Tag Archives: Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading


Seventeen Years of Blogging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Way from Home
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Stubborn Love

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


Stop Calling Trump Incompetent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This Land is… Your Land?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Case Against Free Trade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using this image ought to stoke some reactions!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Singularity is Already Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does that sound like to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about that.

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

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

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


Our Need for an Enemy: America’s Adversarial Obsession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What We Could (Should) Have Done for Aleppo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Let’s look at Aleppo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s stopping us?

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

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

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


Expectations of American Power

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

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


Look at that headline. Look at it!

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

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

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

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

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


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

Here are your charts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Radical Leftist in Donald Trump’s America

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

Time Magazine cover, January 1989.

Time Magazine cover, January 1989.

“I vote for the Democratic Party
They want the UN to be strong…

Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal”

-Phil Ochs, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”

I’m not here today to rehash the election. I did that already, a couple weeks ago, to a surprisingly good response. Apparently Jill Stein is hoping to rehash the election, which almost makes me regret voting for her instead of the Socialist Party candidate. As my good friend Russ, who just visited here, put it on Facebook the other day, “I’ve heard the TV say ‘Jill Stein’ more in the last two days than in the entire election cycle. [facepalm]”

No, instead I’m here to discuss what it’s like to hold my political beliefs in the era of Trump’s ascendancy in American political life. Near as I can tell, I’m in a pretty unique political camp. As a pacifist socialist who generally sits on the far leftmost fringe of most (but not all) issues, my take on Trump is decidedly different from most of my friends, who generally fall in a narrow band of liberal to center-left. Most of these folks voted for Hillary Clinton, some gleefully, others glumly, most with a sense of some sort of urgency that Trump represents a new and unprecedented menace to our society (that presumably Clinton did not). Their views are generally espoused in the mainline news media, a media that didn’t realize they were feeding Trump’s support base with every hit piece they wrote about the man between August and Election Day, that they were tacitly endorsing the worldview that the mainstream was out to get Trump and that he truly did represent a blow to the establishment. This media is now only too happy to play Chicken Little to the contemporary American winter sky, announcing every policy proposal and cabinet nominee floated like the discovery that an entire metropolis has had its humans replaced by flesh-eating zombies.

There are aspects of this that I feel are right, good, or at least understandable. Trump is associating with some truly scary people, some of whom he may want to put in his cabinet. A lot of Trump’s followers are terrible human beings with hate in all its forms in their heart. (I should know – I did direct verbal battle with them in December 2015) And those hateful people are feeling empowered and emboldened to spread their hate across the country and the world right now, making very real and dangerous threats against all manner of people. This all should be reported, condemned, curbed, and prevented in all cases.

But there is a fine line between raising very reasonable alarm bells about truly dangerous and scary things and crossing over into making literally everything Trump says and does a lightning rod for alarm. And there are very good reasons to care about this line that do not involve being a Trump apologist or failing to check one’s privilege. There is a reason that “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is a compelling cautionary tale. Creating a widespread and loud narrative that everything Trump does is an element of fascism or neo-Nazism undermines credibility among everyone who hasn’t already decided that Trump is Hitler. This doesn’t just embolden Trump’s supporters, it makes those on the fence (e.g. the 9% of American voters who voted for Trump despite not liking him, thus swinging him to electoral victory – or the 40% of registered voters who stayed home on November 8th) distrust those against Trump. And it makes it impossible to separate the wheat of truly dangerous and heinous things Trump does or might do from the chaff of him implementing policies that look a lot like Obama or Bush.

While incidental examples of crying wolf seem to come up every day, the best and most salient example was a couple weeks ago with the purported resurfacing of the proposal to implement a registry of all Muslims in the United States. Facebook went nuts over this, focusing on the fact that a Trump surrogate went on Fox News and cited Korematsu as a good legal precedent for such a policy. That line, in isolation, is scary and intolerable, sure. But the policy actually being discussed was not Muslim internment camps. It wasn’t a Muslim registry. It was a revival of the NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System), a post-9/11 policy that was law for Obama’s first term until 2011, when the administration suspended the program saying it was redundant with other policies. One of those policies might be CARRP (Controlled Application Review and Resolution Policy), a program created in 2008 that is still on the books today. Like many Obama programs (he’s overseen all but a few months of its implementation), this one is shrouded in secrecy, but basically deftly profiles Muslims and Arabs exclusively and looks a lot like an extreme vetting registry. As al Jazeera recently noted, there’s really nothing more for Trump to do. CARRP already does it.

Needless to say, there are not protests in the streets over CARRP, any more than there is vocal widespread liberal opposition to Obama deporting a record 3 million human beings from the United States in his two terms. Though there was certainly outrage at the announcement that Trump intended to follow suit. So I am left with two simultaneous and equal reactions, which incidentally seem to be about 98% of my reactions to everything since the election:

1. It is so refreshing to see the left vocally opposing awful US policies!
2. It is so weird that the left thinks these policies are so much worse than the policies of the last sixteen years!

And I don’t know what to do with that. Because these are bad policies, all of them. But they don’t become bad for the first time on January 20, 2017. They have been bad since September 11, 2001, when they began in earnest. On the one hand, I can just get in line to rail and hand-wring and be so excited that these policies are finally getting the calling out they deserve. But that also feels weird and intellectually dishonest when all that railing and wringing comes tied up in a neat little package of Trump Is Hitler, Bring Back Barack. Like, if believing Trump is Hitler is what it takes to get people riled up about these awful policies of the last sixteen years, okay? I guess? But the narrative that the Democratic Party, as assembled from 2001-2016, has anything different to offer is just factually wrong. And part of what’s really important to me is that someone (Democrats, Greens, Socialists, extraterrestrial aliens – I’m not picky) spends the next four years preparing for new proposals that do not look like the Fear and Hate of post-9/11 America to date.

This set of problems becomes decidedly more complicated in the few instances where I (gulp) agree with Trump more than the Democratic Party as assembled from 2001-2016. The only really clear example of this is the TPP, which Trump has promised to scrap. It’s kind of hard to know what Trump’s economic gameplan really is. Clearly there are places, like TPP, where he’s fighting against the globo-corporatist establishment agenda. Yay! But of course Trump is personally pretty much a lifelong avatar of the globo-corporatist establishment agenda. Oh no! And he seems to be stuffing the cabinet with some pretty mainline establishment Republicans, who champion globo-corporatism. So why is he getting rid of TPP? Will he actually? Is it just window-dressing while he carves up the the government and sells it to corporations anyway? At least he’ll be doing it instead of Obama or Clinton, so the left can oppose it! Yay?

Of course, the nature of the left’s opposition is going to be important. On a legislative level, assuming that Congressional Republicans and Trump are aligned (which is probably a totally faulty assumption as I expect them to be at frequent loggerheads), there’s very little the left can actually do to obstruct anything. They can do some Senate filibustering and risk a government shutdown they are predisposed to particularly dislike, but beyond that, it’s mostly speeches, organizing, and trying to peel some less crazy Republicans to take a stand against the worst Trump policies and people. No amount of writing letters to your Congressperson is going to fill the House with Democrats, much less Democrats who are invigorated to speak truth to corporate power. Hey, I thought you liked political realism! Isn’t that why you voted for Clinton?

The problems with vilifying everything about Trump and treating it as the same Zombie-Nazi Apocalypse are similar to the problems of concluding that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist xenophobic sexist bigot. For one, they isolate and entrench the opposition. If all a Trump supporter hears from political opponents and the media is that Trump’s choice of breakfast cereal indicates his love of fascistic genocide, then they’re going to be redoubled in beliefs that (a) the left is irrational, (b) the media is untrustworthy, and (c) Trump really is shaking up the establishment. Yes, there are hardcore Trump supporters who will believe those things no matter what. But the people who need to be persuaded in the next two and four years for things to change are not those people. They are more thoughtful and discerning than you think. And they are being barraged with the message that the continuation of a bunch of Obama policies amounts to a world where all the left and the media can say is “This. Is. Not. Normal.”

So far, most of Trump, with a few exceptions, is the definition of normal. It has been normal for sixteen years. And it’s taken someone that half the country truly believes to be the living reincarnation of Hitler implementing and proposing the status quo policies to alert them to the idea that maybe it should not be normal.

Can we all agree to a few terms? Like only pulling out the T.I.N.N. bomb for things which are, in fact, not normal. Not normal here being defined as something that was never proposed nor implemented by Bush nor Obama.

See, as we may remember from a fable about calling out a lupine presence, speaking histrionically about everything wrecks someone’s credibility. And that credibility may be better served in pointing out actual wolves. Of which there may be some. Steve Bannon? Probably a wolf. That’s a winnable battle, if it’s not one of 372 that everyone is trying to fight on day one. Most folks who try to fight all the battles at once lose them all.

I want to be clear about a few things I am not saying. I am not saying “give Trump a chance.” You probably shouldn’t, on almost every issue. There may be exceptions, like TPP, or not going to war with everything that moves, but most things are probably going to be bad policies. I personally, as a far-left pacifist socialist, believe that this is also true of Obama and Bush and Clinton too. You may not believe that is largely true of those folks, but I bet you believe it, as in the examples cited above, way more than you think you do.

And I am certainly not saying that you shouldn’t be afraid of the rise in violence and hate stemming from the worst of Trump’s supporters. That is important to bring up, highlight, and turn back in every instance. That is a very real problem and a very real change and something that we should all unite against. That is a pack of wolves and one that must be opposed.

But it is important to realize that not all Trump supporters or voters are in that pack, nor do they all support the white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other awful ideologies that some of his supporters and voters do support. Being nuanced about this is important, because otherwise you are calling a bunch of people who are not white supremacist neo-Nazis (for example the 28% of Latinx voters who voted for Trump) by heinous names. And this alienates them and makes them believe they can trust Trump more than they can trust you. And that is very very bad for the future that you want.

It’s not going to be an easy four years. It’s not going to be a good four years. It hasn’t been a good or easy last sixteen years, for the most part. Maybe you’ve done well, while most of the country has stagnated, while much of the country has been sent to kill Iraqis or Afghans or Libyans or Syrians and sew chaos in their countries. If you have done well and prospered in that time, maybe it’s because of that oppression and fear we’ve been spreading as a nation. Maybe it’s a coincidence. Whatever it is, you’re exceptional, you’re lucky, and thus you’re privileged. You may have also worked hard or struggled or overcome adversity, but you are also exceptional, lucky, and privileged. Both/and. That’s the nature of capitalism, especially the aggressively corporatized capitalism tinged with global hegemony that we’ve been practicing since 9/11. Most people don’t do well. Even fewer do good.

But the really important thing about the next four years is what kind of opposition we build. It should be smart, sophisticated, nuanced, and right. Left, but right. Correct. It should do the right things for the right reasons and fight for a world way better than Obama’s world. Because fighting as hard as we should for as much as we should isn’t worth it if we land back in the corporo-compromise world of the last sixteen years. We need to do better. And the first step is saving the wolf calls for when we need them. And blasting them from the rooftops when we do.

PS – Please stop getting excited about the possibility of one of Trump’s many legal problems leading to his impeachment. Unless you have a scenario that also brings down Mike Pence immediately. His VP is not Paul Ryan, who is admittedly third in line. It’s not John Kasich. It’s Mike Pence. Who in every way, shape, and form is worse than Trump. I promise you. You do not want Pence to be President, even if your only alternative is Trump.


All Politics is Personal: The Epic and Foreseeable Failure of Hillary Clinton

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


Disclaimer: I have deliberately waited a week to post this since the election because most of my friends and people I care about have spent the week grieving. If you are still grieving, if you are tender from the election results, if you are mostly feeling fear and outrage, then I recommend you not read this post. This post is intended for people who have enough emotional distance from what happened on November 8th to start looking at the 2016 race critically and analytically. That may not be you. That may never be you. That’s okay. I’m really not trying to poke bears or badgers or hornets’ nests, but I do think the perspectives in this post are important to building a leftist movement in the wake of Donald Trump’s impending presidency.

Disclaimer Two: This post will not be focusing on racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia as the roots of Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton. I am not hereby claiming that these hateful perspectives had nothing to do with Trump’s election. It is, however, my belief that they were ultimately a pretty minor factor in Trump defeating Clinton. Many people have posted in the last week that anyone who thinks these isms and phobias were not 100% of the cause has no business speaking and is wrong. If you are one of these people, you may choose to read my post to see a counter-argument. But if you do and wish to respond, please do not accuse me of completely ignoring the role that these played in Trump’s election. You may reasonably argue that I minimized their role and I welcome a logical debate about that. I think that the role these factors played in Trump’s election both exists and is something that we basically can’t, as leftists, do anything to change or fix in the future. The racists, sexists, xenophobes, and homophobes are not the part of the country that we are reasonably trying to persuade. If you actually believe that 47-52% of the country belongs in those categories, then we have nothing to talk about in planning for a future, other than waiting 40-60 years for those folks to die. I prefer a more optimistic look at the future, and one that I think is warranted as soon as we stop nominating Clintons for high elected office.

Disclaimer Three: This post is long. If you’re looking for a TL;DR, I would read the title of the post. In other words, the disastrous defeat of Hillary Clinton is, primarily, the fault of Hillary Clinton and, to a lesser extent, her supporters. If you’re too offended by that notion to see how I reach that conclusion, we’ll both be happier if you stop reading now.

Introduction: Unemployment Numbers and the Gaslighting of the American Workforce

In July 2012, I began periodically posting about the emerging gap between the traditionally reported figures of American unemployment and the seeming reality of said unemployment. As the labor force drained of people in the wake of the Great Recession, with millions of Americans giving up looking for work, retiring early, and (most importantly) never entering the labor force in the first place, reported unemployment started to decline much faster than it seemed it should. Labor force participation dropped precipitously to ultimately 35-year lows, while reported unemployment recovered from an alleged peak of 10% to under 5%. My analysis showed that unemployment actually stayed above 11% for years and, as recently as June 2016, was still as high as 10.96%.

When I started posting about this, it was before the 2012 election, and the words “labor force participation” had seemingly never graced a newscast about unemployment figures. The reported 8% unemployment was seen as too high, but at least stabilizing – my data had the figure close to 13%. In July, I coined the term Reporting Gap for this nearly five-point figure that had been steadily climbing and observed this: “Suddenly it’s a little more clear why the jobs haven’t been coming back and why no one you know feels like the economy is getting better. Suddenly we have a chart that reflects how the recession has actually felt.”

The insidious thing about this gap, I observed repeatedly over the ensuing four years, is that it makes people who aren’t succeeding in the current economy feel like they’re crazy. If unemployment is reported as being 4.9% but is actually 11%, those 6.1% of missing people feel like they are total losers – that everyone else is getting a job and doing fine but there’s something individually wrong with them that keeps them in this ever-shrinking group of folks who just can’t get work. And over time, they start to doubt the narrative they’re being told about the economy and the world. Can they really be this pathetic? Or is there some book-cooking going on that shades them out of the picture?

A funny thing happened on the way to 2016. By this fall, every newscast was talking about labor force participation cratering and sometimes the participation rate would even be discussed before the much vaunted unemployment figure. News would actually note that a decline in unemployment often wasn’t a good thing, because it just meant more people had given up. I, of course, had nothing to do with this – nowhere near enough people read my blog to make a difference. But I had picked up on a trend early that eventually became too big and obvious to ignore: the “recovery” was one that edited out people and jobs and found a way to squeeze the remaining workers into “greater productivity” (longer, more stressful hours) to maximize profits. At one point, I superimposed the stock market recovery over the increase in the reporting gap and it was a nearly perfect fit. Corporate America had found a way to sustain the loss of jobs in the country while rebuilding its own successful business model. The rich got richer and the poor got nothing.

Enter Donald Trump. He didn’t use the same analysis I did of actually examining BLS’ own numbers and applying a reasonable labor force participation rate to them. Instead, he used U-6 and exaggerated it a little, sometimes a lot. He said unemployment was still 18-20%, which I don’t think it had ever been. I wrote about this in August 2015. He was very wrong with the specifics, but he was fundamentally right to observe that American workers had been set adrift and told that everything was fine. And he was angry about it. In speech after speech, he tapped into the feeling of being invalidated, the feeling of being gaslighted, of being told that you are not experiencing the economic hardship that you are. And in so doing, he galvanized people who knew there was something wrong with the tale of the recovery being spun by a Democratic administration and the media that didn’t sit with their own experiences. Obviously many of his prescriptions for the situation were wrong, like building a wall, and the idea of an outsourcing businessman being the savior of the newly unemployed stretches any feasible credulity. But if the reality you feel, deep down, that no one is validating, suddenly gets validated, you feel an immense loyalty to the guy who validated it. I would argue this is where Trump’s traction and real appeal to the people who swung this election began.

Why Bernie Would Have Been a Better Opponent in this Context

The idea that Donald Trump, billionaire with rich father and icon of all that is 1980s about America, would be the hero of the working class is, on face, laughable. The fact that he somehow pulled off this stunt is a remarkable testament to the willingness of the American voter to appreciate the message even if the messenger is the embodiment of its opposite. That said, Hillary Clinton was in no position to criticize Trump’s status as the messenger here and, aside from a few observations of the hypocrisy of the tycoon critiquing offshoring after having offshored tons of jobs, she didn’t try. It is perhaps the most American part of this whole election that in 2016, the two major parties nominated two gold-plated billionaires in the year of working class populism. Reminiscent, perhaps, of 2004, when the major parties offered two staunch defenders of the Iraq War at a time when the war was becoming deeply unpopular. No better evidence of the irrelevance of the major parties to popular democratic interests could be given.

But of course, there was a third road, which was Bernie Sanders. Now I am not here to say Bernie would have definitely definitely won the general election against Trump, though it is my belief he would have. And I’m certainly not here to cite as my main piece of evidence that polls which also said Hillary would be mopping up the floor of the general election with Trump’s toupee said that Bernie would do so to an even greater extent. What I will say is that Bernie would have had no problem attacking Donald Trump for being a businessman, a tycoon, and a lifelong enemy of the working class he now claimed to espouse. And rather than this accusation coming from, say, the pot, it would have been coming from a man whose style could most generously be described as “rumpled,” who had no evident personal wealth, and who had spent pretty much his entire waking life talking about the plight of the poor and working class. Suffice it to say that this would have measured up considerably better to Trump’s claim that he knew how to dismantle the system because he’d been rigging it than a person who wouldn’t release the transcripts of secret speeches she gave to bankers for the six figures “they offered.” If you’re a working class voter and you look at Trump and Clinton, you see two people who are nothing like you and you take the one who sounds like they know what you’re going through. If you’re that same voter and you look at Trump and Sanders, you see a guy who is nothing like you and one who reminds you of you, and they both have the same general message about relating to you. But one of them has lived a life you can connect with and the other has been its boss. There’s really no comparison.

Yes, yes, red scare, red scare. The voters who we were supposed to worry would condemn Bernie Sanders for honeymooning in Moscow and cozying up to communist Russia just voted overwhelmingly to elect a man who repeatedly praised a former KGB agent as the strongest leader he knew. Trump was basically overtly accepting help from the Russians, placing Hillary Clinton in the interesting position of playing McCarthy to Trump’s pinko ways. She warmed to the argument robustly, willingly invoking how she might go to war with Russia in the third debate just to demonstrate how dangerous Trump’s Russian connection could be. And look where that got her. Turns out this voting bloc that tipped the 2016 election was a lot more afraid of local bureaucrats than former Soviet ones.

Of course, the primary argument that Team Hillary used against Bernie throughout the primaries, one that got extraordinarily loud and obnoxious as the general election approached, was that the Republicans would dig up all kinds of crazy dirt on Bernie and throw it at him for – gasp! – the first time, whereas Hillary had “survived” twenty years of such bashing. There is no more absurd, disingenuous, or damaging argument that anyone made or thought during the whole campaign. And yet this line was absolute gospel, a full-scale mantra, for Hillary supporters up until a week ago. No counter-argument would be heard, even when I suggested that this was question-begging at absolute best. By “survive,” it is technically true that Hillary Clinton had not actually dropped dead from the long-running Republican campaign to discredit her and embroil her in scandal. But the truth of this argument depended on an outcome that never came, namely the presumption that she would be a successful Presidential candidate. She had blown an enormous presumptive lead in 2008. The only thing she was ever elected to in her life was a US Senate seat from New York, a state which has elected exactly one Republican Senator since 1980. In those races, she beat Rick Lazio, a four-term Congressman who was brought in late to replace scandal-ridden Rudy Giuliani, and John Spencer, a former mayor of Yonkers. In the latter election, despite running against a former mayor who had absolutely no chance, she spent a 2006 Senate-race-high $36 million on the campaign.

To say that these electoral wins amount to “surviving” years of attacks is just shoddy logic. This is without evaluating the merit of any of the attacks or not. You can argue that Clinton is the most clean-nosed politician in history and all the attacks are (pun intended) trumped up nonsense. You can argue that she’s super-corrupt and hasn’t been caught for half of what she’s tried. Doesn’t matter. The point is that two decades of her being associated with corruption, scandal, dishonesty, and changing her position on major issues was never an asset. It was not proof that she could survive anything. It was proof that she was a ridiculously vulnerable candidate for whom millions and millions of people had decided they could never ever vote, no matter what.

Yes, Bernie Sanders is a socialist, an atheist, and culturally Jewish. His wife once did something a little shady with her university position. No doubt all of these things would have peeled some voters away from him. But marginally? I don’t think there are any people who would be peeled there who voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election. His socialism? Right in line with the populism of 2016, and see the Russia analysis above. Atheism? Does anyone think Hillary Clinton believes in God or vote for her because of it? Judaism is a flashpoint for the racist Trumpers, sure, but did anyone who feels that way about Jews vote for Hillary? And a shady scandal involving a spouse… yeah. That’s going to be worse than the Clinton legacy.

So at best you get a push, and Bernie loses like Hillary did. Except, of course, that Bernie had momentous and excited enthusiasm behind him, was in tune with the year’s populist sentiment, could actually critique Trump’s elitism from a different vantage point, and had this little thing called humility. More on humility vs. entitlement in a bit. Suffice it to say that I think Bernie Sanders turns out a lot of folks who voted third party or stayed home this election, in addition to swinging those white working class Obama voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio who swung this electoral college toward The Donald.

And that’s to say nothing of not having to bully people into voting for him as “the lesser of two evils”. Which, as a concept, is why Trump won.

The Lesser of Two Evils Made the Most Evil

Hillary’s camp was quick last Tuesday night to start blaming third party voters for everything. Facebook feeds, news media, and all manner of angry Clintonites have been quick to jab the finger at me and my kindred people, third party voters. Apparently it’s all our fault that Hillary Clinton couldn’t beat Donald Trump.

The reality, of course, is the opposite. If no one believed in the concept of voting for “the lesser of two evils” and everyone had refused to vote for someone they didn’t like or support, Clinton would have won the election easily.

According to CNN exit polls from the general election, 18% of voters this year disliked both candidates. They broke 49-29-22 for Trump-Clinton-third party. Trump won this election, as I long predicted he would, by winning the race to the bottom. Tons of Americans hated both of these candidates. Most of them stayed home, disgusted. Those who turned out and chose Trump or Clinton anyway overwhelmingly voted for Trump. Had they all voted for third party candidates, Trump’s total would have taken a 9% hit and Clinton’s only 5%, yielding an electoral landslide for the latter.

For reference, only 2% said they liked both major candidates and there wasn’t enough data here to even see how they split. Surprisingly, “love trumps hate” and “when they go low, we go high” were just slogans and had no impact on this race to the bottom.

The fact that 78% of voters who disliked both major candidates still voted for one of them signals just how bullied the American voter is by the mythology of the two-party duopoly. But it also leads us to one of the most important realities of this campaign: that the lesser of two evils cuts both ways. And this makes the most frequent and loudest rallying cry against Trump voters totally nonsensical. This rallying cry states that all Trump voters are awful, horrible, no good, very bad people who have evil in their hearts. They’re all racists, all sexists, all want everyone you know and love to suffer. And that is why they voted as they did.

My response to this is as follows: had Hillary Clinton won and I spent the next week of my life on Facebook decrying how every Hillary voter wants foreign Muslims to die painfully, how they’re all imperialist militarists, I just don’t think that would have been taken seriously.

Indeed, I had a little preview of this in an interaction with Edward Fu on Facebook the day of the election, when I said that a vote for Hillary was a vote for mass murder. He responded by asking “So to be clear – if I vote for Hillary I’m either uninformed or pro-mass murder?”

I responded with “Hillary Clinton believes in war as an effective tool for foreign policy. It seems very likely that she will start a major war in her presidency. Even if she doesn’t, she is likely to kill many more people than the already very hawkish Obama. I don’t think this issue is a priority for most voters, because it doesn’t particularly affect Americans. Or many people see it as inevitable or even good that a lot of our time and money is spent killing foreigners. I am happy to make it a priority to disagree.”

The point is that most Americans did not associate a Clinton vote with what I see as the greatest likely impact of her Presidency that never happened, namely major war(s). And while I would have depressedly taken to Facebook to remind everyone that they had voluntarily enabled whatever war emerged in her first term, most people were not thinking about this. They were thinking about glass ceilings and a slate of policies cribbed from Bernie Sanders and not Trump not Trump not Trump. But this is really important. Because most people voting for Trump were thinking about change and Republican appointments and not Clinton not Clinton not Clinton. Or really just the last part. They aren’t horrible people. They just hated Hillary Clinton a tiny bit more than they hated Donald Trump. And if you were willing to support America’s war with Syria or Russia or Iran or whoever the next appointed Bogeyman would be in the Clinton administration in order to beat Trump, maybe you can be a little more sympathetic to someone who was willing to support the same person David Duke did to beat Clinton.

If you just don’t buy this argument at all, I’m guessing it’s because you’re yelling the following argument:

“But She Was So Qualified!”

This argument for electoral viability, honestly, is almost as ridiculous as “she spent twenty years getting everyone to hate her, so how could she lose?” Americans do not, as a rule, vote for President based on qualifications. They vote for the person they like and trust. Or, this year, dislike and distrust the least.

You know what the previous biggest mismatch of Qualified vs. Unqualified presidential candidates was? 2008. John McCain vs. Barack Obama. Hint: Obama was less qualified. Spoiler alert: he trounced.

Indeed, the Democrats have always been bringing the less qualified winner to the party since FDR. Bill Clinton? Way less qualified than GHW Bush. Jimmy Carter? A virtual unknown. JFK? The textbook example of a greenhorn. People freaking loved these guys. Well, not Carter till he was out of office. But you get the idea.

I think this is all that needs to be said to rebut the argument that Clinton’s resume was not enough to overcome her being a woman. A Black man had vastly less qualification for the Presidency and dominated. And if you think America likes Black men more than White women, several million inmates would like to register their personal dissent. I am not going to say sexism had nothing to do with Clinton’s loss. But the evidence is just not there that this is what was predominantly behind her losing, especially as the more qualified candidate. In fact, a pretty convincing argument would say that being more qualified was a hindrance in this race, especially when following two terms of her party’s Presidency. The fact is that Hillary Clinton is uninspiring, uncharismatic, and pretty bad at campaigning. Late in the general election, even when she was supposed to be en route to a rout, even pro-Hillary thinkpieces could admit this and tried embracing it as a strength instead of recognizing its obvious weakness.

You can say that she gets held to a different standard as a woman. Somewhat. But Barack Obama also gets held to a different standard as a Black man. And he overcame it, because he is actually good at the things that lead to Presidential victories. And there are women who are good at those things too, who aren’t carrying two decades of baggage around that makes people rule out voting for them ever. Elizabeth Warren might have gotten 400 electoral votes heads-up against Trump.

And this is part of what makes it so hard to talk about this election with the crushed Clinton supporters. Because they had started to buy the argument that Clinton was the last best hope of womankind, that she even somehow embodied womankind itself. She succeeded in convincing her supporters that she was an avatar of all womanhood, that no matter her past and her dubious dealings with her husband, no matter that she was a First Lady before holding elected office, no matter that she changed positions on things depending on who was in the room with her at the time, she was a stand-in for all women. And I can understand why people would feel that way about the first woman major party nominee for President, and doubly so when going against Trump and his boorish misogyny. But this was not an election where “Do you like women?” was on the ballot or “Do you trust women to run the country?” was a voting issue. Hillary Clinton lost White women 53-43. She lost people who were somewhat bothered by Trump’s treatment of women 75-19. Seventy-five to nineteen. Hell, she lost 11% of those who said this treatment bothered them a lot!

This association with Hillary Clinton and womankind was one-sided and self-selective. And it started before the primary with the insidious campaign slogan “Ready for Hillary”. Do you see what they did there? The implication was that the only reason you could possibly oppose Hillary Clinton for President is if you weren’t ready for a woman President. This, of course, was followed by the slightly less insidious “I’m With Her” with basically the same connotations. The race was couched as those who are sexist vs. those who are not.

And up until last Tuesday, heck, up until this minute for many in her camp, they never ever stopped believing the truth of that concept. Which of course leads to depressing conclusions if you think that this was the last best woman for the job. Of course, Barack Obama’s slogan was not “Ready for Barack” or “I’m Not Racist”. He did not try to bully people into voting for him to prove they were not something awful. Instead, he talked about hope, change, and yes we can. And whether he delivered on those promises or not, those were effective strategic choices, proved to be effective again this year as Trump presented himself as the candidate of change.

Of course, Hillary Clinton had no avenue for being an advocate of change. She was the ultimate establishment figure, framing this as experience and steadiness. She was following two terms of her party’s Presidency and felt she had to say that those terms had gone well, ignoring those who felt otherwise. And this is not necessarily a reason we should blame Hillary Clinton for anything other than wanting to run. She was the wrong candidate for this time in history, for this office. But there was one major thing she did that exacerbated her non-change-ness, her establishmentarianism, her extreme un-Obamaism…

A Sense of Entitlement

Nothing made people like Hillary Clinton less than her overriding sense that she just deserved to be President. In 2008, she expected a coronation and was stopped on the way to the church. In 2016, she’d lined up enough of the party elders and intimidated all the other Democrats out of running, then made sure they rigged the race anyway when the going got unexpectedly rough. Time and again, she acted like it was just obvious that she had a sort of deed on the Presidency, that this was not a race or a question, that she could not possibly lose, that there was nothing for a serious voter to even consider. And for all Donald Trump’s defensive responses to being baited (with a tweet or otherwise), Clinton’s inability to shed her sense of entitlement was the more serious blunder.

She was unable to ever really articulate why she wanted to be President, other than falling back on the “Stronger Together” catchphrase (which, let’s face it, was only ever about pulling in disgruntled Bernie voters and really rankled after evidence of her operatives shafting Bernie emerged). When there’s a void in why someone says they want something and they self-evidently want it really really badly, you start to get nervous about why exactly they want that thing so much. Trump, for his part, at least had the line about taking time out of his busy days to save the country. He didn’t need money or power or fame because he had so much of it. (In an interesting side-note, I had the displeasure of reading American Psycho this summer and discovering that Donald Trump is basically the #2 character in the book. Future historians will have a field day with this.) When Clinton didn’t give a square answer to the same question, it was just too easy to pencil in nefarious corruption and scheming.

But nothing was worse than when this all came to a head with the election-losing comment by HRC. In a mirror image of Mitt Romney’s election-losing assessment that 47% of Americans just wanted hand-outs and not to work, Hillary Clinton called a large chunk of Trump’s supporters “a basket of deplorables”. Now, it was personal. Now, a sneering oligarch of the American power elite, someone who’d been helping run the country for decades, didn’t just ignore their suffering or claim that the country was doing better than they felt. She actually disdained them individually, as people. Condemning them not just as lazy, as Romney had done, but as morally evil. The self-reinforcing internal campaign monologue that only sexists could oppose the mighty Clinton Coronation had seeped out into the public with one fierce statement of bullying.

Would Clinton have won had she never said that? I don’t know. I’m inclined to think her other flaws were sufficient to sink her anyway. But the race was close enough (yes, yes, she won the popular vote, I know) that I believe a lot more of those 49% who disliked Trump and still voted for him might have stayed home without that comment. Or joined their Republican leaders in writing in Mitt or McCain or Ronald Reagan resurrected. And only someone so sure of victory, so truly honestly disdainful of others, is capable of saying something like that publicly. At the time, she was lauded by the media who’d all lined up to endorse her in fear of Trump for calling it like it was, for pointing out the horrible people propping up Trump. And look, many of those people are horrible and deplorable. But so are the war profiteers and bankers and, for God’s sake, George HW and W Bush, who all voted for Clinton. That doesn’t mean you come out and make a statement saying that you think the main reason people are voting for the other side is because they are personally bad humans.

(Incidentally, a lot of blame for this election loss should fall squarely on the person who made the social media meme that said all the former Presidents were voting for Clinton. Find me a person on this planet who respects both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, other than maybe Bill Clinton. That meme just alienated everyone a little and made Trump’s anti-establishment cred that much stronger. I’m kidding about the impact of this thing. A little. Maybe. It’s a weird viral world out there. Votes out for Harambe, who did not, in fact, get more votes than Jill Stein.)

“But, but, James Comey!”

I am much more open to the idea that James Comey contributed significantly to Hillary Clinton’s loss than third party voters. And not just because I’m not James Comey.

(But seriously, third party voters would have pretty much all stayed home if we had to vote for one of the two major party candidates. And you really think more Libertarian Gary Johnson voters would have broken for Clinton than Trump? Sadly, there are no exit polls on this, but trust me that the third party voters as a whole cost Trump more votes than Clinton. 52% of the electorate voted against the establishment this year.)

That said, I almost posted the day before the election that James Comey was in the pocket of the Clinton camp, because by raising and then silencing the investigation all before the election, he effectively was trying to demonstrate that there was no Clinton scandal to worry about. It’s hard to say if that hurt more than just not saying anything about the investigation at all in the last week, but if James Comey really were a Trump mole, why on God’s green Earth would he have said, literally, “there’s nothing to see here” the day before the election? It’s like LBJ giving a short speech promising that Goldwater would never use nukes the night before people went to the 1964 polls. Could you imagine? I mean, really?

Maybe Obama said he would fire him if he didn’t. That said, pretty empty threat, no? Is Obama really going to fire someone who raised questions about Clinton just before the election? Someday, Comey will write a tell-all book. And it probably will make something up about what happened, so we’ll never know.

In retrospect, it’s easy to say that Comey’s reopening and then quickly closing the investigation cost Clinton a lot of votes. But I just don’t know if there’s anything causal here, especially given that this argument is based on polls that proved to be faulty. And we don’t have polling data on the day before the election or the day of to indicate how many people switched back to Clinton when the investigation was suddenly slammed shut. Maybe Clinton was on pace to lose much bigger, but Comey helped almost save the day.

But here’s the thing: even if you can prove that Comey speaking cost Hillary Clinton the whole election, we’re back at “she’s survived twenty years of scandal!” If you’re right about Comey, then Hillary Clinton was literally entirely felled by the resurrection of a previously buried scandal that plagued her throughout the 2016 campaign season. And you all sneered and rolled your eyes and did your best G.D. Hillary Clinton impression to say that no scandal would ever beat this survivor. So if someone raising a question about one of this cornucopia of scandals really could undo what otherwise would have been a romp, was your candidate ever that strong to begin with?

Conclusion: “Storey, the Past is the Past – Why Re-Bury Hillary Clinton?”

A lot of pieces like this one have been criticized for beating a dead horse, stomping on a fallen hero, and unnecessarily carting out blame for someone who has already been wholly humiliated on the national stage. So what gives?

Firstly, and I wish I were joking about this, but I think it’s really important to start staving off the Hillary Clinton 2020 campaign NOW. I have talked to several people about this and they literally all believe that I am certifiable for even dreaming that Hillary would run again, but I am very very worried about this possibility and I want us all to think a lot about why it would be a very bad idea. As credibility for this prediction, I can only offer my election map prediction from July 2016 that I reposted the night before the election. Which showed a 312-220-6 win for Trump over Clinton, which proved to be 306-232 for Trump. You will not find many non-Republicans who saw what happened on November 8th coming.

(By the way, I haven’t yet called out Edward Fu for rudely and derisively arguing that this map demonstrated I had no ability to conduct political analysis. Scoreboard, sir.)

But beyond my fear of Clinton/Trump II: Apocalyptic Boogaloo in 2020, there is a battle underway for the soul of the Democratic Party, which, God help us, claims to still be the voice on the left. Howard Dean is running against Keith Ellison for DNC Chair. Bernie is being vocal about the change we need, but Chuck Schumer is leading the Senate Democrats. And how we view the results of 2016 has a lot to say about how we look to the future. If Clinton deserved to win but didn’t, if all womankind got rejected last Tuesday, if the basket of deplorables won the day and are all irretrievably evil, then there’s no hope or the hope we have will go to establishment Democrats just as corporate, corrupt, and militaristic as Clinton herself. If Clinton was a bad choice who made bad decisions, then we can start the conversation about a new direction. One that, arguably, is not all that new, because it looks like the very successful two campaigns of Barack Obama, but perhaps with more populism and more follow-through on the, y’know, change.

Because if there’s one thing Trump is unlikely to bring to Washington (and this should ironically reassure the most worried among you, though it worries me the most), it’s change. He’s already lining the Cabinet with the Old Guard Republicans. Newt Gingrich will be back. Nothing says change like 1994’s revolutionary in 2016. Mike Pence, or Baby Ted Cruz, is leading the transition team. Trump is trusting the same coalition that has been propping up Republicans for decades to “drain the swamp.” Plus his kids. His kids are new.

It would be a devastating mistake for the left to respond in kind, propping up its discredited elders for another run as well. We need new, fresh, exciting, energetic, charismatic, scandal-free leaders to take up the torch of left-wing ideals. Hopefully many of them will be women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals: exemplars of inclusivity without being seen as literal avatars of their particular intersectional group. And they should not bully people into voting for them because they are who they are. They should not complain about having to be accountable for past scandals, backroom deals, or changing their mind because they are who they are. And the country will love them for it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. asked that people be judged on the content of their character. He did not ask that they not be judged at all. The country judged Hillary Clinton on the content of her character. They judged Donald Trump on the content of his character, too. We can never again afford to support someone so plagued with character concerns, even against someone equally (or more) flawed. The ensuing race to the bottom is too close to be sure of, and way too close to feel entitled to.

In a long Facebook discussion during the election, one of the few I indulged in after Bernie had given up on the primaries, a former debater kept asking why I was evaluating Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as people, rather than a set of ideas they espoused. I never responded to the last part, mostly because I’d already said I had made my last post in the thread. But it’s the title of this post. All politics is personal.

And the reason for that is the structure of our representative democracy. Outside of perhaps California, we don’t live in a direct democracy. We don’t vote on every issue. We don’t choose to go to war or not, to build a school or not. We elect people to do it for us. And this is why we have to like and trust those people. Because they are not robots programmed to fulfill their promises, nor are they a mere abstract slate of ideas. They are people. Flawed, greedy people who want power and money and to be liked and to make the world in their image. You can criticize the “have a beer with” standard all you want, doubly so for giving us both W Bush and Donald Trump. But it’s a proxy for something reasonable. Who do you want in your corner? Who would you be friends with? Who do you trust when the chips are down to stand in for you?

If we ignore this question or shame people who take it seriously, we’re never going to build a successful leftist movement in this country. And I have my doubts that the Democratic Party can ever build or even wants that movement. But now seems like the best chance in a long time to try.


Don’t Stand for It

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

American hero Colin Kaepernick.

American hero Colin Kaepernick.

During the Iraq War, I made an effort not to stand for the United States’ national anthem while it played. The context for this was almost always sports games, because even though ESPN Radio (which I listen to a lot between Uber drives these days, while the NPR station is playing jazz and I’m waiting for the BBC World Service to come on) insisted (before this past week) on shouting down any caller who brought up politics, sports have been insidiously intertwined with politics for decades in this country. We have military nights, we have anthems before everything, we have the ongoing extra displays of patriotism since 9/11. Like so many elements of our society, we are made to forget that the default setting of what we perceive as normal is, itself, a political statement. We live in a deeply politicized reality, one where every student is made to swear unwavering loyalty to a piece of cloth every morning in a ritual that, were it discovered in North Korea, we would lampoon as the result of creepy brainwashing.

I say “made an effort not to stand” because there were a couple of times during that war that I can recall reluctantly and awkwardly standing, because I didn’t want to make the person I was attending the game with uncomfortable. In light of Colin Kaepernick’s brave public protest (ironically being called a “stand” in many quarters, which I can’t reconcile enough to invoke), I feel even more ashamed than I did at the time about these compromises. I at least a couple times went to the bathroom during the anthem at these times rather than do my customary sit, often when attending the game with just one friend, often someone more conservative, and I just didn’t want to get into the difficult debate in that moment. And, frankly, it’s not just this piece of cowardice that demonstrates to me the difficulty of Kapernick’s incredible protest. It’s the fact that during most of my Iraq War seatings, I was accompanied by others who joined me in the protest. My wife at the time, and two of our very good friends. I’m not even sure we even talked about it specifically or that thoroughly. I’m sure I discussed it with my wife at some point, but it felt like an organic thing. But it’s way easier to sit as a group of four than solo. Admittedly, I also did this when I attended baseball games by myself.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the anthem and the adoration of the flag, turning my back on the ceremony at times during high school and rolling my eyes and sighing awkwardly, hands buried in pockets, during sports game ceremonies both before and since Iraq. Kaepernick has reminded me that the Iraq War, while poignantly awful in American history, was by no means the only thing warranting this small silent signal of resistance. And deep down, I knew that. I just got tired of the angsty separation from the rest of the crowd, the terse comments from a handful of people, the (at least twice) slaps from older gentlemen accompanied by “get up!” (this only happened when I was alone). No one ever tried to engage me in why I was doing what I was doing. And only once did I see someone else in a ballpark joining me in the (lack of) move, though admittedly sitting while everyone else is standing can make it hard to see (except at Oakland baseball games, where attendees are few and far between).

The anthem stands for might-makes-right, it stands for the notion that a piece of cloth is more important than human life, it stands for the idea that all manner of human violence is worth it if our empire prospers. It is, even before people started talking this week about the grotesque verse taking joy in the death of freed slaves, the embodiment of what I object to about the American Empire. Glorying in war, the utilization of war as a means for our own advancement, the prioritization of cloth over life. And its universal proliferation before sporting events, before gatherings and conventions and convocations is, like the pledge, a little piece of ongoing indoctrination into this militaristic value set before every little ceremony. Kill for your flag. This is what’s important.

During the Iraq protest, I had dreams of starting a campaign that I would call Don’t Stand for It. Mostly, I was lonely and wanted more people to sit with me, because it felt like the right kind of protest that was small but powerful and well matched with what was being protested. It’s an anthem of war, so let’s not honor that during one of our many aggressive, ongoing, deeply unjust wars of imperialism. My follow-through on these kinds of campaigns is notoriously bad, so I can’t really lament not registering that website or starting that campaign – it wouldn’t have gotten more than a handful of supporters anyway.

This is what makes Kaepernick’s protest so inspiring and exciting. He has the platform to broadcast his message, the power to get people to join with him. He has reminded me that I was just copping out during all those Pelicans games, that the arc of American injustice is long and bends towards the flag. It took momentous bravery for him to make this statement, in a year when he wasn’t even assured a starting position on his own team, at a time in our media culture when he knew he was deliberately putting himself in the crosshairs of every zealous racist, warmonger, so-called patriot, and conservative in the nation. He knew exactly what kind of firestorm of criticism and anger would beset him and he sat, alone, regardless. This is what heroism looks like.

As has been well documented in the American media, much of the predictable backlash to Kaepernick’s sitting has been unadulterated racism, newly distilled in the resurgently open bigotry that accompanies many factions of Trump supporters and the opponents of Black Lives Matter. But the mainstream backlash is more insidious – the commentators on ESPN alleging irony that Kaepernick is “protesting a symbol of his right to protest” and saying that he is “disrespecting veterans who are fighting for his right to protest like this”. It’s one of the most knee-jerk, rote, and incorrect assumptions about our flag, anthem, and military: that they have something to do with our freedom. If you can even get past the initial issue that tools of mass-coercion and imperialism can ever be about freedom, even if that “freedom” is coming on the back of oppression of those both outside this country and locked up in this one.

America has faced nothing remotely like an existential threat since World War II. Arguably that war and the Civil War were vaguely existential threats – I could make a pretty good case that neither of them were, but I don’t want to get into that right now, since it’s irrelevant to my main point and my thoughts on WWII are already pretty polarizing. Yes, there are a few WWII veterans still around. But setting those folks aside for the moment, the veterans being most virulently defended in the media against protests like Kaepernick’s fought in wars that were unadulterated, naked imperialism that had nothing to do with defending American freedom. In Korea and Vietnam, the fight against popular communist leaders was packaged as pro-freedom, even though said leaders would have won national democratic elections in their respective countries. Ditto countless covert military operations in Cambodia and half of Latin America. Then we have Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Libya, the unending war to kill everyone in every country who disagrees with US foreign policy. These are not responses to existential threats or really threats at all – they are self-justifying pursuits of oil, business interests, and the notion that American hegemony is the natural order of the planet. You can think it’s noble if you want that people voluntarily sacrifice their time, energy, and livelihood to sign up to kill for their country (I don’t). But it’s just incorrect to say that they do so to “defend our freedom”. Had we fought zero wars since WWII, we would have exactly the same freedom we do now. In fact, I would argue, much more freedom, because there would not be people in the rest of the world who want to exact revenge on America and its people for the violence it enacted on them, their family, and their country.

Of course, most of those folks in the military didn’t feel like it was much of a voluntary choice. Our military is comprised of disproportionately poor individuals, disproportionately minority individuals, those deprived of opportunity at every turn who were both indoctrinated to believe that killing for your flag is noble and often misled into thinking they’d be safer and better compensated for their sacrifice. No wonder, then, that #VeteransforKaepernick has caught fire on the Internet, that (as in every era) it is veterans of these awful wars who are often the first to rally behind those against the next war. American soldiers return to the nation shattered, traumatized, and suicidal. And most of them seem to understand that Kaepernick’s protest helps honor their loss by trying to prevent the next generation from having to endure it.

Of course, Kaepernick’s protest is not primarily about war, though these realities are a fitting response to the obnoxious mainstream argument saying that his protest is well-intentioned, but he picked the wrong means (I have yet to hear one suggested alternative means, needless to say). It’s about Black Lives Matter, increasingly becoming the most important movement of our generation in America. A movement that has renewed a national conversation about our nation’s historical and ongoing oppression of a race that has endured slavery, slaughter, mass-incarceration, and minimization every day of America’s history. His protest is helping pivot the movement to the spotlight in a moment that is not just the week after another horrific police execution of an innocent Black citizen. He is helping to raise the issue with every week of the nation’s most popular sport, reminding the national audience that the Black players they revere each Sunday are of the same race as those they (at least de facto) support incarcerating and gunning down seven days a week.

Colin Kaepernick’s protest is everything a protest should be. It’s risky and brave, it’s targeted and precise, it’s powerful and profound. Every day, more people are sitting with him, agreeing that Black Lives Matter and that our anthem and flag are not more important than oppressed human lives. Next time the anthem plays, don’t stand for it. Thank you, Colin, for reminding me, for reminding all of us, what truly matters.


Ryan Lochte’s America

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


By now, you know the news that Ryan Lochte, whose claim of being robbed at gunpoint with friends overwhelmed Olympic coverage in Rio for days, was lying. He made the whole thing up, claiming to be pulled over by armed Brazilian thugs as a cover for being an American thug who beat up a bathroom and urinated outside. He underestimated a lot of things in this process, including the power of surveillance, the sophistication of the Brazilian government and people, and the intelligence of everyone. But the main thing he overestimated, as do most Americans spending any time outside the confines of this nation’s borders, was American Exceptionalism.

No better poster-boy could be imagined for American Exceptionalism, and for that at least, I guess we should be grateful to Lochte. For he shows us our true selves, as we really are: entitled, spoiled, lazy, violent, and willing to use words and the presumption of our innocence to manipulate, mislead, and ultimately abuse others. A gas station in Rio de Janeiro did not appear to him as a real place worthy of respect, merely as an obstacle to be destroyed when it did not suit his immediate wants. The people of Rio did not seem worthy of respect, so he made up a story that perpetuated dangerous stereotypes about their city. Even his friends were not deemed deserving his loyalty, so he fled the city before they could catch up to him. At every turn, the momentary whim and reputational superiority of Ryan Lochte were all that mattered.

Of course, he got caught. And the reason for his incredulity about this, the reason he could make such uncalculated and boneheaded decisions in the first place, is because of a more insidious part of American Exceptionalism. It’s not just the audacity to do and say and be things that no one else is allowed to. It’s the further insult of assuming everyone loves you for it.

It’s a tiny bit understandable why a star Olympic athlete would think this way. After all, he’s surrounded by a glorifying and grateful nation, where reporters ask him questions no harder than “Were you happy after winning the gold medal?” Everywhere he goes, he’s admired for his physique, his athletic achievements, his contributions to our country. So perhaps it’s easy then to think he’d be untouchable, that all he’d have to do after a night of roughing up some facilities in Rio is make up a plausible-sounding lie about those dangerous natives and their treacherous ways. But if we miss the larger point of Lochte here, we do ourselves a mighty disservice. His need to be the victim, to be the one in danger and protected, when he was in fact the threat: this is the beating dark heart of American Exceptionalism.

It is through our wailing victimhood that we attempt to curry the favor of a subservient planet. Even though we use more resources than anyone, even though we accumulate more wealth at the expense of literally everyone else, you must feel bad for the poor, poor American people. It is us, not you, who knows what it truly means to suffer. We are the ones who are attacked, who are victimized, who are in need of recompense and now. And we actually believe that the rest of the world goes along with this prioritization. How else to explain reporting on terror attacks abroad where the headline is that one American was killed, and only the subhead mentions the 63 others dead? How else to explain our endless citation of 9/11 as a reason to permanently, endlessly bomb tens of other countries? To reserve the right to bomb any of them, at any time, including any civilians who make the mistake of being in the same square mile as a suspected “terrorist”?

Of course the Emperor, like Lochte himself in the pool, has no clothes. Mercifully the rest of the world, when not being bullied into a vote at the UN at least, sees through the pitiable attempts of Americans to grab the title of most wronged people. They have their surveillance cameras out, they talk to their police, they are willing to ask slightly more probing questions than “was it just awful for you to go through that?” The world can see Americans for the brash bullies that we are, hogging everything and complaining that we don’t get more.

So the next time someone asks “why they hate us,” think of Ryan Lochte. Think of what you would think of this flag-draped American hero were you not from the same country he is. The man is an unrepentant, muscular, unthinking model of the way we put ourselves out into the world. We expect to cruise through it on charm, good looks, and the envy of others. They aren’t buying it anymore. They’ve caught us on tape, desecrating their land, disrespecting their people. And they’re going to call us out.

Maybe we should spend less time going for the gold. Maybe we’d be better off thinking about the weight on others’ shoulders first before trying to adorn our own.


From Here to There

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

She gets in the car and laughs. I confirm that it’s for Jimmy and she says yes and shakes her head in ongoing amusement. I ask her what and she says “He got it exactly right. Jimmy described you exactly.” And I ask her what she means by this and she says “A white guy with long hair. That’s what you are.”

We head toward her destination, an apartment all but under the freeway, the area within two blocks of which I advise tourists not to drive alone. This is a decently long way from the riverside Tchoupatoulis apartment where I picked her up, worlds away in New Orleanian perception. We have time for a longer talk, Friday night traffic being what it is likely to be. I’m just getting underway with my night.

She talks about how she’s sick and it’s hard to be sick in the summer. But she doesn’t think she’s that sick and she won’t be for long. Her boyfriend’s been sick and got her sick, a little, but she’s fighting it off, but she apologizes for her voice, which is just a touch scratchy and punctuated by little sniffles. She says she just had a long nap and is feeling better.

She asks me some standard origin questions and I ask if she’s from here and she say she is, but spent a lot of time in Houston, after the storm. Her brother was still there, until he died. She does not say how. She talks about her brother’s kids and her brother’s young wife and how it was sudden and she’s thankful that her sister-in-law keeps in touch with this side of the family, because they don’t always and those children are her family, too. How her other brother signed up for the army shortly after and her own mother tried to forbid it. She couldn’t stand to lose another boy, her other boy, so soon, but it was not her choice to make.

“You know, from the beginning, he’s just always been about Call of Duty. That’s his whole life, he’s always playing and so into it. He’s always wanted to live like that. So we prayed for him and sent him on his way.” He is, apparently, in Afghanistan at the moment. They don’t hear from him too often and their mother can’t even stand to think about it.

She talks about her own kids, about their father, about how his new girlfriend and her new boyfriend all pitch in to raise them, it’s a family affair. She is currently going from the house with the father and the kids to the house with the boyfriend, or possibly the other way, but I end up being pretty sure it’s the former by the end of the ride when she starts criticizing her boyfriend’s taste in housing locations. As we turn under the highway, there are two police cars boxing in a third non-police car, lights aglow, and she almost reflexively flinches, doing it in a verbal way I can catch without even checking my blindspot. She starts in again about the location, too close to the freeway, too close to where the cops are always looking to make trouble. I think about her brother, a cop of a kind in a foreign land, called into the recruiting office by the siren call of Call of Duty.

I think of Pokemon lures and who designed Call of Duty and what it was designed for. I think of the unsuspecting quest for entertainment and how it traps us into decisions that, by the end, feel like destiny. I don’t choose to share this line of self-interrogation with her, don’t need to sound like that about these military recruitment games being designed as well, military recruitment. It’s bad enough to think your brother is risking everything out of a sense of fulfilling what he always enjoyed most without thinking someone manipulated him into it. Best not worry about that until he comes home. Or doesn’t.

We have had time, if briefly, to cross over my own relationship history, my own uncertainty about having children, the fear of the future I rarely had until my divorce. She seems certain that these things work out, that they will always be better in surprising ways than you expect. A level of certainty I dare not try to convey about her own siblings, especially with one lost so recently. I wonder if I am the fretting mother, or would be, and I wonder what I would do with a child who wanted to play Call of Duty all the time, and it becomes overwhelming, the inability to be sure of anything. The phrase “that’s why they play the game” bubbles up into my mind, meaning at least two things in this context.

We are at not-Jimmy’s house, just out of sight of the spinning blue lights of the cop cars. The highway looms dark and ominous above, punctuated by engine revs and tire squeals. She mentions again how he wishes he would move, but there is inertia and the rent is cheap over here. I wish her and all her family the best, her brother in Afghanistan, sister and sister-in-law in Houston, her kids and her dead brother’s kids and Jimmy and not-Jimmy, whose name I never learned. She shakes my hand, finally giving me her name for the first time, asking me for mine. She hopes I have a safe night.

I pull away from the curb slowly, envisioning what it is like to realize life is not like a video game, as I give Jimmy 5 stars and wait for the next ping to take me in a new direction.



It Can’t Happen Here

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


Long-time readers will know that I am really frustrated by American exceptionalism. Heck, short-time readers will probably realize this. You should also be frustrated by American exceptionalism. It blinds us to understanding deeper realities about ourselves and how we interact with the rest of the world, in addition to upsetting everyone else on the planet who cannot claim to be part of this allegedly exceptional super-country. Think how much you personally love it when other people claim to be part of a group that’s innately superior to any group you could ever be a part of. Feels pretty bad, doesn’t it?

American exceptionalism is also deeply rooted in a belief about our somehow non-transient nature. Forget how dangerous it is for any individual person to start thinking of themselves as a permanent corporeal entity. Thinking of our country the same way is just uniformed about the nature of the world. The Roman Empire, which made it about five times as long as the USA, felt they were exceptional, invincible, and permanent. It’s a common misconception that the successful have about themselves, from Bernie Madoff to Lehman Brothers to Alexander the Great to Napoleon. And believing that you and your movement are forever helps convince other people to follow you, often blindly, often into oblivion. Being more circumspect about one’s chances at permanence and one’s real role in an ever-changing world certainly looks weaker at first blush, but carries the added bonus of being grounded in reality.

The place where this is most coming home to roost in 2016 is the story we Americans tell ourselves about false-flag operations in other countries, but never in our own. Almost immediately upon news breaking of the coup in Turkey (and the realization that it would probably fail), the Western media began questioning the official story and purporting that Erdogan had made the whole thing up, created a theatrical imitation of a coup, killed a few hundred people to sell the story, and packaged it for media consumption. All of this as a pretense for a despotic crackdown on rights and freedoms that would follow, cementing his (Islamist) stranglehold on power.

This treatment of international news got almost immediate echoes a few days later when WikiLeaks published a trove of e-mails from the DNC demonstrating that Bernie Sanders was not given a fair chance of winning the Democratic primaries and that key party brass was with Hillary Clinton all along. The biggest news story for me is that anyone thought this was news, but it was at least nice to be able to hold up the evidence to DNC apologists who claimed that Clinton won the primaries fairly. Almost upon release of the documents, however, DNC proponents and major media outlets circled the wagons to release the rumor that Russia was the hacker that had made this possible, that Russia was manipulating the US election, that shady nefarious Soviet, er, Russian forces sought to control the government through an imperius curse or similar.

By today, August 1st, US media simply reports these swirly false-flag rumors as factually true. Oh sure, they throw in an allegedly with scare-quotes occasionally, like the “alleged” mass-murderer who was caught on fifteen cameras blowing people away. And my issue with this isn’t what you might think. Erdogan probably did stage the so-called coup attempt. The Russians probably did hack the DNC. But you know what else? It happens here too!

Now I’m not trying to dredge up 9/11 specifically, because once you start talking about 9/11 and false-flag in the same sentence, people immediately call the men with the white coats and stop listening. That can be another discussion for another time. But it is aggravating beyond all belief that the American public and American media so willingly look at practically every foreign government action as shady theater intended to manipulate their public, but presume that nothing like that could ever be perpetrated by their government. JFK, MLK, and RFK were all shot by exactly the lone nut we caught and no one else ever! Every instance of American aggression was prompted by an initiation of aggression by some other much weaker power who just expected we wouldn’t hit back! Everything announced from the Oval Office or the Pentagon is completely as it seems!

The problem is that even if you wanted to believe this exceptionalist fairy tale, it’s demonstrably false. No government in history has been so obsessed with its own secrecy as the US of the last fifty years, sealing documents, shredding everything, and layering the blanket of national security to protect against anyone seeking to disinfect with sunlight. And despite this, the evidence that has leaked out is overwhelming. The battleship Maine, the Gulf of Tonkin, and possibly Pearl Harbor were all false-flag operations, done with the complicity or outright framing of the US government. Two decades of operations in Latin America were conducted by clandestine US operatives, usually propping up mass-murdering dictators at the expense of civilians seeking a greater voice in their governance. Even today, black sites, rendition, and unmanned bombings dominate US operations abroad, all laden in the don’t-ask don’t-tell policy of the contemporary American military. We beat the bad propaganda of the Vietnam era by refusing to count bodies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, or anywhere else. When someone tries to force a body count, all men over the age of 14 are hastily labeled terrorist combatants, whether they were in a hospital, a school, or playing soccer in their yard.

This is the government that you think is incapable of false-flag operations? Really?!

It’s just taken for granted when you look at world politics that most of those governments are trying to consolidate power and quell dissent through the use of theatrical false-flag incidents. Yet you think the most powerful, greedy, and successful country on the planet is the one that’s immune to this kind of behavior?

I don’t think you have to go as big as 9/11, though feel free to if you want. The shootings of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, both committed by ex-military personnel. An endless litany of “thwarted terrorist attacks” including the liquid one and the shoe one that categorically and permanently changed our airplane boarding operations. Committed by people without a third-grade level of preparation. When we know that the CIA and FBI are trying to infiltrate every group with even a whisper of “radicalization” to it. Banking crises and oil shocks and an endless series of disaster-capitalism events that enrich a few people at the expense of millions.

I’m not saying all these things are guaranteed to be iron-clad false-flag incidents. But I am saying it’s outrageous that we don’t, as a wider political audience, consider the possibility more frequently. Doesn’t it seems strange that we assume every other government is operating this way, hell, that every business pitch involves plants designed to manipulate the crowd into thinking a certain way, but the US government with its steadfast history of non-secret non-corrupt practices is the one shining exceptional beacon on the hill?

Maybe our exceptionalism narrative is the greatest false-flag narrative of all-time itself.


My Frustration Runneth Over

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

I may have spent too much of 2016 posting on Facebook about politics.

Remember the dilemma I discussed ten days ago about working on entertaining quizzes for millions or serious books for a handful of people? That’s my only defense. Facebook is today’s version of standing on the soapbox in the town square: one immediately gets the attention and reaction of hundreds of people. And for a long-time APDA debater and coach, that means hundreds of people who are interested and interesting, with tons of practice discussing and arguing about issues in a serious (and sometimes snarky) way. It’s a perfect venue for jumping into the open forum.

Except, of course, it’s not a perfect venue. Because my ideas are not, generally speaking, popular. It could be reasonably said that I think most things most people are doing most of the time are in some way wrong. Doubly so for politicians. We live in an imperialist society that believes murdering other people is the best way to “get things done.” That action always trumps inaction, as long as that action comes in the form of a threat, a drone strike, or the spread of unfettered crony-corporate capitalism. A society that slaughters billions of animals for food and clothing, that believes its own citizens are the chosen people who deserve to rule in wealth and power because they happened to be born on American soil. There’s not a lot I look at and say “you know what, we’re doing that right!”

And people don’t like being told they’re wrong. Especially by someone whose opinion is the outlier, is the exception, is discordant with the chorus of self-aggrandizing societal voices that proclaim how America is the best that ever was, is, or will be. That mantric doctrine of our greatness is a great antidote to the self-criticism that is necessary for self-improvement. But it would hardly be fair for me to exhort everyone else to self-reflection without engaging in it myself from time to time. And at a certain point, I have to wonder what good is being done by pressing the shiny blue button to reach out to hundreds of over-educated people and poke them with a stick about this election and the related questions it raises. And it presents a really difficult set of quandaries. On the one hand, I believe in means and not ends, and the means of trying to provoke thought and get people to question themselves is one I believe in. On the other, if I’m not actually eliciting that reaction in much of anyone and am instead just hardening their resolve to fight me, then it seems like a bad use of time and energy. And one that demoralizes both me and those who disagree with me, which is hardly the point.

I would imagine this fatigue is not unique to me. I would guess that plenty of people with vastly more mainstream views have hit the point, perhaps repeatedly in 2016, where they just don’t know what good it is anymore to talk to other people about politics. My Dad and some of the more conspiratorially minded folks out there might argue that this is the carefully constructed reality of 2016 in America: make everyone lose interest in politics by putting up two thoroughly hated candidates and having them argue vitriolically like the whole world hangs in the balance. At a certain point, no one will even care. This is part of what fuels my conviction that about 5 people in each state (not literally) will vote by the end of it – the demoralization factor is just too high of facing another 100 days of intensifying outrage about ClinTrump. But I think my fatigue has a deeper tenor to it when coupled with the realization that no one outside of a narrow band of far-left fringers is embracing what I find to be the most important issues in 2016. Or issue really: let’s stop bombing the daylights out of everything that moves in other countries.

It is horrifying that we live in a nation that can indiscriminately bomb a hundred civilians that we’re allegedly trying to save in Syria and mention of this incident escapes both national conventions. Horrifying. If any other country did that to us, to our special American people, we’d be clamoring for their immediate death at both conventions. Oh wait, we are doing exactly that. Hey, in the end, maybe “they hate us for our freedom” is right after all. Since our definition of “our freedom” includes the right to kill anyone else in any other country at any time and not even notice.

So what is this post for? I guess just to blow off steam. To reach out to the few like-minded people (and there are a few, several even, since my snarky frustrated Facebook posts still get some likes and laughs and whatever emoji are out there to make us feel reaffirmed across the digital divide). To put on the record that if I stop posting where anyone can see or will regularly react, I still felt a certain way and was still upset and still registered my dissent somewhere in the ether. After all, everyone who disagrees with me thinks that voting is not the place for dissent and they sure seem to get frustrated when I use Facebook to voice it. Ultimately, what I’m realizing is that the centrist Democratic movement is just not interested in dissent at all. Just as America will always vilify the next enemy, often an enemy of our own literal creation, as the real biggest, most existential threat we’ve ever faced, so too will the pseudo-left always say that this next Republican nominee is the real biggest, most existentially threatening potential President.

The left is the Chicago Cubs of American politics, always having to wait till next year no matter how promising this year’s candidates seemed. We are Charlie Brown and the Democratic Party is Lucy and we keep waking up on the ground with a concussion wondering how the hell we fell for it.

So here I offer a series of lines I’ve almost posted on Facebook this week, every time choosing not to as I wonder “what’s the point?” and “am I doing more harm to my belief structure than good?” before choosing to let hard-core Democrats just revel in being Democrats in peace…

A note of warning: I am not trying to start a fight. If you are hard-left and dissatisfied with ClinTrump, read on. If you are able to be self-critical about the Democratic Party, proceed with caution. If you are just looking to revel in your love of Hillary and the American electoral system, you should probably go read Vox or Slate or the New York Times right now instead. Seriously. I am not trying to upset you. I am just trying to say this stuff somewhere, quietly, where the people who are open to this can hear me.

-I am so proud to live in a country where every President’s wife can dream of someday becoming President.

-There are plenty of reasons you can choose to prefer Clinton to Trump. Likelihood of starting World War III is not among them.

-Nothing makes it more clear that we need to update the Constitution than hearing every Democratic speech punctuate on “all men are created equal” while they nominate a woman to be President.

-The two major parties in America are obsessed with American greatness. One says America was great before we offered rights to most of our citizens. The other says this moment of unending war and maximum wealth inequality is the height of our greatness. I want a party that says we’re not great, we’ve never been great, and we’re going to have work very hard to even start being good.

-The Democrats lecturing American voters about how Trump is too crass and embarrassing to be President contrasts especially poorly with giving Bill Clinton a keynote address.

-To everyone who posted that outrage about the papers running a picture of Bill Clinton with the headline about Hillary Clinton winning the nomination: Hillary wasn’t even at the convention that day! Are they really going to run a grainy picture of her appearing on the jumbotron with that headline? She chose to make Bill the headliner of the night, to make him the story. You cannot choose to run almost entirely on your husband’s coattails and then feign outrage or claim sexism when the media parrots that narrative. This is why Hillary being the first woman President is so bad for feminism. It presents that image. And the only reasonable response is “well, the first woman President had to use this path to the Presidency,” which is an even worse message for feminism. And not a true one. Elizabeth Warren would have won this nomination in a landslide, and beaten Trump in an even bigger one.

-Facebook really needs to add “eyeroll” to their reaction-emoji slate.

-I’ve clicked on several articles which compare the DNC leaks issue to Watergate, wondering if someone has finally made the proper analogy. But they keep comparing Nixon to the leakers, not the DNC. It was the DNC trying to use every tool available to shut out their opponents and secure a particular election outcome. And if you say “but Bernie never had a chance,” how good do you think the Democrats’ chances were in 1972? Even if you’re right, that’s totally not the point. Nixon still resigned over attempting to rig an election he already had locked up.

-The Democrats really have entirely subsumed the Reagan Revolution mantle. Morning in America. War footing with Russia. Wealth inequality is a-okay. Thanks, Clintons.

-Democrats will always blame the left for everything. They are incapable of seeing flaws in their own series of centrist do-nothing warhawks. If Clinton loses to Trump, the left will be blamed. When Gore lost to Bush, they blamed Nader instead of blaming a candidate so uninspiring he couldn’t even carry his own home state. This is a formula for silencing the left. Democrats are not interested in allowing the left a seat at the table, only in taking them for granted, whipping them into submission, and shaming them for all of their own shortfalls. The Democrats could literally have nominated Mussolini’s ghost this year and all they would do if they lost is shame the left for not falling in line behind this year’s alleged savior.

-Literally nothing is less relevant than the party platform. Like any platform, the candidates just walk all over it.

-I still cannot fathom how the lesson we carry forward from 2008 is that Obama did a good job saving us from ourselves and not that capitalism creates existential disasters out of thin air. Any country less in love with itself would have let capitalism die, sobered up, and worked to develop a new system of ordering society. I would feel sad that 2008 was the one missed opportunity to make sweeping change and fix things, but I know that capitalism will offer many more such opportunities and soon.

-What every Democrat telling leftists to suck it up and wait for 2024 misses is that, if we have 16 solid years of Obama and Clinton, the left will have been utterly eradicated from the party by the end of that. Everyone will look at 2024 and say “well, we can’t risk a leftist – look how successful we’ve been with all these centrists!” There is no plan to eventually incorporate the progressive movement, just to assimilate it into centrism.

-It is hilarious to see Democrats taking credit for progress in the last eight years. I know many people love Obamacare and forget that it was a Republican-authored plan. But gay marriage had nothing to do with Democrats and all of the Democratic leadership disavowed it until the absolute 11th hour when it had already become inevitable. Change does not take place incrementally through political machinations. It is sweeping and it involves changing people’s hearts and minds. The civil rights movement did not quietly work in legislative halls, they took it to the streets and illustrated the injustice of the status quo. If Martin Luther King had taken the modern Democrats’ advice, we would still have Jim Crow, just a slightly milder version, and the Democrats would be shouting from the rooftops how great those slight rollbacks of Jim Crow were.

-Gay marriage is a vastly more radical idea than stopping war. It’s been around a lot less time as a concept and was far weirder to people when first proposed. Why is it just so unthinkable to both major parties that we would ever stop war? There are so many creative ways of influencing world events for the better that don’t involve murdering people. This is literally the only lesson that’s been clear in 6,000 years of human history. Why is it so damn hard for people to internalize?

I don’t know what image to use for this post, but posts should have an image to catch people’s eye on Facebook and Twitter. Which I’m not sure I even want to do, for reasons stated above. Even in quietly venting my frustration, I’m still thinking in terms of getting this out, at least to people who agree in whole or in part. Ah, the problem of being a person. So what image? Here, have a picture of Bernie looking like I feel:



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: , , ,


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.


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: , ,


“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.


The War at Home

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


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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