Posted in Rants on October 26th, 2016 by Ed

One of the great ironies of this insufferable election is that something we all knew was inevitable and only a matter of time – the full, seamless integration of the reality TV / social media paradigm into our elections – was achieved by a highly unattractive 70 year old man. It is as apparent now two weeks out from the election as it was in the summer of 2015 when this nightmare began that Trump has no real interest in being president, a job that is by most estimates rather challenging. Instead this has been one long exercise in building the Personal Brand, of achieving the kind of multi-platform social media saturation that brings entire rooms full of Social Media professionals at SXSW Interactive to instantaneous and powerful orgasm. When a campaign spends more on hats bearing an eminently hashtaggable slogan than it does on polling, it becomes nearly impossible to argue that this is anything other than politics as viral marketing, a painfully long product roll-out for whatever insufferable Web 3.0 media product Trump plans to shove down the throats of his gullible herd of followers. It is a campaign not for votes but for Likes and Follows, the end goal being a list of potential subscribers' credit card numbers rather than accommodations on Pennsylvania Avenue.

As an adult old enough to remember the world before the internet, it isn't difficult for me or anyone else of my generation to see this for exactly what it is. We have been through enough elections and seen enough political campaigns to know what campaigns look like. We recognize, consequently, that this is not one. What I worry about a lot lately, especially given my constant contact with people in the 18-22 age range, is what long term effects this will have on the attitudes of people of different generations who have grown up with the internet and social media. Someone born in 1998 has never lived in a world without clickbait, viral videos, shitposting, memes, Facebook, Reddit, apps, and the idea of life as incidental things that happen so one can post pictures of it on the internet. It is not that today's college-aged voters are incapable of answering the question, "Is this a real campaign or is this all just a publicity stunt?" – what is troubling is that it would never occur to young adults to ask that question. When you've lived since infancy in a world in which saying outrageous and offensive things is a standard part of the repertoire for attracting valuable attention in a the internet's competitive marketplace of self-promoting assholes, this very well could appear to be normal. You can feel the collective shrug, the sense that nothing about what happened this year is in any way out of line with one's expectations about how the world of 2016 works.

One valuable Teaching Moment from this campaign was the vice-presidential debate. Students were able to see for one evening what, for most of recent history, a presidential campaign has looked like: two extremely boring older white guys using a lot of words to say very little. It contrasted sharply with the WWE Monday Night Raw spectacle of the presidential debates, which they view primarily through the lens of what they can provide in entertainment value. Much is said about the shrinking attention spans of younger generations, and I think there is a real element of truth to those fears. It's not surprising that today's young people, just like young people of years past, would find a Kaine-Pence type election extremely boring. What's worrying is the idea that, rather than considering this year's presidential election appalling and embarrassing, it not only seems normal but even desirable because it holds their interest. If they find this funny and entertaining we are likely to do it again in the future, and it will only be "funny" until one of these candidates – some media hog less personally repugnant than Trump – wins, at which point the joke will be on all of us.


Posted in Rants on October 19th, 2016 by Ed

All year long I've felt (and voiced privately, because it's a bit salty to put it out there in public even by my standards) that Trump has been taking it strangely easy on The Jews.

Hold on. Don't make angry comments yet.

I'm not saying that Trump or anyone else SHOULD be blasting The Jews for any particular reason. It is merely that given the campaign's regular recourse to racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and in general the basest kinds of bigotry, it was unexpected and somewhat surprising that anti-Semitism would not be present as well. I hope that makes sense. I'm not advocating anti-Semitism; it merely struck me as bizarre that we were seeing far less anti-Semitism from him than one would expect given his neolithic attitudes toward every other group defined as The Other by white protestant male America.

It turned out, as it so often has throughout this campaign, that I only had to be patient and that with time things would indeed get Much Worse. When Trump announced on Oct. 13 (in PALM BEACH of all places, I mean what the hell, maybe he can book the Apollo Theater in Harlem and rip on black people for an hour) that "international bankers" were to blame for many of the ills, real or imagined, that his supporters bemoan, I realized that he had merely been keeping anti-Semitism in reserve as kind of a closing act. Jew-bashing would be to Trump 2016 what Beyonce and Jay-Z would be to a long music festival: the big finish. The crescendo. The climax.

There is not a sentient adult who fails to recognize references to Bankers, particularly of the International variety, as a crystal clear euphemism for Jews dating back to the Renaissance. It is almost literally the oldest trick in the book. The wink is implied. In his inaugural address, even FDR – a friend of Jews in general and reliant upon dozens of Jewish individuals in his administration – sunk to the level of telling Americans that "wicked moneylenders" and "bankers" were responsible in dark but unspecified ways for the Great Depression. True, the banking system as a whole was at its heart; nonetheless the choice of language is a clear appeal to baser attitudes.

The more I thought about Trump's remarks of Oct. 13 it became apparent that in the modern era, anti-Semitism is the final stage of the growth cycle of demagoguery. It used to come earlier in the process of Idiot Mitosis because it used to be more socially acceptable and Jews were generally a powerless underclass in any society they inhabited in numbers. Today Jews have more social and political power as a group and thus the first stages of bigoted demagoguery focus on groups against whom prejudice is more socially acceptable: blacks, Hispanics, immigrants in general, and so on. So it makes sense to start there. It is not until a group or individual has made peace with dwelling on the fringes and has accepted marginalization that he or they embrace good old fashioned Jew-bashing. An unsettling percentage of Americans don't much mind politicians dumping all over blacks (referenced by any number of dog-whistle euphemisms), immigrants, the poor, and people identifiably "foreign" living among us. Anti-Semitism, once as popular among the upper crust as among the lowest classes, is now too obviously gauche, too lower class to be accepted in Ivy League schools and corporate board rooms. This is not to suggest that anti-Semitism no longer exists, but that it is today more likely to be frowned upon in the same settings in which slanders against "thugs" and "welfare queens" and "the Mexicans" would still receive an approving nod.

When someone goes after The Jews in 2016, that is a person preparing for a life beyond the fringes of respectability in polite society. It is the difference between Ben Carson and Alex Jones; the former lives on the fringes of range of acceptable opinions, the latter is comfortably beyond them. Embracing the language and theories of The Protocols and Henry Ford (callback to Monday's post!) is a signal that post-Election 2016 Donald Trump is not going to be a figure welcome anywhere in polite society. He is about to be shunned as if he is toxic and he knows it, so like a smart, savvy self-promoting narcissist he is ensuring that the path is clear between his current place on the fringes and his future pandering to neo-Nazis and selling books and media programming to white nationalists.


Posted in Rants on October 17th, 2016 by Ed

Most Americans who are reasonably well informed about history know that Henry Ford was at least as important and influential to the development and popularity of anti-Semitism in the United States as he was to the automobile. That's saying a lot, given that it is almost impossible to overstate Ford's contributions to the latter industry. He can be credited with very few actual innovations in automotive engineering, as the Germans and French can claim most of the world's automotive "firsts" (which explains, incidentally, why so many French terms like chassis, limousine, chauffeur, coupe, garage, and carburetor made it into English). But like his friend Thomas Edison, where he excelled was not as an inventor but as someone who could apply ideas on a grand scale successfully. He took ideas available to him – both automotively and with anti-Semitism – and really made them work on a scale other proponents could hardly have imagined let alone executed.

The Dearborn Independent, Ford's anti-Jewish rag, was a source of friction (obviously) between Ford and his Jewish friends and colleagues. Most abandoned him without hesitation. One, powerful Detroit rabbi Leo Franklin, had been a friend of Ford long enough to attempt to appeal to him on a personal level. Franklin believed, as was undeniably the case, that Ford was a fundamentally decent person who simply wasn't very bright and was easily led to support wacky ideas outside of his narrow range of mechanical and organizational talents. During a libel trial, for example, Ford received great ridicule for being unable to answer grade school level questions about the world, such as the significance of the year 1776 to American history.

Alas, Franklin eventually gave up. When Ford representatives sent the rabbi a new Ford in 1920, as they did annually, he returned the gift. Informed of this by his underlings, Ford asked incredulously and sincerely, "What's wrong Dr. Franklin? Has anything come between us?"

Ford believed, as many people do, that he could be virulently anti-Jewish without that fact interfering with his personal relationships with Jews. He argued in essence, I don't like Jews in general or as a whole but of course I like YOU in particular, Jewish Friend. It's the classic soft racist "I'm not against all ______, just the bad ones. You're one of the good ones" tactic.

A few weeks ago a generally very good sports journalism website ran this piece, "Donald Trump is Tearing the NFL Apart," to offer an interesting look at how personal friendships are being strained by the current political climate. Certainly the clickbait title is alarmist and the "data" of the voting preferences of 25 black and 25 white players is useless in any meaningful sense, but despite that the underlying issue here is real. It turns out that when one supports a political candidate who is so outspokenly derogatory toward anyone who isn't a white Christian male and whose election would represent real, tangible threats to women, Hispanics, African-Americans, and other demographics, people might re-evaluate their friendship with you. And it is not difficult at all to imagine many of the white Trump supporters in that article being genuinely surprised that black players might not feel particularly close with them anymore after learning that they like a guy who has employed literally every form of coded racism known to man in his campaign, along with some of the more explicit type.

Americans – white ones in particular – are in love with the idea that politics and religion can be segregated neatly into a separate reality that does not have to interfere with friends and family relationships. And in many cases, it works well enough. I find it very difficult but not impossible to imagine someone breaking off a friendship because Joe decided to vote for the lukewarm hole in the atmosphere that was Mitt Romney. Sure, there are people whose lives would be worse off had he been elected (and others whose lives would be better, namely the super rich) but he was hardly a polarizing figure. Most people probably struggle to remember his name right now.

The Trump campaign has so openly embraced the style and message of European far-right nationalist parties, the white power movement, and other groups whose popularity derives from racism, xenophobia, or other Neanderthal sentiments from the bottom of the political barrel that it's not hard to understand why someone not defined as a Real American by Trump would take it personally that friends and family support him. We're never supposed to take politics personally. We're supposed to "leave those differences aside" and carry on while avoiding the subject for the sake of maintaining good relations. That concept works alright if we support different candidates in the usual narrow window of political disagreement found in American politics. We're not going to come to blows because your guy supports repealing the Estate Tax, even though I find that idea both stupid and immoral.

This is a long way of saying to the people who support Trump (and therefore would never read this) that "Let's agree to disagree and keep being friends" is a poor strategy this year. However you've managed to rationalize it in your head, supporting someone so openly and enthusiastically racist, xenophobic, and flat-out mean says a lot about you. White America already asks quite a lot of people we define as Not One of Us: that they protest, dress, behave, talk, think, act, and generally live in a way that makes us feel comfortable. And it is a deep irony that the same people most likely to cry "White privilege isn't real!" are the ones who expect black and Hispanic people in their lives (not to mention women, LGBT people, and a host of others Trump Cretins define as the enemy) to laugh off their Trump support or ignore it so that a bunch of angry white guys don't have hurt feelings and don't have to spend any time reflecting on what their endorsement of a de facto white supremacist says about them. If that isn't privilege, then nothing is.


Posted in Rants on October 12th, 2016 by Ed

A lot of people who have experienced it as a tactic of emotional abuse react negatively to applying the term "gaslighting" to politics, but this Jamelle Bouie article about the VP debate makes a convincing case that it is the best description for one of the Trump campaign's main strategies and, in the future, most toxic legacy.

I've been in two relationships where this has happened to me. It hits me hard and in an exaggeratedly personal way when I see this happen in a political context. As a tactic, there's no doubt that it works. After weeks and months of being told that you're crazy, that you're imagining things, that things that happened did not happen, that things that were said were not said…it's not much of a leap to questioning your own sanity and perception. And it's not easy to bounce back from, either. It has been several years since I got away from it and I'm not completely over thinking that way. The way I hold onto things, there's a decent chance I'll never be completely over it.

Only very rarely do I write about even the most trivial personal matters on here, so it feels very uncomfortable to throw this out there. But I bring it up to underscore the viscerally negative reaction I have to watching Trump and Pence use a calculated strategy of lying blatantly and assuming – correctly, in most cases – that Americans are too lazy, too uninterested, or too short of attention span to remember to check their statements for accuracy. There is no other explanation for why a candidate would repeatedly insist "I/he never said that" when it is so remarkably easy to verify in this day and age that it was in fact said. Hillary Clinton's campaign, just for example, had videos of Trump saying many of the things Pence asserted he never said circulating online before the debate even concluded.

To formulate a campaign strategy around a technique of abuse and manipulation says a lot about the kind of human beings we are dealing with here. Politics has always treated the truth somewhat casually. Interpretations of facts, statements, and events are often creative to say the least. But simply to insist that a verifiable fact, statement, or event is not true or did not happen is rarer than our cynical view on politics might conclude. Imagine if George H.W. Bush had campaigned in 1992 insisting that he never said "Read my lips" or if Bill Clinton continued to insist that he had no "sexual relations with that woman" even after evidence was brought to light that it did. People lie a lot in politics, but rarely do they continue to perpetuate a lie that can be so easily disproved.

It takes a remarkable amount of gall to do that on a worldwide television broadcast. Or it takes a total lack of respect for the dupes you perceive to be watching. Or it takes being a fundamentally abusive, manipulative, narcissistic person. The Venn Diagram of those three circles has Trump and Pence in the middle.


Posted in Rants on October 11th, 2016 by Ed

At the end of the summer I made some predictions about the general election, some of which were very specific and clearly aren't going to work out (e.g., Trump "firing" Pence as a publicity stunt now seems farcical, while Pence quitting the ticket in a desperate attempt to salvage his political future seems marginally more plausible). But we've reached a stage in this campaign that I've feared was coming since Trump became the presumptive nominee: The point at which he, a man psychologically incapable of accepting the idea of losing anything, realizes that there is not a chance in hell he is going to win. In fact, the odds are improving that he may receive a drubbing the likes of which we haven't seen since the Franklin Roosevelt years. Trump, in short, is dead in the water. It doesn't matter that everyone knows it; I'm not looking forward to what happens now that he knows it.

With one tweet, the Republican nominee for president essentially kicked off a month of what promises to be pure scorched Earth politics. If he can't win, then causing as much misery and destruction as possible on his way to the losers' podium is the next best thing. I still expect this to culminate with an insistence shortly before Election Day – timing the announcement to cause maximum damage to the GOP he now hates as much as the Democrats – that his supporters shouldn't bother voting, that he never really wanted to be president anyway, and that he's come to the conclusion that America does not deserve his genius. He's been laying the groundwork for his post-defeat narrative since the summer, creating a "Stab in the Back" legend before the ballots even had his name printed on them.

It appears that the Vagina Grabbing tape was the last straw for some of his less ardent supporters, and certainly we could have a field day talking about why that was a bridge too far when they had been willing previously to condone all the racist, xenophobic, proto-fascist things he has said. His chances of winning hover around statistical zero. People and organizations who haven't supported a Democrat for half a century or more are giving at least grudging support to Hillary Clinton. Her myriad flaws as a candidate don't even seem to matter at this point; the country is willing to settle for her strictly on the basis that she appears to be largely sane and not openly displaying most of the diagnostic criteria for sociopathy.

I do not for a moment relish the opportunity to see "unshackled" Donald Trump. If this has been him behaving, trying to appear likable, attempting to play within some kind of set of rules, then it strains the imagination to think of how much worse he can get. I feel like Sunday night's debate was a preview of the rest of the campaign; he made not the slightest effort to talk about any of the political issues where he makes some people think he sounds reasonable, instead going full Yahoo Comment Section. We're in for four weeks of Vince Foster, Benghazi, 33,000 emails, Sidney Blumenthal, and basically every idiotic right-wing conspiracy theory to enjoy any popularity on the internet at any point in the last 10 years. He's done with "We need to bring jobs back to the United States" and is casting his entire lot in with the revenge fantasies of the white underclass. Without even a passing effort to connect anything he says to reality or the truth, expect that any and every email forwarded to you by your least intelligent friends and relatives over the past few months to become a fully fledged talking point until November when this mercifully ends.

We are unaccustomed to uncompetitive presidential elections. The last real blowout took place in 1988, and 1984 before it was the last time the map was essentially one color. The Republican Party is going to come face to face with the hardest of the hard core of its base, and it's unlikely to like what it sees – a group of people whose views are medieval, inarticulate, and unmovable, and a group of people rapidly shrinking in this country. But that problem is not ours to solve. We need merely to find out a way to hold on for another month and then begin the process of purging this entire embarrassing, enraging experience from our collective unconscious.


Posted in Rants on October 4th, 2016 by Ed

I'm not much for providing practical information here unless splenic venting is suddenly practical. That said, my research on voter turnout requires me to keep up with changes in the processes of registration and voting, so it seemed worth the time to put together a short guide to ways that They are trying to make voting more difficult and what you can do about them. I can't lie: following these steps will take about five minutes of your time. I can't make it any easier than that, because registration and voting rules vary by state and I can't (OK, don't want to) type out the rules for every state in the union right here. Meet me halfway?

As a foreword, regardless of what ID requirements exist in your state, bring a valid photo ID with you – a passport, driver's license, State ID, or equivalent. This will be your best asset in any attempt to challenge your identity or residency. If you're a US citizen and reading this, my guess is you have one of these.

Now, onto the specifics:

1. Issue: You are not registered properly. Have you moved since the last time you voted? Has your state passed a totally not-racist law that kicks voters off the rolls if their name in the state system is not an exact match for the Social Security database? That's right, in some states like Georgia voters are being purged now if one database says, for example, "Jose" and the other says "José". Do you have a "hard" name, especially one that is hard for old white people? Do you sometimes go by Denise Hall-Smith and sometimes as Denise Hall? If any such conditions apply, it is worth it to double-check.
What to do about it: Contact your state board of elections now to verify your registration. Google your state board. The website may have a tool that allows you to search and verify your registration, but most SBOE websites are intentionally difficult to use. directs you to the relevant website in your state. If a phone call is necessary, call. If you have not yet registered, deadlines for most states occur within the next 10 days. Do it now. The NAACP offers this print-and-mail form, but most state websites have an easier process in place now.

2. Issue: Long lines. In some jurisdictions – I'll let you guess which ones – underproviding voting equipment and reducing the number of polling places is a passive-aggressive tactic to reduce turnout. People see a line out the door and get back in the car. In Maricopa County, Arizona, for example, the March 2016 primaries saw only one polling station per 20,000 voters (one per 1000 is considered average).
What to do about it: Two things. One, vote before Election Day. Two, if you cast an in-person Election Day vote (EDV), go in the morning if at all humanly possible. Every state now offers some kind of alternatives to in-person EDV. Does your state offer no questions asked absentee ballots? Request one now. Is early voting at a central location, usually your county courthouse, offered? If so, what dates? Are "Voting Centers" (as in New Mexico) available throughout your city, and if so, can you plan to visit one in a less crowded area? As far as voting on Election Day, polling places are like airports; the problems accumulate throughout the day and eventually choke the system to a halt. Just like that 6 AM flight is most likely to depart O'Hare on time, your vote at 8 AM is much, much less likely to encounter delays than a 6:30 PM vote. If your personal situation permits, vote early.

3. Issue: You don't know where to vote. Polling places are moved, and not infrequently. You may know where you voted in 2012 and 2014; is that the same place to vote in 2016?
What to do about it: Both your state's website and national databases like this one will show you the correct voting location for your registered address. In most states you must vote at this location. If your state uses "Voting Centers" you may have options, but assume that the polling place for your specific address is where you must plan on voting.

4. Issue: Someone tries to stop you from voting. This is 100% clear. Whether "poll watchers" are with an organized group or self-appointed vigilantes, no individual can prevent you from being able to vote. Being prepared to verify your identity and registration status is a good idea.
What to do about it: If someone challenges you, DO NOT LEAVE. Remain calm. You do not have to follow any orders that do not come from a law enforcement officer or a properly credentialed state or county election official. If available, use your phone to take pics or video of the person interfering with your rights. Provide ID documents to properly credentialed election officials. Call 866-OUR-VOTE and speak with an attorney for free to receive advice and report voter intimidation. Do. Not. Leave. Repeat firmly and calmly to properly credentialed election officials that you are entitled to a ballot until you are done voting.

5. Issue: OK, you screwed up. Now what? Sometimes people with good intentions do something wrong. Maybe you go to the wrong polling place or you got dropped from the registered voting rolls for some technical reason without your knowledge. Don't give up just because you are informed that something has gone wrong.
What to do about it: request a provisional ballot and instructions on how to fix whatever registration issue exists. This varies by state, but in most states you can cast a ballot that will not be counted until you have fixed your issue. Doing so often requires only some easy steps like signing an affidavit certifying that you are who you claim to be. If you visit the wrong polling place, a provisional ballot can be sent to your correct precinct after Election Day in most states. Do not be aggressive; you may be the one who made an innocent mistake here. The poll workers are volunteers following a set of rules. They should be prepared for the procedure of issuing a provisional ballot. If they are not, insist on speaking to someone who can. Call your state board of elections if necessary.

So, in summary, to ensure that none of the many efforts to trip citizens up in their efforts to vote are effective against you, do the following today. Not soon, not next week, but today.

1. Confirm your proper registration and polling place location.
2. Investigate alternatives – Can you vote early? Get an absentee ballot? Vote at a location other than your polling place?
3. Plan ahead. If you must vote on Election Day, go early in the morning rather than after work if at all possible. Confirm your polling hours, which vary by state.
4. Bring photo ID and phone numbers to report problems. 866-OUR-VOTE, the local chapter of the ACLU, the Justice Department voting hotline, and your state/county Boards of Election can all help in an emergency. Expect them to be very busy on Election Day.
5. Report any malfeasance you witness to one of these resources.
6. Help others if you see them being challenged.

You will spend 30 minutes watching Netflix and YouTube videos today. You certainly can devote a few of those minutes to following these simple steps to ensure that nothing stands between you and voting.


Posted in Rants on October 2nd, 2016 by Ed

The constant complaints from the right about the inaccuracy of polling reflects a deep-seated distrust of Math and Facts and Science that happens to disappear completely whenever the polls say they're doing well. It has been especially amusing this year to listen to their conspiracy theories, since anyone with even a passing understanding of the process (and challenges) of conducting polling today would realize that if anything they are likely to oversample the most likely Trump supporters.

I've always defended, and will continue to defend, the fundamental reliability of the polling. Is every polling firm totally above board and in compliance with AAPOR standards in every single poll they conduct? Of course not. There is always going to be a "pay the piper" element to polling conducted on the behalf of media outlets, parties, campaigns, and politically active groups. But taken as a whole, polling gets it right. Since 2000, polling has done an almost eerily good job of predicting election outcomes provided – and this is an important caveat – we are willing to accept "too close to call" as a valid result. One of the reasons that aggregate polls have become so popular as a predictive tool on sites like 538, Real Clear Politics, and is simple: it's really quite accurate.

Most polling agencies now incorporate some measure of online-administered responses in their samples, but telephone polling of both landline and cell users remains the backbone of the industry. And polling industry people will tell you that random samples do not materialize from random phone dialing. In theory it should, but here's the thing: while any phone number has an equal chance of being dialed by a random number generator, there is a bias to who actually 1) answers the phone and 2) stays on the line to participate once they realize that this is either telemarketing or a survey. One of the reasons pollsters have such a hard time getting young people, low income people, blacks and Hispanics, and other demographic groups in their samples is that those people are the least likely to stay on the phone and participate even if the survey team manages to reach them. For younger and cell-only users, they're unlikely to even answer when they see an unrecognized number.

So, to produce random samples survey researchers resort to a lot of…statistical adjustments. Weights are given to respondents until the sample roughly approximates their target population. Firms differ in whether their "ideal" sample is the population as a whole or their best guess at the demographics of the electorate that actually shows up to vote (different guesses about which groups of people will turn out and in what numbers are one of the key reasons that polls often vary slightly among firms). They get away with this largely because 1) Young people generally do not vote, so getting a sample with few young voters is survivable, 2) African-Americans and Hispanics are pretty monolithic in their Democratic preferences, so a small number can be weighted to represent a larger population without much error, and 3) old white people are both the most likely to respond when phoned and the most likely to vote.

Why is it that the majority of people responding – not being called, but actually responding – to polling calls are old? Well. They're more likely to be home when a pollster decides to call, especially after retirement. They're more likely to want to vent their opinions at someone. They're less likely to reflexively hang up on an obvious cold call because they developed their phone habits in an earlier era. And, I'm sorry to say, a lot of them are just lonely and want to talk to someone. The challenge of polling in this era certainly is not "How do we get enough likely Trump supporters in our sample, especially white ones over 55?" The challenge is getting anything other than that.

To that end, right wingers who complain about polling are correct: the unweighted sample drawn by polling firms is not truly representative of the demographics of the nation or even of the electorate. It is, if anything, over-representing the people who are most likely to be conservatives today.


Posted in Rants on September 28th, 2016 by Ed

It is not a secret that I've never cared much for Hillary Clinton. Personally, I find it difficult to get very enthusiastic about anyone in the "New Democrat / New Labour" (Bill) Clinton / Blair mode of the 1990s. It's obvious that they're willing to embrace neoliberalism if doing so helps them maintain a grip on power and some other part of their agenda deemed more important and worthy of sacrificing another part. The constant unwillingness to state a firm position until there is certainty that a sufficient majority of the public will express support for it irritates me to no end.

As for Hillary herself, she always struck me as highly driven, intelligent, and competent. She strikes me equally as someone for whom the aspect of politics that involves projecting personality and warmth do not come naturally. She does it, but she does it in a way that makes it easy to imagine highly priced consultants instructing her on how to do it while practicing before a triptych of mirrors. It's the difference between someone who smiles a lot and John McCain in 2008 after his advisers told him he needs to smile a lot. If you force it, it's gonna look worse than not doing it at all.

That said, I also consider "personality" a wildly overrated measure of candidates. We're not electing a mommy, a drinking buddy, or someone to sit shotgun on a coast-to-coast drive in a cramped car. I want intelligence and judgment in a candidate. It matters very little that Al Gore seems like he would be boring as hell to be around, and it matters a great deal that he probably wouldn't have started a war with Iraq just for shits and giggles on the deluded premise that it would only take a couple of weeks.

But for many, possibly most, voters personality is important. They will not learn enough about the candidates or issues in most cases to make a fully informed judgment, so being able to radiate that "You can trust me, you'd like me if you knew me" vibe is important – for Hillary Clinton and for everyone else. And for her 25 years on the national stage, Hillary Clinton has struggled mightily to generate that kind of feeling. We could talk endlessly about reasons why, particularly the impossible position women are in when trying to tread the line between Too Nice (which makes her ditzy and a lightweight) or Too Serious (which makes her a Bitch). For the present purposes it's sufficient to say that for whatever reason, Hillary Clinton has and always has had very high negatives and one of her most commonly cited vulnerabilities is the difficulty people have warming up to her. More charitable commentators describe her as "robotic" or "seemingly insincere." Less charitable ones print her name on t-shirts prominently featuring the word "bitch" or worse.

On Monday night, Donald Trump did what 25 years of effort on her part, on the part of her numerous advisers and paid staffers, and nine figures worth of advertising over the course of multiple campaigns could never do: he made Hillary Clinton look really human. A sympathetic figure, even if only for a few moments. He solved her most persistent weakness for her, and he did so because he is stupid and he doesn't think about anything he does before, while, or after he does it.

With even the smallest amount of pre-debate planning or forethought Trump would have realized that his "bully" routine was likely to play very poorly in this format to anyone who is not already a die-hard supporter. While Trump Nation would slap its diabetic hands together in glee at the spectacle – "Haw haw! You tell that stupid bitch! Me like big man!" – to everyone else it would look like a half-drunk CEO who calls all the female employees "sweetheart" berating, belittling, and talking over a woman vastly superior to him in experience (even if "bad experience"), intellect, and dignity. Would he have talked to a man the same way? Absolutely. We've seen him do it. But it wouldn't have looked nearly as bad. Her strategic choice to decline to respond to his behavior in kind required either the patience of sainthood or a Xanax scrip.

While most viewers tapped out of that shitshow within the first 45 minutes, I watched it start to finish. And in the last half hour, when Trump really went off the rails even by his standards, I felt something I had never imagined in a million years I would feel: I felt bad for Hillary Clinton. I felt tremendous sympathy for this successful, intelligent woman for whom I have refused to vote in two different elections as she had to stand there and put up with This Shit. I, and I suspect many viewers, felt empathy too – who among us, even men, has not been in the position of having to stand there while some asshole authority figure has talked over us, interrupted us, and generally treated us as something he finds stuck to his shoe after a stroll through the yard. Women probably felt that empathy even more keenly, having been talked over and disregarded by Big Men far more regularly than men experience it. I've never "liked" Hillary Clinton in that way before, and frankly making that happen is a feat of political wizardry on par with convincing America that former Andover and Yale cheerleader George W. Bush was a cowboy with a southern drawl. Trump did what consultants have spent careers trying to do without success; he made Hillary Clinton human and likable.

Hillary is someone who has, to my standards, led a very successful life. I don't pity her, even when people tear her to shreds. I'd give an arm and a leg to have any of the things she has and has had in her career. And somehow on that stage Monday evening, I looked at this multimillionaire, "one percenter" power broker, a member of the American oligarchy if ever there was one, and I felt as bad for her as I would for a nerdy kid getting picked on at the playground. Real, genuine sympathy and empathy. I cannot believe this woman has to put up with this shit, I thought, over and over. This is not fair, I said aloud in an empty apartment. She does not deserve this, because nobody deserves this, to stand there and have this adenoidal ass-clown con man, this ape in a suit, fling feces at her while she has to stand there and take it.

The unusual circumstances of this election – namely the specter of that same ape being the president, led me to conclude months ago that I would vote for Hillary Clinton despite the laundry list of doubts I have about her political positions and track record. There is good, there is bad, and there is unacceptable. When one candidate is unacceptable, you recognize the limited choices made available by the rules of our system, you recognize that life is rarely about getting what we want, and you vote for Not Unacceptable. For at least a few minutes on Monday night, though, I felt like I wanted to vote for her, not because of anything she says or believes but for the sheer disgust I felt at watching the way she was spoken to and treated. That, more than anything else, makes Donald Trump a virtual political miracle worker. He did for her what all the commercials and appearances on talk shows in the world never did. Good work, genius.


Posted in Rants on September 26th, 2016 by Ed

One of my favorite passages from The Man in the High Castle – in the previous scene, Tagomi has picked up an antique pistol and shot two German intelligence agents with lethal results to protect the life of another man. As a strict Buddhist, that Tagomi is struggling with what happened is obvious to all:

Mr. Baynes, seeing Mr. Tagomi distractedly manipulating the handful of vegetable stalks, recognized how deep the man's distress was. For him, Mr. Baynes thought, this event, his having had to kill and mutilate these two men, is not only dreadful; it is inexplicable. What can I say that might console him? He fired on my behalf; the moral responsibility for these two lives is therefore mine, and I accept it. I view it that way.

Coming over beside Mr. Baynes, General Tedeki said in a soft voice, 'You witness the man's despair. He, you see, was no doubt raised as a Buddhist. Even if not formally, the influence was there. A culture in which no life is to be taken; all lives holy.' Mr. Baynes nodded.

'He will recover his equilibrium,' General Tedeki continued. 'In time. Right now he has no standpoint by which he can view and comprehend his act. That book will help him, for it provides an external frame of reference.'

'I see,' Mr. Baynes said. He thought, Another frame of reference which might help him would be the Doctrine of Original Sin. I wonder if he has ever heard of it. We are all doomed to commit acts of cruelty or violence or evil; that is our destiny, due to ancient factors. Our karma. To save one life, Mr. Tagomi had to take two. The logical, balanced mind cannot make sense of that. A kindly man like Mr. Tagomi could be driven insane by the implications of such reality.

Monday evening's debate, about which there is little I can say that has not already been said or made obvious, was so hard for me to watch that I have a hard time putting words to my reaction. It probably is not apparent in a day and age in which patriotism is conflated with blind jingoism and outward, compensatory displays of masculinity involving guns, trucks, and military might, but…I really love this country. And since I was old enough to talk I've loved government and politics.

In kindergarten and first grade, my best friend and I took turns during recess playing Reagan and Gorbachev having a summit (I was weird). We alternated roles but still fought over being Reagan even when we knew it was not our turn. Before I grew into the eight cylinder bastard engine of cynicism I am today, I looked at elections the same way Catholics look at the Vatican. It was something good, something we could feel proud of. The older I get the more I see the inside of the sausage factory (and choosing to study elections for a living certainly accelerated that process) and the easier it is to be dubious about the motives of the parties involved and the fundamental fairness of the endeavor as a whole. But I haven't given up completely on them yet. Not quite.

What happened on that stage was more than just depressing to me. That inflicted a wound that is unlikely to heal soon and, I'm afraid, may be fatal for the hopes of getting younger people for whom this is their first election to care about this process. Not everyone falls out of the womb humming I'm Just a Bill; most people become young adults and then have to make a choice about whether or not politics is A Thing they will do. How many people checked out last night, and how many of them will never give it another try?

I have a multitude of amusing anecdotes I could tell about the explicit politics of my upbringing, but it was always, always emphasized to me that the process itself was good and had value and that even when your team doesn't win, it's still your country and you still respect that person who holds the office. You can complain about them a lot, but you never really lose. It's just that sometimes you don't win. No matter how vigorously we support Team GOP, the victory of the Hated Democrats was not a life altering calamity. The country is going to be OK because those people also want what's good for the country, they just have a different idea of what that is.

That is not how I felt on Monday night. I saw not only a man with whom I did not agree and who I think would be an atrocious president, but a man with utter contempt for the process itself even as he takes part in it. I knew that debate would be hard to watch; I had no idea it was going to be that hard. By the 60 minute mark I was looking for relief even though I knew damn well there was none to be found. It would only get worse, and the only point at which it would ever get better is when it ended. And now that it's over, everything still feels terrible. The only consolation is that Trump will almost certainly validate my earlier prediction by refusing to do another debate due to "bias" in the moderation.

The part that hurts is not that this is happening even though the people of this country do not deserve it. The worst part is knowing that we do. There is no hated monarch or foreign army to blame for this. We did this to ourselves because we embraced the right-wing fallacy that working toward a common goal will never succeed and instead we've thrown our lot in with nihilism. This goes beyond a statement of displeasure with Politicians and Candidates. This is the first step toward admitting to ourselves that a substantial minority of us see no value in elections and could do without them. Nobody who considers them valuable could watch this and tolerate it.


Posted in Rants on September 25th, 2016 by Ed

Thirty-three years ago today, just about everyone in the United States came closer to dying than they would realize for many years.

During the Cold War the USSR had some military capabilities that were great and others that were primitive. The former were usually of the brute force variety (large missiles, sturdy tanks, rugged planes) and the latter were generally high-tech things like satellites, electronics, and computers. So at the point at which the US and USSR had rough parity in the ability to rain nuclear warheads on one another, the USSR was decidedly behind in the ability to do things like detect missile launches.

In 1982 – I swear I'm giving you the short version, so bear with me – the USSR launched a generation of spy satellites called Oko (Eye) intended to give it the ability to detect American missile launches. It wasn't very good. It scanned the horizon for the visual signs of a missile plume or a flash at the point at which the curvature of the Earth met the blackness of space (think about that for a second, how insanely far-fetched that is). Each one also carried an optical telescope that ground observers could use to look for those same flashes and streaks. To do so, the technicians who monitored the optical 'scopes had to sit in a pitch dark room for two hours (!!!) to prepare their eyes to look through the dim, grainy, distant telescopes. At this point I want to reiterate that I'm not making any of this up.

In 1983, during a period of heightened tension precipitated by the unusual degree of paranoia among the – What can you write about the Cold War without using this phrase at least once? – "Aging Kremlin Hardliners" and the dick-waving belligerence of the Reagan administration who considered it some combination of productive and hilarious (mostly the latter) to feint like we were about to launch a nuclear attack but not actually do it. Ha ha! Good one. Had they known how bad the Soviet command and control system was, they might have thought better of that. Nah, they weren't strong on thinking.

On September 26 the Oko system began registering flashes on the horizon which were auto-detected by the computer. The human controllers also noticed a glint, seemingly offering more evidence. But the engineer in charge, one Stanislav Petrov, paused before kicking this up the chain of command. First, he knew all about the penchant for false alarms and overall mediocre data produced by the Oko system, the archaic Soviet computers, and the men squinting into telescopes at barely decipherable images. Second, he asked aloud why thee United States would initiate a nuclear attack on its mortal enemy by lobbing a single missile when all of the doctrine of the era suggested that nuclear attack was murder-suicide and the only hope for coming out ahead was to strike first in an overwhelming saturation attack? If this were The Big One, Petrov concluded, American bombers, submarines, and missiles would be inbound by the thousands. Instead there was one phantom missile launch that none of the powerful Soviet ground radars could pick up.

The alarmed Soviet chain of command, already on hair trigger alert due to international tensions (see also Able Archer 83 shortly after this incident), realized it had only seconds to decide what to do. If they waited too long and it was a real nuclear attack, the Soviet forces would be clobbered before they could retaliate. If they jumped the gun, so to speak, they'd be starting a war that would result in their own destruction in return. Due to Petrov's insistence and skepticism within the military at the effectiveness of the new satellite system, the Soviets declined to respond. Sweating bullets, in ten or fifteen minutes they were relieved to find that no missiles were landing anywhere. It turned out upon later analysis that Soviet mathematicians and designers chose a highly elliptical orbit for the satellites that left them susceptible, under very rare circumstances, to seeing "flashes" from sunlight off of high altitude clouds. The system was fixed by adding geostationary satellites for cross referencing.

I'm not telling this story just because it happens to be the anniversary today. I'm telling it to emphasize that sometimes the only thing between the planet and nuclear holocaust is human rationality; for all of our advanced technology, we still rely heavily on people of rationality and intellect to make correct judgments and decisions. Something worth keeping in mind tonight, just in case there is any kind of televised event that lays bare the temperament and intelligence of the people who are jockeying for control of the American nuclear arsenal.