Monday, December 28, 2020

Other people

“My protectors had departed, and had broken the only link that held me to the world. For the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom.” 
- Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley 

"All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the 'burning marl'. Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!"
- Huis Clos, by Jean-Paul Sartre 

"He's lived there a long time and he sort of kept to himself," Schmoldt told CNN of Warner. "All we knew him by was Tony. He was kind of a hermit." 

Early on Christmas morning, in an historic section of downtown Nashville Tennessee, someone committed self-immolation in a fiery blast that destroyed or damaged many buildings. In the process of killing himself this person took extraordinary efforts and planning to spare the lives of innocent bystanders, which left more than a giant hole in the pavement. It left a lot of questions. A suicide-bombing, but one designed meticulously to cause massive material destruction but no human destruction? It was obviously meant to get attention, but was it politically motivated? Domestic terrorism? Why on Christmas day? Is there a religious message? And what of playing the song 'Downtown' by Petula Clarke on a loudspeaker? Did he just have a morbid sense of humor? What about the white RV? Was it chosen because it would appear non-descript parked on a downtown street, or was some other cultural symbolism intended? And what about the apparent target, an AT&T communication building where very few people worked that housed technical facilities and fiber optics?  

Thus far, the only bit of personal information that has come out about the Christmas Day bomber from interviews with his neighbours is that he was 'a hermit'. Kept to himself. That's typical for people who are suicidal, and also for people who commit lone wolf attacks, but who are not associated with a political organization. This case however is unique in many aspects, as mentioned. It's hard to understand it as anything other than primarily a public statement, and one apparently replete with all kinds of strange religious, cultural and perhaps political resonance, but mostly nihilistic irony: A final act that was meant to be a meticulously planned effort at communication by a person who shunned communication, and that was aimed at destroying a facility built to provide communication services, during a pandemic characterized by people in isolation. 

On that last important point: If there is one thing that we've learned from the pandemic it's how much we need each other. How much we rely on one another, whether family, friends or even total strangers, for our health, happiness and sanity. I can't help but understand the Christmas day bomber's extraordinary efforts to spare people, as connected to this. I worked from home for about two months at the beginning of the pandemic, and ended up hating it. After an initial period, about a week, of enjoying the novelty of the experience, working online became a major chore. Every task seemed to take twice as long, partly due to persistent and frequent technical difficulties even after I was forced to  upgrade our home Wifi. Meetings on Zoom took way too long and were only minimally productive. So much was lacking from interaction through the screen and it was having unexpected impacts on me. I found myself becoming intolerant and short-tempered with my co-workers. They often annoyed me for no particular reason, and I frequently had to restrain unmerited overreactions. It was as if the filter of the screen had made them less worthy of common decency and respect, as if they had become, in a way, less 'human' to me. 

When we re-opened the office, and I saw my co-workers for the first time in two months, I felt like hugging each one of them, which of course I could not. It was strangely thrilling. I told each one how much I missed them. Just existing in their presence, sharing space with them, experiencing the way they took up three-dimensions, for the first time in a couple of months was actually exciting. I've heard it said that when people share space there are subtle chemicals that are imperceptibly exchanged, hormones, or scents, or as we are now ominously attuned to thanks to the pandemic, microscopic aerosol particles. When we communicate it's not just in words, it's on many other subconscious levels. I suppose when you find yourself inexplicably attracted to another person, a total stranger perhaps, that's why we call it chemistry, because it actually is chemistry. Whatever the reason, one thing is undeniable, when you are with another person in the same space, you feel their presence, and it's profoundly validating of your own physical existence. Virtual communication facilitated by new technologies, although useful, simply doesn't cut it. 'Real' life means connecting with other people in the flesh. They are the link we have to the world. I may be reading too much into it, but the Christmas day bombing targeting a technical communications building in holiday-deserted downtown Nashville, with all its nihilistic peculiarities and symbolism, summed that up for me. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Trigger warning

Is feeling the same as meaning? When we want to express something that we are thinking we often begin by saying "I feel that ...," which suggests that thinking and feeling are linked to the point of being indistinguishable. In today's science, thinking and feeling tend to be lumped into the same basket, both part of brain function, neurological chemical exchanges, or as some have called them in hipper computer lingo, organic algorithms. But they are very different. 

What I feel, no one actually feels. When I say that I am feeling sad, I can describe the feeling to someone else and they may have a sense of what I am talking about by relating it to their own experience. But everyone's feeling is unique to oneself alone. Feeling just happens, seemingly of its own accord. We don't ask to feel something, it arrives unbidden. Feeling is unpredictable and arbitrary. The situations that make one person feel something may make another person feel the exact opposite or nothing at all. Feeling is like water, liquid and without shape. We need to make efforts to contain it - by making sense of it. 

Meaning implies context. A knife in the hand of a diner means one thing. A knife in the hand of a mugger means quite another. And a knife in the hand of a sculptor means something else entirely. The artist Marcel Duchamp famously posed the question if a urinal was just a piece of ordinary plumbing or a work of art by submitting one for an art exhibition in 1917. Meaning is incomprehensible without context, and context changes meaning. And if that's the case, meaning by itself is arbitrary. Nothing inherently possesses a certain meaning, but rather possesses the possibilities of many meanings. What do we understand from the above example? The context is a necessary and determinant factor. And so if I told you that I saw a man with a knife, you might not be sure what to think, or you might presume. But to truly understand the meaning of the statement you would ask me other questions. Who was he? What was he doing? Where was he? And based on the answers I provided you could understand the meaning of the statement.

Feeling is a predicate to meaning, in fact it is the predicate to meaning. When we feel something what we naturally and instinctively do immediately afterward is ask ourselves what it means. But we don't do the reverse. We can not command someone to feel, but we can persuade them what their feeling means. We can also try to convince them to ignore or distrust their feelings, and since there is nothing as intimate and personal as our feeling, it is the distrust or denial of one's feeling that factors into the origin of anxiety (and its more serious variants, neurosis, depression, etc.) It is our willingness and capacity to make sense of our feelings that determines the scope of our responses. And that's tricky business, like taming and training a horse. The popular word of the day for our emotional responses is 'trigger'. People say that they get triggered by situations or by things people say, which is shorthand for having an immediate, strong and uncontrollable emotional reaction. The implication of being 'triggered' is that the people around you should avoid saying or doing certain things, a kind of warning that ones feelings are the responsibility of others and not oneself. It's a way of saying, watch what you say or do because I might explode. When I think of the word 'trigger', Roy Roger's horse (look him up) comes to my mind. That Trigger was a magnificent Palomino stallion, a movie star of the late 1930s to the early 1950s, who was said to be the most perfectly trained animal in the world. He knew 150 'tricks' including sitting in a chair and signing his name with an 'X'. He was also apparently housebroken, since as a movie star he spent so much time in hotels, theaters and hospitals (visiting sick kids). I am reminded that there was a time when audiences revered a horse who exercised grace and self-control in public. 

Okay, yes, in the end this post was about social media. And also about the cry babies in the White House and on Fox news, CNN too. We live in the era of whiners. People feel entitled to air their unfiltered feelings freely, but don't want to be responsible for the consequences. In fact they become offended when they are confronted with the consequences. There is no sense of shame, embarrassment or dignity. And because feeling trumps all other determinants of meaning (norms, ethical standards, values), there is a resistance to compromise. So to answer my first question feeling is not the same as meaning, and it shouldn't be.

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Big Lie - and lots and lots of little ones too

One side stands for voter expansion, the other for voter suppression.

One side stands for strengthening democratic institutions, the other for undermining them.

One side stands for promoting democratic values, the other for holding onto power.  

One side stands for integrity, the other side for conspiracy and lies.

When I think about what makes this era so unsettling, I don't think it can be boiled down to one person, trump for example, or one economic factor, globalization and the growing disparity between the super wealthy and the very poor, or widespread ignorance and civic disengagement. I do think, however, it can be summarized in one big lie, or rather our willingness and propensity on a broad scale to accept lies being told, even ones that collapse under the most superficial scrutiny. And in America, I'm thinking about one particular big lie, so-called "Birtherism" - the blatantly racist and obviously false contention that launched trump's political career, which promoted the notion that Obama was an illegitimate president because he was not born in America. What makes this lie so interesting to me is that it performed a wide-ranging and multifaceted litmus test of both people, and the informational eco-system in which politics is played out. When trump saw how easily the lie of Birtherism spread, and how readily people were willing to entertain and embrace it, he and those who supported him began to understand how far the cultural, racial and political boundaries had shifted. Birtherism also tested the way the media responded to misinformation. What they learned was that the advent of social media and personalized news feeds allowed lies to be mainlined directly into the body politic without inter-mediation or filter. More than the silo-ing effect, people having their preexisting notions and prejudices being constantly reinforced by curated informational sources (legitimate journalism and conspiracy mongers presented on an equal footing), but Twitter, more than any other single factor, I believe is what accounts for trump's ability to lie with impunity, control the attention of the media, and also for his iron-clad cult-like hold on his followers. 

Of course, trump himself has played an important role. His attention-addicted enthusiasm for amplifying lies has made the fragility of the conventional system even more glaring. The one major difference between trump and other traditional politicians is the degree to which they feel tethered, as opposed to him, to the truth. While most politicians have played footsy with lies, often twisting their oratory into verbal concoctions to avoid outright lies because it would be unseemly, beyond the pale, dishonorable or politically costly. Trump made no bones about lying, in fact he embraced and reveled in it. He lied flagrantly and without limits, and when his lies were disclosed, he either repeated them louder, doubled down on them, or lied about lying. And he was rewarded for lying. The transparency of his lying was celebrated as being authentic. Lying repeatedly and unapologetically was lauded as a show of strength. In this respect he was truly unprecedented. The difference between trump and other politicians could be seen most starkly in 2015 during the Republican nomination debates. His opponents on stage came off as timid and hamstrung by their desire to stick to policy, boxed in by a wish to maintain a level of dignified public discourse, while trump was carefree and unbounded in his rantings, ravings and insults. Any other politician at any other time would not have survived trump's vulgar obnoxious performances during the Republican debates. But not only did he survive, he thrived, eliminating his 15 more educated and experienced rivals, one by one, on his way to winning the nomination. 

What trump understood and demonstrated is that people were not interested in hearing the truth. They were interested in being indulged, enraged or placated. They were interested in blaming others rather than taking responsibility themselves. They cheered his most delusional, ridiculous promises like "I'll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it!" With every outlandish statement trump stress-tested the electorate's tolerance for his duplicity, and found it to be extremely robust. Trump used lies in another way during his presidency: as a loyalty test. He would lie publicly to see who backed him up and who didn't. The more you defended his lies the more loyal you were. It's an old Soviet Communist party strategy according to Garry Kasparov. 

Trump never paid a political price for his lies in four years as president. His approval rating hardly budged. In fact, he was continually rewarded for lying - through the Russia probe, through impeachment, through scandal after scandal. Fittingly perhaps, it was one unassailable, undeniable, and inconvenient truth that ended his presidency: Covid. A truth that he could not obscure with lies, not for lack of trying. After his lies about the pandemic failed to help him win the election, he tried stealing the election with more lies. He has no other game plan. But as I said earlier, trump is not the illness, he is only the most pronounced exponent of a poisoned informational ecosystem. A deficit of trust in the government and media preexisted him, he just exploited it.

How did lies become more attractive than the truth? And how can we ensure that the truth and those who doggedly pursue it win out in the end? Politically-speaking I think these are the central questions of our era. And not just this era but every era, which is why press freedom is constitutionally protected - it's simply that critical to the functioning of society. Because when we cannot or will not distinguish between lies and truth, when we can not agree on the importance of established facts, when the pursuit of truth is not our core value, then there is no foundation for governance, justice or social peace. Social media is here to stay. Like all technologies, it has good and bad impacts on people's lives. Any solution to the problem of pervasive, unchecked lies will likely include regulation of social media platforms by authorities, but also the self-regulation that comes with taking personal responsibility. The one thing I do know is that people will embrace the truth only when the cost of accepting lies becomes intolerable to them. If this pandemic we are living through in which hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens have died is any indication, the price we are willing to pay for accepting lies is appallingly shamefully high. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Should we be worrying about violent sedition?

Should we really be worried about sedition? Is this really the most dangerous period in the US since the civil war? Or is that just hyperbole? The media being overly dramatic, because it generates ratings? 

The first question to ask is what accounts for the 74 million people who voted for trump? Who are they? Are they supporters committed to him as cultists are to their leader (and would die for him) or are they voters of convenience. My guess is that diehards account for about 50% of his electoral support. Since the country's founding a significant percentage of Americans has despised government of any sort. I see that number as being about 25-30% of the general electorate, largely centralized in the rural (frontier) states. This is trump's base. He successfully sold himself as their champion, an anti-politician who would disrupt and dismantle the government from within. There is no doubt that trump succeeded in doing something no one has done in living memory: He activated a segment of the electorate that has not voted in the past, people who hate the government because they think the government is illegitimate or the system is rigged against them. They are rock solid for trump because he's a maverick who doesn't really have any fidelity to party. In fact, they voted only because of him. Likewise, they don't ascribe to traditional party affiliation (although if they did it would be Republican) because the parties are part of the illegitimate establishment system. They already believe the narrative of a malign 'Deep State' so they cheered trump's narrative of victimization, and celebrated his every move to undermine the institutions of governance and law enforcement. 

The next question: Is this segment of the population more dangerous without a champion in the White House or less dangerous? For the answer I turn to something I learned in graduate school. The so-called Theory of Rising Expectations, also called the J-curve. Essentially the theory states that political violence is more likely when the expectations of success for groups are on the rise. Revolution never happens within a population that has been so completely repressed that they have neither the means nor the hope of success. People become radicalized when their expectations have been raised. So let's apply the theory to trump's base of support. Here was an anti-government segment of the population that has existed on the margins of society with very little chance of success. Success in this instance is defined as minimizing and undermining if not entirely overthrowing the government. Then for a time they had a champion in the White House who was accomplishing their objectives from within the government. The expectations of the group were on the rise. Their champion was then summarily turfed out in an election that he called 'fraudulent' because he did not win it. How are his followers likely to respond? First, they would certainly believe that the election was fraudulent because it fits with their view of government in general. The theory would say that their rising expectations have been dashed and therefore the likelihood of political violence is significantly increased. The answer then is that trump's seditious followers are more dangerous with him out of the White House.

So what is likely to happen next? trump and his base will increasingly become marginalized as Biden's victory becomes reality and GOP members of Congress admit publicly that trump lost the election. Trump will shit talk the members of the GOP on Twitter ad nauseum and continue to insist that the election was a fraud. He will announce that he is running again in 2024, but not as the leader of the GOP, rather as the leader of the 'trump party' because that's what he does, he brands everything under his own name. His post-election grift that raised over $200M was all about consolidating his base of support and underwriting his political future. And what about the GOP? It will break apart, with the anti-government trumpist faction leaving to support their dear leader and his family (Ivanka will seek a Senate seat representing Florida, Don Jr. will also pursue a relatively safe congressional seat.) Now rid of its more radical anti-government elements, the traditional GOP will re-constitute under a new leader and a new banner as a centrist party. Okay I'm not sure about this last part, but wouldn't it be something.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Circle

The motto of my great grandparents was 
"Our children will be safer" 
The motto of my grandparents was 
 "Our children will live better" 
The motto of my parents was 
"We will live better" 
My motto is 
 "I will live better" 
The motto of my children is
"Our children will be safer"

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Martyr of the Information Age

Is every person just an organic chemical algorithm, an individual circuit plugged into a system through which a universe of information flows? Has the flow of information become the 'new religion' that is destined to subvert the value of the human being as the ultimate arbiter of western society? These are two of the provocative questions posed in the last section of Harari's book Homo Deus. At any other time I might have considered these notions outlandishly speculative, but what brought them home to me was my 16 year old daughter. I thought of her world - I say 'her' world, instead of the world she is growing up 'in' because there is an important distinction. And I compared it to the era in which my eldest daughter, now 26, grew up. The 10 year difference in age might be eons, technologically speaking. My eldest had a cellphone at the age of 13 and grew up with the internet. She dipped into the use of cellphone applications and social media. It was still relatively new technology, something to use. A tool. My youngest daughter is her smartphone. She barely exists outside it. Her life mirrors Harari's notion that human beings will increasingly come to see themselves as not just plugged into their technology, but as a component of an informational system and inseparable from it. Future generations will not be able to distinguish their individual existences, their selves apart from it, he speculates. Harari mentions Aaron Swartz a computer programmer and 'hacktivist' (best known as an early developer of Reddit) who committed suicide in 2013 at the age of 26 because he was being criminally pursued for hacking into MIT computers and uploading academic articles onto the internet. He calls Swartz the first martyr of a digital age religion called Data-ism. (sidebar: I was surprised to learn that the term Data-ism was coined by David Brooks, one of my favourite contemporary thinkers and writers, especially on society, politics and spiritual themes.) I thought about Swartz, killing himself at the age 26, and wondered how my 16 year old daughter would define herself in 10 years. Would she, as Swartz apparently did, think that life wasn't worth living separate from a system of free informational flow, a system that according to Harari has erased the barrier between the public and the private and will inevitably know you better than you know yourself. A system that will eventually make most major decisions in life for you, because you will begin to trust the expertise and efficacy of the technology more than you trust your own faulty undependable abilities. I'm not sure about this dystopic view, but what I do see is that my daughter is surrendering herself, she is gradually willingly being subsumed in this new world, because it's the only world she's ever known. The future Harari writes about, the one that I see taking hold of my daughter, goes against the very essence of everything I have been trying to do as a parent: To empower my children as individuals with a sense of their own uniqueness and value. A little over 150 years ago Marx was concerned that the Industrial Age had turned human beings into cogs of the means of  production of a capitalist machine. Are we heading toward a similarly de-humanizing eventuality in the Age of Information? Harari apparently thinks so. I am heartened to think that although Marx got some things right, he also got plenty wrong.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Why I stopped writing (and reading) fiction

Once upon a time, I published two novels and a bunch of short stories. I don't write fiction anymore. And I don't read it much either. In fact, reading novels doesn't interest me at all these days. For a while I wondered about it. Why had something that was once a passion become so uninteresting? I once read that Philip Roth never read fiction, even as he was writing it. He read non-fiction exclusively. I found that puzzling because for me there was always a direct relationship between writing fiction and reading it. When I read a novel that I loved it inspired me to want to write one. So what happened to my desire to produce fiction? Part of it was almost certainly the result of how my second novel was received. I'll just say that if it had been more enthusiastic I would have probably felt that I had readers to whom I 'owed' my work. On the other hand, a 'real' writer doesn't think about whether they have an audience or not - they write because they 'have to'. And I think that's sort of true. Writers have to write. Artists have to make art. When I wrote my first novel I didn't really stop to wonder if anyone would want to read it. I hoped it would be worthy of readers. But I didn't really count on it. I just wrote. For my own reasons. So now that I've stopped, I figure I must have done that for my own reasons as well. 

One thought was that I stopped writing fiction at around the same time as donald trump was coming down the golden escalator. Coincidence? There is no doubt that over the past 5 years I've done more writing to express my thoughts about the trump presidency than about any other subject. At the core of my concern with trump - my family and friends called it an 'obsession' - was his lies. It's true that politicians have always danced around the truth. In fact that's part of what makes them politicians, the high wire act of finessing the truth to please all of their constituencies without offending others. But I can't think of another public figure who has used lies as a bludgeon the way trump has. He made no bones about lying boldly, unapologetically, and transparently, without any apparent regard for obvious facts, logic, or truth. It was almost fanciful to watch him. Someone so completely untethered to reality, like a gravity-defying Cirque de Soleil performer, only in trump's case he's an obese, malignant narcissist whose awe-inspiring skill is self-delusion to the point of audacity, leaving jaws dropped because we can't get our minds around whether or not he actually believes the words spewing from his mouth. Trump was a true marvel. Someone worth talking about. Impressive in a manner Churchill might have described as a snake oil salesman, wrapped in a con artist, inside a mob boss. A guy who repeated stuff like 'No one has done more for black Americans since Abraham Lincoln', shortly after praising torch-carrying neo-Nazis as 'very fine people'. Since becoming the most powerful person on the planet there was no telling what havoc he might wreak. It was like watching a car wreck in slow-mo, utterly compelling and impossible to turn away. So for four years I was enthralled, fixated. Until the trump show jumped the shark - which for me was the episode when he ordered his Attorney General and a coterie of uniformed military advisers to tear-gas peaceful protesters so that he could be photographed holding a bible in front of a burned out church near the White House. That was the moment he looked like the Fonz in a goofy motorcycle helmet, totally uncool, the orange glow of his aura tarnished for good. 

So was it trump who killed it for me? A character so outlandish and disturbing, and a presidency so absurdly, one-dimensional and cartoonish as to be predicted in an episode of The Simpsons. Did the advent of the trump presidency so defy the powers of the imagination that it ruined the writing of fiction for me forever because I could never dream up such a creation? Or perhaps it was that trump's Orwellian mendacity had made truth a prized commodity not to be trifled with by fictionalizing, at least not until a modicum of fact-based reality had returned to public discourse. A part of me has genuinely worried about whether a return to informational normalcy was even possible. Whether, in the words of Kellyanne Conway, we have entered the era of 'alternative facts' and there was no going back. This would be an era when skilled, honest, reputable, truth-seeking journalists plying their trade are demonized as 'the enemy of the people' and opinionated loudmouth know-nothing cable TV blowhards are trusted by tens of millions of viewers as a legitimate source of information. An era when an American president publicly excuses the butchering and dismemberment of a journalist by a sadistic Arab tyrant. The pervasive social media spread of child-sex trafficking QAnon conspiracies promoted by trump and his cult-following acolytes has only served to deepen my worst fears about our 'alternative facts' times. It feels like we are treading daily on shifting ground. The game has no rules that anyone can agree on. Just as you don't play with matches at a gas station, the fumes of untruth have poisoned the atmosphere for anyone who once upon a time might have enjoyed writing (or reading) a good story.

Thank goodness for the pandemic: A strong dose of inconvenient reality that would not be denied, twisted or sold. These days I feel like I need something more certain to hold on to, something that can keep my head above the waves, like a life preserver. So I've been writing (reading) poetry instead. 

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Competing National Myths and the Presidency

I'm reading a flawed but interesting book, Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari. The author tells us things we already know, but he does it in a simple and evocative way. So the book is worth reading for that reason alone. One thing the book has done for me is to focus my mind on the essential nature of understanding human behavior ie. that our lives and much of our reality is a construction of narrative and belief. And only some of the time (maybe very little of the time) is belief tethered to fact. Now, I don't usually like to use my blog space to discuss politics, but anyone who knows me personally also knows that on social media over the past four years I have posted almost exclusively about politics, namely one thing: the trump presidency. I have an academic background in political science and international affairs so concern about what a trump presidency might mean and the dangers it might pose was unavoidable (sidebar: In my social media posts I never capitalized the name trump, and never referred to him as 'president' because I considered his presidency to be fake, like him.) In my social media posts I tried not to play Monday morning psychologist, as so many have. Anyone who has seen trump speak for even five minutes could tell that he was an ignorant, petulant man-child, a narcissistic megalomaniac, utterly ill-suited for any position of authority, let alone the office of the President of the United States. Anyone who has followed even a smidgen of his career (on TV and in real estate) understood that he was nothing more than an attention-seeking loudmouth carnival barker and snake-oil salesman. Trump the person, the persona, interested me far less than the potential danger he posed once he took hold of the reins of power. But what interested me most was the nature of his support, what it said about individual supporters (some of whom are friends and family members) and what it said about America as a whole. 

One general comment that I will make about trump's presidency is that it turned out to be far more tragic than I could have imagined. There is a very strong chance that by the time he leaves office in January 2021 more than 400,000 Americans will have lost their lives to the Coronavirus. The majority of these deaths were preventable and trump is unquestionably responsible for most of them, not only through willful negligence, but by actively promoting the spread of illness through disinformation, through his campaign super-spreader events, and now through subversion of the presidential transition. In this respect, (not to mention the many other respects that I will not go into here) trump's presidency was criminal, and far worse than Nixon's. 

So what does Harari's book have to do with trump's presidency? It's helping me get my mind around the fact that in the 2020 election more than 70 million Americans voted for trump in spite of the country suffering Depression-era levels of unemployment in the throes of a pandemic that has claimed almost 250,000 American lives to date and which continues to rage out of control. As he said in 2016, trump almost literally 'shot someone on 5th Avenue and (didn't) lose a vote' but on a much bigger scale. In fact he gained votes from 2016. No, the pandemic is not to blame for his election loss. Most politicians around the world have actually benefited politically from their handling of the crisis, even politicians who substantially botched the job. I am convinced that were it not for his total incompetence and lack of common sense, trump would have been re-elected in a landslide. All he had to do was show a tiny modicum of leadership, responsibility and empathy for his fellow citizens, instead of acting like the pandemic didn't exist, or that a magical cure was just around the corner. But he was incapable of even that. And yet, we still have to confront the fact that a huge number of Americans continued to support him. What accounts for it? This question is critical for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that trump (or Jr.) may try to run again in 2024. How durable is his support?

To understand the answer to these questions, one need only look at the results of the election. They show a country deeply divided seemingly along geographic, demographic and racial lines. Red states versus blue states. The urban, racially-diverse, cosmopolitan, educated coastal states versus the white, rural, uneducated, puritan, central states. Yes this is an oversimplification. There are exceptions, for example the states that flipped in the industrial upper mid-west. But elements like education-level and race are very strong indicators of whether a person will support a Democrat or a Republican.  

However, I think it goes deeper, and this is where Harari's book provides insight. A country is a fictional entity, a constructed reality with a narrative at its core. Or maybe two competing narratives. Maybe the fault line splitting the United States is not really based on race, geography, education, or economics. Maybe it's actually the line separating one story of America from a different story of America that accounts for the split. On one side you have a story that says America is a place built by strong, rugged, hardworking, God-fearing Christians, salt-of-the-earth, fiercely independent individuals. It's a romantic story of nostalgia and tradition that sees freedom 'from' restriction, regulation as the main precondition for achieving personal ends, personal wealth, and happiness. It's a xenophobic, nativist, pastoral American story in which government is fundamentally mistrusted, a necessary evil. On the other side of the divide there's another story of an 'open' welcoming and outward-looking America built by immigrants and slaves who fled or were freed from tyranny and oppression. It's a story of America as a light unto nations, a beacon of social, political and economic refuge, where opportunity means that injustices and discrimination are addressed and corrected, and government, as the embodiment of these values and ideals, is a trusted force for good domestically and around the world. 

If you are a Republican you tend to adhere to the first story of America. If you are a Democrat you tend to adhere to the second. There is very little crossover, except one element: Both stories view America as a meritocracy, a place of opportunity, they just don't agree on how. From a purely political standpoint, demographics and the mere passage of time favors the second story and the Republicans know it, which is why more and more they seek to obstruct the democratic process. 

Competing stories of America explains why so many people seem to vote against their own economic self-interest. Why the poorest most at-risk citizens vote for a party that wants to cut affordable healthcare. Or why people who live in rural states that benefit from subsidies provided by the federal government vote for a party that espouses smaller government. Or why union members vote for a party that supports de-regulation. It's not because they are dumb, as many people said about trump supporters. It's because economics have little to do with it. Voting, as with most decisions that we take, is done viscerally, emotionally, based on narratives and meanings that resonate with us. We take decisions and then we conjure up reasons to justify them after the fact. And even more than this, as Harari's book points out, our stake is planted so deeply in our decisions once taken, so profoundly in the reality that we have chosen for ourselves, that we engage in all manner of intellectual and perceptual contortion, distortion and dishonesty just to avoid cognitive dissonance when inconvenient facts challenge them. Rather than change, we tend to double down. This might go a long way to explain why so many trump's supporters become steeped in outlandish conspiracy theories. It's been said that it's easier to fool people than to convince them they've been fooled.

So if we tend to double down, and trump got even more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016, what changed? And why did Biden win this time? The main reason is that more people voted this time than last time. A lot more. And in particular more African Americans, more women, and more young people. More whites voted too, just not more than the other groups combined. Trump knew that if more people voted his electoral goose would be cooked. That's why he tried so hard to suppress the vote. Why he tried to sabotage the postal system. Why, even before a single vote was cast, he claimed that mail-in voting invited fraud, and 'everyone knows bad things happen in Philadelphia'.   

In tribal America with competing narratives, politics has become two hardened sides, us vs. them. But the two sides are like football teams with loyal fans who spend wads of cash on decking themselves out in team merchandise and otherwise have no particular reason to love their team, except that they just do and always have. In this election that dynamic became even more apparent when the Republicans didn't even bother to fashion a platform to run on. The messaging was whatever trump said on any given day. No principles, no policies, no plans, no values, just personal grievance. He was all about the merchandise, the symbols, waved the bible (a book he's never read) and the MAGA flags and wore the hats. He was helped by incumbency which is a powerful force. Americans want to see their president succeed, even a completely idiotic, indecent and incompetent president. They will give him marks, even undeserved ones. They believe that a president should serve 8 years. The political pendulum naturally swings that way. To screw that up you have to be a special kind of political imbecile. The fact that trump lost at all signifies how monumentally bad his campaign was. 

So politics is just storytelling, is that it? The president is the national storyteller in chief? Maybe it's more accurate to say that campaigning is storytelling. If trump could be elected, someone with no experience whatsoever in public service, no knowledge of government (except maybe to pay-off corrupt public officials to promote his real estate projects), it's clear that his supporters did not view his election as the equivalent of a job interview, which is in fact, what it is. You could argue that his supporters thought he was a good businessman and could run the government like a business. That might be true, but would merely demonstrate an ignorance about the nature and function of both government and business. And it would not answer why they still supported him even when it was revealed that he was a failure as a businessman (cognitive dissonance?). It's possible that Republicans supported trump because they wanted someone at the head of government who would in effect hollow out the government, render it ineffectual. But I think that would sell trump somewhat short. What trump was good at was telling a story. He understood how campaigning like a reality TV show was storytelling at its core. He was a more compelling storyteller than Hillary Clinton in 2016, there is no doubt about this. He was completely off his storytelling game in 2020. I believe that was the main difference this past election. Biden, by most measures, was an extremely weak candidate. But he stayed on message. 

The story of America is changing as the population shifts. Those shifts favor the Democrats. Trump's presidency may not have been the last act of a drama that has reached its denouement, but it's coming. 

Monday, October 26, 2020


This dreary, rain-soaked Monday

in late October, 

a reading of Noah

lingering in the mind

and the question

asked by the rabbis 

whether he was truly righteous 

or just righteous enough

in a very wicked generation, 

they can't seem to decide,

and I ask myself why

everything has to be relative

in this world 

that floats like a life raft 

in black space 

riding up and down waves of good and evil

this overloaded boat

mewling with vestiges of the living 

collected in twos,

each asking him/herself 


and the heavens opening

with the answer

why not.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Perfume: Poems and Word Sonnets, by Seymour Mayne, 74 Pages, Ronald P. Frye & Co.

This forthcoming collection features some of prolific poet Seymour Mayne's best poems in years. After more than six decades of writing, and with more than 70 publications to his credit, he is showing no signs of slowing down, even as there is a melancholic undertone to many of the poems, ruminations on the approaching dusk, the fading light of the sun in the moments as it reaches over the horizon line. I love these poems best, they are rich with depth and gilded imagery, like this image from "Kin", reminding us that our personal journey is a continuation of the journey of our departed forbearers:

And their words
were few, nothing
to exclaim
over the kindred horizon 
as now, mute,
they sleep
dozens of yards apart, 
each in the raft
of his crumbling coffin.

I did not know my grandfather, a Polish immigrant who crossed the ocean in 1907. And my father, who grew up in relative poverty, was a man of few words and was preoccupied, as many of that first generation were, with making sure our family was materially well provided for, and it was. This poem reminds us that their story speaks through ours.

And in other poems like "Never a Dull Moment" the poet engages humorously with themes that are quintessentially and uniquely Mayne, the Almighty, the muse of Jewish tradition, the absurdities and follies of human existence, and the inadequacy and impulse of language:

No language can contain 
our need to speak – and how
we talk, debating silence
and eternity with words
that trace God’s handiwork 
no matter how flawed.

One of my favourites is the word sonnet "Afterword", once again demonstrating Mayne's mastery of this unreasonably concise form with a startling image:


It accomplishes exactly what it needs to without waste, and leaves the door open, as it were, to anxious feelings hinging on an image that may be an arrival or an exit, and suggests an ominous presence of anticipatory emotion.

I can hardly think of a more succinct or apt description of life’s third act than "Rescue Mission":


But Mayne is far from done. He's got plenty of piss and vinegar, as my mother used to say, plenty of injustice to rage against poetically as the prophets of old. As in the poem "Generations", from the section Bucharest Poems:

One generation enjoys 
the earth with its bounties 
and the next is full
of ancient rage

against the neighbours,
against the soothing cross, 
against the quiet
of fearful mortality.

The destroyers wait their turn 
like perennials sleeping 
before blossom and bloom.

This is May, the month 
of joy and desire.
Take it with both hands 
before the slaying

begins in earnest again.

If this collection is any indication, Mayne obviously has a lot more to say poetically. And in these turbulent times, there’s plenty to be outraged about, so thank g-d for that.