Fight All The Time

The girl and i had a big Saturday.  Ikea, Lowe’s, Market Basket.  A lot to do, we didn’t know if we had time.  What with the ongoing collapse of what we know as civilization and all.  Having purchased our own home we feel, understandably i think, attached to it, and accordingly a bit dismayed upon realizing it’s basically stuck in a country that’s fighting for its soul.

So it’s a hell of a thing to put aside, for the moment, the grim specter of fascism, to concentrate on staying married through the relationship test of a trip to Ikea.  The prisoner needs some kind of storage unit for her orange coveralls, but which one is best?  More drawers, or hangers?  Minimalist, or ultra-minimalist clean Scandinavian design?  And can this clothes rod be fashioned into a shiv by an average teenager?  Somehow we ended this trip having purchased a bed.  A serious piece of furniture weighing 200lbs and requiring five hours and three beers worth of assembly.  We now have a lot invested in this bed, and it seems somehow wrong to flee to Canada.  Sure, it’s possible that brownshirts are going to come for our prisoner someday, on account of her religion (which, to our surprise, turned out to be more than simple devotion to popular accessible-luxury brands), but we just built her this goddamned bed so we’re not leaving.

And that’s before the fucking paint, too.  Oh sure, we rounded out our trip by choosing paint colors.  In a fit of hubris, now we’ve decided to paint things, as if that somehow means that i’m less likely to be sent to reeducation camps for taunting that fascist Milwaukee sheriff one too many times.  “But Herr Kapitan, we just got the bathroom vanity the way we wanted it…”  And we’re finally going to mark our door with something other than black Sharpie (one wonders if we could have afforded the place were someone to have scrubbed it off).  It’s going to be borderline respectable, and now we’re supposed to leave?

So the next day, we built the bed, painted the damn bathroom, briefly attended a beer festival we bought tickets for a month ago, and then went to a protest.  But i’m not gonna lie, it feels weird sometimes to do normal things.  To worry about painting something, or visiting grandparents or in-laws, to wonder if the Revs are going to have a competent backline, or to think about how much i want a cheeseburger, or to worry about building the best thingies i can at work.

There’s a pinch of guilt with all these things, a little sting to remind me that this is complacency, complacency to which we’re all entitled–truly, life does indeed need to go on–but needs to be checked.  If i want to keep my freshly painted door to my new condo in the best city in all the world, it demands this vigilance.  If we ever get too comfortable, too distracted, and go back to our big Saturdays, someday there might not be 200,000 people ready to fight.  And then i’ll have to find someone to move that friggin’ bed, because i promise you i’m not doing it.

On the Decline and Fall

Like the old myth that the fall of Rome was linked to its increasing decadence, there’s a temptation to put your finger on something, some newly epidemic sin of our civilization that presently seems to have us bent on wanton self-destruction.

Lately, if i had to pick something (and i am not so naive as to think that an uptick in generalized global bad-decision-making has one cause), i think i might point the finger not at decadence, but at plain old selfishness, in an increasingly pure form.  Assholery*.

The idea that nothing should stand between You and What You Want Right Fucking Now. As we look forward to a government for and by assholes, maybe it’s good to think about what we mean when we say ‘asshole’.  It’s not just someone who’s mean, someone who insists on getting their way, someone who cheats.  It’s someone who looks at other people around them and sees no reason not to do those things, someone unbound by any need to think of other human beings.

My wife has developed the habit of noting asshole behavior in the wild and just muttering, “Trump’s America.”  An implicit link between those thinking only of themselves and well, the most famous example of same.

A pretty classic example lately is the epidemic running of red lights here in Boston.  On a fifteen-minute bike ride, I generally see half a dozen or more cars enter busy intersections, frequently at high speeds, after their light has gone red.  We’ve all silently learned paranoia of this, but someday some tourist with a walk signal is going to be flattened by an Audi.  I didn’t miss that light and I don’t have to stop.

Obviously, you can also draw a clear line to peoples’ behavior online.  Identified only by an avatar and screen name, even one with their likeness, one that’s undeniably them, for some reason the boundaries of what’s okay have expanded outward and grown more pungent like heated flatulence.  There’s no line.  No one listens to any voice saying, “sure, go ahead and flirt with that nebulously female-seeming player, but don’t threaten rape when she beats you.”  No one concedes a point, no one accepts another side of an argument, it just ends in shouting and worse. I didn’t lose, you didn’t beat me, you couldn’t have because you’re less than me.

Hell, it even shows up in our entertainment and play.  Hugely popular YouTube feeds that are about nothing but one personality insulting another one over some perceived slight.  Walking on stage at an awards show to declare someone else the winner.  Moaning in the locker room about how “the better team lost”.  More personally, swinging elbows and studs-up tackling in rec league soccer, just because you were beat to the ball but didn’t feel like accepting it.  Cultural norms, general decency, actual codified rules are minor obstacles, transgressions that sound worse than they are, especially when you do it all the time.  You haven’t beaten me, and you won’t because you’re not willing to do what I’m willing to do.

And we get the government that we deserve.  Sometime in what, 2000?  Sometime, Republicans decided, then discovered that they didn’t have to lose anymore.  When beaten in a fair fight, no one was going to actually hold them accountable for turning it into an unfair fight.  No one was going to remind them that they lost, so long as they just kept acting like they won.  So they had the Supreme Court make one of them President even though he lost.  They defied the next, popular, decisively elected President in increasingly strident ways and no one called them on it.  They brazenly set to tipping every last playing field in their table, knowing this was required for them to win, and despite countless articles, no one says ‘stop’ in a way that makes them listen.

Because they’re rewarded for it.  Assholes win.  Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.  Victories against them only come with extreme, embarrassing failure, or even more extreme transgression, both of which tend to have significant side effects for the rest of us, and even these defeats are only temporary, because assholes do not have shame.

We’ve all just become a little bit more awful.  Our civilization has evolved to the point where we’ve all learned that we’re ill-equipped to truly stop someone who flouts rules both hard and soft, and our leaders become the people who are most willing to do that most often. We get exactly the civilization, the leadership we deserve, then.

Government for and by assholes.

*note that i don’t necessarily intend this in the Team America sense, although theirs also remains a good point.

On the wrong side of history

In the middle of all our angst about which Republican is actually the worst possible option, whether the fascist or the bible-humper is worse, or who is most likely to fiddle while the seas rise, or who’s going to get more of us shot, or spend more of our treasure blowing up the wrong people on the other side of the world, or pick a stupid fight with someone bigger, or disenfranchise more people, or nuke the economy, or… i find myself wondering if maybe, for all our talk of these things not being what America Is About, maybe I and people who think like me are the ones who are the outliers.

So many things have bubbled up to the surface in the last few years, things that we thought we were ‘better than’, things that we repeated cliches about–how it’s just a small group of bad actors and not indicative of the fine people of whatever town systematically discriminated or whatever state poisoned the water supply.  What if we’re not better than that?  What if that’s actually us?  What if the American capacity for empathy, generosity, and respect for people who aren’t us has been found, and found wanting?

The fact that at any given time, 40% of the country is going to vote for a Republican president, no matter how loathsome they are means that whether or not you personally think poor people don’t deserve clean water if it costs too much, you’re willing to live with that because your taxes simply cannot go up.  Or perhaps it’s so important that your exurb is protected from terrorism that thousands need to be barred from the country on the off chance that someone thinks they might be one.  Or that if one undocumented immigrant commits one crime, it’s best to keep them all out and that you’re willing to throw in with homophobes to get that done.

Nearly half the country thinks any one of the buffet of Scary Things on offer at the Republican table is so bad that awful things need to be done, and that that scary thing is so important that it is worth endorsing all the other awful things to do about all the other peoples’ scary things.  And they’re committed, as evidenced by the extent to which our national discourse has turned into the Herald’s comments section.

i sure wish i could say that those of us on the other side were as committed, as unified.  Is it because we’re complacent, having assumed for so long that progress progresses?  Are we balkanized, instead–how motivated are union members for a candidate who’s passionate about gun control, for instance?  Is it just plain harder, harder to sell and harder to live a platform that necessarily involves the upfront costs of sharing and tolerance of disagreement?

Or are we just outnumbered?

Is it possible that progressives are just not destined to win, even that we shouldn’t win, because in truth we’re outnumbered?  Is this is a selfish, paranoid, cynical country and are we merely a blue archipelago at the mercy of the angry sea of red?  Maybe in November, these guys win a fair* fight and we’ve just got to accept that this is what the country wanted.

Then we get to stop pretending we’re better than this and just need to be reminded, and learn how to address the fact that deep down, we aren’t.


* Here, i mean a Citizens United, voter-suppression kind of ‘fair’

Ain’t No Valley Low…

Back in the heady days of 2014, this new app came out, which offered a nice, clean way to steal extra change from everyday transactions, and not just save it for you, but invest it.  With low fees, and professional management, the idea would be that you have a frictionless investment tool with the same incrementing-every-day features of some savings accounts.  Already a big fan of hiding money from myself, i jumped at it.

A year and a half later, here’s how we’re doing:

Investment "Performance" over a year

After starting well, nosediving, then flirting again with break-even a couple months ago, it’s plunging headlong into the porcelain depths right now.  And i don’t necessarily care.  It’ll rebound, won’t it, and it’s short, hidden money, even if that $119.91 would buy a lot of $8 beers, since we live in a world where that is normal now.

No, the reason i have a morbid fascination with this is that it’s a little tiny canary, not chirping, but hacking with an ominous cough.  It’s reminding me that the same capricious engine of other peoples’ wealth and my empty promises is what we’re all building our retirement upon.

Every three or six months, i imagine lots of us get a satisfyingly substantive envelope from our assorted 401k and IRA providers.  Maybe if you have a fancy one, it’s in color and has nice pie charts.  And it tells you how your investments have done.

Don’t know about you, but mine ain’t done shit.  Sure, we all got nut-punched in 2008.  Comically large losses that we compared notes on grimly and laughed, because we were in our early 30’s and who gives a fuck?  Years later, it seems more clear that these investments aren’t some stone edifice in a dignified part of New York, they’re a Jenga tower built on landfill–they take rather long time to climb, but no time at all to crash down.

And sure, these things have their ups and downs but the trend is up, right?  And with Professional Management, the amplitude of the latter is reduced, right?  Or is it that the slightest bid of bad news causes these people to shit their Brooks Brothers over a rounding error in their vast fortunes?

The frequency and severity of this pants-shitting means that the retirement savings of millions of middle-class Americans runs an unnecessary risk of just standing still.

Why in the everloving hell did we hitch our wagon to this cracked-out team of bargain-basement oxen that freak and keel over at the first river to be forded?  i think we know why.  i can’t help but wonder if i’m not watching for the recovery, but to see just how far downstream i get swept.

What i don’t know is what to do about it.  Other than pop open an app on my phone and laugh about my own money, being made pretend.

Team Fight Song

When i stop and think about it, i vacillate between being bored and fascinated with a lot of the news stories of our time.

It makes me wonder just how people get so wrapped up in it, so consumed with passion for an issue that all perspective is lost and they become willing to say or even do anything to win a point for their side.

This past Thanksgiving weekend, the family offsite was held near State College, Pennsylvania.  A cute little college town with a big football habit.  A football habit that is so ingrained, so passionate, that it plainly overrides other natural tendencies, such as condemning those who aid and abet child molesters.  How is that relevant to what i’m driving at here?  Because a population so obsessively dedicated to one cause for decades can get to this dangerous line of thinking.  Sure, abusing children is bad, but we’ve gotta think about how this looks for Blue.

Sure, twenty children shot in cold blood is bad, but it can’t be the guns’ fault, ’cause that’d be so bad for Red.

Blowing random people up with drones makes me squeamish, but if big Blue says it’s okay then we’ve got to live with it.

But the excuse-making, despicable as it is, is just the final product; how did we even get here?  i mean, how many of us go through our days and (possibility of getting shot up notwithstanding) worry about whether or not you’ll still be able to buy big clips of ammunition?  Is abortion really a daily concern that’s more important than others?  Does our policy towards Israel really sit at front of mind when you wake up in the morning?  Don’t get me wrong, these are important issues, and we’d be poorer for it if there wasn’t passionate support or opposition in these matters.

But these days i wonder, weary as i am of so many of these issues, are we as a society angry about them over the substance, or angry in the name of the overall narrative of our side winning or losing?  Like being up in arms about a pipeline in the middle of nowhere.  Or a poor vegetative woman in a hospital bed?  Would we be pretending to be terrified of and protesting the welcoming of soaked, bedraggled women and children from the middle east if Red didn’t make boring, page three news about poor foreign people into page one news about scary, known Muslims?

Maybe thinking about these issues as zero-sum wins and losses for your side is what’s helped lead us to this position where intransigence is the order of the day.  A formerly tenuous peace where reasonable-yet-opposed people could understand abortions might be the only thing in some truly awful situations has become a situation where unwanted ultrasounds and denial in all circumstances are trotted out in an all-out war effort against.  Or the reason that ideologically, taxes must only ever go down even as things that we all agree are important languish unfunded.  Compromise is like a tie, and you know who likes ties?  Soccer fans, and liking soccer is like being French.  Oh wait, we like the French now.

And what’s this say about the rise of Trump?  Is he the red team’s Ray Rice or Barry Bonds?  Intolerable, except to the extent that he plays for your team and is winning.  His ideas are objectively horrible and impressively impractical and logically inconsistent, but if you want red to win, maybe they’ve got to become your ideas, too.

It’s one thing for a politician to say anything to win; at least half of us are worse than that–we’re willing to listen to anything to win.

This doesn’t lead anywhere good.

“I seem to be in a small, dark, metal pond with slightly warm water…”

…reports the frog from inside a pot.

It’s not like Donald Trump, ‘politician’, this current incarnation emerged fully formed a few months ago. This jaw-droppingly embarrassing exponent of American politics is a product of years and years of our defining down what is acceptable to do to fellow citizens or to say to or about fellow human beings.

There have been a few articles in the last few years about the disappearance of George W. Bush from the election conversations subsequent to his presidency, but what’s striking about that not-so-long-ago period is how far we’ve come in that short time, how comparatively not-so-bad this aspect of life was under Bush.

i feel like we’ve totally reinvented, redefined, and reinvigorated racism in the last 10 years. When Obama was elected, i really had a gnawing fear of some ignorant gun-loving racist getting to him somewhere along the way. Naturally, i think we’re all glad that didn’t happen (aside: i wonder if there’s any metrics on the number of threats to a sitting President, and is there a hockey-stick spike in 2009? It doesn’t seem like a good omen that Wikipedia has a whole page on threats throughout history, but Obama gets his own.), but what’s happened apart from that is inarguably even more dispiriting.

Six years later, it’s okay to call human beings ‘illegals’, as if that’s the sum of all other descriptors. We look back and laugh at birtherism, but only because he showed us his damn birth certificate to all us racist assholes. We’re taking away the right to vote, insidiously. Even when we let brown people vote, we gerrymander their districts into dilute, pale shadows of their real influence. No wonder there’s no oversight on police departments, and their policy of recruiting, then arming, the most racist bully you forgot about from high school.

Point is, we woke up last year when Ferguson happened, and said holy crap, has this been happening all along? Sure it has, but it’s also getting worse. Because we’ve engineered ways to enshrine our racism in the in polite conversation, in public discourse, in the media, and in the law. The reason that the way is clear for this to get worse is that we’ve found a way to convince ourselves it isn’t, to make xenophobia reasonable, and racist acts seem sad-but-necessary .

Where do we go from here? Somewhere worse.

The Age of Assholery

Smarter people than me have attempted to define just what is meant when you call someone an asshole. To me it’s not just single-minded self-centeredness and lack of consideration, it’s the pride that’s taken in it, the expectation, nay, demand that you be celebrated for your unswerving pursuit of whatever it is you want to be doing that day, that you and you alone embody perfect alignment of what you want and some Higher Purpose.

It’s not like assholes are anything new, of course, but it’s now, more than in centuries past, that they’re not just ascendant, but increasingly impossible to unseat, with new and more powerful tools to consolidate power or escape consequences. Everybody and everything has a constituency, and as long as you’re making them happy and they’re buttressing whatever you’re doing, no condemnation or punishment really deters you, it’s just the next talking point in the shouting match. It just proves you right and incites some idiot to do whatever the next awful thing they can justify to themselves is.

This is the sort of world where nobody is surprised by awfulness anymore, not really, not long enough to outlast the first day or so of tweets and wall-to-wall news coverage. Before long, some asshole who went and shot 23 kids has given the assholes who want to have guns all the time and everywhere momentum, not a death blow, because the assholes who want that shouted about it louder and better than the assholes like me who want to take everyone’s guns away.

The sort of world where assholes can go burn down a town of 2,000 people to make their point that their god is the best god because he considers barbarism preferable to girls learning math. And that nothing can be done about those assholes because that country exports too much oil, and that we sapped our will to do things like that ten years ago when we were assholes about going after someone who probably wasn’t the most important asshole out there.

It’s this destabilization, this feedback loop of assholery that’s most dispiriting about it. The evidence that the low road just fucking works better is sort of compelling. Spying on people with all means available and blowing them up with cheap killer robots is pretty darned great. Using the fuckload of money you already have to fix elections, then fix the laws so you can permanently be rich and permanently install like-minded assholes in government works really well.

And the engineer in me can’t argue with what works, with what the system clearly bears out. Money, guns, and ruthlessness win. They win every time and in so doing, they sow the seeds of domination. Money ensures that even after the trauma of the Great Recession, it’s but a handful of years before the reins are loosed on the people that caused it, because they have the money to buy permission to make gobs more instead of merely a lot more. The people with the guns and the willingness to point them at people get to seize a town in the name of their religion or whatever, because they’re enough of an asshole to be willing to express their disgruntlement in a way that makes it everyone else’s problem.

You could equally say that the problem is meekness. The meekness of liberals in general and Obama as an embodiment of it, to naively offer to hear both sides of the argument, to hang onto the expectation that the other side will argue in good faith and that both need consensus to declare victory. Assholes from the lunatics in Congress to the maniacs who shoot children (note that i do not make an equivalency between the expression of their assholery, only their common attitude towards anyone with a differing opinion, which is, in short, “fuck ’em”) walk all over us because we are not willing to buy enough congressmen to get universal pre-K, or coverage for pre-existing conditions, nor are we willing to shoot people for the right to have a boring day at a boring job in a small town and go to some church or mosque of our choosing. Our simple, reasonable needs are stakes that nobody’s willing to take prisoners over, figuratively or literally.

It’s no surprise, then, that people with unreasonable desires achieve them through unreasonable means, and then try to convince everybody it was otherwise after the fact.

So is that it? Sometimes it feels like it, like for every ebb and flow, the trend sure feels like they’re winning. That they have to win, and will evermore. Like global warming, sure there’s a cold winter or a 2008 here and there, but overall, things just keep getting hotter and you wake up one day to find committees on science populated entirely by people who are hostile to it.

Soon we’ll all be assholes.

The Punching-Bag In Chief

After the midterm elections, i can’t help but think that Barack Obama’s presidency has has turned into the end of The Dark Knight. We always figured he’d be our hero, the guy who was going to fix everything.

Maybe, to borrow the too-on-the-nose phrase from the movie, he’s the hero we need right now. Think about what he’s done, and then think about what he’s put up with.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that any Democrat was going to be vilified in this day and age in the face of the Republican scream machine. Perhaps it was inevitable that any black President was going to invite overt and subconscious racism, bile, the worst of us. Maybe the combination was too irresistible a target.

But we’ve never seen this before, have we? The man can do no right, it seems. In a world that’s never been grayer, every single thing he does is black, black, black. Every single thing, a bad idea done badly with bad intentions, and nothing short of it.

No wonder he looks like hell. Because no one told him he was signing up to be the punching bag, the target, the man to take the punishment. We believed in Harvey Dent, and we badly wish he could be him. So does he, one might assume. But he’s not. He woke up one day and found out he had to be Batman. At the end of the movie, i mean. Chewed by dogs, chased by cops, and vilified by the people he sacrificed everything to help.

It’s depressing for me to watch, but imagine how he feels. It’s a hell of a thing to live through all this abuse for the staggering achievement of things being less-worse, but who knows, maybe less-worse all we can hope for anymore.

To all the little people

While listening to the wide array of bad news this morning, i looked up at a 757 banking above me, a Delta plane. The airline where i have most of my frequent-flier miles, who nevertheless ‘fixed’ their frequent-flier program so the likes of me are unable to get status anymore. Fixed it so you have to spend a minimum amount of money, fixed it so the people in the suits don’t have to accidentally sit next to me in my frayed jeans in first class once every few years. Seems like it’s somewhat emblematic of what animates nights like last night.

Nights like last night are for those guys who walk up and buy first-class tickets, those guys in the black Escalades that run red lights and park wherever the fuck they want, the guys who have to decide what $50-entree restaurant to have dinner at each night.

Because the derangement of the modern Republican party is mostly attributable to those people. Oh, we can carp all you want about how denying science doesn’t make sense, how austerity doesn’t make sense when the economy needs a shot in the arm, how ignoring infrastructure doesn’t make sense, how starting wars doesn’t make sense. Because they do make sense, but only for those people in the front rows and the black cars. Ignoring climate change, declining to tax businesses, cheaping out on long-term investment, and finding uses for an expensive military all work out well for that tiny group of people.

It’s never going to make sense to me, because it doesn’t help me and feels like it’s just some haphazard collection of bad policy. It’s not like none of us know this narrative, it’s not like i’m saying anything that’s unrevealed, but we forget about it; with every new dramatic twist in each thread of the story, we forget about the overarching plotline. It’s not a conspiracy against public transit, or science, or the environment, or people on welfare, or women and minorities, it’s a conspiracy for rich old white men.

The real innovation is that they’ve managed to package it up (garnished with some social conservatism for those of you who are still into that) and feed it to enough of America as if it’s something that does any of us some good. And it’s hugely successful. Government is (incompetent | evil), the oceans aren’t rising, war comes with no costs, and if the guy in the suit got rich, so can you.

In all the victory speeches, remember that not a word of it, not a single falling balloon or fluttering bit of confetti, none of it’s for us.

Some photos, in minimal context:

One thing to celebrate

The white-hot glare

i Am Waiting For Your Apology

You heard me, Charlie Baker. Before i would even consider voting for you, absent my disagreement with your assertion that things here in Massachusetts need so much fixing and that ‘one-party-rule’ has been so terrible for us. Oh no, the probation department! Throw all the bums out! And replace them with bums who are dedicated to the elimination of departments instead.

Where was i?

Even if i didn’t hate the mistaken and cynical things that you stand for (not to mention your cynical campaign), Charlie Baker, i need you to apologize just for being a Republican.

That’s right, dammit, the R beside your name is enough for me to dismiss you outright. Not because i’m wedded to the Democrats, remember i’m rather left of them. No, it’s because the Party of Lincoln is ruined for a generation. Ruined by people who are not you, to be sure, but don’t you owe better to the people of Massachusetts? If you really think that your ideas are better, give them a chance to win by disavowing what’s left of that party.

Because by not doing so (and by taking their money and support), that tells me that you’re okay with the stupidity of George W. Bush, the recklessness of Ted Cruz, the ignorance of Todd Akin, the shrill partisanship of Darrell Issa, the stubborn mendacity of Mitch McConnell. People who have done nothing short of breaking our government.

While i disagree with you, and think you’re wrong for the job, i don’t lump you in with them. But you do.

Who’s going to be the first reasonable conservative to demand better of his party? Obviously, i won’t vote for him, either, but at least i’d respect him.

But until then, all Republicans can fuck directly off.