NPF: STEVE ALLEN

I did a Mass for Shut-ins Minicast – the third so far – on Steve Allen, the original host of the Tonight Show.

Some people don't like long podcasts, so the minicasts are short (this one's four minutes) and intended to share something interesting that doesn't benefit from being drawn out. You get the point and you can appreciate something and go about your day. Minimal commitment.

Sorry for the slow posting this week. Being back from the unreality of vacation has been hard on my brain.

On that note, one final "I noticed a thing" thought from Europe. On the one hand, I'm familiar with the common (and accurate) argument in the US that smaller food and beverage portion sizes are one of the reasons Europe doesn't struggle with affluence-based obesity like Americans do. Indeed, soft drinks in particular are almost cartoonishly small in Europe – what we'd call a Child's Size here. But conversely, Europeans drink staggering quantities of beer compared to Americans – more than 37 GALLONS per capita annually in the Czech Republic, for example. And while I hardly did a scientific double-blind study on the matter, big portions of heavy food – the Balkans do not seem to have heard of vegetables yet – were plentiful.

So, while the argument always made perfect sense to me in the abstract, it didn't seem so plausible in person. Whatever they're not drinking in Coke and Pepsi they're more than making up for (on average) with beer and wine, and a steady diet of bread, meat, cheese, and potatoes hardly seems like a ticket to carrying around less body mass.

Not a data point. Merely an observation.

PRESS (REC)

What went through Omarosa's or Michael Cohen's minds when they started secretly recording conversations at work? I can't tell you that. But I can tell you what was going through mine.

To nip any untoward rumors in the bud, the following predates my academic career by years. So no need to cast about looking for a culprit among the many wonderful academics at any institution I've ever been associated with. Or, let me spell it out: This is not about anyone in higher education, period.

In my early post-college life I worked directly for a ownership-level person at a company and that person was engaged in illegal activities that require, and will receive, no additional detail here because the specifics are not relevant. What is relevant is as follows:

1. I was being asked to do things that were either not legal or were highly suspect
2. I was about 22 and in a position with no power, dependent on the whims of one or two people for continued employment
3. I needed the job, as it paid above-average and I had recently graduated from college with not-insubstantial credit card debt. Basically whatever part of my college tuition and living expenses for three-plus years I couldn't borrow or pay for with earnings during summers and part-time during the school year, I charged. I did what I could under the circumstances in which I found myself.

So the first obvious question is, why not just quit? "Why didn't you quit" is a question often asked rhetorically that gives away a great deal about the privileges of the questioner. I didn't quit because like the vast majority of Americans I lived essentially paycheck to paycheck and didn't have another job offer handy. If there are people out there in the early 20s who can afford to quit a job and support themselves without one for an indeterminate time, I was not one of them.

Given this, I felt strongly that:

1. Someone might end up being arrested or going to jail, and it was NOT going to be me.
2. I was in a weak position in which I could, I imagined, be blamed for something I did not do and was not my fault
3. I needed to protect myself somehow and make it clear that I said no when asked to do certain things, and I needed something more than my word against a wealthy white guy's word to prove it.

This was pre-smartphone, but owning to some writing I did for a now-defunct sports website, I owned a small digital recorder. And on a couple of occasions – maybe three total – I used it to record conversations wherein I was extremely uncomfortable with some of the things being discussed and in which I was being involved against my will. I didn't ask to be there, in other words, and I didn't want to have anything to do with it. But short of quitting and walking out the door, I didn't see how to avoid it.

Nothing that involved me ended up coming of this, at least as far as I was affected. I left the job as soon as I could, and what legal consequences followed had nothing to do with me. I was relieved, obviously, and had not enjoyed what happened one bit. At the same time, however, I believed I had done the right thing to protect my own interests.

Obviously there is an angle with White House employees that wasn't a factor for me – the potential to sell-tell, or financially profit from taking recorded conversations to a tabloid or writing a book. Simply put, nobody cared about me or the job and nobody would have any interest in hearing the conversations.

In short, there are a small number of reasons someone might record a conversation:

1. Profit
2. Blackmail
3. Ass Covering in an environment where illegal things are happening

Apparently everybody is secretly recording everybody else in the circle of people around Trump, which is probably the least surprising thing we could learn. From the outside we can't assign one of these motives. All I can tell you is that from my perspective, profit or "blackmail" never even entered the picture. The dominant, and in fact only, consideration was that I recognized an illegal activity when I saw it and resolved that 1) I was not going to participate in any way and 2) I was not going to be the one punished for it, if it came to that.

My guess – and it is solely a guess, of course – is that the covering of one's own ass preoccupies the thoughts of everyone near or inside this White House. The president is a con man and a grifter, and no doubt he attracts some fellow grifters whose interests in recording conversations or collecting "evidence" may be to profit from it later. But I think a very basic human tendency in a workplace where employment is at-will and one is at the mercy of more powerful people is to recognize when something fishy is going on and ensure that if someone ends up going to jail or being called to account in the future that person is someone else.

HOT HOT HEAT

I need to preface this, as I have developed the power to foresee comments, by emphasizing that I have enjoyed every single minute of this long vacation I have been fortunate enough in circumstances to take. Would do again in a heartbeat and would not trade it for anything. Also, this is not a post about beverage ice, which no longer requires discussion because I am so unbelievably correct on that point.

It's hot here, guys. Balls hot.

Every day of this trip I've sweat through all of my clothes and peeled them off at the end of the day wondering if I jumped in a lake and just don't remember doing so. Here I was expecting that famous Adriatic / Mediterranean climate, and instead it's eerily similar to "pit stains by noon" season in Chicago. So I am not surprised to see a headline like "Europe’s summer was so hot that tropical flamingos laid eggs for the first time in 15 years." There have been record highs everywhere. It was 95 in Prague. 97 in Vienna. And reader, I shit you not, my car thermometer (for what that's worth) registered 37 Celsius in Slovenia of all places, which is over 100 F. That isn't "hot for Europe;" that's just hot.

The highs matter here because this part of the world is, very reasonably and logically, not equipped to handle "Balls Hot." It's never this hot here, so why should they bother air conditioning everything or organize any of their routine around it being literally too hot to move for part of the day. It would be like building a home with a double-thick door up on stilts on the off-chance that it is ever -50 F in Chicago. It just wouldn't make sense.

No, things are set up quite logically for an area where summer means "it might hit the low 80s, but don't worry because if it does we can just sit in the shade until it passes." I can promise you that the sipping a barely-cold beverage in the shade when it's 95 is, well, it's still pretty fucking hot. That's the difference between peaking at 85 and peaking nearer to 100.

And it raises the troubling question of what precisely the effects will be if 95 degree summers become the new normal in places that have not previously experienced it. It's not automatic that it will become normal, of course. This year could be anomalous, and it's not unprecedented (note the "in 15 years" in the WaPo headline). But what happens when a region prepared to handle Hot is suddenly upgraded to Hot-Hot?

The thing is, this kind of heat kills people. Talk about the Mediterranean breeze all you want, but elderly people in un-air conditioned apartments are not all gonna make it if they had to experience 2-3 months of the mid-90s. I have lived in one place where summer means that it's 98 every single day from Memorial Day to late September (Athens, GA) and dealing with it requires building a lifestyle around it. Everything is air conditioned to "Ice Station Zebra" levels because you couldn't get anything done while the sun is up otherwise. And of course it helps a ton that Americans do most of their place-to-place travel in an air conditioned car. So although it is definitely a hot, sweaty experience, it's survivable. People in Texas and Arizona are getting used to 110 being a long-term normal high and they survive the same way.

If Europe's continental climate turns into the American Midwest – the brutal extremes of summer heat and winter cold – patterns of energy consumption are likely to change in ways that will require beefing up infrastructure. Many homes and apartments here are far too old for structural changes to deal with hotter weather – I get the sense that a place like Budapest or Prague has the buildings it has, and isn't about to tear them down and build new ones.

But nothing changing isn't going to be an option. Believe me, the fat, pampered American and German tourists were not the only ones reeling from the heat. The locals looked equally stunned, and neither group seemed to find "Sit for a second and have a warm Coke" satisfactory as a solution. America has exported a lot of things to Europe, and a lot of it has been questionably useful (Burger King, Lil' Pump, etc). I hope we don't add our sometimes insane climate to the list.

EVERY FIVE MINUTES

As a Chicago resident I largely ignore the salacious crime reporting about the city, which routinely and blatantly ignores 1) that crime is actually down by nearly any measure and 2) that other American cities far outpace it in crime rates and focusing on Chicago is part of a political agenda.

That said, I'm not blind to the fact that the city obviously has problems. Those problems start with the CPD, which has so completely lost the trust of most residents who aren't white and 65 that cooperation between victims, neighbors, and police is nonexistent. Successive mayors' offices have been an even more significant problem, redlining areas of the city that are declared not worth saving and pouring resources into "good" areas.

My Avondale neighborhood is *not* some ultra-gentrified island of privilege. There are no Fancy Restaurants and we just got our first Hip Person Bar a couple months ago. I pay less than $1000 / month for a 2-br apartment, compared to the $1500-2000 that would cost in Wicker Park, Logan, or Lakeview. I am one of maybe five non-immigrants on my block, the vast majority being Polish or Mexican families who park their work trucks out front at night.

The neighborhood has not had a murder in four years. In a city of millions with something of a crime problem, that's amazing. It's not because I rub shoulders with real estate titans, Bears players, John Cusack, and Chance the Rapper. It's because the neighborhood is part of the city map that has not been written off by the city and county governments. The schools are open. The street lights work. The streets get plowed in the winter. Public Transit service is ample and works. OK, the streets themselves still look like they were recently bombed by the luftwaffe but you get the point.

Compare that to Garfield Park or West Lawn and it's not real hard to see the difference. This weekend, a staggering 66 people were shot in 48 hours, including one three-hour span with 30 shootings. That is an average of one every five minutes. Meanwhile, when I'm home I and my neighbors walk the streets at all hours.

People in the city understand that "the person who pulls the trigger" is ultimately to blame. But they also understand that the root cause of the chain of events leading to that is the underlying economics of race and class in the city. Close the schools, abandon the neighborhoods, refuse to hire "those people," and then act real surprised when gang activity becomes the primary form of entrepreneurship in blighted areas. Maybe don't resign yourself to two large swaths of the city being "blighted areas" and you might see less appalling crime statistics. Just a thought.

SHIFTING TO SYMPATHY

Sorry for the long delay in posting. I'm on vacation in the former Austro-Hungarian empire and I'm quite busy trying to enjoy it.

A few people, all older men, have asked me as we've talked casually about where I'm traveling if there is any resentment of Americans in the short experience I've had. The easy answer is No, nobody seems to care. To the extent that there is any resentment to be felt I think it's directed at the Germans for being obviously so much wealthier than Czechs, Croatians, etc.

The more interesting answer is, it says a ton about the generation gap that anyone from the Cold War era still thinks Europeans are envious of or aspire to be Americans. Yeah, they like our shit music and movies. The dominant sense, though, is that they just feel sorry for us at this point. Nobody's crawling under barbed wire to escape East Germany now, and certainly not to get to a country with zero paid vacation days mandated by law and in which people can work full time and have no ability to see a doctor when they're sick. I feel – and maybe I'm projecting – that people in Southeast Europe have lived through a collapsing, failed regime and they know one when they see one. And they feel sorry for Americans today the same way Americans used to feel sorry for Eastern Europeans under communism. Just replace "God, they don't even have toilet paper! They have to wait in line for bread!" with "God, they're all one paycheck from being homeless, and they can't even go to the hospital!"

America's immigration policy where white Europeans are concerned is an open door now. Nobody resents us – they see others (Japanese, German, etc) who are as wealthy as American tourists, and they see the benefits they enjoy for being EU citizens and consciously choose not to trade it for what they could get in the US, which boils down to lower taxes and not much else. They'll continue to buy our Lil' Pump tracks and our Dwayne Johnson movies, but do they want to be us? No. They think we're nuts. Right now we're the Crazy Friend who you like but want to keep at arms length. We're on our way to being the Train Wreck Friend who you actively ignore when the number comes up on the phone.

MUSEUM PIECES

One deal I have with myself as a traveler is that I will partake of every opportunity to see something that advertises itself as a museum (I could stop the sentence there and it would be mostly true) of the cold war period. This has led me into some truly awful, abysmal, corn-ball shit (the "Spy Museum" in DC is among the funniest things I've seen that was not intended to be funny) and a few interesting places as well.

This will sound bad, but I don't go into such places to learn anything. I don't mean that I already know it all; it's more that I could get all the information I could ever want from any number of books, online sources, documentaries, and so on. So, and I suspect this is a big reason behind the Disneyfication of museums everywhere, they have to find an interesting way to tell the story.

Finding out that Prague has a "Museum of Communism" was a no-hesitation moment for me. Finding out once we arrived that it is located in a tourist-heavy area and thus would likely cater to American tastes was icing on the cake. This would be BAD.

On one count the place was legitimately good – everything was presented from a Czech perspective. That was refreshing. I feel like younger people (those who don't remember pre-1989) could learn a lot there. Points of reference as specific as addresses, small towns, and stories from normal people were used widely for context. I mean, I know that's not exactly rare in the museum world now but as shit as I was expecting the place to be, it was welcome.

The editorial perspective, though, was weird. It's always weird on this topic. It's clearly the "See? Communism failed! You are so lucky not to have to live in this failed system!" perspective, as every take on the Soviet bloc written after 1989 has used. Hooray! Capitalism won! Here's an enormous list of flaws with centrally planned government.

The genius of that framing is that it's impossible to refute in a vacuum. Clearly nobody really misses a system in which toilet paper was a rare commodity. It's indisputable that if you judge systems by their ability to churn out consumer products, there's no comparison. If you give people a choice between two systems that don't really work and one has ample, cheap Ass Paper, they're going to pick that one every time.

The irony, though, is that focusing attention exclusively on the failings of "Communism" is a great way to allow people of a certain mindset to walk out thinking, "See? Communism sucked!" without prompting any kind of reflection about the system we live in now. Because aside from the obvious gap in ability to make cheap shit to fill store shelves, every criticism in the entire museum was as applicable to modern capitalism as to Soviet-style communism.

Oh, under communism lots of people were imprisoned? People didn't feel free? Government was corrupt and unresponsive? Wow interesting tell me more. Through that lens even the line of argument that capitalism is awesome for consumption looks a little wobbly; "Most people couldn't get the things they wanted or needed" sounds an awful lot like "Most people can't afford the things they want or need" and the difference is semantic. I guess if the reason people end up under-provided for is the most important thing to you, that argument is worth having. In practice it isn't.

I liked all the photos and video of Wenceslas Square during the events of 1989. In that era it looked gray, dull, and absent any obvious symbols of affluence. Today it's crammed with equally sad, but in the sense that every available inch of space has been crammed full of foreign chain stores. The Jan Palach memorial is about 25 feet from a McDonald's. Across the square from that is a casino. It's gaudy and shitty and sad in a very affluent First World way that you can experience in just about any city on Earth.

It's not that the argument about a "failed system" is flawed. That doesn't bother me. What does bother me is the absence of recognition that it has been replaced with an equally flawed system. There was and is no "winner." People with power and money simply decided one set of flaws was more to their liking than another.

WINGIN' IT

Pissing on the West Wing might seem like picking low-hanging fruit in 2018, now that political reality is an even more stark contrast to its Disney version of the Beltway than before. But I recently re-read this Luke Savage piece from last summer detailing the popularity of the show as a product of an era (the late 1990s and pre-9/11 00s) in which the politics of ideologically neutral centrism finally seemed within reach to the many people who are into this sort of thing.

Look, it's a TV show. I've grown out of trying to talk people out of liking TV shows. If you like it, you like it. In the Trump era, though, I'm starting to feel like some of the people still obsessed with the show – given when it aired, mostly the 50-and-over crowd right now – might be falling into a trap that conservatives have wallowed in for years now.

You know how the entirety of white conservatism is based on the shared idea of a "good old days," back before the fall? Of course the idealized America they're thinking of never really existed. It's a fantasy. It's fair to say that in the 1950s and 1960s ordinary working people were financially better off (thanks Unions!) but the monoculture, the institutionalized racism and sexism, the social stratification, it was all there. Nothing was perfect and wonderful, except for a select portion of white people.

I think some liberals, and a lot of people in the center, are starting to adopt a similar fantasy about the politics of the West Wing. If only we could rid ourselves of the slimy corruption of Trumpism and get back to a politics of integrity, honesty, and mutual respect! When there were Good Republicans, and Democrats were Pragmatic, and all policy discussions (and of course that was the majority of what governing was) ended with handshakes and some good, common sense status quo reinforcing centrism.

Look. I see the appeal of that. But that was a TV show; politics was never like that. The zeitgeist of the West Wing was the early Clinton years, but look at what happened during the actual Clinton years: a billion dollar campaign of lies to undermine universal health care, Democrats signing on to Reagan's agenda wholesale (welfare reform, sentencing reform, NAFTA, etc.), and Republicans spending six years trying to rip them to shreds anyway.

To the extent that consensus and Both Sides handshake politics ever existed it was on issues where a brutal elite consense pervaded (segregation, for example) and so no debate was necessary. It's like the old joke about how you can get a Catholic and a Protestant to stop bickering if you bring up Jews, because they can both agree on that point.

You see some ribbon threads of this today – Democrats and Republicans "coming together" to roll back Dodd-Frank and appease the financial industry. That's a terrible outcome. Just terrible. "Bipartisan" or "consensus" are not synonyms for "good" when it comes to public policy. It simply means that everyone agrees on an outcome (inevitably the status quo) and says nothing about the outcome itself. The Iraq War resolution was bipartisan. Agreeing to let Wall Street off the hook in the early Obama years was a bipartisan consensus. Spending a trillion dollars a year on the military is a bipartisan consensus. These are all idiotic and destructive ideas. If you applaud any of them simply on the basis of how good it makes you feel that no one really argued about anything and everyone shook hands and smiled and agreed, then I think you might not fully understand what politics is. This week, Congress passed a $717 Billion Pentagon spending bill without one word of debate. Everyone in Congress was no doubt very Civil about it, because they all want to roll around in the trough of money they just created. I would rather they caned each other over the head on the House floor and spent half as much on the military.

There's a reason the West Wing had to create a fictional world in which politics is good and wholesome and full of people of integrity. If you could follow actual politics and get any of that, there would have been no need to write the show.

GRAND TOUR

A couple quick administrative notes: Episode 007 of Mass for Shut-ins will be posted overnight tonight (Thursday) so be sure to subscribe and get that bad boy hot and fresh when you wake up tomorrow.

Additionally, for the next 16 days I will be galavanting around the former Hapsburg empire, visiting six countries in southern / southeastern Europe including Slovenia and Hungary. I am 39 years old and I've never been to Europe. I am likely to be fully unemployed soon. If I don't do it now, when am I ever going to do it.

Originally my plan was to ride my bike across Europe like a college kid, but decided this plan was superior. But in the course of that, I had some moments where I felt mortality pretty keenly. Not that 39 in ancient and near death, but…let's face it, if I want to do something like that I need to do it soon because before long I won't be physically able to. There are probably some 55 year old guys out there riding bikes a couple thousand miles; I think they are the distinct minority, though.

I've never had to factor that into life decisions before, you know? I've never had to think, "What if I can't do this." I'm fully able bodied, but definitely feeling my age when I have to exert myself now. Lying around on one's ass type vacations are always an option. Things that are physically difficult have an expiration date on them.

That said, when I was in Peru I saw women who looked like they were about 200 years old climbing Machu Picchu. So. Maybe the clock runs for longer than I'm assuming.

If you don't follow me on Instagram, do so. Many wonderful pictures will be shared. I'll try to keep regular updates on the easier-to-post social media sites as well.

TACO TUESDAY

Two pieces landed simultaneously this morning, one about the absence of a GOP legislative agenda and the other about how Trump is affecting public opinion among Republicans.

In The Nation I point out that for the rest of 2018 – continuing the trend from the first half of the year – the GOP has no legislative agenda it is actually trying to pass. During unified control by one party of the Senate, House, and White House, this is unprecedented. It's tempting to chalk it all up to the Trump Scandal Vortex derailing normal politics, but it goes deeper than that. After decades of ranting about Activist Judges, the GOP now appears quite satisfied to sit back and allow the courts and the unelected parts of the Federal government enact their agenda for them.

Over at The Week, I have a little more political science-oriented piece about Republican public opinion on issues like tariffs and Russia where the Trump position diverges from the rest of the GOP. Spoiler alert: they're following the man, not the party.

I've been a busy beaver the last few days.

OWN GOAL

Let's be blunt: Third Way and all the other groups that exist to glorify centrism are conservative groups. They appeal solely to people who agree with Republican policy but are embarrassed at how mean and backward and – worst of all – uncivil Republicans are. It's the Aaron Sorkin / West Wing deleted scenes version of political reality in which everyone is very serious and very honorable and lo and behold all of the policy they push is virtually indistinguishable from anything the Republican Party has wanted since the 1970s. Liberals fall for this sometimes because the idea of politics being nice and civil even when you disagree about things is just so darn appealing to some people for whom process and decorum are far more important than outcomes.

You can't do a much better job of undercutting the whole Centrist / Third Way movement than it does to itself, though, and I think this exercise in concern trolling about the Democratic Party being just so ultra-leftist (e.g., shows signs of supporting something to the left of Joe Lieberman and Zell Miller) is a great example:

Some of the key initiatives are a massive apprenticeship program to train workers, a privatized employer-funded universal pension that would supplement Social Security and an overhaul of unemployment insurance to include skills training. Other proposals included a "small business bill of rights" and the creation of a "BoomerCorps" — like the volunteer AmericaCorps for seniors.

Meanwhile, they say the progressive agenda is out of date. They dismiss, for instance, a federal jobs guarantee as a rehash of the New Deal.

"Our ideas must be bold, but they must also fit the age we are in," Cowan said. "Big isn't enough. If it's bold and old — it’s simply old."

OK so there's a lot to unpack here. Privatization (straight out of the right wing playbook), "retraining" (Bill Clinton at Peak Neoliberal), small business handjobbing (Chamber of Commerce right-wing deregulation), and…something so utterly stupid that I don't even know how to define it.

Then the New Deal is invoked to…deride the Democratic Party? Clearly what the Democratic Party should avoid at all costs is the thing that got a president and his successor re-elected five times, produced the largest Democratic Senate majority in history, and was instrumental in the economic development of the country at a perilous time.

These people are idiots, the whole centrism fetishizing apparatus is a stalking horse for right-wing economic policy, and the more the Democratic Party has tried to appease these people the worse its results – electorally and policy-wise – have been.

They're dumb and they're wrong. Stop listening to them and stop idealizing their fantasy version of a Politics of Politeness and Propriety that never was.