primarily of crying basically all the time over my divorce. Which, you know, is not a diagnosis that I could reasonably have expected him to come up with. I got the 100% real cranberry juice (something a friend had to tell me about, because my doctor certainly wasn’t going to) and cut back on cheese, but hydrating more and crying less did most of the trick. I haven’t passed a stone in three years.

So this reality certainly applies to the medical field and our entrenched beliefs about it. It’s part of why medical costs are so disproportionately high in this country, driven as they are by the cure-side of the equation. Prescription drugs are one of the single biggest industries, in terms of both absolute size and ongoing growth, that we have in this nation. Preventative medicine is kind of a fringe notion, vaguely associated with quacky herbs and the word socialism. No matter that health plans focused on prevention rather than repair are immensely more efficient and effective than their rivals. That doesn’t propel a growth industry so much as the maintenance society. And we all know a society addicted to cancerous growth cannot abide a viable maintenance plan.

But this goes well beyond just the medical field as a notion about how we are to live our lives. We live with a model of life that presumes it will create all manner of unhealthy side effects, then try to sell a variety of cures to solve those problems. Stress, unhappiness, inadequacy, depression, infidelity, insomnia, crime, poverty, disaster. We expect most of these things to befall us as we approach our daily life, making it vital that we raise enough money for the tools to fix them: yoga, gym memberships, better food, vacations, therapy, medical care, and entertainment of every possible variety. Examine our professions and pastimes in this society and how many of them are making up for some real or perceived deficiency created by the hardships of life. And I am hardly here to sit on some high horse and chastise you about these things: in the past year, I’ve signed up for yoga, a gym membership, tried to eat better food, considered counseling, taken vacations, and bought a lot of entertainment. It’s not like all or even any of these things are innately problematic. But when we feel a desperate need for them as the natural consequence of the way we live our life, it might be time to take a step back and re-examine.

There is a simpler and perhaps more documented model for this kind of prevention-cure dichotomy in our society: childcare. Childcare is almost uniquely expensive in America, perhaps the only thing people are willing to sacrifice for more than health care. And the justification for buying childcare is maintaining one’s place in the capitalist economy: bringing in enough money and perhaps prestige to keep the wheel turning. For so many couples in America, the equation doesn’t really work: it’s break-even at best. But the notion of living on just one income, of ditching the job for the child, is often unthinkable, even when it would make more total financial sense, to say nothing of the benefits of not having one’s kid raised primarily by a stranger.

Now this particular example is massively complicated by the gender issues involved, with the deadly combination of traditional sexist expectations of women to be the primary caretakers and the pay gap exacerbating pressure on women to be the ones who step away from the workplace. When one adds bias against both women and men with career disruptions on their resume, these factors negate the simplicity of the choice for a lot of couples. This makes it powerfully important for many to stay in the workplace, even if they’re running on a treadmill just to keep up. But if we could hit a giant reset button on gender perceptions in our society (yes, this would fix a lot of things), making it truly as likely that the man would stay home in any given instance, then we’d have another example of it being totally nonsensical to choose cure over prevention.

The trouble is, whether you think it applies well in the childcare example or not, we know that prevention is more effective than curing. Beyond the cliche, it’s fundamentally obvious to us that the cure is never 100%: there are always complications and side effects and increased risks going forward. And sure, prevention is never 100% either. You can avoid the stressful day job and still get depressed. Condoms break. The train can crash just like the car. But at least prevention gives you a good chance at 100% avoidance. And the worst-case scenario of failures in prevention are needing the cure. In other words, the worst-case scenario of a prevention mentality is relying on the best-case scenario of a cure mentality.

What tangible steps can you take in your own life to replace cures with prevention?

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Consistent Judgment vs. BattleBots: an Analysis of Bernie and Hillary Supporters

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

JudgeBattle

Near as I can tell, the best litmus test (perhaps outside of the South) for whether a potential Democratic voter is likely to support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is income. If you’ve got money, or think you will soon, you like Hillary. If you don’t have money, or see economic trouble on the horizon, you like Bernie. This isn’t strictly true, of course, since there are folks who hold onto their ideals of economic equality even after making capitalism work for them and amassing wealth and there are those who don’t have a realistic shot at wealth who still believe the wealthy should rule the world. But fundamentally, people tend to vote their perceived self-interest and you’re more likely to endorse capitalism full-throatedly if it’s working for you. And Bernie vs. Hillary is probably a referendum on capitalism as much as anything else. As much as Hillary is trying to get in on some of that socialism in the primary, we all are pretty aware that Bernie likes taxes and hates corporations way more than his opponent.

This post is about what I think the second-biggest distinction is, and one that I think a lot of folks are talking around but no one is actually directly addressing. And that’s the role one perceives politics to have in this country, and really what the purpose of representative democracy is. This is often phrased quite differently in condescending Hillary propaganda in the media that says things like “Hillary gets things done.” That’s a leading indicator of this type of perceived difference, but it doesn’t really address the core of it in a fair way. And acknowledging my bias as a Bernie supporter, I will try to put this both as clearly and as fairly as possible.

There are two theories of representative democracy and what it’s all about. Okay, there are lots of such theories, but there are two that are relevant to the campaign:

1. You cannot be there to vote on everything yourself, to make every decision, and to advocate for every position. We cannot all be President, nor can everything come down to 300-million-person referendum. As a result, one should choose leaders who most clearly demonstrate clear and consistent judgment. This means both that their decisions will be maximally predictable and that they are most likely to, in the midst of crisis down in the bunker, make the best decision. I’m calling this theory Consistent Judgment.

2. You cannot be there to vote on everything yourself, to make every decision, and to advocate for every position. We cannot all be President, nor can everything come down to 300-million-person referendum. As a result, there are two parties who represent the two possible reasonable and widely held slates of positions on issues to decide these things for the people. One should choose the leader who will best navigate systems of government to maximize the advantage for the party one favors, to beat the other party as clearly and significantly as possible. Even if that person has to change their positions radically, as long as they have the strategic advantage over the other group, them winning for their team is the highest priority. I’m calling this theory BattleBots.

I think the divergence between these two theories is large and explains the level of incredulity Democrats have looking across the divide at the other deeply entrenched camp. For Consistent Judgment advocates, it’s bizarre that consistency doesn’t matter and that positions can change radically as long as the team is winning, since this often mean altering positions or making compromises that look a lot like conceding to the other team. For BattleBots advocates, it’s bizarre that one could advocate someone whose loyalty to the team is nascent and questionable, someone who is less interested in playing the game, since the whole point of politics is to play and win the game.

This is why Bernie is doing so well with independents, both those who choose to vote in Democratic primaries and those who are surveyed nationally in hypothetical general election polls. Independents are free-thinkers who have alternative slates to the two parties and lament the BattleBot culture in Washington. They love Bernie’s judgment and trust his ability to contravene the grain of two-party politics. It’s also why Hillary is doing so well with conservative Democrats, because they feel a strong loyalty to their team that may transcend even the actual platform of their party. They love Hillary’s strong, attacking style that will go after the enemy wherever they may roam.

For those to whom politics is an all-out battle, a game of chess with a winner and loser, Bernie is totally confounding. He’s not rabidly attacking the other side, he’s not even totally committed to this team, and he’s not fully steeped and invested in the team’s infrastructure and bottom line. His voice will criticize members of the team if they contradict his political views and he blames the team for many of the ills he’s fighting against. What a terrible BattleBot!

For those to whom politics is about displaying consistency of judgment, Hillary is totally confounding. She changes her positions yearly, monthly, weekly, even hourly if she’s just been at an event that caters to a particular constituency. She will run in the direction of any candidate she’s against, then run the other direction if her opponent changes. She will use any tactic at her command, even if she criticized that tactic last year. What terrible use of Consistent Judgment!

This is how Hillary supporters can actually see her shifting positions as a strength: they believe it shows the strategic calculation necessary to make the proper adjustment for the moment. Chess games are not about adherence to the preservation of rooks or the ideal of the bishop. They are about winning, whatever shifts and alterations and sacrifices need to be made. Even if the queen was the most important piece on the board last turn, if there’s a strategic advantage in trading her off, then down she goes in the next turn. Hillary supporters see it as clear that she’s a great chess player and they want to win the game.

And this is how Bernie supporters see his commitment to ideals even when potentially impractical or hard to implement as a strength: they believe it shows the good judgment to advocate what’s right, even in the face of total opposition or infeasibility. Politics are not just the domain of the hard-nosed practical compromise, but also about the ability to inspire and lead, to set a precedent at the top that convinces people to change their hearts and minds. Bernie supporters see it as clear that he’s an inspiring change agent and they want that kind of rhetoric and judgment at the top.

For someone who values Consistent Judgment, it’s terrifying to imagine what kind of expedient political decisions Hillary might make in the White House: starting wars, compromising deeply on legislation, changing her mind to advance the interests of her team. Nothing is hard and fast, so anything could go if she finds it valuable at the time, and she’ll recant and apologize later after the sober reflection of what actually resulted. When past examples include DOMA and the Iraq War, it’s really hard for Consistent Judgment advocates to get excited about this.

And for someone who values BattleBots, it’s terrifying to imagine how little Bernie might do for the Democratic Party as a whole in the White House. This is the source of the new criticism that he’s not raising money for down-ticket Dems, as well as the old one that he’s not even really a Democrat. How can you trust someone to be the best BattleBot for your team if he’s only loosely affiliated with your team? If he’s willing to criticize Obama’s policies and Democratic lawmakers, how can he help convince the country that they must support Democrats at all cost? No wonder BattleBots advocates have such a hard time with Bernie.

It’s no secret (except briefly to a couple people on Facebook on April 1st) that I’m in the Consistent Judgment camp. But I also strongly dislike the two-party system and one of my highest priorities as a voter is to oppose it on face. In my mind, BattleBots thinking is exactly why we have gridlock in Washington, a lack of creative solutions, and people consistently flipping positions just to say that they’re getting things done or blocking the other team. Obamacare is a great example of this: the model for the ACA was invented by the Heritage Foundation as a conservative response to advocacy for something closer to single-payer. The individual mandate was a Republican creation first implemented by Mitt Romney to ensure that the market still dominated healthcare. With no cost controls, the ACA has manifest as a pro-corporate development in almost all ways (with slight exceptions being the expansion of Medicare and the removal of pre-existing conditions as a reason to deny coverage). But since Obama was responsible for and associated with the ACA, Republicans suddenly opposed it with every fiber of their being, even though they spent years advocating for its underlying principles. Meanwhile, former single-payer advocates like Howard Dean and even, yes, Hillary Clinton, now disavow single-payer as unthinkable because the Democrats have tied their flag to the mast of the ACA.

Bernie Sanders would never abandon single-payer just because the Democrats had decided to advocate something else. Even if that meant throwing “his party” under the bus. For me, that makes him a hero. For a long-time Democratic Party strategist, that makes him unreliable at best and destructive at worst.

My hope in writing this is not even necessarily that the acrimony between Bernie and Hillary supporters reduces, since I still am a staunch advocate of Bernie. But I think we can gain some understanding of each other by examining not just how our personal policy views might be different, but also how our methodological differences inform our view of political actors. It really impacts every aspect of the campaign. It’s why Hillary supporters are outraged Bernie hasn’t left the race since his chances of winning the nomination are somewhat slim: if there’s even a chance that he hurts Hillary and Hillary is the more likely nominee, then he’s undermining the Code of the BattleBots by hurting the eventual BattleBot Supreme. What if he shaves off a key part of her armor before she has to do battle in the big arena?! And it’s why Bernie supporters are outraged by this call from Hillary supporters – he’s being true to his ideals and consistency, regardless of the situation. He’s representing his views as ardently and consistently as he would in the White House and that’s a critical voice to hear for as long as possible. What if voters become further disillusioned by the idea that politicians only ever say things because they are strategically expedient?!

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What if Bernie Wins 35 States?

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

I haven’t been posting a lot here this year. I’ve spent too much time arguing on Facebook with people who will probably never change their minds, an old habit from years of debating and judging debate and coaching debate. I truly love debate in all its forms and yet I’m still not totally convinced that it’s always or even often a good use of time. And yet I am the moth to debate’s flame, no matter what it consumes. Regardless, like Bernie’s campaign, this post isn’t about me.

It’s about Bernie Sanders, what happened last night in Michigan, and what it portends for the increasingly unpredictable 2016 Presidential race.

Nate Silver, universally regarded guru of electoral politics, and his team at 538 are calling last night the biggest upset in any vote since the 1984 New Hampshire primary, if not ever. You might think he’s trying to just wipe the egg off his face for basically saying there was no chance (“less than 1%”) that Bernie would win Michigan after polls ranged from having him down 5% to 37%. Never mind that 538 somehow concocted that the 37% was the most reliable poll, even though it only robo-called landlines:

“Federal law only permits us to call land lines using automated polling. Because likely Primary voters are older, 54% are 60 or older and 86% are older than 50, we believe there are sufficient land line voters to get an accurate sample. We do not have to make any assumptions of likely voter turnout.”
-“Clinton Opens Up Huge Lead in Michigan”, Mitchell Research & Communications, poll conducted March 6, 2016

But everyone got this wrong, though not all as appallingly as Mitchell Research & Communications. Even Bernie himself sent his supporters home, somehow unsure that their massive grassroots campaign among people younger than 50 would work to turn the state that everyone had already penciled into Hillary’s column. And suddenly, every Democratic state poll, every model, every assumption has to be scrabbled up and thrown out like so many contracts at Mitchell Research & Communications. The narrative that Hillary Clinton is marching inexorably, though slowly, to the Democratic nomination is back in the uncertainty column.

Her surrogates on national TV and all over the media, through their budding panic last night, hasten to point out that Hillary dominated Mississippi, adding yet another Southern state to her tally. And don’t even get them started about the insurmountable lead in superdelegates! Never mind that those superdelegates are fickle and might flip as soon as the winds change, or that they’re not committed at all, at any point, until the actual convention, or that they are entirely undemocratic and would never flip an election that Bernie had otherwise won if they ever wanted to see another progressive vote for the Democratic nominee in their lifetime. They’re super! Let’s count them in every major media analysis as though they were locked in. Because somehow Hillary’s lead of about 200 delegates doesn’t look that insurmountable if you only count the real, representative delegates.

But let’s leave out delegates. Say the media is right about delegates, but wrong about polls. Let’s just say that Michigan provides the green-light that Iowa and Nevada almost did (and would have had they been primaries and not machine-impacted caucuses), demonstrating that Bernie can win anywhere outside the South, can basically tie or win in every blue state, that the establishment’s polls have been flawed from the outset, unable to keep up with Bernie’s momentum, excitement, and youth power. We’re almost out of real estate in the South – after North Carolina and Florida vote next Tuesday, there will be no more “firewall” for Hillary to hide behind, no way of her saying she “still won tonight” based on lopsided votes in states that will inevitably vote for Trump or Cruz or both at once in the general if the Republicans succeed in betraying Trump.

What if Bernie wins 35 states?

2016DemsBlog

No, Hillary supporters, you can’t poll your way out of this one. Polls are useless, remember? Remember the 37-point lead on the eve of Michigan? Remember “greater than 99% for Hillary”? Nate Silver isn’t going to save you from this possibility.

We’ll give Hillary Florida, though I think that’s quite questionable – there’s a lot of evidence that Florida is it’s own quarky state that diverges from the rest of the South. But let’s say it’s enough like Texas that she gets it. And we’ll throw in New York, too, home of Wall Street and the Clinton carpetbagged Senate tenure. And let’s assume DC is enough like the South that she takes that too.

Then… what else? Where else, after Michigan, can Hillary possibly plant her flag and say “yes, this territory is mine”.

I will grant you that Utah, Kentucky, Maryland, and New Jersey all seem a little borderline to me. Maybe even Connecticut too, though most of the 1%ers there are Republicans I think. That’s five more states that would make it a slightly more respectable 30-20 split. But honestly, after Michigan, I’m not at all sure. The few Democrats in Utah and Kentucky don’t strike me as sure Hillary voters. Connecticut looks a lot like Vermont in some ways. Let’s pursue for the sake of argument the map above.

And let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the delegates still lean Hillary. Or even strongly so. That Bernie’s thinner margins in the 35 states than that band of solid red Southern states Hillary wins by a lot mean that he still trails in the delegate count overall. What then?

Oh, I know what the rules say. I also know that the rules say the Republicans have to nominate Trump when he wins the required number of delegates, but I’d still be more than surprised if they actually do that. Given the utter open war on Trump in the Republican establishment, it’s very hard to picture a convention where Mitt Romney, John McCain, and other party elders lock hands with Trump in triumph and wish him well on the way to the White House, even if he gets 1,400 delegates. Party politics are not federal laws – they are rules both set and enforced by the parties. There’s no saying they have to follow their own rules.

Which is another advantage-Hillary argument, right? Because the Democratic establishment so desperately wants her to win?

Well, maybe. What Democrats seem to want even more than Hillary is to back a winner. And if they look at that map, really study it, do they see a general election winner in Hillary? When she wins mostly red states and Bernie wins 35 of them overall?

If you’re wondering, Barack Obama beat Hillary 29-21 in the state count in 2008:

2008DemsBlog

There are some populous and blue states in her column that year, and Obama still went on to win the general. But there are also lots of solid blue states in Obama’s map, plus bellwethers like Missouri and Wisconsin. Both campaigns had their mix of coalitions. But I’m not convinced that Hillary’s coalition is as large as either hers or Obama’s in 2008. It’s Southerners and old folks. That’s it. She split the African-American youth vote outside the South. She won it among the oldest generations, but she wins every race in the oldest generations. People who’ve given up on being truly progressive or have enough money that they feel comfortable with the establishment love Hillary. Everyone under 50 outside the South is in Bernie’s camp. And he’s drumming up the kind of enthusiasm and energy that drives them to the polls in the face of insurmountable published odds, paying off that better than 100-1 ticket.

Once we leave the South, once Bernie starts racking up state after state after state, week after week, what will this race look like? As Hillary starts getting more panicky, possibly blundering more and making more insensitive or entitled statements, as Bernie voters gain confidence about his electability and popularity and ability to defy the establishment-issued odds? Can you really hand the nomination to someone who won 30% of the states?

I think we may find out. If nothing else, we learned last night that 2016’s primaries didn’t stop being interesting. They’re only getting started.

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Christmas Eve, 6 AM

Categories: A Day in the Life, Tags:

1202Lumis

Woke up at 5:30. Set my alarm for just before 6, but I couldn’t really sleep. Today is my holiday, the one that I unequivocally call my favorite every year. It’s luminaria day, Christmas Eve, in Albuquerque.

It’s supposed to start snowing at sunrise, 7:12 AM. I’ve never seen snow on Christmas Eve here, though a White Christmas is not unheard of. We’re getting a huge storm in a couple days that might dump 6 inches of snow, while New Orleans faces tornado warnings and the east coast is in the 70s. But our real Christmas Eve miracle today is that yesterday and tomorrow are both too windy for little paper bags to stand with flames inside, both featuring winds over 20 MPH. Today, however, will top out at 8 MPH, perfect weather for lumis.

Those of you who have followed my obsession over the years know that part of what fuels my love of luminarias is the nature of obsession itself. The ability to set a personal record, to work hard and long hours at something obscure that I like more than most people do. But I’ve also witnessed in recent years how much joy and excitement others get out of this holiday, and especially my efforts to create a massive display. That is what this season is all about, giving joy to others.

But luminarias hold a special place in my heart for the meaning of the tradition, never more salient in my lifetime than this year. The tradition symbolizes lighting the way for the Christ-child and family as they seek shelter on Christmas Eve. People light a path along the walkways in the dark of night, along their fence lines, roof lines, and leading up to their doors. The message is clear: There is no room at the inn, but there is room here. Come, stay, sit by the fire. We will take you in.

I don’t consider myself a Christian, though I think Jesus is an admirable if highly misunderstood figure. His pacifism and the values sometimes found in Christianity are still highly influential to me. But perhaps no story could be more important to us this year than that of those lost and suffering, wandering in the wilderness, seeking solace and comfort on the 24th of December.

For the next 11 hours, I’ll be out there making the magic come together, all to symbolize the welcoming nature of our home, our city, our people, the openness to those lost and seeking. Setting up small candles, a bulwark of hope against the dark, in concert with others, to light your way home.

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One Nation Under Hate

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

HateSpeech

I guess I shouldn’t have targeted Donald Trump so specifically. I guess that’s what really brought the vitriol out of the woodwork.

When I launched the green Facebook profile pictures to support Muslims in America project two days ago, I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Certainly I knew that my Blue Pyramid Facebook page could be the target of incredible vitriol from right-wingers. But somehow I didn’t think that the hate lobbed my way for questioning gun rights in the wake of mass-shootings could be, well, trumped. And maybe if I’d only stood up for Muslims in the abstract and not connected the timing of the need for this to Donald Trump’s consistent claim that all Muslims should be barred from the US, then there would have been fewer death threats, less invective, less utterly disturbing images on my post.

I know, I’m not really being that serious. The comparison of saying “Maybe if I’d only stood up for Jews without criticizing Hitler” would sound a wee bit histrionic in other contexts. In the context of a rising political leader invoking hate against a religious minority to label them as the ultimate threat and bar them from a nation, well…… yeah. I’m hardly the first or even millionth person to draw that parallel.

Still, by attacking the extremely popular person at the top of the totem pole, it invoked many responses which (a) assumed that I support Democrats, (b) assumed that I support Hillary, and (c) assumed that I carried the usual liberal party line. The media does not deal with issues in complex, nuanced, or variable ways, so I can sort of understand why the assumptions are all binary. Either you love Trump or you love Hillary. Either you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Either you care about the entire right-wing slate as presented by modern Republicans or the entire left-win slate as presented by modern Democrats. And yes, not many people are out there espousing pacifism so I wouldn’t expect anyone to assume that as my baseline. What I would expect is some religious tolerance. At least a little. Or some vague understanding that ISIS and 9/11 are not representative of Islam or even a tiny fraction of it.

Nope.

I got death threats. Muslims got way more death threats. People openly, with their names attached, with photos of them holding their smiling kids, called for genocide. It was unbelievable.

I’ve been torn between taking it all down to just reduce the amount of hate in the world, hate that I feel loosely responsible for since I, after all, posted something that elicited it. Torn between that and leaving it up as a little monument to a verbal atrocity. I know, I know, the rule about Internet comments can apply to Facebook pages too. And I’m sure it pales in comparison to the invective thrown at Muslims daily, though I’m pretty unconvinced that most of these folks have ever so much as spoken to a Muslim, let alone a minority of any kind. But the net impact so far of my effort seems to have been rallying a bunch of spiteful violent people against their misunderstanding of Islam. I feel like people who graffiti hate-speech on college campuses, who then see the next day as half the campus rallies in defense of the targeted group. But, y’know, in reverse.

The story of cycles of hate and violence is nothing new. Arguably, this is the only story of human history worth remembering and the only lesson we really need to learn at this stage of our time on the planet. “This stage”, in this instance, being roughly the last 6,000 years. But I don’t think I’d really realized until this week how brazen and substantial the hate is in the United States. And how campaign rhetoric like Trump’s is, as many have observed, emboldening and normalizing hate.

KillEmAll

I guess the ultimate issue is that it’s not really about Trump. That was the post I almost wrote night before last, when I instead decided to turn my frustration into a more positive show of support rather than just criticizing everything again. Obviously, if Trump can enjoy this level of support and garner more enthusiasm for policies like barring all Muslims from entering the nation, then the seeds of this sentiment are much older and deeper than the last few months. I certainly saw glimpses of this at Brandeis in September 2001 – and if I saw it at a purportedly liberal college campus, then one can only imagine what was happening in conservative small towns – but I just greatly underestimated how ready the country was to declare war on a whole religion, a whole people, and not stop till they were wiped out entirely.

I’m not saying everyone feels that way, or even most Republicans, and possibly not even most Trump voters. But the ongoing obsession with terrorism and fear, the incredibly sheltered and privileged position of America as it sits in comfort while lobbing missiles at everyone who disagrees, destroying lives and families and buildings and whole countries in a single bound. It’s coming home to roost. It’s manufactured a dangerous, spiteful, intolerant country that is all the more problematic for its claims at representing the opposite. Many early critics of Trump’s comments this week called his thoughts un-American. I think they were kind of quintessentially American in the America we have now. An America so afraid of its own shadow that it’s ready to blow away the person casting the shadow just to have someone to blame for its paranoia.

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Go Green on Facebook to Support Muslims in America

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Wild Wild Web, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , ,

FBImageGreen_525

I have a long rant about Donald Trump’s latest comments to make somewhere around here at some point, but I’m tabling that for now. Partially because so many people have a long rant about Donald Trump’s latest comments. It’s relieving that he’s finally gone far enough that some people think it’s too far. Hopefully that will get us to start thinking about how far those of us who are not Donald Trump have gone in condemning large groups of people and reflect on our own behavior. But rather than lament and reflect today, I’m doing something. At least, starting an online project.

That project is a Facebook movement, starting with changing Facebook profile pictures green. Not all-green, like the old Libyan flag, but to have the green overlay tint, a la celebrating marriage equality or mourning the Paris attacks. Green is the color historically most associated with Islam and Muslims are the folks who need support right now, especially here in America. We are facing a time where hate-speech, threats, and persecution of Muslims is reaching an unprecedented pitch in the United States. I think we should take stock of those who disagree.

Please log in to Facebook and join my new group there. Use the hashtag #GreenProfilePic to get the word out. And until Facebook creates the option and prompts everyone to do it, tinge your own profile picture with green. I recommend using web color #009900 at transparency 70%.

Spread the word.

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What I Learned on My Day with Pro-Gun Facebookers

Categories: A Day in the Life, Call and Response, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , ,

ProGun

Yesterday, my recent post on mass-shootings and the second amendment garnered a wide response on Facebook. Most of it was from people who are rabidly pro-gun.

What’s kind of fascinating about the experience is that I had forgotten there were a wide number of people in the country itself who are so adamantly pro-gun. I knew there were corporations in favor of gun proliferation, and politicians bought off by the NRA. But the thing we often forget about the NRA is that it has a wide membership. Since my wife left me five years ago, I had lost touch with my last real bastion of gun ownership in my day-to-day life, that being her family who had an arsenal in the basement and regularly went to the shooting range as a Sunday outing. It was easy to get lost in my own Facebook echo-chamber in the wake of mass shootings and believe that it really is only politicians and corporations who are fueling these disasters.

I really shouldn’t have been as surprised by the reaction as I turned out to be. Like all people trying to promote content on the Internet, I chose an attention-grabbing headline and a controversial picture and blurb. I wanted the experience of seeing the post to be dramatic since I see this as a dramatic issue. And I know, deep down, that Donald Trump is highly likely to win the Republican nomination, arguing against folks who for months have said he’s a flash-in-the-pan and even now maintain that the flash is six or seven months, but certainly not the eighteen he needs to be President.

Who do I think is voting for Donald Trump if not rabid gun-nuts?

That said, there were some really interesting interactions. I had several back-and-forth threads with some of the more articulate gunners which ended in a conclusion of begrudging mutual respect that we’d each argued our positions well and kept things civil. A couple of people for banning the second amendment valiantly did battle with the gunners, but it mostly ended in name-calling. There was, incidentally, an unbelievable lack of accurate spelling almost across the board.

I tell everyone I discuss the subject with that I deeply love Facebook. While I regret its impact of filtering the previously wide-open Internet into one primarily used portal of information, this is vastly outweighed by the contact it engenders between people. I love that I can post an open-ended crowd-source poll on income inequality and generate a thoughtful discussion between twenty different people, many of whom never met each other. I love that thirty people will respond to my random question about which month most symbolizes winter to them. I love the randomness and the sense of loose affiliation we all have.

And I’ve never really found the critiques of Facebook to be all that compelling. Especially when the main one is about artificial presentations of happiness. Though I recognize that I, perhaps somewhat uniquely, really don’t mind expressing frustration, depression, or despair on Facebook. But if others are more inhibited there, then doesn’t Facebook just reflect how they’d be in other public settings? Which I guess brings me to the issue that I’ve learned from this run-in with gunners: garbage in, garbage out. Maybe the only reason I like Facebook is because I like my friends and they are easy to deal with. There are even some pro-gun folks among my Facebook friends, many of them from the five years I spent in rural Oregon in my childhood or from the West Point debate team. But because we have the bond of friendship, we are able to be respectful in a way that many of the gunners were not yesterday.

So perhaps the critique of Facebook, like so much of the Internet, as a siloing echo-chamber, is valid. Most every algorithm that the primary holders of the Internet, be they Facebook, Google, or Apple, have developed in the last half-decade has been designed to customize our Internet experience to be more reflective of what we already believe. What we want, what we think, what we feel is just shot back at us in search results, the friends whose posts get bumped higher in our feed, and the ads we see. And much of it is, ultimately, about advertising. People want to customize and tailor advertising to get precisely in our head, to be as close to intercepting our inner monologue as possible in order to understand exactly how to sell us goods and services. This little capitalist worm that infects everything has inspired the tailoring, but it is probably not the only thing that drives it. Certainly we are comfort-seeking beings, no matter how much harm being comfortable ultimately does us. And it’s comfortable to wrap ourselves in a cocoon where only the like-minded surround us.

The problem is, of course, that there aren’t ground-rules for debating on the Internet, so it’s not possible to learn quite as much from Facebook comments like “With such a outrageous statement for a title no sane person will even read your article …. If the title is bullshit your article most likely is to!” or “Blue Pyramid sounds like the name of a Butt Plug…” or even just the classic “STFU” as I might from, say, a 45-minute ordered discussion on the topic. But maybe I’ve been spoiled by decades of formal debate experience. Maybe it’s good to just get down in the mud and wrassle with folks who spew invective in lieu of argumentation.

I guess I’ll close with the most popular article I saw yesterday from my actual Facebook friends, who were not the folks commenting at length on my Blue Pyramid post. The title was Your opinion on gun control doesn’t matter. And I think that kind of sums up where we stand at the ideological divide here in the United States in 2015. People just don’t think the other person’s opinion matters. They will rarely engage with it or interact in any real way. They will rarely regard it as something to be considered. They will simply hold their opinion and observe that the other person’s doesn’t matter.

And look, I’m not holding myself outside of this in some way. I have strong, firmly held beliefs that rarely change. My goal when I talk to others is usually to persuade. As a lifelong student of persuasion, I see that as core to my purpose here.

But at a certain point, I wonder how we’re going to rebuild bridges of discourse when everyone is getting swallowed up into their own cocoons and bubbles and silos. For all the world’s burgeoning connections, we seem to be building just as many walls.

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