“Because it’s got electrolytes”

Yesterday morning I woke up, and, for the first time, I participated in the “Black Friday” race to the socioeconomic bottom. There could be no more reproduced image of your typical American capitalist denizen than that of a lower-middle class, minimum wage-earning white male handing over a credit card to a Target employee in his early twenties in order to purchase an iPad. As I walked out of the store I looked down at the box in my hand and thought, “Because it’s got electrolytes.”

Then, last night, I went to see the film Arrival for the second time. The first time I saw it I was alone in the theater, and even surprised the theater employee when I stood up to walk out. She almost dropped her broom when she realized I was there.

I mentioned the film to  a mentor of mine, Nancy Ward, curator of the Artistic License Fair. She had already seen it, she said “It was amazing– a poem.” I couldn’t agree more.

As I walked out of the film the first time I couldn’t help but wonder that, if the film had come out before the election, would it have had any effect on how people voted? At the moment, I can’t point to any evidence to support the notion that the broader American audience is capable of understanding a film like this. My “heart mom,” Lisa Marie Oxenham, said “We may have to accept that people aren’t ready for this kind of film.” However, there is a very striking line in the film. Louise, the protagonist of the film, says to her daughter, “You’re unstoppable.” The little girl, Hannah, responds, “I’m unstoppable.” Inevitability. The ineluctability of the girl’s presence, her significance, should be absolutely arresting to anyone whether or not they are “ready” for her. That is, everyone should recognize Hannah as an image of the inevitable change that our species and the planet will experience. Whether or not we survive that change is anyone’s guess at the moment.

Matt Taibbi wrote an editorial in Rolling Stone about the experience of the surprise Trump win of the presidency for journalists and others in the media. Of course, the film Idiocracy just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary and many have referred to the film this past year. Taibbi points to the film saying that it is “ostensibly a comedy but destined now to be remembered as a horror movie” (Taibbi, 38). He goes on to say that many reporters “found themselves thinking about this film when we [heard] voters saying they were literally incapable of understanding the words coming out of Hillary Clinton’s mouth. ‘When [Trump] talks, I actually understand what he’s saying,’ a young Pennsylvanian” told Taibbi, “‘But, like, when fricking Hillary Clinton talks, it just sounds like a bunch of bullshit.’”

This is, of course reminiscent of the scene in Idiocracy when Joe wakes up after 500 years of cryogenic sleep and is unable to communicate with people. He is “able to understand them. But when he spoke, he sounded pompous and faggy to them.”

It’s a humorous moment, for sure, but when we begin to recognize, further still, our current judicial system in the courtroom scene of Joe’s trial the humor turns to dread, especially considering Trump’s Supreme Court nominees are likely to be as technologically, sociologically, and scientifically illiterate as his executive cabinet is turning out to be.

I’m reminded, also, of something Jim Jefferies says when referencing the distinct repudiation of even the most basic form of critical thought on the part of Trump supporters.

What happens is, he says really simple shit that means nothing, and then fuckin’ dummies…right? If you’ve ever said this sentence, ‘I like him because he’s a straight talker,’ you’re as dumb as shit. Just because someone says something simple that you understand, it doesn’t mean they’re a straight talker…he says ‘I’m gonna make America great again,’ and you’re like, ‘I got every word in that sentence!’

If posts on social media from my Trump-supporting friends are any indication of the sensibilities of the rest of the 42 million Americans that voted for him, then I, along with many others, I’m certain, are greatly concerned, not simply about the way his election has emboldened neofascist groups, or the racist and sexist rhetoric during his campaign speeches, but with the “wave of anti-intellectualism,” to borrow Bill Hicks’ phrase, that has defined the the cultural identity of this country. I will acknowledge that there is always some headline, “Americans are increasingly X,” “Y is on the rise in America,” and so on. Yet, when our federal government, ostensibly directed by an internet-troll, of all things, has vowed to remove itself from the Paris Accords much to the dismay of all of the other COP20 nations, when the Education Secretary does not have a degree in the field of education, etc., it is absolutely alarming when direct parallels can be drawn to the Executive Cabinet in Idiocracy.

Zizek argues that the mechanisms of manufacture of consent are broken, but I think it’s quite the contrary. Those lulling mechanisms– media, tech companies, prime time, advertising agencies, etc. –have done their job so well, that now Americans are statistically unable to distinguish an articulate career politician (for all her failings) from a developmentally stunted schoolyard bully who brags about sexual assault, and the same being true for down-ballot races across the states. Disney, HBO, Netflix, Call of Duty, and UFC have all done their part well to lull the electorate. To quote Zach De La Rocha, “They packed the 9, fired into prime time. The sleeping gas, every home was like Alcatraz…You’re brain dead, you got a fuckin’ bullet in your head.”

I’m conditionally inclined to agree with Taibbi when he and others suggest that identity politics have gotten in the way of a clearer vision of the true issues (climate change, nuclear proliferation, the global refugee crisis, healthcare, and so on), and that “America’s cultural elite [has] trained for so long to think in artificial distinctions like Republicans and Democrats instead of more-natural divisions, like haves and have-nots.” Go figure, Rollings Stone’s editorial board, in its endorsement of Hillary Clinton earlier in the campaign, outright dismissed Bernie Sanders by arguing that these issues were fringe, marginal, but now those very same issues seem a distant utopian future where national dialogues might include such elevated topics. However, I agree, also, that we must be careful not to level blame at those who have fought for civil rights and basic cultural and legal representation, for as Melissa Warnke writes in her LA Times editorial “progressivism isn’t a cause divorced from consequence.” Those representations are, predictably, likely to be met with social resistance from other ethnic and cultural groups, but they are still a noble and just cause.

I will likely come back to Arrival in a later post because there is much to be unpacked from the film. As I’ve told all of my friends, it combines three of my favorite elements in narrative: linguistics, aliens, and stunningly gorgeous redheads. Until then, if there’s one theme from the story that I think is worth articulating as clearly as possible, it’s this– we, as a species capable of drastic global consequence, absolutely must raise the level of literacy in all academic fields. We need to “Make America smart again,” said Neil deGrasse Tyson during a spot of the Late Show.

America, in particular, must rediscover the value of intellect rather than disregarding it as elitism or “liberal bias.” As Albert Einstein once warned even as far back as 1934 when addressing the Progressive Education Association, the stakes are too high. “Security of the United States, as for other countries,” he says, “lies only in a satisfactory solution of the world peace problem. Youth must not be allowed to believe that safety can be obtained through political isolation” (Einstein, 57-58). I would go a step further to argue that cultural and economic isolation are equally obstructive. “The spirit of international solidarity should also be strengthened,” Einstein continues, “and chauvinism should be combated as a hindrance to world peace. In schools, history should be used as a means of interpreting progress in civilization, and not for inculcating ideals of imperialistic power and military success.” Education should be valued by a society, it’s the greatest investment in it’s own future that society could ever make as a sort of insurance plan. Much like genes are passed down through biological generations, knowledge should be passed down through the generations to “interpret [the] progress” of society, and the education system is the conduit for that knowledge. Never again should our society tolerate the fact that its electorate was able to vote for a candidate who has promised to “bomb the shit out of” someone in another country without being able to so much as point out where that country is on a map.

And yet, our government attacks, and defunds it’s own education system for the specific purpose of lowering educational standards and privatizing and monetizing schools. To yet again quote Chomsky, at some length because, I think, he brilliantly summarizes the value of public education:

We see it in the attack on public schools. Public schools are based on the principle of solidarity. I no longer have children in school, they’re grown up. But, the principle of solidarity says that I happily pay taxes so that the kid across the street can go to school. That’s normal human emotion. They have to drive that out of people’s heads, ‘I don’t have kids in school, why should I pay taxes. Privatize it,’ and so on. The public education system, all the way from kindergarten to higher education is under severe attack. I mean, that’s one of the jewels of American society. You go back to the ‘golden age’ again, the great growth period in the 50s and 60s. A lot of that is based on free public education…The US is way at the lead of developing extensive public mass education at every level…Now in half the states, most of the funding for public colleges comes from tuition, not from the state. That’s a radical change… In the 1950s, there was a much poorer society than there is today. It could never the less handle, essentially free, mass higher education. Today a much richer society claims it doesn’t have the resources for it. That’s just what’s going on right before our eyes. That’s the general attack on principles that, I mean, not only are they humane, they’re the basis of the prosperity and health of this society.

Again, more on Arrival soon. Until then, as President Not Sure says, “I don’t know, read a book or something.” Just don’t do it in a waffle house.

*Update 12/4/16*

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviewed three women who are directly involved in the fight to protect American public education– former Assistant Secretary of Education, Diane Ravitch, Center for Media and Democracy Executive Director, Lisa Graves, and member of the Detroit Board of Education, Tawanna Simpson. Ravitch brings up an important point, that education voucher systems break “the long history of a separation of church and state because most of the vouchers that are used in the states that now have vouchers are for religious schools. And most of them are not going to — it’s not enough money to go to an elite school or to the best school, it’s usually very, like in the South, it’s backward fundamentalist church schools that have uncertified staff.” Watch the whole interview here:

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Works cited:

Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions. Ed. Cal Seelig. NY: Three River Press, 1982. Print.

Taibbi, Matt. “Trump’s Payback: Journalists and politicians blew off the warning signs of a Trump presidency– now, we must all pay the price.” Rolling Stone. Issue 1275, 1 Decmber 2016. Print.

 

“How did our politics get so poisonous?”: Colbert, Chomsky, and Hicks

On November 8th, Colbert’s live show aired after most of the results of the electoral votes had been released. He starts off by saying, “I don’t think I could sit down right now.” At that point the popular vote was still being tallied, but the electoral votes were already confirmed as far as most of the country was concerned. Of course, as we now know, the popular vote has shown far in favor of opposition. Nonetheless, something in Colbert’s response should raise alarm, especially considering how subtle, and seemingly well intentioned it is.
He says, “I think we can agree that this has been an exhausting, bruising election for everyone.” It goes without saying, exhaustion is always part of the process, as maybe it should be. Perhaps the fatigue of the campaign trail, having to constantly address constituent concerns, and having to endlessly defend one’s position is systematic method to expose a candidate’s policies and moral character. That same exhaustion is also detrimentally weaponized against the true interests of the populous. Elections are now, clearly, wars of attrition, for the question is always how long will it take for the public to buy in to the narrative they’re sold, and, as it turns out, not long at all– only about a year in this case. By the time the people are handed a ballot, they are bruised beyond self-recognition, and seek a quick end to the atrocious perversions of their government.

Colbert goes on to quote a Washington Post article highlighting a PEW statistic which indicates four in ten voters think “the other party’s policies are so misguided that they pose a threat to the nation,” and later “More than half of democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them ‘afraid,’ while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party.”
“But you know what?” Colbert responds, “Everybody feels that way.” The key word, here, is “everybody.” That is, it’s a catchy phrase, invokes a sense of healing, sympathy and empathy, starts us down the path to reconciliation, the aim being, most importantly, unity.
I’ll admit, when I first watched the segment, my bitterness was hard to quell, yet “everybody feels that way” stood out to me for every bit of the healing that I, and millions of Americans sought. However, as Colbert continues, my skepticism grows, I return to his notion of unity, and realize that “everybody” is not, indeed, the case. “Four in ten voters” is clearly not “everybody.”
Since that night, and over this past week, the zeitgeist of bitterness has been unbound, “Not my President” demonstrations have been held in major cities, including here in Santa Ana. The protests have been denigrated, condemned all over social media as “stupid,” the protesters themselves being dismissed as “whinny.” Even high school students who’ve staged walk-outs are savagely attacked for their protests even though it is they who stand to lose the most, and whose futures have been condemned by the election of a climate-change denying plutocrat.
“They designed an election that was meant to confuse us,” Colbert argues. The confusion has led to all kinds of internal conflict among the public. “Get over it,” is the general sentiment from those on the right and the centrists, those who have no sympathy for what is clearly the mourning process happening on a national scale. I even saw one particularly thoughtless meme that read, “Wanting Trump to fail is like wanting the pilot to crash the plane that we are ALL on.” However, after eighteen months of a campaign that flagrantly established its platform of division through the demonization of minority groups, it’s abundantly clear that the burden of proof lies with the right and the centrists, not the protestors. What “unity” is the Trump administration asking for? What does “coming together” look like when the rhetoric which has defined the campaign is filled with phrases like “they’re rapists,” “crooked Hilary,” “crazy Bernie,” “grab her by the pussy,” “this is a nasty, nasty woman,” “I’d like to punch him in the face,” “young and beautiful piece of ass,” and so on.

“How did our politics get so poisonous?” Colbert asks.

Quite some time ago Chomsky answered this question. He has long argued that the “masters of mankind,” to quote Adam Smith, do not want solidarity among the population. There are entire facets of industry and policy that ensure the population dedicates it’s resources– intellectual, financial, psychological, social resources–to fighting among itself, ensuring the disenfranchisement of whole swaths of the people, that they act against their own interests, and vote against solidarity. Thus we have the joke–

A banker, factory worker, and a beggar are seated at a table, two cookies in front of each of them. The banker takes his own two, both of the factory worker’s, and one of the beggar’s cookies, then says to the factory worker, “You had better stop the beggar, he just took your cookie.”

One can only imagine the horror of the beggar. The concerns of the beggar, of course, are no concern of the other two. Yet, as Chomsky suggests, we all play the part of the beggar, and we are all made the punchline. The point is, that basic empathy for the fellow man has to be ideologically “beaten out of people.” In this case ideology is put in the form of capital (the commodified cookies). The interests of both the worker and the beggar are immediately perverted and marginalized.

Over the years Chomsky has directly addressed the notion of marginalization of the population. Speaking sarcastically, as though from the point of view of the “masters of mankind,” and during a lecture at MIT in 1999, he said,

so we want to get rid of government interference in the economy, like public schools which have all sorts of bad features, like they cultivate a sense of solidarity, or of care for other people. If there’s a public school system that’s an expression of the fact that you care whether the kid down the street gets an education, and that’s a very bad thing because, you know, you get this message from infancy on through the television set and everything else that the only value of a human life is to maximize what the advertising industry calls ‘invented wants.’ So they’re supposed to invent wants for you, and you’re supposed to maximize them, and that’s the only thing you’re supposed to care about, and not care about anybody else, you know, not care about control of your life and work, that’s out of the door, but maximize you’re own fabricated wants.

More recently he summarized this notion in an interview for the film Requiem for the American Dream:

One of the leading political scientists, Mark Gilins, came out with a study of the relation between public attitudes and public policy. What he shows is that about 70% of the public population has no way of influencing policy. They might as well be in some other country. And the population knows it…What it’s led to is a population that’s angry, frustrated, hates institutions, it’s not acting constructively to try to respond to this. There is popular mobilization and activism, but in very self-destructive directions. It’s taking the form of unfocused anger, attacks on one another, and on vulnerable targets. That’s what happens in cases like this. It is corrosive of social relations, but that’s the point. The point is to make people hate, and fear each other, and look out only for themselves, and don’t do anything for anyone else.

Of course, as the streaming videos have begun to show up on social media of protests in the streets, followed by lengthy indignant comment threads, I wonder if there could be any more poignant image of the “unfocused anger,” the “corrosive” element that Chomsky mentions which has disintegrated a true understanding of solidarity. I can’t help but wonder still, what is the substance of this corrosion? What does it look like now? Where maybe ten years ago it seemed to take on the facade of morality, the morality that the right claimed to assume and the left easily dismantled as hypocrisy, it is not so clear any longer, but it is certainly visible. That is, we stare at it every day, are isolated by it, even from people we are sitting right next to, this thing meant to bring us together.
This brings me to the point in Colbert’s speech from election night that I think is quite alarming.

“So, whether your side won or lost, we don’t have to do this shit for a while,” he continues, “You can put away your ‘I voted’ stickers, and you can get back to your life.” And already, whatever “unity” I might have entertained starts to feel uneasy. “I’d like to try to end this election season by voting unanimously on a few things that all bring us together.” He continues with a list of things that all Americans supposedly agree upon. “No matter where you stand on Hillary’s private server, everyone agrees work emails sucks.” The studio audience shouts out, “Yes!” “Also, no matter what your age, race, or political party, every American can agree that Kit-Kats should be eaten in segments not bitten into like a normal candy bar, you animal!” The audience cheers. “And every red-blooded American knows that if you’re ordering a bunch of pizzas there’s no reason to get a veggie one, no one’s gonna eat it, for christ sake, plain cheese is veggie…and if you make a living pranking people on YouTube, all Americans ask that you walk slowly into the ocean then put that on Snapchat…Deep down, Americans know that Alex Trebek will never die and if he does it will not count because it was not in the form of a question…we stand united in the knowledge that the biggest selling point of CoolWhip isn’t the taste but the fact that it’s free Tupperware…I don’t care, the election is over, you survived…”
To be fair, Colbert acknowledges that some of the points on his list are “silly,” and I think he is unquestionably sincere. However, I’m also quite certain that the marketing staffs of Kit-Kat, Dominos, Youtube, Snapchat, CBS, CoolWhip, Tupperware, and their parent companies were all mightily satisfied by this list. Here’s your sense of unity, America, brought to you by Kraft, Hersheys, Viacom, Facebook, and Google. I mean, this is the sort of thing that is lifted directly from a Bill Hicks routine, “Go back to bed, America…here, here’s American Gladiators. Watch this. Shut up. Go back to bed, America…Here is American Gladiators. Here’s fifty six channels of it. Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go America. You are free to do as we tell you! You are free to do as we tell you!”

Hicks was a fan of Chomsky as well, and once said of him, “He’ll squeegee your third eye for you.” I feel as though someone, in their indignation, has poured salt into my own third eye. Whether or not I could’ve ever seen clearly anyway is anyone’s guess. I do know that we are a nation of the blind leading the blind, marred in our struggle to keep up with technology, obstructed by archaic notions of platonic morality, bogged down in and ever misunderstanding of the very language we use to define ourselves. And so, we have a demagogue that will soon take lead of the country and has the full support of a government now completely in the hands of a conservative party that “has become the most dangerous organization in world history.”

To the right, beware, as Nick Hanauer warns, the pitchforks are coming. To the centrists, I quote Zinn, “you cannot stay neutral on a moving train.”

A Way Forward

I have not posted to this blog in the last year. There certainly is a lingering feeling reminiscent to the experience of leaving the music department at Cal State Long Beach, when for almost two years afterward I could not enjoy music, did not listen to music while driving, or generally throughout my day. Music academics have a way of draining passion and creativity. Similarly, in the two years since finishing graduate school I have found it very difficult to write, to engage the process of it, or even to enjoy reading. However, these past few months I’ve rediscovered passion, gained momentum, and will hopefully be much more active on this page. I have no illusions that there is much of an audience here, but I will attempt to continue regardless.

Now, to the elephant in the room; as in, the “bigly,” orange elephant that has forced itself into the room…

Around this time, two years ago during the AWP conference, I found myself on the third floor of the Seattle Convention Center staring down at the corner of Pike and 7th Street. I recalled images of paramilitary police attacking protestors, blood, fire. I spent the whole week walking up and down Pike between the Green Tortoise and the Convention Center, the same street where it all happened in November 1999. “All told, there were about 600 arrests,” and most of them were released because of lacking evidence and “reasonable doubt.” Meaning, they were arrested without probable cause. Nonetheless, they were removed from protests, their 4th amendment rights clearly violated. Years later, staring down into the intersection, I watched a police officer shoo away a street artist, a man dressed in a pink gorilla suit drumming on a plastic bucket, then immediately give a ticket to a homeless man panhandling in front of the cafe below me.

There should be no romanticizing of it, no sentimental memories of these events.

Yesterday a dark, shameful cloud descended upon this country. It is a cloud that has been approaching for some time. Now it is here.

As, I’m certain, many others are, I’m struggling to consider the ways forward. That struggle is characterized, defined by shame, disappointment, uncertainty, disgust, and yes, fear. The conservative party now has claim to every branch of the federal government, and is the majority of state governorships. There is no telling how far neoconservative ideology will reach henceforth.

A former classmate of mine from graduate school, Kenny Connally, posted a brief summary of his thoughts to social media. I certainly look up to him, for he was, by far, the best of us in the program (not to stroke your ego, Kenny). I’d like quote his post here because I think it bears repeating, and poignantly summarizes the nature of the dread that has sunk in these past few hours:

Three lessons from tonight:

1. Opposition to abortion and homosexuality, and nothing else, is the central teaching of evangelical Christianity.

According to tonight’s exit polls, north of 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump, despite Trump being perhaps the farthest thing imaginable from a traditionally Christian role model. Evangelicals will happily jettison every other moral principle if abortion and gay rights are at issue.

2. In the Internet Age, you can fool most of the people most of the time.

Trump began his political career by making a movement out of the utterly groundless birther conspiracy. Having found success there, he moved on to make easily debunked claims the foundation for every aspect of his presidential campaign and his policy proposals. At every stage, the mainstream media doubted he could keep it up; surely a platform composed of pure nonsense would not fly in a general election. But it did. With print journalism dying and more and more people engaging with politics only from within a partisan social-media bubble, we’ve passed a tipping point where Americans can no longer assess the basic facts of any politicized issue. Look to see many more national politicians in the near future copying Trump’s attitude toward facts: they’re irrelevant.

3. Republican voters predominantly support a strong, authoritarian federal government and oppose free trade.

Though educated Republicans tend to be pro-business neoliberal types, Trump has run very successfully on the most naive kind of protectionism; his proposals terrify economists and markets. And after 8 years of accusing Obama’s administration of fascist authoritarianism and trampling on states’ rights, Republicans have gleefully voted in a candidate who openly idolizes foreign dictators and promises that he alone can restore “law and order” to the lawless wilderness that is our country by expanding police procedures that courts have ruled violate civil rights, torturing suspected terrorists, killing their families, and cracking down on the free press.

It’s clear that the neoliberal agenda has taken center stage in our country, though, I’m confident that most would not be able to identify it as such. Neoconservatives will vehemently protect that agenda  through the practice of “law and order.”

I am trying, in vain it seems, to reconcile the grace– which I’ve spent the last number of years learning to embrace –with the sense of justice, the moral imperative to act against the zeitgeist that has hijacked this country. It’s very difficult not to point fingers, succumb to anger, because in restraint, I feel, we risk apathy, we become complacent, passive. At this moment I see no medium between rage and humble concession.

Now, scrolling through articles from the winter of 1999 and 2000, seeing those images again, it’s very difficult to imagine a way forward that isn’t defined by mass incarceration, blood, violence, especially considering the newly elected conservative party leader has promised it.