On Cartoon Villainy

Since politics and culture are inextricable from each other, it’s easy pickings for any number of thinkpieces on just why thing X is responsible for the present fall of the republic.  Here’s a half-baked observation, including spoilers for some things.

As our increasing appetite for darker, more complicated stories and more complicated, conflicted, flawed heroes gave way to movies, books, and tv shows about antiheroes and actual villains, we became blase about legitimately bad people in real life.

How are we supposed to decry torture while applauding Jack Bauer?

Even though he was a sociopath and an asshole, were you really glad Walter White didn’t get away, or were you rooting for him and his big pile of money, an everyman’s badass?

Isn’t it great when Frank Underwood subways, er, subverts his enemies to his own corrupt urges?

Weren’t we thrilled when Darth Vader showed up in Rogue One and slaughtered good guys mercilessly?  Didn’t we want more of Heath Ledger’s Joker?

Batman and Superman have to fight each other, hell, even Captain America’s conscience isn’t clean; so many of our good guys are kinda assholes, too.

Are we desensitized to evil?  Enough so to not recognize it on the nightly news?

When prison guards boil someone in the shower?

When frat boys laugh with excitement over sentencing Americans to death-by-bankruptcy?

When CBP tricks visitors into giving up their visas via coercion?

When Congress tells ISPs they can finally sell you out.

When ICE ambushes people trying to become citizens and deports them?

When the guy responsible for awful things done in Iraq sets up a meeting between our government and the awful government of an adversary to talk about helping each other do awful things?

When the Department of Justice takes a look at the detailed investigation of systemic racism on the part of police departments nationwide and hard work to fight it and says ‘never mind‘?

These aren’t just horrible things, these are transparent, cartoonishly evil things being done in broad daylight and being bragged about in a lot of cases.  Swaggering, cackling, excellent evil showing up and doing whatever the hell it wants, for reasons ranging from deep cynicism and greed, to racism, to just straight up petulance.  Forget the problem of a third of the country endorsing and cheering on these things.  Ask so many of the rest of us why there aren’t so many more of us in the streets, why we aren’t seizing a moment in real life to join a battle of good and evil.

Ask why there aren’t more Princess Leias and Harry Potters.  And wonder if it’s because we all secretly wouldn’t rather be Kylo Ren.

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.