OWN IT

Posted in Rants on July 20th, 2014 by Ed

In ten-plus years of regularly updating this site I can't remember having written a single thing about the Israel-Palestine conflict. If I have, it escapes my unusually detailed memory in matters like this. I see the conflict as essentially intractable, with Israeli politics driven by right-wing militant assholes who look, act, and sound exactly like the right-wing militant assholes we have here in America (which explains the post-Cold War love affair with Israel on the American right) and Palestinian politics driven by extremist "Wipe Israel off the map" types. Neither nation – the textbook definition, as in a group of people with common culture, language, and historical background – is led by people representative of the public will. This is to say that I believe a two-state solution could easily be hammered out of we shot all of the political and military leaders and selected an average soldier, cabdriver, teacher, ten year-old, and housewife from each nation and locked them in a room until they came to an agreement.

Reporting on the conflict also tends to the ridiculous extremes: the virtuous Israelis defending themselves against subhuman terrorist child-killers, or the poor, defenseless, blameless Palestinians minding their own business until Israel decides to start killing people en masse. On balance, in recent years my sympathies are probably more on the Palestinian side but I want to be emphatic that I see no Good Guys and Bad Guys in the conflict. Both groups of people have legitimate historical and current grievances, and both have been responsible for a lot of wanton destruction over the years. It takes a motivated brand of thinking to look at Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon and argue that one is a terrorist and the other a paragon of virtue. Nobody has the moral high ground. That was abandoned decades ago in favor of a grinding slugfest, a war of attrition led by dead-enders in both camps.

One thing, however, consistently bothers me. It bothers me so much that after ten years I finally feel like it's worth pointing out, and it explains why I find the current Israeli political leadership so unworthy of respect. It's the "human shields" argument. They use it over and over and over again. The U.S., not incidentally, used it during the 1991 Gulf War as well. All but the most Kool Aid-soused partisans understand that the "human shields" argument is bullshit. It is a charge you level at the enemy when you killed a bunch of civilians and you aren't willing to accept responsibility for it.

War is awful. Awful things happen to innocent and not-so-innocent people alike. When a nation chooses to wage war, it needs to accept its fundamental..awfulness. When you decide to go to war, you have to be prepared to kill civilians because the killing of civilians is an absolutely unavoidable part of modern warfare. You take the greatest possible pains to avoid doing it, but it happens. Here's what anyone with an ounce of honor and a sense of real leadership in the political-military sense would say when a bunch of Palestinian civilians are killed in air strikes: "We regret that civilians were killed. While we make the greatest effort to avoid harming civilians, we recognize that it is a reality of this kind of warfare. Our enemy operates from urban areas and thus even with great caution, civilians are unfortunately in the line of fire. We hope to end this conflict as quickly as possible so that no further suffering is necessary."

In other words, grow some fucking balls and own it. Be responsible for your own actions and, if you honestly believe your cause is just, defend them. Instead, we get "human shields." Yeah, that must be why there are dead civilians. It certainly couldn't be that military strikes are nowhere near as precise as governments the world around would have people believe. Which seems more plausible – Hamas lining up children to serve as human shields, or an Israeli strike on a military target causing collateral damage to nearby civilians?

If a nation is not willing to accept the consequences of waging war and instead pursues the cowardly tactic of attempting to shift moral responsibility for its own actions onto the enemy, it should re-examine the virtuousness of its cause. If the act requires a propaganda-based defense to justify it, the nation would do well to consider whether it is truly the best course of action.

And that's all I have to say about that.

STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE

Posted in Rants on July 14th, 2014 by Ed

Here's a long, well-written piece about a factory closing in Sparta, TN. It's OK if you don't have enough time to read the entire thing, since you have already read this story dozens of times by now. You know the drill: Everyone worked hard and lived decently until The Company shuttered the factory and moved to Mexico or China. The town is now suffering from collective PTSD, with much of the population fleeing or sinking into poverty and vice; the few people who have been able to transition into other work are making peanuts and living paycheck to paycheck at a job that is likely to disappear soon and without warning. The role of the government is to come in and set up totally ineffective "retraining" programs among the rubble.

Once you read the first few paragraphs, you can finish the rest of it in your head. Only the names and locations change. We know this story by heart. We have read it before and we will read it again.

The question is, how many times is this story going to play out before Americans have had enough? Will the strategy of distracting the working class with "social issues" and redirecting their anger toward convenient scapegoats (minorities, The Gub'mint, immigrants) work indefinitely? Will we ever reach a point at which people refuse to take this shit any longer?

The most common criticism I get from this site is that I spend very little time (close to none, honestly) talking about solutions and lots of time talking about how much everything is screwed up. This is not an accident. I believe – and clearly there are people who disagree, and there are plenty of other sites for them to read – that it is facile and intellectually dishonest to peddle "solutions" to social problems of this magnitude. To do so would involve one of two things: advocating overarching solutions that are beyond anyone's ability to implement (Let's change our entire political system and the way that several hundred million people think about social responsibility and class!) or pitching achievable but ultimately useless solutions to make people feel like they're doing something (Write your Congressman!).

That is a long way of saying that I understand that figuring out what to do and how is a major obstacle to action. It's hard to expect people to Do Something when it is clear that nobody has any useful idea of what to do. I am amazed, though, by our capacity to hear this story over and over again without being affected by it, or by the capacity of people directly affected by these situations to do nothing but fume, watch more Fox News, and inveigh against the Unions and the Libtards and gee if only the rich didn't have to pay so much in taxes somehow my life would be better.

Roger & Me came out in 1989. Harlan County U.S.A. came out in 1976. The Grapes of Wrath has been on high school reading lists since the 40s. We've heard and seen this story repeatedly. We know exactly how it ends, every single time. We know, based on our post-1980 lurch to the right, that politically and economically fellating the rich doesn't fix the problem and functions only to make it really awesome to be rich. People appear to have breaking points, at least on some issues. After three decades of hearing this same story the only thing about them that remains interesting is the fact that yet another group of people in another town have been ground to dust and nobody intends to do anything other than sit back and wait for it to happen again.

STRONG SUITS

Posted in Rants on July 8th, 2014 by Ed

The inevitable has happened in Iraq as its US-backed government and military have proven themselves unable to exercise any authority over the country without an American military presence on the ground. Shockingly, all that stuff George W. Bush told us about the Iraqis standing up so we could stand down was bullshit and the Iraqi Army consists of a bunch of guys who signed up for a paycheck, food, and a gun with every intention of bolting at the first hint of fighting. Hell, the South Vietnamese put up a better fight than this (and despite the clear and obvious parallels to the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam and the collapse of the Saigon regime, please remember that Iraq is not like Vietnam at all. Nope.)

Believe it or not, the history books a century from now would actually chalk up the Iraq War as a win if some kind of stable, democratic government run by something other than religious extremists or borderline terrorist groups had taken root. For a brief moment it looked like it could happen – the US troops left and everything didn't immediately collapse in a heap. The time for wishful thinking is over though, and we are now forced to confront the reality that this effort at "nation building" has gone about as well as any of our previous efforts.

This raises an important soul-searching question for the United States: What exactly are we good at anymore? At least during the Cold War we were able to prop up right-wing dictators or interfere with the internal politics of tinpot countries enough to ensure that the right strongman was "elected." Now we can't even do that right. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (where all efforts at Nation Building / winning Hearts and Minds have been abandoned and ground forces are now exclusively interdicting terrorists) have proven definitively that our conventional military power – honestly the only thing we have as a nation at this point that we can claim is Number One and not be fooling ourselves – is of limited use in the modern world. We're great at it. We can blow up your tanks, shoot down your planes, sink your ships, and bomb your cities into oblivion better than anyone else. The question is, so what? What good is that anymore? If we have to fight a conventional World War III with Russia or China – doubtful at best – we'll do quite well. With that an a bus pass, as my grandfather loved to say, you can get a ride on the bus.

We've ceded our strengths in manufacturing, education, and non-frivolous technology to the rest of the world. Our welfare state is an embarrassment. Our law enforcement and justice system are a case study in corruption. Our Congress and state legislatures are cautionary tales of what not to do. Other industrialized nations laugh at our health care system. Our standard of living is declining, wages have stagnated for three decades, and the rising cost of living is slowly making 99% of us poorer as we work longer hours with no mandated vacation or personal leave. Is the U.S. still a better place to live than the majority of the countries on Earth? Of course. But we're not comparing the U.S. to Chad. Compared to our peer group, it's hard to figure out what our strengths are anymore other than consuming energy, maintaining a giant stockpile of nuclear weapons, and having a big, powerful, expensive conventional military. Oh, and I guess we're pretty good at spying on everyone's telecommunications, although if I had to place a wager I'd bet the Israelis, Russians, or Swiss are even better at it.

The failure of the Iraq War creates some eerie similarities between the modern U.S. and the final years of the USSR. After wrecking its economy and standard of living with profligate military spending for thirty years, the Soviets found themselves pulling out of Afghanistan in defeat (and the government they installed had collapsed by 1991, too). The rest of the world, including the U.S., looked on and asked, "If you're spending that much on the military and you can't even win a war against a Stone Age country, what CAN you do?" It was a valid question. It is a valid question to ask ourselves as well. We've bled ourselves dry paying for two wars since 2002 and massive annual defense budgets every year for more than a half-century now. What do we have to show for it? Shouldn't we at least be able to do Military Stuff right? If we can't, what exactly do we have going for us?

NETWORK

Posted in Rants on July 7th, 2014 by Ed

"I ignored the flashes of lightning all around me. They either had your number on them or they didn't."

I have Luddite tendencies.

They're only tendencies. I don't bury silver in the yard or refuse to use an ATM or keep my money in a mattress because the banking system is all hokum, I tell ya. My preparations for Doomsday thus far consist of getting drunk and waiting for Thunderdome. Hell, a few months ago I even got an iPhone.

Nonetheless I have never been able to shake the fear that the technological edifice on which modern society is built is vulnerable to collapse. I have done all my banking online for the better part of a decade. It's convenient. But it also worries me – that nightmare scenario where we all wake up one morning and everything is just…gone. It's in the back of my mind.

There is nothing to be gained by giving in to the fear and becoming a cash-only person with a stuffed mattress. If society collapses because electronic data and the networks that move it about collapse, your cash dollars aren't going to be worth shit anyway. Neither is your silver. The best currency to have will probably be whiskey or gasoline. So I bank online and shop online and store my students' grades online and keep in touch with 100 different people online and get all of my news about the world online. Like everyone else under the age of 65, I am nearing the point at which I do essentially everything online.

Sidebar: I barely understand how the internet works. I've asked people to explain it to me like I'm five years old many times. At this point I kind of get it. A little. The basics. But there's something about it I just don't get in the same way that some people don't get calculus or Latin or Trace Adkins. That said, I have worked the problem and made improvements.

I just read The Worm by Mark Bowden (recommended) so it is possible that I have been swayed by a viewpoint held only by alarmists and Chicken Littles. Nonetheless, it paints a very plausible set of scenarios – plausible not meaning imminent or even likely, but merely within the realm of realistic possibility – for the exploitation of the security vulnerabilities of the thing we call the internet. Worms, viruses, and other malicious creatures could, in skilled but nefarious hands, bring the internet to a grinding halt. We're lucky in the sense that most "hackers" (remember when that was a thing?) are interested solely in making money when they engineer viruses and cast them out into the world. But despite the author's caveats, the book leaves the distinct impression that someone – a hostile nation, a non-state group, a "Let's watch the world burn" nihilist – could engineer a much more disastrous outcome by exploiting any of a number of vulnerable points in the system.

People like to joke about what would happen if the internet stopped working. Imagine everyone flipping out when they can't check Facebook! Ha ha. Indeed, people would lose their marbles to an amusing extent if the sites we use to kill time online disappeared. The internet and the machines connected to it are more than just a means of delivering diversions though. They are our entire financial system. They are the power grid. They are air traffic control. They are distribution and delivery networks. It would be funny when we lost Facebook and TMZ. It would be less funny when we see the on-hand supply of food and fuel in major cities without a constant flow of incoming shipments.

Like most people, I deal with such thoughts – scenarios too terrible to comprehend fully and about which I can do nothing – by sticking my head in the sand. Thinking about such things would drive me nuts (moreso). There are steps, theoretically, that could be taken to prevent malicious attacks on the internet, not all of which are taken and none of which are 100% effective. So the risk is like that of getting on an airplane. You know the plane is probably safe, but you also know goddamn well that if today's the day that both engines take bird strikes or one of your fellow passengers smuggles a bomb on board, there's really nothing you can do. You're screwed, and that's that.

That is what I mean by Luddite tendencies. I'm not technology averse, but I am wary. I know that the internet is awesome and convenient in the same way that flying is. And I know that like flying, when something goes wrong it is likely to go horribly, catastrophically wrong with dire consequences for everyone on board. Most of me loves the internet, and the other part of me is the one that thinks it is amazing that our luck has held even this long.

THE SHIFTING MENACE OF CONSCIENCE

Posted in Rants on June 30th, 2014 by Ed

In 1885 the Protestant clergyman and popular author Josiah Strong wrote his most widely read book, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis. His treatise was popular largely because it was awash in the kind of nativist sentiments that found a receptive audience during the immigrant boom that began after the Civil War and intensified throughout the Industrial Revolution. Strong identified the Seven Perils to American society, most of which are easily predictable and align with the most common prejudices of the era: Catholicism, Mormonism, Socialism, Intemperance, Wealth, Urbanization, and Immigration. In the era of scientific racism, social Darwinism, and Robber Baron capitalism it is not hard to see why the moneyed classes and the anti-immigrant working classes alike applauded Strong.

I'm going somewhere with this, I promise.

In his warning about the menace of Catholicism, Strong wrote:

…the Roman Catholic is not at liberty to weigh the Pope's judgment, to try his commands by his own conscience and the Word of God – to do this would be to become a Protestant. Worse, (the Catholic) stands not alone, but with many millions more, who are bound by the most dreadful penalties to act as one man in obedience to the will of a foreign potentate and in disregard to the laws of the land. This, I claim, is a very possible menace to the peace of society. (Emphasis original)

Throughout the book, Strong repeats the warning ("Again, our Constitution requires obedience to the laws of the United States and loyalty to the Government. The Pope also demands of every subject obedience and loyalty to himself.") For this exact reason, Catholics were for many decades – as they are more than happy to remind anyone within earshot – discriminated against in American politics. Today, of course, Catholicism has mainstreamed along with the people – Irish, Polish, Italian, etc – who brought it to the United States. Catholics are no longer discriminated against outside of their own imaginations. Instead, they have become part of a new bloc that argues that far from being a menace to civil society, the right to disregard the law when one's religious beliefs – even those curated by a Foreign Potentate – conflict with it.

Of course 19th Century Protestant leaders feared Catholic conscientious objections only inasmuch as they were perceived to conflict with laws that were already crafted in accordance with the beliefs and desires of the dominant Protestant orthodoxy in the United States. There is no conflict between the law and one's religion, in other words, if one's religion is the de facto faith of the civil institutions that create the law. Now the Papist Menace has exercised enough political power and influence over the law to have their wants and beliefs taken into account from the outset – try to find a remotely relevant law in the last thirty years that doesn't have some sort of abortion caveat written into it. I'll wait.

Allowing personal religious beliefs to trump the law was perceived as a threat to the future of our nation and of civil society when it was wielded by a religious minority. In the hands of the now-majority, it has been rebranded as the last bulwark against that same civil society. What the white Protestant male majority once treated as a combination of treason and heresy is now an act infused with nobility and, as of Monday, sanctioned by the highest Court of the land. While the practical impact of Monday's decision likely will be minimal, the endorsement by the Court of this once-dangerous principle has introduced a dangerous precedent and we will be bathed in its radioactive fallout for some time to come.

AN OPEN LETTER TO AMERICAN AIRLINES

Posted in Rants on June 23rd, 2014 by Ed

Dear American “Airlines,”

So that you may not duck this formal complaint with the cheap excuse that it is profane and uncivil I will endeavor to keep my swearing to a minimum. I suspect, however, that I will be as successful as your airline is at getting flights off the ground on time. What say we forgive one another in advance for coming up short?

Simply put, American Airlines, you are a very bad airline. The following tale of woe is true in every detail, as I am certain that other customers who have been bent over and cornholed by your sad excuse for a going transportation concern will be able to attest. Through repeated mergers and acquisitions you have managed the incredible feat of becoming the world’s largest airline while retaining all of the charm, efficiency, and customer service of the third largest taxi company in Lagos. Future generations will look back on this accomplishment with awe and wonder.

On Thursday, June 19 my flight out of Peoria, IL (where hopes and dreams go to die) was canceled for “weather.” I was helpfully rebooked on a flight Friday, June 20. As this cut into an already brief vacation to Mexico, the ticket agent was kind enough to offer me the opportunity to fly out of Bloomington, IL, located 45 minutes away, on the same day. Thus I drove at breakneck speed to Bloomington to make the outbound flight. Figuring that a canceled outbound flight would be lonely if not paired with a canceled return flight, I arrived at O’Hare to find my 9:05 flight to Peoria on Monday, June 23 was also canceled. For “weather.” Suspiciously, the 9:05 flight was canceled before 7 PM yet a separate flight to nearby Bloomington on which your agents refused to book me took off (after sundry delays) at 9:15. If the 9:05 flight could not fly through the “weather”, I can only assume that the 9:15 flight was torn asunder with the loss of all on board since PIA and BMI are merely 30 miles apart.

Realizing that a gaggle of upset customers was waiting at the gate to be accommodated, the AA gate agent helpfully walked away. Like, she just left. This employee – let's call her Eva Braun, to choose a random name – did not return for a full hour, time that I strongly suspect* she used to fortify herself with prescription cough syrup and Jeppson’s Malort.** Upon her return I waited a considerable amount of time to advance in this line at a pace best described as that of a pre-holiday queue outside the last open butcher shop in Riga, Latvia prior to the fall of Communism. When my turn came, Eva informed me that she was “busy” and I should, I quote directly, “go find someone else to help (me).” As a different flight was preparing to depart from this gate, my issue was “not (her) problem.”

American Airlines, I could get better customer service from the Kansas City Mafia. That’s not even one of the good ones.

After trying several people in AA uniforms standing behind desks at AA gates, I finally found a young lady who was able to reschedule me for a flight on Tuesday, June 24. As this strands me overnight in Chicago, I asked which hotel I would be boarded in for the evening. She informed me that I could get a “discounted rate” at area hotels but that I would bear the cost of the room. Confused, I asked slowly if I heard correctly – my hearing has been a bit out of whack since I stood too close to a loudspeaker at a Motorhead show in 1996. She replied, with no small amount of embarrassment, that since the cancellation was due to “weather” and thus "beyond the control of the airline," I would not be compensated with a hotel. Or even a lousy meal voucher. Given that AA cannot seem to control its own scheduled flights it comes as no surprise that the company has not yet mastered control of the weather.

At this point I would like to reiterate that you, American Airlines, are a very shitty airline and I wonder if perhaps you would not be better suited in another line of business. I’d have had better luck getting home by slathering my naked, hirsute body with expired Soviet postage stamps and taking a running dive into a Post Office.

Here I lie on the linoleum of O’Hare Terminal 3, pondering how a company that only does one thing could be so terrible at the thing. In the future it is my fervent hope that AA is purchased by a company that is competent at what it does – say, the makers of Jimmy Dean’s breakfast meat cylinders – and this will instill some managerial and organizational competence in your alleged airline. Their product may be a horror unequaled in the Western world, but at least they don’t fuck up the one thing they do. And I am fairly confident that Jimmy Dean’s would not make me sleep on an airport floor or make me buy my own shitty airport dinner.

In closing, American Airlines is a ball-gargling clusterfuck of an airline. How your one-lung shitshow manages to limp from quarter to quarter in solvency is a mystery. I lie here certain that your long term plan to fly the idea of customer service into the ground at high speed has been foretold by prophecy and cannot be stopped.

You are worse than Delta. How is that even possible. Don't worry though, they plan to one-up you by instituting a new policy under which one passenger on each flight is chosen at random and shot.

In spite,
Ed

*Libelous, likely untrue
**Look it up

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AMERICAN CRAPCEPTIONALISM

Posted in Rants on June 22nd, 2014 by Ed

The key to maintaining the illusion that America and everything in it are WOOO #1 THE BEST IN THE WORLD is never leaving the United States.

I don't present myself as a Great World Traveler, but having been in two "Second World" countries recently (or at present, in the case of Mexico) I can't shake that "Why is everything here much nicer than where I live" feeling. Now, contrary to popular opinion I am not an idiot. Obviously both Mexico and Brazil have areas serious social problems along the lines of inequality, crime, and poverty. Obviously these are not paradises. But they also have things like functional, cheap public transportation and highways that do not look like they were bombed by the Luftwaffe five decades ago and the damage was never fixed. Short of going the full chauvinist Asshole Tourist route ("I hate this place because everything is foreign! Everyone talks funny! Why aren't there more Burger Kings?") it would be extraordinarily difficult for an honest person to look at an unexceptional city in Brazil and argue that St. Louis or some random mid-major city in the U.S. is superior.

Cities with huge areas that are off limits due to violent crime? Throw a dartboard at the U.S. and you'll hit one. Crushing, third world-style poverty? Stroll through housing projects, half-abandoned rural towns, or an Indian reservation and see it stateside. Staggering wealth and embarrassing poverty coexisting side by side? We practically invented it.

The inevitable endgame of thirty years of neoliberal right-wing economics has been to convert the U.S. into a pseudo-third world nation. The only thing we're good at anymore is Cheap. Our workforce will take wages they can't live on and are encouraged to be happy that they have a job at all. Our infrastructure is falling apart. Hundreds of our cities are ugly, polluted, half-empty museums of a time when blue collar work could support a family. To think that Americans living in Terre Haute or Montgomery or the Florida panhandle have the greatest and bestest standard of living on Earth is pretty laughable if you visit…well, essentially any country in Asia, Europe, or South America.

This is a bit unfair because admittedly I live in one of the worst, most troubled cities in the country, but other than having cheaper gas, lower national income taxes, and more Wal-Marts I honestly can't figure out how living in Peoria, Illinois is "better" than living in a supposedly poor country. Maybe this is somewhat naive – I've never lived in a different country and perhaps the downsides to other places would become more apparent if I did. Regardless, the physical isolation of the United States combined with the "Why go anywhere else when everything here is THE BEST!!" attitude ensures that we don't travel internationally nearly as much as our foreign counterparts…and that really helps to fuel the mindset that cities and our society have to be broken because nothing can be done to provide effective basic public services, nor is there any reason for wanting to do so.

PLAYTIME

Posted in Rants on June 15th, 2014 by Ed

Does anyone make a living as a journalist anymore? Once you get past the top tier of media personalities, I'm starting to doubt it. Sure, the few Old Media outlets left standing are probably paying their writers something that approaches a livable salary for the incredibly expensive cities in which they are located, but the vast majority of the New Media is getting the millions of words it needs to Generate Hits every day for nothing or close to it.

Despite being a staggering failure myself, I happen to know a lot of people who are successful. Some of these people are Writers. And through these friendships I've kept abreast of what one is paid to write for Big New Media sites. Major sites that you have heard of and might even visit regularly. The figures are not inspiring. They border on insulting. Of course as we talked about in Friday's post using a record low amount of subtlety, payment in "experience" and "exposure" is common. As best I can tell this simply leads to opportunities to write without compensation for more media outlets.

I'm at the point where the phrase "I'm a writer!" immediately is filter-translated to "I live in San Francisco / NYC / DC / etc and play writer into my thirties because my parents are still supporting me or I haven't burned through the trust fund yet." There's just no way people are actually making a living – especially the kind of lifestyle that most New York "writers" live – writing for Slate and Rolling Stone and Politico and all these other content mills.

Part of the problem, as Thomas Frank and the original Baffler people used to talk about extensively, is that the realities of journalism as an industry during the dying days of the Old Media era virtually eliminated all but the children of the rich from contention. Working a beat for a newspaper used to be a blue collar profession, but when newspapers started bleeding money in the late 90s and early 00s, the barrier to entry to the profession was raised to multiple years of (unpaid, exploitative) "internships" before finally being granted a low-paying entry level staff position. When you require two or three years of living in the most expensive cities in the country without compensation – hell, even a few months in NYC would financially drain most normal 22 year olds – you're effectively guaranteeing that journalism, even when it pays, is not a profession but a pastime for people who don't need to worry about earning a living.

Of course this has all sorts of consequences for the content and tone of media coverage – Doris Graber is among a number of media scholars who have shown that upper-middle class issues are overemphasized in the media because, not surprisingly, most reporters are upper-middle class either by professional success or by birth. Today, there are so many Writers out there trying to earn a living and so few media outlets paying enough to support them that whatever remnants of the working or true middle classes remain in journalism will probably go extinct in the next decade or two.

Not being a Professional Writer, and in fact never having been compensated to write anything, I may need to stand corrected here. Maybe there are gobs of money being made out there in ways that remain a mystery to amateurs. From this perspective, however, it looks like the media is inventing new ways to generate content a lot faster than it is inventing new ways to pay for it.

MOTIVE FORCE

Posted in Rants on June 10th, 2014 by Ed

I've been resisting writing this for years because it is going to make me sound (potentially) like a crazy person, but now that we're doing a mass shooting per day here in the Land of Freedom it seems like it needs to be said.

Like millions of Americans, I had an unpleasant time in the K-12 educational system. By that I mean I got picked on a lot and "bullied" in the parlance of the 21st Century. This was by no means an experience that makes me unique. In hindsight, frankly, it makes perfect sense. I was an odd combination of extremely weird and not shy, so rather than keeping to myself I actively engaged with my peers even though I lacked the interpersonal skills to interact successfully. Nothing happened to me that was particularly scarring or that hasn't happened to lots of other people with no particular ill effects. Sure it made me dislike school a little more and it probably had some long term effect on the way I deal with people in social situations, but all in all I would say it fell within the range of Normal childhood experiences.

When you get picked on as a kid, especially as a male in a society in which you are strongly encouraged toward aggressive and violent forms of entertainment and behavior, I don't think it's all that unusual to throw the occasional Eight Year-Old Hissy Fit and think something like, (say in petulant child-voice) "I hate everyone and I'm gonna blow up the school!" Nor is it particularly odd to have a juvenile fantasy about going Bruce Willis on the people who pick on you on the playground. As a young male raised on a steady diet of action films, GI Joes, and video games where you kick and punch and stab and shoot everything in sight, there's nothing surprising about that. There were times when I had particularly bad days in middle school and junior high where I spent an afternoon at my desk thinking how fun it would be to get revenge. My best friend and I created a comic with a protagonist named, creatively, "Super Ninja" and drew strips that inevitably ended with the titular hero cutting the heads off of whoever had spent that lunch period making fun of us.

Today, school administrators would have lost their shit when they discovered our poorly-drawn little strips, but at the time it seemed perfectly harmless. It was understood – by me, by my friend, by everyone involved – that no one was actually going to do any of this. The line between fiction and reality was clearly demarcated. We all understood that two ten year-olds who got picked on a lot for being nerds were retreating into a harmless fantasy in which they didn't get picked on so much. The point is, at no point did it ever occur to me, or any of the other kids who got picked on, to actually blow up the school or shoot anybody. It wasn't even within the realm of possibility.

In short, I don't think it's particularly rare for young people who get picked on to have an imagination that creates revenge scenarios. And, as a kid whose dad took him to see RoboCop on opening night when he was nine years old, I don't think it was particularly odd that sometimes those thoughts involved cartoonish amounts of violence. I may be wrong about this, and in fact I am some kind of rare and dangerous psychopath. In any event I turned out alright, notwithstanding the poor career choice.

It's easy and quite fair to blame the constant and easy availability of guns for the increase in spree-type shootings in the US, particularly in schools. There are too goddamn many people who have too goddamn many guns available for acquisition with almost no effort. What that does not address, however, is why the line between thinking about something and doing it seems to have disappeared or at least retreated. Prior to the mid-1990s, school shootings were almost unheard of and usually perpetrated by disturbed adults rather than students. Yet I don't believe for a second that during that time period, school kids never thought about doing violent things. We watched violent movies and played violent video games and played football and listened to The Rock Music and all of the other supposed triggers and causes that purport to explain the waves of violence in the past two decades. Despite all of that, we managed to think "I hate everyone and I'm gonna blow up the school!" without actually trying to blow up the school. Somehow kids managed to think about going Terminator on grade school bullies without doing it.

I don't know what changed, when, and why. Blaming the media coverage or entertainment or shoddy parenting all feels lazy and unconvincing. Spree killers have always received heavy media attention. Entertainment has always glorified war, fighting, and violence (particularly of the Death Wish "revenge" variety). There have always been lots of bad, negligent, or abusive parents. This generation of kids, however, is noticeably different in how willing some of them – still a very small minority out of the whole, yet far too many overall – are to turn their normal reactions to normal juvenile and adolescent social problems into concrete plans for mass murder.

I have always been hesitant to write this because people do not readily admit to having ever harbored a violent thought. We're all supposed to say that when we got picked on as kids we had emotionally healthy, adult responses and we never thought about shooting things or blowing stuff up like the Good Guys did in every movie, game, comic, and TV show we saw. But I think that recognizing that this is not especially rare is an important part of being able to understand why the distinction between thought and action has weakened and devise some useful ideas about how to strengthen it again.

CRISIS OF FAITH

Posted in Rants on June 9th, 2014 by Ed

For as long as I can remember I've loved politics.

When I was in the first grade, my best friend and I would spend recess having "summits" on the playground. We bickered over who got to be Reagan and who had to be Gorbachev and eventually agreed to flip for it, freeing up considerably more time to hash out reductions in strategic nuclear weapons.

In October of 1984 my dad took me to the old Chicago Stadium, since demolished, to see a Ronald Reagan campaign rally shortly before the November election. It was, to a six year old, just about the coolest thing I could imagine. Reagan made his entrance atop a wailing fire truck, a fact that was sufficient to persuade me that being president was a goddamn cool job. In 1988 we waited outside in subzero weather for five hours to shake hands with George H. W. Bush.

By middle school and junior high I had the Senate and most of the relevant people in the House committed to memory; I can still tell you who was in the Senate in the late 80s and early 90s with useless accuracy. I watched the news for fun, mostly CNN despite its raging Liberal Bias. Whatever was happening in Congress or in the elections, I would tell anyone who would listen about it in great detail.

Finally I got to college where I could major in political science and spend every day talking about politics in great detail with like-minded people. It turned out that the other students didn't seem to care quite as much, or often at all, but at least the professors and grad students were usually willing to shoot the shit. That helped. But by the late 90s, something had started to change. The strategy of the Republican Party after the "revolution" of 1994 became to disassemble or otherwise ruin the government when in power and to be mindlessly obstructionist when in the minority. Oddly enough, government became less interesting when it wasn't doing anything. Or, after 2000, when everything it did was driven by ideology rather than reality.

Still, I loved politics. I started this blog mostly to talk about it, although never focusing on it exclusively. I used to write up quite a bit of armchair analysis of the elections; in particular there is a lot of election content in 2004, 2006, and 2008. It tapered off in the next two elections and now here we are halfway through 2014 and I haven't given the midterm elections a moment's thought.

I spent a good deal of time thinking about this while on vacation and it became apparent that, if I'm being honest, my name is Ed and I don't think I care about politics anymore.

The GOP has become a cargo cult of extremists, the white Christian American version of the Taliban. The Democrats, when in power, offer some improvements around the margins but on economic and defense issues essentially tow the same one-party line with a softer message. And more importantly, 90% of the time, nothing is happening. Elections have become bizarre spectacles that cost billions and take place in the intellectual sewer. And ultimately the GOP ends up doing better than it deserves because millions of people like you and I – people who occasionally read stuff and have better things to do than take a debate between Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid seriously – just give up. The GOP base, however, never gives up.

Yes, I'm being somewhat lazy and taking the easy way out. It's facile to say "These people are all the same, who cares who wins" because of course we know that there are instances in which it will matter. It is on some level important; I still vote and I still teach it well (teaching political science, unless you're a hack, involves very little of the day-to-day of politics). It just isn't interesting anymore. And I don't feel bad about that, because the process has changed more than I have. As the old school Republicans say, I didn't walk away from the Party; it walked away from me. Look at the ways in which doing business in the House and Senate have changed, or how the Supreme Court has changed, or how the media coverage of all things political has changed, and I feel justified in saying, yeah, this is stupid.

Maybe it will come back to me at some point. Maybe it won't. Maybe this was the plan all along, to make the political process so unbearably awful and uninteresting that people would stop paying attention to it altogether and the moneyed class could get away with literally anything. If that was the plan, then I feel the same way I feel when I realize an advertising jingle is stuck in my head: I'm mostly annoyed that such a cheap trick worked on me.