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 it’s 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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Image by ElenaTurtle (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Impact Without Agency: On the Peculiar Character of 2016

The skeptic in me – the one whose rationality was inspired by Carl Sagan, the one that must force himself to be politic when talk of God, psychic abililities, or superstitions come up, the one whose actual job is to be the voice of an entire skeptics’ organization – knows, for certain, that there is no curse attached to the calendar year 2016. There is nothing special about this particular trip around the Sun for our planet, nor is there any negative “energy” or force particular to this year that makes it any more or less eventful or tragic. 2016 has no magic power for killing celebrities.

I know that tens of thousands of people die every day. (And as my podcast co-host Brian Hogg is wont to remind us, the real tragedy there is that we never know that any of them ever existed.) And celebrities also die. That they seem to be dropping at a higher rate this year is attributable to any number of banal things.

Terrible national and global events happen in every year. Is it’s not political upheaval in one country its a natural disaster in another. Usually it’s both. 2016 may seem more tumultuous simply because this time it’s happening to us in the United States, you know, the Only Country That Really Matters™.

And of course, we all lead lives of varying degrees of drama, triumph, and misery. We all go through major life changes, endure challenges, learn new things about ourselves, and all the while the people we love do too. In some years more, in some years less.

And yet.

I had been thinking about writing about this subject – the “cursed” 2016, the Year of the Dumpster Fire – for some time, but I kept holding off, guessing that something might yet still happen, some big kick in the face, punch in the gut, or other metaphorical impact with a body part. I or a family member might find our lives upended, another beloved public figure might unexpectedly drop dead, another world event might Change Everything once again.

Of course, “2016” didn’t kill Carrie Fisher. Or George Michael. Or Prince or Bowie or Rickman. 2016 didn’t elect Donald Trump, or push the North Carolina state government to reject democracy. 2016 didn’t set loose the horrors of Syria or the attacks in Berlin, Nice, Orlando, or anywhere else. I know this.

But I also think it’s okay to recognize that these things did all happen during this year. Arbitrary and invented as it may be, the calendar is how we human beings conceptualize the passage of time and how we understand our history. So whether or not there is any preexisting or preordained “meaning” to the gathering of events between one January and another, we can’t help but experience it as a whole, of a piece. 2016, whether it’s logical or not, has a particular character to it.

For me, the year has been truly extraordinary, with highs, lows, and major discoveries that I’m just beginning to comprehend. Just off the top of my head: I found out that I’m autistic and my brother was diagnosed with fucking eye cancer (and then dozens of people pitched in to help him pay for medical expenses).

(I also went through far fewer phones than last year, only two tablets, and one pair of headphones. Take that, 2015!)

And while 2016 isn’t cursed, events do cascade to initiate other events. For example, it now seems clear that the madness of the GOP presidential primaries, both horrifying and hilarious at the time, could not be contained within the strict confines of a singular political party’s zealots. The fire raged into the general electorate, and Donald Trump wound up being elected by technicality. It didn’t happen “because it’s 2016,” but it did happen in 2016 because events that also happened to take place in temporal proximity set its eventuality in motion.

There are still four days left in 2016 as I write this. I can’t help but feel genuine anxiety about what yet may come during that time. And if some new earth shattering event occurs on January 1, 2017, it simply won’t feel like it’s part of the same whole. It will be its own era, a new volume to the chronicles. But it will also be irrevocably knocked askew by the events of 2016.

Not because a vaguely-sentient 2016 made them happen. But because they did happen in 2016. And it’s okay to take that in, to feel it in your chest. You don’t have to ascribe agency to the year to acknowledge its impact. It’s okay to think of that particular arrangement of four numerals, then pause for a moment, and feel a sense of dreadful awe.


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On Trump and Dying

Postulated model for the series of emotions experienced by electorally defeated voters to the imminent inauguration of Donald Trump.

Stage 1

Something must have gone wrong with the voting process. Recounts of close states will reveal that the vote had been tampered with by the Republicans. Or the Russians. Or both. There’s no way America is home to so many racists and fools. It’s just not conceivable. Something is up.

Stage 2

GOD DAMN THOSE RACIST MOTHERFUCKERS. This is all those idiots’ fault! And James Comey and the FBI, those BASTARDS had it in for Hillary from the beginning! But of course that wouldn’t have mattered if it weren’t for those lazy, entitled millennials who COULDN’T BE BOTHERED TO TURN OUT even though the stakes were so high. That’s goddamn BERNIE’S fault! And why the hell did the Clinton campaign ignore Wisconsin and Michigan? ARE THEY COMPLETE IDIOTS?

And WHY is NO ONE just SCREAMING IN THE STREETS about RUSSIA???

Fuck everybody!

Stage 3

Listen, electors. C’mere. Listen. Guys. And ladies. I know you’re not going to let this happen. Come on. Seriously. Let’s talk. Russia messed with us. Trump’s going to ruin everything. You know it, I know it, and you know what? We can do something about that, right now. You all can be goddamned heroes. You Trump electors have to vote for Clinton. After all, she won the popular vote by a huge margin! Almost 3 million votes! Democracy! You should switch sides and vote for Clinton.

Okay, fine, then we should all pick a consensus Republican that we can all feel good about. Let’s talk President Romney. President Kasich. Clinton electors, you can get down with that, right? Better than the alternative, right? Right? You know I’m right.

Fine fine fine. Okay. Listen. We just need enough of you Trump electors to vote for anyone else. Literally anyone else. Okay? Then we’ll throw the election to the House, and then we’ll talk to them. Maybe we can get President Pence. One of you electors, vote for Pence, okay?

Guys?

Stage 4

It’s over. America. It’s over. And it’s our fault. All of us. I could have done more. I could have donated more, I could have knocked on doors. But I didn’t. Neither did you. We’re terrible. We deserve this. America. We stare at our TVs and our phones, we fall for fake news and obvious bullshit, we eat it up. We’re an empire in rapid decline, and we brought it all on ourselves. With our consumerism and our coastal hubris. There’s nothing to be done. Everything is going to fall apart. Why bother even giving a shit? I don’t care anymore.

Stage 5

This is going to be exactly as bad as we think it is. And we have to get through it. Somehow. 

Get ready.


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The Electors’ Moral Duty

I am entirely opposed to the Electoral College as a means of choosing the President of the United States. I proudly worked for an organization that had repeal of the Electoral College, replacing it with a national popular vote, as one of its three or four prime reasons for existing.

But that’s what we’ve got right now. While I’m horrified that it has allowed Donald Trump to become the president-elect, I don’t believe that his election is “unfair” just because Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won the popular vote. Both campaigns ran to win the Electoral College vote, not the popular vote, and Trump succeeded. That’s the game both of them were playing. If it had been a popular vote contest, they absolutely would have run entirely different campaigns, and it’s impossible to say for sure what that outcome would have been (though we can guess). Hillary knows it. Al Gore knew it. Them’s the breaks.

As the electors themselves are about to vote, there is a lot of noise about whether some of them will “defect,” as it were, and that some of those who are pledged to Donald Trump will vote for someone else, or not at all. There are talks of secret discussions, compromise candidates, legal challenges, intelligence briefings, and postponements.

I don’t think anything is actually going to happen. Sure, one or two electors may ultimately vote in contradiction to their pledge, but I do not believe we’re going to see anything that changes the result of the election.

But I do support the efforts to do so, and I hope I am wrong that nothing will change.

It’s not a simple matter. Changing the result of the election will have enormous consequences, the likes of which we can’t yet predict. Put aside the legal and constitutional questions, put aside the totally unprecedented confusion over transitions and appointments that will transpire.

Merely imagine for a moment a scenario in which, by one mechanism or another, Trump is denied the presidency in favor of another candidate, be it Clinton or a GOP compromise candidate. I cannot believe that such a reversal would not spark chaos among the populace. I’m talking actual riots and violence from angry Trump supporters, supporters who are not exactly peaceful and friendly in victory, let alone defeat. People will be hurt, some may be killed, the economy will take a rollercoaster ride, and whatever regime does wind up taking power will be debilitated in myriad ways: choked by a thick cloud of illegitimacy, pilloried by hails of lunatic conspiracy theories and vicious opposition from the far right, and who knows what else. It will be awful.

But it will pass, eventually, and even in the worst imaginings, it will be better than a Donald Trump presidency.

I know I am on record months ago as believing that Trump was preferable to, say, a Cruz or Rubio presidency, but I of course have been thoroughly disabused of this, and I would gladly welcome a President Ted Cruz over what we’re about to endure. More likely, if there was some kind of alteration of the election, we’d be looking at a President Mitt Romney, Mike Pence, or John Kasich. Fine. Great. Welcome to the Oval Office. Nice to have you.

Why is this better than just coping with the status quo and dealing with whatever comes of a Trump administration? Here are some things a Trump presidency will, with near certainty, mean. They require almost no speculation, just common sense:

  • Climate change will accelerate beyond the point that humans could do anything to mitigate
  • The Supreme Court will lurch far to the right, perhaps for generations
  • Putin’s Russia will become far more powerful and audacious
  • Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other badly needed social programs will be gutted or destroyed entirely
  • The Affordable Care Act will be mutilated or repealed, and millions of Americans will lose their insurance
  • American police will become even more militarized, and incarcerations will go way up
  • Public education will lose funding in favor of private and religious schools
  • The EPA and the FDA will be neutered, if not abolished altogether, or else turned into marketing tools for the industries they are supposed to regulate, putting millions of lives in danger
  • The poorest Americans will become poorer
  • Minority groups will have their voting rights strangled to the point of de facto disenfranchisement
  • The press will be stifled and under constant threat of retaliation from the government
  • Nazis, white supremacists, men’s rights advocates, and other blights on humanity will complete their exit from the shadows and become normal parts of American public life and politics

I could go on.

The members of the Electoral College, I feel, have a moral duty to stop this.

I think it’s worth the short-term risk of chaos and the loss of confidence in the Electoral College system. It’s worth these citizens violating their vows to vote as directed by their states. The electors are human beings, Americans who have to live in this country, and on this planet, too. But they are also Americans who by dint of circumstance have the power to save us, and one chance to do it.

They won’t. I’m nearly sure of it. But I really hope they do.

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P.S.; Here’s an interview Lawrence Lessig just did with the Washington Post, discussing his initiative to confidentially assist any electors who are considering taking action like this.

 

What We Told Our Kids Today

Our two children, our 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, were very enthusiastic about this election. From the beginning, they’ve shown an enormous amount of genuine curiosity about it, and became quite emotionally invested. Of course, that’s because their parents were too.

We certainly knew that a Hillary Clinton presidency was not a foregone conclusion, and that it would not take some sort of upheaval or miracle for Donald Trump to defy expectations, but like most of the human species, it appeared so unlikely as not to warrant too much worry. So that’s what we shared with our kids. Optimism about the outcome, always grounded in the very real possibility that we were wrong.

They were excited that a woman might be president. We read them biographical children’s books to them about Hillary Clinton, and they truly admire her, as my wife and I do. They were comically hostile to Trump, with my son devising elaborate offensive machines that would batter Trump with multiple frying pans should he ever come to the door seeking our votes. My daughter was more concise, promising to “smack him in da FACE.” I discouraged the more overtly violent fantasies, but it was all in fun. (When I informed my son that Clinton had “kicked Trump’s butt” in the debates, he paused and clarified, “Metaphorically.” Yes, son, metaphorically.)

Among our many agonies on election night, my wife Jessica and I were sick over how to tell the kids what had happened in the morning. Jess was very worried, afraid that our son, who is at a very emotional phase, would panic. If the grownups were in tears, our sensitive kids would be too.

This morning, I snuggled up to my son in his bed, cuddled him close. Thumb in mouth, he rested his half-sleeping head on my chest. I rubbed the close-cut hair on his head, and wished I could lay there with him for hours.

Jessica came into the room, and as our son became more awake, she calmly broke the news in a gentle, measured, loving voice. “Donald Trump won the election.”

Over the course of the morning, here’s the gist of what we told our daughter and son.

We’re all okay.

There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump is bad news. We absolutely don’t think he should be president. Maybe more importantly, we know that Hillary Clinton would have been an amazing president. We’re pretty sad, and a lot of people are going to be feeling very bad about this for a while.

Donald Trump is a man we disagree with on almost everything, but we in this family are going to be just fine. We won’t at all like a lot of what he does or tries to do, but he’s not going to “come and get us.”

Here’s what we can do now. For all the things we don’t like about the man who will soon be president, we can choose to be better. We can be kinder to the people in our lives, and help the people who need it. We can love each other and always be looking for ways to make our home and our community a better, happier place. It’s actually the most powerful thing we can do.

Remember that not everyone agrees with us. [Note: My son’s first grade class voted unanimously for Clinton in their mock election, but Trump eked out a victory in my daughter’s pre-K class.] When you go to school and when you’re around other people, remember that some of them are happy about this election, and others are very upset. Don’t be mean to the people who voted for Trump, and be gentle with those who didn’t. The idea is to put more love and kindness into the world, not less.

There are many people out there in the country and in the rest of the world who will have a much harder time with Trump as president than we will. We are very lucky in that we will be okay, and our lives will be just about the same. Others will have new troubles, and we need to help them however we can.

That’s more or less what we told them.

For our daughter, we were very clear and optimistic and passionate on one particular point: You can be anything you want to be. You can be president. You can accomplish whatever you set out to do. I think we told her this for our own sake as much as hers. I had brought her into the voting booth with me on Election Day, so she could be there when I voted for who we thought would be the first women President of the United States. Though she didn’t feel this way, I felt that more than anyone else we had let my daughter down.

After we first told our son what happened, as I held him to me in his bed and could not see the first reaction on his face, I worried how the news was hitting him. He lifted his head up, got to a sitting position, and my 6-year-old boy spoke.

“Can I write a letter to Hillary Clinton?”

He wants to write to her to tell her how sorry he is that she lost, that he knows she worked so very hard, and that he doesn’t want her to be upset.

That was his first reaction to the news.

If Jessica and I have succeeded in anything in our lives, it is in that we have brought into the world two human beings with good, loving hearts. They are kind, they are compassionate, they are empathetic. I am so deeply proud of them.

We proceeded through our usual Wednesday morning routine, and though heavy with the weight of what has happened and what is to come, we still had silliness and hugs and jokes as well as the mundane frustrations of getting out the door in the morning. My kids made me laugh, they got on my nerves, my son forgot his backpack so that we had to go back home to get it, and my daughter agreed to become president one day, before going to pet the preschool class’s bunny.

This is not a trivial thing. My family and I, along with tens of millions of human beings, have been let down by a huge portion of our fellow citizens. We were betrayed by legions of cynical opportunists, self-righteous purists, the blamelessly uninformed, the willfully ignorant, and the overtly malicious. Not only has a fascistic clown been elected president, but we’ve been denied the leadership of perhaps the most qualified, competent, and skilled president our country could have ever had. There is darkness coming.

But there is also light. My sensitive, curious, imaginative boy and my brilliant, brave, creative girl. They are luminous.

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This Fucking Guy: How Our Shitty Electoral System Let a Monster Run Maine

1024px-LepageumaineEven in the Age of Trump, one political figure stands out above all others as the lowest of the low, the king of the boors, the bastard of disaster, Paul LePage, second-term governor of the great state of Maine, my home.

In just the last 72 hours, he has left a threatening voicemail with a state legislator, promising to “come after you” and calling him a “cocksucker.” He also demanded the legislator “prove I’m a racist,” which LePage quickly did all by himself:

When you go to war, if you know the enemy, the enemy dresses in red and you dress in blue, you shoot at red, don’t you? You shoot at the enemy. You try to identify the enemy. And the enemy right now, the overwhelming majority right now coming in are people of color or people of Hispanic origin. I can’t help that. I just can’t help it. Those are the facts.

These are just the latest two examples of what kind of an abysmal pit of a human being he is.

Believe me when I tell you that Maine is a good state. The people are by and large good-hearted, decent, and tolerant. There is a generosity of spirit within the state’s culture that I’ve not seen the likes of in any other place I’ve lived. Now, of course, Maine is populated by humans, and that means a large number of them will be assholes, ignoramuses, vultures, bullies, cowards, and gross opportunists. Such is homo sapiens in all its wonder.

But Paul LePage does not represent the Maine I know. His governorship is not a true reflection of the politics, nor even the simplest notions of decency, of Mainers as a whole. And yet somehow he has been elected the state’s leader, twice. How could this be?

You might already know that in both of LePage’s gubernatorial races, he faced not one but two opponents: A Democratic nominee, and an independent, Eliot Cutler. Now, Maine has a history of being open to independent candidacies that sets it apart from other states. Sen. Angus King is one such independent, and was previously a very popular governor. It is rational for other potentially-strong independent candidates to think they have a realistic shot at being elected over the major party candidates.

You know how this ends, of course. In 2010 the vote was more or less split three ways, with LePage eking out a plurality victory with almost 38%, and the independent Cutler coming in second with 36%, and the Democrat Libby Mitchell lagging with about 19%. Fast forward to 2014 and the unthinkable was thunk all over again, but this time Cutler faltered, earning only a little over 8% of the vote, but enough to deny a victory to the Democrat, Rep. Mike Michaud, who lost with 43% to LePage’s 48%.

I say that Cutler denied a victory to Michaud because there was very little overlap in those who favored both Cutler and LePage. Had Cutler not run, Michaud would have won. In 2010, had the Democrats realized they were out of luck that year, they could have rallied behind Cutler, and kept LePage from ever having gotten near the governorship, with a guaranteed blowout victory.

So is it all Cutler’s fault? Is it Libby Mitchell’s for not facing reality in 2010? In the narrow view, yes. For the good of the state they sought to lead, they should both have examined their consciences and done what needed to be done to stop LePage from becoming governor.

But in the broad view, the fault lies not with the candidates, who rationally believe they have a shot to win and a right to run, but with the electoral system itself. Hate the game, not the player.

I’m talking of course about the first-past-the-post system used for almost every office in American politics, where the person who simply gets the most votes – not the candidate who gets a majority of votes, and that’s important – wins. Pluralities, not majorities, decide who takes power. And pluralities have a funny way of being very small and very unrepresentative of electorates as a whole.

Let’s pretend that Maine instead used a voting method that allowed voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. If voters get to indicate their second and third (and so on) choices on their ballots, non-viable candidates can be eliminated and a real consensus can emerge.

You might have heard of Ranked Choice Voting or Instant Runoff Voting (insider secret: they’re the same thing!), particularly during the 2000 election when Ralph Nader began to whittle away at Al Gore’s support. It’s actually wicked simple.

To be brief, you look at your ballot, and you mark your favorite candidate with a 1, your second-favorite with a 2, and so on. In 2010, a Mitchell voter would likely have indicated Cutler as their second choice (not all of them, of course). So when the ballots were counted and showed that Mitchell had come in third place for first-choice votes, she’d have been eliminated, and those ballots would then be allocated to Mitchell voters’ second choices. Most of those would have been for Cutler, and Cutler would have gone over the 50% mark, winning with an actual majority instead of a mere plurality.

If you have a gut reaction to this along the lines of “well that doesn’t seem fair,” let me put it this way: Is it fair that the person taking office is someone wholly rejected and disliked by two-thirds of the electorate? By counting the second-choice votes of non-viable candidates, the electorate gets the candidate who was the true consensus choice of the majority. Mitchell voters, otherwise relegated to electoral irrelevance, can now say, “If I can’t have Mitchell, I’ll take Cutler,” and actually be heard. They still count.

Now repeat this for 2014. Chances are most Cutler voters (doomed to see their candidate get crushed) would have preferred Michaud over LePage. Eliminate Cutler in the first “round,” reallocate his supporters’ second-choice votes, and you probably have Michaud eking out a majority.

Or maybe you don’t! Maybe I’m wrong about who Cutler voters would have preferred and you still get a LePage win, but at least that would reflect the actual will of the electorate. As you can imagine, though, I find that implausible, and despite LePage’s strong 48% showing in 2014, a sizable enough portion of Cutler’s slice of the electorate would have pushed Michaud over the 50% mark, needing only an additional 6 and a half percent or so.

If Florida had used such a system in 2000, it’s inconceivable that Gore would not have won the state, being the overwhelming second-choice of Nader voters, and saving us from eight years of horror. And more to the point, it would have been the fair thing to do, representing the actual majority consensus of Florida’s voters. You know, “the people.”

(Now imagine if the current presidential election were closer than it is, and it really looked like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein might tilt the race from Clinton to Trump, when you know for certain that Trump doesn’t have the support of the majority of Americans. Yeah, think about that. Think hard about it, then get a drink.)

This is so obvious to me, that it pains me that the push to get ranked choice systems in place, even experimentally, is such an uphill slog. I was in the slog, having worked for FairVote back in the aughts, which is the country’s main advocate for these kinds of reform. There is a real movement to get this adopted in Maine statewide, as it has already been working successfully in the mayoral elections for Portland, Maine since 2011.

So let me wind this down by narrowing the focus back to the Goblin King of New England. Maine is not a state of grotesque monsters, and yet because of our first-past-the-post voting system, we have one for governor, and he’s one that threatens people who get under his skin and talks about shooting down black and Hispanic people. And that’s just what he says out loud. His policies (and just as important, the policies he blocks) are as dark and soulless as his words and his heart.

That’s not Maine. That’s not us. I wish we had a voting system that allowed us to say so.

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