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

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WikiLeaks and the Decline of American Impunity

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


The greatest American hero may not even be an American.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of WikiLeaks, already perhaps the most controversial website in the history of the relatively fledgling Internet. If you’ve been near any source of either news or Internet, you’re aware of the fact that said site, despite enduring a brazen and blatantly government-sponsored hack-attack, has released almost innumerable documents from the American diplomatic corps to the world at large. And the results are shocking.

Or they would be shocking, were there not a sort of open understanding that the duplicity, underhandedness, and overt dishonesty ubiquitous throughout the documented correspondence was par for the American course. Or suspected to be so, wherein lies a key significance in WikiLeaks’ recent release. While most of us have long assumed that America’s far-flung diplomats are spies in pretty suits, we haven’t known this. And perhaps most importantly, we haven’t known that they will openly and flagrantly admit it when behind closed doors. But now we do. Now the whole world does.

The reason America conducts such horrendously disingenuous “diplomacy” with foes and allies alike, collecting information to hoard, privately manipulate, and release in spun nuggets destined for spoon-fed genetically-modified consumption, is because it can. One could argue that I’m picking on America and that everyone conducts their diplomacy this way. Possibly, to an extent. One could argue that the only thing that makes America different is its collected disparity in power and expected influence makes its scale of magnitude greater, but its kind of actions no different. Perhaps.

But again, there is an essential significance in whether the American government itself, those conducting the double-dealing and shady gunboat work, believe they are different. And here I think it’s obvious that they do. I doubt anyone feels that America is just another run-of-the-mill realpolitik power broker arranging blandly predictable self-interest while they churn through a brief few years in the limelight before an inevitable decline. Anymore than I believe that every politician who feels compelled to punctuate their stump speeches with references to America as the greatest country that ever was, is, or will be thinks that they’re just spouting platitudes. I genuinely feel most agents of American power believe in the ideas they claim to espouse, be they American supremacy in the form of dominance, moral superiority, or even advanced idealism and inspiration.

And thus WikiLeaks is essential in breaking the myth. In holding the mirror up to our little self-important empire gone mad and forcing us to take a good long look. The fallout of the latest WikiLeaks release is almost incalculable – indeed most press outlets who’ve read and are slowly releasing the information therein are tripping over themselves to report on how many negotiations may radically shift, jobs may be lost, positions compromised, dinner table conversations become decidedly more awkward. In their rush to speculate on all these changes, they’ve overlooked perhaps the most impressive accomplishment so far, which is restoring the dignity and sanctity of the fourth estate back to itself. Suddenly the press is reporting real news. Not manufactured droplets of distilled calculus, but actual raw opinions and facts as gleaned from primary sources. The Internet has not eclipsed the mainstream press; it has saved it.

On a broader level, what WikiLeaks signals (in conjunction with other elements of a free Internet) is a whole new rubric for evaluating life, leadership, and the aim of society. Much hand-wringing and neck-scratching has been displayed in reaction to the fear of ever-shrinking privacy that the Internet writ large portends, and WikiLeaks is surely the fire-tinged spearhead of that movement, slicing straight to the heart of our most divine of private bovines, the National Security files. But what people forget about Big Brother and the symbolic warnings of privacy-loss of our past is that they were laden with information imbalances. Big Brother did not broadcast everyone’s true thoughts and feelings, including high government ministers and Big Brother himself, on a full-screen wall in each person’s apartment. Big Brother was a receptacle for information, a collector, but refused to divulge anything except the most specialized and crystallized fact-bites designed to mislead people and maintain order. Indeed, the disappearance of most individuals was never reported, nor were the true mathematical data that indicated the society’s decline, let alone any reality of history. Truth was monopolized by the government for its own private functions.

Contrast this with the kind of world that the Internet and WikiLeaks are foreshadowing. Where the government is no more illuminated a place than the average computer screen in any given home (or out on a park bench). Where the public has just as much information about the private dealings of their representative or diplomat or executive leader as said person has about them. Maybe more, given the increased scrutiny commensurate with such an individual’s position. Where the age-old question of “who guards the guardians?” is answered with unanimous assent.

Yes, we may all be a bit up in each others’ business and there may be a tinge more trouble with narcissism and navel-gazing. But in exchange for this, we get a government and a society not dependent on duplicity to grease the wheels of interaction. Instead, ideas and thoughts are exchanged honestly, and one’s private misgivings and dalliances will be shared, one way or the other, enabling a freer, more honest form of communication from the beginning. Ranging from the everyday personal encounter all the way up to the highest-level negotiations between governments, businesses, and the public they allegedly serve. It is hard to imagine the flimsy Bush-administration falsifications that justified opening the Iraq War standing up to a foe like WikiLeaks. Privacy begone!

There are only two salient arguments I’ve fielded against this kind of busting open the doors of what most people consider a right (though one whose only alleged enshrinement in the Constitution was constructed for the purpose of allowing abortion in an intellectually dubious fashion). One is that it will create a culture of shaming where people feel bad about things they shouldn’t feel bad about. For example, if you can’t hide the fact that you’re gay in Alabama, you will face undeserved recrimination. The problem here, of course, is that you’ll also know how many closeted bigots in Alabama are also hiding the fact that they’re gay, despite preaching regularly to the contrary or heading to Washington to pass hypocritical legislation. In a culture without privacy, objections to reasonable human proclivities would dry up pretty quickly when it became blatantly obvious how many skeletons people had shacked up in their own back rooms. Will there still be recrimination for people making actually bad decisions in their past? Sure. But should there be? Of course. And if you prefer forgiveness and “starting fresh”, odds are that enough people will have blemishes on their pasts to want to create a certain limit on how much shame they’re going to toss on everyone else. Which will make it a lot like current society, but with a lot less anxiety, hiding, and waiting for shoes to drop. And perhaps a little more human understanding.

The other argument is that there are just some innately private things that are “icky” like copulation or using the bathroom and there’s no need to broadcast these things. Fair enough. Sure. That’s true. But honestly, if that’s the only drawback and in exchange we never again go to war under false pretenses or are lied to by our supposed friends and confidants? I’ll take it. There’s also probably a reasonable moratorium that people could self-regulate on overly icky things anyway, as long as they weren’t cloaking the essential moral facts of whatever ickiness they were up to.

So, honestly, what’s not to like? Give me a reason to fear Julian Assange and his small collection of truly heroic risk-takers and whistleblowers leading us into a new age of information without limit or secrecy. Maybe you like America more than most prior global superpowers, you fear that our shameful decline ushered in by the exposure of blinding hypocrisy will yield to a force with tighter clamps on human freedom. Perhaps, I guess, but I’m starting to think this movement, centered around the Internet, is a bit like Pandora’s box. I don’t think anything’s going back in. I have a running debate with some of my friends about whether there’s a way to effectively shut down the web, and while I think there somehow must be, it’s hard to imagine it working in any top-down way. The best way to kill the Internet has already been tried – cluttering it up with the same drivel and nonsense that clouds the mainstream media and the day-to-day perspective of most of its users. Distract with stories of celebrity and excess while the real deeds go down. Replace blogs with Facebook and Facebook with Twitter and Twitter with something that only allows you to express yourself in a 10×10 pixel graphic.

WikiLeaks isn’t just a possible antidote to that – it is the one all-encompassing cure. With one large transmission of information, it blows the cover off all the distraction, replaces soft news with something very real, and overloads byte-limits with one of the single largest information dumps in human history. One could spend a lifetime absorbing the information in this release alone. No doubt, someone will.

While they’re doing that, our country will be making an all-important choice. Either adapt and change, accepting a more limited range of power in exchange for making good on some of the initial promises of its alleged ideals. Or fight to the death for a world that is disappearing and take its place amongst failed empires and head-cases of the past.

The choice, at least in some small part, is all of ours.

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Yellow Rain

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

Something transpired today, forging just the right mix of wind and rain and airborne upheaval to bring every remaining leaf off the trees in Highland Park. Not really every leaf, of course, for a quick examination of the trunked masses themselves reveals that they still look more the part of autumn plumage than winter barren. Yet whole walkways were obscured, buried in seven-deep layers of yellow dying offshoots of their wise ancient ancestors. Sometimes kicked up into drifts closer to ten- or twenty-deep by the still churning wind. The ability for trees to shed so heavily and yet still retain their dignity reminds me of my own relationship with my hair, which comes out in thick strands each morning only remain in an unnoticed mass still atop my head.

Unlike the trees, however, I am not destined to go bald this winter. At least, that’s the hope.

It was not destiny, but perhaps long overdue, for me to pick up a library card at the Highland Park Public tonight. I remember when being in a new community without a library card was an aching couple days’ torture, not the norm of a few weeks or even months. The first trip to Georgetown’s public library with its upstairs kids section still tantalizes my memory: it was a place of sheer magic. Even the first jaunt to Seaside’s sad answer, to the section I would live in for years I “should” have been in school, the place where I would first learn the quiet steady rhythms of working in hallowed halls of books. It was in getting acclimated to school libraries that far surpassed their public counterparts that I stopped picking up public library cards so regularly, then getting used to acquiring books permanently in California that made a more substantial separation.

But tonight I remembered the budget and the desire to expand my reading, the need to fulfill important recommendations of friends without having to add to the tally of box-filling to be hauled across the country whenever I can re-escape to the west. And so I confronted the yellow-leaf roads, the paths of strewn mayhem still aswirl in onrushing storm. Remembered to bring my proof of residency, my proof of New Jersey driving ability, even my proof of ability to haul books undamaged through the rainswept streets of Highland Park. The woman was kinder than the Jersey average, not yet the grizzled cynic suspecting each new patron of trying to undermine the very system of the free and peaceful transfer of tomes.

It was on my way back, via the grocery store, that I had time to contemplate respective priorities in our society and the very nature of what is free and what requires money. Surely libraries, the uncharged exchange of ideas and knowledge, are one of the greatest contributions to human development we have ever created as a species. And yet, the fact that there is an expectation of payment for food while books remain freely accessible seems somewhat distressing. Sure, I’m spending time volunteering in places that try to combat this expectation, just as there are bookstores trying to set a precedent of financial consideration for access to reading. But the norm is still the norm. I grew up going to libraries and grocery stores. I suspect most of us did. What does it say about us that we can take reading for granted but are expected to devote our time to an employer in order to sustain our lives?

Trudging back into the dark night from the overlit halls of both library and grocery, laden with the weight of this new comparison, I saw a young girl on a bike nearly hit by a turning car in the yellow rain. The driver actually screamed, despite being just short of contact with the child. The girl took it in stride, good spirits, too young perhaps to understand the implications of her mortality. Too filled with wonder from the prospect of a good read or a good meal or a good old fashioned jump in a leaf pile to be worried about the very real world of moving vehicles, distraction, and reduced visibility.

Our paths are dark and treacherous, uncertain and overshadowed with doubt. And yet there is simple solace in the simple act of surviving another day, another night, to watch the constancy of nature in its steady march toward the future. The book itself is little more than pulped tree, adorned with the thoughtful decor of another’s mind. The food falls from the tree, mostly, or grows up underneath it. What are any of us, our time, in comparison to the produce of trees?

Long may they rain. Long may they reign.

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Long Overdue

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

I meant to post about this article when it came out. That was in April 2008. Which was a while ago. Even longer ago in feeling than it is in calendar months. I try to get a sense of it and come up short. Reading this helps a little. Or maybe this old cartoon:

But I won’t ever be back there, ever go back to the time (8 April 2008) when I described the girl I dated before Emily as “my last unsuccessful relationship”. Will I ever have that kind of confidence in a relationship or a person again? How could I? I can trust, I can try, but the idea of that kind of certainty seems innately preposterous. But this is not what this post is supposed to be about.

It’s supposed to be about a man on the verge of death, one who is revered all but universally in the wake of his death, now 42 years on and counting. About the fact that he was not content with the political or economic systems that comprise our perspective today, that seem to consume even the most progressive and semi-radical of proponents. That even the radicals he was surrounded by at the time were not up to his vision of a peaceful demolition of a way of life that leaned heaviest on those who could least afford it. Read the article, the first one, the one I didn’t write. Register your vision of the man we celebrate every January and on a road sign in every town with the advocacy of paralyzing Washington until it coughed up capitalism and spat it out.

What King knew then is something still barely being whispered about in the frenzied corridors inhabited by a small portion of my friends and other scattered like-mindeds. That the idea of eternal growth in production and consumption is innately flawed on a fixed planet with fixed resources. The the idea of competition where one’s life is literally on the line winds up all too often in death. That the commoditization of everything means that most people end up with nothing and a few people end up being able to functionally enslave everyone else. That racial equality is only the first step in a long road toward the kind of equality that we should all be striving for.

Is it any wonder, then, that he was silenced? With even his closest allies nervous about the next direction he would take his booming voice and sweeping influence, it is unsurprising that someone pulled the plug. Watch his Memphis speech:

He knew it was coming. He knew the risks and he knew it was worth it. Not just for racial equality, mind you, but for the message that capitalism was insufficient as a way of organizing a nation.

So next time you think of the importance of the economy, think of what you want to happen, think of your own personal compromises with financial “realities,” remember MLK. Ask yourself if (and if so, why) you believe so wholeheartedly that this structure is the terminal shape of human interaction. Does it really make sense? Is it really working for you? Are you living the same life you would live without the concept of money?

“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

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Tuesday’s Alive

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , , ,

“It’s because you’re not trying to be happy or wondering why you should have been made unhappy, because you’ve stopped thinking in terms of happiness or unhappiness. That’s the enormous stupidity of the young people of this generation,” Mrs. Quarles went on; “they never think of life except in terms of happiness. How shall I have a good time? That’s the question they ask. Or they complain. Why am I not having a better time? But this is a world where good times in their sense of the word, perhaps in any sense, simply cannot be had continuously, and by everybody. And even when they get their good times, it’s inevitably a disappointment – for imagination is always brighter than reality. And after it’s been had for a little, it becomes a bore. Everybody strains after happiness, and the result is that nobody’s happy. It’s because they’re on the wrong road. The question they ought to be asking themselves isn’t: Why aren’t we happy, and how shall we have a good time? It’s: How can we please God, and why aren’t we better? If people asked themselves those questions and answered them to the best of their ability in practice, they’d achieve happiness without ever thinking about it. … If you’re feeling happy now, Marjorie, that’s because you’ve stopped wishing you were happy and started trying to be better. Happiness is like coke – something you get as a by-product in the process of making something else.”
-Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point

It’s not just because I ran across this passage in my train-reading this morning that today’s been a good day, but that certainly didn’t hurt anything. I’d long heard about the brilliance of this book, written at a time (1928) when the West looked a lot like it probably did in 2008. It’s shockingly modern for a book of its era. I’d put off this Huxley classic for ages over a misunderstanding that it must be a book of essays given the dryly factual title it bears. But at current paces, it’s in the rarefied air of Brave New World, Island, Eyeless in Gaza, and Crome Yellow. Most impressive.

I was on the train to head to New York for my second interview there in about six weeks, though this one was directly for an organization rather than for a placement agency trying to slot me into a job that had already sailed. We’ll see how it goes. I’d be very excited to do the work and get involved with a really dynamic and important non-profit and I think the interview went rather well. So keep your fingers crossed or whatever superstition you adhere to going in whatever fashion you see fit.

Going into New York still feels like a major investment each time, so that’s something that would hopefully lessen with routine… it’s only been twice going in since adopting my new life, but it’s felt like a significant excursion both times. At the same time, I’m sure the first few BART rides into SF felt that way. And while this is certainly lengthier and on a more substantial train, it might offer the opportunity to bring back the much-beloved Strangers on a Train category with my random insights about fellow riders and their transport-bound habits. Chaff, I tell you, but you all seem to tell me otherwise, and thus so be it. Who am I to blow against the wind?

The wind was chilly and verging on frostbitten as I trekked the brief two and a half blocks from Penn Station to the venue of my ‘view. New York is a cold place in so many ways, but today it felt palpably terrified of terror as well. Constant reminders droned through Penn Station about random searches that may be conducted and concluded with an admonition to not “pet the [bomb-sniffing] dogs.” The men’s room facilities are temporarily port-o-potties in an alley just outside the station. A man barked at me for entering the wrong waiting area for my ticket to go home at one point. New York City always feels like it has an edge, but today was especially intense. Maybe something about Election Day, though I fail to see how that makes Penn Station an abnormally likely target. Then again, train stations have long proven to be a vulnerable but somehow unstruck target.

Election Day makes me feel like a target, what with the barrage of bunting all over Facebook and the deep-seated passion on display from so many politically-minded friends. It makes me tired. I don’t exactly begrudge anyone their commitment, but I fail to see why it’s so much greater than the commitment to so many other important matters in our society. It doesn’t matter who you vote for in this country at this point in history. They are all corporatists. There is one party in America and it is The Corporation. When someone hits the campaign trail speaking not just against big business, but against the idea of business, give me a call. Then it might be time to get invested in politics. Until then, the interests being defended are those of the moneyed profiteers. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a big dollar bill stamping on a little dollar bill, forever.

Sorry, George. It had to be said. As did the answers to my interview questions, which felt much better than they did four and a half years ago when I last sat in a group interview at a non-profit I was excited about coming to work for. That was a significant political day too, May Day 2006, the rallies all over the country and especially the Bay to defend the rights of immigrants. Not a lot’s been done about that one since that day, nor particularly on any of the rights and freedoms issues facing America, at least not at the ballot box. Arguably a little has happened in the courtroom. We’ve given a lot of money to corporations and called it a rescue or a reform or a renewal. Laundering cash has many names.

The man across the way from me in the (correct) Penn Station waiting area had no cash as far as I could tell, and maybe not even a ticket. He was unseemly looking at first, unwashed and underbitten and prattling away in the hyperspeed manner of so many of New York’s outcasts. But rather than move away to better concentrate on Huxley, I briefly used that latter as a foil for paying attention to the former without showing overt interest. A demonstration of interest could lock me a month-long discussion, but bearing stealthy witness to a monologue yielded a remarkable bounty. The man was a savant, a true rhetorician, his words were perhaps a bit fast (an import from policy debate?), but well spoken, extremely well-crafted, and made intelligent points. He spoke of a detailed history either lived or imagined, one in which he’d not been the soliloquizing soul on the taut foam seats of Penn Station’s NJ Transit waiting area. He’d known people and interacted, been accepted and then ultimately beaten down by the caprice of life and its callous inhabitants. He drew analogies to politics, analogies to the future. Yes, he delved occasionally into the “out there”, hinting faintly at crazy before reeling himself back in to something interesting and eloquent. I need to learn to start taking tape recorders with me to the train station. Or maybe at least Rutgers Debate flyers.

Plenty of time for that if I get the job. For now, we wait. See what winds blow into the country, what bluster and hyperbole is made of them. I’ll be on the sidelines, with Aldous, George, and my anonymous beleaguered spreader. This is one for the books. It’s all for the books.

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The Market Doesn’t Solve

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

Today I decided to try somewhere that wasn’t Stop-N-Shop for my what is apparently becoming bi-weekly grocery trip. This meant heading back over the Raritan into New Brunswick to check out C-Town, which would have been the local place to buy food had I wound up in any number of apartments I sought in NB before winding up in Highland Park instead. When I’d passed it a couple times doing exploratory walks to go with apartment visits, it had seemed a friendly enough place, bustling with young families and the like.

If you’ve never heard of Stop-N-Shop or C-Town, don’t be surprised. (I had never heard of the latter till discovering this locale.) For some remarkable reason, grocery stores seem to be one of the only commercial enterprises in America that resists nationwide consolidation into mega-chains. Sure, the somehow unrelated Wal-Mart and Walgreens have started selling food and getting into the action, but there is no universal grocery store chain. I grew up with Safeway and Albertson’s, only to discover upon moving east that these were unheard-of there. When I moved to New Mexico, entirely foreign names like Smith’s and Jewel Osco entered my lexicon. It seems entering a new part of the country always means discovering at least one completely unknown chain, such as when we drove to Maryland with Fish last year and came upon a cluster of Food Lions. Food Lion? Are you kidding me? The first five times he said it, I thought Fish was saying “Food Line“, which was a hilarious enough name for a grocery store without being the complete non sequitir that is the king of the food jungle.

Anyway. I get over the river, hang out at Chipotle, almost ask a girl in line out before I remember what my personality actually is, then head down to C-Town. Why it is called C-Town, I have no idea, but one theory that dawns on me as I enter is that the “C” stands for “convenience”, because this place doesn’t really look like a grocery store from the inside. The shelves are too small, the aisles too crammed, and the proportion of overpriced junk food too high. Needless to say, the clientele is also decidedly more down-to-earth and desperate than at the Highland Park Stop-N-Shop. The predominant language within is Spanish and the prices are… higher. Yes, higher for the poor folks in the poor neighborhood than in the spacious overlit aisles of the place across the river.

I don’t want to hear your economic arguments or your bias or your justifications or your excuses. I know that you could say that they have a higher risk of shoplifting to absorb, or have to guard better against break-ins overnight, or lose more carts on average than the swankier uptown place. If this were a debate round, I could come up with 12 good arguments to justify the higher prices in the poorer part of town too. But the bottom line is that, while it might not be C-Town’s fault per se, the fact that these realities exist, and are legion and provable, means that most people’s economic theories about escaping from poverty are bunk.

There’s a Shell station in Oakland that always has consistently the highest prices for gas, possibly in the entire state of California. We used to pass the place on the way to the Mexicali Rose quite frequently and would joke and laugh about what the astronomical figure would be today, continually flabbergasted that our outlandish predictions would always be trumped by the numeric reality before us. It goes without saying that this was in about the worst part of town we actually drove in when not looking for runaways from Seneca.

The problem is that the poor don’t have the mobility to get out of their neighborhood. Most everything has to be close because they are the least likely to have cars and spare time and the money to use public transit. And when grocery stores are really just slightly larger but still overpriced “convenience” stores, they get locked into choices that are less healthy and less auspicious, yes, but especially more expensive. Which means that the marginal dollar on necessities goes further for the rich than the poor. Making groceries an objectively regressive commodity in our society. Which would be less problematic if groceries weren’t, oh, the most essential commodity for people to buy in this society.

Yes, there are food stamps. But I’m willing to guess most of the Spanish-speakers in C-Town don’t have much access to food stamps or someone to explain to them how to get them. And the marginal cost still applies, for food stamps are priced by dollar of cost and not by nutritional value of item. So you’re still better off having food stamps at the HP SNS than the NB CT, if you’ve even been given access. Of course those close to the HP SNS are much more likely to have said access.

There’s a legion of documentation on the web about this phenomenon and how most poor neighborhoods (e.g. the Tenderloin in dear old SF) don’t have any grocery stores at all, driving the marginal dollar into liquor and Twinkies instead of even marginally groceretic junky food. And this means that getting out of poverty doesn’t just require saving money like it would for most people, it requires saving more money than most people. It’s these hindrances on economic mobility, along with the corresponding need to keep a certain quotient of the population in this marginalized state, that make capitalism insolvent.

I bagged up my items into the canvas bags I’d brought, zipped up my jacket, and decided to buy the rest of the housewares I needed online. With the internet connection that I have that gives me access to cheap things, without the depression of watching people struggle with being gouged for the barest necessities.


The New Brunswick C-Town, in a photo from Google Maps’ street view. Depression level is to scale.

Miles walked today: 2.5

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Cheap Like the Budgy

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

Since a certain person who will remain nameless recently took a significant bite out of financial crime, I find myself facing wholly different circumstances on that front to go with my different circumstances on every other front. While part of the plan is to try to get a job that can offset things until I move somewhere affordable like New Mexico, part of the plan must also account for the possibility that I will be unable to get a job that works with my schedule. And even if I do, I don’t want to be spending a lot of reserve cash on this year.

As a result, I’ve made it a goal to spend at an annual rate of $20,000 this year. Which would be fine in our old housing situation, or in Nuevo, but is pretty difficult when I splurged on rent to live in a nice place in Highland Park instead of the sketchier parts of New Brunswick. I’ve been trying to think of spending in terms of a daily rate, to really break down what a budget looks like day in and day out. It’s by no means the first time I’ve tried spending on a budget, but perhaps the first time in eight years that it’s mattered this much.

In a daily spectrum, $20k/year is $54.79 a day. So what does my daily expense chart look like?

$6.33 a day for everything else. Whew. Given that that includes food, this is looking like a tallish order. I managed to spend pretty cheaply in today’s trip to Stop-N-Shop, but the budget was blown by a necessary restocking of Emergen-C stockpiles brought on by the recent not-quite-so-miraculously-avoided illness. I’m already at the coughing (final) stage and the symptoms have been mild throughout, so I’m counting myself pretty lucky. At least I managed to find the latently elusive Lemon-Lime flavor. A whole new generation of debaters’ voices will be spared!

While the rent is obviously a mammoth share of that chart, it’s the insurance options in the 2 and 3 slots that make me the most bitter. Perhaps because it’s never done a bit of good to carry car insurance in my life, other than fulfilling a legal obligation to do so. Perhaps because my urologist is being pretty cavalier about my kidney stones (“I don’t know what’s causing them… maybe you’re eating too much dairy? Who knows? Fill this prescription and call me in six months.”) Perhaps because the whole concept of insurance as a bet against oneself can still send me into writhing anger if I sit in a room and think about it for ten minutes.

Emily would be quick to point out that the insurance is cut-rate because it’s still through her student plan. Which doesn’t make me feel any better about the onrushing mandate to purchase the insurance at market rates that’s waiting to swallow the country. Maybe rather than being thankful for being required to purchase insurance that defends against calamities, we should look at why there are so many precipitous financial calamities designed to befall people in our society.

Which reminds me that I really shouldn’t be whining about having $6.33 a day for food and extras (“extras” on top of cell phone, internet, and Netflix, mind you) in the context of the world at large. $6.33 a day is more than most people see for slave-labor style jobs that “free markets” are forcing them into. In the context of everything, I’m still awfully lucky.

Well, mostly. Even people in slave-labor style jobs probably feel capable of being loved.

Miles walked today: 1.2. Hey, I’m still a bit sick.


Follow-up: I of course just realized that I completely forgot about gas/electric, since I haven’t seen a bill from those guys yet. Yeah. Luckily heat’s included in the rent here (although it’s not on yet, so the space heater I’ve been running while sick isn’t included), but gas/electric for cooking and lighting is probably at least a couple bucks a day and maybe more at times. Maybe I should allot myself $25,000 a year? That seems like a lot. But it also has this ring of realism to it, given that I still need to buy a couch.

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When I Fall

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

“Hang on to your wallet
hang on to your rings
I can’t look below me
something will throw me
I curse at the windstorms
that October brings

I wish I could fly
from this building
from this wall
and if I should try
would you catch me
if I fall
when I fall”

-Barenaked Ladies, “When I Fall”

A storm is blowing into Highland Park, New Jersey this evening. It’s a storm that’s ravaged much of the seaboard already, bringing warnings of flooding and overwhelm to parts north and east. All day, the barometer has been sliding down as the winds have picked up and the skies have conspiratorially bonded in varying realms of shadowy gray. There is a sense of proximity, of closeness, of the world drawing near. Closer, closer, now almost here.

The world truly has converged today across the Raritan River, in New Brunswick. A young man who’d just joined the campus where I coach famously plunged to his death from the George Washington Bridge, his wet broken body just identified this afternoon. His roommate’s filming of his romantic encounters with another man, streamed live on the internet, and his subsequent private jump, are probably the top story in America today. The media is here to discover everything they can and stream that live on the internet too.

Unsurprisingly, many of the Rutgers debaters and I have held an online debate in the wake of this last event about the nature of the media’s frenzy. While their sharklike gathering is certainly unsavory, this story at least exposes the peer conflicts and homophobia that are often rampant on college campuses and get under-reported. I can’t espouse the demands for the head of the roommate on a platter, but neither can I say this is a particularly bad use of media time, especially when compared to the disappearance of yet another rich blonde girl from such and such location. It remains to be seen how the spotlight ultimately treats Rutgers, how the university fares under its white-hot illumination. Our team was already scheduled to debate civility on campus in a public showcase next Thursday before this happened.

Tonight I walked into downtown Highland Park, such as it is, to do a little light shopping and look around the town. It’s cute and quaint and fall serves it well. While my ultimate destination was Stop and Shop for imminent practicalities like envelopes and soap and microwave burritos, I couldn’t help but tarry at the Nighthawk Bookstore, offering used books and music till midnight, five days a week. There seems to be a bit of community to this community, traversed by walkers of all kinds even in the billowing winds of an onrushing thunder. The distances are short and the buildings old, but there is life and vibrance and a kind of candle in the darkness. By the time I returned home, fleeing the first sprinkles and clutching the chafing plastic handle of the bag (my half of the canvas collection is still stuffed somewhere against cardboard), I was feeling almost okay about where I’ve landed. A ping-pong ball bouncing high in the air, fortunate to land, all but by chance, in a small town instead of the Hudson.

A hard rain’s a-gonna fall, make no mistake. I am debating between heading over to practice rounds in my car or toughing out my simulation of carlessness and walking against the slings and arrows of outrageous downpour, come what may. I think I’d like to feel the rain pelting against my jacket, soaking my hat, gathering in my eyes and hair as I trudge into an almost invisible future. There is a solace in storms, the promise of washing away all that has gathered and built in the corners and cracks and alleys of sunbaked neglect. Of renewal, reopening the ground to accept the life-sustaining promise of water, the emboldening prospect of wind. There is also power and fear, of course. The sudden randomness of a bolt of lightning, the crack of the bough as it snaps away from the tree in a particular gust. But even this breakage creates renewal. New buds, new life, new access to the sun that the formerly blocked were denied.

It is time for all of us to fall someday. And it is October tomorrow. The only question is how far we fall when the wind knocks us down.

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The Curse of Idealism

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

What’s interesting about my perspective in contrast with others’ perspectives is that perception is often a long long way from reality. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve really realized that my sadness comes from my idealism. That ultimately most people are innately pessimistic/realistic and accordingly don’t have a very high bar of hope. And since they work on a given scale of magnitude where the potential highs are flattened, they don’t get sad or upset or angry that often when things fall short. Because it’s not that much to fall short from. Whereas I, with my ideals and hopes and high standards, my real understanding of what humanity could be capable of if they cared, get pissed when things go awry.

It’s an important observation, and one that I’ve made in various ways, but I want to sort of bookmark the clarity of my understanding of it now. I slept a good deal last night for the first time in possibly weeks and I awoke in the sort of haze-state of first consciousness with a new depth to my understanding that other people are mostly just slogging through a relatively high concentration of mud and pragmatism and low expectations and accordingly find it easy to be happy with little things. Someone doesn’t look at them funny or says something nice and that exceeds expectations by such a degree that it puts them in a good mood. They can be happy and satisfied with less. They aren’t sitting around chalking up every subpar interaction and comparing it against what could be done. And, most importantly and contrastingly from me, they aren’t trying to mine every decision they make or experience they have for ways to improve in the future.

It’s this last bit that becomes the really damning thing. For by taking the perspective that living is serious business and that we’re on the planet to learn and grow instead of just muddle through and muck about, I end up disgruntled a lot more often than people who don’t expect much of themselves. And people can expect a lot from themselves in a given arena without trying to really thoroughly pump every experience and detail for information and potential progress. I understand more and more how deadly serious and debilitating and strangling my perspective must seem to people who don’t share it. When do I have room for fun?

But the flipside of all this, of course, seems to be the manic side, wherein I end up enjoying things in a purer, even more childlike way than most anyone I know. Most others seem afraid of expressing excitement or enthusiasm. And I think that’s related to the idealism too. If one doesn’t let oneself hope or dare to dream, then the potential ceiling on any experience is pretty low. It’s not that wildly captivating to get to have a good time, because that time is capped by the mucky muddly realities of the species and the planet. It reminds me of Russian and the fact that the word for happiness doesn’t have a permanent state – most folks are wandering around only hoping for fleeting satisfactions and thus can’t throw themselves into really enjoying them full-throttle in the way of a childlike idealist.

It’s easy to look at all this and say that I just haven’t grown up. That part of growing up is about moderating one’s emotional highs and lows or even the conviction or belief that emotions matter at all. But the ability to maintain childlike wonder, appreciation, hope, and idealism is what separates everyone I respect and admire on the public scene from everyone else in the world. Gandhi, King, and all the writers are people who objectively never grew up. They were visionaries, luminaries, people who could see beyond and above and had greater faith and higher hopes than anyone else thought practical. You can look at the lesson of their lives and say look, they just got a bullet for their troubles, proving that this is all mucky and muddly and useless. But I disagree. I think it’s clear that these are the only people who make our species worth discussing at all. Would that we could be judged by these examples rather than their assassins, rather than the practical doers who only aspire to sell out a little less this time.

I refuse to settle. Even if it kills me. If I die because of it, then I die once. But if I settle and compromise my ideals, I die every time I wake up and face a new hopeless day.

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Threads

Categories: A Day in the Life, From the Road, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , ,

If I ever make it, creatively, meaning that I get to the point where I not only am expected to write more for a public audience but that some people consider making movies out of my stuff and I may even get some control over who’s involved, I’m giving first crack at film adaptations to Johan Grimonprez. It’s taken him only two movies in twenty-four hours to earn this honor, dubious as it may currently be.

For the unfamiliar, which should be everyone (Gris?) and would’ve been me a day ago, he’s made only two real films in English as far as I can discern, but they’re both appallingly good. One’s playing at Albuquerque’s barely-breathing Guild theater in Nob Hill by the university district, 2009’s “Double Take”, a film ostensibly about Alfred Hitchcock, but much more about the Cold War, power politics, media, and what’s going on with the planet. My Dad and I saw that last night and had to come home to find his other film, 1997’s “Dial H-i-s-t-o-r-y”, which is about 9/11. Except it was made four years before 9/11. But watch it and tell me it’s about anything else. You can find it online; you may still have to pay to see Double Take.

Almost exactly halfway through editing The Best of All Possible Worlds, putting me well behind the expected pace at this point, though that indicates a general enjoyment of this trip that has made it all worthwhile. The themes for the book are finding resonance in all kinds of places, not least perhaps in the Grimonprez movies, all of which means that either the book is scarily relevant or I’ve just got it on the brain. Reality is probably a mix of both, but it’s generated a comfortable excitement for me about the work that has prompted this very lax attitude about actually getting the editing done. I think once I get on the plane tomorrow and head back to the East, it’ll be time to just put my foot down and get work done. If only so you all can have some idea what I’m talking about.

In the last couple months, I’ve found it harder than any prior point in my life to focus on reading one thing. In the midst of watching Dial H-i-s-t-o-r-y tonight, I realized that I’ve been carrying around Don DeLillo’s White Noise in my backpack since buying it alongside If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler in Ariel & Michael’s favorite Philadelphia bookstore. All I want to do tonight is start it, setting aside editing yet again and certainly bypassing The Spire and War and Peace and Madness and Civilization. Prior to this year, I don’t know if I’d ever gone more than a week or so reading multiple books at once and now I’m on the precipice of starting a fifth simultaneous book. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I mean, sure, I’ve lost some interest in all of them in one way or another, and maybe that’s the problem, that I haven’t just given up on most of them. What does it say about now or my state or something else that I seem incapable of completing readings while churning out novels of my own? Why am I losing interest so quickly? How will I be impacted when I head to Liberia and have to hole up with books for days on end, according to what Emily has led me to believe about the schedule there?

Speaking of which, it’s the first anniversary of our seven to date that Emily and I have been apart. It’s enormously challenging, but I take some solace in the nice round joy of the sound of seven years. A marriage is forever, but it takes some time for its lifespan to start sounding like something that reflects the permanence and seriousness of the commitment it contains. I’m not sure quite where the threshold is, but seven years seems a lot closer than any of the prior milestones.

Been spending much of this leg of the trip discussing the nature of God with my Dad, working out Jumbles and crossword puzzles with surprising interest and aptitude, downing green chile and old memories in equal measure. Just a moment ago, I landed, and already the plane station looms with its promise to whisk me back away. The tighter I hold on, the more sure I become of the need to step back, relax, put it all in context. Watch my Mom knitting in the comfy corner chair. Pull the threads.

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The Use of Energy

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

Today, after watching some thrilling but ultimately disappointing World Cup matches, I wanted to start editing my book and I was also hungry. I considered walking in to town, but a thunderstorm was predicted for the afternoon and my hunger was threatening to derail me on the roadside en route to food. I decided to drive to Zorba’s, a falafel place (I’m sure they have other food, but it’s a falafel place to me) and then take that food to the Princeton Campus Club, a repossessed former eating club just off the Princeton campus.

Zorba’s was doing its usual middling business, but the PCC was a ghost town. The three floors of gigantic rooms were completely empty, though the building had been unlocked. And blasting away throughout was the air conditioning, cooling the outside humid 85 degrees to something more like 70 amid much noisemaking. At least the lights were off for the most part.

I ate my falafel in silence while reading a bit of Madness and Civilization, then threw away the bag it had come in and the wrapper and the chip bag, able to recycle the class bottle of Orangina I’d had. Then I went upstairs to the PCC Library, which was just as cool, and cracked into editing The Best of All Possible Worlds for the first time, completing 5% of it while there.

I spent maybe an hour and a half in the building all told. No one came, no one left. The air conditioning persisted through every room of the gargantuan club, a place that may sit idle for days at a time, though they’re keeping it open till midnight or two in the morning apparently. Just trying to make it comfortable in case someone comes in to enjoy the hallowed halls of what someone built as an alternative to eating with the proletarian Princeton students in the regular dining halls.

There are times when I think that I might be a bit too cynical about the hope for change on this planet. When I might underestimate what one single individual without power or fame or voice can do to stem the tide of immense corporate waste and collective mismanagement. Then there are days like today, when I find myself to be a bit naive, all told, in comparison to the real depth of the state of things.

On my way home, I drove by a dying squirrel, flattened and twitching on its back in the roadway.

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Public Service Announcement

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

If you haven’t seen it already, please immediately proceed to your local video/DVD rental dispensary, be it brick-and-mortar or online, and watch “The Corporation”. If you have to, download it from somewhere. I’m sure the movie’s creators wouldn’t mind.

It apparently came out in 2003, but it looks like it was just produced yesterday. If anything, its being seven years old justifies a little bit of its naivete in places, though it usually counterbalances this with an appropriate amount of cynicism. It prominently features Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and Naomi Klein. It has probably never been more relevant than it is right now, in the wake of the BP spill, at a time when it seems like many are starting to understand the depths of the problems innate to capitalism.

Unless, you know, it gets more relevant in 2011 and 2012. Which I’m afraid it will.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled Thursday night.

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It’s Outrage Time

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

Something snapped when I saw that bird picture. It looks like my Dad had a similar experience. I bet you did too. The series of heartbreaking photos capturing a generation of pelicans whose deaths are just the opening salvo in a slaughter of untold proportions unfolding on the Gulf Coast.

It’s of little significance when compared to the American slaughter of Afghans and Iraqis, but it’s still something. It’s something to consider that if the oil keeps gushing till August or December, as they’re saying now, that maybe every single beach in the world will somehow be impacted by the endless stream of our greed for petroleum. This isn’t something esoteric about the future, ten, twenty years. Not even as debatable as global warming or the extinction of species. It’s the end of beaches, coastlines, oceans. For as long as the potential for something like this exists, unchecked, it has every reason to happen repeatedly in the future, until we’ve nothing left to show our children but the few sickly animals we’ve salvaged for zoos, or perhaps the handful of species considered lucky enough to save for ritual slaughter and consumption.

It’s to this end that I’ve made manifest the first thing that struck me when I saw the outstretch-winged pelican, how closely it resembled the flag of its home state. And so I am presenting five new designs of Blue Pyramid Merchandise, not as opportunism so much as an outlet for outrage. I feel better knowing that I’ve been able to convey what I feel in something simple, and that someone else might take small solace in the power of this harnessed anger.

For as has been clear from Duck and Cover lately, clear from anyone thinking carefully about this issue, it’s not about BP. It’s not about the particular company or group of individuals who made this one incident happen. It’s about a system, a way of life, an approach to the Earth and its contents that is innately unsustainable and always has been. The sooner we realize that all drilling is wrong, that all oil companies are doing ill, the sooner we can stop the nonsense of trying to ream one scapegoat while we sow the seeds of tomorrow’s disaster.





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The Goal of Humanity

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

I have long discussed the fact that the goal of humanity, both collectively and individually, is to overcome human nature. That basically everything we consider to be harmful and undesirable is derived from the baser instincts of human beings and that, at the point of sentience, the goal of people should be to stop evolving and to start making mental, philosophical, and moral transformations based on rational thought.

It shouldn’t be a controversial perspective, but it seems remarkably un-universal, especially given the recent surge of belief in science, physicalism, and a reductionist materialist view of the world. So many people now seem to argue that there are great benefits of our human nature and natural instincts, that trying too hard to control or convert the hedonistic nature of our animal selves will create more problems than its solves. Of course, these people tend to put happiness at the keystone position of their ethos and seem particularly ill equipped to explain how humanity is going to make any progress in the fields of moral or rational thought.

I am writing all this now because I recently found one of the most brilliant articles ever on this issue, which makes the case for my perspective more succinctly than I tend to, and in a way more befitting of mainstream appeal. You can read the article here now. Be forewarned, it’s longish, but the details matter and it’s length is sort of part of the point anyway.

The article is more concretely about patience and the ability of people, largely young children, to delay gratification. The case constructed by the psychologists in the various studies profiled in the article is that people’s willpower and ability to distract themselves into changing their own motivations – the essence of self-control – is perhaps a larger factor for success in humans than intelligence itself. And that where intelligence feeds self-control and vice versa, the most essential building blocks to fulfillment and self-actualization are to be found.

I have been telling a lot of people lately that the difference between my ability to write multiple novels in a year (not done yet, but looking awfully promising at this point) or hold down jobs while impressing my employers on the one hand, and being homeless and destitute and an utter failure on the other hand, is entirely because of my ability to fabricate meaning for deadlines in my own head. I mean this statement completely sincerely – the most important skill I have devised in my life has been the ability to believe in an arbitrary date and accord all the significance in the universe to it. Throughout high school and college, I never missed a single deadline for a single class (except for the one I deliberately failed, of course, but that was its own little experiment with self-control), because I convinced myself that doing so would lead to immediate failure, expulsion, and possibly death. I played an extensive eight-year game of chicken with my consciousness, starting papers later and later, studying less and less, but I still turned everything in the minute it was due, without fail.

This has of course translated into me being able to motivate myself for artificial deadlines (imposed by self or others) at work and especially in my new free-form writing life. I thrive on deadlines, at least when they’re realistic. I feel a great deal of adrenaline around the approach of a deadline, the elation of getting things done, and every successfully met deadline has worked as an extra bulwark for both the need for me to continue making them and as a positive motivation from the pure euphoria I feel when they are met.

I don’t think I ever deliberately tried to create this spirit about deadlines, but the article above corroborates my thesis that this trait alone has kept me off the streets and in a relatively stable place in society. But the most important aspect of the article is the evidence that this can be taught. What’s frustrating about the article is that it then starts to raise doubts about the idea of teaching this kind of self-control and willpower, even though most of the article makes it abundantly obvious that this can be learned, and pretty easily, especially at a young age.

The article also relates the issues of self-control and willpower to drug use and overeating, which are pretty obvious correlations. The fact that I’ve been able to live my entire life without alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs, to control any impulse to try them even once, to be able to rationally evaluate the decision and overcome impulse, is highly linked to the deadline thing. And all of these things are truly essential skills for living a fulfilling life, especially if one is also prone to addictions or falling into long sustained periods of inextricable obsession.

The most disturbing aspect of the article, though, is that it still pays homage to the materialist demons that haunt every aspect of the modern psychological community. The researcher who pioneered the study of willpower through the use of marshmallows, whose thinking has led to such important conclusions about humanity’s struggle to overcome its base nature, is most excited at the moment about… brain scans. He wants MRI’s to spit out little illustrations of the self-control fold in the brain so he can give people drugs or surgery to shortcut them to it.

And here is where I have to part ways with the nature of the experiment. It may be that there seems to be a physical reflection of the phenomenon of being able to believe in arbitrary artificial self-imposed deadlines. And it may not. If it is, it’s still putting the cart before the horse, for the fact is that these things can be taught and that would change the folds of the brain. The entire problem with the materialist approach is that it tries to do things backwards, tries to manipulate people as bodies without giving them the understanding of what they need to change that will build a lasting commitment to the new approach. Even if you could surgically create the folds, there’s a larger chance that they’d just change back and re-alter their brain afterwords. This is why so many people who get major life-changing weight-removal surgeries tend to end up putting the pounds back on, while people who actually train themselves to approach food differently can lose weight and keep it off.

So now the goal of humanity is to not only overcome our human nature, but to ditch our desire for a physical solution to every problem. We’ve long recognized that the human mind is the most complex and fascinating aspect of our world. We should offer it the respect and due diligence it deserves, not try to play Frankenstein to its monster.

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Onward, Hypocritical Soldiers

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

I’m pretty frustrated with the American dialogue about religion. This is nothing new, I guess, but when the supposed super-liberal bastions that are alleged to more occasionally take my side are diametric agents of anger, then it’s time for me to talk about it.

It all started this morning, when this article from late last week caught my eye on Google News. The article in question is on the Huffington Post, the place known for being too liberal for my friend Greg in criticizing Barack Obama from time to time. Anyway, the point of the article is to list ways in which Christians tend to be bad Christians, while all the while touting their Christianity. This seemed like exciting, relevant stuff.

The first one on the list was as follows:

1) Too much money. “Wealthy Christian” should be an oxymoron. In Luke 12:33, Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”

What a great start. I was sure that pacifism would be next on the list.

But instead, most of the rest of the list was about being judgmental, about being holier-than-thou. And interesting critique, and probably valid, but certainly not tops on the list of “Ways Christians Tend to Fail at Being Christian”. And certainly not needing to occupy half the list in repackaged titles like “Too invasive of others generally.” followed by “Too invasive of others personally.” Pacifism, meanwhile, made no appearance on the list.

Which is troubling, because Jesus might be the all-time pioneer of pacifism. Turning the other cheek is not exactly pro-war, nor is loving one’s enemies, one’s neighbors, or blessing the peacemakers. (And by “peacemakers”, Jesus was not referring to missiles.) While I’m not a Christian, it’s arguable that if Christianity really propounded the teachings of Jesus on non-violence, I would be. It would almost be worth the other trappings of organized religion to be associated with such a doctrine.

Of course, that’s not what the modern Church does, especially in the United States, where most congregations set aside a small part of every Sunday to pray for the success of those men and women engaged in killing Iraqis or Afghans. And while it’s obvious that most modern Christians fail to give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and cast as many first stones as they can, the whole supporting murder thing seems just the slightest bit higher up the chain in terms of transgressions.

None of this would be so bad, of course, if I didn’t have to hear the flip side of the hypocrisy on my local NPR station later in the day. On today’s “Talk of the Nation”, they hoped to examine the issue of how to make the disenchanted youth in various American Muslim communities resistant to what they called “Jihad Cool”. But as the last caller aptly pointed out, the story had morphed from an examination of negligent forces inside certain fundamentalist communities to an outright assault on Islam’s tenets as a religion. The main guest, who had recently written a lengthy piece on the wife of the alleged would-be Times Square bomber, waved off this critique and said that Muslims need to recognize they have a chronic problem in all their communities.

So where are the people saying there’s a chronic problem in the Christian communities, the flag-waving groups making their children available as willing foot-soldiers in the imperialistic struggle to claim the Middle East for American corporations? Why don’t we have radio programs explaining that a weird conflation of nationalism and Apocalyptic evangelical fundamentalism has been heavily influencing foreign policy, leading to the slaughter of thousands? Is it because this fundamentally really is just another religious war, just another Crusade draped in supposedly secular flags?

Maybe it’s because the alleged terrorists getting caught up in alleged jihad never actually kill anyone, but they do it locally. While the people who drive to work in America and then direct the actions of lethal drone planes half a world away kill hundreds, usually innocent, but do so in a region so esoteric and physically distant that it feels more like a video game than a war.

It’s time to pray, all right. But not for the reasons you might think.

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Democracy Done (Mostly) Right

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

If you believe there’s a world outside of the United States and you’re somewhere you can be reading this blog today, you’re probably aware of the fact that there was a parliamentary election in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland yesterday. And it’s resulted in a hung parliament, meaning that no one party got a majority.

How can this be possible, ask Americans, those incapable of believing there are more than two parties? Because not only are there three substantial parties in the UK, each garnering more than 20% of the nationwide popular vote, but there are actually 10 parties who earned seats in the British parliament this go-round. And three more who had a seat, but lost it. Plus a true independent, unaffiliated from any party.

For decades, the only independents able to win seats in the American Congress have been those who drop their major-two-party affiliation after establishing a long career. The lone possible exception to this is Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, a Social Democrat who knows well enough to run as a straight independent in our system. Because apparently voting in large blocs for a third party is as appealing as hemlock for the American public.

What about the British system engenders this kind of vibrance in their democracy? Part of it must surely be involved with the proliferation of nationalist factions in different regions of the country. Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales each have a seat-winning nationalist party that advocates moving toward dissolution with the mother country, one of them to the point where they refuse to even take the seats that they win. But this isn’t the whole story. There are other factional parties, even the Greens, who win seats in Parliament. And there are three enormous parties who get to share the national stage.

One could argue that part of it is about the size of the constituency. The average MP represents 75,000 people, while the average US Representative votes on behalf of 650,000. That’s pretty much a scale of magnitude difference and ensures the people with particular local or factional appeal are left out of the system altogether. And while it’s hard to imagine a US Congress housing thousands of representatives, maybe an intermediary body could be forged to give a more robust voice to the people.

Granted, there are significant issues with the British system as well. For one, the fact that the Prime Minister stems directly out of the parliamentary majority means that people must choose between prioritizing their local representative over their Prime Minister selection or vice versa, if they prefer respective candidates from different parties. They may love their local Labour MP and want Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems to take over 10 Downing Street and they are forced to choose between these desires. Not ideal.

Additionally, the lack of proportional representation in favor of regional apportionment means that the relative influence of parties is often grossly misrepresented. This is most obviously illustrated by those Liberal Democrats in 2010, who earned 23% of the vote and just 9% of the seats. Meanwhile, the Conservatives got 47% of seats for just 36% of the vote and Labour won 40% with only 29%. The only argument I can see against proportional representation is the idea that it will limit the influence of specific regions or constituent areas.

But this argument fails on face empirically. Most of the specific regional parties would actually increase their influence under prop rep. For example, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 6 seats, but would be awarded 11 under proportional representation. In fact, every party winning seats would still win seats under that system, plus four more. And people would have even more reason to vote for smaller parties, knowing their vote would count no matter where they voted or what the status of their constituency might be.

So there’s a lot to be learned from the British system, as well as much that could be improved. I think my ultimate bottom line is that we rebelled from a system with more robust democracy to create our own. Granted, the colonies weren’t being particularly enfranchised at the time, but we could’ve waited to be part of a system with a double-digit number of contentious parties. And such a system, when it produces hung parliaments like this year, ensures that every tiny party could potentially be able to get enormous concessions from the major power players.

It’s almost enough to make you start dredging the waters for tea as well as oil.

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Thursday Round-Up

Categories: A Day in the Life, Just Add Photo, Let's Go M's, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , , , ,

From time to time, I feel the need to post a rambly cattle-call of happenings in my life and links around the web. I should start designating a day to do this and making it something like a regular feature, but that would probably require me approaching this blog with the discipline of a professional columnist.

  • It seems I don’t write much about politics here anymore, largely because of the twin forces of Duck and Cover and TMR getting first crack at my political musings. I almost cross-posted this commentary on Obama’s lack of Socialism here, but instead I’m just linking it. Enjoy.
  • As promised yesterday, I recently put up the APDA Nats brackets for 2010, complete with results of submitted brackets from current APDAites. (Those distant from debate should note that this is not how APDA Nats is actually structured, but a hypothetical based on the NCAA basketball tourney.) This hasn’t generated as much discussion that’s gotten back to me as I expected, but I’ve heard rumors that people are still enjoying it from afar. Given that I’m on a bid to become Tab Director of Nats 2011, this will probably be the last of these I do for a while… it seems a little weird for people involved in the Nats tab staff to publish a ranking of debaters partaking at that tournament, which is why I didn’t do one in 2007.
  • The last two M’s games have been amazing. I missed the Tuesday game because I was doing prep work with the Rutgers team for Nats, but yesterday’s was a real gem. I am a huge fan of the new additions to the team, including the fact that Milton Bradley seems to be happy and ready to produce for this team. But Chone Figgins is threatening to become my favorite Mariner. Between the steals and the walks, he reminds me of Rickey Henderson so much it’s ridiculous. And I loved Rickey Henderson. But he seems to have even less of an ego than Rickey, which was the latter’s one annoying trait. Then again, Chone isn’t exactly contending for the all-time steals title.
  • Did, in fact, get our taxes in on-time, yesterday. We do owe both states a little money, and TaxAct scammed us out of more money than they should have. But it’s done and the Feds owe us a lot.
  • I wonder if the West will characterize this bombing as “freedom fighting” while everyone else utilizing these methods are “terrorists”.
  • My mental state and health have continued to be somewhat subpar in recent weeks. The main issues seem to be a general feeling of dissociative malaise and surreality that may just be endemic to April, and also migraines. I’ve been averaging about 4 migraines a week, an astounding spike in frequency that seems inexplicable when observing normal triggers and factors. This combines uncomfortably with this dreamlike sense of reality that’s overtaken much of my last 2-3 weeks, which may partially be related to the subject matter of the current novel I’m working on. (Though I haven’t been working nearly as much as I’d like, but I’m mostly doing plot work to enable really cramming on output in the next month or so.) I feel largely like I’ve been looking at my life from 30,000 feet, or at least 30 feet, watching myself live instead of actually being in a first-person view. It’s strange and makes me sound completely nuts. I’m not completely nuts. I just feel more like I’m living through a filter than that I’m actually fully here. I sort of feel that this reality is all illusory anyway and that life’s core realities are a little like our souls playing a video game (but with meaningful consequences) on this planet, so maybe I’m just more aware of that reality.
  • The other explanation for the above issues, of course, may be that there’s something seriously wrong with my brain. I’m inclined to think otherwise, but it’s good to keep all the possibilities in mind. I’ve told Emily to keep an eye out for me behaving really erratically or out of character, which would be indicative of a possible brain tumor. I’m not actually that worried, though, because the migraine symptoms have been so classic. (Though such symptoms also mirror those of tumors and aneurysms somewhat.) The other factor that I entertained was that I was somehow drinking decaf coffee – that the batch of Folgers I’m working through is either mislabeled or contaminated somehow. Because honestly, foggy worldview, increased tiredness, and more migraines could all be explained by caffeine deficiency too.
  • Debate Nationals this weekend – always one of the most exciting times of the year. I’ve attended 7 of the last 11 nationals prior to this one and this weekend will make 8 of 12. For all that I probably should feel a little strange about being so old and having seen so much on APDA, I really feel nothing of the sort. I think I’ve been in the work world long enough to understand just how meaningful and valuable I find the APDA community to be, to treasure how rare its intellectuality is. I’ve been thinking a little about how much work I’ve put in to the Rutgers team, all unpaid, and realizing that I don’t see any of it as a chore. I think this is what it would be like to really love one’s job, because I do it all voluntarily. I’ve worked for organizations I truly love before, but never felt this way about the actual work. If the writing doesn’t work out, I need to figure out a way to swing professional debate coaching. Possibly in Africa.

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April Come She Will

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , , ,

New image up top. Refresh the page if you can’t see it. If you still can’t see it, well, here it is below:

One of the subtler overall changes on the page, going with a relative simplicity that reflects my effort to refind some focus. I’m not that far off, not all over the place, but still not quite as centered as I’d like to be. Ever since I got back from Virginia (all of 48 hours ago), I’ve felt a bit foggy, rather dissociative. As though this is all a big dream I’m about to snap awake from. Not all of it, as in the last 30 years, but all of it, maybe most of the last 48 hours. It’s odd.

Of course, in part, it’s April. Every April, I get to thinking and hoping that maybe it won’t be so bad, so strange, so despondent. Most Aprils, I have to remember that there’s a reason I have this whole time-is-a-place theory going. This time round, at least, I have two insanely busy debate weeks back-to-back to keep me distracted. And then it’ll be time to enter the home stretch of a book that feels like it’s not quite off the ground yet. This month may yet prove to me that two books a year is a more reasonable expectation than three.

But I’m still hoping otherwise.

This past weekend was pretty debate-heavy as well, if only because it takes about 13 hours to drive round-trip to and from Charlottesville, home of one of the better campuses in its absolute peak time. Arriving in Virginia under an 88-degree sky was pretty much just what I needed at the time and I thoroughly enjoyed the tournament there, in no small part because of Rutgers’ great successes. Not only did Dave break for the second straight weekend and the third in the last six, but our newest novices were second novice team and both made the top ten novice speakers. And Dave & Chris managed to establish that they own 7th place, having finished exactly 7th all three tournaments they attended together. One could do a lot worse, especially for a junior-freshman duo. The tournament also just managed to be a bunch of fun, I got to judge many good rounds, and everyone was generally in high spirits. Although the less said about Friday night the better – suffice it to say that it’s easy to block out the worse parts of college over time and thus even harder to when they’re re-presented to you.

The only good thing about April, consistently, other than debate Nats I guess, is the start of baseball season. And what a great start it was today, with the M’s almost coughing up a win only to demonstrate they might have enough offense this year after all. Watching Chone Figgins and Casey Kotchman come through so consistently was great. I am going to have a lot of fun watching this team run this year. It was all almost enough to make up for the heartbreaking NCAA Finals, though that itself was such a great game. And both of these were big uppers compared to the amazing but horrifying video that Russ has up on TMR.

That video was on its way to sending me into quite the tailspin. If you don’t want to make the jump or want to know what you’re getting into first, it’s basically 40 minutes of American military chatter about 11 unarmed civilians that were slaughtered in a 2007 incident the US denied knowledge of until very recently. This is followed toward the end by a triple-missile attack on a building that also seems filled with civilians. It’s perhaps the most chilling piece of video I’ve ever seen in my life. As bad as it is to watch 11 people killed (and trust me, one sees them shot and killed), it’s probably worse to hear the live reaction from the people committing the murders. In some ways it feels like a vindication of all the things I say about people in that situation, but I’d really rather just be wrong. Perhaps most compelling of all is the vision of the blurry lines between video games and reality for a whole generation of American soldiers. The whole situation, from the dialogue to the monochrome target-screen, has the look and feel of a sophisticated first-person shooter (I mean, think about that phrase as a genre of video game on face there for a second) and one gets the sense that the people killing can’t quite get over the psychic break between the surrealistic setting and the fact that what they’re doing is all too real. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking; maybe they know full well and are just that awful and/or manipulated.

In any event, I’m still struggling with it. It’ll be with me for a long time. It’s encouraging to know that there are people who would post it, who would make it available, who would spread it around, though part of me almost feels like it’s an Orwellian exemplification of how much can be gotten away with. Still mulling.

The cat’s sick and we took her to the vet, who knew no more about why she was sneezing and wheezing than they do about my migraines. But they gave her some medication, just like me, and wished her the best. There was a lot else on my list to do today, but I only did about three other things. My brain refuses to be still and yet won’t move quickly either. It’s pickling in a jar, just for a time, letting itself soak up the brine between the folds like some grimy spa catharsis. As though to gird itself for April and all it entails. As though to make the push into the depth of where I need to go to really fulfill The Best of All Possible Worlds.

I don’t like pickles.

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A Fresh Start

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

I don’t want to talk about healthcare today. Not much, anyway. It’s weird to be in a maelstrom of euphoria that seems so unwarranted and unfounded, touched with a counterpoint of ludicrosity almost as bizarre. It’s a little like the day Obama got elected, I guess, except I at least understood that there was potential there (since unrealized) and history in the mere fact of America’s ability to overcome the deepest depths of its historical bigotry. But this? This? This is just alienating.

I watched some of the debate last night on the computer, mostly because Em had it on. I guess I didn’t watch so much as listened, heard the same rhetoric over and over on the lips of one Representative after another. One side, then the other side. One side, then the other. It, like all political discourse, was simply a sorry excuse for debate. If only APDA could show them how it’s done, show them what a real discussion with advancement of ideas and engagement of the opposition’s points looks like. But our opportunity to do that was squandered by a few paranoids who became more concerned that their God-given right to drink on Friday nights might be impinged by documentation of their ability to rise above 99% of elected officials in the ability to cogently discuss an issue. So it goes.

You, unless you’re one of about 3-4 people I could imagine reading this (or you’re not an American), are either euphorically happy today or you think the country you used to love is sliding into socialism. I am baffled in either case. I am baffled at how you could love a healthcare bailout that exchanges a few token sacrifices of the worst health insurance practices of the past for the great unknown of the egregious health insurance practices of the future. As though you can start trusting profit-driven companies once they’re given the free license to do whatever they like (save a couple small things) in the pursuit of free-enterprise on the back of the mandated poor of America. If this bill was so terrible for the health insurance industry, why did stocks go up today? And I’m even more baffled if you equate a requirement that everyone buy something from a private company with socialism. Socialism isn’t some ism word that you can just throw around whenever it suits your purposes. It means something, and it does not mean entrusting everyone’s health and fate to greedy corporations.

Ahem. I didn’t want to talk about healthcare.

I wanted to talk about writing.

Namely, The Best of All Possible Worlds, currently chugging along at a sprightly 48 pages through 18 days of work. Those of you scoring at home may note that this is less than three pages a day, which doesn’t necessarily mean good things for the original deadline of 17 May 2010. (The same pace maintained from here till then would yield 200 pages total by said date, which is a bit on the skimpy side.) At the same time, I’ve had a lot of distractions, including not having the thing mapped out at all. Which is certainly burdensome in some cases, but really exciting in others.

It also must be noted that the equivalent day in the life of American Dream On was 26 June 2002, when the novel was not only well short of 48 pages, but was also two-thirds of a decade shy of completion. And while there’s a chance I will look back ruefully on this post about the best-laid plans for the Best Of, I have reason to believe otherwise. It’s something about that freshness, that not knowing where everything is going.

I mean, I know where it’s going, ultimately – I think it would be pretty challenging to start a book without knowing the ending, more or less. What would be the point? The point might end up being something one disliked, and it takes a pretty apolitical free-thinking writer to be cool with that. No, I know where it’s going in the end. But how precisely it gets there and what happens along the way are largely opaque to me. Or they were on 5 March when it all began.

In the mere two weeks and change (it feels like months, actually, which must be good) since, a lot of the mystery has gotten solved. Things have come to light that seem like the obvious inevitable answer all along. Little loose ends are coming together. And there’s still a majority yet to figure out, but the way things are clicking, I have faith it will all coalesce nicely in no time.

What’s great about this is that, while the location and discipline are the same, the method is quite different from ADO. And yet it’s still working. My biggest concern in abandoning Good God earlier this month was in going off-script, in risking everything to an ad-lib process when I’d enjoyed such success with a paint-by-numbers spreadsheet scheme. And, indeed, this process is even looser than Loosely Based, which was somewhere in between. I had nursed the ideas for LB for less time than the current project, but I had them more fully fleshed at the time of the opening lines. This one is pretty much being made up as I go along.

It’s exciting. That’s really what it comes down to. I remember this conversation I had with Lisha at the Academy about our little ventures into independent English study in sophomore year. Our high school was trying to take its best English students and give them the opportunity to go off-book, to write assignments individually assigned at a higher and specialized pace. We still would go to classes as normal and read the same books as everyone else for discussion, but then do independent analyses or creative projects on the side. She was working with Pat Scanlon and I with Eric Moya – I forget if anyone else was doing this, but I think there was at least one more person. Served us all right for turning in extra short stories and papers to our prior year’s English profs.

Anyway, she was talking about a long and arduous conversation with Scanlon about a particular work she’d turned in for the independent study and related that he’d lamented her inability to find writing to be fun. And then Lisha and I digressed into a long sidebar about what it would mean for writing to be fun in the sense the prof meant. What it came down to, as I recall, was that nothing in an academic setting like that could be fun in the sense Scanlon wanted to elicit. That there was something innate to the academic context, to exterior-imposed deadlines and requirements, the necessitated bludgeoning most of the enjoyment out of the process. Even in an independent study.

The Academy abandoned the project and we resumed normal classes the next year. I would resume the debate about academic bludgeoning of writing with many more people and went on to a four-year college career without taking a single class in the English department.

Writing this novel is fun. I am having fun. Not fun-relative-to-other-things. Not fun-for-writing-which-is-quite-a-chore. Honest to God fun. Like playing a video game fun. Debating fun.

Not debating on the House floor fun. Real debate fun. Just to clarify.

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Why I Don’t Believe in Representative Government

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

Forty-seven million Americans are without health insurance. Why? Because they can’t afford it.

And what’s Washington’s solution? Require people to buy private insurance with the government providing a subsidy to the health insurance companies.

What a pathetic state of affairs that our national government cannot respond to the needs of the people and must first respond to the needs of Wall Street and the health insurance industry and their stock prices.

-Dennis Kucinich, 21 January 2010, e-mail to supporters

Ah, politicians I once believed in. I hardly knew ye. The last bastion, the last hope, he has abandoned me.

Bill Richardson? Long gone. Barbara Lee? Recently departed. Dennis Kucinich? Et tu?

In case you don’t like politics or the US or healthcare (and don’t subject yourself to them daily anyway as part of some scheme to at least keep a cartoon going, you should know before we go further that Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich flipped his stance on the healthcare bailout. He’s now voting for it.

Not only is this a big deal for Kucinich and his few fans like me, many of whom (not me) were pouring money into his 2010 reelection campaign for being the only spiny liberal left in the country, but it’s done something almost no other Kucinich headline has been able to do: grab the top billing on American news outlets. Not near the top or up there, but A#1. If only his resolution to end the War in Afghanistan could have done the same.

Despite the words that headline this post, Kucinich today sent an e-mail reversing his decision and noting that Obama and Pelosi helped convince him that moving in some direction, any direction, on healthcare was more important than standing up for ideals, progress, or the progress of ideals.

Of course he didn’t use those words. He waxed on about his past concerns and noted that he wasn’t totally assuaged. He discussed the need for further pushing, knowing full well that there will be no further pushing for anything if and when a healthcare bailout package actually passes. He talked about how torn he was, what a struggle this vote was. But yet, he had been convinced.

We may never know what actually tipped the scales for Mr. Kucinich. It may have been a threat, it may have been a promise. But the problem is that Kucinich, like every other person in government, has things they care about more than representing their constituents, more even than representing their ideals. Everyone has a price. Maybe Obama said he wouldn’t run anyone against Kucinich in the primary, eliminating his need for all those campaign contributions. Maybe he threatened to run ads blaming Kucinich for every person who doesn’t have healthcare in America in the future, because we all know that not supporting a busted broken solution makes you automatically responsible for every problem said solution wouldn’t solve anyway. Who knows? The point is that when you have fallible vulnerable individuals in positions of power, they are susceptible to pressure. And they cave.

Just as Bill Richardson, one-time peace negotiator, found ways to explain proliferation of militant US hegemony to the UN. Just as Barbara Lee found it in her heart to reverse her vote on the bank bailout, something even Kucinich wouldn’t stoop to. But now he’s found his selling point.

This vote isn’t even about healthcare, really. It is a little. But it’s frankly more about his Afghanistan resolution. The point is that selling out the left has to cost Obama something. If it doesn’t, he can continue to embrace Bush-administration policies with impunity. If Obama wins healthcare and every single far-left member of his own party supports it, then all is lost. It’s a blank check for Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe even for Iran when the time comes. It’s tacit approval of any direction he wants to take the party. No matter how centrist, how hawkish, how corporation-friendly, Obama will be able to count on the vote of the (actually!) Socialist Senator from Vermont and the pacifist vegan Representative from Ohio. At which point, there’s really no point.

I still have hope that the healthcare bailout will fail, despite even the most pseudo-radicals of the Democratic Party getting in line. It’s not because I want people to suffer or because I don’t think access to humane treatment and medicine is a basic human right. It’s because no corporate giveaway in human history compares to the mandate that people be legally required to purchase something so expensive as health insurance from a private profit-driven corporation. And nothing would impact price escalation so steeply as to offer such guaranteed demand with no corresponding checks on price. Yes, the private companies would no longer be able to resort to their nastiest tricks in conspiring to kill people. But they also would have nothing preventing them from doubling the cost of their legally necessary product every year either. Especially when their other avenues to profit (those nasty tricks) were being shut down and they could argue that the whole economy would fail if they didn’t raise rates.

Beyond any of these moral issues, it’s a Ponzi scheme. America’s been investing in healthcare stocks like crazy, boosting claims of a recovery, because profiting off of suffering is the only business left in America, via either healthcare or the military. So if we boost up the corporations with a fat deal for them, the stockholders make money. And then they make more money out of squeezing more money out of everyone, who’s mandated to pay, and the only way to offset it is to… invest in more healthcare stocks! Yay. Everybody wins.

I guess I shouldn’t have been so mad at Dennis after all. He’s going to make everybody rich.

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A Thousand Words

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

It’s not exactly people bringing down the statue of Saddam Hussein, but this kind of image is being levied to the American people as a sign of the grand liberation they’re bringing to a backwards and otherwise hopeless land in “the good war.”

But let’s let this picture speak for itself a little, shall we?

First off, we have a major offensive into a town/city that’s been described as ranging from a population of anywhere from 50,000 to 125,000 people. Presumably this is the town square, a patch of green field that may be what fallow poppies look like. If you’re going to have a ceremony for a city this size, it’s safe to say you’d pick a place reflective of the grandness of the city itself. This is a place that makes abandoned pueblos in New Mexico look like thriving modern metropolises.

Where are they hiding all those people?

If you look up Marja, you’ll find a hastily assembled Wikipedia article with no images and a discussion of the 2010 offensive, a vague 1950’s reference, and the latitude/longitude coordinates of 31°31′N 64°07′E. Plug those coordinates into Google Maps and you get an image of a dirt triangle in the middle of green fields like the one in the image above, revealing enough housing for at least 5,000 people scattered over an area the size of a small county. Where did all those people go?

Scroll around a bit and you’ll find an actual city, Laskar Gah, in the northeast of the region. But this is not the city of the offensive, not the site of the resistance, not the area in dispute. South of that is an actual fortress, the ancient stronghold of Qala Bist with its famous arch and corresponding inspirations.

This is not being billed as the war for Laskar Gah, though. It’s a war for poppy fields, like those depicted in our ceremonial flag-raising above. Look at all the guards on each side of the tiny ceremony. Surely they have to guard a formal ceremony in a land known for suicide bombings, right? This makes sense. But, uh, why are they facing toward the crowd rather than away from it? How does that make sense? They’re not guarding against a marauding individual who comes careening in to spoil the party, but rather preparing to gun down anyone in the dense packed crowd who makes a false move.

Which, frankly, doesn’t make any sense either. After all, with the crowd this closely packed, you couldn’t even see into the middle of the crowd. And that’s where a clever suicide bomber would be. With this density and proximity, they’d probably be able to wipe out the whole thing with one explosive. The fact that this didn’t happen indicates there was probably quite a perimeter and possible strip-search at the gates of this gathering. Which makes sense, but then why the inward-pointing guards?

The message of this picture seems clear to me. There just aren’t that many people in Marja, at least not that many who want to be associated with the ancient flag. The flag is fringed with gold, tinged with the blood of civilians who died for an uncertain future, liberated from their lives made miserable by the same invaders who ended it all. Is it any wonder you can’t get more people to come to this party?

There may not be stars and stripes on this flag, but there are wreaths of wheat. The flag waves over the amber waves of grain in the distance, planted to cover up the opium, cover up the still warm bodies of the dead. What if they threw a flag-raising and nobody came?

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