Category Archives: Politics

Everything, Everything, Everything is Crap

urca42ckfu0qgllaty5jSometimes, in conversation, you criticize someone or something, and another after another complaint comes out. Soon indignation climbs on indignation until you’re riled. The world fills with unjust and intolerable and dumb circumstances. People around you are insensitive and/or ignorant. You’re incensed, as you should be.

A sympathetic listener nods and sighs, perhaps clapping a hand over yours, whispering, “Yes, the world is misguided… all but us.”

And sometimes you hear your laments as they’re heard by others. Your listener’s eyes lose focus or shift to a screen, window, or plant nearby. In that context, sighs have a different meaning. Air goes dry. The keening noise, that shaking-fists-at-the-sky, ready-to-leap voice, is yours. You’re as wrong as anyone.

I have opinions. When I evaluate poor decisions, miscues, and the culprits behind the blunders around me, I believe I’m right. I see the blunders and the blunderers, which some people—those people—don’t.

Then, in an instant, I hate listening to myself. Judgment is a terrible default, yet anything anyone tells me or anything I read or anything I experience instantly becomes good or bad, right or wrong, sensible or silly, feeling or unfeeling, interesting or dull.

I’d be happier with curiosity or sympathy or a profound desire to investigate and learn.

But perhaps I shouldn’t assess myself so harshly. American society is judgmental. One party and candidate sneers at the other. One product puts another in the shade. Arguments make good TV punditry, and all those people stranded on islands or traveling and the dancers and singers and generally talented people, they need eliminating. Cooks need eliminating. Disdain permeates media and politics. We enjoy laughing and love a snappy put-down or gotcha.

Even a president explaining the Affordable Care Act does so in mocking-cable format on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis on Funny or Die. The President must follow the script—“C’mon everyone knows it’s a script, Obama is so wooden!” the critics cry—as he continually insults the cluelessly obtuse, hapless comedian. At last, he reaches his plug, his plug being openly dismissed as “a plug.” The comedian interrupts the President to point out how dull his message is. “This is what they must mean by a drone, ” Galifianakis opines.

My history classes listened to Franklin Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat praising the American people for their understanding of the Emergency Bank Holiday, lauding the two political parties for their patriotic cooperation, and applauding the financial sector for self-sacrifice as we (plural) met the unexpected crisis.

The contrast woke me up. Of course, I could and maybe should be skeptical, critical even. FDR isn’t be telling the whole truth—history records his many detractors and the friction his reforms met—but speaking praise without fear of censure seems, in our age, surprising. He too needed to plug, to justify government action, but he explained with poise and calm. No one was hurt or threatened in the making of his broadcast. Many felt reassured.

My students seem better prepared for the mixed humor and earnestness of Between Two Ferns, and, even now, I hear them judging me, saying I’m clueless They’d say Americans are honest now. FDR’s Fireside Chat—really just as calculated as Obama’s appearance—exploited Americans too, only less openly. We can’t be so easily exploited now.

Maybe, but the extremity and judgment that permeate humor and earnestness exemplify our strident age. Nothing is solely what it is—it’s itself and what it’s worth.

Dear Reader, you may find me strident now. I’m ready to accept my part of the problem. I’m as cynical as the next American and won’t make any ridiculous, cringe-worthy (and judgment-worthy) resolutions to change. I won’t spout bombastic, self-righteous calls for others to change.

Instead, I’ll just say I hear myself now. Some matters deserve censure, others not.

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Chairs and Sofas

el-mundo-magazine_twwu-lisbon-bridgeAll this talk of government shutdown has me thinking (again) about the end of the world. I can’t explain my curiosity about doomsday—my MFA graduate lecture was titled “To Hell in a Hefty” and dealt with jeremiads of all shapes and colors. I often find myself saying, “Oh well.”

I heard once that levels of nitrous oxide—N2O—are rising nearly one hundred fold in the Indian Ocean. Before that instant, I thought of N2O as laughing gas, the stuff dentists use to anaesthetize patients. I didn’t know nitrous oxide existed in nature, and, apparently, it shouldn’t much. It comes from fertilizer run-off.

Nitrous oxide, the story explained, may be a double threat, depleting the ozone layer and contributing to green house gasses. The atmosphere grows more permeable to radiation while it holds more radiation in as heat. Which is to say, forget global climate change, nitrous oxide will kill.us.all.

Sometimes I stagger punch-drunk through the paper, taking every blow because I’m too weary to get out of the way. Past a certain point, all the bad news becomes one warning—love your family, love your life, the end is nigh.

It’s more accurate to say humanity is in trouble, and I’ve written before about the planet without us, one filled with bird and insect sounds and collapsed houses and high rises barely visible beneath vines and spring green trees. Smears of algae will run down streets littered with the carapaces of cars enveloped in morning glories. The air will smell like orchids in bloom, heavy and fertile.

In E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, the main character Margaret Schlegel Wilcox repeats her sister’s quip that, in the end, the world will be “a desert of chairs and sofas,” and that version is more clever, a massive Ethan Allen catalog, all the settees and breakfast nooks artfully intact. Objects d’art scrupulously well-positioned, if dusty.

I much prefer slanting mellow light across a subtle plaid to the image of my family sitting around, sunburned and steaming, laughing our asses off on N2O.

Okay, so maybe that’s a step too far. Once I begin to think of people I love, any end time seems too harsh to contemplate, too painful and real. Yet that’s where my mind goes, and wouldn’t it be great if thoughts of family saved us from our crazy flirtations with catastrophe. But I’m not the only one who thinks catastrophe, in the abstract, is fun to consider. And some people are self-centered enough to overlook everyone else.

Once I had a dream that I was going to a photo exhibit of pictures taken with telephoto lenses from Manhattan rooftops. The photographers shot images of families through the windows of their apartments. Some caught the families eating or arguing or laughing over a board game like a Milton Bradley advertisement, but the longer I walked the walls of the gallery, the more photos depicted bodies bathed in television glow, strewn like sacks of flour around a white fire. The TV screens and their broadcasts never appeared, just mid-flicker radiation illuminating the slack, open-eyed faces of the recumbent.

I had some trouble getting back to sleep.

In the news stories I encounter, people are data, not individuals as complex as my wife and children. No one, despite the best journalistic effort, is anyone I know. Predictions of economic collapse, monster storms, rising sea levels, and impossible droughts and floods are just ideas, vast forces scything us down gently. The temptation to feel fatalistic is strong. What can be done? To everything—turn, turn, turn—there is a season…

W. S. Merwin contemplates his death in his poem “For The Anniversary of My Death.” He speaks somewhat wistfully about the way, even in the ugliest moment, life can surprise us with simple beauty—in Merwin’s case, a wren singing. After three days of rain, the bird’s song finds him, “bowing not knowing to what.” Try as you might, catastrophe can’t remain abstract. There’s so much to cling to here.

I have a friend who is more frightened of death than anything else. I’m not. I know my time will come. What bothers me more is thinking that, each year, as the anniversary of my demise passes, I’m wasting my time here.

What can I do to respond to great, abstract forces? I can’t march on Washington or single-handedly reduce the carbon footprint of the planet. I recycle. I shrink my environmental effect yearly by walking and watching my wastefulness. I support environmental groups financially. I’m nice and vote, as best I can, only for those who seem to seek something rather than seek to ruin what rivals want. But I’m not an industrialist, a congressman, a CEO, or anyone with any sort of power. Those people are hard at work. My actions are desperate faith.

And so fatalism seems valid. Though doing nothing much feels cowardly, may make me part of the problem, and will hasten ends I envision, all the hope I have left is to elude regret, to try to love it while I’m here.

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On More

ambitionMan is the only animal whose desires increase as they are fed, the only animal that is never satisfied.  —Henry George (1839-1897)

I wonder sometimes at desire, how the fabulously rich person can covet more profit or how the powerful senator or representative can begrudge the slightest compromise or how the famously successful artist can worry he or she has lost relevance.

Yet truly I understand. Getting whets desire. Having what you always wanted frees you to want more. At least, it must. I don’t know how it feels to be rich, powerful, or successful, but I can easily understand not wanting to stay where you are. I feel the desire for progress and further success. I’d like to think that, if I ever attain a comfortable situation, I’ll be content, but humans don’t seem built for contentment.

Our tragic flaw as a species may be restlessness, a deeply embedded longing to move and move again. Once survival must have rested on shoring up against unanticipated shortfalls or migrating from favorable positions in anticipation of their becoming unfavorable. Once we persisted because of worries, because the contented came to no good end.

Of course we ought to rest sometimes. No one needs Bill Gates’ wealth or Mitch McConnell’s influence or Lady Gaga’s cache. No one needs anything more than today’s meals, a restful place to sleep, and enough activity to prevent boredom and feelings of unimportance. Yet that’s seldom enough. My own life is full enough, and nothing tells me another essay or poem will fulfill me. Intellectually I know. Emotionally, just the opposite. It’s more what not posting means, a concession, a settling, an act commensurate with sacrifice or surrender or quitting.

I think of Odysseus who, having appeased Poseidon at last with his winnowing fan, presses through the Pillars of Hercules and sails off the elbowed edge of the known world. I think of the pursuit of outer space, a place finally empty and vast enough to accommodate our ambition. Must we? Yes, I suppose, we must. Something positively biological compels us.

Still sometimes we shouldn’t. Alexis de Tocqueville said American society depended on “Self-interest, rightly understood,” that our greatest motivation benefits ourselves but should extend only so far.  No benefit should impinge on another’s. He described more than Americans, I think. Humans want and want until every other human disappears—we survive by thinking of current rewards and future advantages, which often don’t include rewards for others. Some people can rationalize, can say “Greed is good,” and assert that what improves one of us improves us all, but when has history ratified that contention? Instead, it’s filled with personal victories that place the hopes and ambitions of native peoples, of workers and slaves and quasi-slaves into shadow.

Societies like the Amish who base their lives on standing still seem eccentric to us. We have the better notion, we believe, which is to forge ahead. We won’t put the genie back in the bottle and won’t even acknowledge the feasibility of doing so. The world moves relentlessly forward, however dubious the word “forward” may seem.

I only wish I could believe in satisfaction and rewire the deep genetic intelligence of our species, but I can’t for me and I can’t for you. Desire confines us. Yet I worry sometimes if our survival depends on the greatest ambition of all, fighting our nature and accepting contentment as real.

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The Closed Door Policy

door_revThe front door of our building doesn’t close unless you pull the knob hard, and my wife—condo association president—left a sign: “Please pull door shut.” Still it often isn’t shut, leaving me to guess why.

In elementary school, I was a kid who believed every lost item had been swiped. It didn’t matter that no one would want one sock or a special zebra rock I’d found under the slide—evil forces lurked. Unfortunately, since then only the range of possibilities has changed. I invent scenes I haven’t seen, eye everyone as a character in some drama, and assign intentions.

My neighbor’s boyfriend is often in the building. His clothes are impeccably dishabille, his hair artfully mussed, and he wears sunglasses when it’s stormy. His deft movements say he should have left before now. I offer “Hello,” and he raises his chin five degrees. Sometimes, he says something that isn’t a word.

This winter, during our worst snowstorm, as I shoveled the front steps, he appeared at the front door in expensive leather shoes. He stepped gingerly in the spaces I’d already cleared and into the street. 20 minutes later he returned with a sandwich from Subway as I continued to shovel, and, still hurrying, swept inside. No words either way.

So he’s my number one suspect, and I’ve invented a personality from these few particulars… plus others. I’m convinced he convinced his girlfriend to install an elaborate sound system that shakes our wall when it’s full-throat. Once I went to their door about noise and my knocking went unheard, and I was sure he was ignoring me. For the holidays, he received a horn and occasionally, at moments seemingly timed to annoy, he blows it like a shofar.

So I imagine his walking up to the front door, harrumphing in contempt at my wife’s sign, and then deliberately leaving the door ajar.

“He’s just the type,” I think.

Of course, my supposition reflects more poorly on me than my sometimes neighbor. I shouldn’t blame him if he doesn’t care to fraternize with his girlfriend’s neighbors. Perhaps he is late. Maybe his eyes are sensitive.

And maybe I’m too quick to blame others as deliberately difficult when I’m just being difficult myself.

I’ve met a few people who celebrate stubbornness and boast about obstacles they create. In our diagnosed age, we’d say they have O.D.D. or oppositional defiant disorder. They are pathologically obstreperous, hostile to innocent commands, and determined to subvert order. But I suspect they’re less common than we think and, seen from another angle, they’re necessary, the only people poised to see what we accept too readily. Are they any worse than people, like me, who are too fearful of confrontation? I’d never follow my neighbors downstairs to check their work at the front door. I’d never say anything if I found a culprit out.

Who knows, assuming malice may be another way to sublimate my own buried hostility. The safest accusation can neither be tested nor proven. The greatest satisfaction arises from what’s held closest, most inviolably. As I learned in elementary school, better to believe in stolen goods than admit carelessness.

One political party stands ready to accuse the other of deliberate evil. Congress blames the President, and he wonders if their actions reflect their beliefs or a desire to obstruct progress. TV hosts boggle at the stupidity of public figures they wouldn’t dare invite to the set, and public figures take pot shots at hosts they never watch.

The open door probably has many thoughtless authors, each believing someone else guilty of the crime. What if someone’s picked me out as the criminal?

If everyone loves the idea of an adversary as much as I do, the world is in trouble. It shouldn’t be so hard to think better of people, but it is. Sometimes it seems the only important transgressions target you, intrude on you, hurt you, endanger you. It’s too easy to offend our rectitude. That door is always open.

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26 Memos to the Winner on 11/6

Okay, so my own politics may show in this post, but I sincerely believe both candidates might benefit from reading these memos…

1. I’ve resigned myself to your election but want you to know—if you represent the true values of America, as you’ve professed over and over during this campaign, then you cannot ignore what I think or feel… because I truly am an American.

2. During the election, I couldn’t tell if all the talk about jobs and who would create more was really about people or dollars. Let me clarify: people need dollars to live, but people are more important than dollars.

3. Large or small, government is of the people, by the people, for the people, and, as we’re in this together, is it unreasonable to expect you to model kindness and respect?

4. As the American president you cannot discount or dismiss any American. Not one.

5. Don’t say you understand what I feel or think without making a sincere and diligent effort to discover it.

6. You’ve succeeded in confusing me thoroughly about taxes, but please spend my money well. I’ll be watching.

7. And please don’t ask for money from those who have none to give or spare those who have it. Please, just try to be fair.

8. Beware believing your own misdirection. You regarded some issues as too complex for the campaign trail, but they are just as real and pressing.

9. Don’t think we fall for pretense. We live in a nation of advertising and hidden agendas. We’ve learned to be distrustful and suspect lies even before they’re uttered. We will know when you lie to us.

10. Even if we don’t know, you shouldn’t test us.

11. I will do my best to trust you as long as you seem worthy of my trust.

12. I’m not insensitive to being hated by much of the world and want to know why. Find out why. Consider what has landed us here and what might be done about it.

13. We want to be proud of where we live. We want to be proud of you. Please make us proud.

14. Capitalism and democracy are not the same thing, and you will never understand the place and purpose of government until you consider all the different forms currently in use, including “socialism,” a word you fear.

15. We could use some intelligence, resourcefulness, and open-mindedness about now.

16. Trickle down, trickle out, trickle up—you can’t ignore history. If it hasn’t or has worked you need to think about why and how before you can reproduce or avoid it.

17. It’s okay to acknowledge matters that aren’t government’s domain. It bears remembering that no government has ever succeeded in making everyone believe what it wishes.

18. The founding fathers wanted to separate church and state.

19. We are equal by virtue of citizenship. Whether we are haves of have-nots is incidental.

20. Everyone I know seems as tired of fighting as I am. If you can’t cooperate with the other party then maybe the system is broken and needs fixing.

21. Of course you’re right that initiative and ambition are to be celebrated, but where it relies on hindering opportunities for others, it’s really cruelty.

22. We’ve had more than enough melodrama over the last few months. Please don’t make melodrama your standard operating procedure.

23. All this acrimony and ill-will and bad blood and un-mending fences will be tragic if it’s all been about who will profit.

24. Whatever you may think, the next presidential election cycle has not begun.

25. Please put aside politics and govern.

26. And don’t fiddle. We’re burning.

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Angry Politics

All my life I’ve tried to avoid offending people and wondered if that’s even possible. Sometimes the gap between intention and effect inches a little wider and suddenly someone you thought your friend or ally (or at least sympathetic listener) feels hurt or disrespected. You don’t mean to offend, but you do.

And I’ve been on both sides. The most neutral and, in retrospect, most innocent statement sends me into paroxysms of sensitivity and peevishness. “What did you just say?” my psyche shouts, its back instantly up, its fists balled, ready to retaliate.

What can you do in such moments? You can beg help from reason. When you’re on the offending side, you ask, “What did you hear me saying?” and when you’re on the offended side, you say, “Explain what you mean.”

But not always. Sometimes people throw their hands in the air and walk away, content to leave everything unsettled and proud to wound or feel wounded. Then they don’t really want a solution so much as proof of their rectitude. Though, as Robert Half once said, “Convincing yourself doesn’t win an argument,” sometimes that’s the only part of the argument people care about, the part that allows them to preserve their self-image. They need to be okay, so no one else can be.

We do a lot of walking away these days. Self-righteousness runs rampant in the current political climate, and few candidates seem interested in engaging or even listening to the opposite point of view. Civility offers no political advantage. Strategically, offending your opponent can pay off if you bait him or her into another gaffe, the sort of devastating mistake required to torpedo a campaign. Offending others  is the point. The intention isn’t to be polite or reasonable or to exchange political views but to goad your opponent into blowing his or her cool.

“In science,” Carl Sagan said, “it often happens that a scientist says, ‘You know, that’s an interesting argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their mind, and you would never hear that old view from them again.” In politics, Sagan said, that would never happen.

I like to think that, were humans telepathic, they might feel exactly what others feel and perceive their intentions exactly. It’s hard to judge harshly when you truly know the other person. Knowing comes close to understanding, and understanding comes close to love. Even if someone aimed to criticize or offend, we might know the source of the ill-will and accept at least its subjective validity. Knowing why the conflict exists might be enough to soothe any hurt and reach a compromise. But who is asking why now?

“Use soft words and hard argument,” says an English proverb. Perhaps we’re bound to argue, but, these days, the soft words rarely appear. Intractability is the current political fashion. Good sense and moderation seem politically devastating.

Though I did not watch much of the political convention aired this week, I saw many angry faces and heard many angry sound bites suggesting no less than the complete erasure of the last four years. I understand these speeches aim at converts. They hope to inflame adherents and spur them to a level of support bordering on zealotry. At a national party convention, you have no need to persuade or convince. Yet, I’d be more moved by dispassion, reason, and the sort of subtle distinctions that might locate the increasingly narrow path to solutions and progress. I’m tired of vehement disdain promising only more offense and more conflict.

I’m beginning to wonder who is listening and who even cares to.

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My Vote

ballot-box-l.jpg Reprise…

Some time ago, I read an article in Slate setting the odds of a single vote influencing an election at 100,000,000 to one; however, if you live in a populous state and you’re voting in a sizable election—like the presidential race—your odds are probably much worse.

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, the authors of Freakonomics, report few economists vote because it’s embarrassing to be seen doing so. They know the cost of casting a vote—the trouble it takes—doesn’t come close to its utility.

And you don’t need economists or odds-makers to question voting. Thoreau described voting as “gaming” and said, “Voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.” He believed voting worked only for the people on the popular side. Elections silence dissent, he pointed out… even when 49.5 % of the people dissent.

Yet—though Thoreau’s perspective looks like common sense, scientific even—I vote.

One in one hundred million is greater than zero and, psychologically, I have to have my say. More than that, I want to suspend disbelief and act according to my convictions. We’re certainly lost as a society if we stop believing we can do anything together.

For much of our history, we put faith in collective action—striking or boycotting or buying or not buying. We believed that banding together gave us more power, a choral voice. We were naïve then. Not all of us are so cynical, but many people now believe nothing other than a law can control behavior—and laws are only as good as their enforcement. For some, social movements are silly, as pointless as voting, economically absurd. We seem to have lost trust in like-minds and the principle that good sense is persuasive. These days, we do or don’t do according to our own devices.

Maybe voting is better suited to tiny and ancient Greek city-states. But in the modern world, voting still has powerful symbolic meaning. It represents collective identity, the last proof we live in one country together.

A friend once pointed out that a corporation, in a single day, can undo a lifetime of recycling, taking the train, and walking. I know he’s right. In a consumer culture individual actions mean very little unless some number of people—a big number—act responsibly. As long as we buy SUVs, manufacturers will continue to produce them. As long as we prefer or accept excessive packaging, molded plastic and styrofoam-encased boxes in boxes covered by layers of paper and more plastic will be the rule.

Asking corporations to change doesn’t work, unless we ask by withholding our dollars.

Our times call for a new sort of social revolution. Before we believed in strikes, boycotts, and consumer movements, and now we must behave quixotically, ignoring how statistically paltry our individual actions are. We must behave responsibly even when any half-brained person could see what any one of us does matters little or not at all. The new world requires not banding together, but adhering to personal resolutions that only make sense from a collective perspective, as if everything each of us did was multiplied by three-hundred million instead of divided by it.

We will either succeed at fooling ourselves into believing our individual actions are critical or fail collectively. If everyone believes actions don’t matter, they will be right.

One definition of faith is belief despite reason. Perhaps voting is an act of faith, willingly investing in a fiction because the alternative is so much worse. Picking up an empty water bottle and carrying it home to put it in the recycling is also an act of faith, pointless but symbolic.

I’m not naïve. I know in November I won’t really decide the leader for the next four years—as in all things public, an aggregate will decide that—but I’m voting for voting. I’m expressing an illogical but vital faith in social change, a hope we can escape our selfish desires and believe—despite our differences—we are one people.

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