distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views


July 23, 2017

How Doctor Who’s Sex Change Explains Everything

Heavy sigh.

Seriously? People are getting exercised over this? I suppose these will be some of the same people who will come out in angry revilement if the next James Bond really is a black man.

There’s a certain space wherein this kind of angst is perfectly acceptable.  Private conversations with people who share the same interests and have Opinions about the condition of a favorite bit of entertainment and how it would be if certain changes were made.  Three or four of you get together over beers (or floats, depending) and pizza and spend an hour or two reconstructing the whole æsthetic as you would have it.  This is good, healthy use of imagination and the application of ratiocination over something that is fun and has no real impact on anything else. The relative merits of various incarnations of the Doctor (or Bond) is a legitimate question within the confines of a small subject relating to art and storytelling and critical appreciation.  Same kinds of questions apply when a reboot of an old film or tv show is in the works or when a dead author’s work is licensed out for new books.  We flex our gray cells and participate in a way in the creative process.  We can draw lessons from such interactions.

But when someone, like a John C. Wright, weighs in to tell us how this is all part of the feminization of civilization at the expense of masculine role models and that civilization itself is at risk because after 12 incarnations of a fictional character who is also an alien being several centuries old the people in charge decided to give a female version a try, and a cadre of spoiled, semi-privileged misanthropes go on a tantrum in agreement, condemning the change and anyone who might like it to the nether regions of Hell…

Get a life.

If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it.  You can go back and rewatch the umpteen seasons already available (you will anyway, probably). You have several options here.  You can even discuss—discuss, as in have conversation, engage discourse, exchange opinions—the merits of it among yourselves or others. What you don’t get to do is tell other people how they’re about to bring on the end of the universe because they like something you don’t.

Really, that’s going just a bit far, don’t you think?

This is the flip side of insisting that everyone must have an opinion about something, even if it’s something of zero interest to them.

We’re talking about art now.

The fact is, there’s room for all opinions, as long as we remember they are just that—opinions.

This is one of the places wherein we learn to play nice with people who disagree with us.

But a lot of people don’t know how to do that anymore.  Maybe they never did.  But they also never had access to such incredible amplification systems before.

At it’s base, though, this is what a certain kind of privilege looks like.  It’s taking a position that what I believe is the absolute Norm and anything that deviates from it is unacceptable.  We can’t have a female Doctor Who because it runs counter to the way I want the universe to work, and what is it with these girls anyway, trying to shove their way into something they don’t fit? They have perfectly good heroes of their own that are just as good as mine, so they should leave mine alone!

Sound familiar?  If it doesn’t, that may be symptomatic of the problem.

We see this time and again when a group previously thrown a bone by society asks for more respect and society, or the arbiters thereof, look at them like they’re being selfish and demanding something undeserved.  In reality, the most vocal opponents have been skirting by on the earned privilege of others for ages, and when according something like equality to a group that has never had it before is presented to them they realize, in their bones, that they just might not be able to compete on a level playing field and everything must be done to convince the world that everything as it has been is meant to be.  Because, damn, what if that group turns out to be better than us?

Well, tough. The fact is, fanboy, sitting there on your couch feeling one with the Superbowl Star because you bought the jersey and cheer the team and you are, somehow, the same as that quarterback because you both have testicles, you can’t compete with the standard model you already feel you own.  You don’t get to claim superiority because someone else can do all that shit that presumably only males can do.

Or white people.

This is instructive, really.  The response to the change came before the first episode aired.  Among those screeling anthrophobes so unhinged at the idea that the Doctor no longer has a penis (if “he” ever did, which is an interesting question in itself from a purely science-fictional standpoint, since the Doctor is Gallifreyan and may well have a completely different sexual arrangement) and now has, gasp, a vagina (again a presumption), it is not so much that they ever identified with the Doctor but that, on some level, they possessed identity because of the Doctor.

Here’s where I start to have problems with this whole process. Are you drawing inspiration from the idea of the role model—brains, ability, character traits—or are you hitching a ride on all that by hitching your ego to the one thing you don’t have to do anything to achieve to be “like” the role model?  To say “I want to be like that character” is to make a commitment, however small or temporary, to doing some work toward.  To say “I am like that character” because you happen to share certain physical similarities is to borrow a sense of self-worth that you haven’t earned.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you keep it in perspective.  As long as you know that, really, you aren’t anything like that character but might occasionally pretend to be, in your own head, your dreams, or in a bit of cosplay, and you only pay homage because you think that character is cool.  Some of the cool might rub off.  But that fact is these things change.

How important is it that what may be the least important aspect of a character remain constant and unchangeable just so your shortcomings stay neatly hidden away behind an act of mental pretense?

None of this would rise to a level requiring a response had it not become evident that as role model, The Doctor has failed for these poor, disheartened misogynists.  Failed in that the essential message of the Doctor didn’t get through, didn’t translate, didn’t manifest.  The whole point of the regeneration, aside from need to explain all the new actors, is that what you are on the inside matters infinitely more than the plumbing. And no gender has exclusive rights to the interior. The Doctor moves from one incarnation to the next, changing, becoming different, yet always bringing along the most important things, which have nothing to do with anatomy.  In that way, inadvertently or not, the Doctor has been a role model for people, not boys.

Discussing narrative consistency, the needs of logical drama, the pros and cons of story and character arc choices, all that is one thing, and legitimate.  But that’s to do with the interior, because you already have a character who transforms from one person into another as an essential element of the interior.  Having already established that and had it accepted as part of the way this thing works, to go off on a tear when the transformation doesn’t conform to your limits is small-minded and disingenuous, especially when you couch your complaints in some variation of requiring a role model for gender identity when that was never an essential aspect of the character in the first place, mainly because it’s an alien.

In other words, the shock is all about you, not the character.  Quite possibly there’s always been an attendant fantasy about the Doctor getting it on with the Companions, which now becomes incommensurable with certain neuroses when it might be a female Doctor taking her pick of male companions—or, for the sake of consistency, still doing so with the females.  That opens a whole other door of unmanageable unfathomables, I suppose.  What, the Doctor not only a woman but a lesbian?  Or just bi?

But according to canon, the Doctor never did do that, and we have the fey thread with River Song to even suggest a sexual attachment, and she wasn’t a Companion, and—

Rabbit holes can be fun, certainly, but be careful that they don’t start in your own fundament.

Civilization will not end.  The Doctor will survive.  As for role models, the Doctor has been serving as one for People since the beginning.  This will be just more of the same.

And that is about all I have to say about that.

I’ve got some timey-whimey shit to think about now.

(Oh, the title?  How does all this explain everything?  Well, think about it.  Taking issue with things just to have a snit because you’re uncomfortable…well, look around.)

July 15, 2017

A Chronic State of Nostaligic Disconnect

In the past few weeks, things have not gone well for political philosophies based in traditional formulations.  Right or Left (but more so on the self-identified Right) there is a kind of flailing, a death throe undulation that looks like grasping for anchors in something that feels historically relevant but in fact turns out to be sunk in air or sand and simply gets torn loose the moment any real strain is put on it. At its most discernable, there are a lot “I know what you mean” moments, but even these are more “I think I know what you mean, maybe” moments that later turn out to be coincidental brushes with familiar syntax and not much in the way of substantive connection.

Take healthcare.  Whatever your personal feelings about what we should do, nothing being done is what anyone seems to want.  Trump said “We’re gonna fix it!” the GOP nodded sagely, then wrote a bill that would not fix it, but would return the state of American healthcare to some rough semblance of how it was back in 2007, but isn’t, because now no one, not even the insurance industry, wants that.  They have redrafted the bill to do less damage, but that’s not what they want to do, nor is it what Trump promised, although he keeps cheering congress on as long as there is some kind of repudiation of the ACA, which is not what the voters want, either.  In their case, they never really knew what they wanted other than for things to not cost so much, but as to how to “fix” that, those who voted for the current administration have no idea and distrust every single attempt to do so.  In the meantime, the professionals who might have some insight into this are being ignored, congress is pretending it’s serving the People by doing something which can only drive up costs, and Trump is offering zero sense of direction other than “Change something!”

Meanwhile, he has modified his requirements of the propose border wall by asking that it be transparent “so no one on this side will be hit in the head by the packages of drugs being thrown over it.”  Which has so many layers of problematic misapprehension of the problems it’s intended to address as to qualify as some form of mystic pabulum handed down from an airless mountaintop.

(He also bragged in an interview how great the G20 meeting was because there were, like, 20 countries represented.  Ahem.  Two things about that–either he is ignorant enough to think that is useful information or his supporters didn’t know that was what the G20 is.  Or, well, he thinks his supporters wouldn’t know this, so….never mind.)

Meanwhile (again) at the state level, the Illinois legislature finally found the spine to tell the governor that they’ve had enough of his party fundamentalism, the state needs a budget, and for it to have even a prayer of being relevant, the state needs revenue, so yes, we’re raising taxes.  The fact that this is significant is reflective of the dissociation across the entire political spectrum with regard to taxes.  In Missouri we have a strong cadre of very wealthy people who do whatever they can to eliminate any tax that dares raise its head, like some manic game of economic whack-a-mole that serves none of the purposes it is purported to serve.  Along this line, our state legislature has decided to repudiate attempts at the city and county level to address minimum wage issues and bar St. Louis—or any other municipality—from raising local minimum wages above the state level, which is a joke.  Why? None of the excuses make any sense.  Basically there seems to be some attitude at work that poor people need the incentive to become middle class and if we pay them enough that they might be able to feed their families and possibly attend classes to try to better themselves, then they will have been handed an unfair advantage and not properly appreciate it.  If there were not evidence at hand that this is a bullshit argument it would still be laughable because it ignores the current economic realities and instead seems to assume the situation is no different than it was in 1964.

And again meanwhile the people who are supposed to understand such things are scratching their heads at the puzzling data that while productivity has been rising steadily for the last seven years, along with job growth, wages have stagnated.  The increased profitability of all these companies has not resulted in an increase share of the wealth with workers, as it would have (again) back in 1964, and they don’t understand what’s happening.  What’s not to understand?  Two things have changed since then that explain it quite well—one is that technology has become significantly more effective, which results in the need for fewer and fewer actual employees (I saw a resent example from, I believe, Kentucky about a steel mill that produces wire, which thirty years ago would have employed a thousand people, but which has been replaced by one which produces the same amount of product but employs fourteen, none of them on the shop floor) and we have seen a gutting of unions, which were always the most effective way to force management to pay an equitable share of profits.  But people at the top, charged with analyzing and interpreting this kind of data, are “confused.”

Everyone is confused when no one is willing to face the realities of our new present.

The normally natural affinity for a comforting past has been distorted by the manipulations of identity politics and the toxic overuse of pointless nitpicking combined with an endemic ignorance of context to create a situation in which constructive change is becoming less and less possible, at least on a national level.  If every suggestion for change is met with swords drawn and blood oaths taken to resist, all possibilities fail. (A sensible approach to healthcare would be a single payer system, but it requires people to back up, give it some breathing space, and a chance.  Instead the immediate response among too many is “No!  That will lead to—!” Fill in the blank.  Death panels? Rationing? A complete destruction of a healthcare system which is, at the level of public service, is already dysfunctional? None of this is rational, but we have frightened ourselves enough that unless it is something we are completely familiar with we see it as threat.  But in the case of health care, no one is familiar with its workings, only its results, and not even then do most people know why the results are as they are.)

In the meantime—once more—we have a widening disparity between rich and poor which has opened a chasm.  Such chasms have happened before and they always precede revolutions.  The question for us will be, how bloody this time?

All because those who might ordinarily be trusted to supply meaningful context and useful direction are either ignored or just as helplessly clinging to a nostalgic hope of “returning things to the way they used to be”—on both sides.

Which leaves the vast majority of people in an awkward kind of stasis.  Waiting.  Struggling.  Clinging.

Into this moves the impulse to control absolutely.  Travel bans, surveillance, behavioral rule-making that does nothing but hobble, identification requirements that do nothing but isolate and segregate, public events that end up defining in-groups and shutting others out, calls for a kind of public piety that serves only to make some people targets while reassuring no one.  These are the components of tyranny, the necessary elements of fascism.  Both those terms have of late been used too freely and consequently are losing some of their prognostic power.  When you have a combination of too much fear and too little sense of sanity, that’s when the power mongers—who never, ever have solutions—have the best chance of seizing power.

As we move forward, it might be a useful habit to start asking of every proposal, “Who does this serve?”  If it does not serve you and yet you are inclined to support it, ask why?  And if the answer is, “It makes me feel safe from Those People” then it’s a good bet it’s a bad proposal, especially if “those people” are your neighbors.  Get in the habit of seeing things this way. Like any rule, it won’t track a hundred percent every time, but we have gotten into the opposite habit of thinking that any proposal that seems to benefit someone we either don’t like at the expense of people we like to pretend are “our people” (the rich, the powerful, the right skin color) or we believe will limit our “rights” in some vague way (and usually rights we either don’t have to begin with or are not really rights but privileges) are automatically bad.  Again, sometimes this might be true, but it’s a horribly limiting, fearful way to see the world and will lead ultimately to exactly what we think we’re trying to prevent.

Habits of thought anchored to the sand of a past that no longer pertains. Praising a history more hagiographic and mythic than factual. Preserving symbols that don’t mean what we think they do and believing that by protecting all this we will solve the problems of tomorrow.  We’ve been indulging this kind of nostalgic political nonsense for decades now.

Do you like where it’s brought us?

June 25, 2017

Money Lunatics

I learned this morning that the insurance industry has had essentially zero input in the new healthcare bill.

Let that sink it for a few moments.

The insurance industry has had zero input into the new GOP healthcare bill.  Which begs the question—who is this supposed to benefit? Not the medical industrial complex, certainly. By and large most of them have been expressing deep concerns all the way up to dystopic warnings to not do what the GOP is trying to do.

Only a couple of things make sense, one having to do with money, the other to do with power. True, usually the two go together, but sometimes they are actually separate issues. This may be one of those instances.

If it’s money, then all of the impetus for this is in the presumed tax breaks.* By now it ought to be obvious that all the benefit will accrue to the top one or two percent.  Sequestering tax dollars so they cannot be used for anything other than their designated purpose is seen by those with a banking mentality as wasteful, since it is money that cannot be used for investment in high return ventures—the sort which will only profit the same people doing the investing, and at the expense of everyone else.

No, no, don’t start with the whole trickle down nonsense.  After thirty plus years of it, by now only the insistently ignorant, uneducated, or blindly stupid can think trickle down works to anyone’s benefit other than those who already own the capital.

I can understand people not seeing how this happens—it is a very complex set of components which work together to funnel capital in essentially one direction—but that they fail to see it as a net effect dismays me.  Usually people know when they’re being screwed over and quite often by whom.  That so many people reject what they must intuitively know in order to vote for the very people ministering to this system baffles me.  Yes, often their expenditures go up, but at a certain level it is not by virtue of tax increases but increases in cost of living, which while related are not the same thing.

In this instance, however, so many of the very corporate entities which in the past have supported and benefited from this system are beginning to protest its continuation.  They must now see that their ruin is not far away if this system is not seriously modified if not entirely reshaped.

So why would their presumed servants not heed their concerns?

Power.  And not, in this instance I think, corporate power, but a confused apprehension of the nature of power.  Mitch McConnell and his ilk don’t need the money.  Their position in this regard makes little sense on any practical level.  The people they have been beholden to in the past, many of them, are telling them to stop, but the carnage continues.

The question then is—power to what end?

Look at the chief concerns expressed by many in this movement.  An adamant denial of climate change, even in the face of the military, which they otherwise claim to respect and wish to see strengthened, telling them that it is real and a threat to national security.  An obdurate rejection of the science of evolution, in spite of a medical industry informing that modern medicine is based solidly on the understanding provided by evolutionary science.  A singular aversion to social programs, when the large majority of their presumptive constituents support them.  A denial of any rights not already enjoyed by white males (and even a few of those they question), which is most clearly seen in the refusal to acknowledge women’s issues as worthy of their time and a consistent struggle to strip women of what rights they already have in terms of procreative self-determination.  (My own state, Missouri, is about to pass a measure to allow employers to fire anyone using birth control—as if this makes any sense on any level.  My question is, if a male employee is found using condoms, can he also be fired?  Will he?  Or is applicable only to women who may use their employer-provided insurance to buy birth control pills?)  And, by no means the last thing, but a big thing, a refusal to look at income distribution and do anything about the inequities that emerge out of systemic changes they championed which now many if not most of the beneficiaries of those systems are beginning to seriously question.

Taken at face value, it would appear to be a doctrinaire effort to turn the United States into a third world state.

Hyperbole aside, it may be based on two things—a perverse reimagining of Manifest Destiny and a marrow-deep conviction that all government, unless outwardly directed, is evil.

They know their version of the repeal-and-replace bill will hurt millions.  The rollbacks of Medicare will put children at risk.  How is this defensible?  Do they believe people will simply “find a way” that has nothing to do with government to make up for it? That might be plausible if at the same time they were doing something about income inequality, but instead they’re also trying to dismantle Dodd-Frank—without a replacement, by the way—which, while not a great law, is at least intended to protect noninvestors from the predations of the venture capital class.

No, this is designed to create an environment wherein those who are not powerful enough, in their view, will lose all ability to challenge them.  They will be poor, in ill-health, without access, voiceless.  The women in this pool will be constant victims, unable to control their reproductive destinies and therefore completely dependent on the “kindness” of males, who will no longer have the restraint of law or custom to govern their depredations.  Just like it used to be when abortions were done with coat hangars and women could be tossed on the street propertyless in the case of divorce.

This is a blanket repudiation of the responsibility of government to do anything for people who can’t already do it for themselves.

It is that simple.

Unless someone can offer another explanation?  I’ll even buy the idea of a resurgent Confederacy that’s getting even for having been forced to give up its slaves.  That may be part of this, but it’s hardly all of it.

Cutting taxes has become religion, and the faithful line up to support it even when down the road this will cost them.  Cost them in terms of more expensive goods and services, poor infrastructure, unreliable information networks, and employers who have the power practically of life and death over them.  Because somehow they have bought the idea that cutting taxes means they will have more money, when in fact most of them pay too little to see big pay-offs, the kind that might mean anything.

What is even more outrageous is the evident apathy of the people who are allowing these people to remain in power, because with few exceptions we are being shafted by a congressional majority kept in power by a quarter of the voting base. This is the worst expression of pandering I have ever seen and to no purpose, because now even many of those who voted for them are beginning to say “Wait a minute, now.”  But once they say they, they are outside, beyond the pale, no longer reliable.

These are people committed to a path with no regard for consequences because somewhere along the way they forgot why they are there.

You doubt me?  One fact alone demonstrates that they give not a damn about any of you.  McConnell and Company have been railing against the ACA (code name Obamacare) for seven years.  Repeal that terrible law.  Replace it with something that works.  We now see what they wish to put in its place, and it is far worse than what it is intended to replace.  This is not hard to understand since they came up with this in the last couple of months.

Which is the problem.  They have had seven years.  They have spoken to no one, consulted no one, done apparently no work at all on devising a replacement.  With all their resources, after seven years they could have produced a Sistine Chapel of health care.  Instead we have an off-the-shelf paint-by-number thing and they couldn’t even stay inside the lines. Seven years!  They never intended to do better.

They do not believe in the government they are part of.

For my money, they do not believe in America.  This has been a criminal abrogation of responsibility.

There is no reason.  They need to go.  

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  • It is remotely possible that the GOP intends to starve the health care industry, seeing it as a rival in influence to other preferred programs.  If so, it’s a battle that will leave many people dead on the field and solve nothing.
June 08, 2017

Great Bear Politics

In all the chatter about Russian interference in the last election, one question keeps coming up. It’s never fully answered and because of that, the question as to whether or not such interference occurred remains in play.  At this point, it’s like climate change—everyone knows it happened, but how, in what form, and to what end are details the absence of which seem to insulate the president for the time being. That seems about to change with Comey’s testimony.

But that question—why, what does Putin hope to gain, what’s the pay-off?—bedevils people.  Especially people raised on spy thrillers and James Bond and post-Cold War conspiracy porn.

It seems fairly evident that any hacks of voting systems were ineffective in changing ballots or anything so direct.  What is important is the fact of the attempted hacking not the direct results on tallies.  Something was done, but because there does not seem to be the kind of result that makes sense in terms of past history and strategic movements of the sort we expect, the whole thing exists in a murk.

Which was the point.

Putin would like to “restore” Russia to the size and influence of the former Soviet Union.  He doesn’t necessarily want to resurrect the U.S.S.R. politically, at least not in terms of collectivist, Marxist ideology.  That nonsense doesn’t interest him.  He’s interested in power, pure and simple, and the one threat to that is still—the United States.

The telling moment was this whole mess in Ukraine. Not till the threat of NATO membership did Putin act.  Despite what Trump might say, NATO still has teeth. Membership in the alliance carries many benefits beyond simple military cooperation and mutual defense, although that is huge when you stop to think about it—the confidence that the member states will guarantee your sovereignty has tremendous ancillary benefits.  You can act in your own best interests without, or at least with much less, fear that those actions will be crushed by a neighbor. Which is what has happened to Ukraine.

Power and money, at this level, are two sides of the same coin.  The sanctions imposed on Russia by Obama have throttled a potential windfall from the Siberian oil fields.  Ukraine was a part of that.  There is a huge amount of money bottled up because of Putin violating Ukrainian sovereignty.  What he wants more than anything else is to get those sanctions lifted so the oil will flow.

But more than that, in the long run, he wants a free hand in his part of the world. He’s not exporting revolution, that’s no longer part of the Russian identity. He just wants to be a big, bad bear, in charge of his tundra, and able to play as an equal on the world stage. He wants what he possibly believes the West has been keeping Russian from since 1917.

In spite of the fact that over the last three decades we have hamstrung our ability to be a positive force in the world because we can’t see how making money and human rights conflict in the Third World, and because we are unwilling to put a muzzle on our corporations when they go into other countries and poison environments, undercut reforms, and damage the people we think we’re helping, it remains possible for us to actually do what we should have done after the Soviet Bloc collapsed, namely rebuild and stand for justice. We in fact do that, in limited but occasionally spectacular ways, but we rarely hear about any of it and too often we do a half-assed job because of our inability to see our way past our own paranoia and self interest.  (The chaos and mess in Iraq is an example of shortsighted greed undercutting what might have turned out to be a major success, but I won’t go into that here.)

What Putin wants most is for our political will to remain locked up in a struggle with itself over questions of money versus ethical action. We have been doing a reasonably good job of keeping ourselves disorganized and conflicted without his help.  But it is just possible that he sees what we do not yet see, and that is a younger generation coming up that is fed up with this kind of inanity that will put into power people who will act positively.  That will impact the money sector, certainly, but its biggest impact may well be globally with an America once more of the kind that created the Peace Corps and embraced a humanitarian mission. It might create an America willing to call Putin’s bluff.

Of course, it’s not just the United States.  And so we’ve been seeing signs of Russian interference in many elections, most recently in France (where it backfired and where the newly elected president publicly scolded Russia), not with a view to invasion or anything so dramatic, but purely for the chaos resulting that will distract the West from Putin’s actions.  Putin can do nothing but benefit from a West that is paying little or no attention because it is tangled up in petty feuds and ideological mudwrestling.  Undermining our confidence in our own electoral process will only feed that chaos and render us even less effective.

Did Trump and his people collude with the Russians to fix the election?  Probably not, at least not in those terms.  I think Trump really believed he could win without interference.  I think he may have thought he was playing Putin, accepting a hand that would gain him advantage with the Russians afterward.  Did he do it out any embrace of treason?  No, he did it because a deal was on the table and there was a lot of money to be made, and that is simply how Trump sees the world.  If he is impeached over any of this I suspect he will be genuinely surprised.  It was, after all, the Game, and he sees himself a master of that game.

What he will not understand is that his game is the least important one and the one Putin is playing is both more sophisticated and more devious and with stakes Trump just might not understand.

But the bottom line is likely to be, all Putin wants is what he now has.  We’re distracted, we’ve suffered a blow to the confidence in our systems and institutions, and the bitter squabbling over the right to make as much money as avarice demands continues but now with even less intelligent players.

 

June 06, 2017

Uncle Joe

Now we know what it’s like to have Uncle Joe running things.

I’ve been watching, as has the world, the Trump administration unravel. I have to say, anyone capable of making George W. Bush look like an exemplary president has a degree of chaos in attendance difficult to comprehend.

But this is our Uncle Joe.  In charge.  You know who I’m talking about. Most families have an Uncle Joe, who shows up at family functions and proceeds to dominate discussion with his opinions on everything from the world series to nuclear proliferation.  He will sit there and tell you how if he were in charge things would be different, he wouldn’t let those people get away with this or that, he’d solve the Middle East problem thus and so, and Russia? Hell, they’d be all the way back within the original borders of the Duchy of Moscovy! Uncle Joe knows what went wrong with Cousin So-n-so’s marriage to that bimbo and didn’t he say all along that it wouldn’t end well?  Uncle Joe thinks PBS is too much a family business and its sole purpose is to provide “traveling money” to people who live large for very little work by doing “educational” programming, which always seems to be about something America did wrong to some group we never heard of or showcases these scientific know-it-alls who want us to believe in climate change and evolution. Lotta nonsense, you ask Uncle Joe. And what’s with that new husband of what’s-her-name and all his nose-in-the-air posing? He talks about wine like he invented it and books no one reads and you never hear him cuss, can’t trust a guy like that, doesn’t drink beer, reads all the time, and tries to be polite to everyone, what’s he trying to do, make us all feel inferior? Uncle Joe thinks they should level Jerusalem so no one can have it and nuke North Korea and what are we wasting time worrying about Syria for when everyone knows Iran wants to conquer the world! And don’t get him started on civil rights, my gawd, give them people the vote and they think they have a right to burn everything down they don’t steal first…

Uncle Joe. Everyone tolerates him because Aunt Phoebe has been with him umpteen years and she’s as sweet as could be, always telling us “he doesn’t mean anything by it, but since he retired, you know, just ignore him,” which drives Uncle Joe to even greater heights of pomposity and displays of ignorance, because the last thing he wants is to be ignored. So he doubles down until everyone’s nerves are ground to an emory thinness and when is this party supposed to end?

But Uncle Joe has his fans, kindred spirits who feel just as marginalized by the complexities of a world that constantly demands their attention and threatens them with obsolescence every day. Sycophants of all ages who feel overwhelmed by matters they find barely comprehensible.  Uncle Joe has it down, as far as they’re concerned, he has a good bead on it all.

And that new husband with the wine-savvy and the book-learning?  He’s some leftist, socialist, social justice warrior who wants to take their jobs away and make them feel bad for being Americans.

Uncle Joe—uninformed by anything more current than the Korean War and the SALT talks, wondering why nobody sings like Frank Sinatra anymore, convinced the EPA is only there to take everyone’s job from them, and the solution to everything is the Big Stick philosophy (which not even Teddy actually used)—is now in the White House.  We have been watching, waiting for the moment when things rationalize, when he takes off the Sunday barbeque façade and begins acting like he knows something about how all this is supposed to work, and what we are seeing is everything promised in the campaign.  In charge and making a hash of it all.  There will be no moment when he reveals himself to be smarter than the act he put on to get people to vote for him.  This is what he is, this is what we have, and even many of his supporters are beginning to wonder what they were on back in November.

He is proposing to take an axe to just about everything worthwhile in this country.  And for those who somehow believe that in the wake of the destruction they will be better off, that somehow the EPA, the NEA, the space program, education funding, Pell Grants, and the FEC are the reasons they don’t feel secure and are at risk of losing their jobs and that by getting rid of these programs they will get back what they feel they’ve lost, all I can say is—

Actually, I don’t know what to say to them that wouldn’t be just more salt in a wound they don’t know how or when they received.  They don’t know.  Anything I might say to them would just be kicking them some more.

What I will say is, the media and the government agencies responsible for the conduct of the networks and the licensing and oversight—there are laws regarding public service and equal air time which have been pretty much ignored since the aftermath of Watergate.  You have obsessed over lowest-common-denominator irrelevancies for so long you actually think it’s news.  Your obsessive attention to someone’s emails and Uncle Joe’s antics abetted this situation because you didn’t do your job.  When someone as odious as Glenn Beck publicly acknowledges that he did it all wrong and is sorry for his part in gulling the public and contributing to this mess, you all know you have failed.  Not all of you.  A goodly portion of the print media tried.  But they’re hamstrung by their Owners, who can fire them at will for not toeing the corporate line, a situation allowed by the greed is good politics we’ve wallowed in since Reagan. Most people get their news by broadcast and the overwhelming majority of you failed us.  You’re the journalistic equivalent of ambulance chasers.

So Uncle Joe’s in the White House.  And we’re getting a lesson in just how fatuously stupid Uncle Joe has always been.

I hope we survive the lesson.

April 27, 2017

Concerts!

So there’s a meme going around on FaceBook about concerts.  Basically, list 10 concerts, 9 of which you have actually been to and 1 you have not.  Your friends are supposed to guess which one is the false claim.

I love music.  I mean, if I could I would have a soundtrack backing my daily movements. I’ve been playing an instrument, either keyboard or guitar, since I was nine, and I have been buying albums (as opposed to 45 rpm singles) since I was fourteen. I went to my first honest-to-gosh-wow concert when I was thirteen (I’ve written about that before and will not repeat it here, because it was an anomaly) and started regularly attending at fifteen.

I have not seen a lot of live acts.  Compared to some, I am woefully deprived of live concert experience.  But I treasure the memory of all the ones I did see, which, mulling over my list for this silly/fun meme, turns out to be not too shabby.

I have seen Yes—my standard, musically—about eight or nine times. The first time was their Close To The Edge tour back in 1972. Poco opened for them.

Opening acts are very important.  I mean, we usually go to see the headliner, but those opening acts are sometimes more significant.  I only saw Gentle Giant because they opened for Rick Wakeman on his first solo tour, for Journey To The Center of the Earth.

I have seen Emerson, Lake & Palmer at least five times.  My other standard in terms of music.

Jethro Tull five times. And here opening acts matter.  I have seen, opening for JT—Brewer & Shipley, Journey (pre-Steve Perry), and The Band.

I saw a more or less forgotten British prog group that was AMAZING opening for Yes—Gryphon.

I saw Livingston Taylor, who opened for ELP (and a sadder pairing I have never seen since—no one gave a dove’s fart about Livingston Taylor at that show).

I have seen Kansas three times, Styx once, Starcastle once, and REO Speedwagon once.  Of course.  I live in St. Louis and am over forty.

Cat Stevens.  John Denver (thank you, Vickie).

The Eagles, once, before their whole Hotel California period, but more importantly Dan Fogelberg opened for them.  He was all by himself, no band, with a single guitar and a piano and he blew the Eagles away.

Joni Mitchell.  Crosby, Stills, Nash (never Young). The Grateful Dead, twice.  Santana (three times?)  Deep Purple.

Phish twice.

Uriah Heep, Fleetwood Mac (twice), Jeff Beck (twice), Jefferson Starship (twice), Jan Hammer, Ted Nugent (before he decided he was more than just a good guitar player)…

Earth, Wind, & Fire.

Asia.

Mark-Almond. Focus. Billy Joel (twice).  Renaissance. America.  Wishbone Ash.  Hot Tuna.

The Moody Blues (thrice).  The Beach Boys.

Harry Chapin (twice).

Genesis (thrice).  Robert Palmer (opening for Jeff Beck).

Led Zeppelin.  And then, many years later, the Page & Plant tour. David Bowie (once, early, the Ziggy Stardust tour).

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia.

Sting.

The Who (twice).

Unfortunately, opening for the Who was Lynard Skynnard.  That is one of the downsides of opening acts, from time to time you will see (and suffer through) a real disappointment.  Opening for Uriah Heep I saw an outfit called Tucky Buzzard, which was the only time I preferred a Stones version to the cover.  (Sorry, folks, I know the Rolling Stones are up on Olympus for a lot of people, but I can’t stand them.  Love their songs—done by other people, except this time.)

Then there were a whole roster of Other Acts that may surprise.  I saw Neil Diamond, who is a consummate showman.  I saw Liza Minnelli.  Ferrante and Teicher.  Arlo Guthrie.

Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson, and Count Basie, all in the same night.  Branford Marsalis.

Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis (you can Google them and then acquaint yourselves—superb jazz guitarists).

At this point I would have to go unbury all my saved ticket stubs.  I have missed a few, I know.  More than a few, maybe.  So I’ll probably have to do this again.

But it sent me down into the archives and I came back with some terrific memories. We stopped going because the scene grew progressively less tolerable.  First when the drug of choice changes from pot to beer.  I’m sorry, it’s true—sitting in a crowd of several thousand beer-swilling people can be a bit dangerous.  Whatever else you might say about it, marijuana makes for a much more pleasant audience.  Then the security situation got ridiculous.  I don’t care to be patted down just to see a concert.  And to be fair, I don’t care for big crowds to begin with.

But occasionally, you just have to go see a performer you love.  So this summer we’re going to see Santana.  Again.

So thanks for the meme—er, memory.

 

 

April 17, 2017

Perceptual Drift

Once in a while, something comes along to knock us out of our course, drives us to take a look at things from a perspective long discarded, and calls upon us to reassess.  Shocks that set us not only back but prompt the kind of deep re-evaluations we sometimes believe we do all the time. It’s fair to say one such shock is this election just past, which many of us, on both sides of the political divide, are puzzling over, conservatives no less than liberals.

Coming upon the heels of that we may be fortunate to find a book or two, hear a lecture, find revelation in an analysis that brings us up short and calls into question everything we took for granted for, well, decades.

Thomas Frank, known for his first book, What‘s the Matter With Kansas?, most recently published such an examination—Listen, Liberal is as complete an indictment of the Democratic Party and the assumptions of liberalism as I have seen in one place in many years. What is particularly troubling for me—and perhaps for many like me—is that all the points he raises are based on history which I knew, events that I remember, paths taken that at the time seemed inevitable, but which I never interpreted this way. I indulged a fairly banal process of explaining it to myself so that all these things became acceptable, even normal, in a way that now, looking at the shambles of where I always thought we were headed, I find bewildering. None of us, ever, are free of self-deception, especially in the face of specific alternatives we find unacceptable at the time.

Then Frederick Dutton, Democratic Party power broker, went farther: he identified workers, the core of the New Deal coalition, as “the principle group arrayed against the forces of change.” They were actually, to a certain degree, the enemy. Dutton acknowledged that it was strange to contemplate such a reversal of the moral alignment that had put his own party into power, but you couldn’t argue with history. “In the 1930s,the blue collar group was in the forefront,” Dutton recalled. “Now it is the white-collar sector.” Specifically: “the college-educated group.” That was who mattered in the future-altering present of 1971.

This was in the aftermath of the 1968 debacle of Democratic failure which put Richard Nixon in office and announced the coming Age of Plutocracy which has come upon us with the inevitability of an ice age glacier. The “student” movements of the Sixties aligned with the perceived betrayal of the Johnson Administration over Vietnam and the chasm of perception between generations that placed the youth movements on the opposing side against their traditionalist parents’ generation. The Republicans capitalized on the Old Guard vote in the wake of Johnson’s resignation and the year of political chaos that was 1968. The anger exploded in Chicago and the Democratic Party leadership saw the future as one in which the educated class would be the group to court.

Yet somehow this was seen as something that had to be done at the expense of labor, which was suddenly perceived as hopelessly archaic, a drag on change. Even though Labor, as an organized body politic, was still solidly Democratic, they were seen as a burden. Of course, they were also seen as a reliable source of votes. They were, in short, taken for granted.

This is the story Frank narrates in his new book and it is a hard thing to realize how correct he is. That basically the Democratic Party—and by extension America itself—left Labor in the ditch and committed itself to fostering a class of voters who are in many ways indistinguishable from the so-called upper 10%, if not in money then in aspirations.  And it is in those aspirations that the tale is told most painfully, because we have witnessed the betrayal even of them, despite the fact that they are exactly who the Future was supposed to be about.

I have a slightly different take on the path Mr. Frank describes. I remember all that with a different emphasis.

My parents were born during the Great Depression. One thing that bound many of them together, ideologically, was a conviction that their children and grandchildren would not have to suffer through what they did. They were solidly blue collar people.  College was a fantasy for most and I think it was understood that the upper reaches of white collar sinecure would always be for the few. But they would try. If at all possible, they would get their kids into college.  I remember my father telling me that he wanted me to be able to make a living without having to cut my fingers. Also, the assumption for many was that white collar was more secure, despite the realities at the time that union jobs represented the better security.

They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, but it didn’t turn out the way they hoped, for many reasons.

The other thing was the Space Race.

I know, this seems an unlikely cause of our present calamities, but consider—with Sputnik, the United States entered into a technology showdown of unprecedented configuration. We were suddenly in a do-or-die competition over knowledge-based innovation. This was a Cold War initiative that got sold to the public in the guise of exploration—which it was, in many of its parts—so we could count political coup and perfect missile technology along the way.  Industry had to be conjoined with science and for the coming Age of Space we needed scientists and engineers—not Teamsters or Auto Workers. The National Science Foundation made a big push to transform education to meet the coming requirements. Education had to be remade.

The experiment turned out to be a disaster in slow motion. In spite of the success of the space program, teachers found themselves at odds with the new requirements, students were being short-changed in basics, the ability of the massive edifice of public education to turn on a dime and create the Future turned out to be a pie-in-the-sky wish. And of course in the midst of all this came the convulsions of the Sixties, by the end of which even the basic assumptions of education were called into question, along with all the confidence in government that had existed since FDR.  Unions were seen more and more as stodgy repositories of old school billy-club thinking (not without some justification—but there’s the rub, of course: all of this transpired with “some” justification), more in the way than not.

(My father was screwed over by his union over technological innovation. This was a real thing. Many unions sensed the coming problem all this innovation was bringing, because the basic question that was asked last if at all was “What about the displaced workers?”)

We were about to Build The Future. As of 1969 we were on the Moon, we were going to the other planets, space stations would soon be orbiting the planet, the future the future the Future!

And it didn’t happen.

Instead we were made ripe for a political realignment that sidelined Labor in the name of that Future which was then turned into a source of votes to undo the New Deal. Instead of going to Mars, we got the Shuttle; instead of universal healthcare, we got the benefits of skyrocketing medical technology along with skyrocketing costs the government refused to take on, leaving more and more people unable to pay for what should have been medical care the envy of the world; instead of full employment, we got a war on the poor and demands for “welfare reform” that created a permanent underclass of poor by which management threatens workers with banishment if they unionize or demand a fair share of the burgeoning wealth owned by fewer and fewer.

All aided and abetted by a Democratic Party that decided its political fortunes were best cast with those people who didn’t want to cut their fingers to make a living.

Frank calls it the Professional Class.  These are the people who don’t join unions because they more or less see themselves as independent contractors, quasi-libertarians, loners, wannabe entrepreneurs. Without benefit of the formal structure, they also make up one of the strongest unions in history because they keep nonmembers out more effectively than any organized union ever did.  They do it by social category, not by skill set or paid dues.  Although if one wished to see it this way, college degrees represent paid dues of an extortionate level. They like to believe they represent a merit-based social hierarchy, but in fact out-of-the-box skills trouble if not frighten them. The idea that someone may be able to “do what they do” and in some cases do it better without benefit of matriculation through the unofficial union membership program they prefer is inconceivable and anyone who comes along to show that this is an error on their part is not welcomed for his or her abilities but shut out because they have rough table manners.

And just as the base of the GOP seems unable to see how their party is not doing well by them, these shiny professionals are dismayed by their party’s inability to challenge the GOP on the state and congressional level because the Democratic Party is serving a class that is simply in most ways too like Republicans to draw a base of natural allies, namely Labor.

What should be a merit-based society has become what might be called a Credentialist Society, which is not the same thing, though in many respects the two resemble each other. Bernie Sanders’ call for free college is a blunt attack on the chokehold universities have on who is or is not to be allowed to participate. The price of that union card has grown all out of proportion to the benefits it confers on the membership.

There’s nothing anti-American about this, though.  While we boast of our founding as a nation of immigrants and a society based not on pedigree but ability, the fact remains that we have a history of exclusion, attempts to keep certain people out.  We are functional snobs.  Real equality scares us, because individually we fear we won’t measure up on a level playing field. Some of us, anyway. And both parties have played on that fear to achieve essentially the same result. While the Republicans are an Us vs. Them party for the rich, the Democratic Party has become an Us vs. Them party representing those who want to be the rich—and feel like they have a shot at it if they can just find a way to free themselves of their declassé roots.  Consequently, most of us have been left in the lurch.

A friend of mine who is a thoughtful conservative once told me, when I asked, that one of the things about the Democratic Party that troubled him most was its racism. I thought that was odd, since in recent years it was fairly obvious that most of the racists seem to adhere to the Republicans. I’ve since rethought that. Not that I believe the racism of the GOP is any less real, but the Democratic Party exhibits a kind of circumstantial racism, a racism by default because the economy has been engineered in such a way to assign poverty along broad racial lines, casting such people into labor pools that suffer the most when the jobs are lost and technology displaces them and the housing prices of the upwardly aspirant make it impossible for them to live in desirable neighborhoods.  The Democratic Party would rather fob them off with entitlements than do anything to address the economic situation that makes them, essentially, the Left Behinds.  The GOP at least is more honest in saying they aren’t interested in those people at all, if not in word then deed.

But going back to Thomas Frank’s argument, the Professional Class is where we all wanted to be.  And we didn’t want to be unionized because unions are drags on upward mobility—or so we believed.  We collaborated in the current situation by failing to understand our own preferences—our own prejudices.

Which has brought us to our current situation.

There is nothing natural about the the 1%. There is everything natural about their success.  Why?  Because that’s who we wanted to be.  Many of us.  And we went along with changes in our political reality because we were told that the Future was going to come about by virtue of innovation and technology and the concomitant methodologies of investment portfolios and fey capital.  We were played—by both parties in their own way, yes, but also by our own conceits.

There are a number of quibbles I have with Mr. Frank’s narrative—those technological innovations are not phantoms and are having very, very real effects on the way work is done. The reality we have now is that we simply do not need as many people to make all the things we need to have made.  When Obama talked about “shovel ready” programs, the reality he evoked no longer pertained.  When Roosevelt did that, building a highway could employ ten or twenty thousand men.  Today a hundred people can built that same road.  What we have failed to realize is that while the labor requirements of the mid-20th Century no longer pertain, neither should the economic structures of the 19th Century, which is what we have.  Just because a business owner can do the same work with less than half the workforce previously employed doesn’t automatically mean said owner gets all that money personally.  “Share in the wealth” used to mean one thing by participation in its creation, but the human component in that creation has changed and now it means something else.

In any event, I recommend Thomas Frank’s new book. Argue with it, by all means, but if nothing else it should dislodge preconceptions and open us to the possibility of redoing our political expectations.

April 06, 2017

Your Money

Richard Cordray, head of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, was interrogated on Capitol Hill by Republicans who want to shut his agency down. The agency was set up under Obama. Originally, it was to be run by Elizabeth Warren, but she received such violent resistance that she stepped aside, making way for Cordray, and then ran for the Senate, where she has been a burr under the GOP saddle ever. They might have been better off, by their own thinking, to leave her alone, but thinking long term doesn’t seem to be their chief strength.

You might ask why the CFPB is the target of so much bile. If you really don’t know, then you’ve never been strapped for money, in need of a loan, and then taken advantage of by a lender with all the morals of a Glyptapanteles. The CFPB stands in the way of banks picking pockets.

No, really, it’s that simple.

Back in the 1980s, we were thinking about buying a house. We went to our then bank to get pre-approved. Good to know what you can bring to the table when it comes time to actually buy. We sat with a lending officer who crunched our numbers and announced how much we qualified for. Both of us swallowed audibly. It was an absurd figure. I did some quick math and laughed.

“You’re joking,” I said.

“No,” he said. “This is was you qualify for.”

“But we can’t afford that.”

“Sure you can.”

“Not and continue to eat.” I then laid out our budgeting constraints for utilities, food, insurance premiums, and so forth. At the end of the month, we were shy the amount he had just given us and not by a small amount.

“That’s not our concern,” he said. “According to us, you can pay this much. How you manage the rest is up to you.”

We were appalled. I stopped short of telling him that was unethical to say the least, because I realized that according to him he was being ethical. He didn’t lie about anything—not technically, at least.  But the tables and formulae he used to arrive at his figures were industry standard. He was following the rules. It was entirely up to us to take him up on it.

But when you consider how innumerate people are and how little many of them understand about finance, added to the unadorned desire to own a home, you can see how being told by someone in authority—a banker—that you can afford the house of your dreams will roll right over any prudent misgivings you might have but cannot quantify.  This is what led to the 2008 meltdown—bad loans, made with the full awareness that many of the people taking them could not sustain them. Add to innumeracy the widespread illiteracy among the most vulnerable demographic groups—illiterate not in the sense that they cannot read a sentence, but in that they do not know how to comprehend complex writing—and you have a recipe for abuse.

Which is what happened.

The CFPB was established as a bulwark against such abuse. A barrier between banks that frankly don’t give a shit about people as other than ledger entries and people who are ill-equipped to defend themselves.  And really should not have to. We’re supposed to be a country of laws, but in the last few decades it seems that any law keeping a banker from your money is bypassed, repealed, set aside, ignored, or smashed into useless pulp by people who for no reason they seem willing or able to explain claim to be doing this “for the people.”

(To be fair, there were many people in lending at low to mid-level who knew this was going to be bad, some even tried to avert some of it, tried to act responsibly, and were told by higher ups to just make the loans. Many quit their jobs, unwilling to screw their customers, others were fired for being moral actors, a lot just shrugged and went ahead, because after all they had their own situations in need of tending.)

Now, if you, Representative Consumer, have a major case of the Wants and go to a bank to get a loan to satisfy it, and the bank says no, according to these guys over here (the CFPB or some similar agency) we can’t make those kinds of loans to people “like you” and you get annoyed because you still have your case of Wants, you might want to consider that you just can’t afford it. And if you do get that loan, eventually you may default and that will hurt other people.  If enough of you say be damned to “afford” and force the lending institutions to hand over the loans whether you can afford them or not, and most of you default, well, a lot of bad shit happens. (In reality, though, no one had to force the banks to do anything, because the real money was being made on bundling—part of the whole credit default swaps thing that even insiders had a hard time understanding—and it never mattered if anyone could “afford” their mortgage, it only mattered that they had one that could be bundled and sold with thousands of others.  Small banks got hurt, homeowners got hurt, but the major financial institutions made out, as they say, like bandits.)

So when critics of regulation claim that the 2008 crisis was really the fault of the people receiving those loans, they have a point.  Not much of one, but enough that it can’t be ignored.  But that point is like pretending one tree is a forest.  (Even so, if that one tree catches fire…)

When people who should know better—and do, actually—oppose regulations to keep you from being abused by a system that has no regard for your dreams or your situation, you should be very angry with those people.  You shouldn’t be voting them back into office.  They are not on your side.  They see you as sheep and they want to make it easier for you to get sheared.

Because those loans were not made in good faith. Those loans were bait. Those loans were made to be swallowed so all the rest of your money could be reeled in. Once you made one of those loans, your money ceased to be your money—for a long time.

We might debate that things are not that simple, but let’s be honest—they are that simple. A banker tells someone they can afford a loan that will consume up to 70% of their monthly income—or more—and if you don’t have the savvy to know you’re being suckered, while it may technically be your responsibility when you go ahead and take those terms, we all know an agreement based on a lie is in no one’s best interest.  Lie?  It depends on how you interpret “afford.”  If one side of the discussion is depending on the vagaries of language to get in the other side’s pocket, the result is dishonest.

Why are so many people so willing to be had?

 

March 27, 2017

About Those Deplorables

In response to the question of why the election went the way it did, one of the reasons given was Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” comment.  That hurt her, they say. It turned people off.

Really? Which people?  People so close to not voting for her that, once in the voting booth,  remembering that phrase over and above everything else drove them to pick Stein instead? Or people who were already committed to not voting for her? Or perhaps people who were already disinclined to go to the polls anyway—because they had something more important to do than participate in deciding the direction of the country for the next four years—that maybe, had she not said that they might have decided on that day to go vote anyway.

Because I doubt seriously it hurt her among those who had already decided to vote for her, especially since, whether they might wish to admit it or not, they actually agreed with that assessment.

Because really those who were never going to vote for her under any circumstances would likely not have been affected positively or negatively by that remark. They already didn’t like her. Being nice to them would have gained her nothing, because they would not have either believed her or recognized the concession. Not saying something about them would have had zero persuasive impact.

So exactly who then are people talking about when they criticize her for that?

No one.  They’re trying to come up with excuses for either their own poor judgment or the lack of involvement in the process by people who were disinclined for many other reasons to vote.

Hillary’s loss is a case study in the dysfunction of our electoral process. She lost due to a toxic combination of apathy, anti-intellectualism, ignorance, and a media environment that offers little in the way of separating fact from fiction, truth from fraud, legitimacy from exhibitionism.  The markers necessary for people to draw useful coverage from the ocean of feed in which they swim are either absent or so obscured as to be invisible.  If you don’t already have an idea how to judge worthwhile from dross you simply have to guess, and a lot of people guess wrong.

Ah. Why should anyone assume that those who did not vote would have voted for Hillary? A perfectly legitimate question. The answer, roughly, has to do with turnout and dedicated numbers. The GOP seems to have a very solid army of about sixty million voters who vote that way every single time. No doubt the Democrats can count on a similar cadre.  But only if the turnout is below 63%.  Once turnout rises to 65% or more, the vote tends to go against the Republicans.  Those voters who sit at home tend to vote Democrat or Liberal.  (People like to point to Reagan’s “landslide” win, but there was only a 52% turnout.  True, he buried Carter, but had the turnout been 65%…?  Of course, to be fair, Bill Clinton won his second election with about the same turnout, 51%.  His first, though, was 58% turnout and he buried Bush I.)  Where it seems really to tell, though, is in congressional elections and the problem there is with gerrymandering. Gerrymandering has always been a bit of a problem, but the GOP has turned it into a high art.  One suspects they know in a fair fight they wouldn’t have a chance.  All they have is that 60 million block.

But this a very rough calculus.  The question remains, why Trump?

(I suspect another chief reason Hillary lost—and part of the reason for low turnout this time—has to do precisely with her opponent.  Had Cruz won the nomination, I suspect turnout would have been considerably higher, because that would have looked like a real fight instead of the joke this appeared to be, especially with the media putting out all those charts showing how she was a shoe-in because, really, who could possibly in their right mind vote for him?  Of course, where it really hurt was the all-important congressional races.)

So, how is this “new era” working out for the people who voted for him?

We have already seen the dismay of many who supported him when it dawned on them that repealing the ACA meant they would lose their own health coverage. Either this is an example of stone ignorance (a few, we don’t know how many, actually did not realize that their ACA was the same thing as the hated Obamacare) or an example of self-selected delusion—that they thought the repeal would only affect people of whom they disapprove.  They were voting to take it away from Other People.

It was claimed that Hillary didn’t understand lower income and working class people.  That may well be true, but what kind of mental gymnastics is required to convince yourself that a billionaire born to wealth who even in bankruptcy lived a life of luxury did understand, on the kind of intuitive gut-level clearly meant by those statements?

But this is anecdotal at best.

Two questions now dominate concretely.  The growing evidence of collusion with Russia in securing the election and the deals made more than a year ago.  And the efficacy of Trump’s “leadership style” which seems to be nonexistent.  The very first time he runs into the kind of normal roadblocks of Washington politics, namely the lost vote on the ACA repeal, he declares it a dead issue and asks congress to move on.  This is lack of staying power at best, a lack of genuine conviction at worst.

During the campaign, one of things Trump said was “vote for me, what do you have to lose?”  More or less.  It doesn’t matter which group he was talking to, it matters which group heard him.

A recent book by Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers In Their Own Land, takes up the question of the voter block that seems consistently to vote against its own best interests. Hochschild, who lives in Berkeley, California, practically lived in Louisiana among people who are both dependent on and victimized by the oil industry. In the course of her study, many contradictions emerged. One example, she met many dedicated environmentalists—who also hated the EPA and wanted to see it gone.  People who knew that the refineries and processing plants were destroying their environment, had poisoned friends and family, were responsible for wild-life die-offs, and yet resisted the idea of regulation, often because they feared it would adversely impact employment. Jobs meant more than the rest, but it was by no means a simplistic metric being applied. Many felt the companies themselves would eventually “do the right thing” and clean up and improve safety.

Reading this book gives us a tour through funland mirror thinking.  Coming face to face with the blatant contradictions and the ingrained belief in systems that have repeatedly failed them and the rejection of solution because of a belief that failure from them would be even worse.  The conviction that the federal government was the Enemy.  Hochschild tried to find the Narrative.  In anthropological terms, this is the ur-story people tell themselves in order to organize their beliefs, the strategies of their lives, and determine  the principles by which they live.  It’s the Who We Are story and when that is found, then what follows begins to make more sense.  What Hochschild discovered was a variation of the City on the Hill dominant among these people. Instead of the religious kind, though, this one had to do with the American Dream.  They believed in the idea that hard, honest work would get them to their city, where they would finally achieve the comfort and security they see as the promise of dedication.  They are willing to wait their turn.

And it’s at that point that the Narrative becomes the problem.  Because they see, they perceive, in their view undeserving people cutting in line in front of them.  Poor people, minorities, refugees, illegal aliens.  People who, in their opinion, have not done the work, have certainly not waited their turn.  And in service to this, the federal government is to blame, because they see federal programs enabling this butting in.

Meanwhile, their own reward recedes before their very eyes.

Resentment is only natural.

At this point, it is fair to ask, how come the default blame goes where it goes?  There are many reasons for their eroding situations.  The changing economic environment, the increasing population, the influx of legal immigrants, the globalization phenomenon.  Even without the federal programs they blame, it is likely their situations would be just as precarious.

Except they have been told that all those factors are the result of government overreach, government meddling, government—by means of treaties, of regulations, of corruption.  Their preferred media services certainly have told them all this, but they also get it through their jobs, from the companies that are also anti-union, advocates of Right To Work, multinationals often that pretend to be America Firsters but then remove the wealth of communities and put it elsewhere.

The kind of people Donald Trump is part and parcel of.

Their fears are easily played upon because they have them.  Fears.  No one is doing much to educate them out of such fears.  Rather they are told, from a hundred sources, that they are justified in their fears.

And they vote for anyone who tells them they are right to be afraid.

The profound distortions of fact to be found among them is indicative of much of the problem.

A few examples of belief versus reality:

Welfare rolls are up and people on welfare don’t work.  The reality is, total welfare rolls dropped 20 % since 1996, which was the year of Clinton’s welfare reform, the reform that cut welfare to a short time and required work for certain benefits.  As for that work, the poorest 20% only get 37% of their income from welfare.  The rest is compensation for work. You might ask, if they’re working, why do they need welfare?  Obviously because their jobs do not pay enough.  You might want to look at the current debate over minimum wage.  At best, “welfare” is a supplement, and most of the beneficiaries are children and the elderly.  But of course, this is not believed by people dedicated to not believing it and scapegoating the poor.

Black women have more children than white women.  I was startled that this was still current.  I grew up in the heyday of the Welfare Queen, which was a canard even then.  The reality is that fertility rates for white women and black women is just about equal.

Maybe as much as 40% of people work for federal and state government and are overpaid.  This sounded to me like the one about foreign aid.  The numbers are inflated because few people bother to find out, they just want to be angry at something.  Adding together all levels of government—federal, state, and local—total workforce as a percentage of employed people comes up to around 17%.  It varies with which party is in office.  Republican presidents since Reagan have overseen expansions of federal workforce because it’s an easy way to finesse unemployment figures.  Obama oversaw a real reduction in the size of the federal government measured by employees, but of course no one opposing him wishes to believe this.  As for the overpaid aspect, on average private sector workers at comparable levels make 12% more than government employees—government employees, by the way, who often work longer hours.

These are a few of the beliefs held by people who likely voted for Trump.  Clearly, there is a simple lack of fact in this, but it seems just as obvious that there is a lack of interest in any fact that contradicts as belief that helps explain their anger.  Make no mistake, these are angry voters.  They don’t want to be informed, they want to be vindicated.

Trump is representative of all this.  Whether he genuinely believes anything he says, he has played these people.  The rest of the GOP has decided evidently that as long as he’s the president, they’ll play him to get what they want.

How’s that working out?

Not well.  All the myths that have been driving Tea Party and affiliated rage for a decade are now coming onto the front lines and getting an opportunity to play and it turns out that the myths aren’t based on solid anything.  It seems a lot of people voted to strip Other People of things they believed were not their due.  Except these angry voters will lose out as well and that wasn’t the way it was supposed to work.

The small government argument has gotten lost, consumed by a mindless urge to eliminate government altogether.  People are being played by international finance.  Everything in the GOP wish list serves only one end—the unopposed leaching out of latent wealth into capital pools disconnected from any nation.  If Trump and Ryan and McConnell got everything they wanted, all the people who voted for them would see their incomes reduced, their savings (if any) pillaged, and jobs decimated.

For their part, the Democrats are unwilling to tackle this head on because they have become tied to the same teat for campaign financing as the GOP.  They have the rage but they often waffle.  With a few exceptions, they won’t call this out, but would rather work at it around the edges and try to mitigate its worst effects while avoiding being shut out of the flow of money.  Fundamental policy changes are required and once in a while someone calls for something, but then they talk it to death.

In the meantime, that basket of deplorables continues to work at gorging itself at the public trough.

Hillary did not lose votes over that comment.  If we’re honest, we recognized the truth.  The problem with it, if anything, is she didn’t specify very well who was all in that basket.  But let’s assume for a moment that saying that did have a negative effect on her campaign.  Why would it?  What is it  about calling something out for what it is that would put off people who, perhaps secretly, agree with her?  We are, those of us who count ourselves progressives, sometimes falsely delicate, it seems.  Like being unwilling to use the word “lie” when in fact that is a perfectly accurate description of what the president has done.  And when someone is so sunk in their own petty resentment that they are willing to dump on everyone out of revenge for what they see as their raw deal and tolerates no counterargument at all and be damned the consequences—well, that really is kind of deplorable.

Whatever the case, let’s be clear about one thing—it wasn’t the people she was talking about when she said that who changed their mind about voting for her.  She was never going to get those votes.

And I doubt it turned very many if any of those leaning in her direction off at the time.  They’re all just using that as a rationalization for the fact that too few of them turned up at the polls.

Come to think of, doesn’t that kind of count as deplorable?

March 01, 2017

Worth Noting

During the campaign, I noted that the GOP was having a difficult time repudiating Trump because he in fact was saying nothing that had not been a mainline Republican position for decades. The question was one of style, not substance—although we’re getting a lesson now in how they really aren’t that different.  Last night’s unofficial state of the union address represents all the evidence needed to make that claim.  It should be noted that he said nothing he had not said before.  The only difference was in his tone and the manner of phrasing.

Now, if you agree with the programmatic direction of the GOP, then you may find yourself quite pleased with the president’s performance last night. But then you will have to eventually come to terms with the harm that direction is likely to produce within the country and among our allies, not to mention the world in general.

He doubled down on his “Radical Islamic Terrorist” rhetoric, despite having been counciled by his new national security advisor to stop using that term, as it serves only to alienate allies and potential allies.  That, therefore, had to be intentional, because clearly he didn’t write that speech.  Nothing new with that, few presidents do write their own, but they all have final say in what is in them.

His use of the widow of the SEAL killed in Yemen is one of the more cynical moves I’ve seen from a public official. That she should receive sympathy is beyond question. That her husband did his duty is clear.  That he used her tears in public to justify a boneheaded action, asserting that we got important and substantial intelligence as a result despite initial reports that we got nothing from it other than a lot of bodies on the ground, is pretty low.  Yemen is going to be Trump’s Fast and Furious (which, despite being a mess, nevertheless produced 34 indictments of drug dealers and gun runners) and he’s trying his best right now to draw the venom and rewrite the reality.

On its face, this speech resembles what we might have expected from Rubio or Cruz, a reasonable-sounding assemblage of soundbites to float in coming weeks as talking points for policy wonks that seem mainstream Republican.

Fine. Let’s look at that.

His cabinet appointees draw a different picture than what people may be expecting.  Betsy De Vos is there to destroy the Department of Education.  She’s all about vouchers and so-called “school choice.”  What could be wrong with that?  Nothing, if that’s what it really is. But advancing private companies to manage what should be a public trust at the expense of the public institutions already in place is in the long run a reduction of choice, because eventually they will all fall into similar business models designed to turn out “product” rather than educated citizens.  This is a viable system only if you have a healthy public education system to set standards and hold the private institutions accountable to those standards.  If you eliminate the source of the standard then you initiate a rush to the bottom and the gradual homogenization of education into two camps—the one for the Haves and the one for the Have Nots, with predictable results.

Scott Pruitt is there to disassemble the EPA.  The horror stories about the mismanagement in the EPA and its subsequent impact are the stuff of legend.  Of course, with something this large and complex, people will run afoul of the rules, but to assert that the mission of the EPA is in any way unnecessary is a thread that has run through the GOP for decades.  The utterly pointless and cynical removal by executive order over coal waste dumping in streams is representative.  Coal as an industry is dying, at least as it has been practiced till now.  The jobs lost have not disappeared because of environmental regulations—that’s just distracting rhetoric— but because we’re in a market that has seen natural gas shove coal aside massively.  With the increase in sustainable and renewable energy technologies, coal is about to be marginalized even more.  Basically, the coal industry that remains is in charge of a growing share of a shrinking market. But like parasites, they will suck the last juices of the decaying corpse of the industry if given a chance, and removing such regulations has the single effect of adding a few paltry dollars to the dividends they pay themselves.  In the meantime, we dump on people who have to live in the resultant mess and will, once the EPA is gone, have almost no recourse to protect themselves.

Rex Tillerson is there to reverse the sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Lest anyone think this is sort of okay, let’s review.  Putin oversaw a massive development of oil. The payoff could be huge, both for himself and his country.  However, the pipelines run mostly through Ukraine, and Ukraine was levying a rather substantial use fee on the oil passing through.  Putin wanted them to stop doing that.  Things were getting tense.  Money was at stake.  Putin had no moral or legal grounds on which to stand, though.  Then Ukraine made noises about joining NATO.  That would have made anything Putin did even riskier and constrain his ability to act further.  So he invaded.  All the excuses were made about traditional rights of access to Sebastopol and the rights of Russian citizens living in Ukraine, etc etc, and it is true, historically Russia will do just about anything to maintain open access to the Crimea and the warm water port there, but this also removed both the NATO threat and the tax on his pipelines, at Ukraine’s expense.  And lest the point is still lost, Exxon and Trump both have a financial stake in those Russian oil fields and the potential pay-out will be enormous.  That’s why Tillerson is there, to line pockets.

We could go down the list.  This is all good, solid Republican programming.  If it hurts a corporation it is bad.  If some actual people get hurt, well, collateral damage, we didn’t really mean for them to get hurt.  Doing something for anyone making less than mid six-figures?  Not on the table.

This is nothing new.  The argument has been made that restricting corporations with regulations, taxes, and requirements to abide by some standard of fiscal ethics has cost us jobs and that removing all those things will benefit everyone.  Why this is still believed I do not know, because we have now had  thirty years of proof that this is not what happens. Ever.

It may well be that the counterarguments and alternative programs offered by the Democrats will not remedy the problems we face, but we should all by now realize that we are being conned by the Republicans.

The people invested in believing otherwise have given us a con artist for a president.  If on occasion he manages to sound “presidential” it will serve to validate their belief that they voted for the right guy.  When things still don’t improve for them, what will they say?  Who will they blame?

But the con is party-wide.  That’s my point—he was not expunged during the campaign because he did not run on anything that wasn’t good, solid GOP dogma.  He just phrased it with less glitter and less rhetorical obfuscation.  The Republicans have been practicing for decades how to “reframe” their message so it doesn’t sound so bad and so they could appeal to people who are not racists or nationalists or who might actually believe in some kind of a safety net (but only for people who “deserve” it, however you define that), but really does have the net effect if not intent of being fundamentally inegalitarian, divisive, and culturally if not biologically racist.

The con is widespread.  The Democratic Party has more than a bit of this in it as well, though shifted to class distinctions rather than cultural.  It makes it difficult to see an effective difference from issue to issue, but only if you don’t pay attention.

Anyway, as polished and “moderate” as last night’s speech may have been, it’s basically the same old shabby, off-the-rack suit.  Putting a rose in the lapel doesn’t make it a tux.

 

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