Politics

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:

  1. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN
  2. REAL AMERICA
  3. FAKE NEWS

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.

https://web.archive.org/web/20080511190923/http://econ161.berkeley.edu/TCEH/Slouch_Purge15.html

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.

http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/08/daily-chart-7

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.

https://www.google.com/trends/explore?q=fake%20news

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.

The Astrophysics of Donald Trump

[Side note: for the first time, I also posted this piece on Medium, which I may do for longer think pieces in the future.  The creative stuff will always live here.]

If any other political outsider was gaining delegates in a primary at the rate Donald J. Trump is racking them up, we’d be calling him or her a rising star of the Republican party — but that has never been the narrative around Trump. Trump is too much of an outsider to be a rising star; he’s a meteor, hurtling out of the dark depths of space with zero warning. And now, if we don’t send Bruce Willis to nuke him soon, he’s liable to crash straight into Washington, D.C. and leave nothing of our political process behind but a scorched crater and a pile of cheap red hats.

Maybe you think that’s a good thing, and maybe you think that’s a bad thing. But whatever you think, we can agree that something is different this year. Because out of all of Trump’s boasts, brags, exaggerations, and aggrandizements, there is one that is certainly true: he is not a career politician. He is not a Republican insider. And if it’s Trump that is the conservative movement’s rising star, then the Republican party is a dying star. I call this the red giant theory of red-state politics — strap yourselves in.


A red giant is a star on the brink of death. A star like our sun will spend billions and billions of years crushing hydrogen atoms in its core together to form helium, releasing tremendous amounts of energy in the process. But eventually — and we’re talking five or six billion years down the road here for our sun, so no worries — the hydrogen fuel is exhausted. Fusing hydrogen into helium is the only thing that keeps the forces of gravity at bay, and when the core’s hydrogen dries up the star will begin to collapse under its own weight, its mass falling in on itself like a deflating basketball. As more and more mass is drawn into the heart of the star, the hydrogen that had been floating around the outer layers is brought to a place where it, too, can fuse, and the engine is kickstarted again. The stellar core gets hotter and hotter as more burning hydrogen is pulled closer and closer together, and the hotter the star gets the faster the fusion of this previously-inaccessible hydrogen occurs. The energy of this astral furnace pushes the outer layers of the star back out, and the star swells, expanding to massive size and swallowing the planets that orbit around it like tic tacs. This process continues — the core getting denser and denser, hotter and hotter, as the star inflates — until it is so unbelievably hot that not only is hydrogen fusing together to form helium, but the helium itself is being transformed, destroyed and reknit into carbon atoms.

This is not a gentle process.

The gradual emergence of a red giant from a normal star is a festering growth, like a tumor that emerges over millions and millions of years to slowly engulf its host. But a helium flash, as this final stage is called, is violent in the extreme. Once the red giant reaches its critical temperature, the entirety of the helium fusion reaction in the star happens almost at once, and for a few seconds the star outputs one hundred billion times as much energy as it would normally. The outer layers of the star are ejected into space, drifting away in wisps of smoke and cloud that we call nebulae.

At the end, after the thunder and fire is spent and silence has taken their place, all that is left of the giant red star is a smoking core: a white dwarf.


Is the GOP on the brink of stellar death? Maybe. Like everything in politics, it’s probably a matter of considerable opinion. But consider the situation Republican faithfuls find themselves in: the party began its life as a champion of justice and equality — the party of Lincoln, as so many current candidates are fond of reminding us. But I’m not sure Lincoln would recognize the GOP in its current state. It has become bloated and swollen with ranks of people who, like any two hydrogen atoms, may not necessarily agree with each other on very much. The force of the Party pushes them together, crushes them into a cohesive whole that doesn’t really make much sense at an ideological level.

I feel — and this is my personal opinion here, so feel free to disagree — that politics in America is largely a back-and-forth conflict between the concepts of freedom and equality. Both of these are important, critical ideals for a democracy. The United States was founded on principles of both. Yet I can’t help but feel that at their extremes, the two ideas are fundamentally set in opposition to each other. If everyone is given identical, equal healthcare, they lose their freedom to choose a healthcare plan. If everyone is given the freedom to choose a healthcare plan, those that can afford to pay more for more services will, and those that can’t will suffer from the inequality this creates. This is a gross oversimplification, but hopefully it gets my point across: America is about striking the balance between freedom and equality for all.

I firmly believe that the modern Democratic party (and here, I feel like I need to admit, myself) is rooted in the principle of equality. I put more value into ensuring that all citizens of the United States — regardless of race, gender, age, income, sexual orientation, boxer-or-brief preference — are given fair and equal treatment than into ensuring that those citizens can be free from government interference. In some cases, I want the government to interfere, to strike out against intolerance and injustice when it’s found. I want to pay taxes to build roads and dams. I want to see the government dole out healthcare to the entire country.

But I realize this is not what everyone holds most valuable — and that’s okay. That’s the cool thing about democracy in the first place. I feel that my friends who are conservative — and they should feel free to challenge or correct me — care more about individual liberty and freedom than about using the power of the government to enforce equality. And it’s not that they don’t want equality between, say, men and women or white Americans and black Americans. We just disagree on the best way to ensure that equality.

Here’s the thing: I do feel that, for the most part, liberals have a unified, ideologically consistent champion in the Democratic party. Go down the party platform, and you can check off the boxes relating to equality: Universal healthcare? Check. Higher minimum wage? Check. Legalized same-sex marriage? Check.

I do not think the same thing is true about the modern Republican party. It’s a hodgepodge of backgrounds and ideas, some drawn from the well of freedom and others from… well, I’m not sure. Slash taxes? Freedom. Gun rights? Freedom. Mandatory sentencing for marijuana possession? Um, not exactly freedom. Restricted access to abortion? Definitely not freedom.

So this is why I see the GOP as a crucible. These differing viewpoints — conservatives, neocons, evangelicals, libertarians — are all fused together into a party that doesn’t seem to match the beliefs of any one of them that well. Nothing has illustrated that more than this year’s fractious and fragmented Republican primaries. Over the last eight years, we’ve seen the core of the GOP go dry, the fuel that propelled it since the days of the Civil War all but exhausted. It spiraled in on itself in 2008 — Sarah Palin for vice president is a pretty desperate gambit — and anger in the party grew hotter and hotter until it found new material to burn: the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party grew and grew until it boiled over like so much bubbling chamomile, spilling onto the national stage and engulfing the 2010 election. The Republican party expanded and expanded, racking up wins in midterm elections and taking control of the House and Senate, but the core of the GOP was being devoured, all that new hydrogen pushing and jostling in the ever-denser heart of the party.

Now, suddenly, the GOP finds that it has awoken one day and — almost instantaneously — its core is being transformed. This helium flash has a name: Donald J. Trump.

Trump has seized the malcontent of the party and run with it, run farther and faster than anyone thought the reality TV star with the weird hair could have ever possibly gone. To me, an outside observer peering through my telescope, it seems like the end of the red giant. The unity of the party is fractured; Trump is carving out the white dwarf core and leaving the remainder scattered to the stellar wind in a faint, drifting nebula that has yet to coalesce around anyone or anything.

There’s nowhere in this morass for anyone who’s not ultra-conservative to go. If you hold liberal — or even just non-draconian — views on immigration, Trump’s not your guy. Cruz is a constitutional fundamentalist who doesn’t even oppose same-sex marriage, he opposes civil unions. Rubio has won just a single state. Kasich hasn’t won any. Carson may as well be in outer space.

That drifting nebula has a lot of unhappy people in it (see #NeverTrump), and eventually it may solidify into a new star. But until then, the white dwarf of Donald Trump is shoving its way through the dust.


Ironically enough, if Trump was running for the Democratic nomination, this would be way less of an existential crisis. This is because of two features the Democrats have that Republicans don’t — and they’re some of the least egalitarian aspects of American politics, in my opinion.

The first is kind of technical, so excuse me while I get into the nitty-gritty of some electoral procedure. In Democratic caucuses, voters at a polling place divide themselves into groups based on which candidate they support. But after this initial division, any group that doesn’t have a critical mass of supporters is forced to either abstain or divide themselves among the more popular candidates. Republicans — reflecting the totally correct idea that anyone should be able to vote for anyone they damn well want to — don’t have this at all. Their caucus divides itself up into groups, and that’s that. This means in Iowa, if the Republican caucus had followed the Democrat’s rules, all of those candidates pulling single-digit support numbers (Fiorina, Santorum, Huckabee, Paul… it’s a long list), would have been forced to divvy up their support. I can’t find data to back up this assertion, but I’m hard-pressed to believe that Trump was anyone’s second choice. He’s a polarizing figure, and you love him or hate him — no one second-choice-likes him. If all those caucus-voters had been forced to vote for their second choice, Trump’s margin of loss could have possibly been a lot bigger, halting much of his momentum. Who knows.

The second item that Democrats have that is missing from the Republican nomination process is superdelegates. What’s a superdelegate, you ask? Well, a superdelegate is the difference between the graph on the left and the graph on the right:

The left graph is a comparison of Hillary and Bernie’s current delegate counts when superdelegates are included (2383 delegates are needed to win). The right graph is the same tally if only delegates awarded from actual votes — not superdelegates — are included. It’s a much closer race. Still looks pretty good for Hils, but definitely closer.

Formally, superdelegates are members of the Democratic party that the party’s national committee chooses and sends to the nominating convention. They are given a vote in the nomination procedure that they can cast for any candidate they choose (the vast majority of them — 457 to 22, with 235 still up for grabs — have pledged to vote for Clinton rather than Sanders). Superdelegates are not bound to the will of the voters, they are not obligated to vote for the leading candidate, and they are definitely not representative democracy. They were started in 1984 explicitly as a way to give the party some additional control over the nomination procedure.

I don’t like the way the Democratic party handles this… but I have to admit that it’s a pretty good firewall against someone like Trump. If the Republicans were able to just throw 20% more delegates at, say, Rubio, it suddenly becomes much, much easier for him to hit 50% of the votes for the party’s nomination.

So here’s the crux of the my problem: for the first time in my life, I’m torn about pure power-of-the-people democracy, in the sense that I’m thinking superdelegates may actually be a good thing.


The two things that make me most upset about social media during election years are pretty opposite: in one corner, we have apathy; in the other, antipathy.

I see, from people across the political spectrum, refusal to vote because “it doesn’t matter.” This absolutely infuriates me. Your vote is the only thing that matters. There’s the Kantian categorical imperative argument here (I’m paraphrasing, but: only act in a way such that, if everyone acted that way, the world would be a better place), though that’s a tad too… metaphysical. I prefer the simple fact that if you’re living in the U.S., someone in your family, somewhere up in the branches of your family tree, made the choice to leave their home and come here. Probably against all odds, in the face of danger or death or destitution, they took everything they had ever known and set course for democracy. You owe it to them to vote. You also owe it to yourself, because you live in this place and deserve to have a say in how it’s run.

Then I also see, again from people on both ends of the spectrum, casual jokes about disenfranchisement. In 2012, it was my conservative friends posting jokes like “special polls for Obama voters are open on Friday lulz”; now, the pendulum has swung the other way and it’s my liberal friends imploring Trump supporters to miss their primary dates. They both stem from a deep dislike of the other party’s candidate, one that implies mass deprivation of the right to vote would be better than the wrong candidate winning.

I will never find these jokes funny.

And I will never find them funny for pretty much the reasons enumerated above: that I really do think this one-person-one-vote thing is pretty sacrosanct, and that it’s the defining feature of democracy, the one that we need to hold onto above all others.

This is why I find superdelegates so vexing, and now feel so conflicted when I find myself wishing for them on the GOP side of things. Ultimately, though, I think disenfranchisement cannot be the answer. The answer, as always, has to be conversation and education.

So here goes nothing.


To return to the stellar metaphor from earlier, Donald Trump is a reality show star. To put that more bluntly, he’s an entertainer. A showman. A demagogue.

If you’re a Trump supporter and somehow you’ve found this, somehow you’ve read this far, waded through my admittedly biased and unapologetically liberal argument to this point, then please read a couple more paragraphs, because this is where I’m going to try to convince you to change your mind. If you’re not a Trump supporter, which — let’s be honest about my audience— is more likely, then this is the part that I give you full permission to copy-paste at will and as needed.

Let me start by saying this: you have a right to vote for whoever you choose. And you have a right to be angry with the current political process. I’m not asking you to vote for Hillary. I am asking you to please not let your anger cloud your judgment about the key principle that America was founded on:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal

At his core, I don’t think we know what Donald J. Trump believes. But he knows what we, the American people, want to hear, and he’s off to the races with it. People are scared of terrorism abroad and domestically, and that’s legitimate. People are resentful of perceived government overstepping, and that’s legitimate. People are tired of watching jobs leave the country faster than Bernie’s supporters after a Trump inauguration, and that’s legitimate, too. But to address these problems, the Republican party needs — deserves — a candidate who can present real policy ideas, real solutions. These problems are real, but they are not solved by personal attacks. They are not solved by forsaking the ideals of our nation’s founding fathers. They are solved by sticking to the principles of the Constitution — and yes, I know it’s hard to believe that coming from a lefty-pinko-tax-loving-Democrat, but I mean it.

So far all that I’ve heard from Trump is bluster and blame: bluster that builds up his personal brand, and blame targeted at minorities that don’t merit his spite. He’s grandstanding in every sense of the word when he talks about how great his businesses are, how vast his wealth his. He’s advocating religious persecution when he says we should ban Muslims from immigrating to the U.S. (I will point out here that it was religious persecution like this that forced the Pilgrims out of England and started their immigration to the New World… but I digress). He’s advocating racism when he drops stereotypes into his speeches. He’s advocating WAR GODDAMN CRIMES when he calls for attacking the families of terrorists, or something “worse than waterboarding.”

But maybe the most insidious things, and therefore the most dangerous, are the aspects of Trump’s personality that he’d bring to the presidency. Trump is divisive, not inclusive. He is thin-skinned, not tough. He is petulant and childish, not strong-willed and bold. None of his qualities are anything I want in a future leader of the free world.

Three examples that didn’t seem to get tons of media attention:

  • When Trump finally got around to denouncing David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan leader who endorsed him, he blamed the fact that he didn’t immediately condemn the guy because he couldn’t hear the question due to a faulty earpiece. I can’t possibly believe that’s true, but Trump refuses to admit he was wrong — that he didn’t know who Duke was, or that he made a mistake not writing him off immediately. Instead, he’s hiding behind the dog-ate-my-homework of CNN interview excuses.
  • The whole small hands thing is really weird. But weirdest to me is that Trump won’t let it go. He even went so far as to say people always tell him how beautiful his hands are — which I just simply can’t believe is true. Not because Trump’s hands are ugly, but because who the hell goes around telling people that? There’s just no way Trump or any other human being on Earth consistently gets complimented for the loveliness of their hands. (One notable exception.) It’s a harmless lie from Trump, but belies a person who cannot admit anything about him is imperfect and is entirely intolerant of anyone pointing out his flaws or mistakes. Is that who you want running the military? Someone who won’t listen when he’s wrong and won’t take advice from the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
  • During the last Republican debate, Trump was repeatedly asked to release his tax returns, but said he wouldn’t because he was being audited, as he has been for every year for the last decade. Fine, that’s his choice and I don’t have an issue with it. But after the debate a reporter asked him why he thought he was audited so frequently, and Trumpclaimed religious persecution. This is totally outrageous for two reasons: one, I cannot believe Donald “Two Corinthians” Trump is a truly devout Christian. I’ve been to about a hundred bar mitzvahs and I know that’s not how you pronounce that one. And secondly, who really thinks the United States’ IRS is going after Christians? The answer is simple: conspiracy theorists. Trump was, after all, a leader of the birther movement that demanded President Obama’s birth certificate — something, by the way, that I don’t think he’s even asked for from Ted Cruz, who was ACTUALLY BORN IN CANADA. A president of the United States must make decisions based on facts and evidence, not hearsay and chain emails.

When it comes down to it, I want a president who, yes, is aligned with me on my political views. But I also want a president who is presidential: who is diplomatic, not derisive; reasoned, not rash; strong, not strident. Even — mystery Trump supporter who’s somehow stuck with me this far — even if you agree with Trump’s politics, can you honestly believe the world will be a safer place with his finger on the nuclear trigger, ready to turn a city into a burnt slab of glass when someone calls his fingers stubby?


When our own sun starts to die, many ages from now, it will grow, like any other new red giant. It will grow and grow, moving inexorably towards our home. The dying sun may swallow up the earth; it may just grow so large and so hot that all the water on Earth boils off into space, leaving it a barren, lifeless rock — there are all sorts of joyful possibilities for the end of our sun’s life. But no matter what, after it burns off all of its astral fuel, the sun will be split asunder. Half the mass of the sun will be spun off into a sparkling, iridescent nebula, a beautiful shroud of color and memory that celebrates the life of the sun, paints the history of the solar system in vibrant color against the black backdrop of the galaxy.

The other half of the sun’s mass will remain behind, sulking, a sputtering white dwarf that will sag against the fabric of space until finally it, too, grows cold and dead and fades to black.

The choice of which half to follow is yours.

That Storied Pomp

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

– Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

– Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Declaration of Independence

*  *  *

So tell me, America.  Did we ever really believe this stuff?

*  *  *

The United States of America is an audacious idea, an amazing idea — that a nation could throw off the yoke of prejudice, the burdens of social caste, the chains of history and emerge as a truly free and equal haven.  A place where all men (and women) are equal and accepted.  A sacred experiment in justice, equality, and liberty.

But America is also a contradiction.  We founded this beautiful little political science project with an economy driven by human servitude.  We didn’t grant women the right to vote until 1920.  We manifest-destinied our way across countless cultures between the Appalachians and the Pacific.

If I’m being honest, I don’t understand the contradiction.  How can one nation be so selectively in love with its own image?  We’re Narcissus sleeping at the pool, gazing lovingly not at our reflection but into our own dreams and memories.  All we see is the torch of liberty, and not the pile of smoking embers underneath it.

Maybe I seem to be veering off into some sort of America-the-Ugly diatribe, so let me correct course right now.  I love this country.  I love our idealism, our democracy, our bricolage of ideas and cultures.  I love the fact that I can get a cheeseburger for a buck without ever leaving my car.  And it’s because I love this country — love what this country symbolizes, was founded for — that I have to point back to those words we hold so hallowed, and ask when will these be more than mere words?

*  *  *

Exhibit no. 1: huddled masses.  The movement in this country to stop Syrian refugees from entering at all costs astounds me.  It’s a despicable transgression of our nation’s most iconic attribute — that we are the land of dreams, where anyone from anywhere can come, be welcome, and thrive.  We’ve accepted wave after wave of immigrants and refugees, built entire beloved neighborhoods out of them: San Francisco’s Chinatown, New York’s Little Italy, Miami’s Little Havana.  We’ve accepted everyone from Hmong fleeing the invasion of Laos to Jews fleeing the invasion of literally everywhere else.

What’s even more astounding is that this reluctance to live up to our collective promise as a nation is nothing new.

And then, even as I’m hurling ideas on the page for this piece like some political Pollock and I think the national conversation about immigration and diversity can’t get any worse, Donald J. Trump puts out this unbelievable piece of sludge.

(You know what, I removed the hyperlink in that last sentence because I don’t want to give that bigot any more web traffic, which seems to go straight to his overly-large head.  I mean that literally — his head looks like someone gave a sandbag a spray-tan.  You can google “Trump + 2015 immigration statement” if you want to read it.)

Trump wanting to ban people from immigrating to the US on the basis of religion is astounding in its audacity, its boldfaced, unapologetic, and increasingly unsurprising demagoguery.  It also goes against pretty much every single moral value I hold as an American.

Then, he compares himself to FDR interning Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, which makes just about zero sense for a couple of reasons — 1) when has a leading Republican candidate ever wanted to compare themselves favorably to Franklin “Let’s Just Spend Our Way Outta This One” Roosevelt, and 2) I like FDR for a lot of reasons, but his forcible relocation of over 100,000 Americans to prison camps WAS ALSO NOT A GOOD THING.  I’ve lost track of whether Trump is brash, tone-deaf, or just willfully ignorant, and it’d be one thing if he was like everyone else on the internet shouting their bigotry and fearmongering into the comments section of YouTube.  But this is a man who has a frighteningly large following, and he’s tapped into a well of something primal and disgusting buried deep in the American psyche.  It’s like Trump has a divining rod for latent American racism, and what worries me most is that he’s finding water.  I’m honestly scared that Trump is just riding the start of an ugly tide, and we risk it spilling over into the mainstream of American politics.

I do the Republican party’s presidential contenders a disservice to lump someone like Trump in with them, so I apologize, but even if the rest of the field is not as “unhinged” (to quote Jeb!), they all constantly wax poetic on America’s storied past.  Every candidate on the right has a story about how the good ole days were grand and our Founding Fathers were brilliant demigods of democracy who descended from Mt. Sinai into Virginia with the Constitution in one hand and the Christian Bible in the other.  This sense of moral righteousness is often completely at odds with the immigration policies they propose.  Even if you ignore the case of Trump v. the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, for those of you following along at home), people like Cruz and Trump are professing a profound love for the Constitution while ignoring the parts of it that make America the greatest experiment in history: our founders’ desire to harbor the unfortunate from other nations, to grant them the opportunity they never knew elsewhere, and to safeguard the freedoms of life, liberty, and happiness for all people of this country.

We are a new nation, conceived in liberty.  We are a welcoming nation, strengthened by our differences.  And we are a bold nation, clad in democracy.  Someday we’ll all realize it.

 

*  *  *

A small addendum here to mention that I had another half to this post about gun control, but it was entirely too angry to post without deciding if I really want to unleash that kind of internet ire.  Suffice it to say that I think it’s absolutely criminal that we’ve let the murder of our neighbors and coworkers and children become as routine as the local news station’s weather report.  Cloudy tomorrow, with a slight chance of mass homicide in the early afternoon.  Pack an umbrella with your thoughts and prayers.

Back to the Future

It’s been one hell of a week in American politics.

This country, which is normally so glacially slow to change its mind about, well, anything, executed two U-turns of portentous moment and neck-breaking alacrity: it suddenly seems the Confederate flag is no longer welcome in many parts of the South, and it suddenly seems that same-sex marriage is here to stay.  If I haven’t made it overwhelmingly evident elsewhere in this blog, let me just say here that I applaud both these decisions.  They are progressive steps in the right direction for our country, for our people, and for our national morals.  I could sit here and extol them, laud and congratulate, and I am happy to do that in person — but here, now, I want to get out what still worries me, before those worries fade into the fog.

This is not to take away from the week’s victories, and I don’t want to insult their power by whining that we have more left to do.  It should go unsaid that there is always more to do.  But — moral objections aside — I’ve seen some frightening arguments against the two decisions, and I feel the need to reinforce the point that moving forward requires taking an inventory of our past.

* * *

The Southern Cross flag (“Confederate flag” is really a misnomer, since the flag you’re thinking of was used only as a battle flag, though like most people I use the terms interchangeably) is a symbol of at best insurrection and at worst vicious hate.  That it’s used proudly, as a symbol of ancestry and regional pride, has always left me incredulous — and I think belies a dangerous misrepresentation of history.  The Civil War was not that long ago, and if its roots and lessons are already being distorted, I worry for how it will be presented ten, fifty, a hundred years from now.  Yes, it’s fine to be proud of where you come from.  I have nothing against nationalism (state-ism?), but the Southern Cross has a legacy that is drenched in hatred and racism, not in pride and independence.  The only defenses of using the Confederate flag that I’ve heard go something like this: the flag’s not about slavery, it’s about standing up for your ideals and small government and mom-and-pop shops and freedom! Or, the flag’s not about the Confederacy, it’s about the Army of Northern Virginia standing up for their ideals and small government and mom-and-pop shops and freedom!

Okay, I’m not going to dance around this — those arguments are bullshit and I’m going to demolish them.  I’ve been reading a lot about the Civil War the last couple of weeks, which I credit to watching “Lincoln” on a long trans-Pacific flight and listening to some great podcasts on a drive from the Bay Area to LA.  This by no means makes me an expert, but I feel at least as qualified to make assertions about 19th century American history as I did at the end of my AP US History class in high school.  I think that you could make an argument that the North did not enter the Civil War to end slavery, did not enter for liberty in any sense, but fought for the abstract idea of “Union.”  Fine.

But you absolutely cannot say that the South seceded and went to war for anything other than to preserve slavery.  The Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, gave a speech in March of 1861, just a few weeks before the South really kicked off the Civil War by shelling Fort Sumter.  In the speech, Stephens lays out all the ways the progressive constitution of the CSA is far superior to that of the backwards-thinking nation to the north.  I’m going to quote a sizable swath of it, because it’s so repulsive I think everyone should be required to read it.  The emphasis is mine:

The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution, African slavery as it exists amongst us, the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.  This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.  Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.”  He was right.  What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. … The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.  It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. … Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong.  They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races.  This was an error.  It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the storm came and the wind blew.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.  This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.  This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. … The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago.  Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics.  All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning.  It is a species of insanity.  One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics.  Their conclusions are right if their premises were.  They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man.  If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.

In summary: what the actual fuck.

So, once and for all: yes, the Confederate States of America was built on slavery.  Yes, the armies that flew the battle flags were fighting for slavery.  And so yes, the Southern Cross, that battle flag of the Confederate army, is — by its leaders’ own admission — not merely a pro-slavery banner, but in fact a total proclamation of white supremacy.

To say otherwise is to whitewash (sorry) history.  This is something that I think is incredibly dangerous — a nation should be made to face its sins and remember its misdeeds, and the United States has plenty of both.  Willfully or ignorantly ignoring one of our most blatant sins by arguing the Confederate flag only shows some sort of home team pride makes me worry not only for our citizens’ knowledge of their country’s past, but for their willingness to lead that country in the right direction in the future.

* * *

If misrepresenting our past is dangerous, it is possibly no more so than clinging to it doggedly.  This is what I saw in the dissenting opinions from the Supreme Court’s decision for legalizing same-sex marriage.  I’m going to ignore Clarence “Slaves Did Not Lose Their Dignity” Thomas, but between Scalia and Roberts, there was plenty of confusing logic to go around.

Here’s Roberts:

The majority purports to identify four “principles and traditions” in this Court’s due process precedents that support a fundamental right for same-sex couples to marry.  Ante, at 12.  In reality, however, the majority’s approach has no basis in principle or tradition, except for the unprincipled tradition of judicial policymaking that characterized discredited decisions such as Lochner v. New York, 198 U. S. 45.  Stripped of its shiny rhetorical gloss, the majority’s argument is that the Due Process Clause gives same-sex couples a fundamental right to marry because it will be good for them and for society.  If I were a legislator, I would certainly consider that view as a matter of social policy.  But as a judge, I find the majority’s position indefensible as a matter of constitutional law.

Scalia is more, um, Scalia-esque:

This is a naked judicial claim to legislative — indeed, super-legislative — power; a claim fundamentally at odds with our system of government.  Except as limited by a constitutional prohibition agreed to by the People, the States are free to adopt whatever laws they like, even those that offend the esteemed Justices’ “reasoned judgment.”  A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.

Here’s the thing: normally I’d probably agree with these statements.  Roberts and Scalia are right; it is not the Supreme Court’s place to legislate from the bench, and doing so unbalances all those checks America’s founders fought so hard to set up.  But the fact remains that something like marriage is a fundamental human right that was being ignored, or in the worst cases banned, by local governments.  This is absolutely a case where the court can and should step in to prevent injustice and inequality.

I know citing a previous case may be dangerous, because you can always throw the Dred Scott decision or Plessy v. Ferguson back in my face, but I don’t understand how you can look at Obergefell v. Hodges, which restores a fundamental right to a group of people state governments had been discriminating against, and not see Brown v. Board of Education 2: Electric Boogaloo.  Yes, normally the court should not interfere in the legislative process.  But I think in extraordinary cases, the court has an obligation — both moral and legal — to wield its power to right iniquity.  The justices cannot sit by as states trample their citizens’ rights.

Kennedy realizes this in his majority decision, and makes a fantastic point about how we cannot foresee the morality of the future:

The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.  The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.  When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.

I deeply respect Kennedy’s willingness to say the Founding Fathers may have not been omniscient.  While I believe these titans of American history — Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, et al — were visionary, I worry that our current commentators and leaders elevate them to almost infallible status, when they are merely men, and so almost by definition fallible.  Our veneration of the Founders, capital F, borders on blind hero worship.  These men were brilliant, yes, and their invention (American democracy!) equally so, but we have to remember not to apotheosize them — because they were, occasionally, wrong.

My point here is that just because the Founding Fathers said or believed something doesn’t necessarily mean the country has to go on saying or believing that more than two centuries later.  It is important to cleave to the ideals of our country’s Founders not out of some dogmatic loyalty to them, but because they are, on the whole, right.  Every generation must think critically about this statement — like Justice Kennedy.

We cannot rely on past ideals just because we idealize the past.

* * *

I guess I don’t know how meaningful this is to say after writing a thousand words or so of what is more or less diatribe, but I really am happy with this week’s results.  Removing the Confederate flag and legalizing same-sex marriage are major coups for love, equality, humanity.  I’m proud to live in a country where these events came to pass, and I just don’t want the past to cloud that.  I want us to always recall and acknowledge, as a nation, the mistakes of our history — so that we can move forward together: respectful of our history but unburdened by its beliefs, aware of our failings but unshackled from their causes, nostalgic about our past but unbounded in our future.

NASAing of Teeth

Buckle up, boys and girls, because it’s three weeks into 2015 and I am already fucking livid.

I know that I’ve gone off before on science in politics — or, agonizingly predictably, lack thereof — but I have to do it one more time.  I have to, really, because we just put Ted Cruz in charge of NASA.

Okay, so not exactly in charge.  To be precise, the midterm election turnover in the Senate means Cruz now chairs the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness (Oxford comma officially omitted, but added here out of compunction), which oversees NASA, the NIST, the NSF, the OSTP, and apparently about 30% of all acronyms.

Why is this bad news?  By all accounts, Ted Cruz is a smart dude.  He was his high school valedictorian, went to Princeton and Harvard Law.  He should be the best of the best of what America can offer up, the upper crust of elite erudition that decides to apply itself to solving the country’s problems and propelling it into the next generation stronger, smarter, better than it was before.

Instead, Ted Cruz says shit like this:

My view of climate science is the same as that of many climate scientists.  We need a much better understanding of the climate before making policy choices that would impose substantial economic costs on our Nation.

Hi, Ted?  I have NASA on the line here.  You know, that science agency you’re about to be responsible for.  Lots of glasses and calculators and pocket protectors and weird-looking mohawks.  Anyway, they just wanted to make sure you’re aware that NINETY-FUCKING-SEVEN PERCENT OF ALL CLIMATE SCIENTISTS believe they have a handle on what’s going on, and that we need to do something about it.

Oh, but “[the] data are not supporting what the advocates are arguing”?  For a guy who knows how to use “data” correctly in a sentence, that’s not a very smart thing to say.  Here’s this thing we scientists like to call a “graph”:

I JUST.  CAN’T.  EVEN.

So the truculent Ted Cruz, who is either so brilliant he knows something the rest of us don’t or so willfully ignorant he refuses to acknowledge something the rest of us see as self-evident, is going to watch over our nation’s science policy.  I feel about as comfortable with that as I do leaving my future children at Mikey Jackson’s Daycare Center and Used Needle Emporium.

I realize that it’s maybe unfair of me to extend Cruz’s views on climate change to the rest of his scientific thinking.  But I have to.  I have to, really, because you don’t trust heart surgery to someone who believes in the healing power of leeching.  You don’t trust bridge building to someone who doesn’t know a truss from a trull.  You don’t trust polymer science to someone who believes in alchemy.

So why — why — are we trusting the future of scientific research to someone who doesn’t believe in scientific research about the future?

And I know these are criticisms that have been leveled against Cruz before; I’m not unique in my fulmination.  But I have to fulminate.  I have to, really, because 2014 was, unsurprisingly, the hottest year we’ve ever experienced — and that’s not a reference to any Kardashianic attempts to break the internet.  Just our species’ repeated attempts to break the planet.

Yet the people with guiding hands in our scientific policies choose to ignore that.  I’m not just talking about Cruz, though he makes an exceptional example.  His colleague Marco Rubio, who once said of climate change “I don’t think there’s the scientific evidence to justify it”, will be taking over leadership of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard.

OCEANS.

ATMOSPHERE.

FISHERIES.

AND THE GODDAMN COAST GUARD.

Rubio, who refuses to acknowledge that climate change, anthropogenic or not, could have catastrophic effects on the oceans and atmosphere (ironically threatening the Rubio’s hand-battered fish taco especial) is now presiding over the agencies responsible for the oceans and atmosphere.  How is this supposed to give me faith in the government’s ability to safeguard our country’s natural resources?  Our planet’s?

I can only point out the absurdity of the whole situation — no, I have to point out the absurdity of the whole situation.  I have to.  Really.  Because our country’s scientists deserve better than overseers who deny basic science.

The United States of America was arguably in the vanguard of every major technical innovation of the twentieth century.  We built, we flew, we coded.  We cracked the atom, conquered the moon, colonized the internet.  And we did these things with the help of our government, with the help of federal research money and the aid of the United States Congress.

What path do we have forward in the twenty-first century if scientific progress is held hostage by non-believers?

Polling Down

A bizarre occurrence in the world of politics this week: for the first time in the history of the Washington Post/ABC News “Approve of Your Congress Member” poll (also called the “Swear into the Phone Receiver in a Problematically Jingoistic Tirade about your Congress Member’s Lack of Patriotism” poll), the majority of respondents disapproved of their representative’s performance.

This is a dichotomy that has always amused and/or puzzled me.  Congress’ approval rating is usually awful, and yet often 90% of it is reelected every two years — meaning people think their specific representative is not to blame. Everyone thinks that the member representing their district is fighting the good fight, hamstrung by those a) liberal apologist flag-burners, or b) neocon redneck bible-thumpers, or c) lizard people.  But this poll is almost a reversal of that trend — blame being applied at the individual level, rather than to the gestalt entity of Congress with a capital C.

Does it mean anything for 2014’s midterms?  Probably not.  But I am curious to see if the trend continues, because at some point having enough people dislike you must erase incumbent advantage.  That’s a democracy.  Right?

Shut That Whole Thing Down

When I sat down to write something about the government shutdown, I first thought I’d be going off on a rant regarding recalcitrant Republicans.  However, while I do feel that invective has a time and place (and target), and while I am incredibly fed up with Washington at the moment, I think I’d actually rather try to ask you about some larger issues.  Chiefly:

Does our system work?

This is a big question.  And I hope that my raising it doesn’t make you think I believe the answer is no.  But I’m trying to figure out what the hell got us to this point, and based on the current stalemate, logjam, shut down, slim down — whatever you want to call it — I’m not convinced the question doesn’t have merit.

I’ll work my way back to this.  First, my take on current events, no questions asked:

  • Government shutdown.  Routine funding bill hijacked by Tea Party conservatives in order to attempt to defund a law which has passed the House, passed the Senate, been ruled constitutional by the SCOTUS, and — and! — has survived a popular vote referendum in the form of a presidential election.  (Trying to make the fact that I really like the law irrelevant, but this admittedly colors my commentary.)  Not sure I can fully blame the entire Republican caucus here, since many are on record as saying this tactic is, well, dumb.  So I feel that a large portion of the blame falls to Speaker John Boehner, who refuses to allow a funding bill without the defund-Obamacare provision on the floor.
  • Debt ceiling debate.  Here, blame can be shared around a little more, since Boehner and other Republicans seem to be asking for just a general conversation about deficit reduction, and Obama is refusing to negotiate.  (Again, I think I agree with Obama’s position that negotiating over what should be a routine vote to keep the government moving sets an awful precedent for the president — but it’s still a terrifying gamble.)

So, why are we here?  How are we here?  What is here, exactly?

What is easy: “here” is purgatory.  We could be saved by a deal (or by crumbling resolve on one side or the other), or damned by inaction and obstinacy — and I do think that defaulting on the debt is a very, very bad thing, for us and for the rest of the world.

Why and how are harder.  And right about now is where speculation about my original question — does our system work? — starts.  Some musings about the root cause of this, for lack of a more applicable term, colossal clusterfuck:

  • Congress’ approval rating is abysmal.  At the same time, a staggering 90% of Congress was reelected in 2012.  Why the dichotomy?  I can think of a lot of reasons, though I’m not sure how many, or if any, are true.  Americans distrust or even dislike faceless institutions, but connect with individuals, perhaps.  The resources behind incumbent representatives and senators are enormous, definitely.  Gerrymandered districts make it too easy for representatives to pander to their constituency, probably.
  • Tied inextricably to gerrymandering is the basis of our democracy — the two-party system.  Would gridlock dissolve with more parties represented (#bullmoose2016)?  I’m not sure if total impasses like the current executive-legislative feud don’t exist in parliamentary countries, or if I just don’t follow other nations’ political news well enough to hear about these kinds of situations… Probably the latter.  Having to form coalitions to govern seems, on the surface, like an easy way to encourage compromise, but it also runs the risk of those coalitions falling apart like old marzipan.  And also leads to parties like the Piratenpartei Deutschland or the Israeli taxi driver coalition gaining seats in the legislature.  So choose — government shutdown by insolvency? or intransigence?
  • Also tied to gerrymandering and pandering is the length of a House member’s term.  Two years in a world where the campaign cycle seems to last one year and nine moths doesn’t really leave much time for the governing they were elected to do.  And it’s hard to go against the party — and, therefore, the purse’s — grain when you’re worried about raising enough money to compete so frequently.  So instead we get reps who kowtow to their constituents and are hectored by their superiors.  This is not to say that either obeying the will of the voters who elected you or following the strategy laid out by party leadership is inherently bad… but we’ve constructed a system in which extremes dictate policy.  Districts are heavily imbalanced and vote frequently, leading to victorious candidates who heavily lean to one side of the discourse — candidates who must worry about fending off challenges from someone even more extreme in two years.  It’s of note that only the U.S. and the Federated States of Micronesia have two year lower-house terms.  Micronesia has a total population of around 101,000 people.
  • But what about when these representatives can’t be herded by their superiors — and instead hold those superiors hostage?  This, to me, is what seems to be happening to Boehner.  I don’t think a majority of the Republican caucus wants to fight this current battle on shut down vs. Obamacare (though a majority may still want to defund the ACA some other way — I haven’t tried to count).  But the vocal minority is enough that Boehner is worried about his job — worried that if he ignores Obamacare and carries on funding national parks, monuments, NASA, the FBI, etc. he’ll face a coup, organized by the minority in his own party.
  • Now, why would Boehner put himself over his country?  He’s an elected representative, dammit.  But this is, I think, often a less selfless position than it could (should?) be.  There’s a lot of ego in politics.  There has to be in order to think you have a chance of winning an election.  Unfortunately, ego sometimes seems like the only thing our elected officials share.  I suppose it’s possible, too, that Boehner actually believes this current argument over Obamacare is what the people want, but it certainly seems to me like Boehner is beholden to his title and his ego rather than what’s best for the nation… or even his party.
  • The flip side of this trillion-dollar coin is Senator Ted Cruz, who seems to have almost single-handedly goaded the House into this whole debacle — though this is probably just as apt as saying you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t stop it from drinking the entire goddamn lake.  Cruz’s posturing and filibustering seem to me to be driven, again, by his ego and desire for higher office.  He’s on many shortlists for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and could potentially be laying the groundwork for a run.  Driving the country to bankruptcy is probably a pretty decent thing to have on your resume during an election.
  • Is ego only a national phenomena?  I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t follow California state politics well enough to know our crazies, but it seems more sensible than this lumbering temper tantrum we call a federal legislative branch.  Are the people in state legislatures there because they care about issues and not TV face time?  I do realize I’m generalizing about national politicians here, which is unfair — some of them are more dedicated to moving the nation forward and helping the people they represent than I am to, well, anything at this point.  But there are enough who seem to think Congress is merely a way to hear themselves talk that I have to raise the question.
  • Tangentially related to this issue of ego is the question of who, exactly, is serving in our government.  One look at Rick Perry’s transcript tells us it’s not necessarily the best and brightest — the man got a C in P.E., for chrissakes.  (A C!  In P.E.!  Rick Perry!  Have you seen the guy?  He has shoulders like an 80s power suit.)  And while I understand that the nation can’t be run entirely by Stanford graduates (…or can it?), if I hear one more politician talking about dinosaur farts as a cause of climate change I may start frothing at the mouth.  I think the lack of requirements to be elected to office in America is a beautiful thing (suck it, landed gentry), but it does occasionally lead to people like Michelle Bachmann.  That being said, this is the point where I have to admit that Ted Cruz may very well be the best and the brightest, even if I vehemently disagree with him.  And even if he doesn’t really act like it.
  • Ted Cruz is not the norm, though.  What can we do to encourage people like Cruz — those most qualified for public service — to step forward, instead of retreating to lucrative private sector jobs?  I’m sure the looming threat of federal furloughs doesn’t help.  Nor does the fear of being unable to enact change from inside an organization too paralyzed to even pay its debts.
    • Side bar: split infinitives.  Yea or nay?  Maybe Congress should decide, but for what it’s worth I fall firmly on the yea side.  I think they convey meaning in a different way than “too paralyzed even to pay its debts” does.  I mean, imagine if the Enterprise‘s five-year mission was “to go boldly” where no man has gone before.  Ew.
  • Science fiction brings me to the topic of science funding, which — unsurprisingly — is shut down along with the majority of the federal government. (Don’t worry, though, the ISS is still running.)  This in a week where six Americans share between them two Nobel prizes, won through research.  Much of which was federally funded.  …Yes, I realize this is an effect of gridlock and not a cause.  Sorry.  It’s still important.

So that’s my take.  It is, undoubtedly, grossly simplified: we’re here — maybe? — because of gerrymandering, short terms, incumbency advantage, and a lack of altruists in Congress.  Also it’s probably the lizard people’s fault, somehow.

I do feel like I need to mention that I friggin’ love the federal government — if I elected everyone, it’d probably be bigger (but also svelter, like a panther).  Kvetching’s just in my nature.  So I know I’ve offered no solutions here, and for that, I apologize.  Solving is harder than criticizing, after all.  And, to top it off, I think solving this will take large, institutional change.

Just the kind of change that Washington is really good at implementing.