MISSING THE POINT

If you follow on Facebook – and have been following for a long time – you probably recognize the name Chuck McKiernan, which is the online alias of a long-time reader and friend. He was suspended from Facebook for 72 hours recently for posting the following comment:

Of course when Facebook says "Someone from our review team confirmed…" what they mean is, we have some kind of algorithm that caught this. Because if a human, at least any human conversant in the English language, looked at that comment they would understand it immediately. Read it. Is anything even remotely unclear about the meaning or context? A child would read that and understand that it is sarcasm. This is the kind of thing that appears (or at least appeared!) in middle school English textbooks to demonstrate the concept of satire. Take a ridiculous claim and pretend to take it seriously to emphasize how silly it is.

On the other hand, Facebook recently announced in the wake of the Christchurch mosque terrorist attack that it will begin cracking down on white supremacist content on its platform. Predictably they announced that for public relations purposes and then it turned out that the policy is toothless window-dressing. For instance, Facebook confirmed that Canadian white supremacist Faith Goldy's videos about "white replacement" and "Eurabia" and various other prominent white nationalist tropes is…A-OK. So Facebook will crack down on white supremacy as long as the content explicitly shouts THIS IS WHITE SUPREMACY or WE ENCOURAGE YOU TO COMMIT ACTS OF VIOLENCE FOR WHICH WE WILL BE YOUR INSPIRATION FOR LEGAL PURPOSES. It's the cheapest kind of head-in-sand denial, like insisting that something isn't racist because it doesn't include explicit racial slurs.

I've gone to Facebook Jail a couple times, always for something utterly ridiculous and innocuous. Social media cannot self-regulate. Its mechanisms and policies for doing so are broken, the worst possible combination of denial of their real problems and comical over-reaction to minor issues. Did your post mention "Self Harm" in even an obviously unserious way? Ban! Did anything you said make someone else feel bad? Bullying! Ban! But if you want to take videos of Notre Dame cathedral on fire and doctor it to include audio of people shouting "Allah Akbar!" and distribute it…well, that's fine. No issues there.

When a major industry demonstrates conclusively that it cannot regulate itself there are only two choices. One is to throw up our hands and let them effectively set public policy by allowing them to regulate themselves. The other is to regulate them.

CENTRAL TENDENCIES

Every writer has an "idiolect," or a personal vocabulary of distinguishing words that they use a lot, or common words they use hardly at all. For example, Shakespeare rarely used the word "also" for some reason. In all of his writing the word appears a total of less than 40 times. His contemporaries used it as much as we use it today, which is to say: constantly. Shakespeare, for reasons known only to him, just did not use the word much. Maybe he didn't like it, or maybe it reflects some extreme hyper-local dialect of English he learned.

One of the things that stands out about my own writing is how often I use the word "accordingly." Another thing I say a lot – intentionally – is "modal."

I apologize in advance if this is information you already know, but I've had the experience several times in the last year of very intelligent people – editors, journalists, people in the publishing industry – send me edits on things I've written indicating that they are not clear what modal means. It is possible that in an academic field in which everyone is used to dealing with data sets I encounter that term regularly enough to assume it is common. But when people who know the language highlight it and say "This isn't clear, please explain" it obviously is less common elsewhere.

I say "modal" a lot because when people say "average," they almost always mean "modal." It's a pet peeve. Allow me very briefly to explain the most familiar measures of central tendency in data and explain why you see a certain kind of news story in political journalism that incorrectly substitutes average for modal.

Average (or mean) is widely understood. Add up the salaries of a group of 10, divide the sum by 10, and that is the average salary. Unfortunately average is also used in non-data contexts as an adjective meaning "ordinary" or "common." That is bad.

Why? Well here's a true story – of the 11 players on my high school football team's defense, our average net worth today is well over $5 million. Seriously. Ten of us make totally unremarkable incomes doing normal jobs, and the eleventh guy made over $50 million playing in the NFL. On average, we're all worth seven figures!

So, averages can be very misleading. Especially in smaller sets of data.

Median is the middle value that divides a set of observations in half. If the median household income in the US is $56,516. That means 50% of households earn less and 50% earn more. Imagine every observation in the data lined up in a row; the median is the one right in the middle.

While the median household income is $56,000, the average is $79,000. See? High values – people making billions of dollars – skew the average toward the right (on a simple graph).

That brings us, finally, to mode. The mode is the most commonly observed value in a data set. This generally is only useful – but then tends to be the most useful – when the data are categorized subjectively. For example, say we decided to categorize households as Rich, Middle Class, and Poor based on some subjective cutoff points. Count up the total number in each category; the one with the most is your mode.

Another great example of when mode is useful is academic: grades. Say the Dean wants to know how my students did in a course. There are 20 students. I calculate everyone's grade as a percentage of all possible points. I say, "The average grade was 80%." But what does that mean? There are almost infinite combinations of 20 percentages that will average to 80%. Maybe 16 students got 100% (A+) and 4 got 0% (F). Maybe all 20 got exactly 80% (B-). A better way to reflect the performance of the class would probably be to say, 16 students got an A+. But 4 students enrolled and never showed up, so they got an F.

That brings me to the reason I think about this daily: news stories about the "average" voter in the United States.

There is no "average" voter because several of the important variables for "measuring" voters are categories like race, gender, educational attainment, and so on are not continuous values. You cannot "average" race or the attainment of degrees in the American electorate. What you could do, just as one example, is to say that 44% of the electorate falls into the category of "White, no college degree." Therefore, the "Cletus Safari / Diner Enthusiast" guy constantly being interviewed in the media is not average; he cannot be. He is the modal American voter, as long as the criteria of interest are race and education.

It's a petty hill to die on, and most people understand fine what is meant in common usage when a journalist refers to the "average voter." But it is incorrect as well as silly – because we have a perfectly good term for what he or she actually means.

QUIT LIT

Internet-era tradition mandates that upon departing from academia, one must write the equivalent of a “Goodbye cruel world” note, a vituperative recounting of the lengthy list of slights, wrongs, and injustices we begin compiling on the first day of grad school. This genre is sometimes referred to as Quit Lit. I have no doubt that anyone who knows me expected the Quit Lit equivalent of Remembrance of Time Lost, filling volumes. I am sorry to disappoint. There's no anger, just a bit of sadness.

I like teaching. I like being a professor. I’ll miss it. I think I’m good at what I do, so in a sense it feels like a waste not to do it any longer (although who knows what the future holds). Academia will not miss me; there are hundreds of talented people out there waiting to fill a void on the tenure track. That, fundamentally, is the problem.

The thing called “fit” is real and the job market is abysmal, especially for people like me who are middling at best on paper. I am by any measure extraordinarily fortunate to have landed a tenure-track job, any tenure-track job. That said, it was a bad fit. I was not happy and I didn’t want to be there. Ideally I could have moved on to another institution where the fit might have been better. Unfortunately I could not make that happen.

If you read no further, before I tell the longer version of this tale, I want to emphasize that my colleagues at various institutions have all been kind and professional. My department chairs were fair and reasonable. The students were, well, students. That comes with the territory.

What this all boiled down to is that it was massively detrimental to my health and well-being to live in a dying Rust Belt city by myself. And my “solution” to that problem – moving to Chicago and driving seven hours round-trip to work – was never anything but a stopgap that negatively affected me in different ways.

***

In the fall of 2011, in what has been an annual ritual for the past decade, I applied for all of the available academic jobs in my field. For some reason I actually got several interviews that year. Unnamed School in Peoria, IL, interviewed me early in the process and offered me the first and only tenure-track job I’ve ever been offered. I took it, obviously.

Everyone in academia tells you, “Take the job. You have to take the job.” Tenure-track jobs are rare, hard to get, and almost universally seen as the end-all of academic existence within the field. The logic behind the advice is hard to dispute. However, there is a big catch: everyone else only has to tell you to go there; YOU actually have to do it.

People have attempted to debate me on this – usually people living in Chapel Hill, Athens GA, Portland, Boston, California, Atlanta, and the like. – and I have no desire to debate it any further, but I knew the second I visited for the interview that Peoria was going to be bad. Anyone who lectured me that it’s “not that bad” or whatever, all I can say is: knock yourself out. Move there. Move there by yourself at age 33, no kids and no spouse. Let me know how your mental health is after two or three years, and what your social life is like. There is nothing to do and nobody to do nothing with. Faculty who move there with a spouse or kids do alright. Faculty who do not tend to have a pretty rough time.

There are dozens of medium-sized cities just like it and they are all the same. Everyone with the ability and wherewithal to leave leaves. You are left with people who can’t get out, are too old to leave, or both. The economy is dying and gets worse every year. Again, if you choose not to believe me on this point there’s nothing more I can say except, go give it a try. In the summer of 2012, that's what I did.

After three years of living there, I was miserable and it was affecting the way I interacted with everyone around me. I was irritated and irritating. Unpleasant to be around. I spent ungodly amounts of time on social media, just to try recreating the feeling of interacting with other people. I didn't want to be, at less than 40, a grumpy, shitty old man who others disliked working with or being around.

In a Hail Mary bid to improve things, I moved to Chicago in 2015 and began commuting. Felt better immediately. I think I got back on track as far as being effective at my job and easier to work with. Not being depressed all the time helps, it turns out.

However, my routine was both a vast improvement on living in Peoria and untenable as a long-term strategy. For the past four years, I wake up at 4-something on Tuesday morning, drive three hours, teach 3 classes, spend Tuesday and Wednesday nights sleeping in my office (which, believe it or not, is poor quality sleep), teach 3 more classes on Thursday, then drive home 4 hours with traffic. I get home around 9 on Thursday evenings and essentially passed out for that night and half of Friday. It's tiring. I live out of a suitcase, factoring in the trips down to Texas on weekends to see Cathy (for whom and for whose patience I am eternally grateful).

I chose to do this. It was better than my alternative. Still, I was tired all the goddamn time and drinking the equivalent, between coffee and energy drinks, of 8-10 coffees worth of caffeine per day. My blood pressure went up 30 points in the first 2 years. I was happier, which was great. But I also knew I couldn't do this forever.

In 2017, I reached the real decision point, which was Tenure Time. Either I was making a commitment to the university – including moving back to Peoria – or I was moving on. After ruminating for what seemed like forever, I decided I was not moving back there or, more importantly, spending the rest of my life in a place that was deteriorating even in the short time I was there.

I also made the decision in the summer of 2017 that I was not going to get another academic job. I still wanted one, but I concluded that it was not going to happen. Too many excellent candidates fighting for too few jobs, and no way for me to really stand out among them.
So, I needed another plan.

I stopped doing my academic research altogether. Couldn’t see how it would benefit me anymore. If x publications didn’t get me a job, x+1 wouldn’t either. Instead, I decided I would use my last 1-2 years at the university doing the teaching part of my job – I never slacked on that, and gave it 100% to the last day, which is today – but replacing the research and “service” (don’t get me started) with trying to ramp up a writing career. When I made that decision I had never been published in a media outlet (only self-publishing) and I had never been paid to write anything, ever.

I was starting from scratch and not at all confident that I could make it work. But I decided I had to get creative in finding ways to generate income for myself. With the help of Mike Konczal, my best friend going on nearly 3 decades, I got in touch with some editors and pitched a few freelance pieces. Once I got the first one, everything felt easy after that. Ten-plus years of blogging made me pretty effective as a writer within certain subject areas and in a particular style. The money isn’t great but it’s something. After two years of this I’ve published over 50 pieces, slowly increased what I can get paid for it, and established some useful contacts.

More importantly, I devoted a lot of time to finally, finally putting together a book proposal for a non-academic book. I’ll say more about that when the time comes but the simple fact is, “a writer” is all I’ve ever really thought of myself being. If I do not try to make a go of it now, I never will and I’ll always regret it.

I also started a podcast, another thing I talked about forever but never tried. “Talk about it a lot but never try it” is a bad habit I fell into for, oh, 35 years. I started it from scratch and was surprised by the modest but tangible success I have had with it.

Neither podcasting nor writing freelance pays a lot. However, in less than 2 years from the moment (summer 2017) I decided to change directions, I am making about what I made as a professor. Let me quickly point out that this says a lot more about academic salaries than anything else. In seven years the faculty at my institution got two 1% raises. Think about that, and ask yourself in what other profession that would be considered acceptable.

***

Long-term, I have no idea if this works. I could end up tending bar, doing this forever, or magically landing another teaching position. Or all three. I don’t know. I’m 40 and I don’t know if what I’m doing will work. Fortunately I have no kids or spouse to support financially. I can take the risk. Writing and telling stories are the only things I’ve ever really been good at, fundamentally. Now's the time to see what I can do with that.

Academia is a weird thing. I began grad school in 2003. From 2003 until today, all I’ve done or thought about doing is being a tenure-track professor. And make no mistake, being a tenure-track professor is just about the greatest job in the world. But there's more to life than a job, and that's the rub if you're not an elite academic: you can get A Job, but you can't get a really good one. You can maybe be competitive for the ones that people who have a choice in these matters do not want. I ultimately decided against sacrificing all the other parts of my life to have what amounted to a middling academic job, living in a crap place and making the same salary for 40 years. I kept asking why I would do that and I had no answer.

Teaching is great. I will probably find some way to teach again – a community college course here or there, or whatever – in the future because I will miss it. I will not miss the politics of the profession and its delusions of "meritocracy." I will not miss having no leverage over what I get paid, where I live, or any other conditions of my employment. But despite those sour notes, I will miss being a professor. I’ll miss the classroom, the students, the colleagues, and the conferences even though all could be frustrating as well as rewarding.

Thanks for hearing me out, if you did. Thanks to everyone who helped me along the way, especially my faculty mentors during grad school, Marjorie Hershey and Ted Carmines. Thanks to everyone at University of Georgia who not only temporarily employed me as an adjunct but also helped me on the job market and in my career in every way I could have hoped. Thank you to everyone who put up with me in Peoria; the department deserves a colleague who is 100% committed to being there instead of looking for a way out and spending as little time on campus as possible – and they have one now. That is better for everyone, including me. I will miss going to the office, but I will not miss sleeping in it. I'm exhausted after four years of this, and the three years of talking to myself that preceded it. This whole interminable experience was unhealthy and wore me down mentally and otherwise. I am happy for it to end, despite all the things I will miss.

I’ve said enough over the years about the things about academia that suck. People tolerate the lows because the highs are great. My last day and last class are still going to be sad. I feel extremely strange about this, because I have spent so much time – nearly 20 years – focused on Being a Professor. The adjustment to life beyond that is not going to be without turbulence. It is possible, and I am living proof of this every day, to make a decision that is equal parts painful and absolutely necessary.

Let’s see what happens next. I’m excited.

ASS BACKWARD

I hate to refer specifically to the comments of a writer I actually like – whose writing about why nobody On The Internet owes people their time helped me a great deal when this stuff was getting less fun for me – but there's a Twitter thread that captures a lot of what's wrong with liberal/centrist politics right now. She's hardly the only person to make arguments like this. It's just recent, and got a lot of circulation due to her high profile.

To summarize briefly if you don't care to wade through the entire thing:

1. Pete Buttigieg is good and we should like him even though his stances on the issues are bad
2. Bernie Sanders is bad ("cancelled") even though his stances on the issues are good

As best I can tell, Mayor Pete is likable so it's OK if he takes crappy positions aimed at appeasing the white suburban 50-plus Democratic base alone. Bernie is mean, or was mean to Hillary, or has supporters on the internet who are mean, or something, so it doesn't matter that he is about the only elected official standing up for something the writer of that tweet claims is important (felon re-enfranchisement).

This isn't about liking or disliking either Buttigieg or Sanders. That's not relevant right now. What makes this worth reading is that this is just stupendously dumb logic. It is so completely and obviously backwards that I will just assume anyone who agrees with this line of thought realizes it is illogical and just doesn't care.

The issue of letting the incarcerated vote (in the 48 states that do not currently allow it) isn't even a policy proposal; it's a question that came up during a media appearance. It is an absolute slam-dunk for any Democrat seeking to demonstrate that they as individuals and the party as a whole takes criminal justice reform seriously. Instead, most of them did what they always do and back down to appease uneasy white suburban voters. Two years from now they'll be asking, "Gosh why didn't black and hispanic voters turn out to vote for Mayor Pete? We tried everything!" To someone like this author, a Philips Exeter alum, it might seem self-evident why Pete deserves the benefit of the doubt. To the rest of us worried about the future, he just sounds like a guy who doesn't know what he stands for and reads West Wing monologues.

Issues are important to a lot of people. Not the symbolism of having a president who is Cool and Smart but won't actually advocate for anything. If that's the goal, nominate Beto or some model from the fashion runway. Nominate a celebrity everyone likes. If the candidates' positions don't matter, then go all-in with that theory. When the only thing that matters is that the elected official has a D next to his or her name, you get Rahm Emanuel and Andrew Cuomo. You have to be pretty goddamn comfortable in life, and thus unaffected by their worship of the status quo, to think that's the best we can do.

I get that a lot of voters, perhaps even a majority of voters, make decisions based on subjective Likability stuff that is nonsense. But there are a ton of candidates available, some of whom qualify as Charismatic or Likable and some of whom qualify as people who actually support useful and creative policy ideas. It is way, way too early in the process to decide that there's no chance to get a candidate who has both, so we need to simply accept another smiling empty suit and resign ourselves to platitudes.

Lastly, the phrase "There is no perfect candidate" is quickly becoming the "It's not a democracy, it's a republic" of people who support shit candidates. It is beyond obvious that no candidate is perfect; that's not an argument in favor of supporting a bad one when there are so many options available. If the car is rusted out you don't shrug your shoulders and say, "Well no car is perfect I guess!" You look at one of the other cars on the lot. If the rust bucket really does turn out to be the absolute best option available, somehow, then buy it. But be very wary of anyone telling you to suck it up and buy it because that's not merely as good as it gets, but it's as good as things ever CAN get.

IN THE AIR TONIGHT

On Sunday I attended a birthday party for a toddler. Don't panic; I was invited.

There are not many things a two-year old loves more than balloons, and the adults responsible for this event went hard in the balloon department. The child was thrilled, confronted with a veritable embarrassment of balloon options.

Some of the adults noticed, however, a trend that has been ramping up for a couple years – that helium balloons, once barely able to be restrained from breaking the surly bonds of gravity and rocketing skyward, are curiously lethargic these days. It's not just your memory making things from childhood more exciting. Buy a balloon in 2019 and there's an outstanding chance it has a watered-down mixture of helium with other non-buoyant gases because, as I quickly found myself addressing all of the adults who looked bored and alarmed at the childless man in their presence, the planet is running out of helium.

The global supply of helium is tight. All of the helium available in commercial quantities comes from one of three places – West Texas, one gas field in Qatar, and some reserves in Wyoming. For years the Texas supply was satisfying most of global demand. It is almost empty, though, and Qatar has been hit by some economic and political sanctions that have made its supply hard to get on the market as well. The result is that in the past two years the price of helium has gone – wait for it – sky high.

Helium can be manufactured, but it's expensive to do so. It can be extracted from natural gas, and Russia (which has natural gas aplenty, like the US) is proposing to start up production soon. All of this raises the interesting and not-obvious question of why anyone cares about helium.

True, much of it goes into balloons and is inhaled at parties for comedic effect. Those sort of novelty uses may disappear, though, because helium is also crucial to a lot of high-tech manufacturing. MRI machines are full of it and helium-filled assembly spaces are also crucial in the manufacture of semiconductors and other micro-electronics. It's certainly not the sexiest natural resource – and again, the fact that it can be manufactured probably eases some of the alarm – but it's one of many off-the-radar resources that are being strained these days.

It turns out that most of the cobalt on Earth is in the DR Congo, a politically unstable, corrupt, and poverty-stricken country. Smartphones require ready supplies of metals you haven't thought about since you learned the periodic table like tantalum (Rwanda, DRC) and praseodymium. China, Brazil, and Russia have 90% of global reserves of Rare Earth Metals, most of which are very difficult to mine and process without creating a lot of toxic byproducts. China is currently shitting up Inner Mongolia in its quest to mine and refine as many of these rare metals as possible.

We've become sort of numb to hearing alarming things about the planet and our natural resources. God knows there are enough really alarming things to worry about like running out of oil, potable water, and phosphorus (an essential agricultural additive we're on pace to exhaust by about 2070). There are 7 billion of us and counting, and in the distant future the story of the 21st Century is likely to be one of conflict stemming from increased competition for scarce resources.

TRUST US, WE'RE WARM BODIES

Credentialism is pretty gross. Then again, so is anointing anyone and everyone an expert – or even just a well-informed person with a valid opinion – simply because they're saying what you want to hear.

In the past couple weeks House Republicans have brought to testify before Congress, among others, Diamond & Silk, Gateway Pundit, and most recently, Candace Owens of Charlie Kirk's wet diaper of a pressure group TP USA. Owens achieved her greatest mainstream fame (which is to say, outside of right-wing social media circles) when she spent a minute defending Hitler on stage during a TPUSA event.

The most amusing thing about Kirk and Owens is that both are college dropouts. Kirk barely even went to college before quitting, while Owens couldn't handle the intense academic rigors of University of Rhode Island. Yet not only are they the right's great spokespeople for what's happening On Campus these days (hint: exactly what old white Fox News addicts suspect! Cultural Marxism! Silencing important conservative voices!) but here we have Owens literally testifying to Congress about important historical events.

The lack of credentials does not preclude one from having an important and useful intellectual contribution to make, nor does the presence of a credential – I have a goddamn Ph.D., to cite one useful example – mean that one is correct or has useful intellectual contributions to make. I could do 100,000 words on books and articles that are not just good, interesting reads but advance our understanding of the world in important ways, all written by people with no particular credentials. Useful knowledge about history can be and often is provided by people who aren't Official Historians with a degree and a job title to prove it.

The fundamental problem with people like Owens, and the right's infatuation with them, is not that they lack college degrees or other credentials; it is that Owens has absolutely no goddamn idea what she's talking about. At all. She gets the most basic facts wrong. Her arguments do not make logical sense even if considered in a vacuum. Her basic strategy is to define a concept incorrectly and then apply the incorrect definition to historical facts that are misrepresented. Like everything the right wing "Expert" machine churns out, everything she says and writes is utterly without redeeming value. It's entertainment for old white people. It is to informative non-fiction writing what Fox News is to journalism; being correct isn't even the point.

You might say, with some justification, "Who the hell is Candace Owens and who gives a shit." It is dangerous to underrate, though, just how important the redefinition of expertise is to modern conservatism. A "historian" is whoever is repeating the interpretation of history that you would prefer to believe is true. And they use the egalitarian impulse – Hey, does someone need a fancy-pants Ph.D. in order to be correct? – to great advantage. That is a very useful red herring, because of course the answer is No. No degree is needed to state facts correctly or offer a valid interpretation of history. But that rhetorical trick overlooks the fact that the speaker, Owens in this instance, is completely wrong about everything. She is not wrong because she didn't finish college – she is wrong because everything she says and believes is wrong.

"Credentialism is Elitism" is a useful defense for the right because 99.9% of us have no special expertise or credential to speak on any given topic. That's not wrong. It's also entirely beside the point. History can be written by the Person Off the Street, and it has been. But that's a far cry from saying that it can be written by anyone and everyone. Go find a goddamn library and write something that isn't completely incorrect and based on fallacious, bad-faith arguments and no one will even feel the need to ask if the author went to college.

WORKIN' IT

The announcement that bland Ohioan Tim Ryan is going to throw his hat into the ring for the Democratic nomination are infuriating for reasons that have little to do with Ryan himself. Like 99.9% of people outside the area he represents in Congress, I don't have any reason to like or dislike him right now. But I'm leaning toward the latter based on some of the language he and the people reporting on his announcement are using to describe why such a non-entity thinks he can be competitive in this election.

Do a quick twitter search for "Tim Ryan working class" and you'll see how many headlines and reports (from actual journalists, not just random users) run with the talking point his campaign people obviously wanted to push: Tim Ryan is the guy who can win the Working Class in the Midwest.

In this kind of usage, "working class" is a euphemism for white. Otherwise it makes no sense, since the demographics of the "working class" in the United States is nothing like what it is across rural, deep-red Ohio and Indiana. I understand the dilemma here, since neither the media nor the candidate can straight-up say "Well I'm gonna run because I think I can appeal to more white people." On the surface I suppose that's not much different than other things candidates say out loud like, "I think ____ can appeal to Latino voters" or whatever. But the issue here is that "Working Class" as a euphemism for white is employing a phrase that has an actual meaning. "Working class" is a thing that, although competing definitions exist, has a definition. If you feel like a euphemism is needed, pick something that isn't already serving a purpose to describe a real demographic.

Also, with no malice in my heart I'm gonna go out on a limb and predict Congressman Ryan is the first candidate to quit. I just don't see the point of this beyond its redundant appeal to supporters of candidates like Beto, Klobuchar, Biden, and Gillibrand.

SOLIDARITY

On this date in 1981, 12 million Polish adults were at home rather than at their workplace at 8 AM. They stayed at home until the noon, when they returned to work. The 12 million represented nearly the entire Polish workforce outside of the military or the state party apparatus. It was, in essence, every adult in the country who was not directly part of the ruling clique.

English-language historians call this the Warning Strike – a short blast across the bow – while in Poland it's better known as the Bydgoszcz strike. It came in response to what was euphemistically called the "Bydgoszcz events" in which numerous prominent Solidarity labor union leaders were detained and brutally beaten by secret police. The state, as was customary in the Eastern Bloc, clumsily tried to explain away the incidents by claiming that the labor leaders had been in car accidents, had fallen down stairs, or had beaten one another up while drunk.

The state-sanctioned Polish United Workers Party (PZPR) agreed to meet with Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa in response to public unrest after the "events," and apparently the government concluded that Walesa and his informal union talked a good game but lacked the will or the ability to carry out any sort of large-scale labor action. Within two days – 48 hours – of that meeting, Walesa's group organized and carried out the nationwide four-hour stoppage.

Think about that. Imagine organizing something across the entirety of Poland – not a small piece of land – in 1981 with no mass communication at your disposal. No twitter. No radio stations. Unreliable East German phone service. More remarkable, imagine getting 12 million people to go on strike together. A British journalist in Poland called it, "the most impressive democratic mass mobilization of any modern European society in peacetime, against its rulers' wishes."

Imagine having that kind of solidarity. Imagine the state brutally beating a handful of your fellow citizens and, with hardly any prompting, every adult in the country sending a message by walking out of work together. Think about what they accomplished compared to the situation the U.S. (and Poland, for that matter) finds itself in today.

Instead of telling the government, "Enough, we're not gonna sit back and accept this," half of us cheer them on. We make excuses, blame the victims, and let the police know how eager we are to see more of our neighbors beaten for speaking out. The other half of us may be more sympathetic but we're too terrified of being fired, or even just missing a couple hours of wages, to dream of doing anything as daring as…taking a morning off.

It's really sad to think of how effective it is, and has been, for a population to be united and speak with one voice given how impossible it seems to do that today. We know it's effective; we can see how well it has worked in the past. We just can't do it. Imagine all the problems in this society we could address, if only.

TURNING POINT

I've written sparingly about the Russia stuff. As I expected – and this is not a novel thought, as many other smarter people were issuing the same warning – there was no Great Big Reveal in the Mueller Report.

I know why you're disappointed: you're disappointed because you wanted to have faith in The System and believe that The System would work. But the system doesn't work; it never has and it certainly isn't going to start now.

Over time the Russiagate crowd really started to rub me the wrong way, and my sniping at them got more caustic and frequent (as many of you noticed, sometimes approvingly and sometimes not). It's not that there's any part of me that believes Donald Trump's campaign didn't do anything wrong. It was the clear drift toward conspiracy theory thinking and language. I started calling it Liberal QAnon at one point and while that's an exaggeration – nobody is as insane as QAnon people – it's uncomfortably close even if the two are not identical.

Robert Mueller was latched onto as a savior by a lot of the same people who very deeply wanted to believe that Hillary Clinton didn't lose the 2016 election, because if that belief could be maintained then there is no need for any kind of self-reflection about what might have led to Hillary Clinton losing the 2016 election. You could see this kind of mental gymnastics on MSNBC most prominently, where every show that isn't Chris Hayes sort of veered into full-time Russia speculation.

"Hey, maybe we got fucked by the Electoral College, what can we do to prevent that in 2020?" or "I dunno, maybe the campaign did some things wrong, what were they so we don't do them again?" are two lines of thought that could have been productive but, if not entirely avoided, have certainly been sidetracked in favor of Russia conspiracy theories and other ways of casting blame for what happened on anyone BUT the candidate. It was Russia, or if not Russia it was Comey, or if not Comey it was Bernie Bros, or if not Bernie Bros it was blah blah blah.

This feels like a good turning point. The Democratic candidates in 2018 barely talked about Russia – and many of them did extremely well. The idea that anyone was going to be running on The Mueller Report in 2020 is a figment of the Sunday pundit imagination. But the pedestrian ending of the Mueller investigation – yes, it resulted in a lot of indictments and uncovered a lot of evidence of crimes, but the final report doesn't seem to have added to what we learned slowly over the past two years – is an excellent opportunity for a clean break. Stop thinking about Russia. Stop talking about Russia. Russia tried to fuck with our election. They will try again in 2020. Russia wants a destabilized U.S. because that suits its foreign policy and economic ambitions. None of this is new and nothing has changed.

But seizing upon Russia as the focus of what's going on in politics right now, and more importantly as a catch-all explanation for what happened in 2016, simply isn't productive. This went from an intriguing story to something of an obsession with a minority of liberals, and 2018 candidates were right to ignore them and focus on things that will help them win elections. Health care available to everyone. Increasing wages. Oversight of the Executive Branch. Weaning the country off fossil fuels in the long run.

These things are all popular. Let's rally around that instead of "Trump is a criminal." Talking about Don Jr.'s meetings with the Russians at Trump Tower is not of interest to anyone outside a narrow circle right now. If it isn't obvious yet that Trump is going to suffer no legal or political consequences at all from his wrongdoing and that neither life nor our system are fair, I don't know what it's going to take to convince you of that. If your reaction to the Mueller news is, "Well just wait til the SDNY prosecutors start going!" or "Russia must have compromised Mueller" or anything other than "OK, this fits the well established pattern of Republicans and Donald Trump doing whatever the fuck they want and getting away with it," you need to take a deep breath and reconsider.

As I've said from the beginning, the only thing short of the 2020 election that could bring down Donald Trump is the Republicans in Congress deciding that he was a threat to their survival and throwing him under the bus. They have instead decided that electorally it is to their benefit to cover for him. So be it. No amount of evidence can change that. And it's hard to imagine who in the voting public remains on the fence about this. By now you're either one of the 42% of people who love and support Trump no matter what, or you hate him. Nobody's really changing their mind three years into this.

It's disappointing to see behind the curtain and realize how goddamn unfair everything is, including and perhaps especially criminal justice. Yeah, rich white right-wing assholes can get away with pretty much anything. Nobody who supports Donald Trump gives half a shit if he committed a felony or a thousand felonies. He could behead their children and these people would cheer him for it. Nothing Robert Mueller said or could say was going to change those basic facts about our political landscape.

So my advice is to do what many of us did at some point throughout this lengthy process: stop thinking about it. Assume nothing is ever going to come of it, and be pleasantly surprised if anyone is ever held to account for their crimes. It would have been nice to have some big reveal at the end, Robert Mueller's unassailable conclusion (complete with video evidence) of Trump doing X, Y, and Z with the wrong people. But it wasn't realistic to expect that. To continue to hope for it in the future goes beyond unrealistic and tiptoes uncomfortably close to an obsession.

In short, everything sucks, nothing is fair, and rich, shady assholes get away with being rich, shady assholes. These things apply to Donald Trump because they apply broadly to our society. I don't like it, but at 40 I am used to it.

THE BIG LIE

The college admissions process will never be meritocratic. There's just too many variables, too many incentives for universities to do things for the wrong reason, and too much disagreement about what even constitutes "merit" or "fairness" for anything approaching either term to exist.

What's worse is that academia will respond to this bad publicity the only way it is capable of responding to anything: with more administration. The second I saw this news story I could picture the Associate Dean of Application Decision Review being hired at five times a faculty salary, the Merit Consultants whipping together a website and business cards, and the creaking sound of yet another layer of institutional bullshit being dropped atop the basic academic mission of a university (which seems to keep receding further into the background). Faculty committees to review applications. Faculty committees to review the committee reviewing the applications. More "metrics." More paperwork. More compliance officers. All of it.

That's what will happen, because trying to quantify and enforce a quantitative approach to "fair" enrollment decisions is like trying to hold a puddle of mercury. You just can't do it. Every student's family situation is different. Some of these kids went to high schools that are better than a lot of colleges; some went to high schools where they turn the lights off two days per week because they're so broke. Standardized testing is the most consistent measure available but it's easy to boost performance by throwing money at it – tutors, prep classes, practice tests, and the like. Then add in all the various goals universities are trying to accomplish – well-rounded students who participate in the community, in sports, in non-classroom intellectual activity, and most of all a diverse student body that isn't just a bunch of white kids from the suburbs – and it's just futile to adjudge "merit" like it's some objective thing.

A better solution might be to stop telling students constantly that academia, or life in general for that matter, is a meritocracy. Yes kids, having balls-rich parents or being exceptionally well connected are big advantages. People who have those advantages get things us normals will not get. The whole idea of anything in this fundamentally unequal society is a meritocracy is so silly that students should never be taught such a thing in the first place. Life isn't fair. College admissions are not, college is not, the job market after college is not, your future workplace will not be, the economy is not, and on and on.

I'm not saying it isn't worth it to strive toward fairness and equality, but given the systems in place in this country we are so ludicrously far from either that we're flat-out lying to kids by telling them anything is either fair or equal. There is nothing wrong with telling kids, yes, some kids get into Harvard because their parents went there. Or because they donated $2.5 million. Some day you will work for a boss who has her job because the company is owned by her dad. Some day you will apply for a job and not get it because you're not buddies with the hiring manager.

Basically, why not treat this the same as the criminal justice system and just do away with the pretense that any aspect of it is blind, fair, or meritocratic? Even in the unlikely event that the problems with inequality in these processes is fixed, it certainly won't be happening anytime soon. Aren't we getting tired of pretending?