Violent Ends

Cross-posted from Medium

In November, I saw my first all-out brawl.

It was late on a Saturday night in San Francisco, the weekend after the election, and as I stepped out of the bar in the Mission where I had spent the last two hours drinking pilsners, eating grilled cheese, and talking about the country’s new direction, there were four or five guys just going to town on each other in the street.

Someone yelled, I heard that sickening thud of a punch that really connects, and one of the fighters dropped to the ground. Someone yelled again, and everyone else in the fight was on top of him, kicking him in the ribs, the back, the head — and then they scattered, disappearing down the street or into alleys. The only coherent thing I heard as people ran by me was an American accent muttering something along the lines of he’s racist; he told me to leave this country.

I don’t know who started the fight, the accused racist or the person who suddenly felt unwelcome in his home. To be honest, I don’t even know which side of the argument the very blond and very white dude now face-down and motionless on the pavement had been fighting for. It took a couple of seconds, but the man on the ground pulled himself up, shirt ripped and nose bleeding but looking like he was going to be okay after a few days with an ice pack and a steady diet of ibuprofen, and stumbled off into the night.

I walked away in disbelief. It had been fast, bloody, tense. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I have to admit the timing, so close to the election, was suspicious — and inauspicious. Walking out of that bar into the San Francisco night really felt like walking into the next chapter of America, where the story had taken a sudden turn and the ending I no longer could predict.

* * *

I’ve written this entire post four times now. The first time, a day or two after the election: a fuming fulmination condemning the people who sentenced this country to death because they couldn’t pull their heads out of their asses long enough to say the word “email.”

The second time, a week or so after the election: a contrite apology to the millions of people in this country that I’ve misunderstood or marginalized, and a vow to listen, to collaborate, to strive together to build solutions because the system isn’t working for everyone, and all of our viewpoints are equally valid.

The third time, right before the inauguration: a defiant stand for my principles and my beliefs, and the vision I have for the America of the future, the America where I want to live, the America we have the potential to be.

The fourth time, now, a little bit of all of the above.

* * *

Oh, and one other thing this time around: it may seem like a roundabout way to get to talking about the future of our country, but I have to tell you here that I watched the first season of Westworld religiously last year, every Sunday from episode one to the finale in November. (If you haven’t seen the show, I recommend watching it all right now. It’s only ten and a half hours. I’ll wait.) Westworld is half Jurassic Park, half The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, half Blade Runner, and 150% captivating. In the show, Anthony Hopkins runs an immersive and infinitely-accommodating western theme park staffed by android hosts, indistinguishable from humans, where ultra-rich guests pay unfathomable amounts of money to dress up like cowboys and say, shoot, or screw absolutely anything they want.

It’s HBO, of course, but in between the arterial blood spatter and golden orgy circus, it manages to touch on some profound themes and questions. The central mystery driving the season (thar be minor spoilers ahead, ye been warned) is the evolution of consciousness in the robot hosts. The hosts roam the park in pre-programmed loops, acting out minor improvisations on otherwise scripted paths, resetting every few days with their memories wiped for a new batch of guests. Yet the hosts are not made of pistons and metal but ersatz flesh and bone, with skeletons extruded from the nozzles of articulated robot arms and skin deposited in some kind of industrial bath. So when some of the androids start remembering their past experiences, start questioning the roles they’re programmed to play, start wondering about altogether very human things like free will and predestination and wait-just-a-minute who is this god fellow anyway and why does he sound like Hannibal Lecter, well, things go off the rails about as quickly as you’d expect for a theme park dreamt up by Michael Crichton.

Because with bodies that are the same inside and out as humans, the only difference is the mind — a few hundred billion neurons versus a few thousand lines of code. Westworld dives right into it, asking you almost point-blank: what really is sentience? What is consciousness? Why are these hosts so different from the guests, so different from you? What makes you unique?

Maybe another way to frame this is simply what is truth? Are the hosts’ experiences worth less than the guests’, are they less true, just because they perceive them differently?

* * *

I found it almost too perfect this year to watch a show about truth and subjectivity in the midst of a brouhaha of an election cycle — and a show about truth and subjectivity told through the eyes of cowboys, no less, characters plucked straight from the rich tapestry of American myth: the virtuous gunslinger, the equanimous desperado, the inebriate gambler. America sees itself in cowboys, those lone heroes silhouetted against the sunset and triumphing against impossible odds. Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush all channeled the cowboy, and turned it into electoral success. Donald J. Trump, with his French cuff shirts and Florida golf courses, didn’t exactly capture the cowboy image — but he did, I think, capture the cowboy ethos.

Trump was a renegade, a wrecking ball, a renunciation of politics-as-usual. In other words, a go-it-alone, gunslinging cowboy. And America eats that shit up like beans at a campfire.

To me, this election seemed to hinge on three things, three veins in American politics, that Trump really tapped into — and that I had no idea existed. It’s taken me a long time to try to wrap my head around this, all the way from election night and on past inauguration day. But I can’t help think about it, and I don’t think I’m done, so I want you to think about it with me.

Those veins, in no particular order:


Part I: The Re-Greatening of America

I am beyond sick of the phrase MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN. This is probably because I am a sore loser.

But it was everywhere this election — on hats, on bumper stickers, on billboards, blogs, headlines, hashtags… And I every time I saw it, I dismissed it immediately.

Because for me, America was already great. I grew up in an upper middle class home in a Los Angeles suburb. I had a phenomenal public school education. I was accepted into a fantastic private university. I voted for a president — twice — who believed in the things I believed in, who talked like me, who thought like me. I studied hard in college, waited out the economic downturn by going to grad school, built some cool robots, drank a lot of beer, screwed around in Europe for a quarter, and just two years and one raise after graduating, I was already making more money annually than over 90% of American wage earners.

Why would anything ever need to change?

What this worldview is missing, clearly, is an understanding that America wasn’t and isn’t great for everyone.

In my day job — when I’m not writing blogs — I make factories. I’m an engineer, and I’ve designed robotic manufacturing tools for three different companies now (six, if you count acquisitions). Every time, there’s a delicate balance between creating good, challenging, fulfilling blue-collar manufacturing jobs, and buying a robot the price of a nice Cadillac.

I don’t actually make factories that make Cadillacs, but I’m sure the same is true across the automotive industry sprawl in the Midwest. What was in the 1950s a necessity — hand-welded steel frames, hand-stitched leather steering wheels — is now bespoke, a luxury. There’s always a complaint that outsourcing and foreign manufacturing is stealing American jobs from American patriots, but that hides the real problem: it’s hard to convince a company to pay a welder $50,000 a year, every year — plus benefits, insurance, retirement fund matching, sick leave, office coffee — when a robot that does the same thing, ten times faster and with sub-millimeter accuracy, sets you back $200k initially and works for nothing but acetylene and spare timing belts for ten years after that.

The face of manufacturing in the United States — in the world — is changing to something that doesn’t have a face, something that’s mostly joints and gears, motors and oil. But it’s harder to blame something instead of someone, and so when the factory is shuttered, where does that anger go?

To be fair, I’m not trying to say that robots and automation kill jobs. I think they make a lot of jobs — technical jobs servicing and repairing machines, logistical jobs supplying them with raw materials and carting away finished goods, construction jobs building bigger and better factories, new and novel jobs revealed only when the old ones are swept away. But I do think robots kill a very specific kind of job. A kind of job that America romanticizes, in a way: that of the hard-working, oil-stained man who spends his days at a factory building, constructing, creating.

If I had to pick a trope to follow the cowboy in the American pantheon, it’d be the factory worker. But even the robot cowboys in Westworld are made by other robots.

Maybe the main problem is that usually the less technical skill a job requires, the easier it is to automate. Don’t get me wrong here — I’m consistently impressed by the skill of the machinists and welders I work with. They’re artists, able to do things no machine ever could. But when you’re putting together ten thousand cars a day, you don’t need artistry; you need efficiency. A passable, functional, ugly weld will do, if it takes a fraction of the time and money to make, and a passable, functional, ugly weld is something that’s much easier to learn to make. The same is true in other industries — why pay a person to stand behind a fast food cash register, when a touchscreen can do the job?

So it’s not that robots are terminating (eh, see what I did there?) American employment — they’re just changing it. If Westworld is any indicator, the hospitality industry has a long time to wait before it watches its jobs become automated. But these traditional, blue-collar bedrock jobs in factories are gone, and at some point they’re not going to come back no matter how many bribes we offer air conditioning companies in Indiana.

The United States should be investing — heavily — in education, job transition programs, technical skill training, maybe even public sector employment (say, in infrastructure construction) or wage insurance. But we haven’t, really. For years, Democrats have provided no real solutions for the workers affected by automation and, to a lesser extent, globalization, treating their votes as a foregone conclusion irrespective of policy. Republicans provided no solutions for them, either, and just wrote off their votes. So as factories close, workers suffer, unable to find or unqualified to fill those new jobs that appear when robots arrive.

But Trump didn’t ignore these people — he campaigned for them, to them, in a way just like Bernie Sanders did. Unfortunately, Trump seems intent on blaming all lost manufacturing jobs on trade policy and immigrants, so I’m skeptical we will see the kinds of programs we need any time soon.

Immigration and trade are not the problem. I am the problem, me and engineers like me enabling our future robot overlords. We’re increasing our country’s productivity, expanding our company’s profit, strengthening our planet’s well-being — but at the expense of tens of thousands of jobs, jobs that people used to be proud to hold. I think automation and globalization are great things for humanity as a whole. But without smart policies from government, they can be devastating for specific people.

All of this adds up to a huge swath of the country that really isn’t having a great time anymore.

In 2015, the states with the highest percentage of manufacturing jobs were:

  1. Indiana (17.1%)
  2. Wisconsin (16.4%)
  3. Michigan (14.0%)
  4. Iowa (13.7%)
  5. Alabama (12.9%)
  6. Arkansas, Ohio, and Kentucky (all 12.7%)

Donald J. Trump won every single one of those states, flipping Wisconsin red for the first time since 1984 and Michigan for the first time since 1988.

* * *

A broader, historical aside: unemployment, such as the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt, can lead to (for lack of a better phrase) some crazy shit.

During the Great Depression, unemployment took off in Germany — followed closely by the share of the vote won by the Nazi party, which provided a scapegoat and a vague promise of a return to greatness.

You could also look an unemployment with regards to radicalization and terrorism — The Economist shows that while the average country had about 16% youth population with 14% youth unemployment in 2016, Arab countries had an 18% youth population with 30% youth unemployment. This probably contributed to the Arab Spring, which was a great force for democratization in the Middle East, but I’m hard-pressed to believe this doesn’t also create a disillusioned generation susceptible to hard-line indoctrination from something like ISIS.

To be clear, I am not calling Donald Trump a Nazi, or a terrorist (though the fact that I even need to add that caveat is telling). And I can’t fault people for being scared when life as they know it is changing. In the particular case of America in 2017, I just don’t think Trump’s protectionism and isolationism are the right solutions, and I think history will prove me right.

What’s needed now — and what maybe no one has really figured out yet — is how to course-correct and wrest the steering wheel from ideologues and demagogues worldwide, who promise easy solutions to exceedingly complex problems.

Part II: Will the Real America Please Stand Up?

That prototypical factory worker I conjured in the last section, or the cowboy before that, could easily be labeled REAL AMERICA today.

To be blunt, it’s another phrase I hate. Somehow, “real America” has become a metonym for white, conservative America — the America that lives in rural areas, owns 1.2 guns per capita, splits its own firewood, and sends its children to Sunday School.

That America is real, I admit — but it does not have a monopoly on real America.

And to claim so — to stage a linguistic coup by staking claim to the very phrase — is insulting, rude, offensive, and, I’ll say it, un-American. Because if that’s real America, it means by definition I live in some kind of fake America, populated by fake Americans.

I live in the United Goddamn States of America, thank you very much.

My great- and great-great-grandparents fled persecution in Europe because they saw a place across the Atlantic where they would be treated equally. My grandparents fought in Europe to defend a country willing to stand up to injustice. That is America: fair, just, good. It welcomes the oppressed, protects the tyrannized, gives voice to the voiceless.

My America is rolling farmland in the country, yes, but it is also crowded subways in the city, ballet classes in the suburbs, sleepy diners in small towns. It is white, but it is also brown and black and tan. It speaks English, Spanish, Mandarin, Farsi, Korean, French. It is an America without a convenient demographic summary, an America made stronger and taller by the disparate backgrounds and experiences that surround it, enfold it like a scaffold and drive it to new heights.

Is my America less valid, less real, than yours because it is multicolored and multicultural? Are my experiences less American because I type and text instead of hunt and fish? Do we not both pine for the same sultry sexbots?

Well, okay, strike that last bit. But you can see what I’m getting at — politics has somehow become tribal and confrontational in this country, a game of us versus them, coastal elites versus heartland good-ol’-boys, guests versus hosts. What’s different between my California lifestyle and someone in, say, Wyoming, is not neurons versus bits like in Westworld, but it is experience versus experience, and I’ll be the first to admit that the lenses we see the country through are very different. So sure, I live in a bubble. But so does everyone — we construct bubbles around ourselves, insulate our lives with layers of the past that tint our vision of the present. Real America is the sum of all our bubbles, not any specific one.

An America that excludes anyone can never be real in the way America was intended to be.

Part III: Post-Fact America

Of all the phrases that came out of this election cycle, though, the one that scares me the most is the proliferation and weaponization of FAKE NEWS.

What started as an attack on our election by outside forces — a slew of articles describing untrue actions and policies of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — has become an attack on one of the central pillars of a free democracy: the independent press. “Fake news” is now, suddenly, a slur to be leveled against facts that don’t agree with your worldview.

There has been a total devaluation of fact as the currency of information. Truth is no longer objective, but just one more part of the narrative.

There are plenty of examples to choose from here, but the one that galls me the most is probably the Trump team’s claim after the election that they won in a landslide, declaring a mandate to make America you-know-what again. This was just so provably, demonstrably, objectively false that I couldn’t believe it was happening.

To recap, Donald Trump:

  • is president (no question there)
  • lost the popular election by three million votes
  • won the electoral college with 56.9% of the available votes, ranking 46th out of the 58 presidential elections this country has held

The only landslide here is the avalanche of bullshit coming out of this administration. But if you disagree with their narrative — that this eking out of a victory, granted by the anachronistic technicalities of the American electoral system, was instead a massive triumph, an historic revolution — well, then you’re fake news. Because the landslide is what happened, remember?

It’s true that history is written by the victors, but we have a rare chance here to see it happening in front of us.

Maybe this is where we were always headed, an inevitable crash course between freedom of choice and freedom of the press. If you can choose what to read, why not choose what to believe? I’m certainly guilty of the echo chamber effect — I read the New York Times, not Fox News — and I think that the transition from traditional media to social media, from print to screens, has exacerbated the problem of choice versus truth. When revenue models are based on clicks and page views, it’s easy to fall into a cycle of inflammatory headlines and clickbait outrage, on both sides of the aisle.

For all of Trump’s business shortcomings — he’d be worth a lot more money if simply invested in the stock market back in the 1980s — he is a masterful television star. I fully believe the narrative he’s crafting is an intentional, deliberate effort to build up his image. The fact that gold-plated real estate mogul billionaire Donald J. Trump somehow won the presidency as a populist, as the voice of the downtrodden working class, should be evidence enough.

What terrifies me the most is that he might pull it off. The Atlantic put into words the apprehension I’ve been feeling perfectly this week, a future where nothing really that outrageously bad happens during a Trump presidency, and his behavior — the bullying, the braggadocio — becomes normalized. America grows to accept his brand of racism and sexism and xenophobia, and while we remain incensed about the really big affronts to democracy and decency, many of the smaller things slip through, maybe due to outrage fatigue or maybe just because there are so many smaller things to keep track of. Trump family members enrich themselves, jockeying to be a political dynasty half in the Kennedy mold and half in the Kim mold — a rapid shift from Kardashian fame to Jong-Un personality cult. There’s no single trigger event, no crackdown on human rights, but the country slouches, steadily, away from full democracy and towards plutocracy and kleptocracy. The founding principles of this country are eaten away at the edges, and probity gives way to profit.

This is, of course, just one scenario, and certainly not the worst case (say, a massive rollback of liberty, women’s rights, and civil rights) or the best case (Trump backs off on the controversial social policies and really does deliver on substantial economic growth), but more and more it seems like one of the likeliest scenarios to me.

The war of words, the battle over truth, is the front line of this conflict. Is truth what we’re programmed to believe, or what we see with our own eyes?

There’s a line that’s repeated a lot in Westworld, so much that it has almost become the series’ tagline: these violent delights have violent ends.

That’s a quote from Romeo and Juliet, though a little out of context. It’s from about halfway through the play, as Romeo and Friar Laurence wait for Juliet to arrive so that the good friar can marry the two young lovers. Laurence cautions Romeo:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume: the sweetest honey
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite:
Therefore love moderately; long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.

(The fact that the show uses this quote, and also has a character named Lawrence who helps two young lovers of very different backgrounds escape a war zone, just further cements how great it is, if you ask me.)

In Westworld, the phrase violent delights is taken at maybe even more than face value, a Shakespearean excuse to watch the robot hosts stab, slice, scalp, shoot, and otherwise savage their human tormentors. But in context with the rest of the warning from the friar, it isn’t meant to be vicious at all. Be careful, Laurence says, for a love this strong can end as quickly as it started.

The transformation of Donald Trump from reality television star to president was a whirlwind romance with the American people. And like any whirlwind romance, it could last forever — or be finished next week. In the meantime, the United States feels at odds with itself: Capulets and Montagues, hosts and guests, Republicans and Democrats.

I don’t know where the common ground went, but our job for the next four years is to find it. Our job for the next four years is to fight for truth, to fight for facts, to fight for the very foundations of our democracy.

Our job for the next four years is to make America great by making America remember: e pluribus unum — out of many, one.