distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views

February 20, 2017

Down The Wrong Alleyway

Between drafts of the current project, I thought I’d relax a few minutes and do a new image.  Played with this a bit…making an otherwise ordinary scene just a wee touch creepier.

 

February 12, 2017

Winter Comes

In lieu of an impulsive screed on the latest inanities, some images from this January past.

 

 

 

 

From a day of wandering on an icy January before…well, before everything seemed to change.

Peace.

February 03, 2017

Reality Check

The question came up in a recent discussion, “Why are you so sure if more people had voted they would have voted for Hillary?”  Well, I’m not.  I am fairly certain most of them would not have voted for Trump.  I base that on a very simple number:  Trump pulled the base that always votes that way and in fact received fewer votes than Mitt Romney.  You can try to spin that any way you like, but to my mind that says something very significant.  Namely that the GOP in its current manifestation is utterly dependent on two things to stay in office—that base and keeping the rest of the country disaffected from the political process. They do this by a number of strategies, the two most important being propaganda about their opponents and redistricting in key states.  A host of lesser strategies added to these have effectively suppressed votes in some areas while largely throwing the opposing electorate into a bog of ambivalence about their political choices.

For their part, the opposition—Democrats, liberals, so-called socialists, and a variety of smaller categories with perhaps less clearly defined boundaries—have played into this by a combination of solicitude and poor explication of their positions.  As well, it seems that they have failed to connect with the ground level concerns of those who normally would be their natural constituents, namely working class people being displaced by the changing economic and social ecology.

To be clear, when I say solicitude, what I mean is the perfectly reasonable and basically preferable practice of bipartisan cooperation in order to move the business of the people forward.  We have a rich history to show that this always works best and it is natural to assume it is the way to govern most effectively. However, it presumes a two-way street, give and take.  When one side or the other decides that no matter what, cooperation is not on the table, then it behooves the other side to understand the new paradigm and respond accordingly.  When you see the kind of obdurate obstruction on the part of your opponent that we have seen for the last eight years, it becomes frustrating to see your preferred representatives continually yielding in an attempt to “work with” the other side.  That willingness is being used quite opportunistically to undermine programs and run a cynical power grab to their own benefit. The Democrats for their part seem not to be willing to risk losing what seats and positions they have to form a line and push back against this, possibly because what information they get from whatever sources they use tells them people wouldn’t like it.  They might even feel retributions for such resistance could cost ordinary people.  Whatever the reason, they have been unwilling to play as dirty as their Republican counterparts, at least in the public’s view, and this has resulted in continual loss of confidence.

To be clear, “playing dirty” is not something either side should be doing on our behalf, at least not with each other, but it is a reality.  The Right has a plan, or at least a goal, and they have adhered to it with religious fervor.  One thing we should note is that criticisms of that goal based on the undesirability of it play poorly.  Telling someone that what they just voted for will result in a loss of civil liberties for a particular group has no moral traction because that is exactly what the desired outcome is.  When you say to someone who seems to be on this bandwagon “But you’re taking away their rights!” it is as if an imp of the perverse in the depths of their psyché claps its hands in glee and shouts “They shouldn’t have those rights in the first place!”

We must be clear about this.  Legislation based on the notion that certain groups, however they’re defined, should not have certain rights—which in the parlance of the Right comes out as “privileges” instead of rights—we cannot confront this by trying to explain to them how they misunderstand the nature of such things. As far as they’re concerned, they misunderstand nothing.  Their desired outcome is to suppress.  What needs to be done—and is being done by many—is to confront and declare that they are flat wrong.  And their success will bite them in the end when they lose their rights.  Or are they privileges?

It is unpopular and unpleasant to recognize a basic misapprehension about rights.  We have floated for centuries now on the belief that rights are somehow Natural.  The Natural Law argument which informed most Enlightenment thinking, which is the thinking that defined the context in which the Founders constructed our national image, may have considerable to recommend it, and we could have a very healthy discussion about it, but we aren’t talking here about nature but politics.  The reality is, and has always been, that a right is an artificial construct, and is only as true as our ability to assert it in the face of antagonistic forces seeking counter-advantages.  This is why we put such stock in so-called Rule of Law.  If a right were so self-evident, as we like to say, why would we need law to establish it, define it, and defend it?  We may wax philosophical about “natural rights” all we want, but rights do not exist in nature, they are the product of intellect and political will.

This is unpopular for many reasons, but one of the chief in our present era is that it demands responsible participation, and for people who do not wish to be bothered this is burdensome.

Seldom in our history have the consequences of not wanting to be bothered come so viscerally home.

Why do I say that?  Because, depending on which breakdown you look at, the entire edifice of the current Right is in power based on less than a quarter of the electorate. Somewhere between 35% and 50% nonparticipation in regular elections—all of them, not just national, but it is in national elections where the consequences are so dramatically evident—means that a minority always determines the political complexion of the country.  It may well be that the true majority of Americans prefer what we have now, but we don’t know because people do not vote.

Voter suppression is real, however.  Let’s not forget that. In fact, that alone is illustrative of my point above about rights.  The right to vote ought to be a given, so how could it be possible to deny it to so many people?  One example that rarely rises to the surface in such estimates is the approximately six million people denied the vote outright due to felony convictions.  If voting is a “right” then why should that be allowed?  Redistricting—gerrymandering—has resulted in distortions of state elections and subsequently a distortion of the electoral college outcomes.  The Supreme Court overturn of the Voting Rights Act resulted in the closing down of several hundred polling sites, overwhelmingly in the south and overwhelmingly in African American and Hispanic districts.

But this kind of thing has been the case for a long time now and we have seen higher voter turnout even when it has been difficult for many people.  Ninety million people did not participate this past November, which suggests that all the effort to dissuade as well as suppress paid off.  Because Americans have traditionally disdained politics, advantage was taken.

All the major news sources failed to behave ethically, some morally.  Trump received an inordinate amount of free air time and in a culture that values celebrity the way we do, negative coverage can be just as useful as good coverage.  Any careful analysis of what he said on the campaign trail shows he had very little of any substance.  Hillary Clinton demonstrated clear superiority in all three of her debates with him—command of facts, comprehension of the global situation, a set of policy positions—while his entire rebuttal amounted to “She’s a nasty woman.”

Uncharitably but realistically, one can only conclude that people did not vote for her because they didn’t like the way she dressed.

The argument that she carried a “lot of baggage” is simply another way to avoid the responsibilities of reason and the requirements of citizenship.  During the course of the campaign, as details emerged, and material was made available, it became increasingly clear that most of the negativity about her was baseless, that in fact she proved to be even more honest than her chief rival, Bernie Sanders (a fact which surprised even me), but overcoming well-nurtured antipathies and working through the tsunami of rightwing invective about her apparently proved to be too much effort.

During the campaign one could make the argument that Trump’s opposition was based on the same kinds of detractions—smear—and that once he was in office it would be different.

I doubt any reasonable person, even one who voted for him, in the secret chambers of their own heart, thinks he is doing the job they may have imagined him doing.

On the other hand, maybe he is.  Maybe what was desired was no more than validation in the office of the president of their basic belief that government does not work.  Maybe they put him there purely to prove their opinion—uninformed, ill-considered, often bitter and sometimes malevolent—was right.

Whatever their reasons, what should concern us all is that so many who most likely feel otherwise felt it acceptable to stay home.

But to return for a moment to the current situation.  Trump’s selections for his cabinet demonstrate a clear misunderstanding of the purpose of the office. He is surrounding himself with mediocrities.  Nixon did the same thing, but he also had a few people who actually knew what they were doing.  The conflicts of interest alone ought to disqualify most of these people, but the Republican majority is proceeding to try to rubberstamp them.  To be clear, Rex Tillerson is not a mediocrity—but clearly he has no business being there.  I’m sure some would disagree, but his financial ties to Russia alone argue against him, and right now a bill is being introduced in the Senate to repeal a disclosure law that sheds light on foreign bribes which has been a thorn in the side of Exxon.

Trump did not seem to be aware that Steve Bannon would have to be approved by the Senate before taking a seat on the national security council.  This is basic knowledge.

We can continue, but his supporters will not care.  What is important is that those rights of which I spoke must be recognized as at risk and that relying on the privilege of never having been a target to remain uninvolved is inexcusable.

Lastly, regarding Trump, is the question of moral suitability.  “Giving him a chance” is an empty plea.  When he mocked Serge Kovaleski, he demonstrated a clear absence of moral capacity. How can I say that?  He was just goofing?  No.  This is basic.  This was at the level of courtesy, it is so basic.  We don’t even consider it in the context of moral failing because we view it in terms of good manners.  But this was a powerful man making fun of a less powerful man in public (South Carolina) in order to discredit him.  Rather than attack the news article that prompted the attack, he attacked Kovaleski’s handicap.  That is the tactic of a bully.

No.  Special pleading, “Oh, he didn’t mean it”, attempts at recontextualizing it after the fact, none of that alters the fact that he behaved boorishly, without regard for another human being, attacking—mocking—the thing that had nothing to do with any issue at hand, and then lying about it afterward.  That was a test and he failed.  And if you voted for him, you failed, too.

So, reality check:  Supposedly, you voted to “Make America Great Again.”  How is that working out?  We have a bully in the White House who instead of “draining the swamp” is importing more alligators.  None of them have a thing in common with you unless you’re a member of the seven figures annually club (and most of them probably did not vote for him).  He is threatening to end longtstanding agreements around the world, given verbal approval to Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear programs, annoyed China to the point where a war is at least imaginable, appointed people to his cabinet with zero expertise in the fields chosen for them, thrown hissyfits on Twitter over the size of the crowd at his inauguration, placed gag orders on various agencies, made promises he is either backing out of or revising to fit the feedback he gets from FOX News, has anointed  a xenophobe as his chief strategist, threatened long-settled law with Executive Orders, allowed that a man dead since 1882 is an African American who has done great work that is being recognized more and more, asked for  prayer at the first national prayer breakfast for the new host of one of his reality shows, and has yet to release his tax returns while threatening American businesses and playing with their futures by indiscriminately tweeting about them.  He has given tacit approval to the president of the Philippines for his “program” of murdering alleged drug dealers in the streets without due process and he has gotten into a flame war with the president of Mexico over a wall that would do nothing to alleviate a problem he has no real concept about in the first place.  He has signed an order barring immigration based on religion—no, it is, because we have it on record that he asked several people, especially Giuliani, how he could legally keep Muslims out of the country, so his backpedaling on that is for naught—while not barring immigration from countries we already know have originated terrorists that did us harm.  He is restarting the antipathies with Iran that over two decades of diplomacy was beginning to alleviate and get us to a point of normalizing relations with, in spite of their presumed leadership, what is really is a moderate country and could be an ally given the right moves on our part. He has placed people’s lives in jeopardy over this for no reason other than apparently a lot of his supporters are scared to death of people who dress funny and speak with an accent.  The only reason he has apparently, for now, backed off of attacking LGBTQ rights is that a “friend” of his called and asked him not to.

There is no thoughtful consideration evident in any of this.

While all this is going on, at the state level we have a sea of Republican controlled legislatures and governors who are passing Right To Work bills designed to strip unions of any serious power and although we have seen the consequences of such laws in state after state wherein standard of living and even environmental conservation erode in their wake, somehow the people voting for these representatives believe it won’t happen to them.

My conclusion is that such votes are driven by spite.  The almost volcanic eruption of people who suddenly realized that they might loser their healthcare under the man they voted for is telling.  It’s just probable that they thought it would only affect Those People Over There, the ones they’ve been told to fear and hate, who have been “getting away with things” and “cut in line” and “get things they don’t deserve.”  Along with that, the number of people who apparently did not understand that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare were one in the same thing, while marginally amusing on one level, is stunning example of the corrupting power of corporate media.

Next up is the privatization of Social Security and MediCare.  I’m sure some people think doing so won’t change a thing and then maybe congress can balance the budget and pay off the national debt.  I’m sure some feel that way.

I’m sure.

A Note On Standards

I did not watch the inauguration.  This is nothing new, though, I rarely do.  I saw Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, I watched Obama’s, parts of it, after the fact. I would rather read the inaugural addresses than listen, but really the main reason I skip them is that for me they don’t mean much.  This is the party after the fight, so to speak.  Parades, lots of glad-handing, important people with lots of money doing a Hollywood red carpet thing.  It’s show.

Show is important in statecraft, certainly, but it’s not important to me, so…

But the aftermath this time has been fascinating.  It’s a show, so why lie about what went on?  Why try to tell the national press corps that what they saw with their own eyes was not the reality? Why start with petty numbers games as if the show was the only thing that mattered?

Well, Trump does do reality tv.

However, I would like to say a couple of things here about some of the images I’ve seen—and some of the vitriol attached—after the fact.

I’m not going to say one damn thing about Melania Trump unless she starts getting involved in policy.  Which from all appearances, she will not.  Likewise for his kids, especially Barron.  I don’t believe in that “Well, your dad’s a so-n-so, so you must be, too!” kind of schoolyard bullying.  I rejected that whole sins of the father argument back when I parted ways with christianity.  I won’t go there.

I will say this, though, about her supporters and detractors:  hypocrisy runs deep.

The so-called Christian Right lent considerable support to this man.  His wife is a former model and sex symbol.  She’s done nudes.  She projects an image which I had thought ran counter to the standards of that so-called Christian Right.  Had Michelle Obama done anything like that, these people would have declared the advent of Sodom and Gomorrah and the End Times.  (Many of them do that anyway, on a regular basis.)  These are people who collectively have made it clear they see the sexualization of culture as a decidedly Bad Thing.  But they voted for him anyway and got in the face of anyone who criticized Melania for being what till now they claimed to oppose.  This is Through The Looking Glass Time for them and I won’t pretend to claim any understanding, other than recognizing the serious two-faced hypocrisy evident.

As to those critics who have held old photographs of her up for disdain, mocking her and her husband thereby, as if the fact that she pursued a career which many of them might have made apologies about (women have so few options, etc) has anything to do with her suitability to be something else.

Lay off.  This is all part of the same bifurcated mindset that places sex in one room and everything else in another and then treats public examples of it as alternately empowering or a disease.

Just because her husband treats her like a trophy doesn’t mean the rest of us get to repurpose her for our own ends.

I have no problem with pointing out the hypocrisy of the Family Values crowd over this, but I will not blame Melania for it.  We just bid farewell to a presidential family that had no sex scandals of any kind and clearly set an example as a solid, loving, neuroses-free family—who suffered ongoing derision for 8 years at the hands of people who have violated their own professed standards in that that regard to elect someone who has pretty much been a poster-boy for everything they claim is wrong with America.  Well, clearly the whole thing was a deep, deep neurosis on their part.  I will not blame Melania for their shallowness, lack of integrity, and evident moral malleability.

Nor will I support attempts to ridicule him by holding her up as some example of unsuitability based on the opposite neurosis attaching to women who—

Well, let me put it this way:  all those who were (and are) madly in love with Hillary and feel the world has ended because she is not the president—would you have supported her fervently if nude photos of her from her college years surfaced?  With all the rest of her qualifications intact, had she taken a year to do something that doesn’t fit with an image of “stateswoman”, would the love have been there?

Food for thought.

But for now, unless she gets involved with policy—and if she does, I will wait to see how and what she produces—I will not credit any shaming that goes her way.

January 19, 2017

What A Year: A Personal Assessment

Here it is, middle of January, and I haven’t done a wrap-up of 2016.   Well, what can be said of such a year?

Politically, I think I have said enough.  You can revisit if you wish, especially via the links to my favorite posts back just a little way.  Personally and professionally…

I finished a new novel.  It is currently in the hands of my agent.  As time passes and I hear nothing the usual swarm of doubts begin to devil me.  It’s probably not as good as I hope, possibly not as bad as I fear, but if things run according to form it won’t much matter.  I continue to write in a manner that I’ve long characterized as half a bubble off.

Which has me contemplating where to go.  I’ve decided to devote 2017 mostly to short fiction.  I have one more novel to finish, the final in a trilogy I feel I’ve been living with forever, which my agent feels very positive about.  Since the first two books are done and have not yet found a home, I’m not in as huge hurry to complete the third one, although of late I’ve been having some stray thoughts on where to take it that are the beginnings of an itch to finish it.  Regardless, I am committed to short fiction for the time being.  I’ve already written two new stories and I am working to complete a novelette that’s been sitting stewing for a bit over a year now.

I declared a goal to myself.  Before I die I want to have published 100 short stories.  Which means I have about 40 to go.  It’s as arbitrary as any goal, I suppose.  I have roughly 20 stories in my files in various stages of completion, and maybe 10 more that are done but require revision.  A few have been the rounds and not found homes, so maybe I should take them apart and put them together again, only better.  I have one I know that I have written four versions of to completion and can’t decide which one works best (or at all).

All of which prompts contemplation of the worth of doing what I do.  Yeah, I tend to do that a lot.  But one reality (out of many) is the fact that I am now 62.  Figuring out what I want to do when I grow up has become somewhat problematic.

Along those lines, I had a small revelatory experience in 2016 that has been working on me since.  I have been privileged to work (day-job) with some extraordinary and talented people.  One of them is a new novelist, her first book came out last summer.  It’s a terrific novel, I recommend it (Kea Wilson’s We Eat Our Own), and she and I have had many conversations about writing and publishing.  One day when I was complaining about the dismal condition of my career, she brought me up short by telling me she thought I was very successful.  “You have twelve books out.”  It caused me to reassess my own metrics regarding “success.”  I’m still reassessing, but I have decided to stop sulking about it.  These things really are relative outside certain narrowly-defined parameters.

It helped.

When I attended WorldCon in Kansas City last August, I did so with a different attitude and enjoyed the whole thing much more.

My main concern now has to do with finishing the work I want to do.  I’ve got that one more novel I mentioned above, but I also have one great big epic I want to write—it’s all in the back of my head, waiting for me to get around to—and a few ideas for other books I’d like to do.  Setting the 100-story goal is part of that.  Finishing.  Leaving a legacy.

No, I’m not dying.  I in good health.  I had a whole round of tests last year.  I’m fine.  Still going to the gym, still doing my 100-push-ups-a-day, still being a taunt to the young guys at the gym.  (You’re how old? No!)  But I’d be a fool to look at life the way I did 30 years ago.  I don’t have time to waste.

Of course, I will waste time.  It’s built in.  Humans do that. We should learn to enjoy it.

Along those lines, though, things have gotten to be  a bit better in that we can waste time on things we like more than in previous years.  The situation that has bogged us down for the last four (which I won’t discuss here, but my close friends know about it) has reached the point of being naught but an occasional annoyance.  We’ve been cleaning house, relaxing, getting to the point where we are allowing ourselves to do things like go to the movies if we choose or just sit together reading.  The pressure has eased.  Life seems a bit broader.

As long as we don’t obsess over the news.

No politics here, I said.  Although just a comment, that the way things have come to pass, we seem to have witnessed a nationwide example of the efficacy of Dunning-Kruger.  (I’ll just leave that here, unexplained for the time being.)

Culturally, I feel beaten about the head and stomach with all the deaths.  The two that hit me hardest were Keith Emerson and Greg Lake.  They, among others, provided the soundtrack of my youth.  Their music still thrills me.  Much imitated, but nothing to compare.  I wasn’t happy when Umberto Eco died.  David Bowie didn’t go down too well for me, either.

2017 doesn’t seem to be starting off too well itself, but…

All in all, though, 2016 has turned out to be a year in which I began to be comfortable with what I’ve done, who I am, and where I might be going.  It helps to have a good partner, and I have that.  Donna and I celebrated 36 years together last spring.  Between us we have tackled the many-hued exigencies of timeless conundrums and come out the other side of various rabbit holes with our fluffy whites intact (if a bit rumpled and smudged).  I appreciate her, in the full meaning of the word.

I have no idea where this year is going.  I feel we have gotten onto a space mountain ride. We may come out on the other side of the galaxy.

One thing, though:  there will be more stories.  It only ends when the stories stop.

Onward.

Time To Retire That Myth

I was raised never to blame anyone else for my failures.  If things didn’t work out the way I hoped or intended, well, suck it up and own it.  I didn’t follow through, work hard enough, smart enough, long enough, plan, save, do the necessary, make the sacrifice, or pay sufficient attention.  It was no one’s fault but my own if things went wrong or simply never came to fruition. Blaming someone else for your problems was the surest way to never succeed.  If it doesn’t work out this time, start over, try again, slam your head against that wall until it caves in, but don’t quit and under no circumstances complain that forces are arrayed against you.

Every time I’ve been tempted to do a rant about the unfairness of any situation, that upbringing hauls me up short and makes it difficult, even when I know for a fact my failure was not my fault.  Such things get in deep in the psyché, etch pathways, trenches, ruts that will not let me divest of the feeling of responsibility for a failure I had nothing to do with but still had to suffer.

I suspect most Americans have been infected with some version of that idea.  It has its virtues.  We work hard, we rarely quit, we harbor notions of boundless achievability.  We think highly of ourselves and everyone knows a poor self-image can be deeply damaging.  One might assume this is a component of our much-vaunted work ethic and maybe it is.

On the downside it makes us blind to real circumstances that do in fact hinder people.  Especially Other People.

Congress is about to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  The senate already has.  I doubt the house will fail to follow suit.  Throughout the campaign last year we kept hearing that this was going to happen.  Yet we elected the man who said he would do it.  No no, his occasional “softening” of that position doesn’t count, because in no instance did Trump say he wouldn’t support it.  More than that, we sent back to congress all the incumbents who said they would repeal it.

“Repeal and Replace” has been the mantra, but there is no replacement.  There isn’t.  How do I know?  Because after seven years of listening to them complain we have heard nothing of such a thing.  The GOP has had seven years to get their collective heads together and devise a replacement.  Seven years.  Nothing.  Because they never intended to replace it.  They just intended to repeal it.

You might say this is another give-away to the moneyed interests, but that’s too simple.  The fact is, large segments of the health care industry have figured out how to make money under the ACA.  There are now jobs at stake as well.  It has become a substantial part of the economy.  Just repealing it will raise everyone’s costs, damage parts of a now-working industry, and raise unemployment, and that’s before throwing millions of people off their health care and letting many of them die.  This is sheerest negligence on their part.

Seven years and they could have hired experts to help them come up with a better plan.  Seven years, we could have heard proposals, but all we got was a continual vow, a screed, that they wanted to repeal this horrible law.  Seven years to devise an alternative, air it, meet with the industry that would have to work with it, get the public on their side, have a debate.  Nothing.

This is presumably the way things are supposed to work here—you see something that doesn’t work right, come up with a better idea to replace it.

So why are they voting to repeal something which they have no replacement for?  Something that actually benefits millions of Americans?

There is a video going around of a small business owner talking to Paul Ryan and defending “Obamacare” because without it he would have been dead.  Unequivocal.  Without the ACA he would have died.  Ryan just keeps smiling that vacuous smile of his, like “I hear you and I’m glad you’re alive but it’s beside the point.”

What is that point?

That business owner didn’t deserve it.

Hold on a second, that’s kind of cold.  Didn’t deserve it?

When you dig down deep into the driving myths that we use to define ourselves, yes, you find that in the mix.  It has to do with that upbringing I talked about above.  Your situation is no one else’s fault but your own.

There is no replacement for the ACA because the people voting to repeal it believe, deep down in that vast pool of American myth that informs who they think they are, that people without the means to pay for something should not have that something, whatever it is.  You don’t—ever—give people things.  It is just the nature of the universe that if they can’t find the resources within to step up and make enough money to have what they need, it is their fault, no one else’s, and therefore their situation is no one’s responsibility but their own.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Independent Business Owner Who Had Cancer, but how is your misfortune my problem?  You should have found a way to come up with the money to pay for good healthcare.”

Because blaming others for your failures is not American.

This is the only thing that makes sense.  This is the only thing that explains the visceral and programmatic opposition to any social program designed to assist the less able, the disadvantaged, the underprivileged, the marginalized, the unlucky.  They don’t want to do anything that appears to “give” something to someone who doesn’t deserve it.

Doesn’t deserve it.  What does that actually mean?

If, as many of them claim, they are christians and look to god, then by their own philosophy none of us “deserve” anything.  We should all be slowly dying in a pool of under-resourced misery.  But then, the flip side of that is the charge that the more fortunate should be charitable to the less.

It would not surprise me to learn that most of those voting to take away the ACA support numerous charities and probably do so generously.

Here’s the thing.  Charity like that, though, has never effectively addressed poverty.  Some recipients of the charity manage to clamber up out of it, but most remain dependent.

They get what they deserve, perhaps, which is always less than enough to right their circumstances.

Because their poverty is no one’s fault but their own.  They don’t deserve to be made…

To be made equal.

I’ll let that thought simmer for a while.

The bottom line is, there will be no replacement for the ACA.  Replacing it would mean they accept responsibility for your inability to make enough money to buy your own health care.  They will not accept that because doing so opens the possibility that they are responsible for a whole lot more social inequality than just low incomes and joblessness and the fact that resource manipulation is the primary tool of the wealthy.  Because admitting to that responsibility would mean that a lot of people live in situations which are not their fault.  In fact, are some one else’s fault.

That’s a can of worms they have no intention of opening, because, well, we’re Americans, and we make our own way, taking no hand-outs, accepting no one’s charity, and getting by on our own effort.  Anyone who can’t manage just isn’t trying hard enough and that’s just not our fault.  Or responsibility.

It’s a myth.  It flies in the face of reality.  And it’s time to have done with it.

For all you who voted for these people and may well lose your healthcare…well, in this case, it would seem this really was your fault.

January 11, 2017

…And The Mirror Warps

Strange times.

Fox News is defending CNN in the wake of a Trump insult and possible threat at his first press conference in over 160 days.  In recent years one could not imagine Fox News chastising someone who is in many ways the perfect flower of their mutated brand of “news.”  But since Roger Ayles has stepped down and may now be looking at some very serious problems, there seem to be a few people at Fox trying to reposition themselves in order to gain a credibility that the network actively shunned for  more than two decades.

This on top of a sitting senator actually testifying against a colleague before the senate committee vetting Trump’s cabinet picks.

That rumbling, still faint, may be the severe indigestion coming from one of the worst morning-afters this country has ever had.  The headiness of the post-election high has faded and people who thought everything was going to be “fine” (or some version thereof) are starting to wonder who this is snoring beside them.

It may make for some of the most trenchant reassessing we’ve done for a long, long time.  In that regard, this may turn out to have been to the good.

But only if it doesn’t take too long for the bromo to work

January 09, 2017

A Problem Of Legitimacy

I’ve been trying to compose my thoughts about what transpired last November that has left us with one of the most uncertain political situations we have faced in so long that I find it difficult to make a comparison.  Possibly Rutherford B. Hayes.  Possibly Harding.

The aspect of this that has baffled me most is the fact that sixty million of my fellow citizens cast a ballot for a man they do not trust.

An odd statement, I know, but in all the rhetoric I’ve seen, both before and after the election, I see very little that suggests anyone actually trusts Trump. That’s not to say there weren’t many reasons for those who did to vote for him, but I don’t believe trust is one of them.  Maybe it’s opposite. Certainly a good dose of cynicism was involved.

I’m not going to rehearse here the various theories about stolen or corrupted elections. I’m not concerned with that at the moment. What I’m concerned about is those sixty million voters. Those and the ninety million who did not vote. For the purposes of this piece, I see them all of a piece.*

So one hundred fifty million Americans put a man in the White House they do not trust. Other metrics were involved. Other motives.

Firstly, about that trust thing.

When Obama was elected, people voted for him with a measure of confidence that he would represent their interests.  That change was in the offing. That he was capable of making a difference to the benefit of the country.  They talked about hope and change interchangeably. It was obvious that they felt he would do positive things. They trusted him.  Both times.

And the reaction of his opponents came out of recognition of that basic reality. What his enemies had to do was destroy that trust, if possible.  And because of that trust, their main weapon was denial.  Because it meant their candidates did not command such confidence or trust. He had to be shown, therefore, to be ineffective.

He had to be delegitimized.

In the brawl over the last eight years, perhaps they succeeded on a level not intended. They did not, I think, manage to delegitimize President Obama. Rather, they fulfilled one of Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical dictums and managed to delegitimize the idea of governance.

No, I don’t think that’s what they intended to do, but the fight they engaged was over fundamental principles of the purpose of government. In past fights, it was easier to simply discredit the person in office, either by impugning his reputation or exposing corrupt policies. This time, though, they had neither opportunity, not in any useful way. What policies they attempted to present as corrupt were not.  Some of them were mistakes, some bad ideas, some poorly managed, but none were in any way explicitly corrupt. And the man himself offered nothing to attack.  Even Obama’s detractors, unless they were being programmatically obtuse, could not but respect him.

Which left them only with a fight over principles.

Which they were losing.

Why else adopt a tactic of pure and undifferentiated obstruction?  This became obvious with the nomination of Merrick Garland, who had previously  enjoyed more than a little praise from the very people who then refused to even have hearings about his appointment to the Supreme Court. There was no good reason to do this.  It was purist petulance.  The commitment on the part of GOP senators and representatives to block everything Obama attempted to do had no basis in logic or sound thinking.  It was entirely party driven.  A short-sighted policy to delegitimize Obama’s presidency.

The intent, no doubt, was to show Obama’s philosophy of governance wanting.  That the Democrats, as exemplified by the president, had no good ideas. That based on their success at roadblocking even discussions on his policy measures the Republicans would show themselves as morally and philosophically superior.

The problem is, without that discussion there is no way to know who has the superior governing philosophy.  Ideas need airing, discussion, debate in order to determine their merit.  Instead, the GOP has successfully damaged, possibly destroyed, public trust in governance of any kind, at least at the federal level, for a substantial number of citizens.  By blanket opposition to anything Obama attempted, nothing was shown to be superior—only achievable.  Namely, the inevitable loss of public confidence in government.

They managed to strip the presidency of legitimacy.

They intended to strip Obama of legitimacy.  They failed.  He still retains it.  But he’s leaving office.  It is the office that has been damaged, though public understanding of that fact has probably not caught up with the reality.

What could be more inevitable then that we elect a man who already has no legitimacy to an office that may be badly lacking it?

The idea of legitimacy is a tricky one. It precedes trust. It is an intangible assumption that a person or institution deserves to be entrusted with representational responsibilities, that they are what they appear to be, that their actions, in part and in total, are born out of sound motives and based on confidence in the abilities and competencies required to be present and at the ready. In part, it is a kind of faith that what will be done will be done for the benefit of the community. That even in failure, the attempts to fulfill duties are done in good faith. When all these various implicit characteristics are in place and extant, then trust follows.

Legitimacy underlies all assumptions of power back to the days of kings and pharaohs and other potentates.  It is the reason for such grave concern over lineage and the legal rights of heirs and successors. Because continuity is important, certainly, but the imprimatur of authority must be seen to pass rightfully from one hand to the next in order for chaos to be kept at bay. It is a delicate, powerful thing which, when in place, is hardly thought of but once damaged or absent can be seen as all important. Which explains both why we are now so troubled by possible outside interference with this election and why forms are being so rigorously defended by those who know something is amiss. Why, specifically, the Electoral College did not act in its legal capacity to change its vote in the face of evident misadventure and the clear unsuitability of the president elect—because in the absence of legitimacy in the outcome the legitimacy of the institutions must be protected. Because the office has been damaged in the eyes of the people, a changed vote by the Electors could easily have been the final blow to a marginally creditable system. Barring Trump would be seen as less a decision against a usurper than as one more reason to distrust the system.

I say “usurper” purposefully, though with full admission of the irony implied.

It was usurpation that invented those so-called popular sanctions, those speeches, those monotonous congratulations, the customary tribute that in every age the same men pay, with great prodigality and in almost the same words, to the most contradictory measures. In them, fear apes all the appearances of courage, to congratulate itself on its own shame and to express thanks for its own misfortunes. A peculiar stratagem that deceives no one! A game that impresses no one and that should have succumbed long ago to the arrows of ridicule! But ridicule attacks all and destroys nothing.
Benjamin Constant, On the Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation, 1814

Constant was talking about Napoleon, of course, but consider—Napoleon achieved a position of ultimate power in France with the assent of the people who claimed legitimacy to bestow that power. That Napoleon turned out to be other than what anyone expected made him a species of usurper. He replaced legitimate authority by virtue of pure assertion. That he did so in the wake of the complete loss of legitimacy on the power of the monarchy only underscored the fact that he had no authenticity, only the force of a manufactured popular mandate.

People loved him.

For a while, at least. And when he had been beaten and exiled the first time, the Sisyphean task of recovering legitimacy in a Restoration ran into the reality of a desolated economy and a broken public trust led to a final surge of popular support during his Hundred Days.

Now, a usurper can still do the job, but has the same problem as the delegitimized “rightful” ruler, namely a lack of trust from the people. In this instance, the office is the damaged part, which is why Obama was unable to pass on his still-intact legitimacy to an heir, namely Hillary Clinton. Large segments of the popular base that swept him into office in two historic elections did not stir itself to grant its favor upon her because she had been the one the ongoing attempts to delegitimize Obama had successfully tainted. They could not damage him so they attacked his staff.  The repeated harangue over settled questions served his enemies well, because she was seen finally as corrupt—so corrupt in fact that her corruption was beyond revelation.

Constant again: Usurpation brutalizes a people while oppressing it—accustoms it to trample on what it respected, to court what it despises, to despise itself. And if usurpation manages to endure for any length of time, it actually makes impossible any freedom or improvement after its fall.

The irony in our case, of course, is that the usurpation has been done for the usurper, rather than by him.

When I say that no one who supported him trusts Trump I base this on the immediate and almost desperate sounding apologia that followed on the heels of his election, that he never really meant all the things he said, that he was speaking allegorically or metaphorically, or, more cynically still, that he was only saying those things in order to win and would never actually act on any of it.  Often these apologies are made by people who months before lauded him for plain-speaking, for “saying it like it is,” for being “genuine.”  And again, this was all said with no sense of irony. Wishful thinking, perhaps.  But disturbingly, I think, based on a perception that it didn’t really matter, which suggests either no understanding of what was happening or an admission that all faith in the office had been lost and it was of no consequence who inhabited it.

Of course, the apologies on his behalf also suggest some understanding of how undesirable those things he said actually are. People made excuses for the visiting uncle at Thanksgiving who couldn’t stop telling off-color jokes and wondering why cousin so-n-so had to go an marry someone not of his or her ethnicity. Oh, he doesn’t really mean that, he’s just being, you know—

And no one seems to have the authority, the moral will—the legitimacy—to tell him to leave, or just shut up. Possibly because they see him as a founder of the feast.

This is no surprise in a movement which on the one hand is represented by David Brooks and on the other end by Alex Jones.

The lack of trust manifests among those who must now work with him.  Many stepped up to voice opposition to him during the campaign, but are now backpedaling because they see him as the one who may be useful to them. But while they may be acting as if everything is as it should be, they do not trust him, and may well believe he is not legitimate. They’re stuck, though, because the institutions they have worked so hard to control are in danger of collapse after several decades of sapping, and if they move aggressively to correct what is clearly a mistake they risk losing everything they have worked toward.

In order for a government to work effectively, a certain degree of confidence must be in place that what it does is done legitimately.  The general populace may know some of what goes on, but the entire point of a government is in its function of dealing with things too vast and complex for the average citizen to access, at least in the details. We have to trust that the institutions in place are managed by people who do what they do with a minimum degree of competence and for the benefit of those they represent. When Reagan began his campaign of delegitimizing the very idea of government (“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” August 12, 1986) he put at risk that powerful, fragile trust necessary for a government to function. It has never been a question of criticizing the government—we have always done that, it is part of the very institutions we rely on that we do that—but the very idea that the general will can be legitimately expressed through those institutions that Reagan called into question.

I doubt he intended the results we see now, but this is his true legacy. This is what has become of popular conservatism.+ Whether intended or not, this has been the consequence of the struggle against progressivism.

Conservatism itself has been usurped. It has morphed from a philosophy of preservation and economic and demographic caution to one that simply rejects change. From there it has become dynamically retrograde, identifying a priori change as a viable target, rejected out of hand as having somehow violated conservative prerogatives. Hence the assault on even New Deal concepts which have long become part of the settled landscape of Things To Be Conserved. (The entire movement to privatize as many public programs as possible is part of this. Should they acknowledge the legitimacy of these programs as part of the proper purview of government, they would be forced to admit change as a necessary aspect of their philosophy.)

There is in the current manifestation of the Conservative movement a deeply-nurtured mediocrity.  Partly this is a result of a mangled understanding of the nature of equality, but mostly it stems from a distrust of anything that requires imagination or innovation. The only vision put forth by their best lights is a vague ritual solemnity that masks an avarice without taste and certainly stripped of genuine morality. Form is all and even in that it is only the form of denial.

There is no climate change. There is no viable secularism. There is nothing to evolution. There is no alternative to oil, capitalism, or god.

There is no good progress.

Whether intended or not, this has been the consequence of their struggle against progressivism. Lacking a substantive alternative, they have engaged a battle of labels.  Over time, the things meant by those labels have been abandoned, so we no longer know—possibly on either side—what they mean.  So attempts at restructuring the economic landscape, for instance, to shift the flow of resources to a broader population are labeled Socialist, but what is meant by that within the context of the struggle has nothing to do with socialism.

So what has replaced genuine conservatism is a regressive denial of progress.  Consequently, one method in play to thwart progress is the categorical dismantling of the material and legal scaffolding on which any progress depends for any success.  Like social security. Or voting rights. Progress is not to be trusted.  Therefore the tools and foundations of it must be denied those who would most likely pursue it on behalf of those who would most likely support its use.  The so-called Safety Net must be destroyed so those it allows a degree of comfort and security to move forward cannot affect change.

This philosophy has been ideal for those who have been pouring huge amounts of money into the political process in order to secure for themselves a free field of movement to guarantee their hegemony over resources. The use of money in campaigns may have begun as a tool to support ideas and a representational legitimacy, but as the contest fragmented and the points of focus were lost, it became a means of winning.  When it was no longer clear what winning served, money became the end in itself. Building war chests on the chance that one day there might be a philosophy worth supporting has become endemic to the struggle. Consider the point-free arguments over taxation. We rarely hear clear arguments over what use taxes are to be put, only increasingly strident rhetoric over whether they should even exist.  Meanwhile, borrowing continues, because that feeds private coffers which then pay for more strident anti-tax rhetoric.

Through all this the one thing that is excised from our political life that will be perhaps the final brace to a damaged system is competence. Competence aligned to legitimacy is dangerous to a self-justifying mediocrity.

As I said at the beginning, I did not intend to talk about outside intervention here.  I am concerned with the voters, who have chosen to reward an illegitimate candidate, both by direct ballot and, more importantly, by abstention. The work of delegitimizing our institutions is all but accomplished and this election is proof.  Because popular sentiment became invested not in the office but in the persons involved, to the exclusion of much if not everything else. Once there was a time when it did not matter so much which candidate won, we all trusted that certain basic duties of the office would be fulfilled regardless.# So those who lost grumbled and went home and geared up for the next election and got on with their lives knowing the scaffolding and superstructure was in place.  That the one who won at minimum would fulfill the required functions of the office to the general benefit of the community.  We trusted in the legitimacy of the elected candidate. We could change our mind in four years.

That did not happen this time. One hundred fifty million voters decided there was no legitimacy to be had, so on the one hand keep the competent one out and on the other hand assume a principle aloofness and refuse to participate. Because those who voted for Trump do not trust him. This will become apparent. Nor do they have confidence in the institutions anymore, so why elect someone who would be adept at running those institutions?

They have placed themselves in a mindset that allows for no real alternatives other than the continued deterioration of systems they no longer believe in but hope will not abandon them. We have a crisis of legitimacy.  Worthy candidates will be seen as more a danger than a benefit because making things work to our benefit has been characterized as somehow inimical to our identity.

In a way, we have usurped our own government. In its place will now be a set of forms that will set the stage for a series of convulsions until finally we get past the constraints of our fear.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

*And yes, I acknowledge that voter suppression was an active force in all of this, but ninety million? No, suppression cannot account for even half of that.

+ To be clear, I do not see this movement as legitimately conservative. This is the name they have taken from people who are or were genuine conservative thinkers and who would never have countenanced the circus taking place under their rubric.

#No, I do not mean to suggest there were no differences between candidates, only that regardless who won, which ideology or philosophy became dominant for the duration, the institutions of the country could be depended on to continue and that certain values were held on common by both sides of the political divide.

January 04, 2017

…And The Year Begins In Fog…

I’m giving my office a thorough resort (long overdue).  Also, I’m attempting to catch up on sleep (likewise long, long overdue) and taking the first few months to relearn the art of short story (so overdue as to almost not be doable).  In the meantime…the other night, coming home from work, the city was ensconced in a thick fog, and for once I pulled over to do some images.  So while I am endeavoring to straighten out the physicality of my existence, for your edification…

 

Let us hope for more clarity as the year goes on.

January 01, 2017

Review

2016 was a thorough-going challenge to a sane hominid’s equilibrium, regardless how you try to contextualize it.  Picking the “best” posts from such a year reveals a litany of political views, deaths, and photographs designed to distract from the magma-flow of WTF that worsened as the year continued.

Still, some good things happened.  I’ll try to do a more cogent overview later.  For now, my “favorite” posts of the year.

A Long Time Ago

Hartwell

Lightspeed!

Common Sense vs Common Crap

April Morning

Make America…Again

A Couple of Scenes From Dallas

Unqualified

The Campaign

An Open Letter To Eric Greitens

A Couple of Observations About the Culture

K.C. 2016

Radical Futures and Conservative Sensibilities

Hey, I Did A Podcast!

The Iconography of the Myopic

Why We Need To Teach Civics

The last couple of months descended into escapism and disbelief, for evident reasons.  Stay tuned for more.

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