Dan Savage Should Run For Dogcatcher

Dan Savage thinks the Greens should walk before they try to run:

I have a problem with the Greens…. I have a problem with these fake, attention seeking, grandstanding Green…party candidates who pop up every four years, like mushrooms in shit, saying that they’re building a third party. And those of us who don’t have a home in the Republican Party, don’t have a home in the Democratic Party, can’t get behind every Democratic position or Republican position, should gravitate toward these third parties. And help build a third party movement by every four fucking years voting for one of these assholes like Jill fucking Stein, who I’m sure is a lovely person, she’s only an asshole in this aspect.

Where are the Green Party candidates for city councils? For county councils? For state legislatures? For state assessor? For state insurance commissioner? For governor? For fucking dogcatcher? I would be SO willing to vote for Green Party candidates who are starting at the bottom, grassroots, bottom up, building a third party, a viable third party.

Rather predictably, this ‘epic rant’ was lapped up eagerly by Hillary Clinton supporters, sundry folks resigned to ‘pragmatic politics,’ and those still haunted by the ghost of Ralph Nader. (Savage knows how to play a crowd; he always has. Back in the day when he used to be an advice columnist for the New York Press, he used to specialize in abusing–in similar, profanity-ridden language–those who wrote to him, thus providing himself and his many readers loads of chuckles. This rant was also provoked by a query from a listener on a podcast show. Old tricks die hard.)

The problem with Savage’s seemingly grounded-in-reality perspective–which is also evident in his snappy reply to the Green Party’s pointing out that they do in fact run candidates at the local level–is that Savage himself seems clueless about the nature of electoral politics in the US. To wit, part of building a viable third-party movement is getting a national soapbox to talk about the issues it cares about, and that soapbox only becomes available–for a sustained period–during the presidential campaign.

Consider for instance that Savage has only bothered to launch his rant at the Greens during a presidential election season, and that it has received as much attention as it has because American voters are lapping up election news–of all and any kind–this year. The intense attention paid to electoral politics during what has undoubtedly been one of the weirdest campaign years of all has benefited the Greens; confronted with the choices offered to them by the two mainstream political parties many longing looks have been sent their way by many progressives of all hues.  This has forced–on a national level–a reckoning with the platform the Greens offer, which might in turn help a local Green Party candidate in another election down the line who can then count on his or her manifesto not being utterly unfamiliar to the electorate. Contrary to Savage’s assertions, the Greens aren’t queue jumpers; they just happen to realize that in order to beat the two-party system, every trick in the book has to be utilized. One them happens to be running a Presidential candidate.

It would be idiotic for the Greens to sit out a presidential election, especially in these times when traditional media outlets have ceded so much of their authority to newer forms. (Something Savage, of all people, should know.) It would be especially idiotic, if not irresponsible, for the Greens to sit out a presidential election when they know that the demographic of the future, the millennials, are happiest utilizing those very same forms of media to get their news and political commentary. Savage doesn’t realize it, but running a presidential candidate this year is building for the future. Stein knows she won’t win the election; but she does know that many younger voters have now become aware of the Green Party’s offerings as a result of her candidacy.

Dan  Savage’s ‘epic rant’ is not a call to pragmatism; it’s merely an attention-seeking juvenile grandstanding show. Perhaps he should stick to dishing out advice on human sexuality. Or go run for the post of local dogcatcher.

Note: Al Gore lost the presidential election in 2000 because a) many Democrats voted for Bush and b) the Supreme Court handed the election to George W. Bush. The canard that Nader cost Gore the election will not die, of course.

Dishwashing: The King Of Procrastination Strategies

Washing the dishes has long held a honorable position in the arsenal of strategies adopted by those who procrastinate. (Sometime in the near future I anticipate Facebook and Twitter conducting some sophisticated data analysis to indicate how many of their users announce it as such.) Indeed, we should elevate this claim to be one of those truths universally acknowledged: if an anxiety-inducing piece of work awaits, well then, so does a pile of dirty dishes in your sink which demand immediate attention. The reasons for why dishwashing has risen to the top of the heap of alternative occupations of time instead of our work are not hard to find.

First, washing the dishes is a virtuous act. Dirt is banished from the kitchen and household; cleanliness is welcomed; salmonella are vanquished; disease and pestilence are expelled. Order is imposed; entropy is resisted, vainly, for just a little while longer. Cleanliness is next to godliness, n’est ce pas?

Second, dishwashing is a physically immersive and thus intensely absorbing act, all the better to dispel paralyzing anxiety with. Faucet flow and water temperature must be adjusted; sponge and soap make contact with dish surfaces; dirt dissolves underneath our fingertips; our hands feel the flow of soapy water over them. Dishes that call for extra scrubbing require intense concentration on the task at hand. Clean dishes must be stacked and arranged carefully; memories of wine glasses broken during this phase especially help concentrate the mind here. These considerations do not apply to those who use a mechanized dishwasher; those poor saps, slaves to technology and automation, have no idea what they are missing out on. (My wife often wonders why I resist buying a dishwasher; besides not trusting their ability to actually clean our dishes, I sense a grave loss would ensue. I would be denied a central strategy for procrastination.)

Third, dishwashing lets us feel we have helped out with house work, sometimes foolishly considered an ignoble calling. We sense our roommates–whether college buddies, fellow city workers, or significant others–will delight in the sight of a sink free of dishes. (These considerations do not apply to those who live alone, of course, but then, they have greater worries on their minds.) We anticipate our partners’ reactions of gratitude and appreciation with some pleasure, which make an excellent contrast with the imagined scorn of those who would read, or otherwise experience, the execrable work we would be engaged in otherwise. The payoffs here are greater; immediate pursuit of this venture seems an eminently sensible move. In this regard, some men might regard their washing the dishes as part of their movement toward a new sort of manhood, one more in tune with the demands of housework, a kind of personal growth which our newly acquired feminist sensibilities would appreciate.

Note: I’m writing this post in an anxiety-induced state, unable to finalize my syllabus for the fall, finish a long-in-the-works essay, resume working on a draft manuscript, pack for a soon-to-be undertaken hike, or do the laundry. I’ve already done the dishes.

Melville On ‘The Most Dangerous Sort’: The Outwardly Rational Madman

In Billy Budd, Sailor (Barnes and Noble Classic Edition, New York, p. 40) Herman Melville writes:

[T]he thing which in eminent instances signalizes so exceptional a nature is this: though the man’s even temper and discreet bearing would seem to intimate a mind peculiarly subject to the law of reason, not the less in his heart he would seem to riot in complete exemption from that law, having apparently little to do with reason further than to employ it as an ambidexter implement for effecting the irrational. That is to say: Toward the accomplishment of an aim which in wantonness of malignity would seem to partake of the insane, he will direct a cool judgement sagacious and sound. These men are true madmen, and of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous but occasional, evoked by some special object; it is probably secretive, which is as much to say it is self-contained, so that when moreover, most active, it is to the average mind not distinguishable from sanity, and for the reason above suggested that whatever its aims may be–and the aim is never declared–the method and the outward proceeding are always perfectly rational.

This is an acute observation by Melville, for the personality type he describes here is indeed ‘the most dangerous sort.’ Its tokens conform outwardly to social and moral expectations at all times even as they reserve their malignancy for occasional and pointed demonstrations, which continue to don the cover of ostensibly reasonable behavior. (Indeed, their general conformance to normative standards earns them the indulgence of others, who are then ready to forgive what may come to seem like only an occasional aberration; the pattern in these aberrations may not be visible unless it is too late. ) These agents know how to commit unpardonable acts under the cover of legality; they are adept at picking and choosing among the offerings of the reasonable and civilized, looking for those rhetorical and argumentative maneuvers that will give their actions the best veneer of respectability. (Perhaps they should remind us–via an inexact analogy–of Nietzsche’s ‘educated philistines;’ outwardly sophisticated but lacking in inner culture.)

Unfortunately for this world, Melville’s ‘most dangerous sort’ is a little too common. Its most devastating and dangerous exemplars are found in the political sphere–like those who commit war crimes while proceeding according to some impeccable logic of statescraft–but the skepticism of their opponents may ensure that their cover is easily blown. Matters are far harder in the domain of personal relationships, especially abusive ones. There, in the private sphere, away from prying eyes, the abuser can concentrate on his ‘special object,’ the abused. Their ‘sanity’ may bring the abused to the edge of insanity; their weapon of choice is very often the questioning of the mental competence of their partner. Their long and intimate relationship with their target has granted them access to weaknesses, secrets, chinks in the armor; these are now mercilessly and ruthlessly exploited by language and action which is artfully cloaked by reason and respectability.

Beware the superficial moral and intellectual education; for its most dangerous effect is to produce precisely the type Melville warns us against.

The Comforts Of ‘Abide With Me’

Legend has it that Mohandas Gandhi adored Abide With Me, “a Christian hymn by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte most often sung to English composer William Henry Monk‘s…’Eventide‘.” I learned of this particular proclivity of the Mahatma long after I had first heard the hymn’s notes as a child attending or watching the Beating Retreat ceremonies, which marked the end of the Republic Day celebrations in the Indian capital New Delhi where it was “played by the combined bands of the Indian Armed Forces.” But that experience had little impact on me; the tune was one of many unfamiliar ones that I heard on that evening (the closing of which was always the melancholy, haunting performance of Taps by a bugler.) Matters changed when I attended a boarding school in India’s north-east, where, as I’ve noted, “I was subject to a non-negotiable, uncompromising rule: daily attendance at an Anglican chapel service was required.”

There, during our daily service in the mornings, I joined in the singing of hymns with the school congregation–ably backed up by our schoolboy choir, which came with a full complement of sopranos, tenors, and basses. The congregation’s singing was trained by our school music master, Mr. Denzil Prince, a man whose love for music and passion for teaching was all too visible in his interactions with us. He transformed, slowly and patiently, an incoherent band of squawkers into a harmonious assemblage of voices. Even a recently disillusioned former believer like me could not but be thrilled at those moments when it seemed we had achieved some sort of divine harmony with the beauty of the Himalayan ranges that lay outside our chapel.

Among the hymns I sang and listened to was Abide With Me. It’s opening verse, and in particular, its opening line,was instantly memorable for someone whose melancholic bent had found–in the beauty of the Himalayan evenings and approaching sunsets, and in my separation from my mother–yet another forum for expression. But I did not miss the presence of God in my life; that particular train had long departed the station. I missed my mother. When I heard school choir sing ‘Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;/The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide/When other helpers fail and comforts flee/Help of the helpless, O abide with me/, the comfort I sought was only forthcoming from one entity, and it was not divine. My desire and longing for that missing presence though, felt to me as deep as I imagined that of any believer to be. I was thirteen years old, and I was supposed to be away from home for nine months. Letters, not phone calls, not occasional visits, were supposed to be sustenance during this period. It was not enough. But standing there, in that chapel, or sometimes, outside, listening to the choir’s evening practices, listening to those haunting lyrics and notes, sent soaring up into our chapel’s rafters and through our bodies, it was possible to begin to address some of that gaping absence.

Barbara Tuchman Contra Hot Takes

Barbara Tuchman kicks off the preface to her Practicing History: Selected Essays (Ballantine Books, New York, 1981) by writing:

It is surprising to find, on reviewing one’s past work, which are the pieces that seem to stand up and which are those that have wilted. The only rule I can discover as a determinant–and it is a rule riddled with exceptions–is that, on the whole, articles or reports which have a “hard,” that is to say factual, subject matter or a personally observed story to tell are more readable today than “think” pieces intended as satire or advocacy, or written from the political passions of the moment. These tend to sound embarrassing after the passage of time, and have not, with or two exceptions been revived.

I sometimes try my hand at satire on this blog; those efforts survive here, sure to embarrass me in the future. And I’m often mortified by the pieces I write during election seasons; they strike me as a too quick, superficial at the best of times. But I don’t intend to stop writing either kind of blog post. For I write here to ‘practice,’ to keep writing–even as, and especially because, many forms of ‘writers’ block’ imperil my writing elsewhere. (Put it this way; if I didn’t write something here, I would have all too many days when I would not have written anything at all.) I publish the posts I write because the act of publishing acts as closure, compelling me to move on and not be tempted to return to the post to fiddle with it–even as I hope someday to return to the ‘scratch on the surface,’ to dig deeper, perhaps turning the little ditty here into a more elaborate essay. Despite this being a digital platform, I have no hopes that any of the writing will endure–even as I continue to entertain the fantasy that someday my daughter will read some of it.

Tuchman’s larger point is directed at ‘hot takes,’ at the effort directed to being topical, at the desperate attempts to stick one’s oar in the flow of opinion, to ‘contribute’ something, anything, to an ongoing discussion, failure to participate in which might be viewed as an abdication of responsibility by some who have appointed themselves pundits.  This pressure is especially acute now given the phenomena of a viral news item, one whose ubiquity in your social media feeds suggest the whole world is doing nothing but paying attention to every aspect of the incident reported. Tuchman suggests we’d do better to let our powder dry out, to bide our time, so that we may write in more considered fashion (perhaps with more ‘factual, subject matter’ too.) This is not a new point, but it is interestingly made by a historian here, one used to writing about matters that are sometimes long-forgotten. The historian knows the present is not the most important time of all; that much water remains to flow under the bridge, to join the voluminous oceans that have already done so.

Teflon Trump’s Terrifying Troops

I did not watch the Donald Trump acceptance speech last night; I did not want to run the risk of a disturbed night’s sleep. I did however, read a transcript that was available on the net before he went live. It was a terrifying read just because it was so ‘good’: pitch-perfect in its tone and content, aiming for the easily visible targets of law and order, national security, loss of jobs, economic inequality, corporate trade deals, the rigged political system. His scapegoats were perfectly picked too: immigrants, aliens, foreigners, indeed, the world ‘outside.’ Trump was not speaking off the cuff, he was reading a prepared speech, one crafted for him by his speechwriters, who distilled the most populist parts of his campaign trail message and artfully packaged it with a corrosive covering of nativism, xenophobia, and paranoia. The speech will be picked apart for its hostility and its lies but it will not matter. If the history of this campaign is any indication of things to come.

Ronald Reagan used to be called the ‘Teflon President.’ Well, let me tell you, Ronnie had nothing on the The Donald. Nothing sticks to the Trump; call him a liar, a crook, a failed businessman, a misogynist, a racist, an ignorant warmonger, it does not matter. His ‘base’ does not care–a fact that made the hoopla over the Melania Trump plagiarism non-scandal especially risible. I suspect that Trump’s followers loved the plagiarizing of Michelle Obama’s speech–‘screw them and their fancy-ass, stuck-up, elitist notions of who wrote what.’ (Besides, why not steal from someone you despise?) Indeed, every attempt to critique Trump on the basis of some conventional understanding of decency and  honesty runs afoul of this inclination on the part of his followers to merely incorporate that critique into their understanding of Trump as an iconoclast willfully denying those staid conventions that work for everyone else. His followers are the most frightening thing about him.

Many are tempted to lie and flirt with the forces of darkness to gain presidential power, to command the trillion dollar military that goes with it which lets grown men feel like pre-adolescent boys again, to strut on the world stage like the new Messiah. What those aspirants for power need to realize their dreams is the unquestioned acceptance and obedience of their followers. That Trump has. He is well aware he can lie, prevaricate, dissemble; it will not dent his chances with this crew. When the smoke clears, and if a Trump defeat is the outcome, he will slink away to book deals, speaking engagements, possibly a new television series and a talk-show. More fortunes await him. (I’m shying away from the possibility of his victory for that prospect demands another sort of response altogether.) But his followers will not rest content even then.

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Right, well, that’s been taken care of by The Donald. The spirits have been summoned; and now they strut on the stage. Banishing them is going to take some doing.

A Trump Win And The First-Past-The-Post System

Every election cycle, we learn all over again, the bad news about ‘swing states’ and ‘undecided voters’ and ‘independents.’ There are ‘red states’ and ‘blue states’ and then there are ‘states in play’: those electoral precincts in the nation whose demographics make their electoral outcomes uncertain. Every election cycle, the political candidates of the two parties concentrate their campaigns funds and energies on these states and their citizens. But it gets better: within those swing states, there are ‘swing districts’ (the others are reliably ‘red’ or ‘blue’.) And so we get an even finer-grained concentration of campaigning efforts on those districts; they receive the most attention in terms of speeches, door-knocking efforts etc. It turns out, bizarrely enough, that as a result of this nation’s first-past-the-post electoral system, an entire presidential election can be swung by the polling results of these districts–whose number runs to about thirty or forty.

From this rather bizarre fact some conclusions can be drawn:

  1. It does not matter if crucial demographic blocs like Hispanics despise Donald Trump; if they are not present adequate numbers in these swing states, they can huff and puff all they want, but they will not dent his chances. Every single Latino in California–a blue state–could vote for Clinton; it will not increase the number of electoral college votes California will give to her. (The anti-Trump Hispanic vote will, of course, affect the vote in red states like Texas and New Mexico and Arizona, but it is not clear that it will turn the state ‘blue.’)
  2. If red states and blue states retain their electoral color codes, the Trump-Clinton contest will come down to those swing states whose names we hear during most election seasons: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida etc. Here, Bernie Sanders supporters would do well not to vote for a third-party candidate. In resolutely blue states they may, if they choose, vote for a third-party candidate of their choice. (I did precisely this in 2012, in New York, where a win for Barack Obama was all but guaranteed.) An argument has made the rounds that even in ‘blue’ states Sanders supporters should vote for Clinton to grant her a mandate with adequate and appropriate authority, presumably to ride out the post-election fracas that will ensue with disgruntled Trump supporters, who will remain convinced the election was ‘stolen.’ (As I’ve noted previously, even a Clinton win means a very divided and fractious polity, one riven by the same bitter partisanship that led to many legislative logjams and parliamentary brinksmanship during the Obama years.) I do not know if this claim will have any traction with those Sanders supporters who imagine that such a mandate can only embolden Clinton to pursue precisely those misguided policies they most disagree with.

The dependence of the results of this most momentous election on just a handful of states and consequently, a handful of electoral districts, should make most reasonable folks quite nervous. It should also serve as a reminder that the American electoral system is deeply, deeply flawed. This is not news; but this might just be the year the nation pays its heaviest price yet for the poor design of a vital political institution.