I woke up to a country I didn’t recognize

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I am stunned.  Although I spent the last week cautioning people from assuming a Clinton victory, although I told myself it’s never over until the ballots are cast, I realize now that I never actually entertained the possibility of a Trump victory.  I had too much faith in the basic decency of the American people, in the strength of our institutions, in the essential goodness of the American experiment.  I understand now that I was naïve.

It is possibly the only thing I understand.

I haven’t seen exit polls or autopsies.  I have not read commentary or watched spin.  Right now I am working from the barest electoral facts, which is a majority in the electoral college and a majority of the popular vote.  I have no intellectual escape route: For this result to be announced, something has gone terribly wrong somewhere among something I thought I understood.  I don’t believe that widespread electoral fraud is feasible.  I don’t believe that polling so consistent can be consistently wrong together.  And I don’t believe that the American people would elect to the highest office a buffoon who is open about his racism, misogyny, and narcissism.  But at least one of those things has happened.

Very soon – already, I suspect – there will begin the quadrennial nodding of heads and reading of bones to discern the “true America”.  We’ll hear the lessons people should learn from this – what Clinton did wrong, what Trump got right.  It will take only a day or so for this to crystallize into paeans about the wisdom of the American voter, where the consensus is that Democrats moved too far too fast for a country not ready for the change.  This victory will become, in hindsight, inevitable.  And the cycle of bullshit will begin again.

But it will be a darker time.  We just held an election that, more than ever before in my lifetime, offered two stark choices:  The America of the future, or the America of the past.  We had a chance to move past our history, to begin a new covenant that recognizes how our country is changing and celebrates that change, that preserves core American values while accepting new circumstances, that would fashion itself into a beacon for the 21st century.  And we had the opportunity to plug our fingers in our ears, scream loudly, and stamp our feet demanding that we somehow travel back to a mythical time that never existed, an America of the past – a time where vast swaths of the population suffered routine indignities and oppression for the crime of being different, when people knew their place and were slapped down for thinking about leaving it, when the accidents of your birth mattered more than the content of your character.

We were engaged in a battle for the soul of America.  And the good guys lost.

I don’t know what’s coming next.  I have one foot over the abyss and am trying right now just to regain my balance.  This election has taught me that I do not really understand my nation or its people the way I thought I did, and the way ahead is shrouded.  But I do know history.  I know that it never ends well when a people chooses an erratic self-absorbed, willfully ignorant, and simply hate-filled leader.  I know that it never ends well when a nation decides to scapegoat a fraction of its population to avoid demographic fact.  I know that it never ends well when an aging power becomes aware of the fragility of its status and turns inward to root out the supposed enemies sapping its vitality.  We’ve seen this play before.

And perhaps that’s the core of my anger and disappointment.  Our grand experiment to transcend history, to do better, to be better than what came for … that lies broken on the floor.  We are just as scared, as easily manipulated, as damaged as anyone else.  We can be swayed by empty slogans and schoolyard bullying and adolescent appeals.  Despite falling in line with fevered calls to recognize American exceptionalism, the electorate has rendered America ordinary.  I wasn’t prepared for that.

I hope I will never accept it.

 

In which Dinesh D’Souza proves he doesn’t know the difference between past tense and present tense.

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(written in response to an insipid Facebook post by the -- thankfully -- inimitable Dinesh D'Souza, showing the idiotic comic copied above)
“Is” is not the same as “was”.
 
But, hey, what would you expect from a hack?
 
I think it’s actually hilarious that defenders of the modern GOP think they can win arguments by brining up what the Republican Party was before the Southern Strategy. Sure, the GOP used to have moderates and even progressives in it, and sure, the GOP of the 1860s took some bold stands on racial equality. Moreover, the Democratic Party was home to racists, segregationists, and secessionists.
 
Oops, there’s that key word again…”was“. Starting in the middle of the 20th Century, the Democratic Party began to take a more progressive stand and to drive out the racists, segregationists, and secessionists. Luckily for those outcasts, the other major party — that would be the Republican Party, if you’re having trouble keeping track — decided that, to score cheap electoral victory, it would happily become the new home for racists, segregationists, and secessionists. It banked on exploiting the fears and prejudices of the White majority because electoral success looked easier that way. Of course, you can’t spend 40 years pandering to the lowest ugly factors of human nature without eventually becoming tainted by them and transforming into the beast you thought you were controlling.  So here we are today, with Donald Trump nothing more than the unfiltered id of the raw sewer of racial entitlement and resentment that Richard Nixon, Kevin Phillips, and Lee Atwater tapped into.
It must be conceded that “The Democratic Party opposed integration and Civil Rights for over 100 years”.  That puts the end of their opposition to, hmmm, let’s see, carry the one… oh, yeah, the 1960s.  Meanwhile, the Republican Party embraces racist attitudes and policies today — not fifty years ago, but today.  Really, which one are we supposed to cheer?  Proving once again that Dinesh D’Souza is an idiot.
I am actually quite proud of the fact that I was disdaining Dinesh D’Souza back in the late 1980s, before he was a national disgrace and a widely-known joke.

Versailles on the Potomac

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{Originally penned 2015 Apr 26 and recently rescued from the Drafts folder}

So there have been police confrontations (and possibly even riots) in Baltimore over the past 12 hours, but apparently CNN didn’t feel compelled to cover them.  Instead they kept with covering the White House Correspondents’ Dinner where various people, including the President, got to make jokes.  Justification for ignoring the major story a mere hour’s drive north included:

“You can find a live feed if you actually want to watch what’s going on”

though apparently not on CNN, a 24-hour news network to which people (supposedly) turn for exactly that — live coverage of significant events.

Also offered was this gem:

“People will be informed….They’ll find out all of what happened in the streets of Baltimore by this time tomorrow”

I sort of thought that informing people was exactly the role of — and I repeat myself — a twenty-four hour news network.  But hey, maybe I’m old fashioned.  And this could easily be spun into a “death of old media” story about how traditional news renders itself irrelevant by ceding the breaking stuff to the Internet., and get off my lawn, and all that.  But I want to go a different direction.

This is not just CNN old-media cluelessness.  This is a symptom of rot at the core of our democracy.  The opinion-shapers and policy-makers of the Republic gathered in that room, and it was shown for all to goggle over.  They entertained themselves and rubbed shoulders and celebrated just how accomplished and how connected they are.  And they are!   All the big names in politics come out and make nice with the so-called journalists tasked with covering them.  A big messy live situation?  That would ruin the ambience.

The WHCD has become a festering boil, a signal of the decline of American reporting and the rise of what might be called the journalism-industrial complex.   All that matters to the powers that be is a navel-gazing exercise of petty partisan politics and vast egoism.  While real people march and protest and die, the influence-peddlers of our day can’t be bothered to even note it in passing.

On riots, protests, and the legitimacy of violence (short)

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For everyone who has counseled the citizens of Baltimore (and Ferguson and…) that “violence is not the answer” and that it would be better if everyone just protested peacefully:

1) As has now been documented extensively, the protests were by and large peaceful — and even more by and large, ignored by the national media.

2) Violence certainly is an  answer — and one which history shows can be quite effective in prompting change.  See for proof the French Revolution, or the American Revolution, for that matter.  Of course violence is a random and uncontrolled beast, and the odds are that the reaction it prompts will not be the outcome desired… but usually, something will change.  For people who’ve spent their whole lives trapped in a system crushing them without end, any change might be welcome, at least at first.

Would you prefer peaceful protest to violent outbursts?  Would you see people advocate for the redress of grievances without resorting to threats or damage to property or even lives?  Then address the systemic evils, the in-built hardships and unspoken oppressions, the things done not through active racist thought but through the far worse passive racist without-thought.  You want people to respect the police?  Then demand that the police behave respectably.  You want your cities to be bastions of peace?  Then save them from being cauldrons of hopelessness.

Above all, if you want this problem to “just go away”, pay attention to it — and for love of all that is true, pay attention even when the fires have gone out and the windows have been repaired and the next big distraction comes down the tube.  This problem has been centuries in the making and we’ve squandered five decades or more in addressing it — it won’t ever go away until we finally put it away.

Happy Victory over the Confederacy Day

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Lee Surrenders

On this day one hundred fifty years ago, a scruffy, scrappy, but determined general accepted the surrender of his well-born, well-dressed, and traitorous counterpart, effectively ending a vast sedition launched in the name of slavery, orchestrated by cowardly politicians, and fought — like most wars are — by poor men dying at the behest of rich men. There was no nobility in the losing side; there was no honor; there was only the proposition that one man might justly hold another as property, and that in support of that one twisted principle, oaths may be broken, loyalty suborned, and a great democracy threatened with sectarian dissolution.

Stragglers of the Confederate army fought on for a few more weeks. Their descendants, stragglers of history, fight on today. Their cause is equally dishonorable, equally seditious, and, thankfully, equally ultimately futile.

 

This is important: What we know about what happened in Boston

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Nothing.

We know nothing of import yet, and won’t for several hours, if not an entire day. That is the way of these things, and the truth of them.

Nonetheless, the circus has begun. Each network has already offered its own (or its several own) opinions on who caused the bombing, who planted the bombs, and why. They’ve thrown up experts onto the screen, some with actual expertise but none with actual knowledge. How do I know? Because anyone who does actually know something is busy right now, with, you know, the investigating and the saving lives and stuff.  People who know are too busy contributing for them to waste time satisfying our ghoulish need for details.

The terror of actions like this, for me, does not lie in the risks we face or the suddenly-heightened sense of my own mortality.  The terror lies in the amazing speed with which this sort of event divides us, inflames us, sets us against each other.  It did not take long for World Net Daily to come up with its list of suspect ideologies to be blamed.  It didn’t take long for CNN.  It didn’t take long for me — and that’s what scares me.  I have to keep reminding myself that we don’t know anything.  We don’t know if this is the work of a terrorist group (foreign or domestic), or a lone madman, or someone with a grudge or a defective sense of grandeur or an aching consuming need to grab our attention.

It is so easy to take such an event and slot it into our comfortable pre-existing narratives. We spend our time imagining the worst of our opponents, so when the awful happens, we say “I can see how [group X] might be behind this sort of thing”, and then we seamlessly convince ourselves that they are behind it, and eventually we forget that we’re just speculating.

There is a nebulous, magical radius around the site of a catastrophe.  Within that distance, we find the extraordinary ordinary people, the ones who run into fire and smoke and fear, who reach across the yawning divide and yank people back, the ones who won’t give up and won’t let go and who unthinkingly do the right thing.  But beyond that special radius, it seems we fall prey to the worse angels of our nature: We accuse and tar and disdain; we assume the worst; we fall upon each other in anger and accusation.

So, tonight, let us remember this:  We don’t know anything yet.  The who and the how and the why will come out, will be known, will be important, but not tonight.  We don’t know anything tonight.  How this happened and how it could have been avoided and how it might happen again — these are questions of weight, but not right now.  We don’t know anything — except that some have died, many are injured, and many more are grieving.

Tonight, that is our truth.

[Note: This post has been edited for spelling and grammar.]

Published in the Hun Review

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This is just a list of things I’ve managed to get published in the Hun Review, my school’s literary annual:

Blaze

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A thrill runs through them –
swarming in the darkness cast by the night sky –
as a man steps to the microphone
And harangues..
A moment before they were a hundred lives
with a thousand cares
milling about in momentary association.
A moment later they are a seething oneness
with two hundred eyes
but a single vision that is somehow
still blinded.

It takes just a moment,
the tiniest sliver of time,
no longer than a spark takes
to ignite a blaze.
With it they blaze,
their murmurs become chants,
their chants become roars,
their roars become silence
of the most thunderous kind
full of intent
empty of craft
finding meaning in their meaningless
taking shape in their formlessness.

Through it all their leader
provides their words
massages their emotions.
validates their prejudices
In charge but not in control
he is just another expression
another organ
of the dark spirit animating their shouts
which fears the light
but revels in the fire
and loves to see it consume.

A will emerges in the crowd
Not the will of the leader
or of the people
or of any person
but the Will of generations
of a hungry jealous impulse
born of starving days,
of freezing nights,
of countless unformed terrors
of millennia of slights real or projected
of infinite loves offered and rejected
of all the individual scars borne in common
with their parents and their parents’ parents
and even unto the first generation.

This Will emerges from the crowd
diffusing from their pores,
their mouths, their eyes,
and looks upon the fire that blazes still
the center of attention yet curiously
unheeded.
The Will looks upon the leader
calling out the slogans
stoking the crowd.
The Will looks upon the crowd
Feeding the leader with their adulation
Feeding the fire with their anger and fear
Feeding the darkness with their tainted light
The Will looks upon this
small patch of world
and deciding it is good
returns Itself to slumber
knowing Its time has not yet come

But it will

again.

From Arizona to Missouri

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In the summer of 2007, I had an epiphany. It was about, of all things, Rock, Paper, Scissors. Rock, Paper, Scissors is a non-transitive method of decision between two people, wherein each secretly picks one of the items and they compare. The key bit is that each item ties with itself, loses to one item, and beats the other. The traditional phrasing is, “Rock blunts scissors; scissors cut paper; paper covers rock”. It’s that last one I want to focus on. Paper covers rock? What the heck does that mean? How is that a win? Truth be told, it’s bothered me for literally decades; but I’ve finally come to an understanding I can accept.

In 2007, I had the opportunity to visit the national Pearl Harbor Memorial in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Commemorating a naval attack, it is fittingly primarily a naval monument. The two great anchors of the monument are the USS Arizona and the USS Missouri. The Arizona was a battleship sunk during the Pearl Harbor attacks. Though most of the Pacific Fleet was refloated and rebuilt in the years following the attack, the Arizona could not be salvaged or moved. It sits at the bottom of what was once Battleship Row. The Navy operates a tender from shore to the stark elegant observation station that has been constructed above the wreck. From it you can look down on the coral-encrusted hulk of the Arizona, watery tomb for the majority of the servicemen killed that day.

The Missouri was BB-63, the last battleship ever constructed by the United States. Now a museum ship docked at Pearl Harbor, the Missouri is still an intimidating sight. Towering over the shoreline, she bears three turrets each with three 16-inch guns capable of throwing an explosive shell a distance of 20 miles and landing within a circle of radius six inches. The Missouri was a great and terrible engine of war, and everything in her design speaks to the awesome destructive powers that could be marshaled by an enraged industrial democracy. But standing on her deck, I found the most stirring and moving part was not her giant main guns, nor the anti-aircraft machine guns still deployed on the side, nor even the capped tubes wherein Tomahawk cruise missiles had been installed in the 1980s. It wasn’t the sweeping bow or the grim turrets or the majestic bridge. It was a simple golden circle fixed to an otherwise nondescript spot on the mid-decks.

In September 1945, at that spot on the decks of the Missouri, in the waters of Tokyo Bay, representatives of the Empire of Japan signed the formal documents indicating their surrender to the forces of the United Nations, ending the Second World War. In a brisk twenty-three minute ceremony, a band of perhaps twenty men — Japanese, American, Canadian, British, and Russian — affixed their names to two copies of the surrender documents to enact the armistice. From that point on the Missouri, you can just see the alabaster arc of the Arizona memorial. Between Arizona and Missouri lie a few hundred yards of open water and a few hundred thousand American casualties. They bookend the American involvement in a war that spanned a decade and a half and claimed upwards of sixty million victims — a number that, even living at the dawn of the most dangerous century, must give us pause.

Standing on the Missouri in mid August, I overhead a museum guide relate a story that struck me immediately. It’s one of those little tales that museum guides love, a tidbit that uses the mundane to illuminate the immense. Signing the Japanese surrender document was, as you might imagine, an event of great import in anyone’s life and, as you might also imagine, it could be the source of great trepidation. The representative of Canada, L. Moore Cosgrave, was apparently overcome by his nervousness and, while signing the Japanese copy, signed on the line for the French Republic. This forced everyone following him to also sign on the wrong lines. Eventually, concern over the implications of this error lead General Richard Sutherland to cross out the names of the nations and pencil in the correct ones.

It was a minor, totally banal detail. Yet it was also a striking, astonishing thing. At that moment, General MacArthur stood in supreme command of the largest, most powerful military forces in the history of the world. Having brought the Empire of Japan to its knees, the Allied Powers held uncontested dominion over East Asia and the Pacific. How truly bizarre was General Sutherland’s consternation – between them, these men standing on the deck of the Missouri had fought the most devastating war ever known, had overseen barbarities of a nature hard to contemplate, had rained down obliteration on entire cities and had sent millions of men to their deaths to do it. Yet here they were, worried that somehow, a signature in the wrong place could render the document worthless and the exercise moot — that somehow, a misplaced name could unmake the surrender.

And that’s the hidden key. The Missouri, the last and greatest battleship, the apex of naval construction, serves as a very present icon of physical force — standing at the head of an unbroken lineage stretching all the way back to the first rock lifted by a semi-evolved ape in assault upon its brethren. Our long and bloody history attests to the power of that rock. But on that day in Tokyo Bay, it was not the battleship that mattered, or the airplanes or submarines, or even the atomic bombs looming in the background. To the assembled warriors of the most terrible conflict, what mattered was the document. Paper trumps rock.

And isn’t that the way, when you think about it? We often mistake the things as the drivers of history: wheat and salt, gold and oil. But somehow it’s the pieces of paper that seem to truly matter, to truly steer the course of human life. In 1914, a relatively minor Balkan War was transformed into the First World War by German violations of Belgian neutrality, codified in the Treaty of London of 1839. Informed that the British would go to war to defend Belgium’s neutral status, German Chancellor von Bethmann Hollweg expressed his shock that they would expand the war over what he infamously dismissed as a “scrap of paper”. That scrap of paper shook the foundations of Europe and remade the world order. Its spiritual successor, the Treaty of Versailles, would help engender the next world war.

The Declaration of Independence. The Constitution of the United States. The Magna Carta and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Emancipation Proclamation. The Fourteen Points and the Atlantic Charter — mere words on a page, just scraps of paper. But nothing more feared by tyrants, more despised by despots. It was no accident that the Soviets registered every typewriter and decreed unauthorized use of a photocopier to be a felony offense, punishable by jail time or even internal exile. They knew in their bones that they faced a greater existential threat from little scratches in black and white than from all the nuclear missiles in the world.

In a very real sense, the most disruptive weapon ever invented has been the printing press.

And there, under glass, on the gently rolling deck of the mightiest warship ever constructed, was a piece of paper that had ended a war merely because it said so. The history of the war was written in the blood of its combatants – but it was ended through ink. The document contains little in the way of soaring oratory or grand pronouncements. It is a legal thing, a dry thing, a weary thing yet resplendent. That piece of paper recognized a changed reality and so created it.

Words on a page. Scraps of paper. They give form and life to the ideas they contain. Through them we transcend the oral and enter the eternal.

Paper trumps rock — may it ever be so.

The Memory of Pain

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Awhile back, I had a toothache.

I don’t mean a sort of ache-in-the-gums, vague, “oh, I’d better brush more regularly” toothache. I am talking about a full-blown nuclear meltdown in my teeth. Throughout my life I have been blessed with pretty strong teeth but now the evil forces of dental decay had their vengeance. It caught me entirely by surprise and totally unequipped to deal with the sudden implacable demands made upon me by my screaming nervous system. For more than a week, the rest of my life receded to the periphery of my cognition and I became absorbed with finding any relief whatsoever. I learned, too late and to my regret, that in matters of dental hygiene, the wages of laziness is agony.

But my agony, per se, is not what I want to write about. During this ordeal I suffered through every shade and flavor of physical pain I can imagine. At times the toothache was a dull pressure in my jaw. Other times, without warning, a spike of pain would impale me, a localized burst of misery shrinking my world down to one malfunctioning molar. There were even occasions when my ears hurt, a smooth sine wave of suffering slowly sidling from the socket of my tooth along my jaw, into my inner ear, and back. Sometimes I suffered stoically; sometimes, lights went off behind my eyes and I jumped into motion unable to bear sitting still with my pain.

There were respites. A steady stream of cold water provided fleeting but effective relief. Zinc tablets helped, apparently by poisoning the nerve or some other awful thing. A fourfold dosage of Motrin came to my rescue on multiple occasions. In the end, exhaustion itself served as a palliative. Through it all, the toothache remained – sometimes chained off in a dark corner of my mind, like a long-forgotten nightmare, but omnipresent and always trying to claw its way back into the light. I was aware of it, every texture and hue of misery, and it was aware of me. I might achieve a standoff but I knew we would keep wrestling.

That’s when I became conscious of something which I suppose I’d known but which I’d never really comprehended: The human mind cannot remember pain. We can remember the fact of pain but we (or at least I) don’t re-experience the actual sensation. This is quite different from other memories. At this moment I can cast my mind back to a concert and relive Marc Cohn leading an audience in a Gospel rendition of “Walking in Memphis”. I can feel the sunlight on my face and I can feel the excitement as I walked onto the field at Stanford Stadium to receive my degree. I can still taste the cake from the wedding of my best and oldest friend. But for the life of me I cannot recall, cannot reconstruct, cannot relive the pain of this world-shattering toothache, from a bare month ago. Even during the toothache, during those moments I was pain-free, I was conscious only of the fact of my toothache and the likelihood of its return.

I’m not complaining, of course. Pain is not the sort of thing one asks for in life. Once done with, it is happiest consigned to the past. But I still find it curious. I don’t particularly want to relive my car accident from December but I can. There’s a moment where things moved too quickly for me to comprehend, and so I do not remember anything but a blur. But my memories of pain are different. They’re not missing, exactly. It’s more like they’ve been covered by clear plastic, visible but not touchable – the difference, I suppose, between a window and a picture. Although I know that I experienced such moments, they still seem to belong to someone else. Stability and equanimity are gained by severing the connection, but something, too, is lost.

When I was twelve going on thirteen, on one ordinary June day, my father committed suicide. It happened out of the blue – my father was never moody or depressed, at least to the eyes of a twelve-year-old – and it sundered my world. I have the distinct memory of the fact of vertigo, the sudden sensation that the floor had been pulled out from under me. I can remember that I received the news at the screen door near the kitchen in the house that, up until this point, we lived. I remember clearly that I had just opened the first issue of a new magazine devoted to the then-hippest computer, a Commodore 64, and I can even recall a flash of irritation at being called away from my current article over to the kitchen door, where I was told my father was dead.

I can’t remember who told me, though, and I can’t remember what they said. My next memory is of lying sprawled face-down on our old couch, on the other side of the house, keening a wordless cry. And now, more than two and a half decades later, I might recall that moment – and I feel sympathy for that almost-teenage boy – but I cannot bring the feeling back. Without quite intending to, I have lacquered over that bit of my life mosaic. It took four years, and several intense sessions with a counselor, for me to even admit to myself that I had painted it over. I now know I felt these things, but I cannot now feel them again, not even in echoes.

I’m not sure how I feel about that. I don’t particularly want to experience pain, but once I have, I don’t want to have wasted the effort.