Our poor, tainted political system

I’m not a huge fan of Elizabeth Warren. In fact, I think that just the idea of being a “fan” of hers or not is symptomatic of our deeply disturbed political system at the moment.

I think she’s a perfectly acceptable candidate among the 20-odd choices, and I will vote for her if she ends up the official nominee of the Democratic Party. Until such time I will withhold further support. I want to wait and see how the issues unfold.

However, she already seems to be the choice of the political disruptors. I’m seeing more and more gratuitous mentions of her Native American heritage fiasco (on which, see Snopes.com). It has become a trope, bordering on the magnitude of Clinton’s emails, and just as irrelevant to her qualifications for the job of President.

I said as much in a comment on a Tweet recently, in (I thought) a reasonable tone. I got two or three responses telling me why I was wrong, again, in a more or less reasonable (for Twitter) tone.

Then, all at once, dozens of comments popped up, and I mean all at once. Some of the comments could be construed as in my favor, and others against, almost all much more insulting in tone that the original exchanges. I’m not a big Twitter user. I rarely get a thread going with more than about six or seven comments, and never over about 20, even when I’ve been getting piled on, and even then, they have accumulated gradually, as you’d expect.

Nowhere in all of this fusillade was there a mention of her ideas on policy, her other qualifications, or even a suggestion of an alternative candidate.

This tells me three things:
1. at this point, the opposition considers Warren the most likely to survive the nominating process,
2. they consider her the most dangerous in terms of running against Trump, and
3. the bot network (Russian or homegrown) is up and running already.

As they say, buckle up.

City boy

I grew up in a close society of immigrants, clannish, insular, distrustful of their new country and the people in it, all the while reciting its praises. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. Every adult was allowed to, and did, monitor and even punish every child, though generally they only reported misbehavior to parents. As a teen, my time was strictly regulated, with one curious exception: while any time spent with my American friends was subjected to the minutest scrutiny, when I was with Latvian friends, the gates were flung open and no questions asked. Naturally, I exploited this loophole at every opportunity, drinking at laxly run taverns well before coming of age, and getting into trouble in general, always forgiven, as long as no Americans were involved.

Still, it was stifling. The social strictures, and, above all, the religious impositions, might as well have been physical chains. I longed for something outside these limits. I devoured Kerouac and Baldwin, read Ferlinghetti and Corso as if they were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I spent hours staring out the front door window, imagining a completely different life.

But I lived in the city, and the city was my escape, my safety valve. For 27 cents, I could hop on a bus a half block from my house, and within minutes be in another world, one of libraries, book stores, and coffee shops, and above all, anonymity.

Years later I would find myself living in a sleepy little town, a county seat with a high opinion of itself, and all the insularity of my immigrant community. Right next to it was a company coal town, and the miners and their families provided the underclass that seems so necessary to maintain that peculiar superiority of big fish in small ponds.

The heartland, they called it, but someone had built a university where the favorite hunting grounds used to be. Some of the locals cashed in big as they sold off farmland, and others were bitter in the self-righteous way of those who had missed the big payoff. Either way, it was the beginning of the end for the inbred insularity the town was known for. With the university came a preference for urbanism, and connections to the nearby city, long resisted by the locals, began forming and strengthening.

Nowadays, we’re a suburb, and the older residents pine for bygone days. But there are restaurants, several grocery stores to choose from, coffee shops to sit in, and the feeling that everyone knows your business and disapproves of it has all but disappeared.

People talk about the failure of small-town America, but I see another story, that of the transition from ruralism to urbanism. Lots of small towns have emptied out, to be sure, but many others either joined larger nearby metroplexes or grew into cities in their own right. Along with that inevitably came the cosmopolitanism beloved of the city-bred like me, and despised by the unrecostructed rural. And both, as so often happens, for the same reason: the decline of big-fish smugness.

What it takes to be an artist

Think of the stereotypes. Artists are loners, wild and unruly, enthralled with themselves, beholden to no norms, egoists above all. Whether you approve or not, artists are held to different standards. Think of Picasso, Warhol, Morrison, Joyce. The #MeToo movement has put some cracks in this image, but, I think, without doing any serious damage to the stereotype. Is there a kernel of truth to it?

Maybe. Or better, in part. I think the image of the self-possessed and self-obsessed seer of things the rest of us can’t may be a caricature of a small subset of artists as a whole: those who are successful enough to rise above the mass of humanity and become visible to us. In a word, the famous.

I know a lot of artists — painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, novelists, musicians – who will never be able to quit their day jobs but ply their crafts with as much dedication as anyone. Is it because they’re not as good at it? Some part of it is no doubt that, but who is as good as or better than whom is an elusive quality to pinpoint. I suggest that more of it has to do with precisely those personality traits that make up the stereotype.

Doing art involves rejection and ridicule. A lot of it. A little Googling will turn up dozens of famous writers who collected numerous rejections. As for painters, the term impressionist was first used as a term of ridicule. It’s not hard to find any number of inspirational essays citing these facts and exhorting the artist to stick to it, that perseverance will eventually pay off.

This isn’t one of them. It may payoff, but most likely not much, and that’s not the point. The point is that all the artists you know about had, in addition to the basic skills (and occasional genius) required of their craft, an ability to face up to rejection and ridicule, to keep close an image of themselves as important people with something unique and valuable to contribute to society.

It’s an attribute of character that’s more about success in general than peculiar to art. Think of Steve Jobs, whose self-confidence about knowing more about cancer than cancer researchers actually killed him.

Still, being a little bit wacky doesn’t hurt.

Okay, it hurts, but it’s a gas.

The voice in the wilderness will not be human

Walking through a local supermarket, scanning the shelves and hoping that would help me remember what it was that I went there for in the first place, I suddenly heard a voice.

“How can I help you?”

I looked around.  No one was there.

My first impulse was to look upward, as if God had finally gotten around to answering my childhood prayers; too late, I thought. Hell, I no longer even had a Mr. Potato Man with a broken nose tab. I imagined a voice, “Please hold, your prayer will be answered in the order it was received. You are number 4,897,672 in the queue.”

Nope, that wasn’t it. Probably something over the PA.  Then I heard it again, more clearly this time.

“How can I help you?” It was coming from an odd sort of post on a base, something like one of those Smoker’s Outpost things you see next to the dumpsters behind buildings.

And it was blinking.  Now, I’m not a luddite by any means, but I found this a bit disconcerting, so since I had no idea what it was I was looking for anyway, I moved away a few feet.  The damned thing followed me.  In the end I had to move to an entirely different aisle to get away from it.

There’s a lot in the news these days about immigrants taking our jobs, or if not immigrants, then off-shoring by manufacturers.  Yes, it’s true our jobs are disappearing, but it’s not foreigners who are causing it.  You are more likely to lose your job to a walking Smoker’s Outpost than a Mexican.

Some people say, fine, robots are taking over manufacturing, and more power to them, our economy has long since moved into service as a basis. On which, see above.

Automation isn’t anything new.  Futurists in the mid 20th century used to wax eloquent about how much leisure time we’d have by the 21st. The only thing they missed was that we’d be broke.  We need to find a way to pry some of the wealth from the hands of the owners of the robots.

 

The sanitary hug

I’m sure you’ve seen it; you very likely have done it.  If  you do it habitually (obsessively), you may not be amused by this post.  If so, you’re excused.  Just be back by the next one.

It’s the sanitary hug.  It can barely be called a hug; it’s brief, with as few points of contact as possible, faces and eyes averted.  Minimal exchange of anything, no breath, no eye contact, and certainly no (shudder) skin contact.  I’ve even seen people trying to hug one another while standing as much as three feet apart, so as to minimize even accidental contact below the shoulders.

Predictably, men have made the most of this.  In the first place, such minimalism gives them permission to hug at all, which they gratefully accept as an opportunity to show unexpected tenderness while remaining as manly as possible.  Typically, not content with such an inherently vulnerable gesture, they have improved it by turning it into chest-bumping and back-slapping when done between themselves.

“Look, dammit, my vulnerable side,” they seem to be saying, daring anyone to question it, or anything else.  How did this absurd situation arise in the first place?

It’s classic cognitive dissonance.  Our cultural swing toward openness and empathy has outpaced our lizard brains.

This is bad for men, since for many of us, those are the only brains we have.

How to be a proper fool

But the fool on the hill
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round

To be the best, most complete fool you can be, follow these steps faithfully, in the proper order

  1. Read voraciously, everything you can get your hands on, sacred or profane, it doesn’t matter, just be a sponge.
  2. Apply your best critical thinking skills to separate the wheat from the chaff.
  3. Seek out the most knowledgeable people in every field, make their acquaintance, and don’t be shy about disagreeing with them.
  4. Examine the world’s religions, from the simplest animism to the most convoluted monotheism.  Talk to both believers and infidels, converts and apostates.
  5. Travel as extensively as possible, “trying on” various cultures, sorting through the good and the bad aspects of each.
  6. Avoid making pronouncements about your conclusions, realizing your remarks will be misinterpreted at best, and turned to evil ends at worst.
  7. Having done all of that, isolate yourself from others, to avoid contamination of your insights.
  8. Practice deep meditation and introspection.
  9. Realize that after a lifetime of learning and accumulating wisdom, you have shared all of this with no one, from a false modesty arising from a deep-seated fear of being wrong.
  10. Die.

 

Born to be mild

It was a very nice restaurant up north in Michigan, kind of upscale but not nosebleed, that had a front wall that could be entirely removed for the warm summer months, providing all the benefits of outdoor eating from almost anywhere inside.  It was a Saturday evening in July, with temperatures hovering in the 70s, a perfect up north atmosphere.  We were enjoying a really nice beef-tenderloin-in-a-pastry thingie, when up from the stoplight a block away there arrived about two dozen or so bikers, riding slowly by, in a parade of their own.

Mind you, these were not Hell’s Angels types for the most part.  There were four or five scruffy desperados, but the rest were a diverse group: millennials with their millennial assortment of facial hair and slick heads, geriatric hippies, dentists with Harley-Davidson logos on the backs of their $500 leather jackets, middle management types bolt upright on their rides.  All had at least one thing in common: they had enough money to spare for high-end motorcycles.

Well, okay, they had two things in common.  They also loved to race their unmuffled engines as they rode slowly by.  Maybe you’ve heard the biker mantra, “loud pipes save lives”?  If it’s true, then enough lives were saved that evening to make Our Lady of Lourdes blush with envy.

Well, three things. This disparate collection of humanity loved nothing better than annoying anyone who thought they were above them, which, from their perspective, was anyone who was annoyed by them.

It worked to perfection. For the duration of the din, all conversation stopped, since it couldn’t be heard anyway.  Around the room, there were a few slow-burning stares, a smattering of giggles,  and some outright smiles, but most did what I did: sigh with resignation and wait the invasion out.

This episode strikes me as the perfect metaphor for current politics.  The bikers represent the loud Trumpist minority, and the rest  of us divided but generally unable or unwilling to stop them, many silently wishing that at least mufflers on motorcycles could become a thing.

If only our political malaise could be so easily cured.