Nothing to be done

The part of all of this that most fills me with despair is the fact that those with the power to do something simply won’t.

My experience of Twitter right now is one of being told over and over to be outraged about every offense committed by the president, Republicans, right-wing media, or their followers. And I am! Good lord, I am. Trump constantly lies, promotes self-serving misinformation, and foments civil war. His allies and defenders fall in line. The parade of fanatical ignoramuses react, predictably, with garish displays of jingoist hate. Their cells become food for viruses.

And so the Important People on social media do their duty and Point it Out.

Fine. What I’m not seeing, and what I desperately need, is for someone to do more than Point it Out, but to offer a solution. The dead horse I continue to beat comes in the form of quote-retweets in which I ask, “So what do we do?”

Trump encourages insurrection: “So what do we do?”

Trump refuses to give aid to states who don’t kiss his ass: “So what do we do?”

Trump ignored warnings about the pandemic, and now pretends he was always on top of it: “So what do we do?”

Maybe, in a previous era, reporting on the wrongdoings of a president or other public official would at least get the ball rolling on getting that leader to change course or be held accountable. But, surely, now it must be obvious that this is no longer the case! Everything we all got used to, the idea of “scandals,” exposés of corruption, and various career-ending “-gates,” none of it matters anymore. We can Point Out and Be Outraged over every appalling example of nogoodniks nogoodnicking until we run out of tears and our fingers can no longer tap out our replies and retweets, and none of it will change a thing.

Those who believe what the president says will believe him until their dying breath, even if it’s a breath gasped without the help of the ventilator they needed but couldn’t get because of the president they loved. If reporting, explaining, and shaming had any impact whatsoever, Trump would already be out of office, Pence would be under investigation, and far, far fewer people would be sick or dead.

So, I’m asking, what do we do?

The Senate could have done something. We know how that worked out.

Pence could do something. He and other members of the cabinet could agree among themselves that the president is a danger to the country, invoke the 25th Amendment, and remove him from power, even if only temporarily. But of course, they won’t.

Is there something more the news media could do? I honestly don’t know. Again, merely reporting the many crimes of the moment isn’t enough. Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper can fume into the camera over the president’s lies and the exponentially rising body count, but everyone who is watching already agrees that this is all an outrage.

Can voters do something? If they can, they have to wait until November, and then you have to assume that they will be able or allowed to vote. And because of how the Electoral College rigs the system in favor of the Candidate of the Fanatical Ignoramuses, it may not matter anyway.

Could well-intentioned billionaires and business titans do something? I don’t know! Governors? Celebrities? Anyone?

It’s hard for me to psychologically accept the idea that there’s nothing to be done, that we’re just hostage to the madness of an idiot cult leader, and that’s that.

I suppose what it comes down to, short of something even more destabilizing or dangerous, is that enough people will have to demand change in any way they can. But by “enough,” I don’t mean an motivated plurality or even 50 percent-plus-one. Overwhelming numbers of Americans will have tell those in power to fix this shit, but do it through some means that doesn’t require them to “take the the streets” like the Fanatical Ignoramuses protesting stay-at-home rules.

But there isn’t enough of us. This won’t happen.

So what do we do?

Oh Crap We’re Living in “Final Crisis”

Here’s a panel from the big DC Comics event, Final Crisis, in which a fictional President of the United States laments his state of affairs. You see, a god-like alien, Darkseid, has begun reprogramming the minds of the Earth’s population, causing them to submit to utter subjugation.

In this scene, a man with the president (for some reason wearing a fedora in the 2000s), warns that Darkseid’s forces, brainwashed humans and superheroes called “justifiers,” are about to wipe them out.

The haggard president, dejectedly clutching a gun, says, “This can’t be happening. The scale of it. The speed of it. Not in my lifetime…not like this…”

Well, of course it happened quickly! It’s a superhero comic book crossover event with an antagonist whose home planet is literally called Apokolips! Darkseid doesn’t do gradual.

But there was something about this particular comic book armageddon scenario that struck a chord with me. Cosmic-level supervillains usually achieve their aims through overwhelming destruction and death. Palpatine will rule the galaxy with the might of his fleet and the power of the Dark Side of the Force. We will all become children of Thanos once he murders half of all life forms. Etcetera.

With Darkseid, however, while there’s plenty of death and destruction, his plan for intergalactic domination was to turn humanity into a hyper-materialist cult.

What?

Okay, here’s a quick summary of this particular branch of the rather dizzying plot of Final Crisis: An evil prophet-type character, Libra, recruits supervillains to help him infect people’s minds with the “Anti-Life Equation,” a sort of “proof” that leads the person exposed to the equation to reject all the values they once held dear, and choose to serve Darkseid. But not just “serve” in the sense of bowing down before his greatness or what have you, but becoming willing cogs in a sort of empty-headed, ultra-fascist state.

(Here’s where I must point out that I provided the voice for Libra and a couple other characters in the audiobook version of Final Crisis. Cool, right?)

We get a taste of what’s coming when, in a very strange part of the story, Superman deals with various alternate-universe Supermans for reasons that are frankly too esoteric to explain here. (I find these Crisis-themed series very confusing.) One such is Ultraman, and he’s not a truth-and-justice kind of guy.

“We value material wealth above everything,” he says through gritted teeth to the nicer Superfellows. His declaration is a kind of foreshadow for what Darkseid is bringing to Earth. Here’s a taste of what life under Darkseid looks like:

“Increase production!” shouts a justifier to the brainwashed drones that had once been everyday folks. And then shit gets real.

“Work! Consume! Die!” he shouts. Whoa, I’m thinking. Darkseid is creating a consumerist dystopia! Which sounds pretty close to the world as it is anyway!

And then the kicker. The justifier shouts, “Judge others! Condemn the different! Exploit the weak!”

It’s here I’m thinking, okay, Darkseid just built a Republican dream world. It’s Trumpism from space.

Don’t think so? Look how a justifier reacts to finding a copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:

“What disagrees with Darkseid is heresy.” The book is burned, and echoing what other justifiers have said at the commission of horrifying acts, “Anti-Life justifies my ignorance!”

Take away the space-gods, and the attitude is exactly what is demanded by the cult of Trumpism. The facts are only what the cult leader says they are. They can change moment to moment, at his whim. Nothing he does can be bad, because it’s done by him. Any crimes committed by others are justified if they are done in his name.

This is the position of the United States’ ruling faction right now. And like the fictional comic book president observed, it happened so quickly.

Attempting to rescue some folks from the devastation, and from becoming Anti-Life zombies, the hero Black Lightning says, “Darkseid is remaking the world in his image, using our technology, our people as building blocks.”

For about a generation, the advent of the internet and social media were seen as means to enlightenment. And then the bad guys figured out how to use that technology to bring out our worst selves, minute after minute. Now countless “dimensions” and “alternate realities” are mainlined to us by Facebook through our individually-optimized Anti-Life Equation Feed, and the resulting state of chaos and confusion is the perfect breeding ground for the lies, the ignorance, the disenfranchisement, the demonization, and the many other forms of supervillainy we are witnessing right now.

Trump and his cult are remaking the world in their image. Like Black Lightning says, “This won’t be over until each and every one of us chooses to resist.” That’s true for us, too. But Superman’s not coming.

The Unexpected Plausibility of Mike Bloomberg

“I am getting really sick of all these Bloomberg ads!”

This was spoken by my 10-year-old son who watches shows on Hulu with his mom and has therefore been exposed, repeatedly, to ads for the presidential campaign of Mike Bloomberg.

When Bloomberg formally entered the race for the Democratic nomination last year, I railed to the heavens (you couldn’t hear me, but trust me, I railed), “WHY?” I don’t have any major objections to Bloomberg as a candidate or potential president, though he’s certainly not one of my top choices. But I simply couldn’t understand what he thought his path to the nomination could possibly be.

I know what the pundits have said, and what the line of the campaign is: Bloomberg can afford (both in terms of money and political capital) to skip the early states, use his wealth to blanket the later states with ads, and eventually squeeze past a muddled field of candidates currently lacking an overwhelming frontrunner, with the promise that his business acumen and aura of competence would seal the deal.

But, you know. Come on.

While technically possible, there is nothing plausible about Bloomberg’s prospects. Polls showed for months that the Democratic electorate was plenty satisfied with its existing options, and that the top four or five candidates regularly bested Trump in head-to-head general election polls, particularly Joe Biden — who Bloomberg would have to totally neutralize to even have a shot at the nomination.

How many times have we seen a late entrance into a presidential primary contest go on to win a party nomination? As we learned from would-be party saviors Wesley Clark, Rick Perry, and Fred Thompson (and eventually Deval Patrick), pretty much never. The fashionably late just don’t get to be president.

But let’s say none of this is the case. Let’s sat a latecomer could in fact ride in and shake everything up and that the Democrats are utterly despondent over their choices. Even then, in what universe does this imply that what progressives really want is the stop-and-frisk, former-Republican, Bush-endorsing, women-belittling, 80-pushing one-tenth-of-one-percenter? Perhaps there was some alternate dimension in which this made sense before the Crisis on Infinite Earths, but not on this Prime Material Plane.

Mike Bloomberg knows all of this. So my only explanations for his decision to run anyway are, one, that he is surrounded by advisors and consultants on his payroll who have a vested interest in convincing him that he will be president, and two, perhaps most importantly, he just really, really wants to be president, and at age 77, this is his last chance.

In recent weeks I’ve finally started to see some of those Bloomberg ads myself, either on social media or, yes, on Hulu. They’re really quite good. They’re not blockbuster, knock-your-socks-off, windsurfing-swiftboat ads that blow up the race, but they’re good. Perhaps the most effective thing about them is how reassuring they are. In general, his ads lightly contrast Bloomberg with a reckless Trump by highlighting Bloomberg’s competence and, well, normalness. They send a message that’s similar to Biden’s, in that they tell you that the country would be back in sane hands under this candidate, only Bloomberg’s ads layer on an actual record of governance. Twelve years as mayor of the city at the center of the universe can provide that kind of record.

Biden, for all his decades in public office, has never really been an executive in the way a mayor or a governor would be, and no one would mistake his role as vice president for that of a buck-stopping decision maker. So his ads rely on character; he’s got it, Trump doesn’t. He’s not wrong.

But without saying it, Bloomberg’s ads communicate that same message, that same feeling. Maybe it’s because I have been so skeptical about Bloomberg’s campaign that my reaction is disproportionate to their actual effect, but I have been very surprised to see how invested he appears in the people he’s shown listening to, how convicted he appears in the candidate-with-voters B-roll that are the standard filling for every political ad.

“That’s a good ad,” I find myself saying out loud. Hmm, I find myself thinking, the field of candidates is still pretty muddled. Hmm, I think, Bloomberg is often polling third and fourth nationally.

Nah. I mean, come on.

But then Iowa happened.

Put aside the procedural shitshow of the caucus tabulation debacle. What the Iowa caucuses showed us was that the race is a mess. Nationally, Sanders and Biden are wrestling for a small plurality to claim the top spot, with an undulating rotation of Elizabeth Warren, Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Andrew Yang in the next few slots. Sanders people will always be Sanders people no matter what, but the rest of the field has not been sufficiently winnowed to clarify who Sanders’ prime challengers are. Maybe it’s Joe Biden, maybe it’s eventually Pete Buttigieg, but it’s no clearer today than it was a week ago.

By the looks of the final alignment results, as I type this on February 4, Joe Biden wound up with a pretty bad fourth place showing in Iowa. He was never banking on an Iowa win, but a distant fourth-place finish is pretty damned embarrassing for the erstwhile national frontrunner and former vice president.

Pete Buttigieg’s showing was the breakout of the night, for whether or not he “won,” he certainly wrestled Sanders to a functional tie. But he’s polling in single digits nationally. Unless Iowa has an impact on voters that is even more outsized than usual, I don’t see how he turns a tied-for-first-but-technically-second-place showing into meteoric rise. And I suspect there’s not going to be a lot of bounce to be had out of this particular Iowa caucus.

I don’t really get what’s happening with Elizabeth Warren. It seems like the voters all really like her a lot, but too few of them are willing to cast their lot with her. I think that’s a huge shame and a big loss for all of us.

This is all to say that where I once did not see an opening for Mike Bloomberg, now I think I might. Skipping Iowa certainly seems to have proven to have been a net plus for his campaign, though also missing New Hampshire seems like an unforced error. That’s a whole other week of coverage in which he won’t be part of the conversation about who will be the next president.

But maybe it doesn’t matter, and if so, that’s largely because of his money. (It’s also because of his name recognition, as everyone knows who Mike Bloomberg is, and hardly anyone recognizes Tom Steyer, the other billionaire.) For all the media that Bloomberg won’t earn, he’ll buy, ten-fold. He’s already run a Superbowl ad and is reportedly planning to double his already gargantuan ad spending in the coming weeks. If his polls go up soon, he’ll qualify for the debates after New Hampshire, and I suspect that even after New Hampshire votes, we won’t be much closer to knowing who Bernie Sanders’ real competition is. That’s a good spot for Bloomberg to find himself in.

And here’s what might be the biggest thing. Bloomberg obviously wants to be president badly. Those other late-arrival candidates I mentioned earlier were largely ushered into the race by draft campaigns and twitchy party insiders. They didn’t jump in because of an insatiable desire to become President of the United States. Bloomberg’s got that desire, and one should never underestimate the guy who just wants it more.

It remains the case that Bloomberg’s chances at being the Democratic candidate to take on President Trump are incredibly slim, requiring a near-perfect falling-domino execution to create the circumstances for his ultimate nomination. But for the first time, I can see it.

I personally support Elizabeth Warren. My 7-year-old daughter agrees, and even more strongly, often screaming “WOOOOO ELIZABETH!!!!” when the election comes up in conversation — which it does a lot in my house. My 10-year-old son has found a lot to like about several candidates, and I think he misses Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris. But the other day, as I’m driving him home from a lesson, he started asking me to tell him about Mike Bloomberg.

Those are some good ads.

I’m Convinced There’s No Hope for America. Please Talk Me Out of It.

Here’s what I need to know.

I need to know that all is not lost. I don’t need to be told that all is not lost, I need to be convinced. I need proof. Without that proof, I either have to remain in this unbearable state of stomach-churning anxiety, or I have to accept the end and prepare for what’s truly next to come.

So this post is a request. Or maybe a cry for help.


Let me go back a bit. I left my theatre career in order to get involved in politics, because I believed that the good I could do in that arena would be more tangibly meaningful than whatever effect I could have as an actor on a stage. (I was almost certainly wrong, but that’s for another post.)

When I made that decision, George W. Bush had been re-elected president, and as bleak as that was, I knew that there were enough souls in this country to nudge the ship of state in a more positive, enlightened, and humanitarian direction, if only they could be moved to do so.

While the Democratic Party wasn’t exactly doing wonders for itself during this era, it still had the allegiance of about half the electorate, and they managed that following not with aw-shucks faux-average joes or slick media manipulators, but with statesmen. People like Al Gore and John Kerry may not have been the most charismatic politicians, and lord knows they were prone to screw-ups. A lot of folks even doubted the sincerity of their principles, but I didn’t.

There is always ugliness in politics. There are always egos of unusual size and tenderness, always those whose ambitions for power boggle the average citizen, always undesirables and deplorables, even within the wider orbits of leaders and representatives on unquestioned integrity. It will always be so. This is a given.

I always understood the Republican Party to be premised on a lie, on the claim that it was made up of men (and almost entirely men) who stood for traditions, stability, and safety. The reality was and is of course that it has, as long as I’ve been alive, stood for the perpetual acquisition of power for those who already have it. Some within the party and its ancillary groups and movements truly believed in the values the party pretended to care about, and, as all of us are wont, managed to rationalize every ethically or morally repugnant action taken on the party’s behalf; from senseless wars to pandering to theocrats to stoking xenophobia, racism, and disgust for the already-marginalized to decimating the mechanisms of society on which tens of millions of souls rely.

Just as evil men could launch themselves into the orbits of true-hearted leaders of character, well-meaning people could also find themselves pulled by the gravity of this plutocratic gas giant, and therefore in its thrall.

I have taken this all as given. This darkness, this oligarch-trained leviathan disguised as an American political party, was known.

Yet I believed that if the Truth could be successfully and thoroughly conveyed, if the public could only be persuaded to listen and think for a half a moment longer than our lizard brains are inclined, and if the body politic could be exposed to just the right appeal to our innate empathy and higher notions of ourselves, then we could win. I was never so naive as to think that there could ever be anything like a total victory, one in which our politics reflects the loftiest ideations of what true democratic discourse could and ought to be. But I did believe that there were sufficient numbers of us who, given the right nudge, could look past our lazy, atavistic aversions and foster something approaching a national generosity of spirit.

Lost elections didn’t necessarily mean total defeat, either. If the good guys couldn’t quite make their case on one go around the electoral track, we regroup, rethink, and run the race again.

And when a brilliant, professorial black guy whose name rhymes with “Osama” gets elected president, twice, despite running against a lionized maverick war hero, and later a man who was clearly grown in a pod for the purpose of becoming president, I think it’s understandable that I could come to believe that not only could we win sometimes, but that the tide had finally turned. We were winning.


During the Obama years, despite the pride I took in knowing that a truly good man was president, it was impossible to ignore the boiling magma of fear and hate that began cracking the surface of the public sphere and spewing jets of scalding rage and idiocy, disfiguring all who wandered too closely. So too, it was impossible to ignore the depths of cynicism, callousness, hypocrisy, and mendacity that Republican leaders and cultists were willing to employ for even the tiniest gains, at the national, state, and local levels.

I knew it was there, and it made me sick, physically ill. And yet I still couldn’t allow myself to believe that it was indicative of more than a disgruntled ruling class and a baffled, aging demographic lashing out like a cornered animal. If nothing else, it would only be a couple of decades before these increasingly anarchic tribes of aggrieved aristocrats, and the ignorant mobs to whom they distributed pitchforks, would simply die off.

Now it’s 2018. Every branch of government is not only utterly dominated by Republicans, but by the very worst kinds of Republicans. The grotesque horror that is the president is well established, but he is only one part of a triumvirate of depravity.

There may be no one living who encapsulates the word “soulless” better than Mitch McConnell. With truly inhuman coldness, he lies, schemes, and destroys. I find him terrifying.

Paul Ryan is a tool. If Republicans keep hold of the House, Kevin McCarthy will be a stupider tool. Less principled than Ryan, if that’s even possible, and without all those pesky brains to confuse matters. And the House Republicans themselves are not much better than the most conspiracy-crazed Tea Party rally, only wearing suits instead of eagle-emblazoned tank tops.

And there’s the latest tragedy, the courts. Among a Supreme Court conservative majority largely made up of partisan hacks, Brett Kavanaugh has asked America to hold his beer(s) as he proceeds to out-hack them all. He is the Platonic ideal of the aggrieved, old, rich, white guy, a Euclidean avatar of the spoiled, entitled country-clubber, who now feels that he has been wronged by Democrats and, more importantly, American women, who dared to question his right to their bodies. Well, now he gets to show them who’s boss.

Let’s not stop there! In state after state, legislatures and governors conspire to dismantle democracy itself. From the disenfranchisement of minorities and the poor to the revocation of municipalities’ right to local governance, Republicans are torching the fields and salting the soil.

If we’ve learned nothing else from the past decade, it’s that if Republicans can’t win through persuasion, they’ll simply rewrite the rules. They are eternally controlling Boardwalk and Park Place. It’s written right on the inside of the box, that they shall eternally passeth Go, over and over, forever and ever, amen.


Today, those of us in the reality-based community, those of us who aspire to something more meaningful than personal power or status, those of us who feel a whit of empathy for those unlike ourselves, are scared. We are marching, we are rallying, we are donating time, money, and energy. We are sparking vital social movements and unleashing waves of compassion, creativity, and raw determination, the likes of which I cannot recall seeing in my lifetime. We sense the threat, the feeling of permanence to the darkness already snuffing out light after light. It feels like an emergency.

It is an emergency. I do believe that people are waking up to that simple fact. Many millions of people have come to realize that things have not only gone wrong, but horribly, existentially wrong. The republic is in mortal danger, and the blight will not be contained within our borders. It’s soaking into the Earth’s crust. It’s riding the oceans’ currents. It’s attached to the very molecules we breathe.

There’s no more nudging. We’re heading headlong into a new Dark Age, and a minor course correction will not suffice.

And my fear, my despair, is that it’s too late.

I fear that there aren’t enough good souls in the electorate to transfer power from the monsters in the Republican cult.

I fear that even if we do outnumber the bastards, that they have so twisted our electoral mechanisms that even the bluest of waves could not wash them from power.

I fear that Republicans and their allied extra-national agitators have so successfully sowed confusion and mistrust, not only of our institutions, but of reality itself, that there is no path back to a shared understanding of what is and is not so.

I fear that our better angels are simply no match for our worst demons.

I said this post was a request. I admit, it took me a while to get here. But this is it: Someone convince me I’m wrong.

Show me that the anti-democratic voting laws, the boots on the necks of the poor, the dehumanization of women, the tantrums of white men, the open racism, the soulless quislings, the partisan hacks, the bullies who cast themselves as victims, and the dumptrucks of money sloshing through the system do not spell the end of this American project.

We’re stealing children from their parents and putting them into camps. We’re destroying our ability to inhabit the only planet we have. We’re callously incarcerating generations of black and brown men. We’re revoking the ability of millions to vote. We’re robbing women of the right to control when and whether they give birth. We’re kissing the rings of sociopathic and psychopathic dictators and turning our backs on the world’s democracies. These are just a few things I just now thought of. I could go on.

How does this get fixed? Show me the math and illustrate the physics. Point me to those who are in a position to repair the damage to our democracy, and explain to me how they’ll even be given the opportunity to do it. Make me understand how control of a grossly unrepresentative Congress will be wrenched from the iron grip of the evil men who currently wield power.

Persuade me that if the good guys start winning again, that the bad guys will even acknowledge it or allow it. Obviously, nothing is beneath them. The mask of civility has long been discarded, and I don’t believe for a second that they see any means as too savage or too depraved. They have proven this time and again. Ecological catastrophe is fine. Mass poverty is fine. Violence and brutality are fine. Nazis are fine. Sexual assault is fine. What depths are even left to plumb? Let your imagination run wild. They certainly let theirs.

If I’m wrong, if there’s real hope, show me. Make me see how Republicans lose control of Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the federal courts, the state capitols, the school boards, and how power gets into the hands of men and women who aren’t moral monsters. Convince me that the haze of misinformation that burns our eyes and ears is not the new normal, and that Americans can have something approaching a shared understanding of reality.

Point me to the light at the end of the tunnel, and prove to me that the tunnel hasn’t already caved in. Because I can’t see it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

These Horrible Epiphanies

A couple of weeks ago, when the President of the United States went off script and out of his way to defend the white supremacists in Charlottesville and invent fantasy left-wing marauders, I experienced a palpable panic, a panic that surpassed that of election night. Yes, literally almost everything about this presidency has been morally reprehensible and existentially frightening, but the sights and sounds of the president defending the motivations and violent actions of Nazis pushed me over a psychological line I didn’t know existed.

Yes, we always knew that Donald Trump is a racist and a bigot, but I think many of us took it as a kind of casual, passionless, bigotry of ignorance. Few of us who weren’t regularly on the receiving end of his hostility considered that Trump ever actively thought about how much he disliked non-whites or that racial minorities were something to be scorned because of their race. (We don’t presume he actively thinks about anything other than himself.) Many of us assumed, I think, that it was thoughtless. “The criminals” were killing people in Chicago, “the illegals” were committing violent acts and taking jobs, “terrorists” were sneaking into America, “elites” were keeping us from saying “merry Christmas,” the “politically correct” were policing language to the point of censorship, and “real Americans” suffered as a result of it all. The fact that the members of his selected out-groups tended to be black, Latinx, Muslim, Jewish, or LGBTQ, and that the people he claimed to represent were almost entirely white, was (to him) coincidental and beside the point. He was a bigot who didn’t know he was a bigot.

But then he made up the “many sides” excuse for the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. His overdue, scripted condemnation of the Nazis and KKK was lifeless and grudging. He asserted that many of those marching along with the Nazis and Klansmen were “very fine people.” And he didn’t just toss out the thought or quickly muse on the possibility that there might have been a shred of merit to the Nazi violence. He forcefully, gleefully, and repeatedly insisted on it.

So I panicked. I experienced a literal fight-or-flight biological response to this conclusion I could not escape, that the President of the United States was a defender of Nazis. And as Chris Rock pointed out, “If 10 guys think it’s ok to hang with 1 Nazi then they just became 11 Nazis.” The sentence that rotated through my consciousness like a news ticker marquee was, “The president’s a Nazi. The president’s a Nazi.” Over and over again. My heart rate accelerated, and some part of my brain began constructing plans to spirit away my family and hide them from imminent danger. “The president’s a Nazi.” I felt trapped.

While not at peace, I’ve of course come out of my panicked reverie. And as I’ve thought through the events of the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that the panic was in a way unwarranted, but not because I was wrong about the situation, per se. It was unwarranted because Trump’s hostile and shameless racism is nothing new. Not new for Trump, and not new for the society in which we live.

I was helped to a dose of perspective from my Point of Inquiry interview with James Croft. He’s now a leader at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, but I knew him before from his appearances at CFI events and his excellent writing. Not only did I suspect he’d have a helpful secular humanist perspective on current events, but I knew that he’d had first-hand activist experience, having begun his work in St. Louis just weeks before the uprising and military-style crackdown in Ferguson. As a fellow nontheistic, well-meaning, smarty-pants white guy, I hoped he could help me process these horrible epiphanies.

James reminded me that “the system” as it is constituted is not only unfair to racial minorities and other oppressed communities, it’s outright hostile, designed from the ground up for the benefit of one particular group, of which he and I happen to be a part, and to grind down all others. Resentment, blame, and violence against minorities is baked into our society, and even someone with my liberal cred, who considers himself to be among those who “get it,” was blind to far too much of it. It is a problem that is staggering in its proportions and implications, so much so that to downplay it in one’s own mind is almost a form of self care, where denial is the only thing keeping you from, yes, panicking about how bad shit really is.

But then the president defends Nazis, and you can’t deny it anymore. And you – well, I – panic.

It’s not even that simple, of course. Ferguson, though it exemplified the degree to which the white establishment will go to contain, vilify, and terrorize resistant minorities, also amplified the injustice in action, broadcasting it, such that it could not be ignored and could not be denied except by the most cynical. People like me, who know so little about what these communities endure, now knew a little more.

Charlottesville was different. Rather than begin a new conversation about race and injustice through the courageous actions of the oppressed, it made explicit the intention of injustice that the police crackdown on Ferguson only illustrated. It spoke it out loud. It was a defiant declaration of racial hate and resentment, cynically and absurdly couched in the parlance of victimhood.

And those who turned out to march with torches in Charlottesville were just a tiny sample of the legions of (mostly) men across the country whose animosity is actively being stoked by Trump and his cult members. The Charlottesville Nazis were just a single spurt of molten rock, a volcanic warning shot, indicating that just barely below the surface there is an ocean of volatile magma, ready to erupt across vast territory, incinerating the landscape, poisoning the air, and blotting out the Sun.

Trump’s election was one of those eruptions. The cult that has formed around him is the lava flow that won’t cool, and won’t allow anything else to grow.

If we pretend it will all be worked out, that things aren’t really so bad, that America isn’t really so hateful, we simply won’t get through this. It’s about far more than the violation of political norms. We have to recognize that what put Trump in power will still be there after he’s gone (whether by election, forced removal, resignation, or natural causes). In all likelihood, that force will be more dangerous, more established in the mainstream, and certainly more emboldened. They will be part of those beloved political norms.

This is why we should panic. But once the panic has passed, we have to acknowledge how people like me have benefited from the oppression of others, and embrace our moral imperative to reject injustice, to listen, and learn how to be allies. Not just in hashtags and profile pics, but in word and deed.

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Photo by Ted Eytan • CC BY-SA 2.0

Surround Yourself with Books, Save Humanity


Although I certainly have little patience for the fetishization of books as decorative status symbols, I have a deep affection for the physical, dead-tree book as a medium. Unlike an electronic device, to see and hold a single volume is for me to feel the thoughts and ideas it contains seething within its closed pages, like there is a flow of energy that is eager for a conduit through which it can propagate. I love that. And I feel it both before and after having read a meaningful book.

As a consumer of books, however, I also find ebooks almost miraculous in their convenience and utility. In a single device I can have literally thousands of books at the ready, which expands to millions if my device is connected to the Internet. I can infinitely annotate these books, entirely nondestructively. The device even provides its own damn reading light. Books feel great, I adore them, but to dismiss the ebook and particularly ebook readers like the Kindle is absurd.

But in one crucial way, ebooks’ greatest strength also is their greatest weakness. And I mean weakness, not flaw, as I’ll explain.

I’m thinking about this because of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, a book that is all at once easy, enriching, and gut-wrenching to read. Among Snyder’s 20 lessons for avoiding life under some kind of Trumpian Reich are his recommendations that we a) support print journalism and b) read more books. Now, it’s fairly obvious why good journalism needs to be bolstered in times such as these, for it may very well be the last layer of defense we have from a media entirely made up of propaganda. He writes:

The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money.

That’s very clear. But by print journalism, does he merely mean deeply researched, sourced, and fact-checked reporting regardless of medium, or does he also mean that this quality journalism must be, by necessity, literally printed on paper? I’ll return to that in a bit.

Back to books. Right now, my 7-year-old son is enamored with a series of kids’ nature books in which one animal is pitted against another in a “who would win” scenario (like crab vs. lobster or wolverine vs. Tasmanian devil, for example). He’s collected eight or so of these slim little books, and he loves them so much, he’s taken to carrying them – all of them – around with him wherever he can.

“Daddy, I don’t know what it is,” he says, “but these books have just made me, well, love books!”

I’m delighted that he’s so attached to these books, that he has this affection for them. I know that wouldn’t be possible if he only had access to their contents on a tablet. The value of the content is no different, but he can show his enthusiasm in a real, physical way that a digital version wouldn’t allow. The objects, being self-contained with the words and pictures he loves, take on more meaning. And by assigning so much meaning to the objects, he imbues the content itself more meaning too.

What does a kids’ book with a tarantula fighting a scorpion have to do with resistance to tyranny? Let’s see what Snyder has to say about the contrast between books and digital/social media:

The effort [of propagandists] to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.

Snyder cites examples from dystopian literature in which the fascist state bans books and, as in 1984, the consumption of pre-approved electronic media is monitored in real time, and in which the public is constantly fed the state’s distortion and reduction of language, all “to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future.“

What we need to do, what we owe it to ourselves to do, is to actively seek information and perspectives from well outside official channels, to fortify our consciousness from being co-opted and anesthetized, and to expand our understanding of the world beyond the daily feed. Snyder says:

When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

But what if the screen is displaying the same concepts as those books? “Staring at a screen” when one is reading an ebook is a very different practice than staring at it for Facebook-feed-induced dopamine squirts. Even more so if the screen with the ebook is on a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle, which intentionally withholds many of the distractions immediately available on a phone or tablet. Heck, I read Snyder’s book on my Kindle.

You won’t see me arguing that ebooks are inferior to physical books when we’re talking about the usual day-to-day reading of books, hell no. But in the context of this discussion, think about how we get ebooks onto our devices. They exist digitally, of course, and in the vast majority of cases they come from a given corporation’s servers with the ebook files themselves armed with some kind of digital rights management in order to prevent anyone from accessing those files on a competitor’s device. (Not all ebook sales are done this way, but they are very much the exception.) When we buy an ebook, in most cases, we’re not really “buying” it, we’re licensing it to display on a selection of devices approved by the vendor. And so it is with most music and video purchases.

Those ebooks are then transmitted over wires and/or wireless frequencies that are owned by another corporation, access to which we are once again leasing. So even if you are getting DRM-free, public domain ebooks in an open format like ePub that is readable on a wide variety of devices, you probably can’t acquire it unless you use a means of digital transfer that someone else controls.

You see what I’m getting at. Ebooks come with several points of failure, points at which one’s access to them can be cut off for any number of reasons. Remember a few years back when, because of a copyright dispute over the ebook version of 1984 (of all things), Amazon zapped purchased copies of the book from many of its customers’ Kindles. It didn’t just halt new sales, or even just cut off access to the files it had stored on its cloud servers. It went into its customers’ physical devices and deleted the ebooks – again, ebooks they had paid for. Customers had no say in the matter.

This was more or less a benign screwup on Amazon’s part. Presumably it had no authoritarian motives, but it makes plain how astoundingly easy it is for a company to determine the fate of the digital media we pretend we own.

This is about permanence. A physical book, once produced, cannot be remotely zapped out of existence. While some fascist regime could indeed close all the libraries, shut down all the book stores, and even go house to house rounding up books and setting them ablaze, physical books remain corporeal objects that can be held, passed along, hidden, smuggled, and even copied with pen and paper by candlelight. If the bad guys can’t get their actual hands on it, they can’t destroy it. And it can still be read.

But for ebooks, all it would take would be a little bit of acquiescence from the vendor (or the network service provider, or the device manufacturer) and your choice to read what you want could be revoked in an instant. Obviously, the same goes for video, music and other audio, and of course, journalism. The ones and zeroes that our screens and speakers convert to media can be erased, altered, or replaced and we wouldn’t even know it was happening until it was too late.

Physical books, along with print journalism (literal print), come with real limitations and inconveniences that electronic media obviate. But those same limitations also make them more immutable. It fortifies them and the ideas contained within them. Though constrained by their physical properties, they also offer the surest path to an expanded, enriched, and unrestricted consciousness. One that, say, an authoritarian state can’t touch.

Here’s an example of what I mean, once again from Snyder, with my emphasis added:

A brilliant mind like Victor Klemperer, much admired today, is remembered only because he stubbornly kept a hidden diary under Nazi rule. For him it was sustenance: “My diary was my balancing pole, without which I would have fallen down a thousand times.” Václav Havel, the most important thinker among the communist dissidents of the 1970s, dedicated his most important essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” to a philosopher who died shortly after interrogation by the Czechoslovak communist secret police. In communist Czechoslovakia, this pamphlet had to be circulated illegally, in a few copies, as what east Europeans at the time, following the Russian dissidents, called “samizdat.”

If those had been the equivalent of online articles, they’d have been deleted before they ever reached anyone else’s screens.

There’s one additional step to this, one more layer of intellectual “fortification.” It’s about the act of reading as something more than a diversion, more than pleasure. Because if we only read the digital content that’s been algorithmically determined to hold our attention, or even if it’s one of our treasured print books that we read for sheer amusement, we’re still missing something.

Today I happened to see Maria Popova of Brain Pickings share a snippet from a letter written by Franz Kafka to a friend, in which he explains what he thinks reading books is for (emphasis mine):

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

We don’t need books to achieve mere happiness. To expand our intellectual and moral horizons; to give our minds the armor they need to withstand the assaults of misinformation and stupification; to be made wiser, more empathetic, and more creative than we are, we need to read those books that affect us, “like a disaster” or otherwise.

To fully ensure that we have those books, that they can be seen and held and smelled and shared and recited and experienced outside the authority of a state or corporation, they need to be present, corporeal objects. They need to exist in the real world.

So, please, do use that Kindle for all it’s worth; use it to read all the books that wake you up, blow your mind, and change your life.

But also, if you can, surround yourself with books. In a very real way, they might just save us all.

The End of the Innocence, the Wolf at the Door

I don’t want to glorify the recent past, and certainly not the crimes, both legal and moral, of the George W. Bush administration. It is difficult to overstate the damage done by that regime, the horrors of which persist in the form of various gaping, oozing wounds around the globe. Their manipulation, circumvention, and neglect of the various strands of government power were unforgivable.

And yet as we await the inauguration of Donald Trump, there is something halcyon about the years between 2001 and 2008. How could that be? With the Bush years, we saw the cynically power-mad invasion of a bystander nation, the bizarre theocratic and apocalyptic delusions of Christianists, the government sanction of torture and the wriggling out of international agreements against inhumane practices, the pillaging and demolition of the world financial system, the jaw-dropping disinterest in the destruction of New Orleans, the refusal to act on the planetary threat of climate change, and the million little ways that rights were eroded, facts were downplayed, crises were ignored, and nativist paranoias were stoked for political benefit. 

And yet I’d reinstate Bush, Cheney, and the whole crew of bastards all over again if it meant we could avoid a Trump presidency. Why? Rather hyperbolic, don’t you think?

Here is where, perhaps, I am guilty of tinting my spectacles with a rosy hue. Because it seems to me that, most of the time, when norms, laws, or basic moral tenets were violated, it was done within the framework of a system that, even when abused, remained more or less intractable. In order to torture, the lawyers had to twist themselves into knots to legally justify it. When Iraq was invaded for absolutely no reason based in reality, diplomatic boxes were checked and approval was granted by great deliberative bodies. Even the failed schemes of the era were done within this framework: Bush and his allies wanted so badly to privatize Social Security, but even with their near total control of the federal government, could not muster the political force to make it happen. 

They bent some of the beams and they loosened many of the rivets, but the framework held. It held so well that they were able to be defeated electorally, by congressional Democrats in 2006 (though it was to be disturbingly short-lived), and by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. 

But this framework is imaginary, of course. And I don’t just mean that it’s a metaphor. I mean that the system itself is imaginary, a social construction, in the same way that money is. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” and all that. We collectively decide that we’re all going to abide by these rules, live within the framework. We might skirt this rule, bend that one, and others break altogether. We may break rules entirely and may lie about what we’ve done. But in all of those cases, we all acknowledge that the rules are there. The Constitution, the law, and even the unwritten norms of a democratic republic. Crimes, abuses, and neglect all happen within the framework that we all pretend is there.

Donald Trump, I fear, does not acknowledge the framework. He seems to refuse to accept its legitimacy, he makes little pretense of playing along. He may even be intellectually unable to grasp it, and in that way, he is not unlike an embodiment of the state of nature. We humans take very seriously the sovereignty of our homes, and take it for granted that our fences and walls and property lines clearly delineate our inviolable domains, but other species do not. They can’t possibly understand these concepts, and if they could, they’d certainly not take them seriously or feel beholden to them. 

The social construction of our system of government, our framework, is like a home, and Trump is a wolf at the door. The wolf doesn’t know or care that you might “own” the plot of land upon which your house sits. If he can get in, he won’t feel any compunction to respect the integrity of the house, nor the lives of the people inside. 

Warnings about the potentially dire consequences of a Trump presidency are not new, of course. Alarms are sounding all over the place. But even so, I read and hear a great deal of very smart, experienced people saying that Trump and his ascendant marauders will find it rather difficult to enact the kind of sweeping, draconian changes they seek. The public will have to be sold on much of it, they say. Major projects will have to be funded. The vast, sprawling federal bureaucracy will not be so easy to turn on a dime to pursue ends counter to their very reasons for being. The military will outright refuse to execute some of the more horrific orders that Trump has promised to issue.

I am not so confident. Remember back to the Bush administration, where at the very least efforts were made to justify offenses within the structure of the framework. The politicking, the legal gymnastics, the feigned diplomacy, all of it at least acknowledged there was a system to abuse. Even for those who considered the rule of law subservient to the authority of their religion were at least subject to a different framework, the even-more-imaginary dictates of their God.

My fear is that a Trump administration will not respect this imaginary framework. They will act without feeling the need to justify through legal interpretation or moral imperative. They will simply act. The Republican Party has shown itself, conclusively, to be acquiescent to Trump, and they will now control all three branches of federal power. If they choose to reject the framework, there is literally nothing they can’t do. The Democrats in Congress might have an investigation? Ignore it. Accused of breaking the law? We are the law. The public is unhappy? Lie to them. Scare them. Or don’t. What can they do? Vote you out? Elections are as meaningless now as everything else.

I fear that future generations will look back on this time of transition as the end of an innocence, when we humans thought we had built a stable, robust political and social system that existed only in our heads. How naive we were, to think that we could head off utter disaster because some rules we’d written down somewhere would serve as a bulwark against those with voracious appetites for power and wealth. That we could get the wolf to leave our doorstep by pushing a strongly-worded note through the mail slot.

Don’t you know you’re not allowed to eat the people in this house, Mister Wolf? Don’t you know it’s against the rules? Now don’t make me come out there and explain these rules to you. 

Oh, alright, if I must. But you have to promise me you won’t eat me while I’m talking to you.


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