It's like infrequent random blog, written on a half pint of tequila...
Science Through Video Games
Physics is hard. Quantum Physics is much harder. People learn more quickly
and easily when they can actually experience the scientific laws and
theories you're trying to teach them. A few simple experiments involving
motion, force, and gravity can give a good example of how
Matter and energy in spacetime, that's physics without bringing up math (you're welcome). Quantum physics has an even bigger initial hurdle, because we can't experience the actions on the quantum scale. Both the size of the particles involved and the speed at which they move are too small for us to observe and measure without laboratory equipment. The actual definition of one second of time passing is not saying 'one-one-thousand', or the tick of a clock (what was that one tick set to?), but the amount of time it takes for radiation to make 9 192 631 770 jumps to different energy levels of a ground state caesium 133 atom. 9 192 631 770. So a second takes about nine billion tiny vibration-like movement around an atom, a small chunk of matter we can't see with the naked eye. Slightly related fact: It would take 280 years for a person to count to nine billion.
All of this is counterintuitive. Slight incongruities and unexplainable aspects of regular physics experiments sent scientists to the blackboard trying to explain them, and the theories they came up with needed to wait decades before experiments ultimately verified them. We had to wait for some eclipses and technological advances to prove relativity and show how the Uncertainty Principle governs the small bits of matter.
But it's thanks to these discoveries that we have been able to develop computational technology to develop video games that we can understand and experience quantum physics and the fifth dimension.
Early computers were size of the bedrooms, then shrunk as we were able to build smaller and smaller transistors on silicon chips, and by the mid-seventies we had pong, and by the mid-eighties we had Mario running along a 2D world, stomping goombas and collecting bling.
In the nineties, the advent of 3D gaming technology meant, "the same principles that enable the world's leading scientists and engineers to visualize complex information will now revolutionize video entertainment in the home." So said Jim Clark the founder of Silicon Graphics Inc, which made great leaps in three-dimensional computer technology around this time.
Just like tens of thousands of years ago, when killing your food with a stick and trying to build a makeshift shelter in the woods (like a lot of games allow you to do), the best learning is repetitive and relevant. Flipping through a science textbook can be a slog. Understanding how certain scientific ideas work by having Mario carry a giant turnip halfway across a level to dump in some stew for a power moon is a heart-pumping challenge.
It isn't necessary for the game itself to be overtly educational. Simply playing the game is able to be a learning experience, and not just 'how' to win. You learn how to adapt to a new environment, with different rules than those you interact with in real life. And as the games advanced, so did the intricacy of their environments.
There is certainly complication in physics, and correspondingly there can be complication in virtual worlds that have their own physics set by game developers, which affects not only the character the player is maneuvering, but everything else in the world.
We even call it a Physics Engine.
See, the standard model of physics is...uh...this:
If there was a playbook for the universe, this is it. The standard model tells us how all the particles and the space (ahem, fields) between the particles work. It is not one hundred percent perfect (where art thou, graviton?), but it does more than any other theory before it, combining classical physics (the study how atoms and above (from rocks to people to planets) operate) and quantum physics (for atoms and below).
In video games, which are made of ones and zeroes made of flickering electrical signals, there is the physics engine, which is a series of interconnected mathematical equations that can be added to every virtual character or movable object in the game (like a treasure chest, a weapon, a rock, a tree, etc.). It can also be adjusted differently for each object simply by clicking and dragging along a digital lever or knob. Make your tree heavier, or more subject to the pull of gravity, which will be all the more clear when the player interacts with it. Set the strength and tint of the light, which can affect how and what the player will see. Add natural objects like clouds, and then give them unnatural qualities like health-increasing or health-decreasing if a player walks or flies through it. Then duplicate the object as many times as you'd like. The physics engine is the playbook for the not-actually-physical universe you are able to create.
Press 'play' and suddenly the fourth dimension (time) is incorporated. Immediately the pre-set conditions will be activated, and like a Big Bang, your computer-made universe has begun. Until you press the pause button, and then move the slider for the player's maximum speed because it was taking too long for them to reach the first marker.
The game development software is malleable enough for the creator to indulge in all sorts of exploration and experimentation. And just like the actual discipline of physics and its quantum counterpart, the more time you spend experimenting, the more you learn about the types of environments as you create them.
Space is not a vacuum, and neither is the artificial space you begin with in game design. We can build a universe. We've bypassed exploring our solar system/galaxy and have instead focussed on creating large, simulated environments with computer technology. And we're building them out of some of the smallest particles in the universe. Transistors shuffle electrons through gates that are getting closer and closer to the size of DNA strands (10 nanometers to approximately 3.4 nanometers).
We are tinkering with the very basic building blocks of the universe, and we've found it easier so far to go microscopic than macroscopic. Smashing extremely small particles together after speeding them up to ridiculously high speeds, check. When it comes to the Big Bang, cosmic inflation and supernovae, we can simulate these events on more and more powerful computers, making slight differences to create alternate starting conditions for our universe.
Correspondingly, our entertainment is becoming more richly detailed and interactive, namely open-world video games, loosely defined as one that not only permits but encourages exploration and non-linear gameplay (no level one followed by level two followed by bonus round, etc.). Objectives can be completed without restrictions of order or time, the player deciding their own pace and plan. And while these types have games have existed for decades, they have become more lifelike.
How far off we are from it being difficult to tell the difference between simulation and reality is not easy to ascertain, but how far we've come in only thirty five years since the first Nintendo console is astonishing. It's not that we'll get lost in the virtual world. It's that we can learn from it. Whether we continue to stare at screens (from phone to theatre-sized) or wear VR goggles while floating in an immersion tank, we will have choices of the world we want to live in. Research within simulations that can teach us more about our own reality. Fantasy tourism. Maybe you've seen all the exotic locals on earth, but how about fictional planets that look and feel pretty damn close?
The games we have now (your GTAs, your God of Wars, your Red Deads, your Breath of the Wilds) are about carefully juggling skills and abilities and resources to achieve short and long term goals. This can be rather complex.
Chomsky said that the proof that the average citizen can certainly retain and apply complicated structures of interrelated information could be seen in the obsession and discussion of sports statistics and how adjusting strategies based on this information could result in the desired effect (a win). In recent years, contract negotiations and salary caps becoming another aspect of this 'field of study'. Perhaps the subprime mortgage crisis could be easily explained if it was applied to building a football team's offensive line.
Or you can boot up your console, and juggle several forms of in-game currencies as if they were quadratic equations. You're in a role playing game. There are a lot of important numbers and symbol to keep track of. Your health, your current weapon and its strength and its ammunition level, your defence (not to be confused with health), your basic supplies, your crafted supplies that can be made out of your basic supplies, your currency, your secondary currency for certain higher end items, and a possible tertiary currency for a ever-changing selection of limited time items. All of which need to be considered in tandem for whatever the problem or challenge is currently in front of you. There needs to be a familiarity with engaging in the basic forms of exchange.
The same goes for mapping. The arrangement of information meant to represent items and locations throughout the world. Some of the earliest drawings of human civilization are maps. From the night sky to agricultural information to military strategy to not getting lost as you travel to your uncle's house, the basic necessities of maps cannot be understated. Visual representations - and repeated examinations of them - are are essential learning tools. It's become a stand-in term for any sort of complicated situation or process (ex: 'the map of the human genome', 'the map of the universe').
In open world video games, the map plays this same role. But you can play - with a higher degree of difficulty - without getting the map, and just finding items and locations as you explore the world. And through doing this, you create a sort of mental map, knowing where items and places are located in relation to other items and places.
Science is searching for a map of everything, but for the moment are forced to find items and locations and attempt to link even slightly relatable pieces together, and by doing this we are creating a sort of mental map. It's just that everything would be easier if we found this everything map first.
But above all, even if we're just trying to make a vague comparisons of learning in video games to learning in general sciences, the most unique aspect of 3D open world gaming is how the Second Joystick acts like the Fifth Dimension.
Big, open-world video games of the last few years have tried to outdo its predecessors in terms of scale and detail, while their root mechanics haven't changed that much. While being able to do so much is new, being able to observe so much goes all the way back to Super Mario 64, the first Mario game in 3D. But not just 3D. Also 4D, because of the passage of time. Even though there is no timer in this game, there is the passage of time and its basic effects, as in 'the moment before you jump, the moment of your jump, the moment of your landing on the top of a goomba, the moment of its death'. This may seem like a very basic observation, but it shows how innately we understand the passage of time, and how we take it for granted, even in a simulated world). But not just 4D. Also 5D.
In Super Mario 64 and many, many video games that came after you are looking down on your character in what is a third-person perspective. Meaning you typically have the ability to move the perspective around to see yourself from the back, side, above, below, and in front. Today, this is done with the second joystick on your controller (the first joystick being reserved for movement). You can completely move this perspective around as you run and jump around while time passes. You can see your character from 'outside of the game'.
But what is this perspective? In Mario 64, the conceit was explained away as if this was another character of the game flying above you and holding a camera, filming your every move for 'you the player' to experience the world and move Mario around in it.
Successive games - from the Grand Theft Autos to The Legend of Zeldas - did away with the character aspect, and the shifting perspective that is completely in control of the player is just a given. This setup is akin to a sort of 'out of body experience', the kind that people claimed to have felt when they nearly died, or experienced in hallucinations. They are times when they fee like they have stepped outside of reality.
In these video games, you have complete control of this perspective, rotating the joystick around and around, angling it just so, which might then allow you to make a certain jump or attack in just the right way. To control yourself and control how you see yourself (even while 'being' yourself). This is one of those 'hard to wrap your head around' concepts that come with trying to talk about the fifth dimension.
But for a generation of gamers, it's become something like second nature. The 'duel joystick' perspective is how we can conceive stepping out of a 4D universe, because you are using a five dimensional simulation machine in a four dimensional universe.
But it can also be bizarrely described as our level of 3D looking down through a 2D screen at an artificial form of 3D. And if that's not trippy enough for you, enter the Zelda: Breath of the Wild glitch, where you can see the physics engine half fail (or let's say half-succeed, to be positive). In certain sections of the game you can have your character 'pushed' through a wall where nothing was designed to exist behind it. Your character falls into an artificial, half-set up world that very loosely resembles the geography of the actual game. Then something completely breaks down, like the ground catches fire, you can't move forward anymore, water is running vertically, or you get stuck in a perspective where your character has disappeared beneath an impossible lake, cannot move except to look around, and cannot die. 3D to 2D to 3D to 3D, and somewhere along the line there you see something you could never have conceived yourself. You can experience the cold, confusing, unfairness of a reality that was not meant for you.
But for most people, candy crush is enough. Not everyone is a gamer, but almost everyone under forty plays video games, so to some extent we've all chosen part of simulated world. The low bar definition of being a gamer was simply owning a console (or a computer that wasn't just for the Internet or word processing) and spending X amount of hours per week on average staring at your TV and killing or saving something (and usually you'd be saving something by killing something else). Phone games are either just twists on old style arcade games (not much of a jump from bubble bobble to candy crush) or digitized versions of real-life pastimes like cards or slots. But with still-advances to technology (and more internet satellites), you can play Fortnite, Minecraft and Pokemon on your phone, and break the server at your high school/coffee shop/neighbour's wifi in the process.
And you don't have to think about quantum physics when you're doing it, but do take a moment to consider the little universe in your hands.
What do we do with populism now?
Populism gave America a vacuous, adulterous, lazy, ignorant, narcissist playboy-turned-game-show-host president.
But such a leader had/has no real policies and barely any political opinions at all (he was registered a as democrat for much of his life), just some squawking points, and his cabinet was effortlessly filled in with business as usual, pro-corporate, beltway corruption types (which mirrors his own ups and downs of running his toxic, lawsuit-laden brand).
Donald Trump ran as a populist but the most important policies instituted under his presidency has been decidedly anti-populist, benefiting primarily the very wealthy and the corporations they own. Call it the oldest, dustiest, cliché-ridden trick in the book. The 'sucker born every minute' switch. No reason to list the man's litany of lies and half-truths here, although as of this writing, the 'aberration of the moment' is the United States resigning from the UN's Human Rights Commission, in part due to the thankfully (hopefully?) brief policy of separating refugee children from their families at their southern border.
Pulling back from tweets and undercooked executive orders, a larger problem is that Donald Trump has possibly tainting the term ‘populism’ for a generation. Bernie Sanders is considered the populist politician on the left (aligning himself with the Democratic Party while still calling himself a socialist and championing universal health care, free tuition, and stricter financial regulations), but how many moderates in either of the two major parties in America are going to do a similar sort of over-steering in future elections?
Sadly, this is an excellent opportunity for mainstream political party gatekeepers to push for centrist candidates who won't say or try to do anything too far left or far right. 'We can't afford another Donald Trump', will be the mantra, 'we just need to return to sensible, responsible policies'. (a welcome thing to do compared to the chaotic, extremist decisions of the current White House)
But this is inaccurate and inefficient. The United States - nay, the world - needs anti-corporate, citizen-centric legislation more now than ever before. But such policies have become so rare that they're framed as 'extreme left', when they really should be considered centrist.
Led by the United States, the last forty-odd years has been a transition from public government power to private corporate power. It should come as no surprise that this has resulted in the already wealthy becoming much wealthier while the middle class in the West has shrunk rapidly. Average household debt has grown, which, to peel back the euphemisms, means that corporations 'own' people until the money owed is paid off. Wages and employment opportunities have shrunk, resentment and despair has risen.
The policies to reverse this course may as well be called a populist platform, but Trump (who has done nothing to address these problems, and has instead exacerbated them) has made such a label completely revolting.
Some populist politicians are strongmen. Donald Trump hasn't the interest to do even that. Like everything else, he believes perception is more important than the reality of the situation, if only because controlling the former is easier than the latter.
But primarily boasting, lying, and playing golf leaves the functioning of government in jeopardy, and Trump has surrounded himself with lackeys who seem uninterested in doing anything but quenching their own thirst for power and prestige (and $43,000 phone booths on the public dime). The consequence of this is the passive dismantling of the executive branch to the point of inefficiency. It has already happened to the legislative, and since the reality of falling dominos is in effect, the corruption of the judicial could soon follow (that is, stocking the bench with party loyalists instead of competent, apolitical judges).
Trump is the perfect president for wealthy bankers and financiers who are too lazy to hide their while collar crimes. A man who wants to hog all the headlines to himself, a man who subscribes to 'no bad publicity' to a nauseatingly epic degree. A man who sees apologizing as a sign of weakness. A man who knows he knows everything and therefore doesn't have to know anything new. The only thing certain is to appeal to his base of supporters who will never desert him and give him what he wants all along: adoration. Which is why he splits families at the border, gets out of international peace agreements, and discriminates against transgendered people. While clearly the wrong thing to do, more important for Trump is that it's an easy thing to do. Trade wars are vaguely interesting and gives a chance to flex your so-called muscle, until he and the media realize it's just bickering about taxes and so then move on to the next (non)story.
Certainly there are millions of people who support Trump in America, just as there are millions of people in other nations who support populist leaders who hold similar views about immigration, regulation, and basely vilifying their political opponents. But do they represent the majority of the country's citizens? Clearly that is a central question regarding populism. Ideally populism - that is, the will of the majority of the people - should always be in effect. The fact that we have to acknowledge that it isn't always the case, even in democracies, means that lobbyists and special interests can have an inordinate amount of power in political decisions. Trump painted Hilary Clinton as a sort of Washington insider, saying she pals around with elite bankers and is deeply enmeshed in the deep state (accusations he continues to make, eighteen months after election). Enough people believed that, and enough people believe Trump is doing a good job (42% approval among the general populace, but 90% approval amongst Republicans) that he is not going to change his ways any time soon.
The referendum on his first two years will be midterm elections in November. While the consistency and frequency means many, many decisions regarding legislation and fundraising can be timed around the second Tuesday in November, at least one advantage is that power can be checked with regularity (operative word there being 'can'). If the president is supposedly unpopular with liberals and moderates, how the democrats are positioning themselves says a lot about how the will of the people is manifested in the halls of power. The candidates further to the left than the centre are asked to hold the basic party line on issues: Cut down on the impeachment talk and focus on how the democrats can nebulously do better.
At the moment it seems that Donald Trump will be held up as an argument against populism of any sort across the political spectrum. There is the assumption that Bernie Sanders would be his mirror-image, introducing legislation that would be unpalatable for half the country (as well as the wealthy) and would continually pilloried by the right wing press (although perhaps it's a given that Sanders' decorum might be less scathing and deranged). This was how Clinton portrayed Sanders, successfully leaning herself to the middle of the political spectrum, even though it wasn't enough in the general election. Looking back on 2016, it was clear that people wanted change, that Trump promised them heaven and earth (and locking up Clinton herself), and enough citizen in the electoral college system of vote-tallying went with it. If this presidency is the will of the people, will the typical power players (titans of commerce and industry, along with their influence on governments) be able to use this a reason to keep the status quo going forward?
That a horribly unqualified person can become the leader of the world's most powerful country shows how corrupt its political process have become. That a facade of success can reach the highest office in the land illustrates how flimsy and crooked the path to the American Dream actually is in the twenty first century.
But this is by no means an American problem (it's just the most obvious, 500-pound gorilla-like example). Eastern European nations have had an arduous time in the nearly three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union. The European Union made carefully calculated steps to not introduce the likes of Poland, Hungary, and the former Czechoslovakia to their regulated market economy too quickly. EU membership was an arduous and careful process. Ensuring certain economic conditions and political freedoms was necessary, and we're not done overnight. But in recent years, these advances are undone practically just as quickly (with some decisions literally being made in parliament after sundown to escape public scrutiny), with democratically-elected leaders turned dictators in the countries mentioned above (oh, and Russia as well, by the way, who appears to be going from pariah to ‘model of the future’).
The message is Trump-like: I can restore our country to its former glory, I can kick out the job-stealing foreigners, I can end corruption and the power of the seemingly unknown super-wealthy. Blaming the other has been a populist message for centuries, and everyone from kings to congress-people have used it.
But this isn't simply happening in the economically depressed regions like Middle America or Eastern Europe. Liberal safeguards like France and Germany are finding conservative challengers whose basic platform is anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. In the Canadian province of Ontario, populist candidate Doug Ford (whose opponents and critics paint as a Trump doppelganger, since part of his platform was cheap gas) and his Conservative Party won 61% percent of the seats in parliament while only winning 40% of the popular vote. So we should note here that frequent part of the left's platform is to change the actual electoral process. Ranked ballots have been held up as a better form than 'first past the post' when it comes to winning districts and building a representative government. Occasionally more centrist parties have flouted this idea of electoral (notably Trudeau's Liberal Party), only to drop the issue once they gain power (notably Trudeau's Liberal Party).
But such an issue is only noticed by a comparatively small segment of a country's population. A common lament by those who follow politics daily is how few people do the same. For how important the decisions of every government can be for its citizens, that voting rates have predominantly declined in developed nations is certainly a tragedy (not voting in a democracy is a vote for fascism).
The true enemy of populism is not any sort of agenda of the powerful attempting to maintain the status quo, but simple malaise. If populism is the will of the people, then its lack of will is what must be counteracted. The thinking that one vote doesn't matter, or that all politicians and political parties are the same, or that the system is permanently rigged. Certainly those that want to maintain the rich-friendly system that current exists will encourage the masses to engender such thoughts.
There needs to a thirst for political knowledge, for political change, for betterment. And those that voted for Donald Trump thought that's what they were voting for. His simple, oft-repeated message struck enough of a chord with enough voters to create a sizeable base of energized citizens within the Republican Party (Michael Moore (in)famously called the election for Trump back in August, after attending the Republican Convention and said these supporters will carry the electoral college). Populism does not have a concrete platform. It can be a package of anti-immigrant, pro-gun, and pro-life ideas, or it can be a mix of anti-corporate, libertarian, pro-choice positions. It doesn't take much to find a poll that would suggest most people in a nation are thinking the way you are arguing that they do. Individuals may have nuanced thoughts on these issues, but populism needs to be straightforward and direct to be able to connect with voters who care not a whit for controversial riders attached to spending bills. But populism only works if these simple messages are backed with actual legislation and politicians who are willing to see them through. It is the most easily manipulated, and therefore one of the most volatile political 'isms'. If a hard-line on immigration is all you care about, then Trump is a successful populist president. If you're terrified that a trampling of regulations and union power is going to quickly destroy the middle class, than he's a complete and maddening disaster who only cares about rich people like himself.
And we have the ability to continually believe that our worldview is indomitably correct.
Religion used to the opiate of the masses. Now it's the careful marketing of a life each citizen supposedly deserves. A return to the supposed good old days, before everything supposedly went wrong. 'Make America Great Again' is based on the idea that it's necessary to look backwards, to go back to a way it used to be.
Media and advertising companies don't have to work very hard to paint this picture. People want to believe that this is true. The power of misplaced nostalgia and exceptionalism (when government money is spent in your community it's good policy, and when it's spent somewhere else it's just undeserved handouts and corruption).
Consequently, the cure for failed populism is more populism. To combat ignorance and bullet point slogans which are mostly lies we need detailed, carefully researched truths.
But if right wing populism is a Trojan horse, a process that results in a corporatist polyarchy retaining control of the levers of state power, are we naive to think that left wing populism would be any more effective? Not to suggest that it would result in the same (a not-so-quiet retention/coup of the elites), but that leftist policies would be so much more difficult to enact. This is due simply to the practical necessity of taking a long time to build the bureaucratic foundation to adequately provide the service of, say, single-payer health care, or the literal infrastructure of construction projects. Leftist programs that would benefit the majority of citizens require time and money, two things that are in short supply in a world where we want to see results every financial quarter and we decimate much-need social programs to pay for upper class tax cuts.
That populism is an empty cup which can be filled with whatever is the hot button issue of the season may doom it. If the working and middle classes could possibly agree on a populist economic platform, then a populist platform on social issues (abortion, LGBQT rights) can easily tear it asunder. One of the challenges of a democracy is to not to give in to whims of the moneyed class, which is hard regardless of a politicians' particular morals, because there are fewer of them and their requests from a government are much simpler to enact. Even though cutting taxes and gutting regulations harm the average citizen, it can be presented as win for the politicians who enacted the legislation on behalf of the wealthy.
And the idea of a 'win' is a poisoned pill, one that Trump can feed to his supporters with regularity. The strain of populism that is now dominant in the West is giving too much trust and fealty to the pontifications of the strongman, who will always claim they are doing what's best, that they are always succeeding, and when something goes wrong, that it's not their fault, that the other is always to blame (whether it be the political opposition, minorities, other nations, etc.). Fringe politicians have become the mainstream ones, and they demand loyalty above all else. Ignorant embrace of these figures were what many democratic states were designed to fight against (going all the way back, to some degree, to Ancient Greece). A divesting of power among the people. But what can be carefully can be foolishly thrown away. If we aren't careful, soon the only thing that will be popular is what the few people with power tell us what's popular.
LABO and Beyond
The future is cardboard.
About a year we stuck up an article on the video game 'Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild'. We said very nice things about it, and tried to present it as something a lot more interesting and socio-culturally relevant than saving a kingdom by killing a lot of monsters with a sword (it can be two things!).
The game was the headline release for Nintendo's newest console, the Switch, which became an incredible success, with its unique design, effortless portability and wonderfully deep catalogue of games, thanks to Nintendo making it easier for third party developers* to sell their games online (via the company's e-shop).
* - Quick Primer: When Nintendo makes games themselves for their own console (like a Mario or Zelda game), it's an example of first party development. When a scrappy little game design company (sometimes of only two or three people) makes a game/app for a console or computer or smart phone, it's an example of third party development. It's a bit like the comparison between Hollywood studios and independent ones, or major and independent record labels.
Video games have been getting bigger and bigger, both in terms of cinematic presentation and player interaction. You get to be immersed in a massive, gorgeous world (well, typically a harrowing one, since you probably have some very difficult mission to complete that involves fighting and exploring) with many strategic choices at every turn, playing a movie-style story with character development and action sequences, all of which add up to experience that becomes a big part of your daily activities.
Either that or you're staring at your phone while in line for something, playing fortnite or clash of clans or whatever iteration of candy crush we're on. It's more of a quick hit of those gaming endorphins than when you have a controller in your hand, staring at a fifty two inch screen forhours, but it's another sign that when confronted with the option of constantly interacting with a flashy simulated reality over a rather ordinary real one, millions upon millions of us take the former.
It is in this environment that Nintendo introduces Labo, an activity kit that is a series of cardboard cutouts that you fold into various contraptions that incorporate the console and mini-controllers of the Switch.
And it's pure joy. Twenty eight sheets of cardboard can look particularly uninspiring to gamers in 2018, so credit where credit it due: Nintendo took a bit of a risk (if not financially, then at least reputationally in the gaming community), knowing that their strength lies in trying something just a little bit different. And this difference is seen as soon as you open the box, and begin to relive your halcyon Lego days.
The kit could have come with pre-assembled cardboard pianos, fishing rods, and a motorcycle dash board/handlebars, but putting it together yourself is almost half the fun.
There's a bit more of that proud feeling of possession when it's something you put in the time and built yourself, and the step-by-step instructions on the Switch's console are perfect.
We'll readily admit that we underestimated the cardboard. We expected flimsiness and constant repair and unexpected collapses when we press a key too harshly or accidentally drop the fishing rod. But no, it's all surprisingly durable, and so much of the folding and building you're doing is to just reinforce the basic structure of the device so it can withstand the inevitable play. Without intending to, the Labo is already teaching the primary necessities of construction and engineering: strength, steadiness and simplicity.
In a world that's becoming more and more virtual (why play with a couple hundred Lego blocks when you can play with an infinite amount of Minecraft blocks?), it's a wonderful reminder of the power of the physical. Hell, it reminds you that you're not just an avatar of pixels inside of a screen.
Of course, this isn't a Luddite experiment by any means. Labo wants to bridge the gap between the virtual and real. The sturdy cardboard models are just that, until you place the two small controllers or the rectangular Switch console into them. Technological advancements are always a mixture of the old and new. The steamed power loom was still knitting blankets and clothing, but just at a much faster pace.
In terms of toys, you used to own a plastic fake motorbike and maybe run around with it in your backyard (okay, maybe not 'you', as we are probably going generations back), or built one out of Lego and pushed it around. You’d have to pretend that you were taking part in a race. Now you have a cardboard motorbike that has a place on its dashboard for a specialized portable computer the size of a small book (speaking of objects that are seemingly becoming rare and obsolete) which can play the visualizations of a motorbike race that you the player can use your cardboard vehicle to interact with.
It's not just that the Switch console is a touch-screen tablet-like wonder, but how well it works with all the accessories. Infrared cameras on one of the miniature controllers can track reflective tape, and gyroscopes inside them react to even your slightest motions.
It's not so much that you can play a cardboard piano, or go fishing with a rod that has a line that reels in and out both physically and virtually, but that you can explore and find out how exactly this technology works.
Yes, you follow the instructions on how to build the cardboard objects by following an instructional video, and the games associated with each object uses the electronic parts, but the Switch thankfully takes the next step and has an incredible series of short exercises and mini-games to explain how this technology works.
Programming is the new literacy, and the earlier kids and adults understand even the very basics of input-node connection-output, the better prepared they will be to work with the ever-advancing computer technology of the future (and stop an AI from going rogue).
Didacticism is always a challenge, and should sometimes be viewed suspiciously. Making the question 'How do things work?' fun already makes an assumption that 'fun' should even be in the equation. Leveling up, getting shiny fake medals that unlock the next series of lessons, and playful/educational conversations between three helpful NPCs (Non-Playable Characters), that's the future of learning, everyone.
All for the not very low price of around $400 US, when taking tax into consideration. Which is a lot of money for a household to spend on a gaming console, but not too much if it will become the basic piece of equipment for schools across nations to spend on each of their students. And there will be advantages of using consoles that the school provides, and advantages to letting the software be available to the phones that many students (at least in high school) already own.
The solution will probably incorporate both, with some work being available as console-only (which will have to be heavily reinforced physically, because kids drop and break things), and other lessons available as homework on personal tech.
Education will mix this ('this' defined as 'tapping screen after screen, with a couple words of encouragement from a low-level AI program written months or even years earlier') with some occasional group work in a much smaller school building, since now teens will have the opportunity - if they meet grade and digital attendance requirements - to learn from home or anywhere else. And maybe they have to pick up some cardboard from time to time (or get it delivered), so that when they're actually in a lab or a factory, they have some hands on experience with items simulating the real thing.
This will become the educational institution in the future, from children (for every level of schooling) to adults (for job training, or for personal interest). And just like every big change, there's going to be a lot of great advances, and a lot of terrible consequences (some obvious, some not).
A uniformity in education basics, with opportunities to branch out and learn on your own if you choose to. Sound great. But there's danger to one way of doing everything. Making software that can cater to the various personalities and lifestyle choices of the learner (are they eager go-getters, or forgetful potheads) can only do so much. No matter how many ways you try to include everyone, people are bound to slip through the cracks and reject this format, from reasons ranging from political protest to not giving a shit.
And who creates the curriculum for these programs? What agenda could they possibly have? This is not a problem that's suspect idle only to digital world, of course. Science textbooks have been bankrolled by vested interests like energy companies (guess how they address climate change!) for years.
If designing the hardware won't be too expensive because it basically already exists, then the software will be the budget breaker. (Un)fortunately, one places where money will be freed up is the employment of teachers.
Teachers are expensive. Even in places where they are terribly underpaid, some lessons on a cell phone with a so-called 'babysitter' keeping some level of order in a classroom from time to time is a cheaper alternative. While lessons on a phone can never replace a good teacher, it can probably replace a bad or mediocre one, especially when one considers how much the digital world is changing the basic behaviour of how children and teens engage with the world around them.
Meanwhile, the basic method of education has changed very little over the last few centuries. It's been a knowledgeable person talking at the front of the room, and a group of people listening to them, taking notes. Throw in a chalk and a blackboard, and you don't know if it's 1870 or 2018. Even with the advent of past communication technology advances, schools could adapt, as every so often a television would be wheeled into class so you watch a nature documentary or (if the teacher was lazy and it was close to the end of the year) a movie vaguely related to the class. And computers became a staple in the library and the aptly named computer labs.
But the education system is struggling against the cell phone, the ultimate portable computer, the ultimate time waster, the last word in there never being a last word because there's always another text to send, another round to fight, another meme to spread.
When dealing with a generation that was born connected, standing in front of blackboard and writing bullet points or equations for an hour doesn't stand a chance.
Phones and tablets are shiny touch-pads that even three year olds can figure out how to operate. If learning institutions cannot incorporate these changes, then more and more children will be left behind.
Class becomes a factor quite quickly. As usual, the wealthy will have the option of giving their children a more virtual or more traditional education. The ever-increasing underclass (formerly middle and lower) will be told how things are going to be done from now on, and it's usually whatever's cheaper.
Labo-like software will be downloaded onto students' phone, and they can watch and complete the daily lessons and exercises at their leisure. There will be variations on how the lessons are taught. From audio files like podcasts, video for visual learners (play it on a nearby TV if needed), or building kits can be ordered and delivered for those that are best educated with hands on-examples.
Teachers will have set office hours throughout the week that a student can contact via face-time, Skype, etc if they have any questions. Maybe once a week there will be an actual day in a physical classroom somewhere, just to confirm that the students are learning and that are is actually a human teacher overlooking their work in some fashion.
Positives and Negatives!
Not as inspiring, but more accurate.
More jobs end up disappearing, starting with a majority of teachers, and several careers that involve the basic construction and maintenance of running a school (there will still be schools, just a lot fewer of them). The development of this software will mostly be done by private companies, subsidized with a hefty government contract. We will learn what a small cabal of powerful board members want us to learn about math, science, history, and early twenty first century capitalism.
Learning via phone will be heralded as a great leveler, because the lessons will be the same no matter where you live, no matter how much money you or your parents make. But it will be a sleight of hand, because the very rich can still fashion the education they want. There will still be living, breathing, teachers who have undeniably great skills...but they will cost a fortune to hire. This gap between the rich and poor is not new. The industrial revolution created the Robber Barons, and the slippery consolidation of wealth in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led the world into the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The current digital revolution is doing the same sort of thing, but at a much, much quicker pace. Computer technology developed in the sixties and seventies made globalized trade possible, meaning it was possible to build something in a factory in China and have it on sale in Dallas or Dresden two days later (and being able to close factories in the West and lay off thousands of workers). Computer technology developed in the eighties and nineties gave us the Internet, which meant it was effortless to send any sort of information (a spreadsheet, a song, a virus) instantaneously.
When you're able to do something cheaper, it usually means you can do it without having to pay someone, which means someone (or really, many someones) no longer has a job.
We're still getting acclimatized to this, and if we're on the cusp of teaching future generations via pixels on a screen to save money because governments are drowning in debt by giving tax cuts to massive corporations, then a very important question is, 'what kind of jobs are we preparing them for?'
The answer might be in those same pixels they'll be learning from.
Finland is ending it's two year experiment with Universal Basic Income, with one of its supporters admitting that the public perception of the plan was, "a fear that with basic income they would just stay at home and play computer games.”
But that fear is going to become a reality because in the not too distant future you're going to supplement your universal basic income with playing with computer games, or doing very basic and specific tasks with engineering and design that's part of a larger project headquartered halfway around the world.
Building giant, simulated open worlds for gaming is just the beginning. Soon computer scientists are going to develop simulated open worlds for people to explore in, with the goal of us learning more about ourselves and our universe. Physicists simulate different ways the Big Bang could have developed in extremely powerful computers, just to compare how our own universe has come into being. These sorts of experiments will require very specific work, and very specific human work, of simply 'being human' in these simulations (for now, 'being human' is our greatest advantage over AI). Maybe through this sort of research, this sort of understanding, will actually bridge the widening gulfs of the haves and have-nots in the future. If knowledge truly is power, then maybe computer can truly be the great leveler.
So get started on that cardboard piano.
The Rising Costs of Free Speech
When the government arrests you for something you say in public or type on the Internet, then it is censorship/an infringement on free speech (the exception is when your words can cause direct and clear harm to others, with the famous example being yelling 'fire!' in a crowded theatre when there isn't one).
If your company suspends or fires you for something you say or type on the Internet, that's you violating some fine print in the agreement you signed when you began working for them.
If a social media site or message board suspends or removes your account, that's you violating some fine print in the agreement you clicked 'yes' on when you begin using the site.
That so much of our interactions are now taking place in virtual locations that follow a set of rules and regulations which are distinct from those of the nations we all live in is of great concern, and is not talked about nearly enough.
But the bigger issue at the moment is the tip of the iceberg. The attention-getting, easy-to-condemn-unless-you're-Donald-Trump tip: The Rise of White Nationalists/Alt-Right/Incompatible Assholes
'Rise' is a relative term here, since these sorts of groups have always been around. It's just feeling a bit more emboldened since Trump has courted the groups during his campaign and throughout his presidency (which is both mind-blowing and pathetic, and yet will have to be set aside for another column), holding hate-filled torch lit protests not only in America but in Canada and Europe as well.
The flashpoint for this was this summer's Charlottesville protest/riot. The city was going to take down the statute of Confederate General Robert E Lee, and white supremacists and bigots rallied around it in the most disgusting way possible (chanting 'Jews will not replace us' pretty much confirms this isn't going to be any sort of intellectual exercise).
Now some have noted that as far as history is concerned, tearing down parts of it - even parts that should and do bring deep shame and reflection to a nation - is a dangerous precedent. History is a complicated assemblage of terrible and inspiring events long since past, and simplifying its narrative does no favours to the past, present, and future. But, if a bunch of racist assholes are using the statue (and other memorials and symbols from the pro-slavery confederacy) as a rallying point, then fuck 'em, get it out of such a public place. People who still proudly support the Confederacy seem to forget the US government's attitude toward it during the Civil War: Death to traitors.*
*-further proof history is more complicated: they didn't do that. Pardons all around after the Civil War. And certainly for Robert E Lee.**
**-even further proof: Robert E Lee was against statues that in any way celebrated or acknowledged the Civil War.
These groups are antithetical to all concepts of Western democracy and progress. While arguments can be made that huge changes must be made to address contemporary concerns ranging from environmental to economic policy, supporting any sort fascist ideals (namely Nazi ones) to being changes about is disgusting and idiotic.
There's some irony in the fact they are stridently anti-feminist and feel that men are becoming subordinate to women, while at the same time they decry all aspects of Islam and claim it is destroying Western society. Islam's traditional view and treatment of women (and still practiced to some extent in most Islamic-dominant nations) lines up perfectly with their own opinions on women. Both want them to shut up and be subservient to men. Which was an embarrassing and foolish idea in the twentieth century, let alone now in the twentieth-first.
The idea of the alt-right that they are ‘losing’ the country to any other group or culture? Ridiculous. A majority of the politicians, business CEOs, public figures, and practically anyone else with power is a straight white male. If you are a straight white male and you can't succeed in these conditions, then the problem doesn't lie with the system (that is built by and for straight white men), the problem lies with you. Chances are that you're: A) stupid; B) lazy; C) an annoying piece of shit that no one can work with; or D) a combination of A, B, and/or C.
But with a president who doesn't outright condemn them, they will only grow more emboldened.
And even widespread criticism from the general public and attempts to curtail their activities will be difficult going forward. If groups who are already calling for any sort of violent protest or uprising because they view those in power as illegitimate, then rescinding their rights of free speech will make their point/add fuel to the fire/possibly make the situation even more dangerous. And they know this. Pushing the laws to near breaking point just to force authority's hand.
So let's go back to what is supposed to be the government's role in this. Or really, 'our' role in this, since ideally we're the government, that the laws it creates and enforces are the laws we want it to create and enforce (let's toss in the word 'ideally' again).
The not-at-all new question is: does word spurn deed? How can this be proved? And if it's proved, what's the penalty for those who simply spoke or wrote, but did not do the deed? If a bunch of white supremacists are chanting racist calls to take their country back while carrying rifles, is everything nice and legal until the first shot is fired? Is only the one that pulled the trigger responsible, not the scores of others there? And this can be easily flipped to the left wing, when marching against the G20 and demanding political leaders be removed or jailed and one of them throws rocks at the police.
It's easier to ignore the issue of free speech when terrible things are being written on a message board most people will never visit, or when it's in a pamphlet being handed out on a busy street corner that no one ever takes.
The public sphere is where we confront these challenges head on. Recent free speech issues have taken place on colleges, in the form of safe spaces, the handling of offensive/sensitive material in the classroom, and allowing controversial speakers (usually those on the conservative/right/alt-right side of the political spectrum) to come and talk after being invited by a student association. Safe spaces are becoming a more enticing and sensible way to create inclusivity and understanding for people who have frequently felt ostracized and marginalized (women, visible minorities, LGBTQ members) by society at large. It's important that people can feel completely comfortable being whoever they want to be in an environment that won't judge and will be completely positive.
But wait, says the hetero-normative white male who can't help but play devil's advocate, what if I don't feel safe here because I can't share my opinions that might clash with what the traditional discourse is in this safe space?
Forget that the hetero-normative white male (or HNWM, if we can add another acronym to the pile) might be given the cold shoulder because just by being in a safe space he will be viewed as the personification of the reason why the world is so unequal and problematic. Hell, it's not an unreasonable suggestion that the HNWM should be taken down a peg, and should at least occasionally feel some sort of ostracization that so many other people feel on some level on a near-daily basis.
The challenge is to keep this open-mindedness and patience going as long as possible. Safe spaces are positive ideas, but walls can develop, and that breeds division. And if you argue that the people who are not welcome in safe spaces are either bigots or simply insensitive, then that drives them further away. To their own safe spaces, which, to them, is where they can say anything they want and not worry about being called a bigot (and one can say, 'well, let the bigots be bigoted, we don't want anything to do with them', but that can lead to a wholly reactive political movement like Trumpism).
Over time, the same thing will happen in the 'welcome' safe space and the 'bigot' safe space. New ideas, personal changes/challenges, and issues around the world will create differing opinions and slowly but surely that will create more divisions between people. Intersectionality (the situation where certain people belong to more than one marginalized group, and therefore experience more difficulty than other people who would still be welcome in a safe space) begets enclaves and niches upon enclaves and niches. Inclusion ultimately and paradoxically rejects itself. Safe space may one day mean the opposite of what they mean now.
So here we need a reminder of how reductionism and the lack of substantial discourse are always the first cracks in the dam for this to happen. And one of the best places for substantial discourse is the university setting. Discussion in a classroom of a book or article that involves hate speech or offensive material does not in any way mean that the university or the professor encourages hate speech or the offending material. Should a level of tact, patience and understanding when discussing these topics be encouraged? Of course. In fact, that should be a key part of the lesson. The writer or author has included certain ideas and passages that make us uncomfortable. What do we take from that, what might be the author's intention, how does this comment on contemporary society? These questions should be at the forefront, not whether the material should be allowed to be taught in the first place.
Related to this is the inviting of controversial writers and political pundits like Ann Coulter or Milos Yiannopoulos onto campus. If one is offended by their hate-filled, misinformed, click-baiting bile (as we expose our own bias here), it should be peacefully protested, not barred completely. College is meant to be the time when young adults are introduced to new ideas, and the concern that they might be influenced by (and become supporters of) a detestable ideology is a legitimate one. But what might be learned from how certain ideas are banned or shunned outright is a much more dangerous lesson for the future of a free and open democracy.
Suppression of alt-right ideas no matter what the reason can set a dangerous precedent, especially if it is done without proper discourse and debate. Are certain books or films from the past that have elements of racism, sexism, or bigotry also to be suppressed? Are certain events of history now only to have a singular lens focused upon them?
The debate revolving around 'free speech on campus' can distract from much more pressing issues on the subject. In fact, whenever free speech is under attack (as the President seems to want to prevent the media from reporting on anything he doesn't like), so many other pressing challenges to society suddenly take a back seat in importance (rolling back voting rights, influence of money on politics, rising inequality creating an Overclass and Underclass, dwindling natural resources and their effects, are all equally important).
But free speech and basic rights have to come first. When one person who has been ostracized by society for many years is finally given the full rights that others have, inevitably another will now say their rights are being infringed upon, thanks in part to this initial person being given their rights. It is as if there is only 'so many rights' to go around. And while this sounds idiotic, as rights are abstract philosophical concepts that can never run out, the enforcement and protection of these rights are undertaken by many people in many different social institutions that cost a tremendous amount of money and societal effort. And if you say you cannot price on rights, that is simply not true. In fact, it is necessary. And it is expensive. And of course you can say it's worth every penny, because that is indeed true, but what happens when a society/state runs out of pennies?
In the push to expand basic rights for all people, it has been depressingly politicized. What seems obvious to so many people has somehow been labeled a culture war. Gay marriage took an unthinkably long time to be legalized in many Western nations, and it was objected primarily by those on the conservative side of the political spectrum who, in so many other instances, continually complained about how government was trying to tell them how to live. That the rights for transgendered people are in a state of flux (the so-called bathroom bills, and the attempt by the President to bar them from the military) show that absolutely anything can become a wedge issue, that basic rights are only as strong as a community's sensibilities at the moment.
If we pull back to much wider look at history, huge gains have been made throughout the twentieth century in terms of extending rights and privileges that for too long were only available to HNWM previously. While it first must be acknowledge that we still have a long way to go before anything resembling true equality appears, great strides were made for civil, women, and LGBTQ rights in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Regressions in our current sociopolitical climate can be attributed to a strong shift in power relations, specifically economic in nature. Communities are more open to expanding basic rights and social programs when already enfranchised members of the community are economically comfortable (or at the very least feel economically comfortable), hence the rise of social justice movements (and political gains) of the sixties and seventies. In the last three decades, wealth in the West has accumulated mainly in the pockets of the already wealthy. The middle class (and lower middle class) has been hemorrhaging money, drowning in debt and uncertainly, and consequently have 'circled the wagons' around whatever rights and privileges they perceive to have remaining. And this group - not only in America, but Canada and much of Europe as well - is primarily HNWM. Too easily every other group is labeled 'the other' by them and is a threat to their privilege and position. Which explains the rise in hostility to immigrants, the stagnation of the women's movement, and obnoxious political posturing of vilifying LGBTQ groups.
Let's be clear: These divisions are slowly destroying the very foundations of Western Civilization. The sharing and shuffling of (economic) power has always come with difficulty and strife, and rising levels of inequality are starting to chip away at free speech and basic human rights. For all its importance, free speech is subservient to power relations. Who you are makes a huge difference as to how your words will be interpreted, and who you are (and what you have) will make a huge difference when interpreting someone else's words. Widening economic inequality in the West has created corresponding social inequalities, and this fragmenting can spell doom for a functioning democracy.
HNWM should not hold the so-called 'keys to kingdom' hostage, should not be able to dole out rights to disenfranchised groups when they finally feel comfortable with their own social status. When the ultra-wealthy cannot consider that the poor needs their help through government programs, and when the poor does not trust the government to properly assist them, then all of our ideals and institutions are for naught. Especially when we can't even seem to say that this is problem.
The current interconnectivity of contemporary civilization is one of the greatest and most challenging periods in human existence. Its positives are many, its negatives are as well (but, as we are glass half full people, not as much as the former). We are still in the early stages of this continuing transition into a new level of interactivity and awareness. Ideally, a level of common sense, trust, and hope will underlie humanity's progress forward. So let's talk about while our speech won't cost us anything.
The Looming Peril of Corporate Governance
Gaining lost ground means you're back where you started from, which is not good enough in 2017.
The push and pull between right and left leaning political parties and which one has the edge politically at the moment is akin to re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. And yes, 101 years after the great ship went down, it's still a perfect metaphor of denying reality until the last moment, except that there was perhaps a bit more dignity on the ship than what's currently happening with Western Democracy.
An election in the UK that didn't really do much to alleviate the problems plaguing the UK. And it's not just Brexit, but the issues that many other developed countries across the globe are facing. Rising under/unemployment (especially among the youth), cuts to social programs, and growing inequality between the very wealthy and everybody else. Ditto France. Yes, it's a relief they didn't vote in an extremist right-wing candidate, but a centrist 'tolerable' candidate that embraces the EU (and the world economy) is almost in the same boat as the UK. It's great that you can get the crowds cheering and supporting ideas of unity and co-operation, but then these same politicians have meeting where their economic advisors give them extremely sobering projections for future job numbers and spending decisions.
[And here's where we acknowledge that at least these European countries want to do something. Contrast this with America, which seems to be weighing the options of either doing nothing or setting itself on fire. Much of Barack Obama's legacy is being undone in record time. Repealing Obamacare and slowly taking health insurance away from tens of millions of Americans (and giving the wealthy a large tax cut) is a special combination of greed, tone-deafness and cruelty. Plus the transfer of a sensible and dependable American presence in global affairs under the former president to whatever the current White House resident is doing, which seems to be a mixture of proud ignorance and foot in mouth disease]
Contemporary cynicism suggests that the quickest way to lose faith in democracy is to spend five minutes with the average voter. And this attitude means the division created between urban liberal elites and those folks in flyover country makes government all the weaker. But people have little problem with voting away democracy, as long as the replacing system can give (or promises to give) them what they want. Donald Trump promised the moon and the stars as a really, great tremendous deal to disillusioned and despondent middle America, and they took him up in it, without doing much of a Google search to see if he was hero or a huckster (spoiler alert: he's the latter).
And of course, hundreds of millions of people already feel this way in America and many other countries, and don't bother voting at all, which just exacerbates the problem (it was the fear of this political apathy that had France worried that LaPen might win because her right wing base would at least show up to the polls). If people are under-informed (or misinformed) or don't even care in the first place, democracy will shrivel up and die. And something will have to replace it, since nature abhors a vacuum, especially when any sort of power is involved.
Governments comes in a few different flavours, and it just so happens that democracy is the most palatable for the most amount of people. As you get closer to autocracy and authoritarianism, the few people at the top think it tastes great, while the vast majority of citizens think it tastes like a boot stepping on their face forever.
But is there anything else? Any other option for a series of interconnected institutions that are tasked with bringing security, stability, infrastructure, and (fingers crossed) the pursuit of happiness to the masses?
Well, private enterprise has the answer, and it's...themselves. Corporations have found themselves in a situation where their power is accumulating at a rapid pace, thanks in part to the rather nebulous, Schrödinger's cat-like superposition where their past and future employees have key roles and positions in a country's government. Which is quite handy when it comes to passing laws that might benefit these corporations, as well as handing out contracts for the sort of work that these same corporations might be particularly skilled at. Which means that it's really only a matter of time before this very large tweet is sent to all those in the halls of power: 'Don't worry, politicians, we'll take it from here. See, we've been doing some market research, and we're finding that people - left, right, centrist - are not happy with your current level of service.'
It's not a conspiracy, it's an inevitability.
The slow fall of one series of interconnected institutions mirrors the slow rise of a different series of interconnected institutions. Western-style democracy had the public's back, because it was - as much as possible - our own backs making these decisions. It's replacement will not be so kind to the masses, even if they have a highly trained PR-marketing blitz telling us that they are.
For example, tackling climate change is a massive undertaking that many countries are taking baby steps towards addressing. They can't do much more at this stage because the costs for more extensive infrastructure changes are too high, and some powerful industries are trying to stop green energy growth because it's affecting their bottom line. But something has to be done, clearly, for the public good. And for a long time, the public good was the responsibility of governments.
Cleaning up the Pacific Ocean? Great, but a wunderkind bankrolled by Silicon Valley is doing it. Of course it's an amazing thing that this is being done. Of course it's great that a terrible reminder of our ignorance and waste is being fixed. Of course it's great that it's being done cheaper than expected, and that the people who are already struggling to pay their own bills don't have to worry about ponying up to pay this one.
But this means the massive projects that will affect all of us are not being decided by all of us. They are being decided by an increasingly small group of wealthy business owners.
We are living at time where corporations are attempting to solve major world problems, but only for those that can already afford it. Expensive, healthy food made by Silicon Valley startups, available only to concentrated groups of citizens in major cities. Uber outsourcing taxis so you can get a car and driver delivered to your door, while paying the driver not as an employee but an independent contractor, so they don’t have to offer any sort of benefits or protection for him or her. And the publicized horror stories (United Airlines beating up passengers because they won't give up their seat for United Airlines employees) don’t make much of an impact beyond a week or two. These companies are still more powerful than ever before.
What's the government's role in these cases? Negligible. The 'market' is operating by itself. Which sounds great if you don't think about it, or get the shit end of the stick, an end which seems to be growing as the divide between the rich and poor does.
Now for much of human history, monumental decisions have been made and overseen by small groups of people. Monarchy and noblemen and a few wealthy men voted into power by other wealthy men in the proto-democracies of Greece and Rome. Even as modern Western Democracy advanced and actually became democratic during the twentieth century by finally allowing women and minority groups to vote, it was still a comparatively small number of elected representatives that introduced and passed legislation that was meant to ultimately improve the lives of those that lived in the nation. Now whether 'the best' was continually voted into the halls of power and whether the decisions they made were completely selfless and best for the nation at the time can be endlessly debated, but the economic and social growth in Western democratic nations after the Second World shows what civilization can accomplish when basic common goals are agreed upon and sought after (poverty reduction, equal rights, common markets, technological innovation. To name but a few).
Even as this system is currently breaking down, it is still much different from a society run by the whims of board room billionaires. As cynical as one can be about the intentions of politicians, there is still more accountability and transparency for them than those that run/own private corporations, who chief goal is to maximize profits for their investors. Everything comes a distant second or lower, like customer service, product quality, social responsibility, and fair trade practices. Any sort of charitable donation or apparent selflessness is marketing, meant to improve the corporation's brand image for the masses (think of those clean and positive ads for oil companies that crop up from time to time, or all the events and festivals that cigarette companies sponsored). Mitt Romney (in)famously said that 'corporations are people' and got criticized for it, but he clearly undershot it. Corporations are super-people. Near immortal entities with the knowledge and ability of thousands of people at their beck and call, not bound by any laws (or can bend them easily), and a constant thirst for more money and more power with a sociopathic touch, where they will tell you things are amazing and will sell you inferior products for prices higher than they were yesterday.
What's more troubling is the role that corporations are playing alongside (or worse, overtop of) government. Trust and dependency can be unhealthily intertwined. We want to be able to trust the/our government. But we depend largely on private corporations to provide everyday services that allow us to comfortably live our lives. Unfortunately, in many instances, these private corporations are paid by governments to provide these services, increasingly with very little regulation or oversight. It's the old fashioned bait-and-switch, where a private company offers to improve a local district or region's hydro services (maybe by greatly assisting a politician's election campaign), and at first does a great job following all the current laws and statutes, but over time they have certain rules about pricing and quality changed, and soon the hydro company is being run as a wholly private enterprise. This is a process that can take many years, but that was corporations have on their side: Plenty of time and plenty of money.
This sort of slow replacement is hard to identify, and even harder to get a lot of people politically aware of (or to stress that it's a serious problem until it's too late). This is in part because the corporate world is replacing the idea of government in terms of presence and PR. The American government leaving the Paris Environmental Accords gives the appearance of the nation turning inward and giving up its position on the global stage, no longer leading the world (as many of the accord's supporters lament). Yet many corporations rushed to criticize the decision and announce their companies' own support of the agreements outlined in the accord. And this is a slow and steady climb towards corporations legitimizing themselves in the eyes of the public as the necessary replacement towards bloated governance, regardless of one's political leanings.
The West (and eventually, the rest of the world) doesn't just want a revolution, they want the easiest, most efficient revolution replaced with the best system of government you could ever want or imagine.
This is how incredibly effective corporate marketing is. Over the last five decades, it has seeped into our collective consciousness that we all deserve the best, that everything can be improved and made better for a lower price. Even the dismantling and replacement of the system that had to first exist before there were private enterprises that could sell us this concept.
If governments continue to have limited success addressing the needs of its citizens, the corporation's role will increase, and nowhere will that be seen more heavily than with the enactment of universal wages. With the availability of jobs expected to plummet by up to 40% in the next ten to twenty years thanks to continually advancing robotic and computer technology, we will be a planet of roughly eight billion people with not nearly enough work to go around. Paying people a basic wage simply to be able to live their lives (pay rent, buy food and basic necessities) will become inevitable. It will have to be done to prevent total social disintegration.
But if it becomes the role of a corporation to hand out these funds (and most likely sell the goods that people will buy with this money) because the government cannot do it effectively, then the opportunity to abuse this power simply to maximize profit will be massive.
The privatization of the expanded welfare state (a rather glum but realistic term for what universal wages will look like) Is the quickest way to create a reinforced over/underclass society, with the very few wealthy lording over the very many poor. If voting feels like a choice between uninspiring candidates now, it will only get worse when the only vote that matters is the one you can make if you own a certain amount of stock.
To get a glimpse of where this is happening today, look no further than post-secondary education. Through extensive donations that include underwriting entire departments, corporations are replacing, merging with, and/or absorbing universities. Soon companies will begin recruiting right out of high school. Student will take an even more specialized education/career track. Now a person's entire life can be done under the watch and support of one company.
The new state. And positive feedback being what it is, it's likely that young people will no longer see politics as a role for social change, but rather corporations. The government is being shunted off into the corner, a failing startup whose debts make it unwieldy and unreliable. To prevent this, participation in politics is necessary and simply voting is an excellent first step. Democracy will not fall simply because the free market wants to make a quick, big buck. It will fall because we let apathy wash over ourselves, and didn't bother paying enough attention to how our society functions, and how it is rapidly changing in the halls of power.
Corporations depend on us not paying much attention beyond a thirty second ad or fancy billboard/gif. That's part of the sell. Fast acting, money saving, pleasure making. Whether it's a gum, SUV, or presidential candidate. And if we keep falling for that superficial argument full of empty promises, it's going to be their world, not ours.
It's Internet Outrage All the Way Down
(Even the term 'outrage' has become overused and stale! 'Outrage' should mean more than 'being put in a bad mood for five minutes because of something you don't like happening in the world, posting a comment on social media, then going back to whatever you were doing before')
We're all still trying to figure out the Internet.
It's been almost twenty five years since America Online, Compuserve and Netscape Navigator started mailing 3.5 inch discs and CD-ROMs to homeowners, imploring us to plug into the future. The shrieking modem beeps, the hours to download a song, the embryonic states of all the websites are now apps (evolution in the digital realm).
It was never exactly the hippie dream of 'everyone being connected' coming true, since shitloads of money and giant corporations were involved, but it was new and exciting and more jobs were being created than replaced at this point, even after the after the first bubble burst back in the late nineties (for a sense of perspective, at this time Google was still a private company, and founders Brin and Page were considering selling it for... one million dollars).
To step back a bit and state the obvious: the internet is a communications network for computers (artificially constructed ones and zeroes) that we humans with our fears and emotional baggage have been piggybacking upon since day one. In the past, writing a letter or having someone give a verbal message to someone else was not a matter taken lightly. Your words were representatives of your personality and reputation. Trust of the message-bearers was essential, as were the contents of the words they carried.
And then the damn industrial revolution happened, and everything got quicker and reproduced a hell of a lot easier. The telegraph and telephone meant talking to anyone became both more personal and more impersonal. Advanced machinery was developed that required a lot less manpower to create the same power and products than before. By the time the much-maligned Luddites got around to smashing up industrial looms in symbolic protest, it was too late, the robber barons had the politicians wrapped around their fingers, and everyone else on the farms and in the factories, were doing whatever they could to get by. It took a couple of devastating wars, recessions, and a depression to kind of get everything back to a semblance of normalcy for the average citizen.
Advancing technology has always offered speed and proliferation. More of everything and right away. We - the people it is ostensibly built for - take a long damn time to truly understand and accept these effects (usually first focusing on the good ('hey, everything's so much cheaper!') before realizing the bad ('hey, we're all out of work!')). And just as we seemed to have gotten our better than average monkey brains around the ideas and effects of the industrial revolution (let's say, around the 1950s), computers stopped having to be size of rooms. Which meant they were going to be the next thing to throw our entire civilization into a socioeconomic and cultural tailspin.
This brief history lesson is not a revelation, but it puts in context our ability and inability to adapt to massive changes at high speed (in broad, historical periods of decades, not months and years). Evolution is slow. A mixture of genetic anomaly and luck over centuries. Two computers in labs in California talking slowly to each other in 1969 to watching a movie on your iphone in 2017 is barely a blip in the massive hourglass of time. We're still in a daze with the ability to immediately communicate with almost everyone, and almost everything. If the medium is the message (as McLuhan noted), then the main message that underscores the way we are living now can be described with these terms: instantaneous, overwhelming, and vastly forgettable.
It is taken for granted now that people were effortlessly able to tell the difference between the six o'clock news and the scripted dramas and comedies that followed in prime time (refresher: the former is based in reality, the latter is not). Now, if you don't like the tone or content of a news story you’re reading or watching, don't worry, in mere seconds you'll find one that you do like. Every story is piggy-backing on another. The president tweets a dubious claim from a hyper-partisan website, which the hyper-partisan website in turn uses as proof that it must be true.
In stark contrast to when your words were your bond and your reputation, the Internet offers unaccountability and anonymity. Who wrote this, who claimed that, is this a trustworthy new site? Is the person threatening you legitimately angry and (if threatening you with horrific bodily harm) mentally unbalanced, or do they happen to be bored for thirty seconds? Why does this one study claim the statistics concerning jobs or crime is this, while another study claims it's different? How do we tell the difference, and how do we move forward on policy?
How do we deal with these questions, all of which are rooted in the search for a framing of the true state of contemporary society? How do we balance our responsibilities to our friends, families and co-workers and our responsibilities that come with being an informed and proactive global citizen? After all, we should be very, very concerned if social media sites become the Hub for Truth and Justice.
Facebook is a very popular website and that is a massive understatement for an interactive experience that shapes your perception of the world and makes a shitload of money for Goldman Sachs every time you swipe through your newsfeed.
Big important things like health care, international trade agreements, and data sharing, are complicated. How you interact with these things in the physical and virtual world is complicated. And because the way were engaging with these things/institutions/ideas/rules is changing from how we were only twenty five years ago, even simple things have gotten complicated. People are frustrated and depressed at losing their jobs to advancing technology, especially as they see the owners of this technology getting fabulously rich.
And so enters Internet Outrage.
You're angry about something. Something that's wrong. Something that might be affecting your life directly, or something you've read that's occurring on the other side of the world. While millions of people in Asia are rising out of poverty, millions in the Americas and Europe and sliding into the lower classes, and this lack of employment in the latter regions are only going to exacerbate in the coming years. In large regions across America, the second rust belt has created widespread unemployment and resentment, and helped elect a President who uses social media to rile up this very base of supporters through anger, the blaming of the eternal and ever-shifting 'other', and promising to make America (or really, any country that is going through the same economic tumult and is turning to a braying straw-person) Great Again.
The Internet helped caused many of the problems that are creating a 'white death of despair', but because of its contemporary omnipresence the same people harmed by it rely on it (the same can be said about Wal-Mart's sales tactics, where its bargaining power forced many American factories to close and have their goods manufactured overseas, but those who lost their jobs because of it still shop there).
The Internet is a main source/manifestation of society's unemployment crisis, and the shelter from it. Where you can tune out the harsh realities of the world via Netflix, YouTube, gaming platforms, and any number of communities based on every sort of hobby or pastime imaginable. Where you can rage against the harsh realities of the world, in both constructive and destructive ways. Whenever a news story (veracity pending) comes across your screen, interrupting your daily doldrums or work cycle, it always has the chance to crystallize your anger, alienation, passion, and disappointment. And if you are part of the ever-expanding pool of have-nots in the Western World, how do you transform this powerlessness into power?
Use it to shame a corporation cutting down tracts of rainforest by sharing articles and posting your objection on the company's Twitter page. Criticize the verdict of a particular court case (perhaps the tone-deafness of the judge) by starting petitions to review the confirmation process of judges or make a tl;dr post that people will circulate after they get a few sentences in. Mock, bully, or harass the person who said or did some stupid that you feel endangers your way of life. Find like-minded people to enthusiastically agree with and grow your 'I'm right' bubble. The internet makes all these things ridiculously easy. And in doing so, makes them almost entirely meaningless. Oh certainly some people's lives will be terribly affected (or vastly improved) for a short period time, but it's not necessarily going to make any fundamental changes to the power structure of the world at large.
'Easy' is a double-edged sword. Everyone wants everything to be that very thing, but once that happens - once everything is that same sort of easy - its value plummets. Even when you attach 'outrage' to easy.
It's easy to salute Facebook's ability to organize events and get people to act as one, whether in cyberspace or a town square or city park. It's easy to criticize Facebook for letting algorithms pedal fake news and for making petition signing a joke. It's easy to get lost in time wasting, dispiriting and pointless arguments with people who you might only disagree with a little bit. It's easy to alienate potential supporters of your basic ideas and beliefs if you vocally denounce them for having differing opinions on the details.
Almost everything on the internet is dialed up to eleven. Praise, hate, truth, lies. There is no centre because the Internet doesn't do centre. It doesn't have to do centre. The Internet is ego unleashed and when the id-moment will finally arrive to bring some semblance of balance is anyone's guess.
Yes, you'll type things in a comments section or say things while playing Battlefield that you'll never actually do in 'real life', but as more and more of our lives exist in cyberspace - since the digital realm is predominantly where you tweet, work, and play - a redefinition of 'real' is required.
Or, more accurately, a redefinition of public and private space. Context is almost everything, and where, how, and why you say, 'I'm gonna fucking kill that asshole', makes a huge difference.
On the internet is rapidly becoming on the street.
Using Twitter is telling everyone in the world.
A comments section is a hyper-busy coffee shop.
A game lobby is a hotel lobby.
Now we know how puerile and disgusting internet trolls can be with a tap of our finger, and after reading one article after another, it doesn't take long for questions to come exploding out of one's brain in (yes) outrage. Take this one for example.
-would we hear about this story if it wasn't for the Internet, where picture can be taken and shared with the world in seconds?
-is this matter of eighteen to twenty one years old being the assholes they're supposed to be? (and hopefully, grow out of it?)
-can sororities take the lead in punishing this attitude by banning this frat from various frat/sort events?
-are HR departments of the future going to cross reference applicant names with frat info, with stories like this?
-has this always been the attitude at frats, and we only know this now because of what public sphere has become?
-is this just a matter of 'freedom of speech' protecting these jerks, but everyone else crucifying them in the court of public opinion for a few days before the story dies down?
-is it all just a joke that we're taking way too seriously? And when a young woman is tragically sexually assaulted or raped on campus, do we make a connection between this tasteless joke and a terrible crime? Can a connection be made? How exactly does a joke support a culture/or attitude support a hideous crime? Do young men see that sign and start to rationalize sexual assault?
-How long will it takes for people to realize that now everyone can see what one person wants only one other person to see?
All these questions. Each one with its own lengthy and unfolding arguments from people on either sides of the issues. But where is a fruitful and thoughtful discussion going to take place?
Certainly the kneejerk, throwaway, barely helpful response is 'not online', which suggests that a face to face meeting with all concerned parties would be more sensible, diplomatic and fruitful than constant snipping back and forth on Reddit. But what is also happening is the leaking of Internet behaviour into the real world.
If you are acting like a terrible human being in the physical world, there's a good chance you're also being a terrible human being in the virtual one, and the distinction between the two is collapsing. In the not too distant future there will be a great and historic debate about how people will be allowed to access essential parts of the Internet, and it will revolve around the matter of having a sort of universal ID that you have to 'carry' everywhere.
Now there will still be plenty of private spheres - both real and digital - where you and your friends can be as filthy, catty, and obnoxious as you'd like. That will never go away. But there will inevitably be change in accountability. Not a curtailing a free speech (which, just to remind everyone, is the guarantee that the government will not arrest or censor you for what you say or write), but an always shifting public morals meter. Not against people's private lives, or even displays of art that might offend, but most likely targeted at hate speech and harassment and bullying.
Take the matter of Roosh V and Milo Yiannopoulos, controversial online figures that say racist sexist and bigoted things and claim they are exercising freedom of speech by doing so. No matter what terrible things you say, the defence of being allowed to say them is paramount. The outrage against them and (support for them) is a good case study. What do we do?
The two of them have been in the odd position of saying terribly offensive things, while at the same time is a victim of death threats (and people have even called Roosh’s father to tell the man how terrible his son is), which from a legal point of view, is much more troubling
Specific and repeated threats against a single person count as a crime, general threats do not. But it's obvious that the internet has made it difficult to parse which threats - even specific ones - should be taken seriously (although this has always been a problem. Public figures have received hate mail and death threats long before the internet. Just because it's easier - and therefore more prevalent - and public, doesn't make it any more serious a threat). How do you gauge the seriousness of a threat in a text message from an anonymous person? You couldn't gauge the seriousness of a threat in hate mail from an anonymous person, either. And this is the same sort of problem with the women who were unfortunately caught up in GamerGate. These threats might just be a quick burst of internet outrage sent to a twitter account, or it might be someone who will figure out where you apartment is and waited outside until you leave. Law enforcement is not yet prepared to deal with this sort of ‘verge of a crime’.
In the case of Roosh and Milo, the answer seems to be giving them enough rope to hang themselves with, by giving them a much more public spotlight and watch a more sizeable chunk of the populace turn away in disgust (as Milo found, when he appeared on Bill Maher's Real Time, and found supposed friends, associates, and business partners flee him like rats from a sinking ship).
But this is only a symptom of the larger problem. Milo's recent headline grabbing activities was the 'this week in Internet outrage', and then we all quickly moved on to the next thing. For more complicated issues, more complicated solutions will be required. Making sure we know who is speaking to us on the Internet is the first step in making cyberspace a more civil and functioning ecosystem, but the next one is going to be not always leaning on the easy solution. And that, by any definition, will be hard.
FALLOUT - The 2016 Presidential Election Result
It's been quite a November.
Says Captain Obvious’ close friend, Corporal Understatement.
The campaign felt long, endless, part of 'just the way things are now'. Political aspirants playing their parts in an endless reality show that is 'the news'. Sometimes they talk about the policies they would like to support, sometimes they talk about policies they would not like to support, but mostly they talk about how great things are going for them and their campaign, and how awful it is for their opponents. And then there would be breaking news about a scandal, how this one person said this or did that, and how they are going to deal with it going forward.
Then it was Election Day.
For the first twenty four hours after it became apparent that the swing states had swung and the ridiculous leapt past the impossible into the very possible and then the very real, it was wallowing and thinking time, not writing time. The world seemed too panic-wired to sleep, then feeling tired all Wednesday because of the poor quality of the eventual sleep (the wailing refrain of 'this is really happening' from Idioteque going off like alarm bells).
President Trump. No one can deny that he is the least qualified person to ever hold the office of President (the only one who had no previous experience in government is Eisenhower, and if you're the four star general that helped win the Second World War, that's kind of free pass (and Dwight was the Republican who warned about the military-industrial complex!)). His post-election interview with the New York Times (link to transcript in notes) is a depressing reaffirmation that he is ignorant and willfully dismissive of pressing issues and presidential responsibilities, holds pointless, petty grudges, and constantly sounds like he's in the middle of trying to sell you something. He does not offer a sense of confidence, only bluster. He is not the paragon of virtue and resolve that Western democracy needs right now.
How did this happen? Some people didn't need much time to point fingers. And why wait, when there were so many juicy targets? And the best part was that everyone would kind of be right, because there are many reasons why tens of millions of people vote the way they do.
Even though the real story shouldn't be about the people who voted for Trump. Or the people who voted for Clinton. Or the people who voted for any other candidate.
It should instead be about the people who didn't vote at all.
231 million eligible voters, and of that 135 million cast ballots.
Almost one hundred million people did not vote.
Did not participate in the one of the basic exercises expected in a democracy.
[and while it's certainly one's right not to vote, it's that paradoxical situation where only by voting can you consistently protect your right to not vote. You stop voting, you'll find those rights quickly disappear]
If there was a candidate called 'didn't bother' on the ballot, it would have crushed either Trump or Clinton by tens of millions of votes. Michael Moore (who predicted a Trump win back in the summer, in part because Trump supporters were fired up, while Clinton supporters were more 'whatever, I would have preferred Bernie, and she's a bit dull on the stump, but still better than Donald') noted that if people could vote through their PlayStation or Netflix accounts, voter turnout would skyrocket.
[and certainly we must acknowledge that many people who did not vote certainly wanted to, but were - for various reasons - unable to. Some of this is due to active voter suppression (and here's where we remind you that in conservative states they have made it more difficult for people to vote under the unfounded claim that it's being done to prevent rampant voter fraud, when it actually make it's difficult for people who traditionally vote democrat (young people, minorities) to do so), as well as drastic cuts to the elections budgets making all sorts of delays (hour-long lines) and mistakes (names, addresses don't match on outdated rolls) more likely]
Making it easier to vote would be an excellent first step to increase turnout. Considering how essential they are to democracy, spending the proper amount of money on the people and equipment needed to run a functioning election process is a given. Making advanced voting more expansive, declaring that leaving work to vote on election day is a right, or even creating a national holiday on the second Tuesday of November.
But how many people fall into these unfortunate scenarios above, and how many simply decided the whole election thing wasn't worth it? Tens of millions. Easily enough to change the result to a landslide for either candidate, but instead they 'humbly' bowed out of democracy completely.
They are the true and terrifying silent majority. And not wanting to wait in line is an excuse of very limited acceptance when the responsibilities of citizen and state at stake. Neither is shrugging with indifference that the two party system is broken and each of the candidates are both lousy and believing that one person's vote really doesn't make that much of a difference. Everyone decries negative campaigning, but it's proven that it works, where it can inspire people to vote against instead of for. Except this time, where it got so toxic and embarrassing that it kept many millions of people away from the polls. Allowing for more of the fringe characters and opinions to become part of the presidential conversation.
So here's where we throw a rock at the mainstream media, for giving Trump pass after pass early on simply because he was good for ratings when shooting his mouth of. He was supposed to be laughed offstage, which would be proof that the democracy worked, that no one wants to hear from a fear-mongering buffoon. The mainstream media, not seeing the Trump campaign for what it was, for the energy it harnessed, became a bubble unto itself, with experts just talking to other experts, which led to so many viewers writing it off under the assumption that it could not be trusted. And this isn't just levied at cable news networks, but long standing newspapers.
The New York Times is dismissed by people on the right and the left as a tool of the side they detest, even though that's a reassuring sign that they aren't necessarily being partisan. As the internet's role has become more and more prevalent, it's been difficult for any news organization to simply balance its operating budget, let alone turn a profit, and that means it’s that much hard to do it’s extremely important job. The Guardian's website is now asking for money like it's a charity organization, and it practically is. Suddenly being well-informed is a privilege of those who can afford it, not a right. Consequently, more and more people are getting a trickling of sensationalist headlines from their facebook feeds, and rarely anywhere else, which is exactly an informational construct that a quasi-political superficial blowhard can take advantage of.
When Trump began racking up primary wins, DC-New York Republicans seemed shattered, lamenting the splitting of their party, admitting that they lived in a bubble, never realizing how so many of their fellow GOP members really felt about the state of politics.
Now, with Trump President-elect, DC-New York-LA citizens seems shattered, lamenting the splitting of their country, admitting that they live in a bubble, never realizing how so many of their fellow Americans really felt about the state of politics.
An incredulous, disorienting feeling, especially when so many polls and experts were promising an easy victory for Clinton (echoes of Brexit, certainly). So many - liberals and conservatives - not understanding the attraction, especially when there was so much to repel: Why vote Trump?
The Internet-news-o-sphere offered up a litany of reasons, and they're all partly right. There's no one reason why sixty million people cast their ballots for one particular candidate. Still deep-seated misogyny (even by white women, 53% of whom voted for Trump), still deep-seated racism (since Clinton was seen as an extension of the Obama's policies), still deep-seated xenophobia (if Trump was tough on immigrants and Muslims, then Clinton was therefore not).
But those three facets of deplorability can't be the whole story, not for sixty two million people. Clumping a large group people together because a handful of them exemplified a few terrible traits is something that...well, something that Donald Trump would do.
Besides, if you're going to whittle Trump's support down to one word, it shouldn't be 'deplorables', it should be 'jobs'.
Remember those things? Because a hell of a lot of Americans don't. And the constant disconnect of a rising Dow (which, it should be reminded, is a barometer of how rich the rich people are, not the state of the economy for the billions of people around the globe) and falling unemployment numbers mask the fact that underemployment in the service industry is the new career reality not only across America but the globe as well (work that offers no guaranteed hours, no job security, no benefit, no legal protections, and little to sense of independence or self worth).
This is the spiraling black hole of death problem that was created by globalization. Technology allowed us to make stuff for cheap on the other side of the world and ship it all around, so factories from Kansas to Kiev shut down and millions of people were fired. And this has been the problem that was staring at us in the face since the 1980s, and it was one that many Western leaders never wanted acknowledge, always kicking the can down the road, with the promises of jobs returning or being replaced always ending up empty. And the people got sick of both the Republicans and Democrats lying about fixing the problem, since the politicians seemed to always be cozying up to the wealthy corporations, who were getting all the wealthier as regulations loosened and unions weakened.
And when people are that upset and feel completely abandoned by the system that exists to ensure that this exact thing doesn't happen, they vote for the candidate that doesn't sound like every carbon copy politician, the candidate they believe when he (or she) promises they'll renegotiate trade deals to bring back jobs and drains the special interest swamp in the capital.
So you get Donald Trump. A sleazy, born-rich billionaire who declared bankruptcy four times and is best known to the public as a blustery game show host. A man whose on record on job creation is spotty at best. A man who says you can trust him because he's already gamed the system. A symptom of the problem, sure, a straw-man/strong-man who is only realizing now (from his first meeting with Obama where he looked a combination of bored and terrified, to his feeble attempts at choosing a cabinet) that this job comes with plenty of power and responsibility, but not with the sort of power that can keep even a fraction of his campaign promises. And the swing states which swung for Trump (Ohio, Wisconsin) will continue to feel the endless kneecapping of little to no job recovery under the new President.
So while this explains his support among the low-to-no-income classes (in economically depressed communities, whichever candidate boasts over and over about bringing back jobs will emerge victorious), one must also consider the segment of his supporters which bring in an average $70,000 a year. These people voted for Trump for the same reason a lot of people voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Because it 'feels' like he represents 'change', two words that will never stop being factors in elections. A sensationalist and sometimes wildly false and inaccurate media (Macedonian teenagers making clickbait alt-right news websites for fun and profit) painting a picture of terror and uncertainty, couple with anecdotal evidence of people's genuine economic plight creates the 'feeling' that America is falling behind, losing its way. That even if you have a job everywhere else around you is flailing, while the world seems more chaotic and government handouts appear to only help people who live in big cities.
Is this true? Does it even matter if this is what you 'feel' to be true?
Sure, it means you're ignoring facts and statistics, but don't worry, there's a president-elect for that. And that means it's time to ask how that is going to affect policy going forward. When the decisions aren't made based on truth, but what you want to be true. Or 'post-truth', which is the Oxford Dictionary's word of the year.
So what will Trump do? He's said so many contradictory and inflammatory things, it's hard to say what he will want to do and what he'll be able to do.
Pretty much the only thing that's certain is that he'll cut taxes for the rich and corporations, and further deregulate financial, energy, and media industries. That's the gift to himself and the rest of the 1% (in fact, this might finally get the rest of the wealthy and powerful to actually like Trump, who's bankruptcies and bluster kind of made him seem like a blackballed embarrassment to other Manhattan elites). For years Clinton has been pilloried for being too close to wealthy donors and special interests. And she was defeated in this election by a man who was the archetypal egotistical business tycoon.
And how will he appease his supporters and help the rest of America? He's cooled down his rhetoric: the border wall is now a fence, deportation goal numbers have been slashed 75%, of course he'll honour NATO commitments, he'll slice up some but not all of Obamacare. For now. All this might change next week, month or year.
This is uncharted territory. This is a simmering pot ready to boil. The President elect owes millions to Chinese banks (because American banks wouldn't lend him money), has investment properties/portfolios all over the world and is already wheeling and dealing with his business partners at Trump Tower, since he doesn't seem to be interested in setting up a blind trust to keep the affairs of the nation and the affairs of his bottom line separate.
A new low in political everything, encapsulated perfectly by President-Elect Trump. Still tweeting about how the media is out to get him, saying that he could have won the popular vote if he wanted to, treating the campaign and now the rollout of his cabinet like a reality show. Walking back every shocking declaration he ever said with a straight face, tacitly acknowledging that he said it just to get attention.
Is this the new reality, where the position of the President becomes even more superficial and PR-based, and it's the people behind the curtain that are pulling his or her strings?
Trump has already duped his supporters by doing the opposite of 'draining the swamp', with lobbyists salivating at the idea of getting back the halls-of-power access. It's pay to play once again, after going through a few famine years under Obama.
So if Washington stays the same, what can he offer his diehard supporters other than whipping up more hatred of the 'other'? He has two years to bring back millions of jobs to the rust belt, and if his economic plan (or the people he puts in charge of his economic plan, which really means the people who are going to come up with an economic plan for him) is anything to go by (loosening regulations, tax cuts), it's simply not going to happen. America doesn't have the same economic pull it used to, nor do the most powerful people in the country seem to have any interest in bringing these jobs back, since doing so would affect the company bottom line. Until it's just as expensive to build a lawnmower in Asia as it is in Arkansas, the manufacturing jobs are going to stay on the other side of the Pacific.
All of these things are troubling, but it's the personality of Trump which makes his administration all the more unpredictable. That he ran as a Republican and is staffing Republicans means there are some predictable elements to his policies. If Clinton won, it would have been unlikely that she would have won both houses of congress, which means she would have had to do quite a bit of compromise for her own platform. Of course, her policies would be much more person friendly and much less corporation friendly. Democrats and Republicans will both fuck you in the end, but the Democrats will buy you dinner first.
We needed Clinton's policies on climate change, taxation, and social programs to be the baseline requirements for the years and decades going forward if we were to uphold the basic functioning of a democratic America, and therefore a large part of a functioning Western Civilization, and therefore a large part of global society.
Even if Trump's policies were centrist (or even populist), current living standards and basic rights will be in jeopardy in the years to come. When it comes to what he might mean to international diplomacy, the world is already turning into the skid, with increased settlement building in Israel, emboldened right-leaning parties across Europe, and a circle-the-wagons mentality in Asian countries.
Hopefully Trump is taking a crash course of sorts in these matters, because who he surrounds himself with will define the sort of information and news presented to him. In that way, the president decides what he will do when he decides his staff. And Donald Trump has a history of working with only sycophants and horse-traders, morals, integrity and clarity be damned. If he's only passively interested in most issues, and preferring ones that can be linked to good photo-ops and rallies were people chant his name, then fewer issues will ever be addressed by him directly, with decisions behind made behind his blissfully ignorant back. In this way, Trump will force the Presidency to mean even less. The people have spoken, and soon their words/ballots will mean even less.
Trump will make this a figurehead position, one that is meant to inspire the nation, make them proud to be [insert nationality here], while the convoluted decisions about policy are made in sausage-like fashion in offices across the world. Where half the country thinks that the leader of Russia had his thumb on the scale on the election (regardless of whether it's true), especially after it was acknowledge that some of Putin's staff communicated with Trump over the summer.
As mentioned in the tail end of the pre-election article (HERE), it was noted that with Trump's likely loss, that it might lead to a rejection of sorts against the Trump-like character and the Trump-like traits that many people in power hold.
Apparently it will have to take an entire administration before that happens.
More so than Hillary Clinton, truth and substance were the losers in this election.
The two mainstream political parties can't change all that much between election cycles. Two and four years aren't long periods of time, and when the losers acknowledge there has to be reforms of policy and approach, they are still at the mercy of the same big money donors and interests (even if some of the donors and interests want change as well, it certainly doesn't come fast).
Typical 'change' is doing exactly what the victors did, or making a half-assed attempt at doing the exact opposite of what the victors did. The democrats will run a Trump for the left, an energetic, approachable, slogan pushing yes man or woman that is expected to leave the policy details to lawyers and lobbyists.
Divisions will continue to widen, economically, socially, culturally, geographically. And information will be fitted and tailored around the policy being made and the person pushing it. Pocket cults of personality will exist across the land, tethered to wealthy donors and vanity institutes of research and polling. The truest thing in peoples’ lives will be their phone/internet bill.
Perhaps this all too dour, only three weeks out from November 8th, but a few days ago, the president-elect tweeted that the election he won was crooked and filled with irregularities, and that there should be no recounts. A statement that is about as good as 1984-like doublespeak gets. Donald Trump emerged as the victor in a miserable and joyless presidential campaign, and he destroyed the people’s complete faith and trust in democracy to do it.
Unemployment across the country
Trump meets Obama, isn't having fun yet
NYT Interview Transcript:
Trump and Putin
Dowd's tossing blame on Clinton/Obama ego and being out of touch
The world is already turning into the skid:
Chomsky on Trump:
Elitism (Oh yeah, that thing)
Elitism is a loaded term, and is sensibly the bane/antagonist of democracy, since the bedrock of the latter is that everyone is equal to one another and consequently should have an equal say in how the community/state should be run.
That's theoretical, of course. Stating 'everyone is equal' refers to how they are to be treated in the eyes of the law. Beyond that, it needs to be acknowledged that no one is equal to anyone else. We all have different abilities and flaws, which make us all specifically unequal to one another. A lovely sentiment when it comes to an individual's uniqueness and the power to shape your own destiny, but it can be a real challenge when it comes to performing basic democratic tasks, like being an informed and responsible citizen.
Additionally, stating that everyone should have the same amount of power is more aspirational than anything else. Political power has never been so smoothly distributed among a nation's citizens. One person, one vote? Definitely. Does it translate effortlessly into how power is used in the capitol buildings? Not exactly.
You can bandy around plenty of terms for the people who have considerably more power than the average citizen. Nobility is nice and old school, but it's been 'elitism' and the 'elite' for a while now. Your career politicians, your CEOs of all the industries that not-so-secretly shape your life and destiny (energy, financial, and - increasingly - tech), your old money that worked so damn hard to turn it into new money (namely, investing in the three industries listed above), and the odd rags-to-riches (or shrinking middle class-to-riches) inventor/entrepreneur who made it so big they couldn't go bankrupt if they tried (and consequently becomes old money).
The rise of the aforementioned people in the last three and a half decades in terms of wealth and power (not just across America, not just across the Western World, but across the globe as a whole) has created an institutional foundation of governance where access has become considerably more restricted
This means a phone call to your local politician will not resonate nearly as much as a donation of several thousand dollars (or the creation of a Super PAC (Political Action Committee)). To run for office requires a considerable amount of money, which means you are already rich, or you have a series of rich donors who will your support your campaign (and for whom you will owe vote-friendly favours to if you win).
Spending tens of thousands of dollars in an election season to ultimately save hundreds of thousands of dollars because the politicians you 'donated to' (not 'bribed') will change (or not change) the tax code does not come off as a perversion of democracy in the elites' eyes, but rather a sound business investment.
The political positions of these individuals can vary, except when it comes to economic policy. Controlling at all costs what is most valuable - first and foremost, the transfer and exchange of money, followed by the energy and technology that people depend on daily - is something unanimously agreed upon. And they see this as a responsibility, not as a voracious and evil plot for more and more
To keep this status quo, elites marry other elites, have children that go to elite schools and meet other elites to marry. In this vacuum, the expectation that a politician or judge already holds you in higher favour does not seem abnormal. Rising inequality results in much less social integration between the fewer haves and the many more have-nots.
Can someone outside of this system crack into the caste? Yes, but it's difficult, rare, and more akin to winning the lottery than being the ideal social system for anyone to succeed.
The American/Western Dream shouldn't have to exist as an exception to the rule. A capitalist economic system that leans heavy towards free markets is one where an individual's entire worth is based on finances. And even if the playing field (to use a trivializing term for our lives) was level when we all emerge from the womb, the differences in peoples' abilities and the need for some social roles to be of higher regard than others means that power and wealth could never be diffused uniformly. The advantaged naturally rise to the top, but the concern will always exist of what they do when they get there.
If they saw themselves as fulfilling God given roles centuries ago, then today the elites see themselves as 'stewards', leading the globalized economy forward to the eventual benefit of all.
Consequently - when you look at any sort of graph regarding wealth, income inequality, personal debt, corporate mergers, etc. - the current problems with the large-scale economic system (and not only in America) is that the elites have failed the rest of us. Certainly the masses can cynically expect the elites to 'look out for their own' before making sure the state/globe still functions normally, but over the last decade - and certainly after the financial crisis of 08/09 - these problems have exacerbated greatly.
If the measure for success is a continually functioning society that can offer a majority of its citizens respectable living standards and an ability to address large-scale challenges that will affect the well-being of the state and the world at large, then the elites - having more power than that of the voting block of all citizens - have misused the role they gave themselves.
Consequently, there are two strands of thought to consider.
A) The elites have a higher level of responsibility of ensuring that society runs smoothly than those who are not elite. This is a tacit agreement between the powerful few and the less powerful many.
B) Everyone is in it for themselves, and the people that accomplish more through a combination of hard work, ingenuity and luck (being born into a wealthy family) owe nothing to anyone else.
If A is true then there are systemic failures within the economic state of the contemporary world and changes must be made. If B is true then are systemic failures within the economic state of the contemporary world, but that's just the way it is, smoke 'em if you got 'em.
So let's go with A. Rectifying this problem can occur in very few (and considerably difficult) ways. A groundswell of public support for reforms (see: populism) is extremely difficult when one considers the strong and almost unbridgeable divide between liberals and conservatives (although we should use these terms loosely). Even information can be skewered to particular groups, thanks to the news-conformity bubble (where you only seek out/receive news/opinions from political positions that are very similar to your own).
If the right's new bubble is said to be anti-fact (currently personified by the words of Donald Trump), then the left's is anti-practicality. The left has been promised/promising a path to utopia through proper legislation, but nothing can match their rhetoric. Look at Obamacare. Because of the concessions that were required to get enough support in Congress, many of the left are disappointed at its limitations. And future left-leaning legislation will have the same problem. It won't be what was originally claimed. It will always seem to be - at best - a middling success to the left (and to the right government-run health insurance was always about death panels).
And Obamacare is weak largely in part because of the unavoidable demands of compensation from health insurance companies, which are run and owned by the elites (that no one seems to bat an eye at the idea of profiting massively from people's illnesses - plus having an incentive to deny peoples' claims - is also troubling). No matter what the large scale government project, the powerful corporations and those that run them sneak their thumb (or whole hand) on the scale. That some of the largest financial and energy industries get billions a year in tax breaks while remaining enormously profitable is unfathomable.
Unless you're the ones reaping the rewards. Then it doesn't seem that way. And it's hard to see any other perspective if you're inside the bubble (in fact, you might deny that there is a bubble in the first place). Whether it's pushing the trickle-down economy, the idea of a substandard living wage, or simply saying, 'screw the lazy poor', the elites looking out for number 1% first and everyone else second has become an entrenched belief among everyone else on the planet.
Changing this perspective is difficult, as it is going against a fundamental belief of the American/Western dream, which is that success is always dependent on an individual. In reality, success depends on harnessing the convoluted inter-workings of a globalized economy. During the 2012 presidential election, Republican seized on a disemboweled quote from Obama. The President was outlining that no matter how hardworking and intelligent the individual (or individual company) was, it is dependent on basic infrastructure like roads, electricity, building codes and regulations, etc, that is provided by governments. He said 'you didn't build that', and the GOP used those four and half words as proof that Obama is a foe of business, large and small.
There is a resistance among elites to government participation in practically any large-scale endeavour, even though mixed market economies are much more stable in the long term. So it's no wonder this system has fallen out a favour at a time when few people are looking long term. The working class is living paycheque to paycheque, and the elites are only interested in the positive quarterly financial reports that will result in their annual bonus.
Everyone is existing in short-term economies. Long term investments are suddenly considered too risky, because we're tearing up the present to pieces to get every single dollar and cent out of it.
If there are elitists, then even the middle class begins to become irrelevant. There is only the extremely wealthy and powerful, and then everyone else. Elitism as an actual form of governance cannot exist in a democracy. If the elected representatives are not supporting the will of the people (but rather a very, very small segment of people, regardless of how the votes are cast), then there is no democracy.
Once again, it has to be stressed that this push for corporate power and deregulation has been terrible for the great masses of people across the globe. In the West there is rising unemployment, less saving, and no job security, and even in other areas in the globe that have absorbed the West's former manufacturing jobs, there is still poverty, exploitation, and non-democratic rule.
The notion that the best rise to the top and are better suited to rule would seem much less odious if the results actually benefitted the majority of the people. The self-appointed guardians of capital can't seem to keep their own grubby hands out of the cookie jar, leaving the vast majority of the people with the crumbs.
A healthy, long-term democracy has to alternate between egalitarian-focused and elitist-focused periods. Ideally democracy will always be egalitarian-focused, but that does not appear to be feasible, and will have to be considered a theoretical construct rather than a plausible form of governance. There's never going to be an egalitarian utopia and there will never be a ‘1984-like inner/outer party and everyone else’ dystopia. Instead it's always going to be a mix of both, with the scales occasionally leaning more towards inequality and then occasionally towards equality.
The last three and a half decades have seen Western democracy become increasingly elitist-focused, and it is necessary for there to be a shift back to egalitarian-focused. This must include the acknowledgement by the elites that there needs to be changes that will shrink the overall size and individual portions of their wealth and power. To say that this will not be a welcomed proposal is an understatement, especially when one considers the fact that any elites see their success as proof that the system isn't broken, that their hard work and abilities are advantages that anyone else would capitalize on if they could.
It's not simply a matter of changing a tax code or laws concerning deregulation. It's also (mainly?) a matter of changing people's minds.
Even if the United States introduced legislation that heavily taxed the wealthy and strictly regulated financial institutions and corporations, these groups would simply 'relocate' in an economic sense (as many of them have half-accomplished already) to a much more tax-friendly nation, like Panama or the Grand Cayman Islands.
And so the next challenge is to get every nation (or even almost every, which is also seemingly impossible) on earth to also agree to these economic rules that are binding and come with criminal charges if violated.
While the United States has a massive influence in global economic policy, trying to even make the argument that this is for the best of the global economy in the long run would be missing support for several key nations. The United States' long standing reputation of exploiting the rest of the planet for their own gain (and the level of fairness within this accusation can be debated elsewhere) means some nations will not support it.
And some nations who did agree will still be 'soft' on enforcing these rules, and the wealthy will quietly flock there, or created a new kind of financial instrument where they can hide their commas. The goal here is to make avoidance of regulation and taxation more difficult, as eradicating it completely is not possible. The alternate (and more fruitful) goal is to convince the wealthy that paying taxes is in their best interest in the long run.
It doesn't take much for these frustrations to come to a boiling point when news like the Panama Papers is revealed. By hiding your money in offshore bank accounts, you are making your own country shittier. How can anyone be okay with that? The problem is that it's becoming more and more apparent that only the extremely wealthy can take the important first step and fix the widening gap of inequality in America (and to lesser degrees, in other Western nations). The rich people have to save the ever growing masses of poor people by giving a lot of their money that they hide in offshore accounts (impossible to know for sure, but conservative estimates have it in the trillions) to the rest of us via government taxation and then government spending. Have the wealthy finance the much-needed upgrade in American infrastructure. And if they're going to be total obstinate assholes about it, give 'em the tolls for bridges and highways for a temporary period.
This is not a push for egalitarianism. Oversteering to the opposite concept is no solution at all. The elites can and will always have more, but in the upcoming years they will simply have to settle for not as much.
Populism: Oh yeah, that thing
Don’t look at Donald Trump.
We know that’s difficult, as he’s a never-ending car crash you can’t help but rubberneck in the general direction of, but he’s not the real story of the 2016 presidential election.
It's not Hillary Clinton, either.
Or Bernie Sanders.
The 2016 US election isn't about a person. It's about people.
Populism is back.
Economist (and Bill Clinton’s secretary of labour) Robert Reich predicted a few years back that things would get so difficult in America for the average citizen that there would be an inevitable and basic change as to how the country functions from an economic perspective, led by a groundswell of common sense support for doing whatever it takes to finally rehabilitate the middle class.
But he didn’t predict it would take on this form (even if you could, would you really want to?). Donald Trump blames Washington gridlock and anything non-white, non-Christian, and non-Norman Rockwell painting for the current state of America, a fact-free bigoted screed that connects most strongly with lower class whites in blue collar graveyard towns.
Bernie Sanders said that over the last several decades Wall Street fat cats have pulled up the socioeconomic ladder after them when they climbed into the tree-house of success, leaving the rest of to fight amongst the scraps, a message that resonated with the disaffected, left-leaning youth.
Outspoken New Yorkers out to change America.
It’s not just ‘chickens coming home to roost’ for conservatives (the argument that Republicans have stoked the talking points of fear, religion, and neoliberalism among its base for so long that was inevitable that there would be a candidate that exemplifies (or is able to convince people he exemplifies) these traits to an uncomfortably toxic degree).
And it's not just a bunch of liberal arts baristas tweeting 'feel the bern' incessantly and think that Clinton has too many ties to energy and financial industry insiders.
It’s deeper now because in the last eight years – even with the most left-leaning president since the 1970s – most Americans have seen their economic outlooks go from bad to worse. Unless you’re already wealthy, and the 1% tone deafness on this issue just adds more fuel to the fire of populist anger.
And this anger is nothing to scoff at. Anger is a powerful emotion that can get people to ballot box a lot more effectively than any sort of graph or logical argument about policy change can.
Sanders on the left, Trump on the right, with the latter saying he even agrees with the former on some things (which is almost certainly just be a ploy to steal any possible votes from still disillusioned Sanders supporters). Together, these so-called ‘fringe’ candidates had almost more support than all the other ‘mainstream’ candidates combined.
So what happens?
Hillary Clinton is probably going to be the next President of the United States. A landmark step forward for all women, and one taken by a politician who - when looking at the presidential hopefuls from any other party - is far and away the most qualified for the job.
Which means she is going to be under criticism from every political side and position from day one.
Paradoxically, by being the most qualified Clinton will be seen as everything wrong with the American political system. A power hungry Washington insider who claims to be for the people but will still party around with Wall Street. A centrist that will disappoint the large swaths of people who identify as left or right.
An unjustified framing, certainly, so it’s worthwhile to add the reminder that the power of Congress can be even mightier than the power of the President. The mindset that Americans vote for their leaders every four years is rather disingenuous. Every two years you vote for new representatives, and that’s how your political beliefs live and die, not necessarily by who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. As much as the presidential election process can seem rigged via super-delegates and media coverage, it's nothing compared to how broken and rigged the system is for pols in the house and Senate. Gerrymandering means only a fraction of the seats can actually switch parties (and the ones that are in the ‘safe’ districts have some of the most extreme views, at least in terms of conservative Tea Partiers), plus just like the presidential race, the amount of money offered up from wealthy donors to each district face off is another reminder how powerless most citizens truly are when it comes to making their voices heard.
All this means that, more so than ever before in the last fifty years, this election feels particularly desperate and urgent, based on the rhetoric of both the candidates and the citizens. Language that plays more on the hearts than the minds.
Preying on people's fears by saying that the country isn't safe, even though violent crime is down nationwide. Preying on people hopes and dreams by promising free college and better health care plans, even though the ability to push through (and pay for) such legislation is unlikely.
But it's these sorts of sweeping statements that embodies populism. It's 'what everyone wants', even if no one gives much thought to its feasibility, or its long-term, wide-ranging effects.
The UK's Brexit vote is an excellent example of a referendum done by drunk sledgehammer when surgical tools would be much more effective.
Yes, the European Union has become a bureaucratic nightmare that grew too big, too fast and cannot address the major challenges affecting the individual countries within its borders, from economic decline to migration.
Despite all this, however, leaving it is much worse in the long term. Following rules and regulations will become more onerous, travel and work between the UK and the EU will become much more difficult, and leaves the future strength of the EU in doubt (from perspective ranging from economic to military).
But with the 'Leave' supporters focusing on xenophobic slander and saying they are tired of experts and their facts (a hideous quip from MP Michael Gove), it was a painful reminder that populism can frequently be manipulated, even while there are core truths to the issue at hand that should have people supporting the other viewpoint.
Complaining about the economy and how other people who aren't exactly like you are getting handouts and special treatment is a harsh, biter, and bigoted take on a rather simple and straightforward apolitical occurrence in the Western world:
The shrinking of the middle class.
A glib assessment of the Brexit campaign is that people in England didn’t like people from elsewhere coming and taking their jobs. A glib assessment of the Trump campaign is that his supporters don’t like people from elsewhere coming and taking their jobs.
Populism is by nature reductionist. Its strength lies in the simplicity of its message. But economic stagnation is a massive, interdependent problem, and cannot be solved within one country's borders. That several Asian nations manufacture most of what Americans buy means American citizens have a massive say in how this region (and especially China) itself is run (even if they don’t consider it). And with China buying American debt so readily, Chinese corporations and their owner/investors (many in the government) are literally invested in America’s well-being.
These are big issues, and the solutions to them are just as complex and unwieldy.
Which is why it's hard to talk about them in an election year where tweets and soundbites reign supreme. And because Trump can dominate the news-cycle, Clinton is left to not so much debate the issues but simply acknowledge that she’s the only other choice, the only non-crazy choice.
And that’s what necessary to attract the left populist supporters. Not with rational arguments (explaining that she has much more feasible socioeconomic plan than Sanders, and a better track record with compromise, which is necessary), but with holding up the ‘greater of two evils’ as a threat.
So how do we discuss an important and nuanced issue like international trade? How do we discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal with the diligence and care it deserves? We cannot simply tear it to shreds like the left wants, and we can’t embrace it fully like the corporate-conservative right wants.
Populism makes any sort of debate about this incredibly difficult, but you can't downplay populism. You can ignore it for a while, but not forever.
It's what the people want, even if they don't know exactly what they want and it needs articulating, or even if what they want is completely unfeasible.
Sound familiar? It's why it is possible for Donald Trump to win the presidency.
Inevitable? Of course not.
But he can paint Clinton as a criminal beltway insider, and deflect democratic attacks by tilting middle and appealing to undecided voters by toning down the racist and xenophobic rhetoric.
‘Cooler heads prevailing’? There’s enough frustrated people out there (and a cross-section of all voting demographics) which believe that voting for the candidate who will only deliver more of the same is worse than sweeping change. For complicated reasons that populism naturally ignores, conservatives are trying to claim that Obama’s hope and change resulted in middling bureaucracy and partisan sniping that still lets the rich people get richer and everyone else get poorer, and add that Clinton is more of that.
If Trump can get this argument across and not put his foot any further into his mouth (still looking unlikely at the moment), he just might win.
(What would a Trump presidency look like? No idea. Who knows what Trump actually believes. He’ll say anything to get attention/votes. His policies (such as they are) have huge flaws, from logistics to budgeting to simply being morally repugnant.
Best Case Scenario: All that talk about building a wall along Mexico and banning Muslims was just to get attention. He dials all this back, gets a bipartisan team of advisors (to actually represent those that did vote for him, since he will be less beholden to party insiders) and actually tries to get some policies passed that helps keep jobs from leaving America. He still shoots his mouth off, but defers to the Joint Chief of Staff on military issues and therefore does not start WWIII.
Lousy Case Scenario: He tries to get the wall built, ban muslims, and create new laws about job security, but congress thwarts him at every turn. And suddenly there is a palpable sense of thankfulness for Washington gridlock.
Worst Case scenario: He puts cronies in charge, gets enough support from far right wingers in Congress to pass parts of his ‘three terrible ideas for every one good idea’ agenda, and America finds itself with terrible economic problems that border on isolationist, and then there’s an international crisis that he completely fucks up.)
Everyone agrees that there are big, complicated problems facing America/The West/The World, but the agreement ends there. What are the biggest problems? Which are the ones we should tackle first?
Once again, populism is that feeling of anger and frustration and desire for change. But these three emotions are not ideal for governance.
Populism is a very powerful, clumsy movement. Certainly a bull in a china shop.
Even within a democracy where the ideal situation is that everyone has equal share of power via their ballot during an election, electing a person to represent you and your district in Congress (or Parliament) is the tacit acknowledgement that some people now have more power than others, because these politicians are the ones who will actually be making decisions in the capital.
And you're supposed to elect the best your voting district has to offer. With the simple reasoning being that a moral, intelligent, and hard-working individual will make the right decisions not only for the people who voted for him or her, but for the nation as a whole.
And this is democracy 101, sure. But when this system starts to break down, populism is what people turn to when the mistrust in the current system of governance reaches a no-going-back threshold. It's not a matter of just fringe right and left wingers railing against the problems of Western democracy. Mainstream right and left-leaning people also see the system as completely broken. As do political centrists.
Which is why this is most certainly the beginning of a populist movement in the United States that won't dissipate after November 9th.
Populism is a movement of the powerless, but inevitably it will gain power as people unify under certain issues, demanding change. But this period of actually having power, of being able to greatly influence legislation, will be extremely short lived. Inevitably this flow of power must manifest itself in very traditional forms. Without a doubt the people who are leading/organizing the movement will be imbibed with the responsibility of negotiating with whatever institution or government entity that they are attempting to change. Any sort of coalescing of power will attract people who are willing to exploit it for their own ends.
Populism exists as a spark that forces the shuffling of chairs and desks and job titles. And that spark is difficult to predict. When does a march become a sit-in? When does a protest become a riot?
For centuries populism required the physical presence of the masses. From the 'peasant are revolting', to 'let them eat cake', to 'workers of the world unite'.
The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are two sides of the disenfranchisement coin, and while both conservative and liberal politicians have tried to harness the political energy of these movements to their own ends, the still unlearned lesson is that lip service to these grievances is only going to have people return years later, in larger numbers, with more anger and energy.
Trump and Sanders are the embodiment of The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, and regardless of how this election plays out, neither of these groups will disappear unless there is actual change to the socioeconomic conditions of America.
One of the chief dissatisfactions that unite people regardless of their political stripe is the pervasive influence of money in politics (it certainly allows you to hurl accusations at the candidate/party you dislike, while downplaying how big money donations affect the decisions of the candidate/party you support).
And how do you maneuver around other people’s money? With your own.
Populism can become something as rote and dull as getting a text or tweet from a friend or public figure, asking you to temporarily transfer $500 out of your bank account as a political act. To put pressure on the financial institution to withdraw their support of an oppressive foreign government or an amoral corporation. After enough people have done the same thing, and the bank's assets have shrunken considerably in the space of an hour or two, the financial institution acquiesces, changes its position, and everyone puts their money back in.
This sort of shuffling can accomplish what marching in the streets and shouting slogans cannot, consolidate the moment of power much, much more quickly, zeroing in much more efficiently upon the issue at hand, and expressing what the people as a whole demand, and putting pressure exactly where it hurts for corporations: On their quarterly profit earnings.
Can it be usurped by the forces it is mean to stop? Of course. Any and all political tools can be, and exploiting methods used by populists is extremely easy, in part because these methods have to be easy, otherwise large segments of the population won't bother with them.
But perhaps for the next several cycles of debates and exchanges about large scale initiatives and plans, the masses get their voices heard with the one thing that talks louder than anything else: Money.
It can even drown out Donald Trump.
The Public and the Private
Things are getting complicated.
In terms of global problems, this is not a startling revelation these days, but some scripts have been flipped in terms of who are the good and bad guys (which is always an 'eye of the beholder' term, anyway).
Governments are curtailing free speech and corporations are standing up for the privacy rights of individuals. And they're both doing it for reasons that can be understood and accepted by large swaths of the population as the right thing to do at the moment. Kind of. Depending on the circumstances. It's complicated.
So if you lean left, the institution we rely upon (the government) to protect us from corporate power which typical has only one amoral goal (make money) is demanding that a big corporation give them the ability to access all our private data on our phones. To keep us safe from terrorism.
Meanwhile, across the globe, countries both democratic and 'democratic' are having a difficult time with letting some people say what they want when it angers some other people (and some of these 'some people' have lots and lots of power). Democracy is seen as something to be achieved, an end, a completion of a journey from tyranny to freedom. Which is why it can be goddamn annoying to find ourselves continually re-examining one of the oldest questions concerning this political system: How much freedom are you willing to give up in exchange for safety?
Puppets vs. Masters
Sticks and stones...
But not in India. Now simply shouting 'Long Live Pakistan!" on A New Delhi university campus is enough to get arrested. "While free speech is enshrined in the [Indian] Constitution, it has been undermined by various sections of the penal code, the courts and successive governments, and is not always supported by the public." (Najaf, Gupta)
This is where we shrug and acknowledge that democracy and freedom is typically a 'two steps forward, one step back' progression. Where we note that when the West shoves globalization into a region that's not completely industrialized, it means that all the other Western influences - from culture to forms of governance - is going to arrive in bits and pieces and not perfectly fit into the already existing power structure. Where we clear our throats and admit that even if ushering in new reforms and civil rights is going well, financial downturns and political upheavals on the other side of the world can suddenly stop this progression in its tracks (when the price of meat drops in South America, slaughterhouses close in India). Where we look at the numbers and have to admit that a democracy for thirty or three hundred million people that has been able to develop over centuries is so much different than a democracy for over one billion people that's trying to stagger forward out of colonial oppression in only a few decades.
But then, being a member of the Communist Party in 1950s America (and shouting about it in public) could probably get you some unwanted attention (from both the authorities and random passersby). And tensions between Indian and Pakistan (both nuclear powers) have long been terrible. But does that mean you put free speech on the shelf because some words are considered dangerous when you're in the middle of a not-quite-hot-not-quite-cold war? How strong do the roots of your democracy have to be before the government is comfortable with protests against it? If that's the ultimate test of democracy maybe too many nations are willing to take the D minus (or, for purists, the F).
And if you think you can outsmart the authorities by keeping your mouth shut and simply letting the colour of your clothes do the talking, think again.
Yes, it looks extremely sad when a country is trying to ban a coloured t-shirt, revealing more about their internal weakness than they want to let on, and you can write this sort of screed on your yellow t-shirt or a slightly mocking protest sign. But it becomes a much less funny sort of ridiculous when you get beaten by a riot cop or dragged into jail without being given any of the rights your country likes to say it gives to all its citizens.
But those are just basic rights growing pangs in Southeast Asia, right? Just a bunch of DINOs (Democracies In Name Only), right? If we turn our eye to Europe, certainly we'll be reassured that the rights and freedoms of individuals are being respected, especially in the face of rising hostility towards radical strains of Islam across the continent?
Using puppet witches at a protest to suggest that the government is going on a witch hunt? At worst they should be mocked for nailing the hammer a little too much on the head. Our short term and selective memory means we forget that Spain had a rough go through the twentieth century, with plenty of fascist dictators, rebellions, and civil wars.
Spain's been an amazing success story since then, although the financial crisis hit it particularly hard. And that's something that must be considered when we look at these protests and how the government reacts to them.
Democracy might be the political system, but capitalism is the economic one. And the world economy is in terrible shape (and any current growth the United States or any other nation likes to trumpet is a fake out. Most of this money is just going into the pockets of the already super-wealthy, exacerbating the rich-everyone else divide). If everyone gets paid, everyone cares a little bit less about words that they might disagree with, no one gets violently angry about being marginalized and impoverished.
But when belts get tightened, tempers flare, stress increases, instability rises, and suddenly the authorities are worried about puppets.
Free speech means it doesn't matter if you don't like satire, it's got to be allowed. But it does matter a hell of a lot if those applying the laws regarding hate (or threatening/subversive) speech can't understand this particular instance as satire.
Weighing freedom against safety is never an easy question, and should be debated vigorously in the halls of power and the most rundown bars, but...puppeteers? Comedians? Musicians? These are the sort of people who will be arrested by the government in fascist countries, not...France.
Is Dieudonne getting laughs when he makes fun of Jewish rituals onstage? It doesn't matter, it's ridiculous that doing so should be considered a crime. Or that a tweet he sends sympathizing with one of the terrorists who shot up the Charles Hebdo offices gets him arrested. Offending people is not a crime, and if it becomes a crime 'in specific situations', then that's a very, very slippery slope to letting whoever has a bit of power from placing more and more words and ideas under the ever growing umbrella of 'specific situations'. And those that would defend such restrictions to free speech argue that this is a matter of public safety, that words can inflame people and spur them to action that can have violent consequences.
The question, then:
If we let people say terrible things, do terrible actions soon follow?
(Oh hey, guess what, that is a ridiculously complicated answer that has to take in so many varying social and economic conditions of several individuals, from those doing the saying to those doing the possible doing, with a thick river of government intervention flowing through it)
(Food for thought: for all the many, many faults that other Western nations can find in America, the United States has some of most permissive and open free speech protections in the world, but it also has more terribly violent acts (namely, gun deaths) than other developed nations)
Because that is the essential argument: A society is to keep it people safe, and if certain words or phrases that create a certain position which regularly instigate certain actions, then those words and phrases are dangerous. But that's always the first step when free speech is curtailed. It begins with the attempt to crackdown on hate speech, which is much more widely supported (especially by the groups that feel threatened by whoever are using such terms) than outright censorship.
But frequently the next step (seen in both Spain and South Korea in the last year or so) is the increased difficulty of getting approval to hold peaceful, organized demonstrations in front of government buildings. Those that attend would be subject to arrest and/or fine. And then either the penalties increase, the amount of spots where people are not allowed to congregate increase, or the words and phrases that are suspect increase.
If the authorities are given tools that can be applied on a broader scope, it's inevitable that will be applied. Which is why any attempt to curtail free speech - even if done in the interest of public safety - must be considered oh so very carefully. Not because of how it might be applied at the moment because of the current issue/climate, but because of how it might be applied months and years down the road in other situations.
This is in part due to constantly nebulous terminology used in passing laws banning hate speech. If words can make a group feel threatened, then those that utter it are subject to persecution.
But quickly 'group' can be used to include corporations and the government itself, and 'threat' can also include the idea of a 'perceived threat', and under this slightly bending of words, getting together In a city square to chant about budget cuts can now be an arrestable offence.
In Korea, the question became, why take the risk, and protesters sent their avatars:
The avatars of law enforcement, politicians, and legal scholars were not available for comment.
Poisoned Apples: Governments vs. Corporations
Aw, yeah. Here we go.
'Member how we're all worried about the government having too much surveillance power, so we were all like, 'boo nsa, keep your nose out of our private lives' (whether you were American or not)?
But remember how we're all also kinda concerned about how powerful all these massive tech companies that are controlling more and more of our lives are becoming?
Well these two groups are smashing into each other, and the ramifications will be felt far beyond Apple and America, and for many years to come.
This should be a huge debate involving everyone, because it involves a very simple, basic concept that we all use and rely on everyday of our lives:
What would you trust the government with? What would you trust the corporations with? The former to keep our community running and the rights and freedoms that dictate how we treat each other, the latter with buying and selling of all the necessary and unnecessary things in the community. But of course that's an oversimplification to the point of being wrong. Governments use corporations to carry out many of its tasks, and frequently they're the corporations' best customers. And since money is tied up (and bursting at the seams) as these two big institutions criss-cross in a passionate-then-dysfunctional marriage, the people involved frequently slip from one institution to the other (former politicians become lobbyists representing corporations, regulatory bodies are ultimately staffed by employees of the industry they're supposed to be regulating).
Which is one of the key reasons why the general populace is unlikely to trust both the government or corporations. There's a reluctant to give information to either.
The government's problem is that when people suspect them for their overreach, it's for a 1984 style totalitarian agenda, spying on your every move and locking you in a secret prison for the slightest hint of dissent.
Meanwhile, people think corporations wants to know more and more about them just so they can hawk their products and services more intrusively.
If we're cynical enough to accept that 'lesser of two evils' is how we have to weigh most big decisions that the average person actually has a say in (kinda like Clinton vs. Trump in November), then most people will almost certainly take corporate overlords over government overlords. Better to be in constant debt because you can't afford all the stuff you need/want/think you need because of inter-cranial marketing than be in prison because you held a sign up and blocked traffic to complain about inequality or immigration.
Recently courts have ruled that the DoD/NSA cannot demand Apple to unlock the phone, but thinking that this matter is over is as a naive as thinking that everyone understands roaming charges. The single phone in question is the one owned by Syed Farook the terrorist who killed fourteen people in San Bernardino last December, but there's already a lineup of requests by law enforcement across America who have as evidence other devices owned by suspects that they need to get into.
But Apple maintains that writing a code that gives the government (or really, 'a' government, since if the US gets the code, it would be inevitable that China and Russia would demand the same programming) access to people's phones, then it would jeopardize every level of security and privacy.
So privacy-rights advocates should be cheering that a corporation was protected from the government in court. Which in itself sounds like 1984-esque doublespeak.
Cats chasing dogs. Hats on your feet. A company that uses sweatshop labour in countries where there's few rights' for workers is suddenly on the moral high ground. Meanwhile, the approval rating of Congress is hovering in the low teens. Because corporations have a greater visibility in our average lives than the government (whether justified or not, this is appearance), we are less concerned when corporations edge up against our individual rights than when the government does.
Not accurate, of course. More often than not these two institutions work in a tandem, a symbiotic relationship that benefits each other.
Not to suggest that Apple versus the DoD is mere kabuki theatre, but perhaps the resolution to this is simply going to be that the Department of Defence simply outsources its cyber security apparatus to an Apple/Samsung hybrid corporation (maybe Google will just buy the CIA and be done with it).
No matter who wins, we lose.
(Thanks, Alien vs. Predator tag line, very apt)
Because Silicon Valley isn't nearly as egalitarian as it's made out to be.
The 'big five' (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft (never underestimate the power of the Word)) own a ridiculously huge market share of cyberspace's general activities. They are the name brand platforms that any other tech company or startup needs to rely on in one way or another to reach any level of success (which sometimes might just mean being bought/absorbed by one of the five companies).
They all want to grow, get bigger, get stronger, offer you whatever you want that much more effectively. They are the corporations of the future. Corporations are the proto-AIs. Just look at their effective, amoral programming.
They are always changing. Google restructured to become a subsidiary of Alphabet.
(When is 'restructuring' ever a good thing? When you announce that, you're either six months from declaring bankruptcy or declaring that you have a death ray in orbit about to destroy Chicago if your demands aren't met)
That we click on Apple's updated terms and conditions without reading it has become late-night/website-article joke fodder, but it's going to be through these changes that our future rights and freedoms are going to be written (much like so many our of current rights and freedoms are (re)written in endless legal jargon that is barely looked over by our elected representatives before they vote on them in congress or parliament).
SpaceX is the new NASA. Until SpaceX just buys NASA so the government can trim just a bit more fat from its bloated budgetary problems (except that in terms of benefits of long term funding, NASA is more like a vital organ rather than fat. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration used to be a tech innovator. Now it doesn't have any way of getting to space on its own, having to rely on Russian rockets or whatever Elon Musk is doing).
Real dystopia is much more mundane than what's portrayed in popular (and counter) culture. But part of the reason for that is the ability for television, films and books depicting the future in a negative light is that it can be seen as a blaring warning alarm that we aren't careful, what is unfolding in front of your eyes on page and screen might very well come true.
Just don't make the parallels too obvious. You might get arrested and have to share a jail cell with a bunch of puppeteers.
Too much, too much: 2015 review
This year we've seen how our institutional abilities are beginning to fall short in devastating and catastrophic ways. A violently collapsing Middle East forces millions of migrants towards Europe, which is collapsing economically.
And even that's not seeing the full picture.
Like the Cold War, the current superpowers are supporting certain factions in greater Persian Gulf region for their own interests, and these interests go far beyond the Middle East. America - supporting a tentative alliance of rebel groups and Kurds fighting against ISIS - has the terrible legacy of the Iraqi War, and a shockingly unyielding support of Saudi Arabia, where much of Islamic extremism (via Wahhabism) is born. Russia - supporting Syrian leader Assad (even after he has been accused of using chemical weapons on his own people) - has been ostracized by the international community since its invasion of the Ukraine.
And both these nations have complicated interests in regards to gas and fuel resources, which continue to power the globe. American presence in the Persian Gulf is for a steady supply of it. Russia gains oil reserves in the Eastern Ukraine, and supporting Assad is a snub to the West after it imposed sanctions on Russia for the 2014 invasion (Bonus complication: Much of Europe is reliant on Russian oil and gas exports)`.
And China is happy to just stay on the sidelines military-wise, only willing to help out if there's any financial incentive (infrastructure building) for them.
But it's not just realpolitik.
Scientists have attributed changes in global climate to famines and droughts in impoverished and unstable regions of the world, causing mass starvation and chaos that - in turn - fuels migration. If the option of staying where you are is either possible death by violent conflict or certain death by lack of basic necessities, then you don't stay anymore.
And we are fortunate that this is not the case in the West, or even in large sections of what we therefore call the East (without a doubt, the rise out of poverty by almost a billion people in China and India over the last several decades is one of humanity's greatest success stories, although the real cost of this is still being tallied), even though we should really just acknowledge that global capitalism is a greater unifying force than political or religious ideology at a state level, and 'West' and 'East' don't mean much when it comes to international commerce.
Certainly the Paris Climate summit was window dressing full of promises no one has to keep, since the bigger environmental news took place as it ended on the other side of the planet, when Beijing had its worst smog alert days of the year. Factories were closed, cars were barred from the streets, to go outside without a breathing mask would be risking your health. There are no high ranking government officials in China who deny that climate change is a clear and present danger (compare that with the US Congress). It's that odd mix of government intervention (when Chinese authorities tell a factory to shut down, they do) and free market capitalism (but not for very long, because things need to be powered, built, and shipped across the world).
This dichotomy surprises no one. We are more connected and aware of how this world operates, but appear to be more helpless than ever before when it comes to changing it. As the scope of the problems have grown larger and more unwieldy, so too have the commitments required to address the problems. From a sociocultural perspective, we are unfamiliar with multi-decade solutions that can have many delays and failures in its initial startup stages (think of how difficult it was to get a still-corporate-friendly version of (almost) universal health care passed and introduced in the US).
Even with something as universally loathed as terrorism, debates over how to best combat ISIS can rage from heavy military intervention to letting the entire region fall apart on its own, since any sort of engagement from the West will only prolong the struggle as well as swallow up resources from already cash-strapped countries (nation (re)building is never cheap). These matters of (inter)national security can bring out very bad (kneejerk racism based on no facts whatsoever) and very good intentions (people coming together in public spaces to show they are not afraid, supporting the refugees who are fleeing ISIS). But it's numbing to go from asking with a heavy heart how the November shootings in Paris could have happened, to then reading a massive article detailing the Syrian civil war.
Because it's not just Paris.
Syria, first of foremost. An ongoing humanitarian disaster in a war zone. But because of the instability from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean to Lahore, that is only the best known place of constant concern. The day before the Paris attacks, terrorism took the lives of forty five in Beirut (known, before the Lebanese civil war, as the Paris of the Middle East). Just north of this, Turkey is engaged in the bombing of Kurds in northern Iraq (the Kurds had been reliable fighters against ISIS), while also keeping the curfew in place against its own citizens to prevent riots against a government that is become increasingly totalitarian (military attacking peaceful protesters in the wake of elections that were tilted in overwhelmingly in favour of the current regime).
Ongoing violence in Palestine-Gaza, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. It's been so long in Israel and the Palestinian state that it feels uncovered by the media for being redundant. There is nothing to change or add to the reporting, just the names of the dead. Yemen is engaged a civil war that has many different nearby nations offering military support to either rebels or the government (for citizens, 'military support' is a frequent and deadly oxymoron). Afghanistan and Pakistan are in better shape, but only thanks to the amount of money poured into them by the West (mainly America), and no one can possibly say that it's done much more than temporarily avoid even more bloodshed. Corruption is rampant in both nations, with huge regions almost wholly ungovernable by the leaders in the capital.
These places are full of much more instability, are closer to the front lines of ISIS and international terrorism, but almost all Western attention goes to Paris (both in January with the Hebdo shooting and more recently in November). It's the hideous and cold acknowledgement that the world can only care/do so much. That we - as Sartre would say - flee responsibility when we feel overwhelmed. The West mourns for Paris because we know Paris. Even if we've never been, there is so much history and culture (to be absorbed in the high and low) that it feels familiar. There is the notion that this sort of tragedy is not supposed to happen in Paris, and that it’s ‘supposed’ to happen –while being no less tragic – in places like Afghanistan and Syria. And when we fall into this mindset, it’s harder to make an attempt to bring peace and stability to those places as well.
We arrange our decisions through a mixture of reason, experience, and emotion, culturally primed to arrange things in an order that will eventually deliver expected results.
We pat ourselves on the back for a global climate agreement that doesn't mean anything. All empty promises that each nation can completely miss without any sort of fine or punishment (except that the earth becomes less hospitable and more volatile for the many species that call it home). We complain about politicians at coffee shops and in cyber world posts and tweets, even as we acknowledge that nothing substantial would change if we elected in new ones. Because 'we' don't do anything substantial to change this course of our society, our elected officials don't feel pressure to do anything substantial.
What's most frustrating is that despite a huge amount of global wealth continually pooling up into the pockets of the ultra-rich, the billions of people across the world still have more combined than they do. But it is extremely difficult to mobilize these assets into actual use.
Even in the West, where the middle class has hundreds of billions of dollars to their collective names, there is little effort to make united financial decisions that can dramatically alter the levels of poverty and inequality (in various forms) across the planet.
And in the last remaining days of 2015, there might that temptation to face the facts and admit to oneself that perhaps this isn't the way to create change. That Orwell - through 1984's Winston Smith - was wrong when he posited that 'all hope lies with the proles'. Perhaps the expectation that our elected officials represent our best interests (and not the interests of the tiny cabal of wealthy corporations and their owners) is enough, and it's them alone who have failed us. Perhaps we are entitled to having higher expectations to the people we give power to when we vote for them. Perhaps the 1% (or really, the 0.1%) will wake up just time and reluctantly start sharing the wealth and corporations agree to adhere to increased government regulations rather than try to break them.
Perhaps this viewpoint is terribly naive.
That there is a migration crisis of this magnitude - to a powerful and heavily interconnected economic region that is having a hard time creating a foundation for its own citizens under thirty (to choose a ballpark age) - should be raising huge red flags for how any of our institutions will handle similar sorts of large scale and inevitable challenges of the future.
If 2015 was year where so many of our problems came to the forefront, here's hoping that 2016 will be full of solutions.
At Least Some Harmless Culture Happened
Visual Stuff: Stop Me If You've Seen This One Before
A 'more of the same' type year. Even the new Star Wars (while all great and fun, which really, was the point of Star Wars all along, even when Vader beating the shit out of his son in Empire Strikes Back) had so many nods to A New Hope that your neck began to hurt after awhile. Full on reboots and remakes were Mad Max, Fantastic Four (remember? No? Whatever), Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys, Mission Impossible and Point Break.
And let's be honest, because so many comic book films exist in part to make you want to see the next, they're all pretty much reboots of the past and future (as far as DC and Marvel are concerned, we only live in the eternal now).
In fact, the only totally new and strange big budget movie was Tomorrowland (admittedly taking it's name from a Disney World zone, but nothing else). It got okay reviews and did terrible at the box office. It was about inspiring people to improve the world (there were also robot fights). I'll leave the irony of that on the table.
TV, too. What was popular in 2015 was popular in the past. In the cases of 'The Walking Dead' and 'Better Call Saul', you double down and knock out some spin offs. ‘Fargo’ is based on the movie. ‘Game of Thrones’ is based on the books (up until this season, so now even the literary nerds who turned their noses up at the series being made for television have to tune in this spring to find out what happens beyond book five because George RR Martin has been slow to get ahead).
But it's all stuff we like and know, and not too different than what came before. In 2015 we wrapped these familiar stories around us like a warm blanket. Streaming Services promoted their own original content hand in hand with bringing back old favourites. Even ‘Fargo's’ creepy quaintness is chock full of escapism. No one wants to be reminded of the world at large (maybe in the future the world will just be a massive movie shoot, and everyone takes part in some way, sometimes acting, sometimes producing, sometimes working at craft services).
The best original standout was 'World of Tomorrow', the animated short film by Don Hertzfeldt. And to stand apart, there has to be a nice dollop of weirdness alongside the humour and heart (actually it might be fair to say that the short film - concerning a woman from the future visiting her young self and giving rather alarming and dismal revelations of what's to come - is weird and everything else second). Its disarmingly simple style certainly plays into this. Hertzfeldt works in the old fashioned way (traditional hand-drawn animation, no large media conglomerate looming overhead, even a website that's more 1996 than it has any reason to be), but there's no reason to praise 'old fashioned' if the quality doesn't hold up. The stick figure present and future selves in 'World of Tomorrow' have more richness and depth than any other character onscreen this year (although it was really nice seeing Han Solo again, that's for damn sure).
See, usually you're supposed to make the cultural your taking about somehow relevant or connect to the events or experiences of the year itself (see above).
But screw that. Here's three categories that are probably too broad for their contents. Truth be told, these are just some records we really liked this year:
2814 - Atarashi Ni-Tsu no Tanjo (brilliant Chillwave. Probably the best sonic representation of that compound word. Sleepy? Well it's almost like it's designed for dreams)
Jamie xx - In Colour (does it say a lot about us that this sounds like the pop album of the year, even though most people would never associate the word with this stuff? If everything that's popular on YouTube and the radio (remember that thing?) was improved by 33%, it would sound like this)
Joanna Newsom - Divers (see? You can still be weird and fun with a band and shorter songs. The pairing of Newsom's vocals and lyrics stand tall over the music (which is still excellent), and that's how you create something unique and timeless, since you don't always considered musical artists as storytellers. She is, and that puts her on a very short list)
Wilco - Star Wars (more punch than anything Wilco's done in a decade, and in a lot of ways the songwriting and feel improves immediately)
Ought - Sun Coming Down (really nice straightforward stuff. Eight rock tunes that’s just about appreciating being alive)
Arca - Mutant (certainly from a perpendicular dimension, smashing right into us with cold, collapsing sounds. When it's not hyper-intense all the way through, then it's certainly alien and spider egg sac crunch the rest of the time)
Metz - II ("thirty minutes, I just need thirty minutes. To get this done. I'm not fucking around, you can trust me. I'll be in and out there like a fucking ghost on steroids. I'll be the fucking walls and bring myself down. I just need to have this album playing as I do it.")
Death Grips - Jenny Death (it's still insane, and it's probably our favourite of the year, if put a gun to our heads. Actually, now that you mention it, the album's kind of like having a gun to your head for 49 minutes. If that doesn't sound appealing, then...you're wrong. We talked more about it HERE, when he covered the music of the first half of the year)
(Also: To Pimp a Butterfly is certainly the most important album of 2015. And cheers to Radiohead for the Christmas present)
Baseball and All That
Baseball can really hurt.
Baseball can also take you soaring above the clouds on thoughts and feelings of triumphant success, but even to get to that point requires a patience of a thousand saints and a nervous energy that can power a large city.
But usually it's a lot staring and waiting.
Which is true for any sport that you are a spectator for, instead of a player, but baseball's molecular makeup does something to its fans that differs from every other sport. Baseball sucks up time and space on a level all its own. There is baseball for 162 games, nearly half the year. Over that, if you include the month of pre-season down in Florida and the month of post-season scattered across the United States (and sometimes, if the winds and wishes and Bautistas are right, Canada as well). It's an overload of experience and information that warps the importance of every game. You don't look at how well the team played last night, but how they played for the last ten previous nights. And you look at the pitching rotation and how often and early you had to bring in your relief pitchers whenever one particular pitcher got into trouble. And how you look at this in April is a hell of a lot of different than how you look at this in September.
Baseball begins with spring and ends as fall starts up. If you live above the 35th parallel, the sport bookends your two good seasons of warm weather. If there's a baseball game on, there are leaves on the trees. Symbolic of life, until the rise of autumn, when the lesser teams are culled and the best of the best are slowly harvested through the playoffs, leaving fewer and fewer teams standing until you have a World Series Champion (because 'North American Series Champion' really doesn't have much of a ring to it). Which is meant to warm the cockles of that lucky city's heart through the cold, cold winter.
Now baseball obviously shares plenty of qualities with many other professional sports, but its pace and positioning is so static, its action so restrained for so much of the time, that the potential energy is held inside so much longer for the spectator. Which means there is always a buildup of edgy nervousness that is begging for kinetic release.
Nothing competes with this feeling. Scratch off any sport where there is almost constant action and movement until one team scores or there is a foul (your soccers (sorry for the name, everywhere in the world except North America), your basketballs, your hockeys, etc).
As George Carlin, noted - both onstage in his book, Braindroppings - the two major American sports are baseball and football. And while football also has a lack of action most of the time (there's only about 12 minutes of actual play during the sixty minutes), baseball is a slower, grinding crawl than football.
'Anything can happen' is true of pretty much every sport, but usually what happens in football is a play coming apart, full of people running the wrong way, falling down, missing a block, dropping the ball, what have you. Whatever player is able to capitalize on one particular mistake makes the difference between success and failure at that moment, and then both teams have to immediately re-organize.
In baseball - a game of margins - the outcomes are much more pre-ordained and predictable. A majority of the time, a player at bat is going to fail, the catch and out is going to be made.
The difference between success and failure is much thinner. Their paces and styles are reflected in the different ways you experience elation and devastation.
In baseball there are two speeds to feel both of those emotions:
ONE: Sharp, shooting of infrequent pain that can paralyze you in an instant. And then instant sudden, relief. These can best be seen in the home run. A dinger for your team in a truckload of orgasms. A homer for your opponent is a handful of bleach in the eyes.
TWO: Plodding, crushing despair at the speed of a glacier, as your opponents load the bases and each batter appearance at the plate goes to full count and there's a boatload of fouls and you stop breathing each time your pitcher winds up and you wonder why the hell hasn't the coach brought in a guy from the bullpen. At the same time, it's a romp in the late spring flowers when it's you're side getting hit after hit and running up the score. An endless bounty of success that gets better the longer it goes on. You are untouchable, a god of the earth, the reason this sport was invented.
The strategy in baseball is more direct and consequentially devastating than in football. The difference between this success and failure ultimately comes down to a single pitch.
And then there’s the people who make these decisions: The head, pitching, and batting coaches. And they never seem to be rushing anywhere or constantly recalculating for the next pitch or play.
Meanwhile football has a tiny village behind them, both on the field and in the booth several floors up, scrambling and shouting like the floor of the stock market.
The measured preparation for baseball is (hypothetically) all done before the game's even started, so when something goes terribly wrong in the fifth inning, the coach slowly and coolly walks over and makes a call to the bullpen.
Because of no time limit, anything can happen. It's just that most often nothing does. But you dwell on - nay, you demand and cling to - the possibility that your team might somehow get out of whatever mess they're in. So you stare down every swing and strike, wishing against wish and promising your future children to the sports gods that they (re)gain the head or hold onto it precipitously through the ninth.
And if they do and win, and they keep winning and winning more often than not for weeks and weeks and then months, then they can go on into the playoffs (if your team is really good at the sport, their reward (in addition to the money they make) is playing even more of it).
The postseason setup of best-of-five-or-seven works well for players constantly buzzing around a basketball court, soccer field, and hockey rink. More constant, kinetic energy and less careful, exacting strategy. It feels right that it shouldn't come down to one game.
Couldn't happen in football because it's physicality would result in so many more injuries if they had to truncate more games into their six weeks of winter playoffs. In addition, football has that finality, that every-game-matter-more-than-anything attitude going for it.
Postseason baseball, however, is a test upon the very fabric of the soul. Watching a game when your team being eliminated is on the line is more a chore/obligation than an exciting moment of leisure.
You tune in with a heavy sigh and an, 'okay, here we go'.
When you're winning by a very small margin, one of the emotions your aware of is how devastated you will feel if (once?) the lead is lost (unless your team is up by five, you can't breathe normally). You watch each game with a relishing of the moment in the near future when you won't feel this weighed down with anticipation, concern, and worry. You actually want it to be over, so you can look over what went right and wrong.
If football became the most popular American sport in the latter half of the 20th century because it more aptly symbolized the strength and strategy of American power during that time, then it's baseball's turn for the first half of the 21st.
Aggression has run its course for the American Empire. It can't continue to act this way even if it wants to, and has a hard time admitting this is a problem (like the NFL's position on concussions, perhaps).
Geopolitically, it's a time for a more nuanced approach to all sorts of problems that have increased in magnitude bit by bit. Subtlety is necessary, and that's the exception in football, and the rule in baseball. An uncertain world needs an unknown amount of time, and an inning baseball is governed by outs, not the winding down of a clock.
Even when looking at the big picture, through month of months of playing, it feels like these long stretches of time don't matter, but in fact slowly add up (climate change, anyone?).
Uncertainty is at the core of the most important moments in baseball. When the opposing team is in the process of scoring multiple runs, the nature of the sports' rules make the outcome unpredictable both in terms of damage and the speed at which it comes.
Some innings can result in a single run, and others can be an unstoppable barrage of hits, walks, and errors, and suddenly nine runs have scored.
In football, at least you know when a team is either marching down the field toward the endzone, the worst that can happen is a six point touchdown and a two point conversion.
There are so many games in a season of baseball that it's very easy to tune out for several days and maybe even weeks at a time.
The length can make it seem like a death march, or an endless Orwellian nightmare ('We've always been at war with the American League').
But as the season winds down, you can look back and see all the ups and downs and twists and turns that led you to this point.
With help from an ungodly amount of information. Baseball stats can be broken down to a greater degree than football, and they can be tailored to suit your interest and attention span, depending on the kind of fan you are.
Some are so specific that they can't help you appreciate the game any better. They seem to be nothing more than graphics filler and commentator fodder for when the relief pitcher is warming up.
And we've had access to more and more information than ever before thanks to the internet. One of the main challenges of even beginning to address the many complicated problems facing the West right now is separating the pertinent information from the irrelevant.
Baseball is better suited to the how we interact with the internet than football. It's the perfect sport to experience while holding your phone in your hand, doing absolutely anything else (checking stats, texting, taking a selfie holding a stupidly long hot dog) than watching the field. Depending on the emotional level invested and the status of the game, baseball requires only a glance up every so often.
If we are shifting to a more polarized world in many different ways (economically and politically, namely), then it make sense the archetypal sport can be observed by hanging onto every pitch or only looking to the field/TV when the crowd begins to cheer.
When it comes to our role in global events, we are more like observers than participants than ever before (how much your vote every few years actually matter is always up for debate), watching millionaires settle outcomes that won't really change our lives in the slightest.
In that respect, there is always the concern that we care too much about sport and too little about the many real-world issues that actually affect us. The concern that we turn our backs from complicated issues like poverty and war because they seemed to unwieldy and hopeless, and instead focus our energy on something else.
Consequently, we invest a lot of emotional energy in sports. Football is filled with devastating crushings of steady victory or defeat. You can ride high and proud and throw in the towel easier when you watch football. But the gaps between the moments of pleasure/pain are much longer in baseball, and that changes the pace of how you experience them.
Baseball sucks up mental energy and when you run out of that it starts taking from your physical energy reserve.
You can sit down for three straight hours (not recommended, hit the can at least three times per game), but when it's over, you'll still feel like you've just been jogging the whole time.
(hell, maybe if you're in the gym on a treadmill and are watching a tight world series game, you'll just keel over and die during the 7th inning stretch).
How much you care and how long you’ve been caring matters as well. Being a bandwagon fan is one thing, but being a bandwagon fan now who was a huge fan in their formative years and was watching the team when they were in the middle of an incredible run of success, that's different. Like growing a Yankees fan in the fifties.
There is a the completely unfounded belief that your team is supposed to be good because from your narrow perspective they have 'always' been good. They were good when you first started paying attention, ergo, they are always supposed to be good, and the last several years have been a severe deviation from the norm. When in reality, most teams will be that successful only for a very short period in their history (and yes, there are some impressive and lengthy runs of a handful of teams, but they are clearly the exception this rule).
While the issue of whether momentum is real for players (in the sense that they bring the physical and mental energy back to the field after yesterday's win) is up for debate, momentum is certainly real in terms of fan behaviour.
Winning streaks means increased media attention, which means higher ticket and merch sales. After all, if there's one thing that all sports and global politics have in common, and why we should pay very careful attention to how we interact with both of them: It all comes down to money.
The 2015 Canadian Federal Election
This really shouldn't be so hard.
Stephen Harper's blandness is his most formidable weapon, because without it he probably couldn't have passed such terrible laws and made such pathetically backwards decisions. His yawning-inducing pseudo-pleasantness decreases the likelihood of the citizenry believing that what he's doing on Parliament Hill is anything but middling democracy.
His record, however, is a how-to list of oligarchical corporatism.
His policies belong in a Central Asian, former Soviet satellite states that has to use the term democracy in quotation marks.
First and foremost is Bill (now, sadly, a Law) C51, which is Canada's own version of the Patriot Act, with all the terrible drippings concerning surveillance, an intelligence agency without oversight, and nebulous definitions of what exactly is considered a threat (anything that interrupts the 'financial security' of Canada is up for debate).
Hastily created in the tragic aftermath of a mentally ill man who had been in and out of prison shooting a soldier on the outskirts of Parliament Hill, it was framed as a way combat ISIS on the domestic front (ostensibly because the man pledged allegiance to the terrorist organization, even though common sense suggests that finding a way to assist people with mental health issues would have been more useful in this case). Now without a doubt every country needs to have a strong national security apparatus in place. And there needs to be a dialogue amongst politicians and citizens across the political spectrum about how this should be created.
But that didn't happen at all. Created in secret, decried by a huge swath of political action groups and lawyers, and barely debated in parliament (and only because the NDP whipped up an impressively big stink about it), the public was generally for it until the media actually started reporting what was in it.
Harper is asking us to trust him on this critical issue, when he's shown to be untrustworthy and disappointing on so many other matters of governance.
The Omnibus Crime bill was jammed through parliament in terrible pieces throughout late 2011 and early 2012, and it was designed to toughen up our criminal justice system even as crime is on the decline. Based on policies that the United States enacted almost thirty years ago in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (which now seen to be too draconian and completely ineffective), it introduced mandatory minimum sentences and toughened the Young Offenders Act. In other words, it will help create the career criminal, forever chaining them to prison, probation, menial job opportunities, an unstable family/social life, and more dependent on government assistance than before.
Just like America, we'll have for-profit-prisons to hold an inordinately high number of non-violent drug offenders who will find it more and more difficult to re-integrate into society (thanks to cuts in social programs that you can always depend conservatives to support under the banner of 'responsible spending').
And in case you don't like any of these policies, Harper's making sure you can't do much about it by making it harder to vote against him by making it a challenge to vote at all.
First off, he's made deep budget cuts in Elections Canada, meaning there are fewer employees to do more work, which increases the chance of errors on registration cards. He's also changed the rules about presenting valid forms of ID to register to vote, and shrinking the time to apply, all under the ridiculous pretence of trying to prevent voter fraud. This means he is confronting a non-existent threat to our democracy by dismantling one of the primary traits of the democratic process. And to make all the more insidious, the changes would mostly affect young adults and lower class citizens, two groups that, from a demographic standpoint, do not typically vote for right-leaning parties.
All three of these policies are ones that the Canadian conservatives have cribbed from their American counterparts. Harper is guilty of security overreach, prison state aspirations, rigging elections and - on top of all that - copyright infringement. And the most aggravating part of Harper's America-fixation is that he's bringing in policies that failed spectacularly south of the border. He's importing the worst George W. Bush ideas that has exacerbated the problems in the United States.
His claim to being good for the economy by being 'business friendly' means tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, and the tired, stock story attached to that policy is that doing so means companies and their owners have more money to hire more people. But that's rarely the case. They usually just pocket the extra couple million, or put it in an offshore, tax-ignored bank account. Combining the provincial and federal sales taxes was trumpeted as a way to help the average citizen save money, but less money going to the government has an overall negative impact on the standard of living in our country (and once again, big business has benefited the most from this harmonization).
For a very (very) long time, our nation's economy has been driven largely by our natural resources. And the Conservatives don't seem to realize that the global bell is finally tolling for the major one. Consequently, Alberta's economy sunk like a stone when oil prices did. And Harper's not only doubling down not only on oil (losing the symbolic battle for the Keystone Pipeline), but the oil sands, the crack cocaine of petroleum. It's not just the Green Party that is running on a platform of renewable and safe energy. Every developed/advanced country on earth has made it a point to say that the oil industry cannot be the future of powering the earth (nor coal, for that matter).
But rather than join this consensus of the rational (which includes scientists, politicians, and even giant insurance companies who are paying out more money than ever before because of the increase in natural disasters that can attributed to climate change), Harper and the conservatives are cutting funding to Environment Canada and a host of other scientific research agencies, in part because they keep bringing up pesky facts about how terrible our energy policy is.
Our nation's support of the oil industry is similar to how other countries for whom petroleum is a major export. You know, countries of liberty and equality like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran.
By barely acknowledging the growing green energy industry, Canada under Harper is no longer a leader, but a follower, and even worse, a follower of old money that only ends up in the pockets of a few already wealthy, too-powerful companies (hell, even supporting giant, greedy, multinational renewable energy companies would be a huge improvement in this case).
Then there is baffling changes to the census, where the government has actually requested less information than in the last several decades. Harper has removed the mandatory long form census (renamed it the National Household Survey, and did not promote it much), a series of practical questions that range from whether people in your household have a physical handicap that requires medical attention to how much schooling they've had. Simple, straightforward questions about peoples' employment and the property taxes they pay on their dwelling. Information that can paint a very valuable picture for researchers and statisticians.
Harper has a degree in economics, and one would hope that in just using basic common sense you would want to make sound financial decisions based on more information, not less.
The result of the census dictates how billions of dollars of government money are spent, and the better we know what is required in certain areas of the country, the less likely this money is going to be wasted or budgeted without proper research and foresight.
The conservatives can't claim that by eliminating the long form census is a way to save money, when the end result is that so much more will no be misspent. It is as if having more people have more information is a threat to the Prime Minister.
But concentrating power has long been Harper's modus operandi, and it trickles down from policy into campaigning.
The Conservatives said that the nation needed a longer election cycle (officially 66 days, instead of the usual 49) because it would give a chance for Canadians to discuss the issues, but the Prime Minister has effectively shut himself off from talking to the public.
Campaign events with hand-picked attendees. Not allowing reporters to ask any follow-up questions.
If it wasn't for a couple of expressive and direct Newfoundlanders, Harper might not know at all what most Canadians think of him. And this is what's so maddening. It's this immature, tone-deaf chickenshit duplicity.
You ask the Department of National Defence about C-51 and how it will handle protests against Canadian corporations, and they respond back with a reminder of how challenging the fight against ISIS is. But that seems to be the pro-hawk attitude infiltrating our military, even after sensibly sitting out America's disastrous invasion of Iraq. Now Harper and the Conservatives are replacing Canada's role as one of the primary participants in UN Peacekeeping missions and instead acting like America's even littler brother by attempting to garner support for an expanded military presence in the Middle East.
Then there's the Senate expenses scandal. Which compared to everything mentioned above are tiny drops in a bucket, but is a useful reminder that he can't even keep his well fed supporters in line.
But he's still standing. His poll numbers are shockingly close to Trudeau and Mulcair (and it says a lot about the prime minister's record if the entire platforms of his two opponents are pretty much reversing what he's done the last nine years).
Harper's like the Teflon Prime Minister. Nothing seems to stick to him because his unassuming, bland demeanour suggests he doesn't do anything, good or bad.
But he can't even get his own campaign signs right:
The fact that it's a three way race proves immediately that a majority of Canadians no longer want Stephen Harper as their Prime Minister, that a majority of them are disappointed not only with the policies he's enacted but his style of governance.
But this should come as no surprise as most Canadians didn't want him to head the country in the first place. In the 2011 election, Harper and his conservative party received only 39% of the vote, but it was enough to be the dominant party, as the other 61% was divided among the other four left-leaners (along with the Liberal and NDP, there is/was the Parti Quebecois and Green).
[while proportional representation and/or ranked balloting would better serve the citizens of Canada instead of the current 'first past the post' system we currently have, the first order of business is to elect a prime minister that would bring our country into the 21st century]
Which is why he's had to reduce his campaign to the basest and most idiotic level of fear-mongering.
Bringing back the debate over the niqab as if this a threat to the very heart of our nation (the same way the populace has always been 'threatened' with the immigration of the 'other', whether they be Irish, Italian, African, Asian, or any other culture or religion). Bigoted arguments how these new Canadians are supposedly not the same as the people who have been here for generations, and how they'll change the country for the worse. Absolutely ridiculous, considering multiculturalism has always been a great strength for Canada, and reaffirms the fact that this scare-tactic is just being used to deflect conversation from the flailing economy.
Radio ads where Harper states that his opponents will let mentally ill killers walk the streets (not even remotely true), and that he's the only one who will get tough on crime.
And while negative advertising has that sad fact that they actually work, there's hope that you can't polish or hide the size of the turd Stephen Harper has left on Canada and it's reputation around the world.
A semi-side note on Strategic Voting:
-it's looked on derisively by the ideological pure-at-hearts and rightly so, but it's also the citizen's version of the horse-trading and compromising that actually occurs in the halls of power. Just like you want to vote for the candidate that best represents your values, a politician also wants to introduce a bill that will achieve the policy/project/plan as efficiently as possible. But there are plenty of roadblocks and delays to get said bill passed, and the politician has to make concessions to get votes by changing certain statutes and budget amounts or promising to support a different policy down the road that he or she might disagree with. But eventually, with these compromises, the bill is passed. In the same way, voting for a candidate that might not perfectly represent your values is a compromise, but it might be necessary because this candidate might have a better chance at winning and thereby preventing the candidate you strongly disagree with from coming into (or returning to) power.
The question for both the citizen and politician, of course, is whether these compromises and concessions are worth it. If the bill that is eventually turned into a law has so many problems with it, the entire process may not have been worth it. Strategic voting might result in a government broken up into parties in such a way that very little is accomplished, at a time when a great many changes must be installed.
DEAR BABY BOOMERS:
PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, RETIRE
Our parents gave us everything except a future.
The tail end of the gen-x-er's (a generation which covered roughly the early sixties to the early eighties) and all of the millennials are faced with a very different set of choices and scenarios for their adult lives.
The spirit is willing, the flesh is not yet weak, but those two factors don’t matter in a hyper-globalized economy when the money’s just not there.
Some of it’s been diffused across several continents, thanks to manufacturing jobs packing up from the West and relocating to the cheaper labour markets in (predominantly) Asia (and that alone has some positives and negatives handcuffed to it). Much of it gone into the pockets of the wealthy, thanks to generous tax cuts and rampaging corporate profits.
But a lot of it is holed up in the property values, bank accounts and pension payouts of the baby boomers, who semi-passively gamed the system to their favour in their adult years, just so they could have the most relaxing and care-free life possible from cradle to grave. And it’s hard to see a downside to your actions when you aren’t the ones feeling the consequences.
The ramifications to this are felt by the people who no longer have access to the same social programs and institutions as they did (or, in the case of post-secondary education, are still accessible, but at a much, much higher cost). Rising health care costs (and government insurance covering fewer expenditures), social assistance offering a pittance of what it takes to live in an urban area, and greater difficult in taking advantage of business grants and/or loans that could lead to financial independence.
Jobs (and hopping from one to another) are the norm, a career the exception. Office work that expects/demands unpaid overtime, or shift work with simply not enough shifts in the week to cover the bills (requiring a second job).
No rainy day fund if it's always overcast. Making the decision to have a little bit of money saved up in case something in life goes even a little bit wrong. And that means not having a mortgage. Maybe not even having a car, since anything that involves repaying a loan means a financial ball and chain.
And that means perma-rent. Or, if times get particularly difficult, moving back home with the parents. Rising housing prices means having at the very least $20,000 in the bank for a down payment, plus an assurance that you can actually make the monthly payments for the next thirty years (which, consequently, means there’s no time to consider a retirement plan when you have to hope the job you have still exists a year from now).
This wasn’t the case fifty years ago, when those born in the post-war West began to enter the job market. In an article written by The Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente (an admitted baby boomer), she explains how it was easier for their generation than ours:
"Here's how I landed my first job after university, with a major book publisher. I saw an ad in The Globe and Mail, picked up the phone and got hired the next day. Three weeks later, someone quit, and I was promoted to head of publicity. I didn't make much money, but I had an office and a secretary and an expense account. I was 22."
(although Wente doesn't give her salary, inflation from the seventies means if she was making $15,000 that would be approximately $66,000 in 2015 dollars)
As far as real estate goes, Wente elaborates:
“Real estate was very good to us. In 1980, I borrowed some money from my mom and paid $95,000 for a decrepit house in Toronto’s up-and-coming Beach. Mortgage rates zoomed to 17 per cent. That was scary. But I got raises every year, and a combination of inflation and soaring house prices did the rest. Between the mid-1980s and 2008, we boomers enjoyed the most prolonged period of prosperity in modern times. By 2010, modest investments in Toronto real estate had made many paper millionaires.”
Just as a very specific set of conditions had to occur for certain middle class-enabling policies to be created (the Great Depression and the Second World War, namely), conditions for middle-class destabilizing policies had to be in place as well.
The conditions for the creation of the Western middle class of the mid-twentieth century were catastrophic and immediate: Extreme poverty and war.
Roosevelt and Mackenzie King ran on the platform that government is the solution.
The conditions for the dismantling of the Western middle class of the late twentieth century were simply economic sluggishness and social malaise.
Reagan and Mulroney ran on the platform that government is the problem.
Growing up in the warmest and generous economic conditions for the average person in the space of all human history, this sense of comfort and entitlement went right to their heads, which means they figured they had the right to keep it in their wallets.
As Wente notes:
“As for an inheritance, the Millennials shouldn’t count on one. Unlike our own parents, who thought it was immoral to dip into their capital, we boomers would rather spend our savings than preserve them. Whatever money we have left after travelling the world will disappear pretty fast once we check into that upscale assisted-living home, at $7,000 a month. Did I mention that we’ll live forever?”
The thirty year dismantling (the 80s onward) of the government social structure they had when they were growing up. Taxes were cut and corporations given greater autonomy and power (which meant shipping jobs overseas, and stuffing profits in offshore tax havens). With less revenue coming in, governments had no choice but to cut back on programs that existed and operated smoothly decades prior (this is informally known as ‘starving the beast’). Even the most basic aspect of public infrastructure – roads, bridges, electrical grids, dams – have had their inspection and maintenance budgets slashed, which means in the coming years, when these structures begin to fail and require emergency repair, the money and manpower will not be there, either.
Not so much the sins of the father coming down upon his children, but a large heaping of bureaucratic short-sightedness, selfishness and passing the buck.
The Atlantic explains that from an economic perspective, the millennials are the most unluckiest generation since The Great Depression, even when it comes to what is supposed to be the golden ticket to middle class heaven:
“Average debt for graduates of public universities doubled between 1996 and 2006. Students chose to take it on because they expected to find a job that paid it off; instead, they found themselves stranded in the worst economy in 80 years. Young people who skipped college altogether have faced something worse: depressed wages in a global economy that finds it easier than ever to replace jobs with technology or to move them overseas.”
Now university is a pre-requisite diploma mill that offers little to no advantage because almost everyone has a degree. Technological innovation has replaced thousands of jobs, not supplemented them. There is less money to go around now that more of it is quickly rushing up to the bank accounts of the upper 1% (and actually, the 0.1% coffers have practically exploded), as well as those with pensions who agreements were made decades prior, when the economy was in much better shape.
According to The Economist, there are fewer job opportunities than in the past, and most of them can’t match the cost of living today in the Western world:
“In America the real wage has hardly budged over the past four decades. Even in places like Britain and Germany, where employment is touching new highs, wages have been flat for a decade. Recent research suggests that this is because substituting capital for labour through automation is increasingly attractive; as a result owners of capital have captured ever more of the world’s income since the 1980s, while the share going to labour has fallen.”
And regarding the wealthy owners of said capital, the same magazine notes:
“Thomas Piketty, an economist at the Paris School of Economics, argues along similar lines that America may be pioneering a hyper-unequal economic model in which a top 1% of capital-owners and “supermanagers” grab a growing share of national income and accumulate an increasing concentration of national wealth. The rise of the middle-class—a 20th-century innovation—was a hugely important political and social development across the world. The squeezing out of that class could generate a more antagonistic, unstable and potentially dangerous politics.”
In response to this, the boomers offer the 'get off my lawn' perspective.
The accusation that the millennials expect everything to be handed to them, that they have their noses constantly pointed at their phones, that they refuse to accept any sort of hard work.
No statistics bear these beliefs out.
The youth of today work longer hours (or limited hours, because their employer cannot afford to pay them for any more) and for less pay in jobs that are more likely to be temporary.
Most damning is just how extensive these conditions are. Of course there will always be economic uncertainly, unemployment and financial hardships. But in the past these conditions were the exceptions and not the rule, and in many individuals cases the hardships were temporary. New jobs and careers were found, and security and benefits soon followed.
And a vast majority of boomers will acknowledge that things are more difficult for their children and grandchildren today. They just won't do anything about it.
The problems facing the world today are not going to be addressed by the millions of sixty year olds (roughly the average age of the baby boomers), since A: the challenges seem like they'll only be solved once their gone so why bother making any sacrifices themselves (the 'let someone else worry about it' approach); and B: they are more concerned that all their attempts at saving enough for a golden financial parachute will be in vain.
So the easiest thing that these individuals can do (leaving legislation and policy changes to the kids) is retire.
Just take the already blood sucking pension and open up the job market to the people hurting for any sort of stable employment.
Consider the following (thanks again to The Atlantic):
“The past 30 years have seen enduring income stagnation capped by an economic collapse. Average household wealth nearly doubled between 1983 and 2010, the Urban Institute recently found, but younger generations shouldn't expect the same.”
Congratulations boomers, you were the peak. You had it all, all the way through. You were the first generation where so, so many of you got to experience the stable 50s nuclear family, the counter culture explosion of the 60s, the semi-sobering up of the 70s, the heart-hardening ‘I want it all’ 80s, the ‘I’m not too old to somehow understand and make money off computers’ 90s, and the ‘you’re only as old as you feel now give me money’ of the new millennium.
(Sadly, another massive, elephant-in-the-room issue is going to be the medical expenses for the baby boomers as they approaches their eighties and nineties. As they are the healthiest generation of oxygenarians ever, they are going to live longer and put an extremely large burden on an already shaky and over budgeted health care infrastructure)
The Boomers didn't just screw it up for the generations that came after them, but by playing the short game in their forties and fifties and supporting economic policies that put as much money in their pockets as quickly as possible, they screwed themselves over as well. It's the 1980's 'Me Generation' attitude coming home to roost.
For the late gen-x-ers and millennials who are going to be getting into the driver’s seat of the world over the next decade or so, this is a tinier, more manageable (but still life changing) taste of the 'tightening of the belts' that the greatest generation had thrust upon them, many of them in their youth as they suffered through the Great Depression.
There are telltale signs that a healthy, democratically-led change is in the air (when cranky old billionaires who made their money in finance and energy are saying this system can’t last much longer the way it is, you know it’s serious). For a myriad of reasons, from financial to social to psychological, the transition will improve when there is – quite simply – new faces in the halls of power (and in today’s world, the halls can be in front of a computer in an apartment). But to drive the point home, if it was government’s guiding hand that led the West into it’s mid twentieth century golden age, then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try it again now.
So as the first waves of boomers hit the big 7-0, here's a humble request: Now that you've truly hit what is undeniably old age, please live up to the typical senior citizen stereotype and vote in droves. Only this time, think of your children and your grandchildren instead of yourselves.
PS – If you want to see the train wreck predicted back in 2007, here is an amazing lecture video from Professor (now Senator) Elizabeth Warren called "The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class", which elaborates on the benefits the boomers had, and the handicaps that the current generation must overcome:
(starts at 4:50. It's a full hour)
Overkill, Under Results
[NOTE: This is almost a Charles Hebdo Part 2 piece. But we feel something has to be said about Bill C-51]
We want it to be simple.
But it's not.
How do you stop radicalization, violence, marginalization, poverty, mental illness? Because all these facets must be addressed to stop terrorism, whether home or abroad (a distinction that is blurring in so many ways because what happens abroad can strongly influence actions at home, and vice versa).
To focus narrowly on certain factors and giving only cursory considerations to others has the potential to exacerbate the problem Too vague there? The Conservatives anti-terror bill they're steamrolling through parliament (thanks mainly to the fact that the Liberals and a majority of Canadians support it) is really just a Canadian version of the US Patriot Act, giving intelligence agencies a lot more power, a lot less oversight, and heapings of legal limbo language to define 'threat' and ‘lawful’.
Of course we must act to prevent such attacks like the one on Parliament last fall. But to counter such heinous acts with bad policy is an insult to all those who have died at the hands of terrorists across the globe. Excusing paranoia, spying with warrants, and making any sort of arrest without evidence as necessary because a possible attack 'is not worth the risk of doing nothing', means ours rights and freedoms are apparently not worth anything at all.
Is this the real tool that is going to make the difference in combating domestic and foreign violent extremism? How has the Patriot Act helped America in the last thirteen and a half years?
Too many big picture dichotomies can be applied to the West's relationship to the Middle East and Central Asia. Democracy versus Dictatorships. Secular versus Sectarian. (Post)Industrial versus (Predominantly)Agrarian. Egalitarian versus Hierarchical. Mixed-Market Capitalism (for now) versus Oligarchical Collectivism (fiction has become truth).
Shoehorning any of the formers into the latter is unquestionably going to cause serious problems.
And the further back we look at history to easily find examples of this, the more emotionally divested and objective we can be about the process, and how certain we are at why these actions failed.
But living through the constant instability of the Middle East and the West's complicated and middling attempts to salvage it (and by 'live through it', I mean it the most mundane and sideline-like way possible: reading articles and watching reports of how my respective economic zone is trying to influence another economic zone, through almost any means necessary), you can't help but bring your own hopes, disappointments and confusions to the problem.
You are horrified at the constant death and destruction. You wonder how much of this is the responsibility of the interconnected global community that you willingly take part of every day. And when it hits close to home (as it has in the last six months in Canada, Australia, France, Denmark, and other 'safe' countries), you want to see a concerted effort to stop this from happening again.
The massacre at Charles Hebdo is still painfully fresh (CLICK), and we are tightening restrictions on free speech. Is this not a sign that the tactics of the terrorists are working? We are removing and dismantling the qualities that made liberal democracy successful in the first placed. Now we're governed by fear and paranoia in one hand and anger and military power in the other.
It doesn't help that war is extremely profitable.
Oh, it empties the pockets of nations and therefore the citizens within them, but for a small and concentrated cabal of corporations and institutions, 'defence' (which can easily be mistaken for 'offence') spending makes them hundreds of billions of dollars a year (worldwide defence spending in 2013: $1.7 trillion) . Whoever sells the guns really wins the war. American military contractors sell arms to semi-friendly Middle Eastern nations (Qatar, Yemen), who 'inadvertently' misplace/sell the arms to private contractors and enterprising individuals (read: terrorists), which means the weapons the US or coalition troops are using are not necessarily that different from the ones that are being used against them and are trying to destroy.
And despite this situation, there can be sufficient justification for sending drones and troops abroad. But both options much be done with great care. The feeling that you can use drones more freely because no troop lives are in the balance means you are less concerned with the evidence you have on the people you are trying to kill (to a hammer everything starts to look like a nail).
On the domestic front however, the boards must be trod with a much lighter touch, and nothing that has occurred during Stephen Harper's tenure suggests that he or his cabinet are capable of such care. The Prime Minister is attempting to pass an anti-terrorism bill that is a schizophrenic mix of redundancy and overreach.
Outlawing activities that are already illegal (promoting terrorism) and giving intelligence agencies powers they are already using (CSIS will be 'officially' approved to spy on citizens without judicial consent and add them to no-fly lists).
The major concern is the hazily defined terms of what constitutes threats to national security, because there's a difference between those who are openly declaring war on Canada and attempting to kill citizens, and those who are trying to promote green energy. The latter is not an exaggeration, as Ottawa has been treating anti-oil environmental activists as national security threats. Why? Because they are now going to be guilty of threatening "the economic and financial stability of Canada", which is no classified as terrorism.
Does that include writing an article suggesting that taxes should be raised on shell corporations? Does that include Native Canadians who peacefully block a logging road to call attention to First Nations issues? Does that include Canadian companies that shut down their factory in Lethbridge, fire five hundred employees, and set up shop in Southeast Asia? Does that include oil companies when the pipes they own burst and cause hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to communities?
The fact that these questions are not answered within the bill, are not being discussed, and are being waved off with empty platitudes is proof enough that anything resembling proper oversight when these policies are enacted will not be present.
When terrorism is redefined to include attacks on money, what does it say about the value of people?
Because money isn't valued the same way as people. In a democracy, it's one person, one vote (and we can debate how much that is the case today in some former or latter column). But money isn't so clean cut. You're always going to be one person. Meanwhile, someone with $1,000,000 is going to be protected and treated very differently than a person with $1,000.
Corporations will almost certainly benefit from the enactment of this bill. They're 'economic and financial stability’ will be protected very carefully under the free-market assumption that what is good for the corporate world is good for Canada (can the government itself be sued by a corporation because by trying to break the company up because it is violating antitrust laws, the government is committing a terrorist act?). Money and access to constant legal assistance makes a huge difference in what activities you can participate in. A team of lawyers can overwhelm not only individual citizens’ attempts to rein in their powers through the legislative process, but government's as well, holding up public-friendly policy in the courts for years (that’s a last-ditch attempt, since it's still easier just to lobby the changes through politicians than go through the old-fashioned court system).
Bill C-51 is bad legislation and it involved taking a half-blind hammer swing to the charter of rights and freedoms. The fact that Harper and the Conservatives are giving limited debate time to the one of the most crucial matters to our democracy proves they either don't know it's terrible or don't care.
You wanted expanded national security powers? You've already proven that you can't handle the ones you already have without breaking the law. Even though a 2012 attempt at passing a national security bill failed because of public scrutiny over expanded intelligence agency powers at the expense of civil rights, CSIS has been targeting anti-oil activists with increased scrutiny and surveillance. The ones that peacefully disrupt logging roads and carry banners decrying the tar sands (they only happen to have science and a majority of the Canadian public on their side when it comes to the proposal of using less fossil fuels and expanding green energy projects).
Not to mention the dismantling the gun registry program (apparently the Harper government doesn't think tracking the weapons that people can use to commit terrorist attacks is a worthwhile endeavour), and requiring less information on Canadian Census forms (because why base your policy on a wealth of reliable and important statistics? This is especially galling for a leader who has a degree in economics. Shouldn’t one of the key requirements for sound economic policy be having as much information as possible?).
You've already broken the public's trust on some many matters regarding information and security, so if your step forward is to get even more invasive with little to no oversight, how can we possibly expect you to use these new powers properly?
To a hammer everything starts....
Because not using expanded powers runs an internal risk that everyone who has worked on a project that goes under budget knows. If you don't use up the whole budget, they'll expect you to do it for the same cheaper price next time. Similar: If you finish a task long before the deadline, they'll expect you to finish it in the same amount of time from then on (enter 'padding the schedule').
If you got it, you gotta use it, otherwise they might take it away.
And mopping the floor or writing programming code is one thing. National security is quite another. Suddenly you're spying on people with flimsy evidence, detaining people holding slightly insulting signs, and arresting morons who don't know a thing about weapons, let alone what they click when they're online. Casting a wide net because that's what you're given is not a solution. It’s a mess.
If you're protecting lives at the cost liberty you're protecting neither.
The horrifying reasoning of Dick Cheney's, 'we can't let the smoking gun be a mushroom cloud', is meant to silence all critics who even try to bring up the notion of legal proceedings and jurisprudence, two concepts that we like to say are part of the foundation of our society.
If those in the upper echelons of national security are permitted to act without oversight and recourse, it’s the beginning of the transformation of Canadian society as a whole. Unrestrained and unregulated authority trickles down.
In the West's attempts to fight terrorism on the home-front, the blurring roles of the police, military, and intelligence agencies means that people in those institutions are being called on to perform roles that are possibly outside of their expertise (and when we are discussing the matter of national security, we have every right as citizens to demand that all actions are carried out with the highest degree of knowledge, professionalism, and care). No one department can do everything. No one department should do anything.
But when given such tasks while at the same time being routinely excused from any terrible (and sometimes fatal) mistakes that can be made - with PR-sounding soundbites like 'decisions made in real-time cannot be made with 100% accuracy' - the institution is able to become something else entirely.
A community is not a healthy and free one when its police force has the ability to subvert or avoid legal authority at the same level of the CIA (whether the media is paying attention or not).
Police brutality exists when police can get away with being brutal.
In Virginia, the shooting of (yet another) unarmed man by an over-armed SWAT team while talking peacefully to the hostage negotiator is only made worse by the banal explanation by the officer who opened fire: He was in a bad mood because he had an argument with his wife.
And he is not being indicted or charged.
This is not the way forward.
When passed in a political kneejerk froth, an extensive and invasive anti-terrorism bill could seem like the only thing that will keep a nation from slipping into violent chaos. An attack on parliament is certainly tragic and deserves a strong response, but we must remember that Zehaf-Bibeau was a violent lunatic who had already been incarcerated and picked up radical Islam like it was a pin on his jacket.
President Obama has stressed that he will not label terrorists 'Islamic' even if that is the religion they purportedly follow and in whose name they purportedly created a country. He claims their actions are so at odds with the views of a vast majority of Muslims that of course they don't represent the religion.
And this is an excellent step. Vilifying an entire religion is like vilifying an entire race or culture. It's bigotry and not the actions of a free and open society.
The West's reaction to terrorist actions and threats both at home and abroad have almost exclusively focused on reactive rather than proactive policies. In the case of Zehaf-Bibeau and the Frenchmen who carried about the attacks on Charles Hedbo, a stronger social system that is devoted to rehabilitation of criminals and people with mental health issues could help much more than hundreds of millions of dollars spent on surveillance equipment that only fosters more distrust and isolation. Economic reforms that actually benefit the lower and middle class (and not just the corporate and wealthy, for whom the current economic system in the West has benefited for the last three decades) is one of the best ways to foster a natural form of social integration, as financial security is easily the best tool in liberal democracy and (mixed market) capitalism's kit. It's why so many people are trying to immigrate to the West in the place (only to find today that economic times are tough here, too).
And one could suggest that this appears to be the weaker method, the more preventative, less assertive policy, but that's the difference between a free and civilized society and one governed on fear.
Trampling our own liberties is the quickest way to create a dysfunctional and dark society that the terrorists wish to create, and where the seeds of more extremism are sown.
But don't just take my word for it. What does Conservative party icon and former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker think about this issue?
"Freedom includes the right to say what others may object to and resent... the essence of citizenship is to be tolerant of strong and provocative words."
"The reading of history proves that freedom always dies when criticism ends."
And one that last point, Harper and his Conservative Party are trying to push Bill C-51 through parliament with as little debate as possible. Apparently we shouldn't be talking about the liberty, freedoms, and national security. Apparently we should just let every law enforcement official define 'lawful' whenever and however they like.
You can't bomb, shoot, or spy your way to victory here.
You want it to be simple. You want this to be a simple matter of good versus evil. Everyone wants it to be that.
But it's not.
And this country needs to, at the very least, talk about it.
The Four Horsemen (death, war, famine, disease) are the symbols of a chaotic, apocalyptic time in civilization, and while they've always been hanging around, they really worked their bony asses off this year.
(what a start to this review!)
Comparing the events of a twelve month period to the end of the world is pretty strong meat, but that's par for the course when you turn on the news (or check your news feed). The golden age is always right behind you (remember the nineties and the post-Cold War internet alt-rock boom? Ah, memories...), and the moments right in front of you are only three bad turns from The Road (or Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome). We should always be reminding ourselves that there have always been unbelievably shitty times in human history (a great many in the last century alone), as it's a good tempering to the alarmist and depressing news that explodes out of media corporations vying for advertising dollars (news for profit is almost as depressing as health for profit).
The most important news of the year is that Ukraine has become a not very surprising front for a new Cold War. Russian military response to the abdication of the pro-Russian Ukrainian leader Yanukovych came not long after the Winter Olympics (the biannual 'we're only competing for sponsors and fun' clash of nations) in Sochi wrapped up. Putin annexes the Crimea and pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels wreak havoc in Eastern regions of the country, with causality numbers rising on both sides.
So let's all avoid that and go fight some crazy Islamic militants who are making previously thought impossible headway in a badly defended region overlapping the nonexistent borders of Syria and Iraq. Beheading Western journalists will earn your cause a series of airstrikes by a Western coalition of nations (led by America), directly targeting ISIS leaders.
Putin just gets phone calls. Even when he breaks the rules he's breaking the rules in a way that the international community will only wag an extremely disappointed finger in his general direction (at the same time, anyone who takes the position that the West (read: America) is being too light on Russia still will not utter the words 'military' as a form of response). Being limited to suffering financial punishment is one of the perks of playing a key (or even supporting) role in the globalized capitalist/polyarchical economy, and Russian oil and gas supplies more or less keeps Europe's lights on.
No such luck for ISIS, who pretty much supplied the world with high quality recruitment videos and hatred, meaning no one really made much of a stink of a renewed American presence in the region (on land and in the air). They rose, were scattered, and inspired the already criminals/disenfranchised in other countries to pick up weapons and kill innocent people. A perpetually unstable region will require a perpetual military presence, which is an observation that sadly can be applied to many countries in the middle east, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But most of us watch the events mentioned above from a still stable Western or Eastern nation, acknowledging without much reflection that 'everything' - bombings, airstrikes, roving bands of extremists terrorizing citizens and trying to overthrow the government - happens over there.
Or almost everything, since this year ebola came to America (and Spain), which got a couple good days of panic after a bit of light ball dropping by health officials in Dallas and New York City. Meanwhile the press covered the horrors of ebola in Africa with the perspective of ‘well of course it’s going to happen there’.
The real domestic crisis for America this year (other than the continued economic hardship of the lower and middle classes, which is quickly turning America into a DINO - 'democracy in name only'), was the very public realization that everyone who thought that racial divisions were healing were fooling themselves.
In August came the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri (but actually that very thing has been happening for a very long time, it's just that this was the tragedy that captured the community's and nation's frustration). And the decision to not charge the police officer with a crime meant we get to re-visit the story in late November (along with several other incidents of the law abusing its power to the point of, ahem, getting away with manslaughter).
The media coverage of all these events from across the globe are particularly dispiriting, as every new story is broken now like a story that you would read in a novel or watch on TV (well, on a smartphone, tablet, or monitor, most likely), with a beginning, middle and end. Which is terrifying, because life isn't so neat and tidy with credits rolling at the end of the hour.
The story, as far as the media is concerned, ends when there's nothing 'new' to add, even if the actual situation on the ground in the Ukraine, Syria or West Africa or any small town in middle America is still unstable.
Ukraine was the winter and spring. Ferguson was summer. Ebola was early fall. Ferguson was big enough to get picked up for a second season in November.
This the story of the year. 12 chapters, divided into roughly four sub-chapters, then seven sub-sub chapters, etc.
If the medium is the message - as McLuhan posited - then all that's really being said here is that all these problems are temporary and they are somebody else's, not the viewers. And if by bad luck lottery the tragedy is befalling upon you, you will (in)voluntary participate in the news cycle, with interviews of people who knew you and commentary by pundits who didn't, and it will all fuse into a beginning, middle and end that doesn't necessarily represent the reality off camera, even though for most viewers there is no 'off camera'. The perspective of what they present is what you accept and use to frame your worldview.
It's easy to be fooled that we're supposed to experience and judge the past, present, and future based on this setup. Quickly, in bullet points, and between commercials.
You find yourself trying to rationalize in small degrees with the fact that life has always had these terrible catastrophes and tragedies, that a privileged few seem to always win and so many more lose, that we have to temper our grand plans with the known unknowns and 'going to war with the army you have'.
But then you start coming across as defeatist, as permanently accepting the presence of these events and rules/regulations. Instability begets further instability. The interconnectedness that is supposed to be an asset quickly becomes a massive, damning hindrance. The problems appear overwhelming.
At least the US economy is on the upswing (but only if you're already rich), and the Russian economy is on the downswing (unless you're rich). It's not so much that there's two sides to every story, but that every story quickly begins to sound the same. Cuban ex-pats in America are angry that their adopted country (who tortures people for dubious reasons) is now agreeing to have formal relations with their home country (who jails people for dubious reasons).
People in glasshouses shouldn't throw stones, but suddenly you find yourself staring at your phone in one hand, rock in the other, not knowing what to do, the world passing you by very, very quickly.
Here's for no re-runs or re-makes - and maybe a bit of a reprieve from the horsemen - in 2015.
There's more stuff made for the purposes of entertainment than ever before, but a lot less money to go around (the disposable income of the previously cherished 18-35 demographic has evaporated). Freddie Gibbs raps about being critically acclaimed but still living like a thug on this year's Piñata, his amazing (but about four songs too long on the back end) collaboration album with Madlib. Everyone is well aware of this when it comes to the music industry (the big labels allowing you to stream new albums on itunes or band websites is there version of 'waving the white flag' to piracy, just as new contracts with artists demanding a cut of touring profits is their way at recouping a sliver of seemingly endless financial losses), but there's still known unknowns when it comes to TV and film, as services like Netflix, (Google) Play and others are conflating the two forms to a degree that waiting for a season to end to binge watch ten episodes or for the film to be released on VOD two or three months after it opens in theatres is a sensible afterthought of a decision.
And so while music being released by small labels or the artists has become a familiar situation, the transition for TV and film to exist in the same format is in its larval stages, especially with the fact that it takes a lot more money and resources to make several episodes of a series or a ninety film than an album (certainly having a pitchfork or tiny mix tapes-like website to suss through the material would be helpful).
It's wrong to say that everything's got small. Rather, everything seems to be multiplying. There's a lot less stuff that everyone is familiar with, whether it be music, film, and TV. Regardless, here's some cultural bits that floated our boats in 2014.
Top Tier Tunes
The Body, I Shall Die Here - pummelling, terrifying, epic, dark, twisted. Slow, machinery grind metal covered in probably not human shrieks. Not for the faint of heart, but for those who chew on rusty nails, this is your midnight nirvana.
Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2 - like Empire Strikes Back, this one hits you harder than the original. Killer Mike and El-P are in top form here, merging serious political commentary with the funniest and stone cold boasting since the first Wu-Tang album. And El's production isn't slouching either, even though the first record dropped only last year. These dudes are on a roll (and when one of the dudes is Killer Mike, you better get out of the way).
Timber Timbre, Hot Dreams - Slightly off kilter country. Taylor Kirk's drawl is a perfect mix of haunting and reassuring, so it makes perfect sense when he describes an airplane crashing (or landing) in the Grand Canyon. The opening track, 'Beat the Drum Slowly' is ominous and crushing and has a great animated music video directed by Chad VanGaalen. They're like Fleet Foxes after an aluminum baseball bat to the head, which makes it all the more interesting (and magnetizing)
Liars, Mess - hyper-demented dance music. The first half of this has all the pummelling you would expect from these guys, but now forced through coked-up eighties synths that spent the last few decades in the basement of a haunted house. The second half slows down, as if the synths and drum machines were covered in mayonnaise and left out in the sun. Mess also has the song of the year, the nine-minute slow burner, 'Perpetual Village'. Prime stuff.
St. Vincent, self-titled - the best pop of the year, because it's got a good edge to it. She treats her voice like just another instruments, so between the croons and falsettos, V will happily slather on a layer of fuzz just to keep you on your toes (and dancing).
Thom Yorke, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes (a bit more consistent and wormy (a good thing) than 2006's The Eraser. Some great inhuman rhythms on here with his steel angel vocals)
Aphex Twin, Syro (he's back and it sounds pretty much like he never left. Maybe a bit more mellow, which is welcome in some ways (contrast with the other 'new' Aphex Twin album that snuck out in the summer, which was recorded in 1994 and is seizure-like in its energy))
D'Angelo& The Vanguard, Black Messiah (speaking of 'back', the long gestating follow up to 1999(!)'s Voodoo is funkier, rockier, and soul-ier than anyone could have expected)
Dean Blunt, Black Metal. (it's not black metal, though, it's weirdo, electronica fuelled alt rock with hints of hippity-hop that's kinda like Quasimoto's bizzaro 2000 classic 'The Unseen')
Mark Harris for Grantland asked if we've reached peak Superhero films , and while that might not be the case, we've certainly reached the apex of Superhero film-like funding for everything that makes it to theatres. Birdman and Edge of Tomorrow were the only multiplex movies (although not box office smashes, sadly) that's chock full of star-studded weirdness where you can't seen the ending coming miles away (and the performances were incredible from all involved). The former was great for the passionate and laugh-worthy skewering of hollywood, and the latter was great simply for the detournement of Tom Cruise (in it he's a bumbling coward who dies many, many times).
Everything else felt like it was made in committee, although a rather hip, edgy, and by-the-fun-numbers committee. Guardians of the Galaxy was certainly the best of those. You could see the action beats and happy endings and loose ends being tied up a mile away, but at least it was funny the whole way through.
And let's not forget a great flick of the first quarter, Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel. As far as his films go, this is also rather paint-by-numbers, but P.B.N. Anderson is still miles ahead of most writer-directors going full gonzo (plus you get a hilarious performance by Lord Voldemort himself).
There. That’s really all you need. And Cohl's redemption works. So does Hart's reunion with his family. They caught the bad guy and healed themselves. That makes them… (wait for it)… true detectives.
And the Game of Thrones domination continued unabated (satisfying our not that surprising obsession with sex, violence, and politics oversimplified). Give the people what they want.
Damn it, I love football.
The balance between physical power and careful strategy. The importance of preparation in advance and then having to throw it all out the window and fly by the seat of your pants. The certain unpredictability.
I can even appreciate Belichick's hoodies (give it up for Bill. Last year, with their o-line practically non-existent for boring to crazy reasons, the Pats still made it to the Conference Championship).
But a question remains:
Can we still enjoy football?
Well, yes. Quite easily in fact.
You have to work hard to not enjoy football nowadays, if you've always been a fan.
You have to read depressing articles, you have to remember stinging facts, you have to question how you would deal with such issues if it wasn't involving a leisure activity, you have to keep reminding yourself that there are considerable problems with the game (much of which are, admittedly, problems for many other professional sports at the moment) that's filled your life with so many exciting moments. You have to admit to yourself that nothing you find out will be much of a surprise, either.
Is it enough that we admit to ourselves that any sort of athletic achievement or competitive triumph is really forever tarnished because the sport involves drug-infused men with subpar educations violently smashing into each other like gladiators for our amusement?
How do we reconcile these circumstances? Do we constantly remind the players, prospective players, and ourselves that by playing this game for many years - whether as a pro-bowl linebacker or near-constant benchwarmer who still participates in practices day in day out - you are significantly shortening the length and quality of your life? That you risk horrific brain damage and loss of basic motor skills at a very early ages?
Do we tell the teenagers that are beginning to take the game seriously that the chances of injury are high and the chances of making it to the professional leagues where you are finally paid are extremely low?
And I put these statements in the form of questions because it's pretty much rhetorical. We don't have to tell anybody this, player or fan. We know all of this. That football is a dangerous game that makes a small selection of athletes rich and the team owners richer. We have made that decision - regardless of how much energy put into deciding - by continuing to support football.
The debate? There isn't one.
Running into other people as hard as you can is not good for your body. Especially the head. Concussions are like bruises to the brain. Which sounds innocuous until you realize the brain is already protected from injury thanks to the skin and the skull and the fluid the brain sits in. Repeated concussions - or continuing in behaviour that causes all sorts of injuries and trauma - is unquestionably causing terrible damage to the one organ in your body that truly makes you human.
Which is why early onset dementia - which affects former football players at a rate much higher than the general populace - is such a tragic medical condition to befall upon somebody.
But this shouldn't be surprising.
What is surprising is how embarrassing the National Football League's handling of the situation has been. Suppressing medical findings, downplaying the issue, offering a pittance as a settlement for a lawsuit brought on by former football players, some of whom can't tie their shoes or recognizes their wives.
When something matters in such a way as football does (in the sense that it doesn't matter much at all, that it's an activity that helps pass the time from cradle to grave a bit more pleasantly, that it's leisure that's grown completely out of proportion when compared to the amount of energy spent on real issues that affect the quality of life on this planet), it's a sign of complete disconnect by those that run and own the league. They think what they do matters too much, and everything else matters too little.
There should be NFL-underwritten brain trauma centres in every major hospital across America. They should give monthly or even weekly updates regarding research developments and player health issues. They should not mince words. For how much marketing they do, it's pathetic that they couldn't realize that the best PR move would be the following: “We love football here at the NFL, and we know you do, too. That's why to make sure the game has a future, we are pouring a vast amount of our resources to combat the terrible disease that is plaguing our current and former players. We are using a sizeable percentage of our already healthy profits to build medical research centres devoted to lessening the effects of concussions and long term brain damage. This will benefit not only those people that play football, but millions of people around the world who also find themselves afflicted, regardless of how the injuries occurred. Playing and working for professional football is a privilege, but players remaining healthy and safe - even years after they hang up their helmet - is a right.”
Instead, should we surprised that short term corporate greed has triumphed over the idea that the league should address challenges that might jeopardize the existence of the game itself in the long run head on?
No, we shouldn't be. Which is why performance-enhancing drugs is another issue that's minimized, ignored, and weakly enforced and might also ruin the game (as it's doing to so many other sports, from baseball to cycling).
Competitive edges are encouraged in all aspects of civilization, but not when it crosses into what the community agrees is cheating fraudulence and acquiring power through illicit means
(insider trading, for example). And just how there are loopholes in the ‘real’ world (incidentally admitting that the world of sports isn't real, since football doesn't matter the same way an economic policy, a construction project, or a kitchen appliance does, where broken rules and regulations can have catastrophic effects on the safety and stability of our society), there are constant attempts to circumvent the rules to be a better athlete than everyone else. There's drugs to hide the drugs, there's fake urine, and there are crooked doctors willing to take the blame.
Scandals are now just part of the game, because so many athletes take performance enhancers. Missing a handful games is a risk you're willing to take if you can play the other twelve games like a beast.
Performance enhancing drugs are not even a new development. Football and baseball players were popping pills - uppers mainly - since the 1960s, and steroids since the 1970s. Babe Ruth was an alcoholic, and while whisky's not a performance enhancer, having a drinking problem isn't really a good inspiration for the kids or the drinker’s long-term health.
So here's a thought:
Let them cheat in this respect and it won't be cheating anymore.
Whether it's an IV drip (which is typical treatment now for various sporting injuries) or steroids, sport is the area where 'it's going to happen anyway' is an acceptable reason to overturn a rule. If we accept even grudgingly that sports has been tainted for decades with athletes combining natural ability, a strong work ethics, and a reliance on chemicals made in a lab to run faster, jump higher, and tackle harder, then the only thing we lose is our wilful blindness of the problem.
The equipment players use already makes them less human. Exoskeleton armour and gloves that are pretty much covered in glue.
And this mindset is ingrained in prospective players at such a young age (there are protein diets and weight-gain powders specifically tailored to teenage football players), that
erythropoietin and androstenone can become just the next logical, amoral step in reaching your maximum potential.
So forget this 'what about the kids' argument for going after cheaters. We shouldn't be deifying multi-million dollar athletes in the first place. Be impressed at how fast they can run down a field, sure. But raise them up as a pillar of the community? Let's hold off on that one. Sure they worked hard to develop the skills of catching a ball and running really fast, but a lot of other people work hard without the same sized paycheque and admiration. Perhaps we should make 'working hard' the role model for the kids, regardless of your profession. And if that sounds naive, so ignoring the fact that professional sports is awash in doping.
We obsess over an ultimate frivolity. Fantasy teams (which I myself have), talk radio, a unending sea of swag, and shutting your city down for a parade when your team wins the championship.
It's only a sport, but that's not the mindset. In fact, the marketing of all extremely popular professional sports leagues across the world in the last three decades have focused almost exclusively on how football/actually football/basketball/hockey/baseball is more than just a sport. That it's a way of life, a lynchpin to our culture, a grand uniter, a celebration of athletic/human achievement, a religion.
Which makes sense from an advertising perspective (it's also how they sell beer, car insurance, toilet paper, and frozen croissant), but is still completely ridiculous, especially since the general populace has gobbled up this angle. Which is not surprising, since more emotional energy is invested in sport more than any other product sold to us. And emotional energy is connected to various acts of physical energy, like opening your wallet and spending thousands on seasons tickets, hundreds on jerseys, and tens on any other sort of swag like a bottle opener, bobble-head, and chewing gum.
It's a unqualified success of free market capitalism (even with the socialist-friendly profit sharing among teams). The market decided what the team is worth, and therefore determines what the players are worth. Even cheating is rationalized away in emotionless, morality-nullfying terms. You're not 'lying' or 'breaking the rules'. You're just taking advantage of a 'competitive edge' that's been presented to you.
Chomsky famously said that the proof of Americans' ability to memorize and crunch long list of numerical data is seen in sports statistics and the fans' ability to recall and comment upon them virtually at will. People who take little interest in the functioning of the global economy can have very specific and nuanced opinions about salary caps and performance bonuses. And that's reassuring in one way, but depressing in another. So people have a natural intellectual talent, great, but it's still being used primarily on a leisure activity (which involves people with natural athletic talent).
And this lament is inevitably tied into the problematic scenario of then trying to define what activities and institutions citizens should be devoting their time and energy into. In a free, democratic state it's certainly an individual's own decision of what is important to them. Even if they focus mainly on what is wholly unimportant as far as the health of the state goes.
It's well understood from watching the ads they make (cough) that professional sports provides a wonderful sense of community, fosters human achievement and innovation. Grandiosity aside, it is certainly an economic boon. But it also provides an temporary escape from each person's true daily responsibilities, because sports doesn't matter. The problems begin to arise when this so-called temporary escape because a dominant sanctuary.
So professional sports just makes the rich richer and provides a diversion for the proles from actually realizing what a sorry state of affairs they live in, and that it's getting worse.
But then let's not pretend to be horrified that athletes are crippling themselves and cheating. Let's not pretend this sullying the 'glory of the game', which is full of drugs, money, and an over the top, crude macho attitude (certainly too much of that, if hazing includes death threats) that undoes any 'role model' aspect it tries to prop up for children.
Money will be thrown at the continued problem of concussions and long term brain damage. Maybe this will include better designed, hi-tech helmets, or maybe funding in some way will lead to a medical discovery that benefits not only athletes with neurological injuries, but people in general. Or maybe the NFL which just keep on taking a pinch of its profits and sprinkling it upon the families of forty five year old former players who can't tie their shoelaces.
But I'll still tune on Thursday night, excited for the start of yet another football season, forgetting about its problems when I should be thinking about them the most.
Because we all need to escape from time to time.
We just need to come back as soon as the game ends.
TOO MUCH OF AN
Well, it worked. And it worked too well. The upper 1% sucked up the wealth of the world so quickly that even they weren't prepared. Which is a terrible position to be in. Because... now what?
They got 15% richer in 2013 (), the middle class shrank, which means easy street is roomier and more spacious than ever. The ebbing and flowing of value (in this case, capital) is a natural part of civilization, but this speed is unprecedented, especially when it occurs on a global scale. Like the situation with climate change, it's not as if the earth hadn't suffered through storms in the past, but now the extremes of hot to cold weather and flood to drought is the real danger.
What is the course of action moving forward to temper and moderate these effects? How do we change? What kind of warning signs are required before we do something?
Take automobiles, the mode of transportation that defined rapid technological innovation and signs of personal success in the twentieth century. We have too many of them. There are more cars in the world than people, and a great many of them have never been driven, except to the empty lots where they remain. ()
Even though we can't sell cars because a great many people can't afford them, we can't afford not to make them, because that's even more people who are out of work, putting greater stress on the already exhausted and maligned social programs of the West.
Technological innovation coupled with neoliberal economic policies have made physical human labour less necessary than ever before.
Even our superficial showcases are suffering. The costs and extravagance of the Olympics have skyrocketed in the last two decades, to the point where nations can't even afford to waste money on pointless construction projects for athletic competitions like they used to.
We have to downsize the Olympics.
Government bureaucracy has quickly been replaced by a corporate bureaucracy. It's a turnover that began with the rise of lobbyists in the late seventies in halls of power across the Western world. Buying influence became a legitimate and calculated part of running a large corporation. This access - assisted in part by politicians and members of their inner circle becoming lobbyists themselves - began on a small scale (the first paid lobbyists were from the frozen food industry), but is now how politicians shape their ideological positions.
Certainly there are instances where a smaller, more efficient private company can do things better than a government department, but these decisions are rarely made with 'better' in mind.
Regarding pharmaceutical companies (that are supposed to be closely regulated by government agencies), "as James Surowiecki has noted, given a choice between developing antibiotics that people will take every day for two weeks or antidepressants that people will take every day forever, drug companies not surprisingly opt for the latter. Although a few antibiotics have been toughened up a bit, the pharmaceutical industry hasn't given us an entirely new antibiotic since the 1970s." (pg.315, Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything)
Even something as essential as pensions have overwhelmed the system that designed and guaranteed them. The costs required to pay retired government officials have skyrocketed, and suddenly city, county, state/provincial and federal budgets are breaking everywhere, before they even address their region's actual infrastructure issues. Taken for granted programs and resources are being taken away en masse (closing libraries, cancelling road maintenance, reducing hours for all government employees, and selling off any money making ventures like toll roads and parking meters). Streamlining services to work on micro-budgets have made the services basically inoperable.
These actions have long been a tool of private industry, as any way to save money improves the bottom line. Cutting corners has become a more efficient way to do this than innovation and building a positive reputation with customers. Steps like moving factories overseas to take advantage of extremely cheap labour in impoverished nations, putting pressure on regulatory agencies to do fewer and less detailed inspections, and spending less on long term research and development in favour of small meagre adjustments meant to increase immediate profits.
The attempt to save money is ultimately costing society much, much more. It's by no means and activity that only the rich desire and pursue, but no can argue that they are the ones who have certainly benefited from these large scale changes in the basic operation of global economy. It seems to ridiculous to think that they believe this trend of squeezing and bleeding government institutions can last forever. The wealthy of the world can't be as tone deaf as they're made out to be in dystopic science fiction films. In real life, boring but honest accountants will tell them about their investments, and hopefully boring reforms will be made, instead of a sort of Elysium/In Time/The Island-like revolution.
Speaking of movies, Mark Harris's article on 'The Superhero Movie/TV Bubble' () posits that even escapist entertainment with a hint of social commentary can succumb to the unrestrained desire for success at any cost.
Compare this to the growing and popping of the housing/financial bubbles. Both involve large, powerful institutions plowing forward with high hopes and little regard to the ramifications of their failure. After a few initial successes, everyone from competing companies gets into a frenzy and apes one another, with investors from other industries or just independent means flooding the market with additional cash that just inflates the bubble even quicker. The Bat, Iron and Supermans of the world dominate, with several other films rushing out and trying to compete (Green Lantern, Green Hornet, The Punisher, Hulk, Jonah Hex).
Driving a particular movie genre into the ground is one thing (Warner Brothers or Disney or any large studio can typically absorb losses thanks to other revenue-generating projects). Even Marvel wasn't foolish enough to go into nine figure movie making budgets without a bigger company behind them (Disney). But the buck stopped there. Disney didn't underwrite these budgets by buying premiums that paid out if the movies flopped.
No matter how much of a Friedman/Greenspan acolyte you might be, supporting the continued existence of the shadow market of credit default swaps (CDS) and subprime lending that encourages self-destructive behaviour for short term profits is utterly mad.
An insurance policy for your stocks seems like a good idea in proportion, but pushed as far as it could go meant that large investment banks could target publicly traded companies (including other banks) and intentionally sink them and reap the benefits of their collapse. The now-familiar metaphor of buying fire insurance on your neighbours house and then burning it down wasn't far off the mark.
CDS's were designed to lower risk, but because so many financial institutions bought into them, it actually increased the amount of risk in the market. Ideally a regulatory body would carefully and fairly intervene. Ideally it would protect the market from itself.
When everyone complains that today's world is too fast, too overwhelming, too complicated, it's usually through the lens of material (over)consumption or an immediate setback to whatever they were trying to accomplish at the time. Which in itself if a narrow view.
The constant problem is (surprise) a complicated one. Too often too many big and risky ideas are implemented too fast. And sometimes them succeeding beyond their creators wildest hopes has more negative effects than when these big ideas crash and burn before they get off the ground.
When short terms profits are the most coveted result, it is hard to resist the temptation of the lemming-like behaviour of following the success of a similar idea with only minor adjustments to avoid a lawsuit and/or brand confusion.
This process is the constant. It has become the principle feature of global capitalism, and it has infiltrated everything from the energy company behemoths that have greater political power than any politician would ever care to admit to the e-cigarette industry.
Not simply an addiction to the new and novel, but a way to capitalize on people's interest on the new and novel.
The goal of capitalism is the constant accumulation of wealth, which in turn is supposed to foster further innovation and even more wealth. A perpetual motion machine of value.
But we are bound to physical reality, where there is finite resources which is largely what this planet's wealth is dependent upon. Numbers on a spreadsheet can go on forever, but there's only so much oil, trees, and acres of farmable land that we can utilize. And the metrics involved decree that the amount of pollution and waste we are creating accelerates the unsuitability of the remaining resources.
Grant Morrison offhandedly queried in The Invisibles, 'have you ever noticed how time is speeding up?'
Well time is relative to space and the energy being utilized while traveling through it, and right now the goal is to be as fast and up to date as possible (whether it be your internet speed, or the latest information you can get via said internet speed), because that has become the metric for our success.
We've relied too much on 'too fast', setting aside any other sort of innovation that might give anyone a difference sort of competitive edge.
While the rise of monopolies have made so many products and services almost indistinguishable from each other, it is too big of a problem to lay the blame squarely on unrestrained free market capitalism. And it's important to acknowledge this, because while bringing in necessary regulations to curtail this type of behaviour is very important, regulations alone will not end this problem.
It is also a psychological quandary, one that is linked with our notions of progress, of our belief of how things are always supposed to be getting better. It is so ingrained in Western culture (and one of its chief immaterial exports) that we frequently decry how it's not happening, how things are getting worse. Our sense of timing is off. The speed of advancing technology still has massive consequences that no one has being able to wholly incorporate into modern society.
Keynes envisioned a future where people would only have to work three to four hours a day, and thought that one of the problems would be how to pass the time when we were finished.
Well, thanks mainly to computers this prediction came true, but instead of diffusing the work over many, one person does the work of three people, and the other two have more menial tasks, and none of them are making a wage where they can save money for the future.
For Keynes' world to come to fruition, resources that are of very high value today have become much less valuable tomorrow. Energy and food resources have to exist in bottomless quantities (it is rather horrifying that with tens of millions of people starving every day, many farmers across the globe are paid money to not grow crops).
But the only institutions large enough at this point to address these challenges are private corporations, for whom it seems these challenges need to be seen as an 'exciting investment opportunity' before considering whether or not to address them (or even acknowledge that they're worth addressing). In the past, governments were able to bankroll large scale development projects (admittedly for military advances, more often that not), with the internet being developed by the department of defence being a key example, but those days seem to be long past. It's hard to imagine anything getting done right in the capitols of the free world.
Is too much bureaucracy the ultimate result of democracy? Meaney and Mounk offer up the lamenting title, 'What was Democracy', for a recent article in The Nation.
A glut of confidence, an occurrence of being asleep at the switch because we thought we could afford to be. Reminding us cynically that true democracy requires a constant vigilance that most citizens do not have an interest in, but then reminding us that its debatable how much of a true democracy any nation ever had in the first place.
We feel like we've lost something that we had in the past, but it's only a 'feeling' as most evidence suggests that democracy has only existed in our minds, especially something in the past, when we can nostalgically look back at a time when everything supposedly worked better.
Meany and Mounk question the feasibility and usefulness of the typical left-leaning prescriptions to 'rescue' democracy, like higher taxes on wealthy citizens and corporate, and more extensive regulations for all industries, ranging from energy to financial. To them, these are mere temporary and limited fixes to a series of practical problem, when in reality democracy's crisis comes from the fact that it gives citizens the freedom to not take part in democracy. 'Too much freedom' seems extremely fascist, but should one be forced to take part in certain legislatives activities (like voting) to make certain that other freedoms are not silently taken away?
Meaney and Mounk note that thanks to technological advances, it is actually possible for a great many citizens to participate immediately in the decision making process (namely, the use of the internet), but so far there has be little progress made in using this platform for actual governance (certainly it has been used to great effect in the public relations arms of the political process, but nothing like having people's opinions being reflected in the passage of legislation).
When the basic mechanics of democracy doesn't work, taking shortcuts to govern comes off a lot more appealing. In fact, it can be seen as essential, since a broken object/material/institution is no longer that object/material at all. The checks and balance meant to prevent abuse of power by the heads of state has given the elected politicians below the opportunity to abuse these checks and balances for their own gain or ends.
Of course, left-leaning individuals who support President Obama's social policies (and, like a lot of like-minded individuals, feels he has not been able to do enough to initiate them because of a defective congress), support his promise to use executive order more forcefully. And those same people would most likely be critics of George W Bush, and therefore deplored his use of executive order to push policies that they disagreed with.
And that's - ironically, as it sidesteps the congress/parliament - democracy. Reluctantly accepting policies you oppose when the elected leader is able to enact them, and happily embracing policies that support when the elected leader is able to enact them.
This do not make putting these laws and orders into practice any easier. The institutions meant to do so are still bureaucratically muddled and are severely underfunded (or crookedly overfunded, with monies quietly siphoning into a tiny pool of corporate accounts), so that regardless of how legislation is passed - whether through a more participatory method or one through a smaller circle of elected officials - success is by no means guaranteed.
Is there an alarm bell for the world economy? It has unquestionably been built up in the last thirty years to achieve a goal of building wealth for its power players and shareholders, but basic economic theory acknowledges the interrelated, symbiotic and complex relationships between all participants across the planet (the definition of globalization is often debated, but certainly its orchestrations are unfairly managed by too few of the people involved).
The solution has to be found in a true mixed-market economy, where private industry is allowed to develop new products and services with financial success as a clear goal, but with strong government regulations in place to ensure that this is done with the community or state at large as a clear beneficiary, not an afterthought. This is not as unlikely as it sounds. These were the conditions that existed across the West in the wake of the Second World War, and it played a major role in economic, technological and social advances in the decades after.
The solution for too much is not too little. As far as the status quo goes, right now there is too much smoke being blown up our asses, and too little fire being lit under them. Instead, it is the middle of the road that could best suit our future. Slow and steady reforms are always a challenge (because it requires long term commitment), but projects or policies enacted quickly typically have devastating unintended consequences. Even if the plea, 'we don't have time to waste', is accurate, any sort of panic or passionate drive does not guarantee success. Moderation is rarely a romantic prescription, but that's exactly why it's necessary right now. It's not the same thing as 'do nothing'. It's much closer to the notion of 'do it right'.
It's the Stupid, Economy
So who would you like to blame for the economic malaise we all seem to be suffering through?
One of the more striking uses of the term ‘the new normal' was when Brian Williams used it to describe the attempt by terrorists to blow up airliners flying out of London's Heathrow Airport using some liquid explosives in August of 2006. Another reminder of the danger of terrorism in the early 21st century.
The 'new normal' in this case ultimately meant yet another level of carry-on restrictions on airplanes. Now you couldn't bring any bottles containing more than 50ml of liquid, whether it was shampoo or gatorade. Like a lot of changes to air travel in the wake of September 11th, we grumbled, than got used to it. All part of flying the friendly skies, and as soon as you're through security you can move on to thinking about buying an expensive bag of chips at the convenience store before boarding, and hoping that you don't get a seat next to an infant.
The economic new normal is much different than this slight adjustment in our travel plans.
Not a matter of life and death in post industrial society (worst case scenario when it comes to terrorism), but certainly a matter of quality of life.
It extends to almost every facet of our daily routines because so many of our routines revolve around economic demands. Work, not working, health, communication, transport purchasing power from massive investments like property to daily purchases like coffee, travel, savings, pension (ha!), leisure.
Even the things we define as being 'more important than money' are still defined against the concept of money.
And now there is less of it to go around in the West. An entire generation feeling the negative effects of computational technology, which has replaced (or reduced the hours of) millions of jobs. All the easy (illegal) downloading of music, movies and TV - plus whatever else the internet can waste our time with - is scarcely a replacement for a hemorrhaging of expectations that have practically become birthrights for the last three generations. The obviously incomplete list of economic demands above have changed in a myriad of ways for young adults today than the same age group for the past sixty years. The old adage was that you got a college degree, and therefore you will most likely have a reasonable income that will be enough for a car, a mortgage, a pension, and - over time - to raise a child (or children), who in turn will be able to get a college degree...
That cycle is winding down. The corporation of universities and colleges means there's a glut of young people with degrees and debt but not enough jobs in their respective fields (supply and demand nods grimly).
On top of this (or really, all over this), is the shrinking middle class of Western society. A terrible occurrence that is all the more frustrating when one considers that almost every large-scale economic decision is purportedly being done with the middle class in mind. With such a multifaceted problem, looking at only a few graph or numbers is never going to give you a worthwhile perspective of the problem. The media trumpeting a single figure of job growth or loss in a single month is of little use. The Dow Jones, Nasdaq and every other measure of economic health based on quarterly earnings reports coming out of Manhattan has to be put in its proper context: Considering that 20% of Americans own 80% of the stock, it doesn't mean that much at all.
The still skyrocketing wealth of the 1%, which has exploded in the last twenty five or so years, with more and more of the power of the nations ending up in the hands of fewer and fewer people. And these developments are thanks largely in part to legislation pushed forward in congresses and parliaments that are sponsored by lobbyists, representing those that can afford to have their interests represented by lobbyists.
Returning tax rates and corporate regulation to what they were forty or fifty years ago is a great start, but the economy abhors a vacuum (no value there), and the West doesn't have the unilateral financial power it once had. The emerging/exploding/cooling/but-only-cooling-compared-to-when-they-were-exploding Asian markets can take a much larger role in their own destinies. The West went from exploiting cheap labour in that region to depending on said cheap labour to now treating them like respectable trading partners full of eager customers.
Rich and poor are tumbling down a very strange rabbit hole, going through the motions in an economic system that seems to fail more and more people in the West everyday. Are we at a point where this is too Broken to Fix?
Is that defeatist? Nihilist? Or do the numbers just work out that way?
Well, there's lots of things to consider (sur-fucking-prise!).
First off, as far as the basic rules of economics go (as in 'it doesn't care how many children live in poverty or if the sky is full of poison as long as we're in the black'), some of the outcomes are going along swimmingly. Supply and demand, overabundance and scarcity, all checkmarks.
As Larry Summers points out, the stuff made out of stuff (TVs, phones, computers, t-shirts, plastic deck chairs, etc.) has been getting cheaper, but the stuff that is more ethereal or available in limited quantity (education, health care, property in a nice area) has had its prices skyrocket.
Land especially, since it's one of the few things China and Southeast Asia can't manufacture and send to North America.
And it's land in other senses of the word that can play an important in role in slowly digging ourselves out this mess.
American Industry needs to come home. The West needs to come home. They've built up the economies of China and Southeast Asia by taking advantage of cheap labour, but now there are massive economic changes in these regions that is allowing them to slowly apply these leaps in industrialization to their own nations and regions. They no longer have to ship everything to North America and Europe. They can build for their own regions now (although certainly exports will remain a vital part of their economy, like they are/should be for most nations).
And so the jobs that have been shipped overseas for over four decades should return. A re-discovery of manufacturing in the West.
Making this affordable requires sacrifices up and down the economic ladder.
Responsible decision making - by CEO and customer alike - is the goal, but we fall short of this in so many ways. And since laws meant to protect ourselves from our baser nature can be subverted, overturned, or simply ignored, we are constantly going to be faced with an uphill battle to right these incessant wrongs.
After three plus decades of Free Market economics, it's time to return to Keynesian economics.
These two approaches are not opposites. Keynesianism supports a mixed market economy - that is, capitalism that is regulated to certain degrees by the state - in an attempt to have the best of both worlds: The entrepreneurial vitality of Friedman's Free Market Capitalism and the egalitarian support system of Marx's Communism.
Free Market Capitalism and Neoliberalism suffer from the same glaring faults as an economic system completely controlled by the state (Communism): People are not robots. They do not make decisions based strictly on rationality and macroeconomic realities.
If FMC and Neoliberalism truly worked, there wouldn't have been a housing/financial crisis. People wouldn't take out mortgages they couldn't afford. Predatory loans, Credit Default Swaps, all of those financial instruments of death would never be introduced because the risks and hazards would be understood immediately, and so these options would never be considered if people acted as FMC expects/demands them to.
'Passing the buck' is an irrational behaviour for FMC and not factored into any of its calculations, which is why a market based on infallible calculations but run by fallible creatures crashed and burned and had to be bailed out by FMC's antithesis, the economic arm of the Federal Government.
Laws are in place to protect us from ourselves. The Consumer Protection Bureau is supposed to protect consumers not only from the acts of greedy, amoral corporations, but greedy, amoral acts of their own.
It's time that people - regardless of any sort of political affiliation - acknowledge that the mergers that have created mega-corporations in nearly every industry have done more harm than good for the average citizen. Breaking them up seems unthinkable, even though keeping them together or splitting them up is a matter of words on paper (with real world ramifications of jobs disappearing and then reappearing not long after).
From an economic standpoint, curtailing corporate power in the West (and the East, although in China this would be an even more daunting task) is imperative for a better working democracy and re-energizing of the middle class. Consequently it will be one of the most difficult to create. It's putting the last thirty years into reverse. It's embracing the opposite of what economics and politics has done for decades. And the powerful people/corporations bound to lose some money and prestige will try to prevent this from happening.
Peaceful transitions from one set of laws and statues to another set is always the goal of lawmakers and citizens alike. In a stable state, this should be done via legislation with support from a majority of the people, not the majority of the capital. The rise and fall of one particular ethos that dominates a state's legislative oeuvre for a certain period of time is a natural movement.
This goes for bloodless but impactful financial legislation, and erosions of civil liberties by the authorities. Even in a democratic state, there are going to be periods where the rights and privileges of a citizen are jeopardized. Moreover, there are going to be periods where - despite constitutional guarantees concerning equality - some groups of people have much more power than others.
All things considered, it's safer and more stable that these inequalities between clusters of citizens (sometimes minority between majority) are manifested mainly in economic terms.
When the debate is over representations of value (which are more ethereal than ever, as monetary worth is now more a printed number on a bank statement than stacks of bills in a safe), rather than valuables themselves (food, clothing, safety), then it remains a peaceful one. Not enough people in Western democratic nations are in such dire straights that revolting against the institutions that support the small group of people with a concentration of capital first and everyone else seconds is going to occurring any time soon.
[Pressing aside: And thank goodness for that. Revolutions are almost always terribly violent and destructive events that starts off a period of misery and upheaval that lasts for years]
Robert Reich sees a populist sea change on the horizon, and envisions it leading to sweeping legislation in the halls of power. The good news is that postindustrial Western nations are stable enough to withstand such reforms. It can adapt to a revamped version of Johnson's 'Great Society'.
The economy will change. The economy must change.
Explaining the difficulty in addressing these problems from legislative standpoint is easy. Lobbying for change is not. As noted above, those that have the money have been able to prevent any changes to the tax code or antitrust laws.
On top of this there is always a sizeable portion of citizens - not a majority by any means, but a dependable voting block - for whom the presence of government in nearly any form appears to be an infringement on their rights and freedoms. Libertarianism is a perfectly reputable political ideology, but it is almost wholly unsuited for the 21st century.
Such policies - ending the Federal Reserve, for instance - will simply stop global trade in its tracks.
But at least it’s an ethos.
In the wake Obama's 2013 victory, Cassidy acknowledged the marginalization of the white conservative vote, their waning influence on politics and how they have rely on legislative loopholes and gerrymandering to cling to power. It's not the end of this voice in politics - which exists in variations on the left as well - but it won't be as loud for a while.
Not that any of this will deliver a stinging blow to class struggle in America (or any nation, for that matter). There will always be classes.
Hierarchies - both good and bad - are part of human nature/experience and a fully functioning democratic state can only do so much to keep such basic inclinations in check.
On top of this, from a practical side, the need for authority to oversee and delegate tasks is inevitable in industrial/post-industrial globalized society. How this world functions is interrelated to the point that no one person - let alone everyone on earth - can have a proper understanding (and therefore the ability to make informed decisions) of it all.
Buying an iPhone in Cincinnati pays for road construction in China. And that's a simple way to explain the complexity of a globalized economy.
And it's this complexity which makes understanding and tackling these problems daunting for all of us non-economists out (t)here.
Even modest, liberal Keynesian reforms will drastically alter the economic playing field of the West (assuming here that America will institute them).
What will become of the slightly less rich and slightly less powerful mega-corporations they continue to own?
They have already been rebranded as 'job creators' as opposed to simply 'the rich' in conservatives circles (while being pinned as 'fat cats' and 'elites' in liberal ones).
They are barely citizens of their own countries, having much of their money hidden in tax havens (which includes both Caribbean Islands and the 'city' of London), storing up for whatever and whenever, not paying their share to keep the finances of the countries they've made their fortunes from solvent.
The rich are an easy target. And while they are without a doubt a legitimate one - the people with more power are expected to wield it properly (a butchering of that timeless Spiderman quote) - people up and down the economic ladder must share the responsibility for the situation we finds ourselves in.
Abuse of power happens on every income level, regardless of gender, culture, religion, or any other trait that in too many cases divides people.
'Trying to get something for nothing' makes us human. Recognizing that this can cause problems ranging from substandard customer service to an incredible amount of human suffering and enforcing rules to try to stamp it out so we all play fair makes us human as well.
But the goal of democracy was to spread the power out, so the effects of abuse would similarly be diffused and mitigated. A healthy middle class is going to game the system in a way the system can withstand, at least withstand the 'gaming' better than when a ridiculously powerful but quantifiably small class starts to do the same.
The middle class creates and reinforces the mixed-market, limited-capitalist economy. It is a symbiotic relationship, and when the rules of the latter are drastically altered, then the former suffers.
Three decades to go one way, it could possibly take three decades to go back, especially when one considers that the concentration of economic power the West had in the early eighties. With the rapid ascension of China and India since that time, making changes unilaterally will not be possible. The money's been spread out across the globe, to the East's benefit and West's detriment. The money of the Western middle class has gone into the pockets of the Eastern lower class. This is certainly a wonderful development for hundreds of millions of people who have been pulled out of abject poverty, but it's a strange and bitter pill for the people who take a comparatively small downgrade in living standard.
The end of the West's sense of self-entitlement is certainly a good thing, as for decades it has typically come at the expense of the rest of the world. This may be the first step in creating an awareness that demands sacrifices from the class that has gained the most despite the 'middle class money flight', the corporate/over class.
It's hard to argue with the interconnectedness that is the current global economy, and how it's necessary for all links to remain healthy and robust for the good of the structure itself. Having a huge segment of the world's population become (or remain) disenfranchised is no plan for the 21st century.
There needs to be a movement to address this issue head on.
Public Good Over Private Gain.
Christmastime is Here... For Now
(an ominous title. A tagline for a holiday themed slasher flick)
Christmas has spiralled out of control, and it appears to be taking us with it.
A strange conflagration of broken ideologies, so much so that if the road to hell was in fact paved with good intentions, Christmas would have a couple multi-lane expressways all of its own.
The theological implications have been taken over by capitalistic impulses, which manifest themselves through rampant commercialism, materialism, and corporatism.
This has been the modus operandi in the West for decades (and now ever-increasingly in the East, as the middle classes in China and India swell) regardless of the time of year, but Christmas stands atop the heap as a sort of archetype.
A time of stuff. Not just in terms of gifts, but decorations, events, dinners, parties, and charitable donations.
And all this stuff requires busier factories (if not here, then somewhere), heavier planes, trains and trucks, and retail stores needing more workers (albeit temporarily) to hype the stuff and take our money. So Christmas is one hell of a jobs creator (although let's be honest, it's more of a corporate bonus creator, with the profits rushing up the ladder, then slightly trickling down).
Once a company experiences the Christmas sales bump, they depend on the Christmas sales bump. They need the Christmas sales bump. It has to happen every year, and really, it should be bigger than the last one. Christmas is the manifestation of unfettered capitalism. How nice that saving your soul and saving your bottom line can converge so succinctly.
'Bigger than before', and 'bigger is better' (along with its cousins, 'faster' and 'easier', and its anti-matter duplicate, 'smaller') have been become unofficial mantras for the current notion of progress. Tomorrow is expected to always be better than yesterday. There's money in pushing that idea. We repeat it ad infinitum, and if doesn't work out, and your year hasn't been as good to you as you expect, well don't worry! It's Christmas time, so take out some quick loans and go to Wal-Mart.
Too much of a good thing is very real, and when it comes to a lot of Christmas related items and ideas, we've been in the red (and spending green) for several years now.
Does it bear reminding that Christmas is meant to celebrate Christ's birth, who came to rid the world of sin and save his followers from death? That this is a holiday which is supposed to acknowledge how much god loves us (by sending us his son) by impregnating a young virgin in Palestine two thousand years ago.
Perhaps I can just put in Linus Van Pelt's speech/quotation about the meaning of Christmas and be done with it.
Even if you don't adhere to the half-man, half-god redeemer coming to cleanse of the sins of the world, it's still a lot more enriching than fighting for discount televisions on Black Friday.
Solemn reflection about the idea of selfless giving, sacrifice, and being thankful for what you have.
There's a lot to the Spirit of Christmas.
The easiest one to be manipulated is 'giving'.
Gifts came with the three wise men, who wasn't there when Christ was born, but arrived a little over a week later (which is why Eastern Orthodox christians celebrate the giving of gifts in early January).
Fruit and sweets were the traditional gifts for children in Europe on Christmas Day, as it was a sign of some semblance of wealth. This was because fruits like oranges were out of season in December (making it expensive to store in a cool place since the summer, or to have it shipped in). And regarding sweets and candy - and, god forbid, a toy of any sort - anything but food, clothing, and a roof over your family's head was a luxury (we forget too quickly today that while today a minority of people in the West live in poverty, it wasn't long ago history-wise that a vast majority did).
It's easy to be generous when you have much to give.
It's easy for reflection to be a calming and serene activity when you have positive things to reflect upon.
And if you don't want to address real problems this time of year, don't worry, there's plenty of superficial ones to stomp your feet over. There's 'War on Christmas'-type complaint of stores having 'happy holidays' replacing 'Merry Christmas' as the standard employee greeting throughout December. God forbid you aren't reminded of your messiah's birth when you go buy a Playstation 4, a gallon jar of pickles, and twelve pairs of socks. Government buildings being sued by atheists for putting nativity scenes in the lobby.
Nice and easy stories to shake your head at and say 'things were better in the good old days' (unless you were a woman, a minority, a homosexual, had leftist political views, etc.) over. Conveniently forgetting that the person whose birthday we're meant to be celebrating exemplified better than anyone in human history the ideas of tolerance, humility, and goodwill (I think Jesus would prefer you spend your time helping out at a soup kitchen rather than fight to have a depiction of his birth portrayed everywhere).
I don't want to sound like a grumpy old man (a Scrooge, if you will). I want to sound like a deeply concerned young man (straddling the nebulous borders of gen-x and the millennials, who's seen the best minds of his generation, etc.).
There's no waxing nostalgia here.
Lego from seventies, a barbie doll from the forties, a wooden toy train from the twenties, a nutcracker doll from the eighteen nineties, an orange from the early Victorian era.
People weren't smarter, or more innocent in the past, but the amount of people and the amount of stuff they used was very different. Buying local wasn't a hip choice, it was the only choice. The industrial revolution begat mass production, and ultimately a global workforce and transportation system (and it's a bizarre and convenient coincidence that the modern concept of Santa Claus - cranking out toys for all the boys and girls with slave-like, half-person employees, and utilizing a perfect method of getting around the world in one night - encapsulates the state of the capitalist global economy perfectly. We're 'inadvertently' brainwashing the kids early. The idea that you can have whatever you want, right away. 'Santa' will take care of it).
Capitalism is fighting for phone deals on Black Friday. Communism is everyone chipping in when preparing Christmas dinner. It's the time of year when isms bleed together (maybe fighting for phone deals is really anarchism). The difference with materialism is that it is an ideology that requires finite materials. It's more than just an idea. And that's its main problem. Capitalism and communism are theories about economics, which is the study of value and exchange. Materialism is about stuff. And there's only so much of that.
For far too long, the West was the home of much of the world's wealth (even as it had a fraction of the planet's population), and Christmas - a holiday celebrated mainly in the West - was a time of year of when everyone would flaunt it (even the lower classes, who were actually doing pretty well compared to 'lower class' in other regions of the globe).
Now the West is sagging economically while halfheartedly trying to do the right thing from an environmentally sound perspective. And everywhere else that is doing slightly or much better is rightfully resentful of North America and Europe suddenly having a 'come to Jesus' (ha!) moment when it comes to coal factories and carbon taxes.
It's not fair. Well neither is Christmas morning for more and more families, as the middle class sneaks over to China and India leaving Europe and North America with a blossoming underclass.
So maybe it's becoming easier than ever to be thankful for what you do have, if you're lucky enough to have it (if millions in the West lose what they have, but tens of millions in the East gain what they've never had before, is it a fair trade?). Friends and family and good food, and the idea that many others are doing the same thing at the same time. A communal activity at a time when community is splintering into stranger and more geographically disparate niches.
Which is why its wrong to rail against modern society as a whole, especially toward a time of year where such positive attitudes are being fostered. Of course certain forces are going to try to turn such feelings towards their own (financial) advantage. So even as we might roll our eyes or feel genuinely insulted towards a cell phone company plucking our heartstrings by making an advertisement showing a family bonding over their latest galaxy/iphone deal, we should acknowledge that such an activity actually happens. Not everyone who cares about each other can be in the same room on Christmas Day, but features like Skype and facetime can offer the next best thing.
The hottest gifts of the season really can make people happy. A kid can’t fake the excitement of getting the toy they’ve been dreaming of for weeks. And for man-children of all ages, the enjoyment factor of the Playstation 4 has a long-ass shelf life.
And while plenty of presents don't, that the consumption of whatever is hyped up can feel a bit unfulfilling not long into the new year, the positive vibes of Christmas that are supposed to exist outside the shopping mall experience doesn't necessarily carry us through the winter, either.
Like so many others things in modern life, the idea of Christmas is complicated (or has become complicated), with plenty of clearly good and likely terrible qualities fused to it. Certainly being a bit more conscious of what you're buying it's greater effects on the world as a whole would be a good start (like a nutrition label on food, but one that indicates how much energy was used in creating and transporting the item, how much the people making it were paid, what the parent company is worth, etc.).
Perhaps a self-imposed gift limit. Really narrow it to one or two things for the kids of all ages.
Because gifts are not the first and last word on this holiday (although it usually is the first).
Some of the best moments of Christmas are the little things, the moments that surprise you, because - unless you're eleven and under and exist solely for 7AM December 25th - there's a repetitiveness to the ordeal(s) that can be a touch more grating every year (unless you hit the White Russians early).
And while they differ from person to person, here's a quick a lighthearted list of things that make our holiday a bit brighter (and a nice contrast to heavy topical shit hanging over our heads that just slogged through).
Die Hard - the ultimate christmas movie (as well as being the greatest action movie of all time). A reinforcement of traditional family roles via fighting terrorist/bank robbers. Everyone who's in it for the money (Gruber, Ellis, Nakatomi) dies, in it for fame (Thornburg, Robinson) is embarrassed, and everyone doing it for their kids (McClane, Gennaro, Powell) are heroes. It even has wrapping paper and masking tape as the protagonist’s secret weapon.
Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Frost - A lovely little ditty about the quiet majesty of the nature in the middle of winter. Frost's protagonist has the luxury we all wish we had during the holidays: A moment to stop and take it all in. To reflect. But, as the last stanza reveals, he has things to do: promises to keep, miles to go before he sleeps (x2). Ninety years old but still relevant.
Fleet Foxes, self-titled - an anecdote to the endlessly derivative Christmas music, while still holding on to that folky, winterish atmosphere. That said, everyone can go through phases with Christmas music, from pleasant enjoyment to seething hatred to finding yourself humming it around your home despite the seething hatred.
Context can make a huge difference. Deciding to put on a Christmas album is one thing, but being forced to suffer through 'All I Want For Christmas Is You' while wandering through a crowded book or clothing store looking for the exact thing that person x wants can make the experience all the more deplorable (for some reason, I'm totally down with Radiohead's cover of 'Winter Wonderland' (no, that's not a type, yes it's a youtube search away, with intentionally grainy video of them performing it live in their studio)).
Christmas Crackers - why yes, they are stupid, but it's not a lingering stupidity. They aren't worth more than the three or four minutes you devote to them right before you starting eating. But the dumb little prizes (a comb, a key chain), the even dumber jokes, and the tissue paper crown is now a mockery of how much crazier gift giving has become, while still being a celebration of it. Plus the snap, which really requires one person on each end of the cracker to do right.
Shrimp - okay, after an essay going on about consumption, I should probably tread carefully when it comes to praising the practice of devouring crustaceans by the ton in the last half of December. But that's usually the only time I snack upon this particular seafood (with healthy globs of 'the sauce'). The excitement of Christmas dinner means you had a light-ish lunch, and because the big meal's always at least a bit late, the first round of appetizers is key to staying energetic throughout the night. And shrimp plays a big part in that. Don't be ashamed if you gorge at the expense of others. Wall Street would understand.
So eat some turkey (but not too much). Drink egg nog and rum (but not too much). Argue with your relatives about politics, Pitchfork's best albums of the year list, and whether the stuffing was better last year (but not too much). Deplete your bank account through acts of charity and goodwill (but not too much).
Have a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays (but not too much).
It Was Finished In Visit Time'
Japanglish can occasionally get very zen.
And because that's not the intent, that the translation into another language is meant to be a direct and clear as possible - the words above were supposed to indicate that the temple was now closed - this opportunity to find greater meaning in this failure is in itself a commentary on Japan.
'Closed' means just that. But if the sign was just those six letters, I would not be considering how 'it was finished in visit time' is bordering on haiku-dom. The temple - or the idea of a temple accepting visitors - is reduced to a pronoun, and its role for the day has ended. The temple has a purpose, a temporary one, but one that repeats with every sunrise, when 'visit time' begins again.
Temporary and recurring.
Where perseverance is not a heroic quality, it's a basic one. And when you still don't succeed, you at least have the reflection of what went wrong, what went at least half-right, and what it means in the greater scheme of life itself
If it's not the volatile natural elements (earthquakes, tsunamis) to consider, then it's volatile human elements (financial meltdowns, the horrors of modern war). The recent Tohoku earthquake took over 15,000 lives and is estimated to have cost $235 billion. In World War II more people died in the firebombing of Tokyo than from the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima.
But it's hard to keep an industrious, reflective, creative, and insightful people down.
Going above and beyond the call of duty (practically re-defining what duty can do for you) can be seen when you accidentally drop a 10 yen coin (its worth roughly equal to a dime) on a shinkansen (bullet train) and three passengers plus the train hostess helping you find it, even after you try unsuccessfully to communicate with them that it's okay, it's just 10 yen, I don't need it that badly.
Even bypassing the challenge for the visitor of learning three separate alphabets (katakana, hiragana, and the never ending chinese characters of kanji) by having english words scattered across the nation are addressed with a mix of professionalism and enthusiasm. but not always both at the same time.
Where it counts most - train stations, maps, toilets - you'll find enough familiar and direct words to get to your locations and not have your ass get sprayed with hot water before you start. Outside of these places, it starts to get really funky.
Japanglish is an attempt to make lemonade out of lemons but instead getting some sort of strange thing that looks a lot like orange juice and almost tastes like orange juice. It gets the job done - it's citrus flavoured water - but it's not the same, although not without its own charms.
I mean, who wouldn't want to go into the 'Joyful Shop With Liquor'?
In some ways, isn't the danger of theft already diffused when the sign beside the construction site entrance reads, 'Be in operation a burglar alarm'?
Or how about, 'Welcome to Game Panic Tokyo: Let's Enjoy Everyone! The Highest Space...', where the grammatical error in the second phrase is not that strange, but the trailing off of the third is just great. Was 'highest' supposed to mean 'best'? And why not an exclamation mark? (even signs completely in Japanese are not shy with taking them on)
Japanglish is a wonderful way to 'ask' why to the seemingly mundane task of communication. If you know what it means, that's good enough right? The efficiency is replaced with a firing of buckshot words. Grazing your brain is the point, but you wonder if google's translator is playing a joke on the entire nation.
Is 'closed' simply considered too curt and disrespectful for a temple?
And 'Funiture' is either a marketing campaign, or extremely poor copying job.
Then there's just words for the sake of words, like a shoe store called 'Welcome to Pansy Satellite'. I want this to be clear: the shoe store is not called 'Pansy Satellite'. 'Welcome to' is not a greeting, it is part of the name of the store.
The inadvertent, generally harmless butchering of the english reminds the visitor that the locals are trying to accommodate you, while reinforcing the notion that you are in a position that requires accommodating. You are outsider, and even if you bury yourself in books and apps to understand katakana, hiragana, and kanji and speak it fluently, that still just the tip of the iceberg. Japan is one of the least multicultural developed nations, with 99% of the populace being of Japanese decent. That means that almost everyone visiting sticks out like a sore thumb. The tourism and service industry will break their back for you, the locals will help in very halting english if you appear lost, but it's all with the knowledge that soon you will be back on a plane to your home country.
Your first experience with Japan proper is airport customs, and even there, it's polite, efficient, and slightly invasive. Smiling customs assistants gesture into very specific and short lines, and a smiling customs agent bows slightly behind the counter and goes over your passport and customs card carefully, and then gestures to high tech device that records your fingerprints. And then a mugshot.
But by the time you really start to consider whether you just walk into 1984 plus Hello Kitty, the airport train station is right in front of you, and you can get your rail pass, suica card, and make seat reservations, all with enough time before the high speed and high comfort express train rockets off towards Tokyo station.
[a note on the suica card: it's a reload-able transit/everything card that is good on every subway line in Japan (and most trams and buses), most vending machines, most convenience stores (the massive chains being 7-11, Lawson's, and Family Mart), and all long distance train food services, meaning you can buy a can of beer from a train stewardess's push cart and slug it back in your seat as you rush towards Aomori at three hundred kilometres an hour]
Tokyo could be a country all by itself.
It's the least international, international city, and that makes it both familiar and alien at the same time.
At least nine separate skylines, and with the exception of a handful of landmarks like the Tokyo Tower or Tokyo Skytree or Gherkin, they all seem identical to each other. You get lost in the city because at first glance everything looks the same, and only by looking a bit closer do specific neighbourhoods, streets, and even alleys begin to stand out. And don't except to find it again a day or two later. Despite a near perfect public transportation system, these moments of discovery are meant to be temporary.
And there a plenty of them. The waterfront around Tokyo Bay is so sprawling and extensive and yet the city is rarely seen from any angle. There are bridges that rival the steel and iron links into Manhattan.
Canals that borrow deep into the mainland, crisscrossing like streets in Koto and encouraging boat-less fisherman to waste the early morn.
Wonderfully maintained public parks, since a person's own private space is typically the size of a two car garage in the West.
Incredible museums a block away from an alley full of run-down shacks (some of which probably sell amazing okonomiyaki).
It's a place where the numbers can be seen and felt. A station platform at rush hour. A fish market the size of a baseball stadium.
Raised rail and expressways carve up the city.
Suburbs so crowded they look urban to Western eyes.
The spiritual and historical beside the ridiculous and pointless.
Fifty year old ticket machines beside cramped little restaurants allowing you to eat the best ramen noodles in the world.
Markets that sell anything, including a plastic baby doll covered in yakuza tattoos.
[a sad myth to be busted: the incredible range of items available via vending machine. The story was, you could get everything from soft drinks to used schoolgirls underwear in Japanese vending machines. The truth is that it's 97% soft drinks, green tea, and cold coffee, 1% cigarettes, 1% beer, and 1% ice cream. Sure, the smokes and booze are amusing at first (and you need a Japanese ID to actual buy the cigarettes), but the vast, vast majority of these devices offer a couple types of drinks and nothing else. Sure they're at nearly every corner in any city, and sometimes on a random place on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, but the perception that you can do all your shopping through them is greatly exaggerated]
Endless food, shopping and attraction choices (Museum of Logistics, anyone?), Tokyo is a place that inadvertently exhausts you, but in such a way that you have no problem with that.
Like other major world cities, it absorbs any resentment from the rest of the country for the power it holds and attention it gets.
Unlike the other global cities like New York and London, however, the immigrant presence (and therefore immigrant culture) is slight. Japan is an extremely homogeneous nation, even one hundred and fifty odd years after 'opening up' (prior to 1868, any foreigner landing on Japanese shores beyond the Nagasaki trading port could be put to death).
No Little Italys or Indian neighbourhoods (although quite a few decent restaurants of both). You never forget that you're in the nation of Japan, and that means - if you're not Japanese - you can be surrounded by millions of people and still feel strangely isolated. A ghost of a person, a permitted visitor (you have to keep your passport on you at all times, as you can be fined if the police ask to see it and it's back at your hotel), a welcome guest, but always a guest. Even if you're here to teach english for a year, you have a visa, not a birth certificate. You may be an employee, but you're mainly a tourist.
And regarding that, Tokyo actually doesn't feel touristy, even in the endless markets surrounding Senso-Ji temple. The city is so massive it can effortlessly absorb hundreds of thousands of tourists (many of whom are from all over Japan, rather than all over the world). With thirty two million locals, Tokyo doesn't have to give too much of shit to cater to tourists (which is actually an attraction in itself, getting caught in the human hurricane that is constantly swirling around you).
This is not the case with Kyoto. The tour groups descend upon the historic, temple-based attractions, and you have to fight your way through and around them to find a quiet spot of your own. Kyoto's best bits are on the edges of the hills and mountains that ring around the city. The closer to the centre you go, the greater the ratio of boring to interesting buildings.
Of course, trying to find the good stuff in Japan usually leads to exciting diversions that can be just as worthwhile as the original destination. Rushing from one attraction written up in your guidebook to the next seems very foreign here (which makes it a trait that Japanese tourists pick up with gusto once they head over to Europe or North America).
But then, time is treated strangely in Japan. Trains are ridiculously punctual (where being 36 seconds late on average is not acceptable) and futuristic looking, but machines spit out reserved seat tickets that look like they were made on printers from 1986. This is place where commuting is mayhem, but where 'watching rocks grow' is popular term for just stopping for many moments and just reflecting on your place in society and life in general.
Which is something all of us could be doing more often these days, since it's quite clear that certain aspects of Japan's current state will inevitably play huge roles in the West's future.
Crowded cities - and a concerted and immediate effort to deal with suddenly overwhelming effects of pollution and resource management in these now crowded cities - is something Japan has been dealing with for several decades now (and not just in Tokyo, but Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo, and Yokohama). Huge government investment projects for overhauling infrastructure is required, as well as a focus on green living (reduce the amount of waste produced through reusing and recycling). Even in the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, there is a necessary restructuring of the relationship between the natural world and human civilization. The re-acquisition (and therefore re-imagining) of private space, so that extensive tracts of potentially farmable land can be put to better use.
If gaps between rich and poor, between how we lived ten years ago and how we will live ten years from now, are growing in contemporary society, then Japan is the blueprint.
They've long had a powerful corporate class that maintains a strong grip on industry and politics. Corporations that have squid-like tentacles in a bizarre assortment of business ventures (the Suntory beverage company owns biotechnology firms across the globe) and have politicians on a short leash are the norm in Japan.
But in Japan they are kept in (relative) check thanks to the community-wide acknowledgement of deferring to the communal good. High taxes and strong regulation (as well as the public shame of doing wrong) means that while success is respected, success at the expense of others is not.
And in Japan's still sluggish economy (as the West's lost decade continues, Japan is in the middle of decade number two), practical changes, such as expanding employment opportunities by willing to curtail your own works hours, become the norm.
In certain situations it feels like Japan is over employed. Three construction workers directing people around truck entrance to the building site (in addition to the signs, pylons, and arrows).
There's always one extra person milling behind a service desk, in case a particular issue arises were the 1:1 customer-employee ratio isn't sufficient.
The famous line about giving up your liberty referred to getting security in return (with the conclusion being that one deserves neither if they accept this bargain), has been altered (upgraded?) in Japan. Instead you give up a bit of liberty for an incredible level of efficiency. A place where the trains really do run on time, and are sleek, smooth, and filled with helpful employees to boot.
By no means is Japan perfect, but they seem to be trying harder than anyone else, Japanglish be damned.
Spying, and Wiretaps, and Privacy, oh my!
No, not 'oh my', really.
More like, 'well jesus, why the fuck not?'
That's one of the sadder immaterial fallouts from this: It's not that shocking.
It's not 1984, either. Even if the Justice Department is pulling out all the stops to get Edward Snowden into the Ministry of Love.
It's a bloated 9/11-Patriot Act policy leftover that mainly targets people who call or send emails in or to the Middle East (Program head General Keith Alexander originally coined the unsettling phrase 'collect it all' when trying to information on possible Iraqi insurgents). In other words, this form of spying is practically racial profiling, since most people from America who communicate with the Middle East are from the Middle East (unless you have a relative in the military). And since it's violating the rights of American citizens based on their background, that makes the program unconscionable in and of itself.
For a nation built on immigration (from the Asian land bridge to the Mayflower to the waves of lower class Europeans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), this suspension of basic rights in the name of national security is an affront not only to the freedom America wears like a badge of honour, but a besmirching of its history (unless you want to acknowledge that when the immigrants arrived, they were typically treated terribly for generations by whoever was already here).
The lack of sustained anger over the program from the general populace suggests a weariness that will only foster more of these defense department projects. Military spending is out of control, but it's one of the few industries that can still proudly wave the 'made in America' banner. In a still-dismal economic climate (unless you're the 1%), being part of the team or support team that spies on your neighbours people around the world means you can still put a roof over your head and food on the table.
Ah, yes. The rest of the world. Who were rightly up in arms about the NSA program, since it meant America was violating the rights of Germany, Japan, Afghanistan, etc. in order to mainly protect itself. Perception is a huge factor in international relations, and when Barack Obama took the helm in 2009, it appeared to be a much-needed improvement in American's relationship with the rest of the world after the cowboy-crudeness of the Bush years. And while Obama hadn't done very much to foster global admiration (no green energy policy, Guantanamo is still open, no reigning in of American corporate power), he hadn't done anything to upset them, either. Until now, with the revelations of the NSA program, which shows a startling lack of respect for national sovereignty and the security of every other country and their own citizens.
It's the 'world's policeman' overstepping boundaries at a time when there's so many more domestic concerns that it also needs to be addressing. The kneejerk response to protecting the homeland when statistics concerning the middle class, income disparity, and infrastructure show that it is rotting from within. When your country's defense budget dwarfs the next nine highest spending nations combined, you've created a military industrial complex that's addicted to the government handouts, rewarding the already wealthy at the expense of the now quickly expanding poor.
But with the exception of a strange hiccup in the mid twentieth century - when the middle class actually expanded - the United States of America has always been about the consolidation of power amongst a small group of wealthy and influential citizens. And this is seen in every facet of its domestic and foreign policies. You don't become the most powerful nation/empire on earth without a might-makes-right-realpolitik-wins-the-day perspective. From Rome to the Mongols to the British, they succeeded because they grew powerful enough to break and then make the rules of international diplomacy/law. And the United States of America was no different when took this role as the 20th century progressed. It could use it's military might wherever it saw fit without fear of sanctions or heavy reprisal, and when there were activities that those in power deemed necessary but knew the public would be critical, they used espionage.
The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 brought the work of security and espionage agencies greater scrutiny in the public eye terms of results and methods, while at the same time giving it a wider field in which to perform its duties. The Patriot Act bureaucratized the shadier aspect of the CIA, and was filled with enough legal jargon and loopholes that actions which would have been crimes twenty years ago are now just another tool in the box.
Likewise, if the current NSA scandal was discovered twenty years ago, the congressional hearings might be as impactful as the Iran-Contra scandal (which in effect, went right up to President Reagan). Instead, the heads of programs and departments such as the NSA only have to give carefully hewed talking points to a congressional committee, meaning much of these activities are still not easily understood.
How many phone calls do they monitor? How many do they listen to? Who makes the decisions to follow up on a possible lead, and what are the criteria? What would happen if a phone company or website refuses to give them the requested data? What are the protocols that guide these decisions? And how many of them are 'interpretive' enough that such a gross and extensive invasion of privacy can slip through the small print cracks and not break any laws? Does all of this even work? And how often does it work? Or not work?
It's understandable that defenders of the program (which includes the President) cannot go into detail about the attacks its prevented and the terrorists its tracked, but it's also convenient for them, as it prevents an open and transparent dialogue of the benefits and costs of the programs. And that means there's likely no end in sight for this program, that it's now entrenched in the bloated national security morass, questions of its effectiveness constantly put aside.
It's not that it looks particularly bad on Obama, but that it looks bad for America in a much more general sense. It was a program introduced and utilized under the Bush administration, and Obama has kept it going. So there goes any sort of partisan bickering. Instead it means that this is just going to be part of American policy from this point on, all done in the name of national security.
When any sort of law enforcement activity includes surveillance measures to stop the possibility of a crime - even something as heinous as terrorism - then the treatment of innocent civilians as criminals is inevitable. This is a true on the street corner, and it's true in cyberspace. And if the rationalization is that they're only looking for suspicious people, then you may as well throw out the notion of 'innocent until proven guilty', because the NSA certainly have.
Even the half-assed spin by government officials to the media is terribly patronizing. They have tried to assure Americans that they were primarily using these tools to spy on foreigners, which is just as shocking, since it means they feel America can wantonly spy (with corporate assistance) on the rest of the world, without the world having anything resembling a say in it. And that they expect most Americans to be okay with this, that as long as it's not happening to them (very much), it's not worth worrying about. In the wake of the US wagging its finger at China for its aggressive military hacking, this is a tragic and telling example of American Exceptionalism.
It's troubling that this isn't illegal, and it's disheartening that every time the NSA has clandestinely asked judges to approve the more invasive tapping and searches, it was granted every time, suggesting it's a rubber stamp and nothing more.
The most Orwellian aspect of this is the seeming blindness (or healthy indifference) of those running this program to the paradox of privately invading people’s privacy and then maintain that the whole operation is none of the public's business. That the NSA are so incensed at Edward Snowden for revealing this program - which they obviously expected to remain private - to the public for scrutiny suggests they have no sense of irony, either. They'll look at anything suspicious without a care of rights or privacy, but are up in arms when someone studies something suspicious that they might be doing,
Would we be more willing to support the program if we knew more about it? Perhaps. But clearly we were never given the opportunity. Like so many power grabs, it's done in secret. It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. And you know what? They'll skip the forgiveness part.
Transparency is a popular campaign promise for any candidate, mainly because it comes with the idea that if we just saw everything worked in government, then we would be able to see the problems and shortcomings, and consequently be able to fix them. But once in office (or in congress), trying to shed light on certain programs (whether controversial because of the price tag, or the trampling of constitutional rights) means rattling entrenched cages.
Since the buck theoretically stops at the president, it's inevitable that Obama's going to get criticism and lowering poll numbers when any sort of scandal hits any part of his administration, even if - quite sensibly - he's not involved in every single decision made by the National Security Agency.
(Suddenly I feel slightly bit sympathetic for George W. Bush, who certainly had many scandals and difficulties during his eight years, and was used as a punching bag for lefties like me. Dubya made many terrible and devastating decisions, but he also got a lot of flack for situations that were out of his direct control)
So Obama's atrociously high record of prosecuting government whistleblowers (that is, people who are trying to alert the public on the activities of their own country) is unfortunately the chief gauge as to how he feels about transparency now.
The only way the average citizen can combat this situation is to take it upon him or herself to learn as much as possible about these programs, which typically means poring over thousands of pages of legal documents and bureaucratic fine print, some of which - as noted above - is able to be interpreted however one wants if they have the ability and authority to do so.
Which leaves each one of us in a rather helpless bind. How much of the patriot act has any of us read, and what does it matter if we have, if we aren't in charge of a national security agency? Congress recently voted down a bill that would have curtailed the extent of the NSA wiretapping program (or at least shone a inquiring light upon it), so apparently the American people - since that's whom Congress represents - are actually okay with this. Except for the majority of them, who, in a recent poll, has said they believe that intelligence gathering has finally gone too far.
So the thing that really changes the most is the amount of people who dismiss the effectiveness of the government, even if they believe it had at one point the public's best intentions at heart. Their ranks are growing, and the nation - like every nation it has happened to in the past - is weaker for it.
I wish I could say that it's the impotency of the presidency that is alarming, where certain policies that seem to defy partisan politics and public outcry (and constitutionality to boot) continue to exist, but instead it's alarming that he supports the NSA program.
'Collect it all' is not a new mantra in the world of espionage and intelligence gathering, but it's never been easier to access vast amounts of information from every phone call or internet search made across the globe. When everything is connected, everything is accessible, and all the rights that your respective country offers you suddenly means very little.
There's an unbelievable amount of irrelevant - from a national security standpoint - personal information that is now under the digital lock and key of the government is held in eternity in an endless row of hard drives in Utah. And it's complicated because in a democratic state, everyone is the government in theory, as they vote for politicians to represent their interests in the halls of power. There is not supposed to be 'our' personal information that 'they' have. In democracy, it's supposed to be 'we'.
Since this falls apart on a practical level - concentrated capital in the form of corporations and wealthy people have a greater influence on the creation and passage of laws than the average citizen - the real challenge is to keep the gulf between the will of the people and the actions of the government as small as possible.
There's clearly been a failure of that here.
Former Vice President Cheney's assertion that a terrorist threat that had a 1% chance of succeeding had to be treated with the seriousness as if it was 100% certainty of succeeding was an idealistic soundbyte that all but guaranteed that national security programs would have little to no public oversight, a near-unlimited budget, and few legal barriers, constitution be damned.
The Patriot Act has given authority to the state to carry out highly questionable activities that, for decades previously had happened clandestinely (and certainly in a more technologically antiquated form) and illegally, to now be performed clandestinely and legally.
It's invasive and violates the constitution and the benefits for such egregious practices are impossible to calculate because those who oversee the program demand it operate in secret. It seems that there is no right that the government won't trample upon to protected its citizens.
Be Yourself Somewhere Else this Summer
The weather's getting warm (if you're in the proper hemisphere), vacation time is looming large, school is either done or almost done for the year, and with no reason to stay where you are until it gets cold again (if you're in the proper hemisphere), at one point you'll probably ask yourself, 'where should I/we go this summer?'
And what a luxury it is (compared to the options most people on this planet have), carving perhaps a week out of mind-numbing or backbreaking work and planning on seeing a different part of the world for a few days. And it doesn't matter if you take a city bus or Airbus 390 (patent pending) to get to your destination. Just being somewhere else for a while is pretty much the best thing you can do for yourself right about now.
And I don't even know you. But you deserve a break. And even if you don't think you deserve a break, the rest of the world could really use your money. And if you don't have any money, then you really deserve a break. So sell an organ, commit some middling internet fraud, or ramp up even more credit card debt and start packing.
After all, it takes money to spend money, and it's through spending money - either directly or indirectly - that we acquire a large amount of our memories. And there's only so many of those you can squeeze out of the same old routine.
And as you gain memories and lose any chance of being debt free, someone else - in fact, quite a few people - will gain as you spread the wealth around (even if a lot of it will eventually, after plenty of exchanging, somehow go into some very large and typical pockets). Support your local globalized economy and buy something that's overpriced and has the words of wherever you are emblazoned on it. There's hotel chains, fancy museums (and if the museums happen to be free, then fancy museum shops), restaurants ranging from charming and bad to stupidly expensive and okay to the same restaurants down the street from wherever you actually live but with slight tweaks to the menu, the minutely organized company tours, the half-assed, just trying to make a buck local tours, the shit gift shop, the slightly less shitty gift shop, the store that locals shop at, the store that hip and wealthy locals shop at, the monument to impressive world history, the monument to bland non-world history, that weird fucked up thing wikitravel recommended that is kind of overrated once you see it, and, of course, the fact that the further you go (whether by plane, train, automobile, or ship), the fatter the bottom lines of Exxon-Mobil will grow.
It's a passive spread of capitalism!
But in the end it's not about the annual bonuses of an already highly paid CEO. It's about you, finding worth in watching the activities of the locals through a carefully orchestrated bastardizations of their traditions for the cultural benefit of your tour group.
Or to exploit and/or burn the locals by not tipping, throwing up on their boulevards, and not bothering to learn the language. Or the transit map.
And what do you remember more when you get back? The mind-blowing successes, the total fuck ups, the unexpected turn of events good or bad. It's a badge of honour to have the best and worst travel stories. They're the standby icebreakers that are almost always worth telling. Maybe it's just a matter of how much time and money is wasted or saved ("we ended up having to take three buses!", "we just climbed over the fence and there we were!"), but the sympathy and praise from others who have almost always been in similar situations is genuine.
So if you can, choose your cohorts carefully. Good friends don't know each other until they miss trains, lose jackets, get lost, and take drugs together in new and exotic locations. And if you're stuck with a family, plan carefully. Because missing trains, losing jackets, and getting lost is not even amusing in retrospective when a tired three year old is involved (taking drugs might be interesting, though).
Seeing old things that dead people owned is 'culture building'. Downing three tequila shots on a beach patio then passing out in the public bathroom is 'character building'. Seeing the Mona Lisa in person - in a crowd of about fifty people, behind bulletproof glass, with three or four security guards without anything resembling a sense of humour - is still a unique experience when compared to seeing an image of it on the internet. Just as getting drunk with a group of people - whether you know them or not - is a unique experience when compared to getting drunk on your own in your house.
Even travelling alone (which is worth doing at least once, if only to enjoy not having to passively argue with your fellow adventurers that you really don't care where you have dinner) is a social experiment of sorts. You're dependent on the kindness of strangers, and are therefore much more vulnerable when they end up being less than kind. There's strength in numbers, but in some ways that can insulate you from the most immersive experience of travelling, which involves you alone experiencing something novel and unique, throwing yourself headfirst into hanging out with a new group of people, whether from your hotel, tour group, or nearby bar. And all of these experiences can educate and amuse and perhaps even change your worldview, with your word on what your role in this journey will be remain the final one.
Pretty fancy talk for getting sunburned on the sands of Cancun for five days and seeing a crumbling old pyramid for fifteen minutes hung-over on an ATV.
So let it be known, there are two basic types of travelling: Relaxing/blowing off steam, and absorbing culture/local wildlife (while blowing off steam at night). The reasons for going somewhere else to do these things can depend quite a bit one where you live most of the time. If where you are doesn't offer either of those activities, then you travel just to get a taste of them. If where you are has plenty of opportunities to blow off steam and absorb culture, then you travel to flex and finesse those muscles.
Tourism as we know it today is a rather recent phenomena unless you were an extremely powerful person (although they usually travelled to marry someone off, argue over money and land, or learn how to better rule with an iron fist). If it's the distant past and you were going somewhere else, it meant where you living before was no longer accommodating (it was on fire, underwater, plague-ridden, or a bunch of other people were slaughtering your neighbours), or you were part of an army going to slaughter a bunch of other people. The closest there was to going somewhere, checking it out, then coming back, was the pilgrimage, but the reason behind that had more to do with not going to hell (god liked it when you spent days walking to a place where he made a miracle occur) than the architecture or inns along the way.
Yes, it took the emergence of the middle (or merchant) class before travelling became something you did for shits, giggles and a chance to catch syphilis in a whorehouse influenced by gothic architecture. The Grand Tour of Europe is as old as the Brits' smug sense of superiority over the continent. It was a chance for sons and daughters (just kidding, pretty much only sons) of the dying nobility and rising industrialists to become men of the world, looking at roman ruins as they lay and catching the aforementioned syphilis in the aforementioned whorehouses.
North America and Europe have been cracked open like an exhausted walnut for many decades, and that means getting around has never been easier and the chances of getting the runs are as low as possible. So if you want to be challenged with long bus delays and even longer bathroom lines - in addition to lying on a beach for dirt-cheap - you'll have to look to all the slightly shadier continents. And in regions that are rapidly industrializing and have enough security to embrace and promote tourism, they'll be shades of Western hospitality beside the shantytowns. Certainly there's controversy over the sensibility of having thousands of KFCs dotting Southeast Asia if it's coming at the expense of the respective regions' own cuisines and customs,
But then, travelling has always been a clash of cultures. You are a walking advertisement for your home turf's respective government and economic theory (no matter how many left-wing buttons you put on your luggage). And if you're from the West and going elsewhere, there’s some form of capitalism in your every step. The limits of your trip are typically measured in dollar signs, and while that's true at home as well, when you're on the other side of the world, you're more likely to pay for certain experiences that you wouldn't at home (bungee jumping off African bridges, haggling over a carpet in a Turkish market, succumbing to a late night massage in Bangkok).
And the locals know this, and they in turn might try to rip you off from time to time. And really, considering the epic rip off that Western nations and corporations perpetrate on these nations en masse every day, maybe you shouldn't kick up too much of a fuss when you find out the ride from the airport to the taxi cab driver's cousin's restaurant was twice as much as initially agreed upon.
The role of the responsible traveller requires more than just not loudly complaining that everything is too hot, too slow, too difficult to pronounce and not at all like your life back home. An open mind, tolerance, patience, and a willing to try anything (well, most things) is how you don't get everyone in a country's tourism industry to pigeonhole your nation of origin as a den of assholes.
And that comes down to expectation. If you're so hung up on certain customs or luxuries, go to places that have the same ones, or don't bother travelling at all. Besides, things aren't really that different through most of the developed world. With the exception of some rainforest tribes and dangerous areas in Africa and Asia, your food is probably going to be something on rice or noodles or with a side of fries, there's going to be older or newer buildings, it's going to be much more or much less crowded, it's going to be a testament to mankind's ability to cram in as much steel and glass as possible or it's going to be pristine and untouched because of zoning laws and oversight.
Of course, like Vincent Vega tell Jules Winfield in Pulp Fiction, 'they've got the same shit over there that we got here, but it's the little differences'. And a Royale with Cheese is just the tip of the little difference iceberg. It's the stuff you can't really prepare for, no matter how many guidebooks or websites you read. It's that time you go through the roundabout the wrong way when driving in Australia (and didn't hit anyone). It's realizing that Musee d'Orsay packs a much better cultural punch than the nearby Louvre. It's walking a little bit further to a more secluded hot springs outside Reykjavik. It's asking a local in extremely halting mandarin where they prefer to eat out and them personally walking you to the restaurant's door. It's bicycling past a giraffe on a dirt road in Kenya. It's taking a risk on that wrong turn off a costal highway or in a small Chilean village that pays off in serenity and quaintness.
And just so you never forget these moment that will shape and sooth your future self, there's documentation, which has never been easier.
But as much as you can assemble a timeline of the best and weirdest of your trip for yourself, having pics and video and swag is really just bragging rights to the people close to you who profess a similar love of travel (even phrasing it as a question, "you mean you've never been to Prague?" is still a boasting of sorts). Plus there’s the unspoken belief that by having a couple hundred pictures (thanks to your digital camera, which really means your phone) of your recent exploits, you've successfully thwarted any chance of you forgetting that this ever happened.
Not only are you there, but you also 'have been there'.
For most our lives here to there is extremely repetitive and mundane. But when 'there' is brand spanking new, it's exciting, confusing, and awe-inspiring all rolled into one. What do you do when you get 'there'?
You start asserting your abilities, asserting your curiosity, asserting your finances, asserting yourself.
And you do that everyday of your life, but now you're doing it in front of a bunch of new people who smile exhaustingly as you butcher their native tongue. And because it's a different place with different people, you can make it up as you go along, becoming a totally different person for two weeks and then high-tailing it back to your usual bland or (possibly) exciting life back home.
Because travelling has to be as much about coming back as going somewhere. It's not open-ended, it's a circle, so you're supposed to start back from where you started, a little older, a little wiser, and, unless you got lucky in Vegas, a little poorer. Growing as a person (which sometimes does include becoming a little bit crustier and appreciative of home) is inevitable when you travel, because it's time outside of your routine, even if you spend it lounging on a beach for five days with a mixed drink in hand.
From a YOLO perspective, walking around a city you've never seen before and eating the local cuisine is probably one of the safer ways to experience something new. Much more highly recommended than cancer or a hostage situation.
So get the fuck out of here for at least a couple days. It'll do you a world of good, in a world that is bursting and breaking at the seams in every possible way. Get some sun, get some stories, and remind the people wherever you end up that it's not your fault, it's the greater economic system at work.
New Concepts of Hell
Ah, hell! The land of eternal damnation! Fire, brimstone, unspeakable torture!
Most concepts of this place are based on ancient mythologies, which were then taken and repackaged by major religions (although hey, it should be noted that the ancient mythologies - Egyptian, Greek - were good and proper religions to their adherents way back when).
Hell is the bad place. The place of losers (in addition to the most ruthless, power hungry winners). It was deep in the bowels of the earth (Hades), as opposed to the idea of heaven, which was a place for winners (in addition to the most pious and spat upon losers), high in the sky (Mount Olympus).
The bible is sketchy on hell, save for the 'lake of fire' line in the Book of Revelation. In fact, it was really up to Italian poet Dante Alighieri to nail the environment of the place with his poem, Inferno (the first part in his not exactly well-titled 'Divine Comedy' trilogy). Floors (circles) of inhumane punishment, proportionally based on the crimes you committed as your heart beat on earth. Some people were caught in cyclones for the rest of time (and beyond that). Others had to eat their own shit. Some were trapped in really bad rain. The worst of the worst were frozen in ice, to be eternally gnawed upon by a giant Satan. While it was a work of fiction and never really adapted by any official church doctrine, a good poem full of striking visuals really captured the public's imagination, and this organized bit of physical pain worked well with the church's official stance of 'do what we say or get sent down there'.
Hell is a threat. The very worst threat because it's not for a moment. It's supposed to last for that pesky notion of eternity. And it's bad! Bad! The very worst!
Yes, yes, we get it. The painful torture, the excruciating, endless, physical pain. Maybe as an added bonus it includes a wide variety of sexual improprieties. Mutilation of the genitals which are then cooked and served to you, or raped by demons with rotating knives for a shlong.
Boring! As if your body is the last word when it comes to the divine exacting vengeance upon you (and in a place where the threat of death - the result of a too-broken body - is irrelevant).
The notion of physicality has undergone a odd transformation in the last century. While there are many statistics that show obesity is a problem in the Western world (and malnutrition is a problem in impoverished regions), for the most part people are healthier than they were in the past (increased life expectancy in all corners of the globe can support this). People can take care of themselves through access to healthy foods and exercise, a lot of work available to people are not nearly as physically arduous as they once were (thanks machines!), and advances in health care means that rehabilitation can help inured people regain a vast amount of their prior abilities. This wasn't the case in the past. If you got seriously injured as recently as the late nineteenth century, there was a good chance of you dying not long after, and if you did find a way to live with the affliction (which sometimes came down to money, which few people had enough of), it wouldn't be much of a life.
And the further back you go, the greater emphasis there was on the importance of a healthy body. So of course the older notions of hell would dwell on its endless butchering and destruction.
On top of this, even the things we value have taken on a more ethereal appearance. With the exception of mementos, trinkets, and jewellery, a lot of what we find important and believe shapes us as individuals has gone digital, held in tinier and tinier little bits of computer stuff (your photos, your music, your bookshelf, your movies, DVDs, your creative bits of expression). While having our brains dumped into the head of a brand new robot body is a long way off, your smartphone has made the physical world that much more irrelevant.
In no way am I suggesting that being forced to chew on razor blades on the shores of the lake of fire wouldn't be agonizing, but if hell is supposed to be the very worst the imagination of the divine has to offer, certainly they can be more creative with devastating results (after all, munching on razor blades is a not-uncommon punishment in prison. Certainly hell will be worse than that. After all, a lot of the people who are in prison are supposed to end up going to hell after they die, and it wouldn't be fitting if they find it somewhat similar to the world they just left. They'd almost be the consultants or advisors).
Why get medieval on one's ass, when you can psychological on one's mind? (or should that be 'in one's mind?')
Perhaps the problem is certainty. When you know you're in hell - the decor and the torture upon your body is a dead give away - there really can't be that much of a surprise. Give or take new ways to do some painful to you, there's a pretty set routine that you'll be sticking to (or that will be stuck upon you) for all eternity. Now depending on how much of your human foibles and abilities come with you from life on earth to the afterlife into the place of the damned, it's possible that you might get used to being tortured all the time, like getting used to a cold shower. Of course, god and the devil could simple turn off that 'switch' inside you, so being disemboweled and fed your own insides for the thousandth time would be as bad as the first. But I doubt that. If too much of 'yourself' is stripped away from whatever body is being tortured, it stops being a torture of you. It's just a body you happen to be stuck in, one that is torn to pieces and then reassembled, over and over again. There has to be a strong mental connection to what's happening. You aren't supposed to 'tune out' your damnation.
So if it's you being tortured - and are constantly aware that this going to happen forever and ever - the law of diminishing returns might just come into play (once again, god and the devil can just tinker with the rules and simply have this not come into play).
Instead, in order to really make it agonizing for you so you'll really feel the weight of the sins that earned you a place down here for all eternity, they (in some ways, the ultimate 'they') could perhaps dole out the pain between monotonous stretches of averageness, and maybe even pleasantness.
Paraphrasing a Far Side cartoon - certain Gary Larson can be regarded as one of the great philosophers when it comes to notions of hell - because the salad has broken glass in it not every day, not every other day, but on random days, that's why it's hell. And once again, that's thinking a wee bit small. Real torture can be elaborate scenarios that mimic living to such a degree that you would not even know you're in hell.
Watching your child get run over by a truck because you turned around for a moment to chat with a neighbour. Their blood staining the pavement like a Pollock painting, their entrails draped over the branches like party streamers, and their head rolling down the street to stop right at your feet, their eyes staring up at you in shock and affection. There wasn't even time for them to make some tears.
Now that feeling destroys the idea of anything being good and loving in the world, and could permanently blacken your soul.
Perfect for hell!
Or maybe at a friend's birthday party you make what you thought was just a clever sarcastic joke about the birthday celebrant, and everyone suddenly turns on you and tells you that's not funny and wholly inappropriate, and because you've had a few to drink you try to defend yourself by going a bit too much on the offensive, and in response you have a dozen people telling you what they really think about you, picking mercilessly at your foibles and bringing up every embarrassing moment of yours that they witnessed which until now they've kept respectfully in the vault, so in return you swear like an angry sailor and throw some things around the room and stomp out of there into the cold winter night, having lost a dozen close friends in less than fifteen minutes.
You don't know it's hell. You don't know this isn't real. It's the perfect simulation because it's being run by the creator of everything. In other words, it really can't be any less real that your actual, pre-dead life, but you don't know that. And you could be transferred from 'dead kid' to 'terribly party' to 'war coward' without realizing it. Suddenly you close your eyes, and everything resets itself, you being none the wiser, because that's what the rules are here (none! Want to complain? Fuck you! It's hell!).
How could this happen over and over again, without 'diminishing returns' coming into play? Simple. Why not a memory wipe? If you grant that hell has a pretty much the unlimited ability to break your heart and shit on your soul, why can't you experience terrible moments in what appears to be your life after you're dead not knowing that you're dead - you watch your close friends be crucified for something that's your fault - over and over again?
And a sort of logical extension from these traits we are giving hell - long stretches of existence that we cannot discern from ordinary life until something traumatically shattering happens - is that we all might be living in it right now. Welcome to the afterlife! We don't need a lake of fire. Seven continents, four oceans, and a semi-successful global civilization might be all we need to experience the sort of existential anguish that is supposedly reserved for the damned. A constant uncertainty of the state of our lives, as we worry so much about what might come next, our imagination has us suffer more in anticipation than the actual results of the eventual decision or event. Death hangs over our heads at every moment (since we don't know we're dead) - whether it comes from an out of control car or a brain haemorrhage - and shapes how we make every single decision. And if you think 'hey, my life's not that bad right now', well that's just the state your supposed to be in before it all goes to shit and you feel greats heaps of terrible being shovelled mercilessly upon you.
Just a thought, really. I'll certainly take this comparatively bland, routine-like existence (consisting of work, socializing, and spending too much time on the internet) that might eventually go wrong, instead of certainly being raped by demons over and over. But even such an otherworldly thought of 'raped by demons' has a sort of genesis in human behaviour. If I was wrongfully imprisoned (back to the idea of prison! I guess hell has a lot in common with incarceration. A place you can't escape and are terrified of being treated brutally, even if you do deserve it. Also: it also tries to be a model for deterrence, but people still do wrong), I might experience some of the more dreaded moments of humanity, and think this is absolute worst thing that could ever happen to me. And certainly 'hell' is an extension of the worst on earth (since our imagination can only build and expand out of what is around us).
So what's worse upon worse? How many ways can you be physically and/or emotionally be broken? What if you become the torturer, doing unspeakable things to people (chopping off limbs, removing organs, or - just for the hell of it - yanking out muscles and bone and feeding it to dogs) you are told deserve such treatment, only to find out it's your child, mother, father, etc.?
That's really what hell is, isn't it? The limits of human imagination, taking a turn for the terrible instead of the transcendent. St. Anselm posited that god was what nothing greater can be conceived, so it makes sense that the hell would be the opposite. Think of the very worst thing, and then crank it up to eleven (apologies to Spinal Tap) to make it even worse. In fact, it's easier than adding something better (which is kind of what god and his crib - heaven - is supposed to be). For hell, add giant bugs. Add cancer. Add fire. Add broken glass. Add painful rectal itch. Add the personal things you care about and have them twisted into betrayal-filled abominations (as illustrated in A Clockwork Orange, just merge the culture you like with the things that make you painfully retch and now even more of things you built your personality upon is forever tainted).
In this respect hell is as simple as a Frankenstein observation ('fire bad!'). In terms of morality and theology, the concept of hell is a mite more complicated. Why would an ever-loving god permit its creation, and send millions upon millions of souls there for all eternity because they didn't meet it's expectations (souls that it created and whose actions it always knew ahead of time)? Why not skip the theatrics and have hell be a black pit of feeling sad, no body required? If hell is a pastiche of other religions' views on the afterlife, does it mean hell changes for each epiphany-slash-update, or do we just have a clearer and clear view of hell over time? And if we begin questioning the logistics of such things, what does it say about the millions upon millions of people who accept the existence of hell unflinchingly? Isn't that the most terrifying thought of them all? That people just accept hell's existence as easily as saying the sky is blue?
Sounds like the land of the damned to me.
Barack Obama: The Last Good Enough Man (Who Can Possibly Do Something About it)
'It' - as referred to in the title - is the right thing, or the most beneficial thing for the greatest amount of people. This idea is supposed to be the root of modern democracy, where the needs of the majority are addressed and met by men and women elected to represent the citizens' (and therefore the nation's) best interest.
This bears repeating, since a vast majority of Americans - and most people in Western democracies - feel that this arrangement in no longer the case, that the interests of corporations and the comparatively small circle of wealthy citizens that own them come first. This means this group of elites have easier access to the halls of power, including tax breaks, the intricacies of the justice system, and the people that make decisions regarding such economic and legal matters.
While it would be an exaggeration to say that the middle class throughout the middle of the twentieth century had the same access to the facets of democratic society listed above as the elites, it was definitely a period where there was a genuine attempt to close this gap of disenfranchisement (to say nothing of the attempts to assist the impoverished and lower classes).
President Johnson's vision of his 'Great Society' is perhaps the best manifestation of this. Measuring the strengthening of the middle class could be done by looking at the shrinking of the income level gaps, the expansion of social programs meant to break the vicious cycle of poverty before it starts, and the push for any sort of postsecondary education, whether it be college or technical schools, so that the populace was an educated one.
From a purely numerical standpoint, politicians have to make appeals to the millions of people still considered the middle class, but the the Republican presidential nominee and the President tread these boards lightly. Both agree that this group of citizens are the backbone of American society and acknowledge wanting to fight for it. But they do so without acknowledging that it has been shrinking for the last thirty years, and with it, the chances for America to find itself grow stronger rather than weaker. Romney simply does not have a policy for the middle class, apparently adhering to a sort of trickle down theory that has not worked in the past (which goes something like, 'if we let the wealthy job creators have more tax cuts and freedom to run a corporation any way they wish, they will give the millions below them jobs'). Obama acknowledges frequently that it's wrong that the elites can live by 'a different set of rules', but his record on fixing this is poor (admittedly in part because of an obstinate congress), and his plan for dealing with this in his prospective second term is currently more platitudes. For the benefit of the 1% and no one else, the essential pillars of the system that has shrunk the middle class over the past three decades remains in place.
This is certainly not the only pressing issue facing America at the moment, but energy policy and its unquestionably closely-related cousin environmental reform is the true third rail, as both candidates records on this are even worse. Both pay lip service, make meagre nods or promises regarding investments into green energy, and then let the oil and gas industry dictate actual policy (and receive billions in corporate tax breaks). The more global, long-term, and all encompassing an issue is, the less attention it gets in politics (and therefore in the coverage of politics as well). This is because an open and complex discussion of such issues can quickly clash with the goals of the so-called pillar system mentioned above.
President Obama has been a good enough president for the hand he was dealt when entering office, but that's not enough to save the United States from its own bloated, class-divided ruin. If this was a medieval society, he would be the temporary king, trying to give back to the peasants, handcuffed to the demands of the ridiculously powerful nobility (which could be considered the 1%, and while they are incensed at their vilification over the last few years, when that percentage of people own 40% of the nation's wealth, their money and power should be able to drown out the unruly cries of the plebes).
While economic issues almost always come first in a bad economy, to blame the sitting President is an extremely narrow minded position. Bush II can hardly be solely blamed for the 2008 financial meltdown, as many of the regulation-loosening policies were put in place before he entered office in 2001. Likewise, Obama has only so many tool available to him to fix a problem in four years that has been growing for decades. 'Weather the storm' is not a particularly inspiring perspective, but that's essentially what the Obama administration has tried to do. Wait it out, since what goes down must come up (uh...right?). Not an easy task when much of the world remains in a recession, the Euro is constantly in danger, and even growth in China is slowing.
But even if he gets a bit of a pass on the economy, there are still many legitimate concerns regarding Obama's tenure. Guantanamo Bay is still operating. He signed a law allowing him to indefinitely detention of Americans suspected of terrorism and terror-related activities without trial. The Financial Reform Bill is toothless, in part because it is largely unwritten, and the sections that are completed were done so by financial industry lobbyists. Nothing remotely resembling an energy bill or policy (pushing green energy while expanding offshore drilling is rather schizophrenic). No attempt at reforming gun control laws, even after a series of violent shootings.
Even his successes have to be put into proper context. Obamacare is a gift to the health insurance industry first, and socialized medicine for all second. Ending the war in Iraq and shrinking the war in Afghanistan is fraught with danger in the short and long terms. Constant instability in the region (Syria, Iran, Pakistan) can quickly erase any sort of gain or political foothold the US is trying to keep in the region. Even killing Bin Laden had the negative effect of damaging ties with Pakistan somewhat (certainly worth it, but an unstable and unruly Pakistan is a dangerous one). Advancement on social issues (ending don't ask, don't tell, pushing for equal pay in the workplace, since somehow that's still a problem) occasionally came at the cost of uneven compromise. This included extending the Bush tax cuts, deepening the ever expanding deficit catastrophe.
But it's become startlingly apparent that this is the best a centre-left president can do. In a nation where the congress tilts centre-right - mainly because the extremely influential corporate sector tilts centre-right - despite a majority of citizens holding centre-left positions, the role of President Obama is to at the very least stem the tide, slow the decay, etc. The idea that a piece of legislation which would reintroduce regulations that could stop giant mergers and break up monopolies, increase income and corporate tax rates to what they were in the fifties, or cut defence spending in half, would pass through both the House of Representatives and the senate is laughable. Too many of these decisions are influenced (which is the most polite word used in modern political language for bribery) by the industries and interests that would have something to lose if these bills passed.
So blame Congress? Certainly. That's where democracy is supposed to reside. The idea being that since it's too easy to have a corrupt and greedy king with all the power, if you could defuse the power over scores of citizens it would be that much harder for corruption to take root.
Well apparently corrupting scores of greedy elected representatives isn't that hard, either. Democracy had always moved forward in embarrassing fits and spurts (only white men with land could vote in eighteenth century elections, which consisted of about - hey, check this out - 1% of the population). And for much of America's history, the power of the wealthy has usually played the lead role in the governing of nation. Wealthy landowners (nobility, really) drafted and signed the Constitution, and this class ran the predominantly agrarian society that was the United States for most of its first hundred years (with the white poor better off than the black slaves, but there was barely any middle class to speak of). And when the country did industrialize. it was overseen by the Robber Barons of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (your Rockefellers, your Morgans). The breaking up of Standard Oil and other monopolies coincided with the rise of unions and laws protecting the average worker from corporate exploitation. Even the banks were taken to task, as, after risky lending and the creation of complex financial instruments brought the nation's economy to its knees (sound familiar?), regulations were put in place to prevent them from repeating these same mistakes.
With this bureaucratic infrastructure in place, the American middle class expanded rapidly, the baby boom did exactly that (boom), and the Civil Rights and Woman's Movements of the 60s finally extended basic rights to all citizens (at least on paper).
This began to crash and burn in the seventies, and the onset of the eighties brought at much more conservative slant policy-wise, in terms of both foreign (the Soviet Union became the Evil Empire again, after years of Detente) and domestic (tax cuts good, social programs bad, hooray trickle down economics). Reagan ran on the platform that government was the problem, which is a bit like a vegetarian trying to get hired as the manager of a steakhouse.
In terms of the news media and the perception of policy and platform, we are certainly mired the world of 1984, or at least the excellent essay by Orwell that preceded it, 'Politics and the English Language'. The power and importance of the public relations industry - the main benefactor of the billions upon billions of dollars that is being spent this election season - was warily predicted by the Englishman as he noted that those involved in politics frequently spoke, "to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".
Ronald Reagan might have been the first actor in the White House, but when it came to offering a sunny disposition and wonderful (albeit impossible) promises of the future, he certainly wasn't the last. Clinton was the Southern boy Rhodes scholar who could connect with anyone. Bush II was the guy you'd want to have a beer with. Obama was the youthful idealistic politician who had the simple task of repairing a broken, miserable country that felt terrible after eight years with the guy they chose to have a beer with.
But these narratives are purely for show. That the president has a magnetic personality - or embodies such empty slogans as 'hope' or 'change' - matters only in terms of whether it helps or hinders the enacting of his policy proposals. But that immediately means little when it becomes apparent that it's money that sways the votes in the halls of power. The mobilization of the populace behind a populist president is essential, and they must engage all major issues with constant and organized vigilance.
Obama has spoken out about corporations that break ever rule and regulation under the sun (from tax laws to environmental impact), and a majority of citizens support him in making changes, but little to nothing has been done in Congress to usher in any measures that could correct this. So far he has only talked big on cracking down on the 1% that 'play by their own set of rules' (in terms of taxation and off-shore bank accounts). It is as if any sort of reforms that would directly affect this small segment of the population is not legislatively possible, which is rather terrifying. If power does not reside in the people, but the few who can place their thumbs on the scales of justice and legislation via elected representatives, is America truly a democracy?
To keep up this facade, only certain issues are permitted to be argued over in the light (when the media is not covering the odd mangled meaningless soundbite as an election-transforming gaffe). And when some of them do indeed touch on important subjects, they are done in a very careful way. In debates, candidates are forced to shoehorn complicated matters into a three minute answers that has to avoid sounding 'wonky' so they don't bore/alienate voters who are uninterested in budget details and the banning of credit default swaps. Pundits dismissed the entire third debate of this election because it was on foreign policy, which apparently Americans don't care about.
Which is disappointing, as a working foreign policy is pretty important in a globalized economy, practically making many facets of it domestic policy (how America engages with China and the Middle East unquestionably affects jobs and growth at home).
Obama has a spotty record with foreign policy. It's less 'fuck you' on the surface (the Bush style), but he's still sending in more military drones over Afghanistan than his predecessor. Sanctions against Iran is only harming the people, not the government in charge. Even the killing of bin Laden involved blowback from Pakistan (and the fact that they did 'invade' that country's airspace really cannot be wholly discounted).
And yet this is all seen as a win in the world of presidential decision making. Certainly it's better than his domestic policy, although what Obama could do there, he did admirably. In terms of community social programs, he has done more to fight poverty since Johnson declared war upon it in the mid-sixties. A democratic hallmark of sorts - as opposed to the not-exactly-Christian Republican position of believing that assisting the poor leads to a culture of dependency and abuse of such services - food stamps and unemployment benefits were strengthened at a time when the country needed it the most.
For those who received such assistance, it was the most 'change' they could 'hope' for. The struggling middle class didn't see much of those things at all in the last four years. Promises made by candidates should typically be taken with a grain of salt, and Obama offered up some incredible ones in 2008. And even if blaming an obstinate congress is taken in consideration, then running on pipe dreams and getting your supporters high off such idealistic naiveté is a different sort of black mark on your record. The last time there had been a democratic President, Congress did it all it could to thwart his plans. Why would Obama assume he would be treated differently? And when you point out that the Democrats had majorities in the house and the senate up until 2010, his record for enacting the platform he ran looks even worse.
In fact, Obama's biggest saving grace this election is the utter shittiness of his opponent's platform, which is so bad Mitt Romney has to be as vague and evasive about it as possible. It's a series of policies which cribs quite a bit from Bush II (although there is little credit given, considering how little people think of the 43rd president and his tenure). More tax cuts (mostly aimed at the wealthy), increased military spending, cuts in health care and social security that won't come into effect for years (which is meant to court seniors votes today, and have the youth pay for such shortsighted pandering tomorrow), and more power and freedom to monolithic corporations. Plus the requisite socially conservative issues (no abortion, no gay marriage) to appeal to the base.
It didn't work last time, and that was only four years ago.
The lesser of two evils is a terrible perspective on a presidential election - and does a disservice to both candidates - but if we're stuck wallowing in quick, superficial cliches to describe the current state of American politics (thanks in part to electoral public relations), we'll work with what we have, and what message will spread the most effectively.
(this is in part why a third party remains an obscurity in the United States. The citizen who would prefer to vote for a further left or right party cannot risk throwing their vote away in case their ideological opponent - even one of that is a watered down version of what would be a true opposite (example: A Green Party supporter would vote for Obama because he would be at least better than a conservative like Romney) - might then win. Even progressives disillusioned with Obama - former Democratic strategist Matt Stoller recently wrote a scathing attack on the president on Salon's website - are only advising third party voting in non-swing states)
It's frustrating because I believe that Obama desperately wants to do the right thing. There is a tendency in the criticism of the president to affix his necessary compromises to representing his actual character and position upon the issue, as if he wanted a watered down financial reform bill (he praised it when it passed, yes, but that's because something is better than nothing, and for far too often in this partisan atmosphere, nothing was always a possibility). I believe that he was genuinely dejected when his political opponents on the right voted against practically every major piece of legislation his party introduced into the senate, even after attempting to find a compromise. That his upbringing and experiences in adulthood makes him more adept at understanding the plights and needs of the average American than most politicians (and certainly more than Mitt Romney).
But a rags-to-riches narrative and soaring rhetoric does not a strong country make. Perhaps this election is nothing more than a referendum on America's disillusionment on just how much they expected Obama to get done. Which means they have to weigh that against the more hypothetical Romney presidency. And according to pollsters, the only relevant people to make this decision when they vote live in a handful of counties in Ohio. Outside of these areas, the decisions - and the division - is set in stone.
It's an apt metaphor for the plight of contemporary America political culture as well. So much is predictable, sluggish and entrenched, and change appears to come in very small pockets.
It's not what Obama ran on in 2008, but it's what he's stuck with in 2012. He's certainly the better choice by default, and despite the polls in the aforementioned Ohio counties as deadlocked, I believe he will pull out a victory. Of course, only in sports is a win only a win. In politics it truly is the very beginning, especially if you are a man who genuinely seeks to reverse the flagging fortunes of all Americans.
A second Obama term is what America needs. Especially when one considers that it’s in no condition to get the President it simply wants.
Popular Goes the Weasel
Opening note that might be of some relevance: Carl Wilson’s musing about taste in of Let’s Talk About Love, from the album review series 33 1/3 initially inspired some of the following:
Okay, I throw a lot of my time/interest into the consumption of music and music culture (which I would say includes listening to the music, reading about musical artists, discussing artists with others – both in person and over the ‘net – and even writing about music). I’d say the same about literature and literary culture, and film and film culture. This means that I have a wider and more in-depth palette than others when it comes to these topics (listen to Comets on Fire, read Trout Fishing in America, and watch The Third Man!). But do I have a ‘better’ palette/taste? More ‘high brow’? I actually don’t see the need to use such hierarchical terms (in fact, even my usage of ‘in-depth’ could be seen as using a word that suggests ‘better’). In terms of music, I would say that people are at the very least ‘missing an opportunity’ to listen to a wider spectrum of artists and genres they just might like, but so be it. If the radio – typically the symbol of middle of the road, Top-40 cookie-cutter music being absorbed passively – is good enough for most people, that’s their business.
And this might sound hyper-democratic and perhaps a touch condescending, but it’s the truth and I know it because I’ve been on the other side of this fence when it comes to other sorts of hobbies or pastimes.
Take cooking. Yes, eating is a basic human necessity, but cooking with a more recreational focus is a multibillion dollar industry that people spend hours on in their free time. The act of buying certain foods, preparing them (by following the recipe in one of their many cookbooks to a t, or playfully deviating from it), and then properly monitoring three stoves and maybe an oven full of bits of the meal brings people joy, even before the first morsel touches their – or their dining companions’ – tongues.
Not me. I don’t care. Frozen pizzas. Great, just toss it in the oven and take it out later. Ramen noodles. Dump the block of dry noodles, soup mix, and dried veggie chunks into boiling water and that’s good enough for me. Of course I make sure I eat healthy, but that level of preparation consists of washing an apple, peeling a banana, or chopping up green pepper into slices. Nice and simple.
Am I missing something by not making only slightly more complicated and much more tasty meals? Of course, and I acknowledge that it won’t take much to move me out of my typical routines of the dependable and not-very-adventurous, but exploring that avenue is not an interest of mine.
Do I occasionally try something amazing that a friend who does like cooking might prepare (just as a not-very-big-music-fan might hear DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… from a music fan friend and like it), listen to them tell me that it’s easy to make and that I should try to cook it, to which I say I’d consider it and then do nothing? You bet I do that. It’s just not something I’m motivated to do. Sure the food might have been great, but I can go right back to my cheap noodles no problem.
Branching out and cooking is always an option, not too hard at all, and maybe I will make the odd interesting dish – just like a not-very-big-music-fan might like one album from Talking Heads or Grizzly Bear – but it’s not going to necessarily lead to a widening of the scope of my palette.
It’s a matter of where I’ve put the priorities and interests in my life.
I can use shopping as another example. I’m happy with the rush in, try on one thing and bolt. Is there something in another store that might suit me better? Who cares, what I’m trying on right now isn’t hideously neon or cutting off my circulation. Good enough, let me get my wallet.
Or cars. If it doesn’t look, smell, or drive like an absolute turd, then it passes the muster.
In all these respects, I have taste that’s so middle of the road that anyone who has even a modicum of interest in cooking, fashion, or automobiles will look at me with rolling eyes. Just what I might do when someone tells me that they really like the music of Celine Dion, Black Eyed Peas, or Nickelback (and there are people like that out there. Millions, in fact, if record sales are certainly something to go by).
Is it because that there is a difference in that what I am interested in – music, literature – is a wholly less necessary endeavour than compared to what I am not – eating, clothing, transport – that there is a different dialogue given to it?
Why is there such condescension given to people who have ‘bad taste’ when it comes to art and culture, and much, much less with other things that have practically become pastimes in the developed world, like eating and wearing clothes? Because art and culture is more disposable? That there is a quality to it beyond, ‘well, we need this to survive, so whether we fancy it up a bit with coriander or a well designed collar doesn’t matter as much’? Advancing technology also plays a factor here, as the basic necessities have become necessities with benefits for a much wider spectrum of people than in the past.
But you know what all four of these fields – culture, cooking, clothing, automobiles – have in common? The experts, connoisseurs, and critics all agree that most of what everyone else in these fields experience and embrace is generally mediocre, and that it’s their loss.
It’s a vague assertion, and you could find many reasons as to why in more detail and with stronger research than my own personal explanation (‘I don’t care that much’), but at the same time it should be noted that mediocre culture is quite close proximity-wise – conceptually and logically – to actually good culture. At the multiplex there might be ten films playing, and eight of them are most likely derivative half-boiled poop. But then there will be two interesting, engaging, well thought out ones. Same with television. One channel might have ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Louie’, but then you start surfing and it’s like everything else is an unremarkable detective program or a terribly annoying reality show (where much of the attraction is the schadenfreude experience).
Music’s even harder, since it doesn’t make nearly the same amount of money as it used to, collapsing the promotional arm of the record industry into a white dwarf. Whatever you might hear on the radio is meant to be as inoffensive and bland as possible because that’s what’s less likely to have people turn the dial. Large media corporations own the artists and the radio stations and have agreements with a wealth of other companies that advertise on the radio or sponsor aspects of the artist’s tour or other projects like a clothing line or fragrance (one can say this quite honestly now: I love music, so I don’t listen to the radio).
The internet has become a wonderful place to find great new music, but it requires a bit of searching. There’s a lot more effort required on your behalf than just turning a dial and not being deaf.
And to put it in proper context, that popular culture is mostly mediocre is an extremely small and insignificant problem compared to other contemporary global concerns (does this go without saying? As a culprit myself of writing and talking for hours about wonderful and not-so-wonderful aspect of culture, I’m occasionally conflicted with not devoting my time to other legitimate societal concerns).
But if it is going to take up people’s time, effort, and energy – even as a leisure activity for most and a profession for some – shouldn’t the culture be as good as possible?
Perhaps this is what the critics and experts hope to be guarding: A kind of consensus that goes beyond the mere quantitative of tickets and copies sold.
And with this justification comes dogma. Both best and worst by a panel of particular voters reveal a democratic process taken too often to be ironclad consensus. If top ten (or one hundred, or five hundred) lists are looked at as loose guides they could fun and informative, and perhaps turn casual listeners into fans (‘one of us! One of us!’).
But, not unlike other institutions that start off with the best intentions at heart, rigid adherence to the style (‘we’re right’) and content (‘and this is what we say is right’) can lead schism-level problems. Out of some very general observations come two kneejerk unfair assumptions:
- that all modern culture which is popular isn’t very good.
- that popular culture was better in the past.
These opinions are closely related, and many people who push forth such opinions are really doing a disservice to their own cultural experiences (by believing that there is little culture out there that is worthwhile, it’s less likely they’ll take risks to try and find it) and the notion of culture in the past (by believing things were better in the past, you typically remember only the good stuff and forget the heaps of crap that existed alongside the good stuff whenever this past ‘golden age’ is recollected).
Categorization of every sort (from lists to outright dismissals) is meant to save time via the creation of an organized set of rules and regulations. Science sensibly has a much more testable and applicable form of categorization (ground in the scientific method), but cultural categorization also borrows the idea that expert should be trusted above the novice (the title of ‘Doctor’ lends weight to your claims).
In ‘culture’ the problem – a term used loosely here - is the idea of who the elites are and how they apparently decide for everyone else. And you can barely get very far in these conversations because ‘elite’ has become the nastiest of terms for something that is good.
Moreover, the supposed elite consensus can create an extremely high expectation for the particular bits of culture it effusively praises.
Take the frequently asserted best film of all time, Citizen Kane (although it has been dethroned recently by Vertigo on the ‘elitist of elitist’ film list, the ‘Sight and Sound’ Magazine poll). If you're about to watch writer-director-actor Orson Welles’ masterpiece for the first time, it's probably impossible for you to have not come across the idea that it's constantly considered the greatest film of all time. This label has become so ingrained with the seventy one year old film that it can't help but affect your overall impression. Such a title means this film better be pretty damn good, which already means the film has an uphill battle to impress you. You're putting up every thrill, laugh, and cry you've had at the movies against this. Citizen Kane better do all those thing and better. And it won't, but really, it can't. No film can. Or more accurately, no piece of art that is called 'among the greatest ever' is going to get a hugely positive reaction from everyone, critics and non-critics included. Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Sergeant Pepper, and The Wire are going to bore, confuse, or irritate some people.
What can you say about Citizen Kane that would make it appealing to the current generation, when it was originally shown to their great-grandparents? How much can you divest it from the time it was made? How much should you divest it from the time it was made? Is it well written, or is it well written for 1941? Is it well acted, or is it well acted before Brando popularized method acting? Is the photography and editing groundbreaking, or just ‘old looking’?
The idea is that as own acquires a greater knowledge of culture you will appreciate the work of artistic pioneers whose ideas and techniques we now take for granted. And no doubt that in the future certain qualities in contemporary films we find unique and refreshingly original will appear mundane and painfully obvious. In our postmodern culture - which cannibalizes the past in a more thorough and self-aware process than ever before – it's the successful tweaking of cliches that will be regarded as a sort of definition of current trends and outlooks that receives both critical and commercial attention. Take Superhero films. Good ones like this summer's blockbuster The Avengers hide the strings of archetype and cliché effectively. Even if they run down a checklist of qualities as old as The Iliad and The Odyssey (a noble quest, where action beats replace chapter and scene breaks), you're fooled into seeing it again for the first time. The superhero arriving just in the nick of time to stop the villain from shooting the helpless citizen, for example (in The Avengers, literally getting in the way of the bullet or deflecting the gun at the last second). If enough well crafted scenes lead up to these moments, we conveniently forget the impossibility and overuse of the cliché.
Subverting clichés while using them in still recognizable forms (a thoroughly postmodern idea) has become commonplace. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man character does this faultlessly, which is one of the reasons why the Iron Man films are so successful. He is cynical towards the qualities that we find in a traditional hero, while ultimately embodying these traits (bravery, sacrifice, humility).
Archetypal stories from the past that had unbelievable and fantastical scenes are called myths. But we accept this suspension of disbelief within the story. We don't call the story of Ulysses ridiculous or impossible to take seriously because he at one point fights a Cyclops, a creature that doesn't exist.
Director Christopher Nolan is the master of the myth's reinvention, by grounding it in a slightly more realistic fashion. In The Dark Knight he has the Joker execute impossible criminal plots that - even if the slightest thing goes wrong, or happens a couple seconds before or after it's intended - really have no chance of succeeding. But because of the acting, dialogue, and narrative pacing surrounding these schemes, we ignore these discrepancies and embrace this new Rube-Goldberg-esque layer of suspension-of-disbelief.
This constant re-invention and re-framing is essential for critical acclaim, which - regardless of momentary popularity - can carry the piece of culture in question into an iconic representation of the time in which it was created.
Speaking of which, let's talk about The Beatles. For seven years (1963-1970), The Fab Four were simultaneously the most popular and most restlessly experimental, critically acclaimed musical act in the world. This is no small feat, and it has not yet been equaled. And in a way The Beatles themselves created the hipster, critical archetype by following it's narrative trajectory.
They started out imitating the more popular songs at the time, learned the songwriting formula themselves, perfected it, and then broke the barriers of what constituted a 'pop' song formula. Similarly, I do not criticize pop culture because I’m a snide, snooty hipster who automatically hates whatever’s popular. It’s because I OD’d on 'the popular formula’ at such a young age that I need to find newer and weirder things to excite and entertain me. The Beatles wrote ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ to feed their cultural appetites, I just had to listen to the song to feed mine.
The current pantheon of mainstream Top 40 musical culture includes young attractive pop singers, non (or faux) controversial hip hop artists, a smattering of R&B divas, and the odd easy listening, adult contemporary crooner. It’s not so much that you’ve heard it all before, but a great much of it is an oversimplified and filtered combination of what has come out of the musical fringes in the last twenty years (the biggest change in music production in the last twenty years: music made via computer has gone from the exception to the rule).
Even so called ‘indie-rock’ is susceptible to this formula of diminishing returns. Guitar-clutchers like Zac Brown, Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes, Yukon Blonde, and Lumineers all sound like pale imitations of what I became overly familiar with in my youth, and without that Elliot Smith flair or fragility. And it wasn’t like I had to gorge on Hootie and the Blowfish to now see the same formula in the bands listed above. Even in the world hard(er) rock, Pearl Jam imitators littered the nineties landscape and continue to do so today.
In some ways it’s The Beatles fault for doing many, many things very, very well. Three late-period Beatles songs – ‘Get Back’, ‘Two of Us’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’ – are practically the blueprints for the entire indie-rock-or-folk-emo-singer-songwriter canon.
But hey, if you aren’t overly familiar with The Beatles output beyond the #1 collection, certainly its derivatives will seem fresh. People who are more ‘weekend culturalists’ haven’t yet built up the immunity to the Top 40 sound, and that’s absolutely fine. Good on them for having other things to do and can be entertained by stuff that doesn’t require much searching for and experiencing with an attention level of 100%.
And perhaps it sounds like I’m disparaging them, but I’m really not.
They can make do with x amount of pop culture, meanwhile I/we need x, y, and z (and sometimes y and z are there just to offer a marked contrast to x).
The creation of popular culture involves the entertainment industry throwing music, television, and movies at an audience and seeing what sticks (meaning money is made, from album, ticket, or advertising sales). Now some of what they throw has tons of market research behind it, or is building on a previous popular bit of culture and so they can be reasonably sure that what they’re launching is going to work, but it’s never guaranteed.
Taking what’s entertaining to a small group of people and spreading it like a happy plague across the land takes hard work, timing, luck, and an unwillingness to consider whether doing so is actually a good idea.
To mitigate risk, you stick to proven successful formulas, altering them only slightly as conditions demand. It’s the basis for the scientific method, military strategy, and many other concepts that are much more important than selling someone an MP3 (now more likely an M4A).
And in contemporary postmodern culture, formula can be seen in unlikely places. In a long New Yorker article on Bruce Springsteen by David Reminck (late July 2012), he notes how not spontaneous the show is, as it includes teleprompters for the entire band (lyrics and key changes). Also:
“Springsteen rehearses deliberately, working out all the spontaneous-seeming moves and postures: the solemn lowered head and raised fist, the hoisted talismanic Fender, the between-songs patter, the look of exultation in a single spotlight that he will enact in front of an audience. (“It’s theatre, you know,” he tells me later. “I’m a theatrical performer. I’m whispering in your ear, and you’re dreaming my dreams, and then I’m getting a feeling for yours. I’ve been doing that for forty years.”) Springsteen has to do so much—lead the band, pace the show, sing, play guitar, command the audience, project to every corner of the hall, including the seats behind the stage—that to wing it completely is asking for disaster.” (Remnick, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/07/30/120730 fa_fact_remnick#ixzz21mWa51nd)
And while this doesn’t bother me at all – legendary bands with deep catalogues and a devoted fanbase need all the help they can get to meet expectations, and it’s not like they’re phoning it in energy-wise – there is something to be said about courting that possible disaster mentioned. Maybe that means you can’t really play in an arena, since possibly pissing off tens of thousands of people by improvising awkwardly too often or making fucked up noises for minutes on end with electronic doo-hickeys and near broken guitars will keep people away in the future, but there’s also the possibility of total enrapture when you do make it all work. And when it works, when everyone gets off on a moment that was been strived for by the band and audience (with no guarantee it would work), it’s better than a pre-planned raised fist or false ending.
One of the best qualities of punk is that sometimes it sounded like shit. Some of The Sex Pistols’ shows were a poor sounding mess that ended after the third song. And sometimes they sounded glorious (hell, sometimes it sounded glorious because it was a poor sounding mess).
I’ve never seen a Nirvana show, but reading both fan and critic views on fan sites, you get the impression that half the time it didn’t go well, that the chances of seeing a good Nirvana show was 50%, dependent on factors such as the sobriety of the bassist, and the sobriety and mood of the singer-guitarist (drummer Dave Grohl seemed to be completely dependable, which might explain why the band hit it big with him, and definitely explains his solo career, which is ‘completely dependable’). Now that figure of 50% kind of sucks if you had a chance to go and see Nirvana live. From my standpoint as a critic/fan/writer looking back, I can say that this is a marvelous symbol of the unpredictability, instability and spontaneity of this band and genres such as punk and grunge. From someone who just saw the band stink it up in the Amsterdam Paradiso in 1991, it’s just a waste of an evening.
Trying to jam, or trying a fucked up new or old song (with the possibility of forgetting chords or lyrics), or suddenly smashing your guitar because the moment’s caught you, can increase the chances of disaster, ultimately ruining the rest of the song and/or show. But ideally some of these risks pay off and the audience can tell this.
Computers make performing all the easier, with loops of riffs and bass and drum lines able to be called up with a push of the button. If there’s a live band, they can play along with it, so it looks real and sounds more rich and full.
And that’s not necessarily something to shake your head at. In fact, in some instances, an electronic duo (say, Daft Punk) or single person (Four Tet, Girl Talk) hunched over a computer might be taking more risks than a supposed ‘live’ band. At least when one guy in a band screws up it can be covered by others. One wrong button press on a laptop for Four Tet and everything can go dead.
And while the following is simply a bit more food for thought when it comes to popular culture, would you like to know the highest position on the billboard Top 200 for a Four Tet album?
One hundred and fifty seven.
Is Beauty really Skin Deep?
This might come off as a cruel, reductionist essay about the more baser aspects of how people react to beauty in the modern world. In trying to be objective and honest, it might reveal some harsh truths (or apparent truths, which is sometimes what we have to settle for even as we try for objectivity) about attractive and unattractive people, and everyone in-between these slightly subjective extremes. Beauty may ultimately be in the eye of the beholder, but there’s a very small pool of physical qualities that almost everyone has consensus on when it comes to what beauty is, and that’s an important acknowledgement to make, since a lot of human behavior revolves around it.
Second Opening Note:
(is it particularly ominous if you need two opening notes?)
On the matter of Men and/or/versus Women:
When trying to woo a mate, male birds like peacocks and the Birds of Paradise strut and display their ornate and detailed feathers and plumage. The more extravagant or enticing, the better the chance of a female being impressed enough to choose him. Male rams fight by violently butting heads, the victor receiving a harem of females to breed with, who follow him everywhere.
In the animal kingdom, this is evolution at its finest. In human society, its equivalent is superficial and slightly chauvinistic. Nowadays the idea that men pursue women more aggressively and largely for sex (at least at first) than women pursuing men in the same way for the same goal has become so ingrained in our understanding of human relationships that it’s left as fodder for standup comedians. Both sexes try to use this acknowledgment to their advantage, each trying to woo the most attractive and able (now measured not in brute strength, but purchasing power), and settling for less when they must.
In addition, with men occupying more positions of wealth and power, they are the ones who find themselves with the opportunity to attract women they find attractive with gifts and security, not unlike the peacock and his plumage.
For the benefit of humanity at large, we are in the long process of excising aspects of these harsher biological traits by giving women as much autonomy as men, but there is certainly a long way to go. A successful woman who exhibits the same more aggressive qualities of a male might be derisively labeled a ‘man-eater’ or, if she pursues a younger man (not unlike older men pursuing younger women), a ‘cougar’.
While we try for equality it should also be noted that we suppress these biological impulses entirely at our peril. We believe in the importance of equality, but we are still animals that need little more than to satisfy our basic urges to survive. Is this acknowledgment and the possible ramifications – much more than the cliché ‘men hunt, women gather’ – fair? ‘Fair’ is an interesting term here, since it doesn’t exist at all in nature and is practically anti-evolutionary (a bird born with a longer beak or wider wingspan than its brethren has an advantage that could eventually spell the other’s doom, which isn’t ‘fair’). Fair also has little to do with the fact that one might grow up (evolve) into an attractive person and reap the benefits without much effort on their behalf. Strangely, it also has a secondary meaning of attractiveness itself.
Sure it’d a lousy intro question (reminder: Is Beauty Really Skin Deep?), but I’m seriously wondering about the comparison between models who go to great lengths – both time consuming and expensive – to earn a living based on their appearance, and the majority of people who go to great lengths – both time consuming and expensive – to earn a living based on their education.
If you hit the gym every day for hours and sit in makeup chairs for long periods of time and jet around the world to photo shoots, how different is it from studying for hours, sitting in an office chair for long periods of time, and jetting around the world to conferences?
One might cry foul immediately as to societal worth, saying a doctor – or even a cubicle worker – contributes more to society than a model, but even that’s not clear cut. Many professions that have little societal worth – modeling, professional athletics, TV/film/music industry – are among the highest paid, but also have an extensive support staff underneath dependent on the very few at the top making an exorbitant salary. More importantly, there are hierarchies in the leisure industry, just as there are in most industries. Most models don’t make Gisele Bundchen money, just as most businesspeople don’t make Warren Buffett money. And in terms of suddenly becoming obsolete or washed, while models and athletes are particularly vulnerable to this in a more natural way (the aging process), anyone can find themselves out of a job if they cannot adapt to new ways of doing business. Going back to school (for an M.A., perhaps) is an enhancer the same way plastic surgery or certain performance drugs are.
And while one might find the lavishing of riches upon the employees of the leisure industry immoral – especially considering the level of poverty that exists both in the developed and developing worlds – it’s also rather hard to claim that, in the last few decades, global business has taken the high road. If we compare a model who gives a sizable chunk of his or her earnings to charity, with some of the bankers who blew up the economy, who has done more for society?
In an odd way, that there is a place for models in this world reinforces the ability – for better and for worse – to a form of ingrained elitism that is, in this particular respect, appearance-based. People who are born with particular skills or characteristics – whether it is an ability to crunch number rapidly or have high cheekbones – naturally have an edge in a society that places value on such skills or characteristics.
This is a troubling fact in meritocratic system, where your demonstrative abilities are meant to dictate what you are able to accomplish. But why is there such a disconnect between one’s natural ability to speak and debate well, write a persuasive article well, create a antiviral drug well, that much different from looking ‘well’? All of these things take practice, yes, even looking ‘well’.
Are we going to trot out a bias that models are less intelligent than people who may have gotten college and university degrees? The vast expansion of college/university enrollment in the last five to six decades means standards have certainly lowered.
On top of this, models learn on the job the same way anyone else does. After a bit of work, you do build a repertoire of skills that you can use for the next job. You become better attuned to makeup and fashion the way someone else learns how to use a ratchet set or Microsoft Excel. Are we to be upset or disappointed that they might not know who their local political representative is, or snippets of even the most recent history? Well surveys have shown that most people do pretty poorly when it comes to that type of knowledge, regardless of whether they collect their paycheque by being photographed in dresses, suits, or nothing at all.
But this issue – if we can call it that – certainly does not begin and end with the people that make money directly from the fashion industry. Being physically attractive can change absolutely everything for how a person is treated and what they can accomplish. Consequently, there is a bias about beauty the same way there is a bias about graduates from ivy leagues schools. Undeserving, lucky, born into it.
The advantages that the people who are physically attractive receive must be weighed against the assumptions that are made about people who look attractive for a living. They are given more positive attention in public, are more likely to be helped when they require it, are given more professional and personal opportunities, and receive more attention from the opposite sex, which itself can mean almost immediate rise in living standards (here I will acknowledge that I am dressing up the fact that rich people of both sexes (but mostly men) lavish gifts and attention on attractive people so that they can have sex with them (or increase the chances)). On the flip side of this, there is the general assumption that these people don’t deserve these advantages because they have not earned them, since their physical appearance was largely the result of genes and chance and not hard work. It should be noted that this opinion can be held by those who still go out of their way to be extra polite and deferential to attractive people.
It is as if the ‘dumb’ stereotype is more easily accepted and not seen as an unfair stereotype that must be stamped out because of the advantages attractive people receive in the first place. As if their ‘payment’ – the balance, perhaps – for their benefits is that people will always think less of them behind their backs.
Looks Like Teen Spirit
When you realize you’re attractive, does your personality change or develop in a particular way? The assumption is that around puberty and young people start paying attention to those they find physically attractive, there is the realization that there is power in one’s appearance, even in the most basic fashion (people give you more attention, are willing to do things for you). I would be remiss to ignore the basic practical example that this can entail for youth. Attractive people are asked out on dates, are the centre of attention from the more popular cliques (and the envy of those not part of these cliques), and can more easily have favours be done for them, including the old cliché (which is a cliche for a reason, because it happens) of getting others to do your school work for you.
A wealth of other factors about how one was (and is) raised at this point in a teenager’s life has to be looked at to see how one might deal with this increased attention. Not only actual intelligence, but the values imposed by their parents, guardians and chosen social circle. These complicated qualities define how they will react to all forms of future interaction, including those based on their exterior appearance.
Once again, there are no guarantees in any way, shape or form that a person will act in a particular fashion because of their appearance. When it comes to human behavior, ‘likely’ or ‘most of the time’ is as close as we can come to making conclusions.
The younger a person finds himself or herself the object of attention (and/or affection), the more it will shape how they feel about beauty and its power.
While a personality cannot exactly be ‘stunted’, the term ‘building character’ is an apt one to describe scenarios that play a vital role in helping youth and young adults understand the realities of life.
‘Sheltered’ people are less likely to find themselves in difficult situations that teach them to go without, explore alternatives, or accept the fact often situations don’t work out the way you’d like them to. And ‘sheltered’ here can mean overprotective parents, a wealthy family, as well as being found attractive, for reasons listed earlier. Being given seemingly unconditional attention and concern softens and makes infrequent the blows that life deals you.
Now obviously how a person deals with life’s challenges is not strictly based on how they look, or even how they were raised to consider the impact of their appearance. Just as important – and while it would be nice to say more important, it’s not necessarily true – is the matter of intelligence. A person’s physical appearance says nothing as to the ability of the brain inside their head.
Is it possible that a supermodel could have chosen to go to university and over the course of a decade study to become a successful molecular biologist? Certainly.
But just as physical attractiveness is chemical chance, so too is intellectual capacity, and receiving a both of those aces in your genetic hand is quite the long shot. In fact – to extend the poker analogy – it’s probably important to note that it’s the case that most people get three-eight off-suit. Statistically, there are more stupid unattractive people than stupid attractive people. I concede right away that one would be hard pressed to find a crueler statement that wasn’t filled with genuine bigotry and hatred. It’s not so much unspoken, but exists in the shadows, always there.
Additionally, personality traits beyond intelligence can affect said supermodel and her desire to examine proteins under a microscope. Perseverance and a drive to constantly work hard is required, and if we’re talking about someone who is offered the easier path of modeling or accepting the gifts and advances of a wealthy paramour, the chances of them willing to spend hours in the library years on end begin to lower. Once again, this is not implying that physical attractiveness is linked with laziness, but rather that people in general will frequently choose the easier route over the hard one, the choice that offers definite short term rewards over indefinite long term ones.
To be seen as beautiful and smart means overcoming the stereotype that the latter was achieved in part because of the former, which is stereotypically seen as not deserving of much respect at all (even though it automatically receives very valuable forms of respect).
The purpose of this article is not to ‘pity the poor attractive person, who in their heart is saddened by the knowledge that their gains may be slightly ill-gotten’. That’s not going to fly, nor should it. One still has the power to choose how to react and engage with the world around them, and that means they are responsible for – if not how people initially and superficially react to them – every moment after that first meeting. Prejudice and stereotypes can come in many forms, and typically the only way to slowly tear them down is to prove that they are not always the case at every opportunity one can get.
While beauty may be skin deep, all beautiful people certainly are not as shallow. Sometimes it’s important to simply acknowledge that these are some of the assumptions and thoughts going through people’s heads as they go about their day, and that they do a disservice to the other person they see or interact with and themselves.
The challenge is to give everyone the same amount of genuine respect and understanding, even as we find ourselves taken by the exterior characteristics of some of the people around us. If the door seems to swing both ways for the beautiful (more immediate attention, less genuine respect), perhaps its time to take it off its hinges and stare a bit deeper.
“The arc of the moral universe is nonsensical, and so it bends towards might.”
The turning of a MLK phrase
wonder how many people who prattle on in their year-in-reviews look back
to their previous one, and then see how their observations – not
necessarily predictions – stack up alongside what happened this year.
“So what does all this mean? At this point, not much. It’s like a joke with a near interminable pause before the punch line. An overdose of information and a dearth of action. All talking, no walking.”
Well, 2011 saw to it that such unruly, uncertain potential found an outlet. And it didn’t take long. In January we had the revolt in Tunisia, and Egypt soon followed. Quite quickly it took on the name, The Arab Spring. It’s such a glowing title (and y’know, never mind that most of the fireworks – save for Libya’s slow burn – occurred in the winter) that most people applied to it with fully understanding what 1968’s Prague Spring actually entailed.
When leader Alexander Dubcek introduced basic freedoms (speech, press, travel) back to Communist Czechoslovakia in January 1968, it was a heady, pro-West utopia that lasted for eight months, until the Soviets sent troops to invade the country and ‘return’ Czechoslovakia to its ‘communist’ state. Easy come, easy go, the people suffer.
The recent 2011 revolts seems a like triumph for the people of these nations (at first, anyway), and for democracy itself, but much of the Western leaders found themselves in the rather awkward position of burning the dictators they had for so long supported (constantly: Mubarak and Ben Ali; recently: Gaddafi). So when in preliminary elections Islamist parties take a big chunk of the vote, one can’t exactly be surprised, since the public is repudiating the slightly-more-secular-Western-friendly scourges that brutalized them for so long. The exact form of the relationship between these countries (and the handful of others where violent revolts continue, like in Syria and Yemen) and the West remains to be seen, but it’s going to be one of resentful dependence rather than independence.
But this is only because the world is, in some rather important ways, becoming the west – or at least the principles that have governed it for decades. Even if China claims to be communist, it became a superpower by serving capitalism, and if one considers that most of the billionaires in that nation are party members, the precepts of Marx rings pretty hollow. And jailing political dissidents and artists isn’t really in line with anything that the people and governments west, east, north, or south should quietly tolerate. Am I hypocrite for decrying this while typing on a Mac that was mostly like manufactured in Guangzhou?
So if the rest of the world is angling for western-style freedom, what are we in the West doing these days?
Well, the first flashes of populist anger in North America and Europe took place over sports teams losing and the possibility of window-shattering five finger discounts. In Vancouver and London respectively, the youth took to the streets because the Vancouver Canucks stunk it up in the Stanley Cup, while at least in London their were vestiges of an excuse that this was a reaction against the cut-happy, wealthy-coddling policies of conservative David Cameron (who’s trying to sell the 1984-ish ‘Big Society’ plan on his cash strapped country). So while Canada has to squirm and consider anger management classes while grabbing a broom, at least the UK can at least find a semblance of political purpose behind smashing up stores and stealing cell phones.
So starting in the middle of September, Generation Y (and X leftovers and Baby Boomer entrails) tried to redeem itself with Occupy Wall Street.
Concocted in part by the editor of the anti-corporate magazine Adbusters, the squatting at Zuccotti Park gained attention the more the overreaching arm of the law and media that tried to contain it. This doesn’t necessarily give added weight to the protesters’ rather superficial and utopian demands, but it did create a talking point, which means Obama will use it carefully in his re-election campaign rhetoric.
Anything else? It inspired protests around the world, but no real concrete reforms have come out of the halls of power since the protest was broken up around its two-month anniversary.
It’s tempting to say that it’s the thought that counts, but that old timey thinking died in committee about five years ago. Public organization over the internet doesn’t hold a candle to corporate and political organization, if only because one has a more direct ear to those who make (and therefore can no longer break) the laws.
Probably the ugliest thing that came out of the protests – not only on Wall Street, but similar ones across America – was the seemingly random and completely unnecessary violence of the police, who were filmed multiple times using pepper spray on kneeling, sedentary protesters. Journalist Matt Taibbi sees this militant and dismissive approach by the law as an example of just how far America has fallen when it comes the limits of state power and the rights of the individual. Coupled with Obama approving the indefinite incarceration of suspected al Qaeda supporters without a trial (key word: suspected), one can’t help but feel particularly uneasy of the dark path American freedom and justice is stumbling down (and the President’s a constitutional law professor, for fucks sake!).
If you’re a democratic nation and your strategy for fighting terrorists involve the removal of basic civil rights, it’s safe to say they won. Both the Patriot Act and now the authorization of indefinite detention is a shockingly brazen display of thumbing one’s nose at a hard fought liberties, and it’s all the more hypocritical that is done in the name of ‘defending freedom’ (true Orwellian doublespeak). You should treat the terrorists with much more respect, more justice than they would treat you. That’s proof that you are better than them. Subverting the Geneva convention just because al Qaeda or the Taliban does lowers yourself to their level, and that immediately makes you weaker in the eyes of your own citizens, the rest of the world, and only foster increased hostility from the terrorists, as it’s proof their tactics are working.
But perhaps the world’s most powerful nation is doing the only bureaucratic activities it can actually turn into half-functioning legislation, even if they’re terrible ideas. America’s political system is more broken than even before. That is, unless you’re the one percent, then it’s working pretty well. Corporate influence has become the way of conducting ‘business’ in Washington. The incestuous revolving door of politician-lobbyist-board-member means that the power of the nation resides in the hands of the few. It’s a clique that almost anyone can join, provided you go to the right schools and work hard and bury your conscience and hope for the future in the backyard, or simply uninterruptedly kiss the requisite asses.
It’s gotten to the point where this isn’t even really happening below the surface.
The dysfunction of trying to run on ideology rather than practicality has gone to such ridiculous extremes that almost every citizen in the country and their worth are nothing more than poker chips in the halls of power.
In the waning days of this year, The House Republicans relented from their position of not letting Obama do anything (which has otherwise worked well for them and terrible for the country), and passed a bill extending pay-roll tax cuts and unemployment benefits.
Ideologies can be hierarchical. For present-day conservatives, not letting your opponent get what he or she wants is one, tax-cuts-always-tax-cuts is two, legislation that might help your constituents vote for you next election is a distant third, and doing whatever your financial backers want supersedes everything.
And the lines kind of got crossed over the pay-roll tax cuts. Stopping Obama is good, but by doing so they’re shitting on rules two and three. Do those combined defeat number one? Various Republican leaders/advisers agreed it did, from McCain to Rove. But it wasn’t necessarily because of their desire to help the millions of people out of work, but because they understood that it was bad PR otherwise.
The reasons behind supporting or objecting to pieces of legislation is no longer purely whether it benefits the nation, but rather how it fits into a narrative strategy that is sold every two and four years through corporate-political complex.
‘It looks bad if you do/don’t do this’, is the nebulous comment pundits, writers, and professional Beltway-Bots, but it’s never clear who this looks bad to.
Is it the American public? Perhaps, since such commentary is usually followed by the reminder that the approval rating of congress has plummeting further, hitting record lows.
But this would suggest then that the behaviour of congress is dependent on the support of the American public. Which at first seems like a given, but if one looks at the major pieces of legislation passed for the last several years – bridging several Democrat and Republican administrations and congressional majorities – you would be hard pressed to find a law that benefits the bulk of the citizens first and the special interests and the wealthy second.
At least a floundering America has a sympathetic skint friend across the pond. The flailing of the Euro continues, with a shrinking of the amount of countries continuing to use the currency suddenly becoming a best-case scenario, when compared to total collapse. It’s tempting to blame the Greeks, but that’s still one letter off from the true reason: Greed. Too many people wanted something for nothing. An economic system can support a small class of citizen exploiting a larger one (and if the wealthy are careful about it, for quite a long time, too), but there can’t be more exploiters than exploited, and quite quickly in Greece – where income tax was optional, annual government salaries reflected fourteen months of work, and there were bonuses in every sector being given away like candy – it became this untenable situation. And the downside to not only a single continental currency but a global economic system so ridiculously interdependent, is that one crack is enough to make the whole damn dam give way. And these systems – pursuing the latest, most complicated financial instrument –sometimes take on the appearance of a soccer game for seven year olds. A chaotic, haphazard bee lining for the ball without much thought to what it’s doing for the overall game.
So France and Germany are throwing money at the problem and, because they are doing so, feel entitled to tell the other countries what’s what and how’s how, which is really blowing a massive hole in this pan-European feel-goodery that’s been building since the end of the Cold War (except in Russia itself, which doesn’t get to use the title ‘Arab Spring’ for the recent spat of anti-Putin protests, in part because it’s too damn cold).