Struggling for Enlightenment in Skyrim

A Bosmer at home, weight of the world on his shoulders.

Thrown into the land of Tamriel, utterly ignorant of its peoples, politics, or cultures, everywhere I went I was met with suspicion or resentment. I wasn’t the only one of my kind, but apparently my particular race was in the minority here, or at least in the municipalities and wilds of Skyrim. With quite a few notable exceptions, most of the people I met would see my pointy ears and angular features and sneer.

I’m of course describing my early experiences playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a vast open-world role playing video game that’s been around since 2011 and has been available on a variety of platforms and consoles, including the most recent, the Nintendo Switch, which is where I discovered it. You can choose from a wide range of races and species for your character, including varieties of humans and elves, as well as as orcs and anthropomorphic animalistic species, and I chose to be a Bosmer, better known as a Wood Elf. I had been looking for a game to fill the void left when I had finished The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and playing as a sort of Link-like quasi-Hylian appealed to me.

I knew almost nothing about the game before I first fired it up. I had never played an Elder Scrolls game before, and knew nothing about them other than that they were fantasy role playing games. Skyrim throws the new player right into the thick of conflict (literally as a prisoner bound for execution) and little in the way of tutorial or introduction, so one is forced to fumble about from the very first moments, wrangling with an overwhelming array of buttons and menus that make little sense at the beginning. It didn’t help that I am woefully helpless in games played from the first-person perspective, and you can imagine my relief when I discovered (by mashing buttons) that I could toggle to third-person and more or less stay that way.

Beyond my hapless and frustrating orientation to the basic controls of the game, I was also overwhelmed by the deluge of stories being hurled at me from every character. Every warlord, guard, prisoner, and townsperson was eager to unload their most deep-seated grievances and ennobling dreams, and I had absolutely no idea what anyone was talking about.

There’s an Empire, sure, got that. And there are local monarchs, and they don’t all get along with each other, and some don’t like the Empire, and some do. Fine, fine. Factional disputes, nothing surprising there. But what the hell, exactly, am I supposed to do? I became so overwhelmed, so quickly, that I summarily dropped the game for months before deciding to give it another shot.

I’ve come around, and while I’m sure I’m not yet near the game’s end (if there even is such a thing), I’ve advanced to incredible political heights, gained world-shattering powers in magic and combat, and become extraordinarily wealthy. I even have a lovely house and adopted two kids (Sophie, a real sweetheart, and Lucia the badass).

But no matter how powerful I become, the attitudes of Skyrim’s people remain constant. There are the more cosmopolitan humans, including various aristocrats, artists, and many craftspeople and merchants, who largely don’t even mention my character’s race. (There is a measure of condescension at times, as when characters ask, “What do you want, little elf?” My character, unlike me in real life, is of above-average height.) But particularly in the political regions (what Skyrim refers to as “holds”) where there is antipathy toward the Empire, my elvishness engenders a good deal of hostility and mistrust.

And I really, really didn’t like that. Fairly early on in the game (or, at least as I experienced it), the player is faced with a decision: Will they stand with the ruling Empire or side with a faction of rebels, the “Stormcloaks.” Their leader, the Jarl of Windhelm, Ulfric, has recently killed Skyrim’s Empire-aligned High King, and aims to make Skyrim an independent state.

Which sounds noble enough, until you come to understand that the Stormcloaks consider Skyrim to be a land specifically for their particular race of humans, known as Nords. So-called Imperials are not wanted, and wanted even less are elves.

What’s that all about? I certainly didn’t know. But it’s not as though the game doesn’t give the player ample and frequent opportunities to find out. Apart from the many lengthy monologues from non-player characters, the game generously scatters books throughout the world that the player can read, a great many of which recount the history of Skyrim, its continent of Tamriel, and all its peoples. So if there’s something about Skyrim culture one doesn’t understand, it’s probably because one hasn’t done the research.

Regardless of the cultural context, this anti-elf bigotry did not sit well with me, and I decided that if the game wants me to pick a side, I’m naturally going to choose the side that welcomes my kind and doesn’t consider us invaders. Racist Stormcloaks, who might as well be wearing leather helmets emblazoned with Make Skyrim Great Again, could bite my Bosmer butt. I signed up with the Imperials, and through my bravery and astounding feats in the face of death, I rose to the rank of Legate.

Not too long after what looked like the final defeat of the Stormcloaks, thanks in large part to my sword-slashing and thunderbolt-zapping in the streets of Windhelm, I was trotting along some path outside the city and came upon a group of folks with a prisoner in tow.

Inquiring as to what was going on, I learned that it was a group of High Elves (a different race of elves than my own, but elvish all the same) getting ready to prosecute and execute a Nord human for the crime of worshiping the wrong god. The races and species of Tamriel (and its planet of Nirn) worship a wide variety of gods and demigods, and many Nords also worship as a god a human warrior from ages past named Talos. This mortal human does not qualify for divinity in the eyes of the Empire, who have made Talos-worship a crime.

And these elves, ostensibly “my people” from “my side,” were going to murder a guy over it. I intervened, the High Elf inquisitors tried to kill me, and I wiped them out. They did manage to kill the Nord prisoner during the fracas.

So here I was, a high-ranking officer of the Empire and an elf, having just killed a contingent of Imperial elves who were committing fascistic crimes against humanity (or Nirn-ity).

Had I picked the wrong side?

At the beginning of the game, I knew nothing. Trying to make sense of the world I’d been violently thrown into (I say “violently” because my execution was stayed due to a dragon attack on the town which allowed me to escape), I reached certain conclusions about the moral landscape based on my anecdotal encounters with the denizens of Skyrim. Those who were most hostile and prejudicial toward me because of my race were the same folks who were decrying the Empire and making common cause with Ulfric and the Stormcloaks. It seemed pretty clear to me that they were, as the saying goes, on the wrong side of history. The Empire, from my limited understanding, represented the Nirnian version of enlightenment.

So what about those elves on the road? Why was the Empire violently weeding out heretics and making examples of them? That’s what the unenlightened rubes would do, right? Except nobody in Skyrim, save for overt villains and demons and the like, ever sought to erase me for what I was. They were rude, discriminatory, and belittling, but my freedom was never threatened. My life was never threatened. My labors were always compensated and my money was always good.

It occurred to me that I couldn’t remember why I was being carted off to execution at the beginning of the game. I remember at the time that the dialogue was such a torrent of unfamiliar names and factions that it more or less just washed over me as I worried about how to move around, attack, and navigate the menus.

Looking it up again for the first time in months, I was reminded that my character was bound for execution for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, rounded up during an Imperial raid on Stormcloaks. Because I had been in the vicinity, I was presumed to be part of the resistance, and therefore presumed guilty. On the cart to Helgen, where I was to meet my end (save for the dragon attack), I rode alongside Ulfric, the very man who I would fight to defeat and dethrone in the assault on Windhelm. My executioner was to be an Imperial by the name of General Tullius, the same man who would later give me my own Imperial rank. I fought literally at his side in Windhelm and helped him dispose of Ulfric.

I remembered nothing of the game’s beginnings when I was climbing the Empire’s ranks and winning its favor. (I was also busy becoming a powerful sorcerer and earning the title of Arch-Mage at the College of Winterhold, so I had a lot on my mind.) If I had remembered that I had ridden to my almost-doom with Ulfric, or that Tullius had summarily ordered my death based on false pretenses, I almost certainly would have made different choices. I’m not sure which ones.

But even forgetting all of that, I never really knew what “the Empire” was to begin with. All I knew was that it was not based in Skyrim, and, thanks to interstitial tips and backstory provided during loading screens, I knew that there had been a peace achieved between the Empire and something called the Aldmeri Dominion. A quick bit of googling told me that the Aldmeri Dominion is essentially an elf-supremacist superpower that won the right to stamp out Talos worship within the Empire as part of its peace treaty. Thus, the elven inquisitors I met on the road.

Digging further into various websites and wikis unearths a trove of material providing more history and context to the state of affairs for Skyrim into which I was dropped. It’s dizzying.

I didn’t expect The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to be simplistic, and I knew I would need to make ethically and morally difficult choices. For example, I have, so far, totally eschewed the questline surrounding the “Dark Brotherhood,” a band of elite assassins, and I have merely dabbled with the Thieves Guild questline, mostly for the sake of building up in-game skills. On the whole, I have tried to make choices that are consistent with both my own values and what I perceive my character’s would be in this time and place. It’s fuzzy, but it’s how I’ve decided to play. (I may decide on a second playthrough to go a totally different route, and play as, say, a treacherous, murderous lizard-person.) And I’m not nearly done. My quest menu screen is still overflowing.

What I didn’t anticipate when beginning this experience was the incredibly rich worldbuilding that has gone into the Elder Scrolls franchise, and how it deeply informs the story within the game. It was easy to hate those provincial Nords who turned their stubby noses up at me for being an elf. I had no idea what might have made them hate elves in the first place. Knowing more about the history of Tamriel, about the conflicts between elves and humans, hasn’t excused their bigotry, but nor does it excuse the totalitarian crackdown by the Empire, nor the zealous intolerance of the Admeri elves.

They all have their reasons. They all have their motivations. They all believe they are doing what they must.

So what about this Bosmer living in a human realm that I play, this Arch-Mage and Imperial legate, this ex-convict who narrowly escaped a beheading, this conqueror and liberator, this slayer of dragons and deathlords, this father of two orphaned girls? What must he do, now that he knows a little more?

What must anyone do, once they know a little more?

Solving for X

If there is a point to being alive, a reason for existing as a self-aware organism in the Universe, it is probably to solve problems. I don’t actually think there is a reason for us or anyone else to exist, nor do I think that the Universe itself provides or requires any inherent meaning or purpose. But if there is any purpose, or if we can impose meaning post hoc, sans propter hoc, then I think the whole point is the solving of problems.

Let’s get this out of the way, just for total clarity: There was no “intent” on the part of the Universe or any other entity that a particular species (or any number of species) should emerge and go about the business of fixing things the Universe couldn’t fix on its own. That’s fantasy stuff. The Universe has no will, nor does it perceive that it possesses imperfections to be repaired. It doesn’t perceive anything, except inasmuch that the beings in it, and therefore of it, perceive things. But the fact that they do perceive anything is accidental, not purposeful.

By problem-solving, I mean something far more mundane, localized to the individual organism. One has the will to maintain one’s own existence because of the impulse, built into a being by natural selection, to seek out opportunities to overcome deficiencies, fulfill needs, create novelties, experience pleasures, and relieve suffering. Examples can range from achieving world peace to fixing a leaky faucet. From creating a great work of art to cleaning up a spilled drink. From being elected President of the United States to sending routine a work email. From filling one’s head with the knowledge gained from the reading of a book to filling one’s belly with a nice breakfast.

So what? Good question. “So what” indeed.

I first encountered this simple idea from a rather unscholarly source, Mark Manson’s book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F✻ck. It was quite revelatory in that it stripped away the various layers of made-up meaning we humans apparently need to heap onto everything. Manson’s point was more specifically about happiness, that rather than being a state, happiness is a process that comes from the solving of problems that a person wants to be solving. The anticipation, planning, and execution of solving those problems are what brings about actual satisfaction with one’s existence. Not glee or joy, per se, but contentment. Purpose.

In Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright writes that the Buddha already knew this. And while On the Origin of Species was still a good two-and-a-half thousand years after the Buddha’s time, his way of understanding human existence squares pretty well with what natural selection has wrought in us.

“Yes, as [the Buddha] said, pleasure is fleeting, and, yes, this leaves us recurrently dissatisfied,” says Wright. “And the reason is that pleasure is designed by natural selection to evaporate so that the ensuing dissatisfaction will get us to pursue more pleasure. Natural selection doesn’t ‘want’ us to be happy, after all; it just ‘wants’ us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.”

We have evolved to want to solve for x, to take pleasure in attempting to solve for x, and to take more pleasure in having solved x, but not so much pleasure that we feel like we shouldn’t now move on to y and z.

Despair comes from one’s problems being unsolvable or from having no problems that one deems worth solving. It’s always about pursuit of that which we do not yet have, be it material or informational. I was reminded of this again when reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, in a passage from when Genry speaks to the mystic Faxe.

“The unknown,” Faxe tells Genry, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. … But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion… . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable — the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”

Genry responds, “That we shall die.”

“Yes,” says Faxe. “There’s really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer… . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

Purpose, meaning, contentment, all of it comes from the day-to-day, moment-to-moment business of solving for x.

Again: So what? I don’t know. But maybe I can work with that. Maybe you can work with that. At the very least, maybe you can find some purpose in solving for that x.

Video Games and My Ceaseless Guilt

During the pandemic era, here in the Lost Year, we have been given a reprieve from the stigma attached to excessive video game playing. The experts have told us, as conveyed to us through the most elite media outlets, that being forced under the fat thumb of the socially-distant lockdown-quarantine absolves us of any anxieties we might have about wasted time, lost productivity, or rotted brains. For the age of COVID–19, video games are now good for us. Hooray!

So now I can spend hours exploring, battling, spell-casting, smithing, concocting, and acquiring inside the metauniverse of Skyrim, free of any worry that I ought to be doing something more worthy of my time. We’re all stuck at home, after all! These are extreme, extenuating circumstances! There’s a goddamn killer virus out there, for god’s sake!

Oh, but here’s the thing. Just like everyone else on Planet Earth, the pandemic has upended many aspects of my life, but one thing that has remained unchanged is my location in space. As a socially-averse autistic already working from home for the past decade, I was already not going anywhere. Not even the coronavirus could disrupt a life outside the home if it didn’t exist to begin with.

Nonetheless, when the Great Lockdown began in March, it still felt to me like a doctor’s note authorizing me to indulge in video games again.

(An aside for some context: I say “again” because I have had spurts of game obsession at different times in my adult life, starting with games like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII near the end of college. Later, as time for games became scarcer, I would go through periods of serious Civilization addiction for installments III, IV, V, and especially VI, which Steam tells me I have played for almost 1400 hours, which doesn’t even count the additional hours spent playing it on my iPad. More recently, I became enamored with The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the WildAnimal Crossing: New Horizons, and, my current alternate-universe-of-choice, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, all on the Nintendo Switch.)

Since the vast majority of my time playing video games is solitary (save for when my semi-interested partner happens to be in the room), I have always perceived playing them as a way of sinking into my own little world. But I think being exposed to so much positive social reinforcement regarding quarantine video games made me feel like I was doing something with a speck of social value. It wasn’t just me being a weird 40-something dude manipulating cartoon characters in fantasy worlds all by my lonesome. Now I was in with the in-crowd. Everyone was doing it. We were being alone together.

But despite this absolution, I knew that I couldn’t claim to be leaning on video games to get me through the pandemic. I wasn’t being kept away from my job or unexpectedly burdened with truckloads of free time I didn’t know what to do with. If anything, my job got busier, my kids were home with me more often, and I actually find I have less free time now than I did in back the Long, Long Ago. I’m not killing excess time by playing video games. I’m frittering away the precious little time I have.

So really, I shouldn’t overstate how much time I actually spend on these damn things. The fortnightly Saturday evenings and Sundays I don’t have my kids at home are really my only opportunities to truly binge on pretending to be a Destruction-magic-specializing Wood Elf. (One who just became Arch-Mage of the College in Winterhold, what-what!) All week, I’ll look forward to long, uninterrupted play sessions that will allow me to fully commit to some major quest within the game, rather than settling for less time-consuming side tasks or level-grinding. But when I finally get to dive in, it isn’t long before the Guilt sets in.

I should be doing something more productive, the Guilt says. I should be doing something more creative. I am wasting my precious waking hours and living days on an experience from which I will derive no benefit beyond the temporary sensations of escapist hedonism. That’s fine for a little break from the workaday world, says the Guilt, but it’s no way to spend an entire day.

And maybe the Guilt is right. I’m a writer, a performer, and a composer, and I have the extraordinary privilege of being safe, employed, fed, sheltered, and loved during a major crisis, and I could be using it to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways. Even though very few people will ever read this piece, for example, and only some fraction of them will have found it valuable, creating this piece of writing at least adds something to the world that wasn’t there before. Hours and hours spent in Skyrim, Hyrule, or Duckbutt Island (my Animal Crossing domain) have no impact on the real world outside my video game console, except in what they prevent from coming into being.

It’s probably futile to attempt to quantify, even vaguely, what is lost or gained by spending time on video games. Because I could just as well speculate that the games might be a way for me to build up the reserves I need to create things to begin with. Perhaps they are addressing something in me psychologically, such that they become a net-benefit. Before writing this, I read a number of pieces asserting just that.

“I suspect that the total intensity of the passion with which gamers throughout society surrender themselves to their pastime is an implicit register of how awful, grim, and forbidding the world outside them has become,” writes Frank Guan in the conclusion to his wonderful 2017 (pre-pandemic) piece on video game obsessives in Vulture. Earlier in the piece, he says, “We turn to games when real life fails us — not merely in touristic fashion but closer to the case of emigrants, fleeing a home that has no place for them.” Well, for me, the world was definitely grim and forbidding before COVID–19 came around, and Placelessness, USA has always been my hometown. So maybe it’s a wonder I haven’t gone whole-hog on video games sooner.

The point is, though, that I don’t know, and I do know that time spent in a game is time not spent on literally anything else. And I’m not smart enough to know whether or not that’s okay.

I Have Trump’s Resignation Speech Ready to Go

In case it’s not obvious, President Trump needs to resign. In order to make it easier, I have taken the liberty of composing his resignation address for him, delivering exactly the message I think he would like to have conveyed to the country as he steps down. 

Mister President, I offer this text to you, and I invite you to deliver it as soon as possible.


Final Address by President Donald J. Trump

My fellow Americans,

Our beautiful country is being torn apart by criminals and terrorists that have overtaken the streets of our great cities, looting and murdering real Americans in defiance of our incredible police and our wonderful troops. These violent savages have been encouraged and supported by the fake news media and their enablers within the deep state that even now conspires to destroy our beautiful and amazing country and bring under the rule of globalist elites who hate our American values.

As liberal-Democrat mayors and governors allow maniacs and killers to pour into the streets, they have also oppressed the real American patriots who have courageously stood against hysterical and illegal lockdowns over the COVID-19 virus, which is now totally under control. Those great Americans have had to endure the humiliation and injustice of staying at home and being denied their Second Amendment rights.

I am so proud of the police, who have endured such hatred and violence, getting no support whatsoever from unAmerican Democrat politicians or the fake news media, which spreads lies about their heroism. I have done all I can as your president to support the police as they face down these terrorists, like Antifa, who are also terrorists.

But because of the lying fake news media, too many Americans now wrongly believe that the police and the great American Armed Forces are in the wrong, and the real criminals and terrorists are the heroes. Because of the disgusting cowards within the Deep State, dozens of former officials have corrupted themselves and turned against our country, denouncing the police, insulting the military, and viciously and unfairly attacking your president—a president who won the greatest landslide election in the history of elections against Crooked Hillary Clinton.

As I speak to you tonight, I am poised to once again win an even greater landslide victory over Sleepy Joe Biden, who many people are saying is not even alive right now. He might actually be dead. But this wonderful, glorious victory for our country is too much for the corrupt fake news media, the anti-American Deep State, and Antifa, who are also very, very bad. And despite the great efforts I and my administration have taken to bring peace and prosperity to our nation, too many people in our country have come to believe all these horrible lies, though many of the people who do believe the lies that I’m talking about are definitely illegal immigrants.

One thing seems to unite all of these terrible people, whether they are the fake news media, the Deep State, the perpetrators of Obamagate, the bad people who invented the coronavirus hoax, the corrupt Democrat politicians, or Antifa—who are very real and very dangerous and are very much a real thing—is their hatred of Trump. They know that it is your president who truly has the love of the American people behind him and that it is Trump that can crush America’s enemies. Usually these people are a sad, sad mess, but their hatred of your leader, me, Trump, has made them more dangerous than ever.

And so, in order to save our beautiful country from being totally, totally destroyed, I have decided to make the ultimate sacrifice. Effective 12:01 AM, one minute after midnight tonight, I will resign the presidency and transfer the powers of the office to Vice President Mike Pence.

This is an incredibly sad moment for America. As I said, I was very much looking forward to defeating Sleepy Joe Biden in every single state, except those states where illegal immigrants are allowed by corrupt Democrat governors, like that woman-governor in Michigan, to vote illegally over and over and over. But I probably would have won those states too. But because the American people, real American people, love Trump, America’s enemies hate you. They hate you so much that they have done everything they can to bring down the president you love, the most popular and respected president in history. Me.

Antifa is also doing all these terrible things.

But because I love this beautiful country so much, the best thing I can do is step away from the presidency so America’s enemies will no longer have Trump to obsess over. My good friend, Vice President Mike Pence, begged me not to do this, and it was really beautiful, the way he almost cried, but held it back, because he’s such a strong, strong man.

I am one hundred percent confident that after I make Mike Pence president, which I can do, that he will go on to defeat Sleepy Joe Biden and his corrupt friends. If Sleepy Joe is even still alive, which some people say he is not.

I hope that by taking myself out of the spotlight, the new administration will have the space it needs to crush America’s enemies, who of course will be confused and panicking because of what I have just done. While out of the spotlight, I will of course continue to fight loudly and strongly against all those who seek to destroy this country, like, for example, Antifa.

I am sad, very, very sad, but also proud to be stepping down on a high note, when I have the greatest approval numbers and greatest ratings in history. The Trump administration has been the greatest and most successful administration, ever, and there will never be another President of the United States like Trump.

May God, who has always been on my side and been very proud of me, bless the beautiful United States of America.

Marching Orders

As of about 10pm Eastern on June 3, 2020, here are a few things I think need to happen to push things in the right direction, in no particular order:

Mark Zuckerberg should resign from Facebook. The United States is in its worst moment of crisis in generations and Facebook, the most powerful outlet of information in the world, is complicit in bringing us to this point. Zuckerberg has proven time and again that he is incapable of either grasping the damage Facebook’s business model has done to society, nor of developing the conscience or empathy required to do something about it. I have no illusions about “shutting down Facebook,” as it is too much like a public utility, for better or worse. Rather, the wretched man who has enriched himself by giving growth hormones to misinformation and incitements to violence needs to walk away. He is a cancer on democracy.

The New York Times editorial board, every single member thereof, should resign in shame over the publication of Sen. Tom Cotton’s celebration of fascism, itself an incitement to additional violence against black Americans. From propping up the phony justifications for the Iraq war to treating the Hillary Clinton email controversy as the defining scandal of the 2016 election, this group of quislings has utterly failed this country. Let this be the last time.

Speaking of the catastrophe that was the Iraq war, President George W. Bush has made some kind noises about unity and ending racism, and that’s all well and good. But the only truly useful thing he can do at this moment in history is to go in front of the cameras and endorse Joe Biden for president. If he’s not going to do that, there’s literally nothing he has to say that is of any value whatsoever.

The above also goes for Mitt Romney and any other Republicans of national prominence who have any shred of conscience or patriotism left in their tattered souls.

Democratic leaders in Congress should…do…something. Anything. Fucking christ, something.

The vice president and the cabinet should invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment and remove Trump from power. I know, I know, but I had to at least say it.

This list may be updated as things occur to me.

American Nightmare

It was sort of like a nightmare, in the sense that time seemed to both slow to a crawl and flash by in the blink of an eye all at once. I was at first distracted, playing a video game, the president’s upcoming address to the nation up on our television. I didn’t really want to listen to it, as even hearing his voice is enough to drain a good month or two out of my lifespan. So I played my game and resolved to just let him talk in the background.

I don’t remember the exact moment I was wrenched from my pixelated reverie, but I remember almost dropping the controllers and suddenly gaping at the TV. It had taken my brain a few moments to start assigning meaning to the words coming out of the president’s face, and I experienced this odd sensation of understanding piece by piece, like Lego bricks being placed on on top of the other to eventually reveal a form. The last brick clicked into place, and I felt the realization morph into horror.

When he finished speaking, promising to use the force of the U.S. military to murder protestors, time sped up again. Even though I knew what I’d just heard, I needed confirmation. I jumped about the internet for reaction from experts just to be certain that I understood what had actually just happened. Was I inflating it in my mind? Was it actually just nonsense and we had nothing to worry about. But no, it was as bad as it sounded.

And then time slowed down again as Trump performed that bizarre lumbering toward St. John’s Church. I assumed he was going to go inside so the cameras would see him pretending to care about what happened there, and maybe perform some perfunctory pseudo-prayer. Instead, he stood there and held up that fucking Bible, held it like he was showing off a stain on a dinner plate, held it like he’d never actually grasped a book in his life. His flunkies soon followed, standing in a line on either side of him, staring sternly at nothing in particular. It was just a photo-op. And not in the sense of going into a diner to be seen chatting with the locals, but more like a photo shoot. The damaged church was just his backdrop, the Bible his prop—a prop that no one on the set thought to tell him how to use or what to do with it.

This was grotesque enough as it was. Crass and tasteless, it would have been funny under another context. And then we found out what he did to execute this moment of ugly absurdity.

He’d had the peaceful protesters outside the White House tear-gassed and hit with flash grenades. It had been happening while he’d been speaking. The very moment Trump was promising to attack U.S. citizens with the forces meant to protect them, he was demonstrating his willingness to do so a few steps away from where he stood.

It’s been about twenty-four hours since then, and like most people with a functioning conscience, I’m still in shock.

But I also want answers. I’ve read all manner of condemnations of the president’s words and actions in the form of tweets, articles, op-eds, and so on, and that’s fine. But I have not seen one word—not one word—telling me what anyone is going to do about this.

I’ve written about this before, but the urgency is even greater now. Surely, there are mechanisms through which someone in a position of power can thwart the president’s massacre-fantasies before they become real.

I don’t even mean anything as dramatic as removing the monster from power, though that would be my first choice, and I will kiss on the mouth every member of the cabinet who has a hand in invoking the 25th amendment, should they do so. But can Congress curtail Trump from wielding the military this way? Can military leadership consider Trump’s demands illegal and refuse to act on them? Can governors take a stand? Can business titans threaten to pull campaign funding? Can someone do a convincing enough impression of Vladimir Putin so that it would fool Trump into thinking that his idol was telling him to stand down?

Right now, all I hear is my own pulse throbbing. There was apparently a resolution to condemn Trump in Congress, but of course Mitch McConnell wouldn’t allow it. But who cares about resolutions? Our hate only makes Trump stronger. Someone needs to actually stop him.

But no one is. And we’re supposed to rely on the election to save us. I have very little faith that Trump and his allies won’t prevent that from happening in the first place. Either way, we don’t have that much time.

His supporters are ecstatic and ravenous for blood. His enablers are lying down for him and throwing roses in his wake. He’s got the allegiance of law enforcement and the might of the armed forces at his whim, and he’s exalting in his action movie fever dream. And he’s coming for us now.

It’s not a theory. It’s not a dream. Wake up.

Biden’s Promise to Pick a Woman VP: It’s 2020 and it’s the Right Thing to Do

Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

From the mainstream press, progressives, and the broader reality-based community, most analysis centered on how the pledge, and the individual woman chosen to fulfill that pledge, would help or hurt Biden’s electoral chances. 

In both cases, it is presumed that the Biden campaign is making a calculation, reaching the conclusion that a commitment to putting a woman on the ticket will, the the aggregate, help his cause. Folks on the right, obviously, purport to know that it is a miscalculation and also somehow discriminatory against poor, poor men. Everyone else, more or less, has focused on the particular factors that motivated the pledge.

You know them already: Perhaps the campaign is seeking to give a jolt to turnout from women, who favor Democrats; they hope to attract women who may have voted for Trump in 2016 to switch sides at the prospect of electing a woman vice-president; they see a commitment to diversity as something that will unify and energize more left-leaning voters who may not feel great enthusiasm for Biden; it is intended to present to the entire electorate a glaring contrast with Donald Trump, who is known for—and even celebrates—his abuse and dehumanization of women. And so on.

In all cases, the analysis—be it negative, positive, or neutral—is about tactics. It is taken as given that Joe Biden made this pledge to help him win the presidency, and all that’s left to do is to qualify and quantify that choice.

I am no grizzled veteran of national political wars, but I have been working in various arenas of national politics for 13 years, including a presidential campaign, and I can tell you with certainty that yes, this pledge was made after weighing all of these tactical factors. But I also do not believe they were decisive. Because what I also can tell you from my experience is that all of the people involved in these mammoth and byzantine political enterprises are human beings. 

Let’s take a trip way back in time to another era, one that might be unrecognizable today. Hop in our time machine and we’ll set the dial back five whole years, and we’ll set ourselves down in the city of Ottawa in a magical land called Canada. 

Standing at a podium before the national press was an impossibly handsome new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, flanked by his newly-appointed cabinet. True to a pledge of his own, Trudeau had assembled a cabinet with 15 men and 15 women.

“Your cabinet, you said, looks a lot like Canada,” said one reporter. “I understand one of the priorities for you was to have a cabinet that was gender balanced. Why was that so important to you?”

There is a pause, during which Trudeau somehow manages to simeltaneously deadpan and smolder, as only he can. He responds.

“Because it’s 2015.”

And then he gently shrugs.

Trudeau went on to explain that he had chosen excellent people for an excellent cabinet that represented the country’s diversity of viewpoints, but mentioned not one more word about anyone’s gender. 

Those who worry about “tokenism” claim to be concerned at the great injustice done to better-qualified candidates for positions being rebuffed for lesser-qualified choices who tick an identity checkbox. But this makes the absurd assumption that there is always one, single “best person” for any given job, one “right answer” among a sea of wrongs. It’s preposterous.

For any position there exists a wide variety of individuals who might excel, bringing to bear their own unique blend of skills and experiences. The idea that there’s a singular “best person for the job” is a trope, an ideal to which one can aspire, but not some incontrovertible mathematical constant. We’re talking about human beings working within human-created systems. 

Trudeau’s unspoken message was that he had indeed chosen the “best” people for their respective cabinet positions, and that there were any number of “best people” he might have chosen. For the project of appointing a national cabinet, achieving a gender balance was no hindrance. Trudeau was telling us that because of the wealth of talent available to him, there were no compromises or consolations in ensuring gender parity.

And by saying, “Because it’s 2015,” he was really saying, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

In the Biden campaign’s decision to publicly commit to placing a woman on the ticket, there is no doubt that many surveys were studied, many polls were taken, many consultants were consulted, and the political temperature of many constituencies was taken. This is presidential politics, and politics must be done.

Joe Biden is also a human being. He leads a campaign made up of human beings. All of them got into politics and government for a reason, and I’m willing to hazard the guess that the vast majority of them did so for the right reasons, imperfect as they all are. And as imperfect as he is, I think Joe Biden is in politics for the right reasons.

At the March 15 debate on CNN in which this pledge was announced, Biden channeled a bit of Trudeau (though, he could never come close to Trudeau’s unflappable delivery). “My cabinet, my administration will look like the country and I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a — I’d pick a woman to be vice president,” said Biden. “There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow. I would pick a woman to be my vice president.”

In other words, to commit to choosing a woman is in no way a limitation. There are myriad women, right now, who would be excellent presidents, and he’s going to pick one of them.

I can’t know anything for sure about what’s in a man’s heart, but I think Joe Biden has committed to running alongside a woman because he thinks it’s the right thing to do.

Because it’s 2020.

Twenty-Fifth Fantasy: Which Cabinet Officials Might Vote to Remove Trump from Power?

I loathe Mike Pence with every fiber of my being. I vehemently oppose just about everything he stands for, and have dedicated most of my professional life to fighting back against that which is made manifest by the unremarkable brain stored within the stony ahead that sits atop the thick neck of Mike Pence.

And yet if he were to become president right now, I would ecstatically dance in a field of flowers. In slow motion.

The Trump presidency is an emergency. A crisis unto itself. The death, the suffering, the lies, the bigotry, the abuse, the corruption, the disinformation, the celebration of ignorance, the eagerness for violence, the determination to crush dissent in any form, even on a ballot. This has to stop.

The impeachment process was one institutional attempt to stop it, but it was doomed to fail from the beginning. But with every passing day, Trump finds new ways to do increasingly unprecedented damage to the republic and exacerbate the destruction he’s already wrought. I keep wishing, without hope, that someone will do something.

The last institutional remedy that exists, outside of an election that may or may not be the final word, is for the administration itself to fall on its own sword. It’s utterly fantastical to even consider this a possibility, and yet I can’t help but wistfully imagine that somewhere in the deep recesses of Mike Pence’s conscience, he knows that the madness has to end, and that he is the only one who can make that happen.

I dream of the invocation of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment.

For the president to be removed from power by his own administration, the vice president needs to consent of a majority of the heads of the cabinet’s “executive departments,” so eight top-level cabinet secretaries have to agree that the nation is sufficiently imperiled by the president to warrant having him stripped of his powers, and for the vice president to become “acting president.”

As a sort of exercise in hate-fiction, I decided to take a look at the current roster of cabinet secretaries to see if I could get a sense of whether there was even a hint of a possibility that eight of them might join in a revolt with Mike Pence, should he instigate one.

Of course, he never would. But let’s do this anyway.

I didn’t bother considering Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Attorney General William Barr, or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. These three are so clearly in the tank that to even fantasize about their turning on Trump is to give oneself an aneurysm. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao I also deigned unworthy of investigation, because if you can be married to Mitch McConnell, there’s no evil that you cannot countenance.

So let’s look at the rest of the cast of characters, and see if there are any Brutuses or Cassiuses among them. And remember, we’d need eight.


Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin: Maybe

Seemingly generated by a computer algorithm instructed to produce the most comically obvious evil banker stereotype, Steve Mnuchin does not at first blush to be someone who would care enough about the wellbeing of the country to take any extraordinary actions of principle to save it. Trump obviously doesn’t care what Mnuchin does as long as it serves Trump, but I also don’t get the sense that Mnuchin feels any genuine personal loyalty toward the president. Indeed, Mnuchin surely rankled the president when he worked closely with Trump’s arch-nemesis, Nancy Pelosi, to address the economic impact of the coronavirus in the pandemic’s early days.

This kind of pragmatism makes me suspect that Mnuchin would turn on Trump in a second if he felt that Trump was just bad for business, or that the risk he poses to the accumulation of wealth outweighed the benefits of the wide berth he usually enjoys. Mnuchin could perhaps be moved if Pence made him the right promises.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper: Maybe

Esper does not appear to be much of an ideologue, nor does he seem to be an overt Trump toady, which is what one might have expected as the replacement for the mostly-independent Jim Mattis. As Foreign Policyreported, “Esper has earned Trump’s trust particularly by coming into the job without an agenda and striving to present options that meet the president’s goals.”

It sounds to me like he just wants to keep his job and not do anything to make the president notice him. But this is frustrating folks in the defense establishment, as the center of power regarding national security has shifted from the Pentagon to the State Department in the person of Mike Pompeo. During the crisis U.S. strikes on Iran, it was noted with some alarm that Pompeo, and not Esper, had been given the spotlight, and in general Esper does not seem to be inclined to speak up or push back.

As Politico reported in January, “Esper appears to have made the calculation that it’s best to stay behind the scenes in an administration where few people have Trump’s ear, and where anything you say could be easily undermined by a presidential tweet moments later.”

If Esper won’t even stand up to Pompeo, it’s hard for me to imagine that he’d do anything so bold as to help depose the commander-in-chief. As an official told Foreign Policy, “Esper is seen as an excellent manager, [but] he is not a disruptor, he is not a change agent.” I suppose it’s possible that if there were already seven votes from cabinet secretaries to remove the president, Esper could feel secure in being the eighth. More likely is that he’d wait to be the ninth or tenth so no one could accuse him of being the decisive vote.

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt: No

Researching this article, I saw a tantalizing headline from a report by the Center for American Progress that read, “David Bernhardt Is President Trump’s Most Conflicted Cabinet Nominee.” Alas, this was not about Bernhardt’s conflicted feelings, but his conflicts of interest as an oil lobbyist and how they make him “vulnerable to corruption.” Vulnerable, you say.

Bernhardt strikes me as a fairly run-of-the-mill lobbyist/grifter who couldn’t care less one way or the other whether the world burns, as long as the burning is fueled by oil. The fact that you never hear about him merely means that he’s doing what he was put there to do, advance oil industry interests, and whatever happens outside of that is of no interest to him. I doubt Trump even knows what the Interior Department does, which I assume is just fine with its secretary.

The recent shocks to the oil market aren’t specific enough to Trump to spur Bernhardt to rebellion. My guess is he’ll keep pushing the oil industry agenda from within the administration for as long as he can, or until it’s time to cash out again.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue: No

Sonny Perdue’s stance on Trump may boil down to what he told the National Press Club in 2017. “I don’t think he wants a sycophant as a secretary. He wants me to give him my best counsel, my best advice, and he wants me to be right about that.”

This we know, and knew then, to be false. I assume Perdue did as well when he said this out loud to people who also knew it to be false, and knew that he knew.

Perdue also said that Trump has the “essense of a great leader.”

Perdue parrots Trump’s climate change denial and has reportedly kept in Trump’s good graces by speaking with expertise but never disagreeing with the president. Just a couple of weeks ago, Perdue was doing a public event with Ivanka Trump.

Purdue is happy where he is and he’s liked by the president. He’s a no.

Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross: No

Ross got on the president’s bad side when he couldn’t deliver on Trump’s desires to have the U.S. Census include a citizenship question, and the two have had some other trade-related disagreements. It was reported that Ross’s head was on the chopping block, but so far his head remains intact.

Ross is a curious case. He and Trump actually go way back to Trump’s casino bankruptcies in the 1990s. “For more than 25 years, the two socialized across marriages and states, with both owning nearby residences in Manhattan and Palm Beach, Florida,” reported NBC News earlier this year. “In June of 2016, Ross, a registered Democrat, endorsed Trump for president, saying, ‘We need a more radical, new approach to government.’”

His clashes with Trump are belied by his willingness to lie for him. So blatant were his dissemblings, the New York Times did a whole editorial just about that. “Wilbur Ross, the secretary of commerce, appears set on distinguishing himself again as the most compromised member of an administration that at times seems defined by ethical and moral flexibility.” Wow!

Perhaps most notably, Ross is a primary vector for Trump’s public endorsement of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment. Ross is in too deep. He’s a no, at least until Trump hints at firing him again.

Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia: No

The spawn of Antonin, Eugene Scalia, probably hates his job right now, as unemployment has gotten so bad that graphs about it become art

But as his job gets more complicated, it also becomes more important, and he becomes more powerful, as he holds the fates (and checks) of millions of Americans. I’ve seen nothing to suggest any conflict with the president, and he seems happy to go right along with Trump’s push to reopen all the things, so I have to assume that Scalia is a no.

Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette: No

Similarly, Brouillette is making no waves, doing what he’s told and promising to shovel money to the oil industry. If he’s in a mood to disrupt anything, he’s not showing it. Nope.

Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf: No

Chad Wolf (wouldn’t you kill for a name like that) seems like he’s also performing as a functionary, fulfilling the demands of his bosses. The New Yorker reported that there’s some disagreement between he and white-supremacist Stephen Miller, but not so much that it’s worth risking his neck. He’s a no. But as an “acting secretary,” as yet unconfirmed by the Senate, it’s not even clear that his vote would count in such a circumstance.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Azar: No

No one in the president’s orbit must feel more diminished than Mike Azar. Trump didn’t even feel the need to inform him that Mike Pence would be heading up the administration’s pretend-efforts to deal with the pandemic, and other embarrassments led the White House to inform reporters that they were thinking of replacing him. And yet Azar continues to grovel and toady to his majesty at the snap of a finger.

Azar seems to be devoid of spine or principle. His back against the wall, he might do something rash, but he’s not joining any revolution.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie: No

Wilkie is a toady among toads. He helped push hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, made up the claim that it helped veterans get better, and denied the veracity of studies showing its dangers. Earlier this year, it was reported that he tried to dig up dirt on someone who reported she’d been sexually assaulted at a VA hospital.

I don’t think he’s too concerned with the well being of the nation, veterans or otherwise. He’s a no.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson: No? Probably?

What does Ben Carson do all day? What thoughts go through his head? When he prays, which I assume he does a lot, what does he pray for?

Who knows. We know that he’s defended Trump’s handling of the pandemic. He recently thanked the president, I assume with a straight face, for being “a champion for all Americans, especially our low-income and minority communities.” So whatever is going on in the mind, his gifted hands are not going to be dispatching Caesar.


You knew how this would turn out, right? Two maybes and a lot of ha-ha-ha-are-you-kidding-me’s. Earlier in the presidency, perhaps a Jim Mattis or a Rex Tillerson could have marshaled something of a rebellion for the sake of the nation, but even that would have been nearly unthinkable.

In other words, we’re stuck, at least until January 2021, when I hope to god a soundly defeated President Trump just gets the hell out of town. But my hopes don’t often come true.

The Truth Behind My Face Mask

On the old He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon show, the small, hovering wizard called Orko—the comic-relief sidekick to the muscle-bound warriors—never revealed his face. Floating in a red robe, with no discernible limbs below his torso, his head was covered by a large, floppy, pointed hat, through which his pointed ears protruded. If he had a mouth or nose, it was wrapped in a cloth or scarf of some sort. All one could ever see of Orko’s face was his eyes and total blackness.

I remember distinctly an episode in which Orko, a member of the species known as Trollans, fell in love with another member of his own kind, and the audience learns that Trollans had a custom for expressing deep affection: they revealed to each other their uncovered faces. In private, they would take off their hats, unwrap their scarves, and give the greatest gift of intimacy of which they were capable, to allow their true face to be seen by the one they loved.

So Orko would loyally, courageously, and selflessly fight the most perilous evils alongside He-Man and his Eternian compatriots, but they would never be allowed to see their friend’s face. That was for Orko to save for a time, place, and person of his choosing.

I loved that.

My preferred day-to-day uniform, assuming the temperature suits it, consists of a T-shirt, jeans, hooded zip-up sweatshirt, and baseball hat.

I chose this basic getup because of its neutrality. These various garments cover me in solid, muted colors, in forms that suggest close to nothing about who I am, what I do for a living, what my interests are, or where I’m headed. One can’t tell if I’m off of work from some office job or if I dress like this all the time. One can’t tell if I support a local franchise, ascribe to a political ideology, have attained any particular level of education, enjoy any particular forms of entertainment, or earn any particular range of income (I could be broke and unemployed or just relaxing in my down time).

This developed, as so many choices do, from my experience in middle and high school, when standing out for any reason was to experience trauma. And I don’t mean standing out like a class clown or overtly quirky student. I mean being noticed at all, for any reason. If my hair was noticed, I was made fun of. If I was seen standing in some position or other, I was made fun of. If I was seen sitting in some other position, I was made fun of. If I was heard talking, expressing an opinion, or asking a question, I was made fun of. When taunted with questions meant to humiliate me, I was mocked for any answer I gave, and was equally mocked for staying silent.

If the brand of clothes I was wearing was recognized, I was made fun of for it. If the characters or public figures emblazoned on my T-shirts were recognized, I was made fun of for it. If I wore more expensive, “nicer” clothes, I was made fun of for it. If it was known that my clothes came from a store considered to be uncool, I was made fun of for it. If it was known I got my clothes from a store considered to be cool, that disconnect meant that I would be made fun of for it.

Like many other habits and precautions I built over that time, I adopted my neutral uniform to be as unnoticeable as possible. I didn’t like how my hair and my head looked, so I covered it with a hat. I didn’t like the shape of my body, so I curtained it with a hoodie.

Now in my 40s, I still prefer the relative anonymity that this basic uniform affords me. No longer quite as cowed by heartless teens (though, sadly, not immune to their eternal derision), this basic setup gives space for the kind of self-expression I feel comfortable with. Superman’s symbol adorns my hat. I have a veritable library of Avengers and Star Trek T-shirts. The hoodies, they have stayed plain, though I now have one in a rather bold red-rust color. The T-shirt/hoodie/hat combo is neutral enough to allow me to recede into the background while offering a basic canvas for those things that give me some joy. And even with this little extra information that these things broadcast to others, I remain largely physically obscured.

I also wear glasses to correct my vision, but I would probably choose to wear them anyway, as I have foresworn things like contact lenses and laser eye surgery. The frames of my spectacles add one extra half-layer to the overall veil. Take away the hat and hoodie, dress me in a shirt-and-tie, and you still won’t really see my true face, because my glasses will still be there.

And like the hoodie and the hat and the rest of it, the glasses help define the character. They are part of the mask I wear when I play the part of me to the rest of the world.

Speaking of masks, in the pandemic era we now have the growing normalization of the face mask. They’re an inconvenience, to be sure. They must not be touched once applied, and they must vigilantly be kept clean. They can make it slightly more difficult to breathe, and I assume they will be much more uncomfortable as the weather gets warmer. And of course, they fog up my glasses, and I have yet to master whatever arcane spells or incantations that prevent that from happening.

And yet, I still find myself — weirdly? perversely? — looking forward to donning one. I didn’t understand why, at first. But then I figured it out.

The face mask gives me one more layer of blessed obscurity. It prevents any scrutiny of my nose, mouth, or chin. They can’t see my crooked teeth, my overgrown stubble, my cheeks sagging with age. They can’t see me react to anything with a smile, smirk, or frown. All they can see are my eyes, which are already altered by glasses, and my ears.

And yes, when the temperature allows, I try to wear over-ear headphones, even when I have nothing playing in them.

Also, like T-shirts and hats, the mask offers a little space for a small bit of expression, should I choose to use it. My current mask was made lovingly by my auntie out of the same fabric she used to make my son’s first baby blanket. I love it.

The fact that face masks are also now part of a supremely stupid culture war, and for some serve as a kind of signal of political allegiance, is deeply disappointing to me. Beyond the obvious fact that the right-wing opposition to face masks and what they represent is astronomically asinine, selfish, portending of greater suffering, I’m irritated that their symbolism within this culture war means that they are no longer neutral.

I can feel it when I go on one of my rare jaunts to the supermarket. Those not wearing masks are clearly disdainful of those who are, and, at least as far as I’m concerned, the feeling is mutual.

The face mask is there, primarily, to protect others from me, in case I happen to be carrying the virus and don’t know it. Any protection it affords me is, as I understand it, minimal.

But I also valued the fact that while it helped stop me from unwittingly spreading any pathogens, it also stopped me from unwittingly telling anyone anything about who I am. It gave me one more step back from the eyes of the world. Now, the mask is like a flare, telling everyone in view that I am on one particular side of a conflict. And good lord do I hate that.

I very much hope our need for masks goes away as soon as possible. I also kind of wish that when the virus is gone, that the masks could stay. We are already so exposed. I’d prefer that my true face be something to be revealed only for a time, place, and person of my choosing.