Posted in Rants on May 8th, 2017 by Ed

Astute commentators have been pointing out since November the massive flaw inherent in the "white working class" (in media usage, read: hillbillies, white trash) argument to explain the most recent election: lower income people of any race tend not to vote much, and nothing about the demographics of Trump voters as a whole suggests that poverty is among their defining characteristics. The median income among voters – not mere "Hey I like that guy!" supporters, but actual cast-a-ballot voters – is well over the national average. Hell, according to the stated figure the median Trump voter is out-earning me considerably. And I'm not a poor person.

The reality is that no amount of think pieces about Appalachia can obscure the fact that Trump is a phenomenon of white suburbanites (combined with poor turnout among people most likely to support a Democratic candidate). If you are like me and spent any portion of your formative years in the suburbs, you have known this in the marrow of your bones and don't need any data to prove it to you. In truly poor areas, white conservatism is mixed with a healthy dose of apathy and indifference. In rural areas it is mitigated by the remnant fumes of agrarian populism (and a total dependence on government subsidies). But the suburbs…the flame burns clean there. Don't go to small town Appalachia if you want to see pure, mindless adherence to the Fox News version of reality. Pick a big city and head for its newest New Money suburbs.

Jesse Myerson offers a useful take on why this is. Suburbanites have just enough wealth to convince themselves that they are just one step away from cartoonish one-percenter wealth (Just don't ask too many questions about debt!) and therefore are not only susceptible to Horatio Alger "hard work is all you need" narratives but also to scapegoating groups perceived to be the last obstacle between oneself and True Wealth. Gosh, just think of how much better everything would be if only my money wasn't being given to Welfare Queens / Immigrants / Chinamen / Etc.

The second factor he points out is that suburbanites, having engaged in a pattern of increasing their spending every time income increased, are overwhelmingly dependent on the value of their homes as the foundation of wealth. Many have borrowed huge amounts against their property, and many more rely on selling it and using the proceeds (the mortgage long since having been paid off) for retirement. If non-white people move into the area, home values will fall. Nothing will turn a suburbanite into a white-hot ball of rage more quickly than the prospect of losing some of the equity in their home. These are not good homes, objectively. They are flimsy, expensive to heat and cool, and ugly. They have no inherent value, so the value of their location (i.e., far away from Those People) and sheer size determine their worth on the market.

These are valid points. To them I would add two more that Myerson missed.

One is that suburbanites are, as a group, unhappy people. I swear to god, you will never meet people who have more but are less happy than your random South Suburbs of Chicago people. These are people who – to engage in a little cheap armchair psychoanalysis – have spent their whole lives believing that the next purchase would finally make them happy and it didn't work out. If only I had a bigger house, or the 5-series BMW instead of the 3-series, or more jewelry, or just MORE of everything…then surely happiness would be here. So they are unhappy despite in material terms having nothing really to be unhappy about.

Second, and related tangentially, is that the design of suburbs combined with the huge amount of time suburban adults spend alone in their own homes divorces them fairly effectively from reality. They don't see much of the real world. They see a gated community of white people with big houses, and perhaps some glimpses of the rest of the world out of a window during a commute. They use the media to inform them what cities and rural areas are like in the same way that you and I rely on the news to tell us what is going on in China. Chicago might as well be China to someone living in its suburbs. They are as likely to form an opinion of it based on what Bill O'Reilly says as they are by driving 15 or 20 miles to do anything there.

I try not to go back to visit family unless I absolutely can't help it. Kunstler was right; we built a landscape of crappy places and became crappy people.


Posted in Rants on May 4th, 2017 by Ed

I like political science. It's interesting, which is helpful given that I do it for a living. Theories that help us understand the political world change over time out of necessity because the political world changes. Some people find this unsatisfying or use it to argue that the term "science" is not applicable. These people prefer the iron certainty of the hard sciences and their various laws, and that is a valid preference. A social science combining rules, institutions, and human behavior has a different type of appeal and value.

When major events happen in the political world, my social media lights up with a lot of interesting comments from people who know a great deal about the process of legislating, bureaucratic theory, and other specialized topics. I like this a lot. I'm starting to feel, however, that the behavior of the American electorate and the state of the American political system no longer conform to logic or reality enough for any kind of rigorous analysis or application of findings from previous research to be useful. That sounds chicken little-ish, I know. It sounds like an overreaction. It also sounds terrifyingly plausible.

As people who study Congress and congressional elections debate the strategy (and consequences) of the House vote on Thursday, the basic assumption is that voters will respond to decisions made by their Representatives in a way that is predictable. I have doubts about the usefulness of that assumption in modern politics. The post-reality world that a lot of Republican voters inhabit is the culmination of a decades-long process of false equivalence and a Choose Your Own Adventure approach to facts. What does it matter that the bill reduces the number of people who will have health insurance if you can simply say it doesn't and a not-insignificant proportion of voters will accept that and applaud? Does it increase costs? Sure does. But once "This will lower costs!" comes out of the President's mouth, that's Problem Solved for all but the most marginal Republicans in Congress.

Seeing modern American politics as having crossed the Rubicon is no longer a belief confined to permanent pessimists and doom-and-gloomers. There now is a substantial number of us for whom reality and facts simply do not matter, and that turns any attempt to understand or analyze the behavior of political actors on its head. Republicans control the narrative to the point that convincing voters that the economy is better since Trump took office can be accomplished by saying "The economy is better now" and repeating it until it becomes accepted as fact. We have taken a step backward, or maybe sideways, or perhaps through a portal to another dimension. I don't feel like this is temporary, or limited to Trump, or a phenomenon that affects the entire political spectrum evenly (liberals, if anything, insist on Fact Checking everything to death until there is no coherent policy they can be identified with). And I'm dealing with the nagging sense that the knowledge that has been accumulated over the years will be of limited use now.

Imagine if a chemist could combine table salt with mud and declare that the result is 24 karat gold. Or diamonds. Or magical potion. Or anything else he or she felt like calling it. That would render most if not all of the knowledge accumulated by practitioners of chemistry over the millennia useless, would it not?


Posted in Rants on May 1st, 2017 by Ed

If you want to feel old, teach. That movie quote is not wrong: You get older, the students stay the same age.

Your cultural references are all dated, even when you think things are recent (ex., The Wire is already ancient history. You might as well reference the Marx Brothers). You reference major historical events that they've sort-of heard of but know essentially nothing about (ex. the Cold War, Vietnam, the OJ Simpson trial, etc.) You do the math and realize that they were 3 when 9-11 happened. And of course it only gets worse with time. You get used to it.

One of the saddest moments I ever had in a classroom, though, involved Rodney King and the LA Riots. We are currently approaching the 25th anniversary of those events that left such a mark on everyone who lived through them. Of course "25th Anniversary" is a bold warning that students, both college and K-12, will have only the vaguest sense of what the proper nouns refer to. A few semesters ago in reference to the Michael Brown / Ferguson incident I mentioned Rodney King in an Intro to American Government class. I got the blank "Is that a thing we are supposed to know?" look that I have come to recognize when students hear about something that happened more than six months ago. "Rodney King?" More blinking. "Can someone tell why the name Rodney King is important?"

One student, god bless her, raised her hand. I paraphrase: "He was killed by the police and it caused the LA Riots." I noted that, no, he did not die, but the second part of the statement was indirectly true. God bless technology in the classroom – I pulled up the grainy VHS-camcorder version of the video, as well as a transcript of the audio analysis presented at trial. We watched, and then talked a bit about the rioting following the acquittal of the LAPD officers at trial. They kept doing the blinking thing. I struggled to figure out what part of this relatively straightforward explanation had managed to confuse them.

"Are there questions? You guys look confused."

Hand. "So he was OK?"

"He was beaten up pretty badly, but, ultimately he was. He died a few years ago from unrelated causes (note: in 2012)."

Hand. "It's kind of weird that everybody rioted over that. I mean, there's way worse videos." General murmurs of agreement.

"Bear in mind that this was pre-smartphone. People heard rumors, but it this was the first instance of the whole country actually seeing something like this as it happened. A bystander just happened to have a camcorder" Brief explanation, to general amusement, of what an Old Fashioned camcorder looked like. Big, bulky, tape-based. 18 year olds do not know this.

I do believe they all understood, but as that day went on I was increasingly bothered by that that brief exchange meant. This is a generation of kids so numb to seeing videos of police beating, tasering, shooting, and otherwise applying the power of the state to unarmed and almost inevitably black or Hispanic men that they legitimately could not understand why a video of cops beating up a black guy (who *didn't even die* for pete's sake!) was shocking enough to cause a widespread breakdown of public order. Now we get a new video every week – sometimes every few days – to the point that the name of the person on the receiving end is forgotten almost immediately. There are too many "Video of black guy being shot or beaten" videos for even interested parties to keep them all straight. Do a self test. Do you remember the name of the guy the NYPD choked out for selling loose cigarettes? The guy in suburban Minneapolis whose girlfriend posted a live video on Facebook after a cop shot her boyfriend in the car? The guy in Tulsa who was surrounded by cops and unarmed while a police helicopter recorded an officer deciding to shoot him? The woman who was found hanged in her Texas jail cell leading to the public pleas to "Say Her Name"?

These kids have grown up in a world where this is background noise. It is part of the static of life in the United States. Whether these incidents outrage them or are met with the usual excuses (Comply faster, dress differently, be less Scary) the fact is that they happen so regularly that retaining even one of them in long term memory is unlikely. To think about Rodney King is to imagine a reality in which it was actually kind of shocking to see a video of four cops kicking and night-sticking an unarmed black man over the head repeatedly. Now videos of police violence are about as surprising and rare as weather reports, and forgotten almost as quickly once passed.

(QUIZ ANSWERS: Eric Garner, Phil Castile, Terence Crutcher, Sandra Bland)


Posted in Rants on April 25th, 2017 by Ed

To be perfectly honest, it isn't that hard to get a Ph.D. if one is not terribly picky about the name of the institution on the diploma. It's hard to write a great dissertation. Writing a bad one only takes the willpower to sit down and pound the thing out on a keyboard. Such a dissertation, if the author could find three to five Ph.D. holders willing to sign off on it (difficult but perhaps not impossible), would be useless for the purposes of academic employment. But hell, if he or she is just really excited about the opportunity to call oneself "Doctor" without being factually incorrect, this would do the job.

The point is, Ph.D. holders are not common but neither are they rare. We all would like to believe we are very special and brilliant, of course. In reality most of us just made it through the process with persistence and a little help from the people guiding us through grad school. I like to think of my degree not as a sign of brilliance, but as an indication that I was willing to stick it out in a process where most people get frustrated at some point and walk away. And in higher education, a field in which nearly everyone has a doctorate of some kind, you are just as likely to encounter knuckleheads as you would be in law, medicine, business, the military, social work, or any other profession. It's possible to be the holder of a real, hard-earned Ph.D. and to call oneself "Dr." and still be kind of a doofus. Trust me.

One thing that isn't common, though, is the Ph.D. equivalent of a "diploma mill" for a Bachelor's degree. There's kind of a well-defined process and most colleges and universities have no interest in doing the kind of hoop-jumping necessary to receive accreditation as a Ph.D.-granting institution. So the set of places where one can get a Ph.D. in at least one field is necessarily limited to a small segment of higher ed, tending toward the large and well funded research universities. Your local commuter school can't simply decide to grant you one at random unless they have a Ph.D.-granting program already in place in your field. They usually don't.

An established political scientist has done some digging into Trump favorite and self-described "terrorism expert" Sebastian Gorka's Ph.D. He and the conservative media just love throwing around the "Doctor" title as though it grants him papal infallibility on all matters Islamic. Gorka, it must be said, seems like a total fraud. One of my former students – so proud! – got him to melt down at a panel Q&A session by asking him about his membership in Nazi-affiliated organizations. Everything about him screams "Who the hell is this idiot and where did he come from?" Fortunately a guy with a real Ph.D. from a real university did the light digging necessary:

Gorka is a fraud – a charlatan of the most brazen hue – a snake-oil salesman whose supposed Ph.D dissertation would have never passed muster in America or Britain and to put the cherry on the cake was approved by an fraudulent panel of examiners.

Gorka is Hungarian-English. He gained an American passport in 2012. His nationalist parents fled to London from Budapest in 1956. His dissertation – Content and End-State-based Alteration in the Practice of Political Violence since the End of the Cold War: the difference between the terrorism of the Cold War and the terrorism of al Qaeda: the rise of the “transcendental terrorist” – was apparently granted in 2007 by Corvinus University of Budapest. The tract is long on Islamaphobia and the unsubstantiated claims of the polemicist but short on theory, evidence or academic rigor. Corvinus is not an institution with a profile, so I looked: sadly it doesn’t even make the top 1,000 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Even Gorka’s attendance poses a mystery. When exactly was he a graduate student at the university? Did he take classes? Did he receive any training in Islam or Islamic studies? His CV notes that he left Hungary in 2004 to work for the US Defense Department in Germany and then in 2008 relocated to the US. There is no evidence that he ever returned to live and study in Budapest.

Two of the three referees did not even have a Ph.D. One was the US Defense Attaché at the American Embassy in Budapest at the time, while the other was employed at the UK’s Defence Academy and just had a BA from Manchester University awarded in 1969. This ‘neutral’ examiner had published a book in Hungary with Gorka three years previously. While graduate students sometimes collaborate with their advisors the independent external examiners must have no nepotistic ties with the candidate. More important, a basic principle of assessing educational achievement is that your examiners have at least the degree level of the degree they are awarding. Undergraduates do not award Ph.Ds. In Gorka’s case the only examiner who lists a doctorate was György Schöpflin – an extreme right wing Hungarian Member of the European Parliament who recently advocated putting pigs heads on a fence on the Hungarian border to keep out Muslims. I have been told that Schöpflin was a family friend. Both Schöpflin and Gorka’s father fled from Budapest to London in the 1950s and both moved in exile right-wing nationalist circles.

If that is true, we are left in sum with a degree that was awarded in absence – on the basis of a dissertation without basic political science methodological underpinnings – and apparently from an examining committee of two of Gorka’s diplomat friends, with only BA degrees; along with an old family friend, Schöpflin.

In essence, that is a fake Ph.D. from a university nobody has heard of. He might as well have gotten two of his college roommates together with his fascist Dad's also-fascist friend and called it a dissertation committee.

Oh, wait. That's kinda what he did.


Posted in Rants on April 23rd, 2017 by Ed

I remember trips to the mall as a child. I remember the various chain stores that made up a shopping trip – maybe for clothes for a new school year (my parents preferred the Montgomery Ward Outlet Store for that, I shit you not) or just to kill time walking around indoors during the coldest part of the Chicagoland winter. Occasionally I think about the long gone names that were retail in my childhood. Carson Pirie Scott. Wieboldt's. Venture. Ames. LS Ayres. Zayre. Marshall Field. Montgomery Ward. Service Merchandise. And of course the giants – JC Penney, Sears, K Mart, and so on. Today of course it is almost all gone.

The 1990s were the judgment day of the big local department store. Regional powerhouses seemingly all became Macy's overnight. Marshall Field. Hudson. Bon Marche. Wanamaker. Jordan Marsh. Famous-Barr. Gimbel's. I'm sure you can remember your own, too.

The decline of many of the oldest names in department stores was an indication that during the 1980s the retail industry had recklessly over expanded. Suburbs along major highways decided in the 1970s that throwing up a giant mall was a guaranteed property tax goldmine, and with the economic slowdown of 1992 we finally admitted that there was only so much consumption Americans could do. Retail looked a bit worse for wear, but it was still a living thing. Then the Internet came along.

Now talk of the "retail apocalypse" is widespread and even Sears – ironically enough the "Amazon" of its day with the encyclopedic Sears Catalog – is sucking fumes. There is no mystery; there is no real reason to go to Sears when Amazon will sell you the same thing without the hassle. When one does go to Sears, as I did about a year ago for some household things when I moved, the sales staff recommend with uncomfortable regularity that you should go home and order the product, which is not in stock, off their website. More recently I visited Sears on a business trip on which I had forgotten to pack under-shirts. Not only was I quite literally the only customer in the store, but I had to search around for a good five to ten minutes to find a high school aged employee who could check me out. Her exact quote when I said "Excuse me" was, "Oh! You scared me." Busy night.

The real cost here is not a price paid in lost nostalgia for familiar brand names. The issue is the hundreds of thousands of (generally mediocre at best) retail jobs eliminated or soon to disappear. Retail jobs, remember, are the subpar replacement jobs that hoovered up people whose manufacturing jobs disappeared. These jobs are already one or more steps down the ladder. They barely pay enough for an adult working full time in the position to break even at poverty. And now even these barely adequate jobs are going to disappear.

There is no reason trying to "save" retail. First of all, it can't be done, and second, these jobs are not good enough for the people who hold them to care enough to fight for them. 30 hours weekly folding clothes at Penney's for $9/hr never sent anyone to the picket line; it's the kind of job that you shrug off when you lose it. It is disposable employment.

And that is precisely why this is so troubling. Even the crap work that people end up doing when they can't get a real (read: decently paid, possibly with benefits) job is going to become scarce. What precisely is an adult who used to work in a blue collar industry and replaced that career with punching a cash register at K Mart going to when that is gone? What is the next step down?

We are about to confront something that it is clear American politics is not capable of confronting: the possibility that we now have an economy of staggering size and wealth that cannot produce enough full-time jobs for the number of people in this country. We can't all make a living getting paid to Uber one another around, and there are only so many menial service industry jobs – making coffee, flipping burgers, etc. – to keep a limited number of people afloat. Structural changes to the economy that our political system refuses to do anything but encourage are going to force us to confront this unprecedented reality sooner rather than later. For years the standard palabrum for economic transition has been to tell the newly unemployed to learn some other skill and transfer to another section of the economy. What happens when there isn't one?


Posted in Rants on April 19th, 2017 by Ed

Special elections inevitably are overblown. Like, really overblown. Elections are ratings drivers for the media so they devote massive amounts of attention to whatever race is at hand even if it is as marginally important as, in this week's case, a single seat in the House. The weeks-long process of divining Meaning and Lessons from one congressional district will not be over for another few days and is worth what you pay for it.

Sure, it's not a great sign for the GOP that a safe district in the white suburbs of Atlanta is competitive and that a moderate Democrat almost won it without the need for a runoff. I wouldn't suggest the RNC and RCCC should feel good about that. However, it's one race and whatever sentiments are motivating casual voters at this moment will be long forgotten by next November's midterm. Hell, it will probably be forgotten in a month.

One piece of math that has nothing to do with the "Referendum on Trump" narrative jumps out of the results. The Democratic candidate (yes, singular) received 48.1% of the vote. Four other people on the ballot as Democrats received a combined 1521 votes, or 0.79% of the votes cast. Four candidates splitting less than one percent of the vote had no impact on the results. Had they all voted for the leading Democrat, he would have finished with 48.89% of the vote. Still not good enough.

I just want to meet the 1521 people who went out to cast that vote and ask them: What was the point of that? What did you accomplish? More importantly, explain what you *think* you accomplished, which is different from what you actually accomplished. Hint: nothing. You wasted your time. Were you trying to Send a Message to the Democratic Party? Well they heard you loud and clear. The message you sent was "I am a very stupid person."

Two months ago Tom F'ing Price was your House rep and you decided now that you need to put your foot down so the DNC can find some borderline socialist to run in the district. If it is not immediately evident to you why that is dumb without it being explained further, you may be a terminal case. Incurable.

What if instead of 48.1%, the final vote share had been 49.3%? How would you feel about that today? Would you feel like you sent your message then? I have surprising news for you – our two very large political parties do not bend to appease the half-percent of voters whose behavior reveals them to be illogical, impossible to placate, or downright stupid. They made every argument to you that they could possibly make in the context of this election. None of it sunk in. Why not save yourself the trouble and simply stay home next time? Subtracting your 1521 votes from the total cast would have helped Ossoff too (48.4% > 48.1%). So you didn't merely come out to cast a Meaningless Protest Vote. You actually made the odds of a positive outcome smaller, albeit incrementally, by showing up. You could have been merely passively stupid; instead you chose to be aggressively stupid. Why? To what end? Does anything you do make sense, ever, or is logic to your worldview what gluten is to your diet?

I hear and endorse the criticisms of the DNC, and I've talked about them extensively in this medium over the years. If that is a deal-breaker for you, living in white-ass Cobb County and expecting the Democrats to nominate Eugene Debs in a special election, then we will disagree but I understand. What I don't understand is going out to vote for some ding-dong who is going to finish with something like 300 votes. Stay home next time. Sleep. Get drunk. Watch porn. Do anything except what you did on Tuesday.


Posted in Rants on April 18th, 2017 by Ed

I always read comments. I also try to ignore them. That's an odd combination on the surface, but for professional and practical reasons I have to resist the urge to get in back-and-forths that will eat up a lot of time that would take me away from the things I get paid to do. And I learned about ten years ago that in the case of trolls it is absolutely not worth it under any circumstances to engage with them.

If that read like a caveat, it is. I've never been more floored by the stupidity of a comment that was posted over on Facebook today, and it merits some attention:

I should never be surprised by the level of historical ignorance (much of it willful) one finds among people like this, but this literally took the air out of the room when I read it. That's how stupid it is.

Let's ignore the really obvious problem that there was this thing called Organized Crime that was imported to the United States by immigrants from Sicily and mainland Italy and eventually grew into one of the most violent and rapacious criminal enterprises in the history of human societies. Let's ignore the many 19th Century Irish immigrants who rose from the lowest rungs on the social ladder to take control of and abuse with every manner of graft and corruption known the political machinery of many of our biggest cities. Let's ignore all the people who hopped on a steamer to the U.S. because the law was after them and in that era traveling across the Atlantic was effectively the same thing as disappearing into the mist. Let's ignore all that. Instead let us focus on the concerted effort by Galleanists – Italian anarchists who became infamous when two of their ranks, Sacco and Vanzetti, were executed for a twin homicide that they in all likelihood did not commit – to bring about the collapse of the American government by exploding truly enormous homemade bombs and killing people by the dozens. I think today we call this terrorism.

Starting in 1916 with the Preparedness Day Bombing in San Francisco (10 killed), Italian anarchists led by a radical named Luigi Galleani (hence "Galleanists") orchestrated a sustained and organized campaign of murder and terror across the entire United States. In 1917 a bomb killed 9 policemen in Milwaukee. In June 1919, 25 dynamite bombs were mailed to major American political figures and judges, with one fatality. The 1920 Wall Street bombing involved a weapon of such size that not only were 38 people killed but damage to buildings like Federal Hall can be seen even today. Anarchist activity subsided briefly due to the Palmer Raids, but resumed with a wagon-sized bomb targeting the judge in the Sacco and Vanzetti trial and the 1933 assassination attempt on FDR (which left one person dead) by an Italian anarchist who, admittedly, may not have been all there in the head.

Wait, there's more.

In 1916 a Galleanist working in a hotel kitchen attempted to fatally poison the guests at a civic banquet and managed only to badly sicken 100-plus people. Also in 1916 an Italian anarchist stabbed a Boston policeman who responded to a large bomb that had just been detonated. Sacco and Vanzetti, it bears noting, almost certainly did not commit the murder for which they were convicted, they did have extensive ties with Galleanist bomb-makers Carlo Valdinoci and Mario Buda, and substantial evidence exists to connect at least Vanzetti to bomb-making in relation to several of the attacks listed here.

But since Italians are white people and they go to church a lot and love their mothers it makes sense to overlook the fact that a non-trivial minority of those who came to the United States did intend to "destroy our way of life" and/or enrich themselves through murder and pillage. Before you can even say "Not all Italians!" you've uncovered the base hypocrisy of supporting restrictive immigration today because someone who might want to kill people might sneak in with the thousands of people who just want to live where they won't get hit by mortar shells.

No intention to pick on the Italians in particular here; I just happen to know a lot about the Galleanist movement, so it came to mind as an example. Certainly there are other examples. The point is the breathtaking historical vacuousness required to believe that the phenomenon of some portion of immigrants possibly being shitty people is a new one.


Posted in Rants on April 13th, 2017 by Ed

Being raised in a country that pretends it is a meritocracy sends most of us toward adulthood with some questionable expectations about how life is going to work. It doesn't take long for the national myth of "Work hard, be the best, and you will succeed!" to reveal itself for what it is. At some point you realize that there are an awful lot of people at The Top who only meet the "success" part of that formula…too many to be a coincidence. Often there is an urge to lie to ourselves, because we don't want to give up on the idea that we might someday Make It. But by the time one enters the workforce permanently, all of the illusions are gone. Most of the people at The Top are mediocre at best, idiots at worst, and they achieved thanks to an extraordinary array of advantages that almost none of them are willing to admit they had.

Damon Young – the always, always worth reading Damon Young – has a great, blistering take on Sean Spicer as perhaps the most relevant current example of what happens when people (almost inevitably, as in Spicer's case, white men) rise to the top in politics without having any actual talents or qualifications for the positions they're given. They're in completely over their heads, having been given a tremendous amount of responsibility they have no idea how to handle; really, honestly, literally no idea whatsoever. People like (all of the) Trump(s), Kushner, Spicer, Bannon, and the like are where they are because they're rich, white, and male in a country in which a disturbing number of people seem to think that those are the REAL important characteristics to look for in a leader. None of this education or experience or competence nonsense like we had with O'Bummer and his fancy law degrees or Killary and her decades of public service. Just give a rich white guy the keys and everything will be fine. If he's not a great person, well then how did he get so rich, HUH?

White men like me often read these takes and get defensive; "I'm a white male, and *I* certainly haven't been given a job in the White House or as a CEO because of it!" True. Absolutely true. But the point is not that all white men are hugely successful without having earned it. Instead it is that the vast majority of people who are hugely successful without having done much to deserve it are white men. In a society where so much boils down to connections and "pedigree" – going to the right schools, having the right last name, being in the right social circles – it is entirely logical that after two centuries of limiting those necessary forms of social currency to white men, most of the people who manage to benefit from them will be, well, us.

We've all seen how this works at the smaller scale – when a 23 year old is put in charge of your workplace because he has a fancy degree, or when the boss puts his idiot kids in charge of adult employees with decades of experience. Now we're getting a chance to see how well it works when we scale it up to the national level. Spoiler alert: It works just as well.


Posted in Rants on April 10th, 2017 by Ed

Jason Vuic is a non-fiction writer who has chosen, apparently, to specialize in writing books about things that were spectacularly bad. His first two cover The Yugo, that punchline of the late 80s, and the legendarily winless and incompetent 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who lost their first 26 games as a team).

If you were born before, say, 1985 and have paid even passing attention to professional football at any point, you probably recognize the Buccaneers for their legendarily bad uniform – color – logo combination. "Creamsicle" is a commonly used metaphor. It turns out, Vuic describes, that they originally (and unbelievably) decided simply to copy the orange-and-aqua colors of the Miami Dolphins and the "pirate" logo of the Oakland Raiders. When the league (and lawyers) complained, team execs – with no focus groups, relevant experience with design, or particular forethought – changed the aqua to red and had a new mascot, "Bucko Bruce", redesigned in a less pirate-y, more Three Musketeers style. Oh, and Bruce is winking. He was supposed to wear an eyepatch but the Raiders complained. So the swashbuckling rake is winking.

The fashion faux-pas underscored the team's punching bag status, and in the 1990s they redesigned the colors and uniforms to something more aggressive and manly. And you know what? Before long, people missed the Creamsicle uniforms. Now, of course, the Creamsicles, Bucko Bruce, and all the other garish stuff is back.

The logo and color scheme devised in the 90s was what we would expect: professionally done, carefully market tested, and in every respect it met expectations of what a uniform might look like. It was absolutely, totally Fine. Competent. Guaranteed to appeal widely. The old logo and color scheme, in contrast, was drawn up without much thought by people with (apparently) bizarre taste and no real interest in getting feedback from the public. And that simply is something people don't see a lot of anymore. It might have been bad, but its "badness" made it unique in the era of highly polished public image crafting. Bucko Bruce would never happen today, and that, to people who like it, is precisely the point. Now we get things so generic – "Las Vegas Black Knights", most recently – that I guarantee you will forget everything about it ten minutes after you see it.

And now, the payoff for the extended metaphor.

Lately I've made an effort to expand into Serious Writing, the kind of thing that appears in legitimate media outlets rather than a self-maintained blog. In that process I've learned that one of the hardest things about Serious Writing is that in the process of bringing it to the standards and expectations of a Real Media Outlet Editor, the less interesting it is. The more Serious my writing is, the more it sounds exactly like anyone else. I understand the industry conventions and professional obligations that require writers to omit things I like (gratuitous profanity, constant parentheticals, the non-sequitur, seemingly out of place historical anecdotes, dick jokes, odd metaphors). I do. I get it. But once I take all that out, what is there to make it worthy of notice? It feels (and is) generic, anodyne, and tepid. It is easy to digest and easy to forget.

Nothing. It's Fine. It sounds reasonably Professional and Serious. But an Editor could (and will) see it and conclude correctly that a thousand other writers could have turned out the same thing. And that is why it is very hard to succeed in Professional, Serious Writing. If you have a particular voice that stands out, you're not giving them what they're looking for. If you smooth out all the quirks, you're bland and unlikely to stand out.

It's not a grand conspiracy. Again, it makes complete sense why Editors and publishers can't have writers who talk like longshoremen making odd and oblique references that will confuse rather than enlighten. It is disappointing, albeit unsurprising, to see the way the Machine is designed to churn out a consistent and predictable product and that only the rarest writer – and I know some damn good ones – can produce work that comes out of the cutting room with any sort of personality or recognizable Voice. Publishing has some uncomfortable similarities to the music industry, designed to ensure that everything sounds essentially the same.


Posted in Rants on April 9th, 2017 by Ed

American presidents and military high-ups love cruise missiles. They are so popular that "Tomahawk" is among a handful of pieces of military equipment that the man on the street knows by name in this country.

Like so many things, the cruise missile was born in World War II. Both Germany and Japan – in extraordinarily different ways – fielded them as a weapon of last resort. WWII enthusiasts could rack up points on your average pub quiz by noting that the Nazi V-1 "buzz bomb" was the world's first cruise missile, although it was primitive to the point that it had to be aimed at something city-sized (London did just fine) in order to be reasonably assured of hitting a target. It was essentially a terror weapon, not a practical one. Its effects were psychological; it flew in low and fast, made an ominous sound, and unlike a German airplane, was for all practical purposes unstoppable.

The Japanese came up with a far more accurate and effective cruise missile, although with less advanced technology. They solved the problem of accuracy by putting human pilots in theirs. They taught pilots to fly just feet off the surface of the ocean and, to the mortal peril of American sailors, crash them into big Navy ships while laden with explosives. It was far cruder than Germany's cruise missile, but it worked far better.

That's all a cruise missile is today – a small, fast jet aircraft without a pilot. It comes in too low and fast to be shot down by air defenses, and often too low even to be effectively spotted on radar. By the time you realize it's coming, it's already too late to do much about it.

The things military planners love about the cruise missile are their speed, high level of accuracy (although the military always finds a way to downplay the risks of "collateral damage"), and stand-off capability. The people who launch a cruise missile are very far away from where it will blow up. Launching cruise missiles comes as close to eliminating the potential for American casualties as is possible. It's like sending waves of kamikazes at the Bad Guys without the inconvenience of having to put pilots in them.

The problem is not that cruise missiles kill people, as all military forces have tons of ways to do that. Cruise missiles kill people will essentially zero risk – political or military – to the launching nation. Presidents starting with Reagan were quick to learn that there are no real political consequences to lobbing these things around like candy at a parade. If no Americans are killed, some Bad Hombres are killed, and there is a nice fireworks show to boot, the American public barely noticed when they're fired off by the dozen. Committing ground forces or using manned air strikes have enormous costs in terms of political capital, American casualties, and of course economic cost.

So, the cruise missile has in recent decades fully uncoupled the moral and political risks of warfare from the anticipated benefits. The easier it is to use them, the more likely they will be used. And so they've become a kind of American military reflex, our knee jerk response to problems that a president wants to "do something" about but is unwilling to bear the political costs of putting American lives at risk. They get to look Tough, they don't have to deal with the blowback of flag-covered coffins returning home, and the media and public show no real interest in what is on the receiving end as long as it is Bad and gets blown up. As long as the targets are restricted to countries that aren't anywhere close to able to retaliate militarily, this is a slam dunk from the White House and Pentagon perspective.

The prospect that the current President is going to figure this out is cause for real concern. It's low commitment, low investment (since there is always an unlimited amount of money at hand for the Pentagon's desires), and panders to the kind of voter who is likely to respond very favorably to the idea of Shit Gettin' Blowed Up. The technology has taken so much risk out of the equation that the question of whether cruise missile strikes are a good idea rarely gets asked. As long as we can, what's the point of asking if we should?