Posted in Rants on February 20th, 2017 by Ed

This week in one of my courses we're doing Maus. It was something I added to the syllabus at the last minute, after the election in November and before the January deadlines for book orders. I felt that, under present circumstances, it would be…fitting.

Everyone knows about the Holocaust. If you managed to miss it in school, you couldn't help but encounter it in literal thousands of books, movies, TV shows, comics, video games, and more. The question of what we can learn from it is often reduced – not surprisingly – to the simplest, narrowest possible lessons. For all the talk in the United States of World War II (the topic that dwarfs all others in our media, both fiction and non-fiction) and our nation's heroic role in bringing the Nazi menace to a halt, Americans seem to lack a grasp of lessons from the Holocaust beyond "Don't vote for guys with toothbrush mustaches" and "The people waving American flags are good; bad guys have swastikas." In other words, we learn it as a lesson that applies to others but not to ourselves. We could never be the bad guys, because we are the good guys. If nobody's being gassed and thrown in ovens, we're not like the Nazis. QED.

The lesson a sentient being takes away from the Holocaust, and one that this book does an unusually good job of illustrating, is that organized evil unfolds slowly in complex societies. It develops in stages. The Nazis didn't come to power, wake up the next morning, and announce to the country, "Time to kill all the Jews." Like the master propagandists and populists they were, they took a more gradual (and ultimately, for their purposes, more effective) approach. Start with rhetoric separating Real Germans from The Other. Encourage by example stigmatizing The Other. Normalize verbal abuse, prejudice, and petty mistreatment. Ramp up to abusive acts of a more serious nature. Start passing laws – again, small ones initially – to institutionalize separate and unequal treatment. Explicitly legalize violence against the person and property of The Other. Eject Them from positions of social and economic power, to be replaced with Real citizens. Begin physically segregating Them under the pretense of public safety, necessity (especially wartime necessity), or for Their own good. Direct citizens to focus their anger for any privations – economic, military, or social – the nation faces on The Other. Turn a blind eye to public outbreaks of vandalism, assault, and even the occasional dead body. Dehumanize; compare Them to insects, viruses, animals, and so on. By this point the dumber, more obedient, authoritarian-follower types who make up the bottom third of the population will be more than happy to don a uniform and get a paycheck for rounding up and policing the internal "threat."

At this point you're not yet engaged in state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing, but you're certainly within hailing distance of it. You can see it without binoculars. The public as a whole is unlikely to accept that final step, which is why you've carefully segregated the public as a whole from it. You've condensed and defined The Problem, and you've put the borderline intellects and sadists – the kind of people who know how to follow an order, and what how – in charge of carrying out the gruesome parts. Voila. Just say when, Mein Fuhrer. By this point it is too late; having condoned and made excuses for the first 49 steps of the process, any part of the population that wakes up now will find itself powerless to stop Step 50.

That's what people don't get – that a valid analogy can be made to Nazi Germany without extermination camps bellowing human ash into the sky. "Don't be so dramatic" and "You're exaggerating" are appropriate responses if we focus only on the "Final Solution" and ignore the 100 steps that led to it. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and societies never go from placid to monstrous acts of evil overnight. Getting ordinary people to condone genocide, fostering the banality of evil, requires the careful laying of groundwork. It begins with normalizing social deviance toward an Other that is responsible for every aspect of your life that leaves you dissatisfied. It begins when a population is conditioned to read a news story about one of Them being gunned down by someone in a uniform and to react not with human empathy but with satisfaction. It begins when people become convinced that there are Good People like themselves and Bad People like everyone who looks, thinks, or acts differently than themselves. It begins when the oppression of a minority to satisfy the histrionics of a majority (rule of law be damned because I want to feel safe at any cost) is not only tolerated by the political process but becomes one of the products it is most eager to deliver.

Every crime against humanity has humble beginnings. And the kind of people who want to perpetrate them know that they don't grow like weeds. They have to be nurtured, slowly, until the process is so far along that no group, individual, or institution in society can stop it.


Posted in Rants on February 19th, 2017 by Ed

For the past three days – Friday through Sunday – the high temperatures (F) here in Chicago have been 65, 70, and 62. It has been spring, essentially. Those numbers might make people in the South want to grab the parka; here they had me and most of the city heading outside in shorts and t-shirts. It was great. It was also, of course, totally bizarre. February is the traditional month for weather that makes you want to drink bleach in Chicago. February is the month during high school in which we could count on a cancellation or two per year because the pipes were frozen. February in Chicago is gray, cold, windy, and miserable. I'm convinced that the term "blustery" was invented by someone standing outside here in February.

Since the winter has been warm as a whole, this weekend alarmed more than a few people. It's great, but…what gives? For giggles, I spent 15 minutes finding old National Weather Service data for Chicago in February dating back to 1990. The year is arbitrary and represents the limit of how much I cared to continue looking up older years. For each year I plotted the highest and lowest temps recorded in February as well as the monthly mean temp. Here's a quick chart followed by a table showing the same data:

This oddly warm weather is definitely on the upper end of normal for the past three decades, but it's hardly unusual. The 2017 data, as the table shows, are almost identical to, for example, 1999. Compared to more recent very cold years like 2014 and 2015, this year is bizarrely warm. It's not the only unusually warm February to be found in the recent past, though.

The point is not that "Climate change is fake, man!" Mountains of data demonstrate that it is a well-supported phenomenon. My point is that our memories are extremely unreliable when it comes to remembering ephemeral things like this. I was alive in 1999 (obviously) and I have zero recollection of that warm winter. None. In my mind, what is happening right now is exceptional because February, as I and most people in this area think, is the bone-chilling cold month. It's the peak of winter misery. When we think things like, "Man, the weather is never like this in February!" we're relying on our perception of something we don't actually remember. Nobody actually remembers the weather, save perhaps some kind of Rain Man-esque savant.

In short, our anecdotal evidence for or against changes in climate are not only irrelevant, but also very likely to be imaginary anyway. It is interesting for me to see just how wrong my recollection was, even as someone who generally pays attention to these things. It's a good reminder to stop giving credence to our own impressions and instead to stick to the actual data.


Posted in No Politics Friday on February 16th, 2017 by Ed

No Politics Friday has taken a beating since I moved to Chicago. It made my commute pretty exhausting and by the time I reach the front door on Thursday evenings I rarely have the energy to get a Friday post ready. That said, I'm working on carving out the time. Like this week, for example. This week I carved out the time.

On April 3, 1956 a woman who identified herself as Julia Chase sneaked away from a public tour of the White House. Having joined the tour group alone, without any companion who might notice her absence, nobody knew to look for her or sound an alarm. She made her presence known by spending nearly five hours sneaking around the building starting fires. To recap, then, a 53 year old woman spent half a day committing minor arson around the White House. Here is the front page of the next day's Chicago Tribune to prove it.

It's not just amazing that this happened. What really blows the modern mind is the response.

The woman…was taken into custody by government guards after the fifth fire and was sent to DC General Hospital for observation…Hagerty said the woman appeared to be 'not quite lucid.' She told police she did not know where she had come from…She explained that she 'had a lot of trash and wanted to burn it.'

The story continues to explain that she was released from the hospital into the custody of her family. And White House public visitation continued as normal for the day.

When older people refer to "simpler times" my first reaction is to gag on the sentimentality for a time period in which society was as staggeringly unequal and unjust as it was in the early post-War era. My second reaction is to remember this story and think, I bet it was pretty nice to live in something short of a state of constant fear that encourages law enforcement to overreact without restraint to anything perceived as a threat.

Shit. This got Political. Well, at least it's a Friday post. That's a start.


Posted in Rants on February 14th, 2017 by Ed

Our current President is a thoroughly impulsive and stupid man. This is recognized even among his admirers, even if they use different language to describe the same attributes. And he strikes me as the kind of person who does not fully recognize how poor some of his decisions are until they are literally blowing up in his face. He throws hand grenades for fun; as long as they land somewhere else, it's hilarious and awesome. When one bounces off a wall and comes to rest at his feet, only then does he stop to consider that maybe throwing hand grenades around is not very smart.

And then he blames someone else, right before it explodes.

No matter how slow people like this may be to learn from their mistakes, as a 70 year-old adult I have to imagine that some small part of him is second guessing that decision to launch a frontal assault on America's tangled and massive web of intelligence agencies before he even took office. You might think that a person with as much baggage and as many closet-skeletons as this guy would think twice before provoking the professionals who specialize in lurking around in the darkness, uncovering one's past, and you know, toppling elected officials. Don't let the fact that they didn't get the exploding cigar into Castro's hands fool you. They're pretty good at this.

With Tuesday's late revelations that the campaign team had extensive contact with Russian intelligence throughout 2016, it is clear that the Flynn debacle is only the tip of an iceberg that is likely to end up on top of the White House. Two quotes from Paul Manafort (the campaign staffer who raised eyebrows because of his previous work in Russia and the Ukraine and ties to people in the FSB and around Putin) suggest a key shift among people in the President's orbit from "Push the alternative facts on the cuck media!" to "Cut a deal, turn state's evidence, and stay out of prison".

Mr. Manafort, who has not been charged with any crimes, dismissed the accounts of the American officials in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “This is absurd,” he said. “I have no idea what this is referring to. I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today.”

When a person in the world of government and politics begins including the term "knowingly" in his or her speech, that person is already well into the process of preparing to tell this story in a courtroom.

Mr. Manafort added, “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”

Good luck with that line in court, kiddo! "The undercover cop didn't tell me she was a prostitute, and she really looked like a prostitute! So I'm off the hook, right?"

Maybe I'm projecting or being optimistic, but this week – Can you believe it's only week four? – has a very distinct Coming Unraveled feeling to it. The flow of leaks is turning into a tsunami. No one in the administration is swaggering around and trying to project a juvenile idea of dominant confidence. They all look and sound like they're a split second away from turning on one another, and like more than one or two hushed conversations to the effect of, "How much trouble are we in here?" have taken place. Obviously neither you nor I are in the White House to know for certain, but the tone and atmosphere around the one-two punch of the Flynn debacle and these new Russia revelations feels different. Maybe it will dissipate and we will return to Bullying Bravado normal. Or maybe the man who never thinks about the potential consequences before speaking or acting is beginning to wonder if making enemies of the people most likely to be able to reduce him to a smoldering crater in the Earth was a wise thing to do.


Posted in Quick Hits on February 13th, 2017 by Ed

The "Everything is Terrible All the Time shirts are back in stock. Here's your big chance to finally be cool.

Canvas brand, screenprinted (no print on demand BS), no text on the reverse side, women's v-neck and men's/unisex crew neck available. Simple. Black. Bleak. Let everyone know how you feel. Let everyone know your favorite blog. Canvas sizing guides for unisex and women's v-neck shirts. Won't fall apart or fade after one wash. Black hides tears, too.


Please use the correct order button, Domestic or International. Anything outside of the U.S., even Canada, must use the International button.

Domestic Orders (USA)

International Orders

They go quickly. Don't be left out!


Posted in Rants on February 12th, 2017 by Ed

Somewhere in your long-term memory there is a filing cabinet for things you learned in high school. If you flip to the Constitution and government folder, you have something on Federalist #10. At the very least it's one of those things anyone raised in the American educational system has seen before.

The Federalist Papers, a three-man public relations effort intended to sell highly skeptical state legislatures on the newly unveiled Constitution, range from deeply profound to tediously pedantic. The tenth installment, by James Madison, speaks to the dangers of Factions. Factions as he described them would be very familiar to us today, because he was describing political parties and interest groups. While the people who created the Constitution deeply distrusted parties and saw no role for them in the system (scour the Constitution and you'll find not even an oblique reference to them) they of course formed almost immediately upon adoption of the Constitution. They formed because nothing in the system forbade them, because people in a political system naturally ally themselves with the like-minded, and because they performed some useful functions like nominating candidates (eventually).

Madison believed that any faction, or group more interested in advancing its own agenda rather than high-mindedly doing what is best for the country, was a danger to the system. Ultimately – long story short – he reassures the reader that through pluralism (the opportunity for many competing voices to participate at many points in the process) the dangers of factions could be mitigated. He also points out correctly that the system of checks and balances would function as a limit on any one group's ability to control political outcomes. Impeachment, for example, was seen in the early days as an important check on the Executive, and anyone who wrote the Constitution would be shocked to come back to life today and find out how rarely we have actually had to use it.

Since Trump won there has been a lot of debate about whether institutions will save us or, more pertinently, whether our institutions can withstand the test of a true demagogue who hasn't the slightest interest in anything other than rule by fiat. Presented with this scenario, Madison and pals would tell us that Congress was given the divided power to impeach – the House to accuse and the Senate to try – to deal with such a person. In that sense, our system is fully prepared to deal with a Trump and the people who created the Constitution could be credited with remarkable foresight.

The problem, however, in practice is not that the Constitution has no provision for dealing with an autocrat-demagogue president. It does. It has a legislature empowered to remove him. What the Constitution does not have, and its authors did not foresee, is a provision for having a House that would watch a demagogue president, shrug half-heartedly, and say, "Whatever, let's use him for political cover." The problem is not that our system cannot control the president – it is that our system was not designed to handle a Congress that has no interest in trying to control the president. The Constitution's authors assumed, wrongly in the current situation, that members of Congress would not want a power-mad lunatic in the presidency. They assumed that elected officials might care a little bit about the country and any long term damage such an individual could inflict. As full of foresight and clever power-sharing arrangements as it may be, our core legal document offers nothing to protect the country or the system as a whole when the people given the responsibility of protecting it are members of a party so thoroughly rotten to its core that it is willing to abandon any pretense of principle if they see an opportunity to derive some benefit from the elevation of a wannabe dictator into the White House.

We can only guess what they would say in response to our current dilemma were they alive to see it, but it's safe to say that of all the ways in which our system could fail this one would not be high on their list of fears. Time has proven Madison largely correct in his prediction that the evils of self interest and factionalism could be reduced to acceptable levels by the nature of the system. There's no telling how strong the safeguards are, though, and they may not be sufficient to deal with a majority party this craven.


Posted in Rants on February 8th, 2017 by Ed

While the Donald the Unready throws enough tantrums to keep everyone variously entertained and horrified, House Republicans are introducing one regressive piece of legislation after another. Most will go nowhere. Some will add to the pile of problems we have to fix down the road. One target that is moving into focus is their decades-long dream of cutting Social Security. FreedomWorks (Remember them? 2010 was fun!) is starting to spam the usual suspect publications with disingenuous op-eds, which is a safe sign that a bill (like the one mentioned in the link) is more a question of "when" rather than "if."

George Carlin was right – They want your fuckin' retirement money, and they want it bad. This really is the final boss of Reagan-era conservative politics. It's the only thing that has been a true third rail for them; no matter how hard they've tried to weasel-word their way into making cuts while claiming that they're not making cuts, people over 50 vote and they scream bloody murder anytime someone tries to touch their benefit. The only way to fix the long-term potential issues with the system without cutting benefits is to lift the cap on the payroll tax, currently set at $117,000. Since tax increases are not even a thing that exists for Republicans, this allows them to claim with a straight face that there is "no choice" but to cut benefits.

This is not a difficult problem to fix. Lift the cap and the dire prophecies of shortfalls disappear. Something tells me that the people earning over $117,000 per year, with the dozens of other loopholes available to reduce their tax burden, will find a way to survive without this one. Since that obvious solution is a non-starter because Freedom and benefit cuts are a political death trap given how senior voters will react, expect Congress to do what is politically expedient and use Trump for cover. They'll grandfather everyone currently over 55 – they do love that "born before 1960" phrase in all of their "fixes" – into the current benefit levels and then ream everyone younger than 55.

To me, Social Security is a strange issue. I have strong feelings about the politics of the issue and the way the system is run, but I also take it as a given that I'll never see a dime of it. I'm 38, or approximately halfway to the point at which I could derive any benefits from Social Security. And since the late 1990s when conservatives first began beating the drum to replace it with the lotto of the stock market, I knew there was no chance that the system as we know it today would survive (at that time) 40-50 years of these people trying to F with it. Like every other part of the government that Baby Boomers grew up with, they've realized that the most profitable course of action is to benefit from it for their entire lives and then dismantle it for future generations to give themselves (another) tax cut.


Posted in Rants on February 6th, 2017 by Ed

(Title is part of my life quest to get people who mean "modal" to stop saying "average")

The Olympics would be much more interesting if each event included one randomly selected normal person in unexceptional physical condition. When ten of the world's fastest human beings race one another, no one ends up looking that fast. Oh, they look fast. But you can't get a sense of just how fast they are if you have no useful context in which to place what you're seeing. Everyone knows Usain Bolt is very fast. Watching him race a 41 year old truck driver from Omaha would drive that point home.

Obviously this will never happen; the International Olympic Committee realizes that athletics is best left to athletes. Us normal folk can barely manage to avoid hurting ourselves when we try to exert ourselves similarly. People (at least when sober) can look at high level athletes and recognize immediately, "That person is vastly better than me at this thing."

To a lesser extent we recognize that in other areas of our lives, too. We pay professionals for medical, financial, legal, and other kinds of advice. We pay other professionals for skills they have that we lack. And very few people go to a restaurant and demand to be allowed into the kitchen to bark orders at the chef. We might not always be happy with what we get, but generally we recognize that people working in a kitchen should have some vague idea how to cook. If a restaurant's pitch to customers was "No real chefs here – we staff our kitchen with ordinary Americans with common sense!" it is difficult to imagine many eaters taking them up on that offer-slash-challenge. Likewise, no one would submit themselves or a family member to surgery from "a real hard workin' guy" or "a woman of the highest moral character" unless those descriptions happened to accompany actual medical training. We may on occasion act or talk like we know better, but oddly enough people end up going to a real doctor or real lawyer when they're in trouble.

Despite this, Americans remain absolutely convinced in large numbers that the process of governing the third most populous and most economically and militarily powerful nation on Earth requires no particular skills of any kind. Anyone can do it! It's just like running a hardware store or balancing the family checkbook! Even more, many of us actively reject people who have skills or experience that might help them perform the tasks necessary to keep this unwieldy beast in working order. "I'm sick of politicians" is roughly similar to being unhappy with one's doctor and, instead of finding a different doctor, going to one's hairstylist for surgery.

This is not to say or even imply that everyone with skills and experience relevant to governing will succeed. Just as not all lawyers are actually good lawyers, elected officials and bureaucrats can be found at every level of ability and effort. But right now we are seeing the difference between public servants who may not be awesome at their job and a bunch of random people who don't understand even the basics of what they are supposed to be doing. This White House is a bunch of monkeys at typewriters randomly hitting keys in an attempt to produce the complete works of Shakespeare. These are people so clueless about the positions they've assumed that it never occurred to anyone to run Executive Orders past a real, JD-holding lawyer before issuing them. That this could have escaped the thought process of everyone involved is almost beyond comprehension. Then again, I'm at a severe disadvantage to them, given that I have a very basic understanding of the role of the Executive branch in our system.

Sure, politics and governing can be more forgiving than a lot of fields. A man off the street would do better as a Senator than as a surgeon or a bond trader. But that is only because there are institutions built up around these people to help them succeed. When one intentionally dismantles those institutions in favor of yet more people with zero relevant experience or skills, then we might as well give a toddler the job.

At least Americans can no longer wonder what it would look like to take someone who doesn't know anything about governing, politics, the law, or public service and putting them in charge of the country. It looks like this. It looks exactly like anyone who grasps that running the government is not in fact like running a business would expect.


Posted in Quick Hits on February 2nd, 2017 by Ed

I'm no expert on FEC regulations, but…it cannot possibly be legal for the President of the United States to use his Twitter account to direct people who want to read an official statement from the President to his personal Facebook page on which a large "SHOP NOW" button adorns the top of the page. The sales proceeds from the items all go directly to Donald J. Trump for President.

My Spider Sense is tingling.


Posted in Rants on February 1st, 2017 by Ed

Watching someone make the same mistake over and over again is difficult. First, you're alarmed. Then you pity them. Then you get angry. And finally, you grow to hate them. People proceed through these stages at different speeds. Really compassionate people linger in the first two stages for a long time. Most people get to the latter stages pretty rapidly.

The first time a family member comes to you and says, "I blew every penny I have on (let's say, Beanie Babies, just to keep it from getting too real)," it's natural to think, "Gosh, he really needs my help! How awful!" So you lend him money. Then he comes back a second time and think, hmm, that's odd. The third time, and the fourth time, and the fifth time, it begins to sink in that no matter how much you try to help, this problem will recur because the poor guy has a problem he can't beat. "Poor guy" is what you're still calling him at this point, anyway. So the next few times you give him the money, but without any expectation that 1) he will repay it, or 2) he will not return shortly asking again. This is pure pity. Eventually "poor guy" transitions to "idiot" or worse. You've sympathized with the fact that he has a problem, but what is he doing about it? Is he even trying to fix it or does he plan to let Beanie Babies ruin his life forever? The conversations get increasingly testy now; you still help him, but with stern lectures that, honestly, this is the last. time. and you better straighten up. When this runs its course, you stop taking his calls. You hate him for being weak, even though you know that's cruel and, on some level, wrong. You hate him for ruining his own life and trying to pull you down with him. You hate him for lying – to you and to himself – about trying to fix the problem. The part of you that feels badly for him is subsumed by the part that can't believe what kind of f'n moron would make the same mistake so many times.

Some of you read that and think, "No, my compassion is without limits." You're wrong. You, like me, are just lucky enough not to have experienced this first-hand to discover what that limit is.

At this point, I don't see how anyone is still in the shock or pity phase with the 2000s-era Democratic Party in Congress. It is impossible – or is possible for people who are of kinder heart than I – to do anything but hate them for their weakness. The way they make the same predictable mistakes over and over, the way the congressional Republicans openly bully them, and then mock them for rolling over every single time, was sad for a couple years. Maybe back during the W Bush era. Maybe it was still kind of pitiable to watch them all bow to hyperjingoism and decide to trust W on the Iraq War, even though anyone with half a brain – which includes most of them – knew that was going to go over like a lead balloon. But now it is long past being a sad sight. At this point, they know better. They've been through this process of getting boned dozens upon dozens of times. They "play nice" and act real Bipartisan-y and the GOP smiles and laughs and can't believe its luck, and then when the tables are turned the GOP response to literally everything is a middle finger extended in the face. There is no reason to expect it to turn out differently, ever. The sample size is large enough after nearly 20 years of this to conclude with confidence that, no, they have no interest in doing anything but using every last available tactic – hook or crook – to prevent a Democratic president or chamber majority from being able to get anything it wants.

They don't budge, ever. They are never going to. Had Hillary Clinton won, they would have refused to vote on her Supreme Court nominee indefinitely. For years, if necessary. Because that's how they operate, and anyone who does not understand that by now is not sad or pitiable. Anyone who does not get it by now is contemptible. Watch Lucy yank the football away from Charlie Brown once and it might seem funny. Then it's sad. Then you can't feel anything because you're too busy wondering why in god's name he keeps doing it over and over again and expecting a different result.