A format for better debates, please?

Hey, we all like actual debates, right? That is, the format that’s very much not what we saw the last two nights, where people talk to each other and don’t struggle for airtime. For intellectual folks, people directly addressing each other can be stimulating and interesting. For everyone else (and, well, us too), as we saw when two candidates go went it, that’s the part of the event that’s entertaining—and possibly tells you more about the people.

So… why the hell do we have moderators insisting they can’t talk to each other, and taking up minutes with their questions? It only ensures that only the rudest and loudest will get into a back and forth—and as we’ve seen, it allows for the rules to be applied haphazardly. I have a proposal for better debates:

  1. Before the debate, every candidate is given the same long list of topics, all brief and general: e.g., climate change, nuclear weapons, North Korea, election security. They return these lists is ranked order.

  2. The top choices are set as the topics for the debate. The number chosen is the same as the number of candidates onstage, or an integral multiple thereof. The rest go back into the pool for the next debate. New topics can be added to the pool between debates, so news events can be referenced but only briefly. “Iran response” is fine; “did Iran attach mines to those ships?” is not.

  3. Each topic is given (length of debate / (number of topics – 2)) minutes. For a 100 minute debate and eight topics, that’s ten minutes each, broken down as follows: 2 minute opening, 2 minute response, 1 minute each of followups by the same speakers, and four 1-minute followups by everyone else. Vary lengths as necessary to match available time, but not more than 25%; if they have to be shorter than 90 and 45 seconds, pick fewer topics.

  4. Everyone gets one turn in each slot. Which slot they get for which topic is assigned first by how they ranked the topics, with ties broken by the same rankings by which they qualified for the debate. Someone polling at 12% beats the other at 10%, for example. The guy who only barely squeaked in shouldn’t expect to get what they want unless no one wants it. The same ranking is used to pick the topics and assign the slots, so no gaming the system by ranking your actual first choice tenth—it likely won’t be used at all, then.

    No one knows which slots they have until the debate, when each lectern has the entire schedule on a display a few minutes before it starts.

    Example: Candidate 1, who made this their most important topic, talks for two minutes; candidate 2 ranked this first or second and responds. 1 then speaks again for a minute, followed by 2 again for a minute. 3 and 4, who ranked this topic higher than others, each have an assigned minute. The next minute is randomly assigned. The last minute is left open until the debate: candidates can press a button on their lectern to take it, but can only do this once for the entire debate. First-come, first-served, except that the first person who hasn’t spoken on the topic takes precedence over the first person who has. Anyone who never presses their button gets that minute extra for closing.

  5. There are no moderators, but there is an M.C. who normally keeps their mouth shut after introducing everyone, to do things like shush the audience. The first speaker frames the topic, the next speakers can follow their lead or not as they choose. The topic of the period is always on a chyron at the bottom of the screen. Each candidate can say whatever they like.

  6. When it’s someone’s turn to speak, their mic turns on. When they have 15 seconds left, an audible tone chimes that everyone (audience included) can hear. The volume on their mic gradually declines and turns off at the end—final words will be at low volume, hence they don’t close with a zinger that causes audience reaction to eat the next person’s time. (Get your prepared soundbites in when you start, and eat your own time, folks.) Finishing 15 seconds early, not a bad idea.

    If a speaker stops early, they can press a button and bank that time for another reply. Timers and time bank displays are on the lectern; the candidate presses a button to activate their bank for fifteen seconds, which restores the volume to the mic if they’re in the last 15 seconds—but it’ll start dropping again immediately unless they press the button twice.

  7. The cameras are pre-set and will go to the person with a live mic, but will usually split screen with the prior speaker. A second 4K video feed is provided that shows all candidates at all times, high enough resolution to see reactions not on the main broadcast (which most people won’t see until after the debate, but it could be simultaneously broadcast).

  8. The remaining two 10-minute periods are open sessions at the middle and the end, each speaker has 10/N minutes to say whatever they like. (Or three 7-minute sessions for opening, midpoint, and closing.) Mics are live the entire time for the last open session, their entire time bank is automatically added, and the next speaker’s time doesn’t start until the audience is quiet. (And maybe cap the maximum time a person can bank, so no one can shut up for two hours and talk for 10 minutes straight at the end.)

  9. A transcript of the debate is posted as soon as possible. Each minute or two’s transcript is posted on its own page in addition to the full trascript. Candidates have 24 hours to post a short reply to what anyone said (e.g., limited to 200 words, no links allowed but “see my website for details” is fine—you just can’t post a keyword to a 2,000 word reply). After 24 hours, the speaker has 24 hours to post a reply of the same length.

That leaves 20 minutes in a two-hour broadcast, which I assume will be used to make the entire thing humane. Put in a three-second break when one mic turns off and the next turns on, or a short break between topics. Two five-minute breaks for everyone to be off camera. Whatever works. Networks will probably want a buffer zone so the rules don’t make the debate run overtime.

I don’t have any illusions that this will bring Oxford-style debate to our politics, but it’s fair, it gives everyone the chance to talk on what they most care about, and I think it balances actual discussion and debate with the need to keep everyone to very short amounts of time.

Already tired of the Game of Moans

Did we all watch the same show?

I’ve been just completely amazed at most of the commentary I’ve been reading about the final two episodes of GoT, and while I don’t quite want to wade into every argument—that would lead to a post roughly as long as one of GRRM’s books—there are a few worth addressing.

Mad Queen Dany—Where the hell are people getting this from? It’s not on the screen. (It is in the execrable “inside the episode” trailers that HBO produced, which involves the two showrunners saying such idiotic things about the show which they’ve spent 4,000 hours a year analyzing since Mitt Romney was in multiway primaries, that I presume Milk of the Poppy is involved.)

Yes, absolutely, it would be utterly maddening if we felt that Dany committed a savage war crime out of a fit of pique, or because she didn’t get laid, or because the Red Keep set her off (make that two doses of poppymilk if you buy that story). But that’s not what we saw: we saw Dany having what was probably the easiest major victory in the entire series—we see maybe five casualties on Team Targaryen—and having some kind of painful epiphany. It’s not in dialog, and it’s only somewhat backfilled in the final episode. So what we take from the scene is what we read into it.

People who want to get infuriated seem to think that the writers are saying, “the bitch snapped,” with exactly that level of dismissal of the character. What I saw: after eight seasons of Dany balancing ruthlessness with compassion, she has a realization that an easy win is a temporary one. It doesn’t break the wheel, it doesn’t prevent future contenders for the throne, and it doesn’t cement her victory. Burning King’s Landing, on the other hand, ends the war much as an atomic bomb did—with her as sole superpower.

For those who object that “just having the dragon is enough,” get real. If you live in the 21st century it’s 98% likely you have no conception of what a single modern nuclear bomb’s effects are, and the inhabitants of the only country to ever use much smaller versions in anger are in utter denial about what our nation did 70 years ago. Stopping when the bells rang meant stopping before a deterrence was created. (And not original to me, I read someone’s else’s essay saying, “If you can fire scorpions at Drogon and then surrender scot-free, it’s only a matter of time before repeating the same strategy neutralizes her advantage.” Which, let’s recall, she regards as her child.)

You don’t have to agree with me—the point is, it’s not on the page in episode 5. You can read Emilia Clarke’s face in multiple ways; you can’t definitively establish Dany’s intent from it.

Dany the Megalomaniac—Second, folks are already royally pissed about Dany’s inability to comprehend that “we destroyed the village in order to save it” doesn’t quite fly. At least, not for the audience behind the Fourth Wall, and not for our surrogates on the show.

You know whom it does fly for? That same damned audience when considering an actual war with real casualties. How long has it been since America supported an invasion of choice by four or five to one, with most people buying into “greeted as liberators?” I’ve been hearing people say “nuke ’em until the rubble glows” since the Iranian hostage crisis forty years ago. I’ve heard just about everyone retroactively justify Afghanistan and Iraq because we deposed a dictator and shot bin Laden in the head. (Even antiwar folks have tended to soften some criticisms since those war objectives occurred.)

The words you are looking for are “cognitive dissonance.” Americans want to believe that our country and our population are basically decent, ergo by definition everything we do is basically decent. Oh, maybe we screw up a few things, but our intentions are good. Surely that creates allowances, yes? At least, it creates sufficient allowance that nearly all Americans completely forget about our military actions so long as American casualties stay in single digits.

This is Nora al-Awlaki. She died at the age of eight in a 2017 US attack on an al-Qaeda camp in Yemen. She was an American citizen. If you just found yourself thinking, “well, her al-Qaeda father shouldn’t have had her at the camp,” or “it’s horrible but these things happen,” congratulations, you just engaged in the same retroactive justification that distances Americans from horrors like Hiroshima and Dresden—and Dany from King’s Landing.

This is an American child whom my country killed. Discuss and debate that all you like—just don’t minimize it.

If you think it’s unrealistic that someone in a position of power would tell themselves a story that makes them a good person in contradiction of all evidence, you’re holding your fiction to a higher standard than your reality.

Dany the Monster—Many folks are also sputtering mad about Dany’s brand seemingly changing from “liberator of the common people” to their exterminator. This is too much of a switch for them to take.

I’m not going to repeat the dozens of articles that point-for-point demonstrate every plot beat showing her inhumanity against her enemies, ever since she didn’t much mind Drogo offing Viserys. If you think she did an unearned eighth-season heel turn, you’ve already read these and rejected them.

What I will point out, which I haven’t seen anywhere else, is that Dany has spent eight seasons dividing the world into “my people” and “everyone else.” People who are othered don’t count—whether that’s because they own slaves, have gotten wealthy from a slave society, or were the poor schmucks who took up arms at minimum wage on the wrong side of Drogon.

She didn’t merely kill these people, she burned these people. The two lead slavers of Meereen get quick deaths from Grey Worm—who presumably keeps that dagger sharp enough to be painless—but everyone from Lannister soldiers to Euron’s sailors to King’s Landing’s civilians to the Tarlys to Varys burns.

Are there any criminals you consider so awful that you’d be in favor of burning them at the stake as punishment? How about terrorists? Or actual Nazis from World War II? I’m guessing you have a sliding spectrum from “I’d vociferously oppose that” to “it’s not ideal but I’m not exactly going to argue in favor of that bastard.” Congratulations, you just demonstrated how you have a sliding scale of humanization. So does Dany.

Dany the Tyrant—Cognitive dissonance can also explain why Dany is certain that Cersei is a tyrant and she is not—but there are better explanations.

There’s been this weird rush of people saying that they wanted GoT to end on some kind of kumbayah democratic note. Or that Dany was inherently democratic in intent. Look, she freed her slave army and now they fight for her willingly!

Did any of them leave the day she did that? How much does she pay them? Do any of them have skills, interests, or socializations that would allow them to do anything but fight in an army as a profession? Do you suppose that peer pressure in a military organization and the complete absence of any other community might prevent some people from leaving? Did anyone have second thoughts when she told them she was uprooting them all to fight in a foreign land, or when the objective switched from fighting evenly matched humans to a quarter-million undead?

We see the Dothraki deciding—although how much of that is individual choice, and how much is cultural socialization to do whatever the Khal says, might be a worthwhile intellectual exercise. What we do know is that she’s breaking Dothraki cultural taboos; crossing the sea is pretty much the equivalent of holding pork rib and Chippendales night at a Saudi airbase. Surely everyone is acting free of coercion after she barbecued all the Khals they arrived with, walked out of an inferno, and asked for everyone’s support while sitting on a goddamn dragon. (After which, she’s unconcerned about her plan to take Westeros with the equivalent of a Mongol horde, which was the 13th-century equivalent of saturation bombing.)

Dany allows the freedoms she is willing to bestow, none of which seem to cost her anything. Missandei sticks around. Grey Worm never takes a vacation. Jorah keeps coming back even when she threatens his execution.

The premise that Dany was some kind of political liberation proponent is dealt with in the spot-on scene where Samwell suggests universal suffrage. We’re supposed to laugh at the comparisons to allowing horses and dogs to vote—but that’s pretty much historically accurate. The idea that a people should elect their leader was ludicrous for most of human history. It was just as ludicrous to the people who would have formed an electorate—when your monarch is the will of God, suffrage is blasphemy. What you might occasionally get is the tribalism of the Iron Islands—acclamations of minor chieftains, who go on to form the councils that acclaim higher officers. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the community gets to show up to chant Yara or Euron.

The idea that everyone should be able to vote is just a completely foreign concept until 1776. No, wait, that was male landowners. 1820? Nope, still male and white. 1865? Not after Jim Crow. 1920? 1965? How about we note the Georgia Senate election and just say “not yet” in terms of American consensus on this issue. Thinking of medieval, monarchical Dany as a proto-chapter of the League of Women Voters was wish-fulfillment of the highest order long before season eight.

Dany the Subverted Feminist Icon—Nope, not touching this with a ten-foot pole. It’s my role to mostly shut up and listen to what people say on this topic, and I don’t think I have much to contribute because I’m not emotionally invested in the messaging that some people thought was brutally undermined. I will say that just in the last hour I’ve seen feminist criticisms along the lines that Brienne, Sansa, and Anya don’t count as gender representation in the Game’s outcome, because they all establish power in the show with masculine tropes—which makes me wonder if any of these people took a moment to think about how this point of view would sound if they applied the same language to real people who might not be straight or cis.

Look, folks, yes—the last two seasons were just really fucking rushed and a lot of corners got cut. There are all sorts of pacing dynamics we grew to expect from the show during the first five seasons that were jettisoned—and in that change many things that would have been spelled out three times in the past had to be head canon. What I don’t get is why people don’t accept “HBO can’t spend $300 million on another 50 episodes” as a perfectly valid explanation for this. It may not be as satisfying as wizardly writing that leaves no plot holes unfilled and no coffee cups on the great table.

But I’ve already shown you how your standards are likely a lot lower for the world you live in than for Westeros. And that’s where the show gets made.

Update, one day later: I read today on Vox that HBO actually wanted more episodes in the final two seasons, and it was Weiss and Benioff that brought the total down to 13 in a compromise. This completely shifts the blame from one of real-world restrictions to a complete failure to manage creative limitations. I can understand the difficulties of bringing this home in less time; I fail to understand setting those limits on yourself in the first place.

An open letter to future CES PR people

Another year, another CES in the rear view mirror. This year’s was especially infuriating in a number of ways—none of them bad enough to get me to reconsider coming again, but enough to delay my writing more than usual.

So in the interest of future harmony, my recommendations to all PR people at future CES shows (which if I’m feeling saucy, I might put into my email signature next year).

For the love of God, bring USB sticks

Wifi at some hotels in Vegas is capped at 1 Mbit, and some of the “fast” ones are 10 Mbit. The most depressing possible answer to “do you have a press kit?” is “yes, it’s on our website.” This is especially the case if the big blue button to download it all at once includes a folder with a gigabyte of videos. That’s over two hours on wifi. If I tether to my phone, 25 minutes and $10 on Google Fi.

I’m on deadline and I have 200 booths in my bag. I’m only going to bother downloading yours if you’re very interesting. Don’t you want my attention if you’re just moderately interesting, so I can read your press kit to see if you make the cut?

You’re spending at least $25,000 to be at CES, sometimes much more. A USB stick costs fifty cents. Bring five hundred.

At least have a decent website for the purpose

If you must send me to your website, have a link on your home page that says “Press” or “Media,” and when I click on it, show me a link that says “CES press kit.” Include digital-only pictures and press releases, and put it all in a zip so I don’t have to go rabbit hunting on your site to see what I’ll need. Far faster for me to do that on my own drive. Make your TIFFs and videos a separate download. Yes, I know you spent a ton of money on your video, your aunt thinks it looks great, and maybe your boss gets a cameo. If video isn’t required to demo your product (almost no products meet this criterion), we don’t care.

(And what is up with people posting WebP images this year? I can’t do anything with those. JPEG or PNG.)

I don’t see why you love QR codes. My phone can understand those, but I don’t want your materials on my phone. I don’t know if my Mac can deal with them because I don’t wave random objects in front of my camera.

If you don’t have a decent website, be available 24/7

I just cut two companies from my story because the press reps didn’t get back to me in the four hours I was writing it. At 1 AM Eastern Sunday. Who’s more annoyed that I wrote a paragraph and had to delete it because I couldn’t find a price or release date? Me, or the company that paid thousands for that paragraph? The answer to this, of course, is to have a decent press section on your website. If all you have is “feel free to email us,” well, don’t sleep much during or soon after CES.

If you’re offering a review unit, do it in advance

I don’t want to get to your booth and hear, “We have review units, but we ran out.” Offer me one in advance by email, and then hold it for me. Review stories are in addition to my immediate news coverage; I get paid more to write them. A review unit will get me to stop by your booth if it’s likely to generate a story, especially if you’re innovating in a category of products I already know.

Don’t ask me to guarantee anything

No, I’m not going to promise to write about you. I’m especially not going to promise that if you give me a unit to review. Taking your review unit means, “I have an intent to review this, and a reasonable expectation my editor will buy the story.”

If I do write about you, it might be to mock you. This is not a reflection on you, it’s a reflection on your product or company. 90% of the time I don’t write about you, either I’ve decided you didn’t fit my audience (whatever my personal interest), or I did write about you and my editor cut it.

If you say one word that makes me think you’re intending a quid pro quo (usually, a valuable gadget for positive coverage), not only will I blackball the company you’re representing, but I’ll find out which PR firm you’re with and blackball all of your colleagues, because now I’m questioning the ethics of the people who hired you.

Don’t ask me to set a meeting unless it’s after-hours

When I arrive at CES, at best I know which days I’ll be at LVCC or the Sands. That’s likely to change on the fly. You have to be a fascinating story to get me to say I’ll be there at 3 PM. But if your executives are available at 8 PM, that’s off hours and you’re not cutting into my floor time. (You will be cutting into my writing time, so this isn’t exactly easy, but it’s easier.) Fancy Venetian suites are nice, but Starbucks is also fine.

Don’t ask me to notify you if I write about you

Google Alerts is your friend. I’ll sometimes do this during the rest of the year, but at CES I’m leaving here with a 5-inch stack of business cards and I’m only going to look yours up if I need you for something.

Make your booth viable for split-second decisions

Yes, booth materials are damned expensive. But if I walk past you and your booth is a table with a stack of flyers and a blank background, I have to fight through the crowd just to figure out who the hell you are. I never do. You want a large enough sign so I can tell from a distance of 10 feet whether to stop.

Make those displays count

Likewise, don’t tell me you’re the “first ever groundbreaking tech product” in the category. There are probably a dozen other people saying the same thing. Don’t use marketing-speak and hype. Don’t make outrageous claims, even if you deserve to. Provide enough specifics so I’m both interested in your product and have some reasonable trust in your company.

Best example of this: a pain relief booth in 2018 gave enough detail in their 10-feet materials that I stopped. When I asked my first question, “do you have peer-reviewed studies?”, the guy pulled out a three-inch binder of papers that said on the cover “#1 of 3.” He then asked, “do you also need the other two?” When I saw their booth again in 2019, I asked what was new.

If your booth isn’t on a grid, tell me how to find you

No one does this, and it would make so much difference. When I go to find your booth, I have a booth number, and I can look up and see that I’m on the 31300 aisle, or whatever. If I’m at booth 31324 and you’re at booth 31354, but there’s a multi-aisle booth between us, I have to hunt for you. Also sometimes the case if your booth is bisected from the main aisle by a diagonal path. You’ll have maps with the major booths in advance of the show. Tell me you’re “booth 31354, just past the BigCo booth in the direction away from the hall entrance.”

Have printed materials, and enough of them

Few people make this mistake, so when they do it’s galling. I can skim a flyer in 15 seconds, at which point you’re still clearing your throat. That gives me the salient points of what you’re pushing. If I’m interested, I’m going to want to take it with me (with a USB stick), because that piece of paper is another mnemonic. Have enough to last until Day 4 closing.

Bonus points: print on matte, not glossy paper. I might want to take pictures of your papers to scan them, and glossy paper will reflect the light and white out part of your page. Use a light background so I can scribble in the margins.

Small gifts are nice but won’t do you any good—usually

That giant bowl of Hershey’s Kisses isn’t interesting to me. It’s Vegas. I have all the desserts I want. At the moment you see me, I’ve walked 5 miles in a convention center where the coffee is $5. Give me a bottle of water or a fruit bar and I’m a happy camper. No, this won’t affect whether I write about you—but I will stop for 60 more seconds to chat, out of basic human decency, and that’s 60 more seconds you’ll have to get my attention. (Note: a cup of coffee takes at least five minutes to drink before I can walk without spilling it.)

Don’t hustle the aisles

My great-grandfather ran a haberdashery shop, and he used to stand on the sidewalk yelling at passersby, “You look awful. I can help with that.” Don’t do this. By the time I’ve registered you’re speaking to me, I’ve glanced at your booth and made the split-second yes/no decision. If it’s a no, you’re just going to force me to ignore you like a Salvation Army Santa Claus in August.

Don’t call me by my frickin’ name

Yes, I know, we’re all wearing nametags. You can say, “hey, Jeff!”, and I’ll glance in your direction. When I discover I don’t know you, I’ll be annoyed. I’ll be exceedingly annoyed if this is in combination with hustling the aisles.

Note: annoying me very much can demote your product from “reasonably interesting” to “hell no.” Happens at least once a year. This year a company who reliably gets my coverage was dropped because the PR rep blew me off before I knew their new stuff.

Know my publication and I’ll remember you, too

I don’t write for a marquee site—we’re extremely well-known in the Apple community, but not at CES, and we have a small but dedicated audience. If you’ve put in the legwork to know my writing or what the site generally covers, your preparation instantly puts you in the top 3% of people I’ve spoken to.

Listen to me

If I tell you I’m uninterested, it because my readers won’t care about you. Save your breath and go find a qualified prospect. When I say, “give me a minute to read your flyer,” don’t talk at me while I do that. I’m deciding if you’re interesting, I can’t listen and read at the same time, and I’ve decided I need more data more efficiently than your talking speed. Answer my subsequent questions and then let me get the hell out of your booth. I have more to see and you have more people to talk to. You don’t have to finish your patter, and my leaving early might mean that I’ve already decided to write about you unless you’re about to talk me out of it. (This has happened.)

Don’t tell me “the PR person has left the booth”

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of products I’ve seen in 12 years where I was willing to wait to talk to someone. Again, you’re spending five figures to be here. Have at least two people on hand, with one available during all show hours. (Exception: if you have only one person who can authorize a review unit or answer technical questions, that’s fine. Give me their card and preferably their cell number, and I’ll call them while walking to the next booth.)

For the love of God, bring USB sticks

Hell, bring a thousand. There are 4,500 journalists here. You might hit a home run.

Scenes from CES 2019

Spirit Airlines, you’ve got to be shitting me with this tray table.


I’ve seen better product names. (Booth was a Korean company, so don’t blame them too much.)


Spotted at the Mirage. I have friends who would drop far too much money here. Those signed Bohemian Rhapsody and Creed posters can be yours for only $1,595 each.


The people at the smart oven booth were geniuses—they gave out freshly-baked cookies.


This sign is apparently necessary in Vegas, I’ve seen it in multiple hotels.


$8,000. It makes cocktails.


Have you considered there’s a reason you’re the first?


For the extremely impatient or those who have always dreamed of having a child made of Silly Putty.


1982 me would have found this deeply satisfying.


The key to CES is timing, because this Disney line overflows in the morning.


Holy crap.


It’s a TV set that gives you free Netflix while it mines cryptocurrency for the company that built it. In other words, save $9 on your media by spending $30 on electricity. Genius.

Met Opera: La Traviata (Fathom Events) review

Saw the Met Opera’s La Traviata tonight at Mazza Gallerie in DC. They do a series through Fathom Events, a live Saturday performance broadcast to theaters, with an encore the following week. You see it on those two days or not at all. Saturday performance in Philly was sold out when I decided to go the day before; Wednesday night showing was in a 3/4s full theater. (Of the kind of people who laughed at whatever the director said when he responded to a question in French.)

Can’t comment on the performance, totally unqualified, so let’s just assume among the best you can see. Unsurprisingly, a bit less affecting than some live operas I’ve seen, but better than the one or two where I could tell I was seeing meh performances. (I got teary, but I also cried during Spider-Man last week, so take with a grain of salt.) A nice treat to have camera angles to actually see what the hell is happening, as the seats I’ve been able to afford generally means that performers through opera glasses are still the size of Lego figures.

Also: subtitles! I actually knew what the hell was going on. Which made me realize that the story is about very silly people doing incomprehensible things with the sort of melodrama that would make telenovela characters say, “Chica, you’re laying it on a bit thick.” But, you know, opera.

Recommended for casual fans who surprise themselves by going <raises hand>, and for folks who have never seen one and want to find out if they’re missing anything. Also perhaps a gateway drug for advanced kids this way. The subtitles make it much more approachable, and the ticket price ($28 where I was) likewise.

Going forward, I’m not sure if I’m interested in seeing the operas I’ve never heard of, but I’ll definitely try to go to the canon performances: the rest of this season includes Carmen and Die Valkure (aka the Apocalypse Now theme song). I might actually be able to say something useful about Carmen; I’ve seen it before. Full listing here, including some other snooty arts like ballet (which I might give a try).

Worst story ideas ever, part 2

I have to read headline pitches. It’s boring. I mock the worst ones.

Seeking health professionals to discuss the negative health effects of wearing an ill fitting bra

because apparently “it hurts like hell” isn’t a good enough reason

How To Overcome Writer’s Block

get a phone call from your agent, “you have to finish or give the money back” (hypothetically, so I hear)

Seeking Christian (Women Who Rock with Success)

seeking writers who (understand punctuation)

The Health Benefits Of Waking Up Before Sunrise

wait so paleo diet is good because it’s paleo but “be awake when it’s light out” is somehow bad now

How to Talk to Your Partner About Your Sexual Frequency

there are four different ways to interpret this and I’m going with electromagnetic wavelengths

Coconut Oil for Horses (Anonymous)

you should at least tell us what country you’re in so we can leave it

How to reheat a baked potato

ask the guy who didn’t know how to microwave a sweet potato yesterday

Budgeting as Part of the Sandwich Generation

set up a gofundme to raise money from the pepsi generation

Do women like beards?

if your editor wants a story longer than one word, you may want to rethink

Seeking dancers and scientist on why some people truly have no rhythm?

the profession you want is “anthropologist” because rhythm is culturally defined

Bilingual AI Expert/Programmer Needed

and must love dogs

Global Hotspots 2030: Where The Smart Money Will Go Next

obviously, anywhere but the places you print in the story

Redeem United Miles

fly somewhere

Still looking for bingeable Netflix Original Series!

still don’t understand how this could possibly require an expert to interview!

Ways for retirees to enjoy Labor Day for free

no, it’s every other day they enjoy, sitting on their lawns pointing and laughing at people going to work

How to turn a bedroom into a flex room

drive rifts in your family such that they can’t stand to be around you half the time

The Best Apps for Small Business of All Time

try something more specific, like “best apps for people with opposable thumbs”

If you’re a perfectionist, use these ways to keep your cool with a boss who is not

or perhaps tell your readers that their boss is right and they may need therapy

Things That Make You Look Old

being old

Worst story ideas ever, part 1

I recently signed up with a news service in order to promote my book. They send me headlines of stories that journalists want to write, I reply if someone is writing a story I’m expert on.

This is very boring as I have to read 100 headlines for every one I reply to. And some of these are ridiculous. Therefore, I will mock them.

Signs The Universe Is Trying To Hook You Up With “The One”

you become spaghettified as you pass the event horizon of a black hole

tips to make sure you and your employees aren’t breaking the law

discard the business model of robbing banks

Strategies to Increase Your Organization’s Market Share

sell more things

How sleep can help your skin look better

avoids needing to use meth to stay awake

The Health Benefits Of Sleeping With Your Dog

people with germs tend to avoid people who practice bestiality

Looking for sources for a story about pet sharks

the longer you wait, the harder they are to find

How to microwave sweet potatoes

if this is unclear, a kitchen contains sharp objects and you should not be near them

Ways to Use Canned Sardines in Cooking

getting your in-laws to leave early

Bonding with horses

you should talk to that guy with the dog

13

It is infuriating that liberal America is focusing on Merrick Garland and Roe v. Wade. It’s a failure of political imagination, and shows just how far our heads are up our asses regarding the massive losses we sustained in 2016.

It’s not Roe, and it’s not Obamacare, that’s on the chopping block. It’s everything from the New Deal onward, and quite possibly every progressive reform since the Gilded Age, which is clearly the model of America that conservative SCOTUS has in mind. At a guess, the only thing not at risk, as it might be a bridge too far, is women’s suffrage in the 1920s—but considering how thrilled conservative SCOTUS is regarding restricting voting rights and allowing corporate money in politics, perhaps I’m also failing to imagine sufficiently.

It simply doesn’t matter for shit whether we retake the White House, or get 60 votes in the Senate, or have a Democratic lock on two branches of government between now and 2050. That’s roughly the beginning of the next window when we might have a chance of reversing our SCOTUS losses, and in the meantime, any Democratic initiative anywhere to the left of center-right is likely to get blown away in court. No government accountability, no restraint of corporate power, no gun control, no rebalancing of the American political map in favor of democracy.

This requires an act of political will similar to that undertaken by Republicans when they blocked Merrick Garland, and it’s a simple one: the magical number nine isn’t in the Constitution. It’s set by Congress. And when we hold Congress (as I expect we will in 2021—working from the theory that the GOP will be back in 2008 regard after Trump’s disastrous policies harm their best voters), we need to replace it with thirteen.

That’s because two1 will be the number of SCOTUS justices nominated by a president without a popular majority, and confirmed by a Senate with an even bigger skew in terms of how undemocratically votes result in apportionment of political power. Arguably, the American people want political balance on the Court—either a balance of left and right, or the nomination of centrist and centrist-left Justices going forward. (I could make an argument that 3 million in favor of Hillary argues for Justices as far to the left as Alito is to the right; instead, I’ll make the less radical suggestion that we should aim for centrism rather than liberalism.)

1I’d set this number at three due to W’s appointment of Alito, as while he was nominated in the second term, it was the power of incumbency that allowed W to get there, and that incumbency was also based on an undemocratic outcome. Again, I’ll go for the <ahem> conservative argument.

Two more Justices cancels out the undemocratic power of Trump’s nominees (so far), but that’s not balanced yet. Had these appointments been made by Hillary (or before that, Al Gore), that would have been a 22% swing to the left, not a neutralization. So we need two more votes to counter. Technically, we need four more votes to counter, bringing us to fifteen, as 2/13ths is less than 2/9ths.

Please note that while this may sound shocking, it’s perfectly allowable if Dems hold the White House and 50 seats in the Senate. Mitch McConnell’s own rules say so. These is merely a break from political norms—which the other side is quite happy to break any time they wish. I’m still not quite clear why we’re required to bring Marquess of Queensbury boxing gloves to a machete fight.

Of course, the Washington Post, New York Times, and most current Senate Democrats can be expected to gather their petticoats to their corsets and exclaim how this could never happen. That’s what happened last time: FDR’s attempt to expand the Court was shut down by Senate Democrats. What we need to do is convince our elected representatives that we are out of sufficient fucks to give such that we’re willing to sacrifice decades of political power on the altar of playing nice.2

2Meanwhile, that’s also the obvious spin that puts this into the Overton window. By rejecting Merrick Garland, the GOP is to blame for a period of political instability and breaking of norms, and the Democrats are simply responding in kind. By doing so, we’ll encourage future Congresses to take an approach short of salting the earth for partisan purposes, so Democrats can perfectly well state that they are in favor of a return to norms after past norm-breaking has been addressed.

This is all perfectly kosher under the rules. All it takes is political will. And if we don’t have sufficient will to do so, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference how hard you work for anything else on your agenda, as it can all be shut down in an instant. Your choice.

1,300 words about the North Korean diplomatic crisis, with jokes

Call me utterly amazed by some of the discussion the last few days about what’s going on re negotiations with North Korea, and who should get credit for it. NPR in particular has been engaged in the kind of rhetorical schizophrenia that led me to dump them from my news mix for a year starting in December, 2016. They’ve had correspondents on who can report a fact, and then commentate as if they had reported its exact opposite, within the space of half a breath.

Best as I can tell from my extensive radar of “random friend comments that Facebook deigns to show me,” quite a few people are getting dizzy from fumes, so let’s talk.

In the past year, North Korea has taken their nukes, and put them on missiles that can hit anywhere west of Bangor, Maine. There’s a decent chance the bomb would fizzle, and there’s solid evidence that they’ll aim for New York and hit Kansas, but as even a missed fizzle would glass an inconveniently large area with people in it, people got rightly concerned.

This led to Trump’s infamous fire-and-fury response, and as with Nixon, how you responded to it was entirely based on how you heard it. Folks who only heard the audio had the shit scared out of them at such high velocity that it became a $500 procedure in Los Angeles. But if you saw the video, and how Trump immediately crossed his arms and put on the facial expression of a toddler demanding a cookie, your takeaway was that we’re totally fucked not because of the belligerence of the statement, but because he clearly has no idea what he’s doing.

Fast forward to the present. Big things are happening: Trump is meeting with Kim, John Bolton and his mustache are running the show, the president of South Korea says Trump deserves the Nobel. If big things are happening, our cognitive dissonance tells us, good things might result. If good things might result from a previously insoluble shitstorm, the dissonance continues, clearly the people in charge must know what they’re doing through some application of 12th-dimensional diplomacy.

This is all completely understandable. It’s a known cognitive flaw. The people in charge, no matter how incompetent they obviously are, must have access to some inscrutable wisdom or arcane lore—government seeeeecrets, if you prefer—that makes what they do rational.

Let’s review recent history:

North Korea has been playing bait-and-switch for roughly 40 years, through a process of saber-rattling, and then seeing what they can get when they briefly but ostentatiously stop. This time, they have their largest saber ever, which legitimately did shock security experts by how much they accomplished in a short time. The thing is, they’ve gotten what they’ve wanted forever—a meeting with the president, the international status that entails,1 a lot of fodder for continuing to prop up the home dictatorship—without making a single concession. Their stated policy for literally their entire existence is the reunification of Korea (under their rule, natch). Shaking hands with South Korea isn’t something they gave up, it’s another win for them.

1North Korea is famously bad at understanding our motivations, and appears to be missing the obvious signs there is bipartisan consensus and widespread international support that starting in 2021 or 2025, we all whistle, gaze somewhere into middle distance, and pretend that the last several years never happened. This will infuriate both the Trumpistas, and folks like me who want to see them utterly repudiated and fed Mueller-butter sandwiches.

Meanwhile, south of the 38th parallel, we have an ally with all the political stability of the Italian parliament, the refined decorum of the Knesset, and the comfortable security of the fifth guy to pick up the revolver in a game of Russian roulette. In a move that created tidal waves of jealousy across our country, they impeached their last president and sent her to jail for 24 years. The new guy is faced with:

  • an impending negotiation of absolute existential importance to his country
  • a US president who is cajoled by flattery in much the same way that tween girls are cajoled by Taylor Swift
  • a US presidential advisor who is entirely likely to advise that we nuke everything between Beijing and Tokyo, then negotiate with the cockroaches in 20 years
  • a North Korean regime that is not merely proven batshit, but is raging at an even higher level of batshittery. Kim’s half-brother was assassinated with a nerve agent. In a squeeze bottle. At an airport. By a woman who was told it was a prank for a reality show. It’s rumored that this, and other DPRK cabinet moves with extreme prejudice, are taking place to put down an internal split that could lead to a coup.

Given all this, entirely independently, of his own volition, and without any ulterior motives whatsoever the president of South Korea says that Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.2 And people seem to have bought it. I have heard the words “diplomacy” and “Trump” in the same sentence, which appears to be the same logical thought process that leads people to look at drunk people with a Ouija board and say, “must be ghosts.”

2As for the actual people who award the Nobel Peace Prize, considering that they gave it to Obama in 2009 for, quote, “giving us the warm fuzzies after the last guy” endquote, Trump could emit flaming unicorn ass rainbows that cure death and end poverty, and still be six slots behind Taylor Swift for consideration. Corollary: Trump’s successor will have hers staple-gunned to her forehead during the inauguration ceremony.

Granted, I’ll admit a certain bias, in that Trump could literally offer me his hand to drag me out of Hell, and I’d believe that he reached for a dropped KFC drumstick and helped me only because he’s equally incompetent at chicken. It would take quite a few foreign policy experts3 lining up to say Trump is a genius before I’d think otherwise.

3All of them.5

This does have a façade of being the sort of impasse that could be hastened along with a wildcard. That appears to be the slender thread of a rational basis for breathy exclamations about Trump’s success, for getting people to the bargaining table who have been begging to be at that particular bargaining table since 1953. The thing is, if Trump agrees to cut all ties to South Korea and have every Chevy made with Pyongyang steel, in return for the promise of an 18-month pause in North Korean nuclear ambitions with no IAEA oversight, that is among our best possible outcomes. People don’t seem to understand—literally, it’s unthinkable—that this is the kind of meeting where two people with a boundless capacity for their thoughts being nontangential with reality, and the emotional temperament to go to war over a misunderstanding or personal slight, also have the ability to actually do it.4

4In all seriousness, it would go like this: Kim makes a rhetorical threat identical to every rhetorical threat North Korea has ever made, the DPRK version of asking about your family before getting down to business. Trump is scared, or worse, offended, because he genuinely believed that he would be treated with deference. He turns to Bolton for advice. Pyongyang is glowing as soon as they can get Trump outside the blast radius, as is Seoul and anyone else in the crossfire.

5I can’t remember, but apologies to Dave Barry if this joke is a direct lift.

Fucking done being polite

Republicans are sociopaths. Full stop.

We’re supposed to call it tribalism, and say that many of them are hurting, or scared, and deserving of empathy. We’re supposed to say it’s a problem on both sides.

No. We’re not sociopaths, and they are.

One party thinks the problem with gun violence is not enough people shooting back.

One party desires to deport everyone who immigrated to the United States an arbitrarily long time after their own ancestors did.

One party believes that if you don’t have enough money, you should get sick and die.

One party states that if you can’t find work, or can’t work, or your work doesn’t pay enough, or you become obsolete, or you’re bankrupted by bad luck, you deserve to lose your home and starve.

We’re supposed to say that all of this is a problem with Republican politicians, not Republican voters. The voters are just single-issue. Lashing out. Fiscally conservative. Misguided. Misinformed. Hurting, scared, deserving of understanding.

No. They’re sociopaths. Incapable of empathy. Complicit with—or supportive of—the evil, the dangerous, those working to harm. Moved only when it affects them personally, which then inspires more hatred of the outsiders whom they blame.

The Second Amendment voters, at least they’re honest sociopaths about their desire for Mad Max anarchy and rule by threat of violence.

The anti-abortion voters believe that the female meat vessels carrying a fetus—or who someday might—have no human rights, but also support the destruction of poverty and healthcare safety nets necessary to indicate they actually give a damn about babies. An unplanned pregnancy means you’re a whore; the child must be brought to term; should you not raise the child exactly as they think you should, you’re morally inferior and undeserving of help. Women are half the population; not caring about them is not merely misogynistic, it’s sociopathic. Not caring about children after demanding and enforcing their birth is monstrous.

The racists, we’re required to pretend that there’s some qualitative degree of difference between them and the white nationalists and the Nazis, even when we’re required to use a microscope to spot the distinction. Not caring about anyone nonwhite, or non-Christian, or more urbanized, or otherwise Other is sociopathic.

The fiscal conservatives, whose espoused beliefs are as hollow as the moral crusaders who supported Trump, they might be the worst of all. They take carte blanche to shut down any expression of compassion or decency if it costs money, yet they only seem to care about money spent on compassion and decency. They’re kind, they’re caring, they’re not like those social conservatives—or so they would have you believe—it’s just that the right to individual wealth is more important than any of the above, and complicity with everything else is justified. Specifically, the right to their own wealth, or the wealth they expect to acquire.

That is a dictionary definition of sociopathy.

I’m not calling out paleoconservatives, the modern Republicans of the 1960s, who thought Goldwater was dangerously radical, who came to their positions from a genuine—although in my opinion, mistaken—belief that conservative values, prior to sociopathic Moral Majority and Tea Party hijacking, improve the human condition. It’s just that few of them exist, they’re not loud, they’re not doing enough to reclaim their party—and based on election results, they mostly end up going along with the sociopaths. At which point, they are no better.

What about the rest of us? We care, supposedly. We’re outraged, clearly. Yet we keep playing the game.

We know the game is rigged. It’s rigged by money, it’s rigged by power, it’s rigged by outright disenfranchisement. Maybe we protest, politely, dear me, nothing illegal or too disruptive. Maybe we give money. Sometimes we vote. Then we lose, and the cycle continues. Or we win, we’re moderate in our use of power, we seek compromise, and of course, we’re always more concerned about being fair and idealistic than accomplishing our goals, of making a real goddamn difference. So most of what we achieve is cleaning up the worst of what happened before we got there. For a while. Until they win again and destroy the lives we tried to save.

And when we go to war, most of us are just as in favor of killing brown people for our own temporary illusory security as they are. Next time it’ll probably be Asian people. Again. We’re quicker to regret it, for what that’s worth, but we don’t learn from it.

We’re the frogs in simmering water. It keeps getting worse, it keeps getting more rigged, it keeps killing people, it keeps increasing the suffering and the misery and the deprivation, it keeps destroying any sense that we can collectively act with decency. But only a little at a time. A bill today harming the safety net, forgotten tomorrow because of some act of violence, in turn forgotten next week when some other sociopathic normalized behavior captures our attention.

We’ve forgotten it’s sociopathic, so we don’t act.

What we should have done, what truly decent people would have done, what the people who aren’t too complacent and comfortable do: shut it the fuck down.

It would have to be all of us, that’s the only way it works, that’s the only way to support each other through the painful sacrifice. Stop going to work. Stop contributing to the economy for anything but bare necessities. Block the streets with our bodies. Shut down Congress and legislatures and courts with the sheer masses of people surrounding the buildings. Do it for gun violence, then do it again for healthcare, for immigration, for all of the outrages that make us less than who we claim to be.

Get loud and don’t stop, never stop, grind it all to a halt. Power and money need us to play by their rules, to act in the ways they can control and counter. The only way to hurt them, to subvert their power, is not to.

And finally, finally, stop coddling sociopaths and pretending that since there are so many of them, whatever they believe is normative. We’re not all in this together. Half of us are in violation of every accepted framework of common decency, including the ones they claim. They’re actively sociopathic, or they’re discreetly sociopathic, or they’re complicit with sociopaths for selfish reasons—which is just another definition of sociopathic.

It would have to be fucking all of us. A few thousand people on a Saturday afternoon is playing the game. Boycotting the inhumane corporation of the moment is playing the game. Tweeting and posting and being really concerned, but staying within the lines, is playing the game. This post is playing the game.

But I’m being a fantasist. Of course, we’re going to keep playing. We’re comfortable and complacent, and with few exceptions, the only Americans in the last century who’ve made sacrifices like these did so because they had no choice.

What would it take for us to be finally done, for the water to boil? There’s ample evidence that there’s no upper limit, that even looming nuclear or environmental Armageddon, and the potential extinction of our species, is not enough to move us. We just get by, and we hope our kids will get by, and we’re pretty sure that some generation eventually won’t, but we try not to think about it. We just get by, and we don’t really comprehend it—we don’t feel it the way we would if we had to watch it—when other people don’t.

We’re not sociopaths, but we’re not moved to action either. Not enough. We mostly just watch and hope it doesn’t get too much worse, or too soon, or for the people close to us. What do we call people like that?

I’m not sure what I’m willing to do, not without a large group, large enough to protest like Gandhi and have it matter. But I do know, I’m fucking done being polite, with being performatively inoffensive, with my few remaining shreds of belief that Americans are special, or that we have shared values. Republicans are sociopaths.

Last Jedi: best Star Wars ever

There is really only one question coming out of The Last Jedi: is it an excellent Star Wars movie, or is it the best Star Wars movie so far? I’m leaning towards the latter, and seeing as how I’m already seeing some (extremely misguided) people on Facebook being completely underwhelmed, I decided to explain why—at great length, as is my preferred style.

This post is not just filled with spoilers, it talks about things ranging from the opening seconds to the closing credits. If you haven’t seen it yet (and really, why not? you’re nuts), close your browser and delete the application before proceeding, lest some stray electrons from my web server reach you and take away one iota from the movie.

The core reason why this is the best Star Wars movie to date: just as Star Trek: Discovery is doing, it is simultaneously part of the universe it’s living in, and a deconstruction of that universe. Last Jedi introduces critiques of Star Wars, which have been swirling for decades out here in the real world, in-universe for the first time.

The Force Awakens was very much a beat-for-beat homage to the original Star Wars, and that mainly for a Doyleist reason: it had to prove that the magic from the original movies was recaptureable (which it did admirably). The Last Jedi is the handing off of the baton from what came before to whatever is coming next.

It’s not a perfect movie. There were a number of scenes and characters which I thought were a bit questionable. But as I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him, I’ll gloss over these and maybe return to them in a future post.

Opening Scene: hands down, I will never have more fun in a movie theater than the 30 seconds when the Lucasfilm logo is replaced with Long, Long Ago, the fanfare begins, and I know that never again will I get to see this movie for the first time. Keep making them until I’m a Force ghost, Disney, because I’m going to keep buying tickets.

Rey’s Knighthood: there was much grousing after Force Awakens that Rey was far too powerful on zero training, which continues here: after being spurned by Luke and not getting any more Jedi pointers, she pulls off some Yoda-level Force levitation near the end of the movie. (And I recall that canonically, the crimson guard of the Emperor have Sith fight training, so the fact that she fights them off and does slightly better than Kylo is even more impressive than lifting rocks.)

But Rey’s self-tutored transition from neophyte to mastery is little different than Luke’s. Luke got maybe a few weeks at Dagobah, but his confrontation with Vader makes it very clear he’s out of his depth. By the beginning of Return, though, he’s all Jedi ninja. I’ve seen head canon explanations of this ranging from a return to Dagobah to training with Obi-Wan’s Force ghost, but the most obvious one is, “if you’re strong with the Force, you’re a self-starter.” Considering that the only time we’ve seen official Jedi training, it was for Anakin Skywalker, perhaps that’s further evidence that the Jedi curriculum is not as good as is promised in the brochure.

Combine this with Luke’s mini-sermon on the distinction between the Force itself, and the Jedi’s jealous guardianship against anyone else understanding it, and it seems clear: the Force decides whom it likes, and if you have that, who can ask for anything more? This nicely discards some of the most troublesome canonical problems with the Jedi which everyone has been glossing over for years: a pre-Schism Catholic separation of the learned from the unwashed, and control over whom is granted access to sacred knowledge; a theory of pedagogy whereby kindergartners are too old to be considered (concomitantly implying that the “right age” is fairly close to kidnapping toddlers from their parents); and while no one comes out and says it, the near certainty that the Old Republic Jedi were awfully cozy with hierarchical, patriarchal, and oligarchical governance and leadership structures.

Kylo’s Nonredemption: what are the two things we know about the Force? First, it has a light side and a dark side; dark side Force users get more superpowers, but have a tendency to be irredeemably evil. And unlike everything we know about the real world, where good people do bad things and vice versa, in Star Wars you’re one or the other.

Second, all of the light side users are super-concerned about the “balance” of the Force, which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever given that a) it’s hundreds of them versus two Sith masters, whom no one even believes exist at first; and b) it’s neither clear what the hell they’re trying to balance, or exactly what they do except talk about it endlessly. The most comprehensible Force balance we ever get to see is Luke’s Dagobah swamp yoga.

But wait! There’s a huge caveat to “irredeemable,” because even if you’re an evil space tyrant for decades and involved in the death of billions, it’s all okay so long as you get that teary final scene with your kid, and maybe throw an emperor into a deep hole. This makes about as much sense as finding out that Hitler made a Jewish friend in the bunker, so everyone decides to build a statue of him. (Presumably in South Carolina, by very fine people.)

I came out of Force Awakens saying, “I will be so pissed when they give us the inevitable Kylo redemption arc.” It’s as much part of Star Wars DNA as the hero’s journey. Before Vader, there was Han’s transition from selfish smuggler prick to deus ex falconia in Episode IV. And just so there’s no confusion: yes, of course he murdered Greedo. That’s what makes his story work.

So then they give us Kylo’s redemption. And turns out, it wasn’t half bad; I’m watching the scene thinking, “if I must have this, this is probably the best way to get it.” I’m already picturing Episode IX with plucky Kylo and Finn coming up with counterstrategies against the First Order, while marveling at a pretty damn good fight scene, ending with the moment where Rey unequivocably saves Kylo’s black-clad ass.

But then… Kylo wasn’t redeemed, he just did what Vader never did: depose the master and take over himself. Three minutes of Hux Force choking later, and he’s the undisputed Emperor. Suddenly the entire story arc of the next 1.5 movies (and maybe 4.5 movies) gets completely rewritten. Fuck that noise where he commits patricide against goddamn Han Solo and gets off scot free. Even in his own reconstruction of events, he’s still the guy who burned down a Jedi temple and killed off half of his (presumably teenage) classmates. And the redemptive quality that we’re supposedly seeing—his struggle with the light side—turns out to be Snoke’s plan to lure out Force-sensitive enemies.

Fuck him, he’s a bad guy. Even Rey’s given up on him by the end, and her unfailing optimism about the goodness of people is as fundamentally irrational in the Star Wars universe as it would be in Westeros. Chewie had the right idea: keep shooting at him with a bowcaster.

We Don’t Need No Stinking Hero’s Journey: Meanwhile, back on the island (and how amusing is it that an island features so prominently in the movie JJ isn’t helming?), Luke is not the guy we’re expecting. I probably annoyed my fellow moviegoers by how hard I laughed at the opening shot, where he tosses his lightsaber over his shoulder and off a cliff; we waited two years for the resolution of a nearly literal Force Awakens cliffhanger, and that’s what we get? Loved it.

This sets up the obvious Star Wars trope: Luke the reluctant hero (this time in a teacher role), unwilling to be involved, but gradually won over by the plucky determination and sheer talent of his padawan. (It doesn’t hurt that Daisy Ridley has preternatural screen charisma, making it entirely believable that characters would naturally come over to her side.) It’s the arc we get with Poe, when Leia and her second discuss how much they like him because of his mutiny. Luke is just being grumpy; surely Rey’s winning attitude will bring him back. Artoo even gets in on the plan, showing Luke the Leia hologram to remind him of his old attitudes.

But as it turns out, Luke isn’t in seclusion because he’s turned his back on the Resistance, or out of self-loathing after Kylo’s dark side turn, but because he’s lost faith in the Jedi as a whole. This not only makes his actions in this movie believable, but it fills in a major plot hole from the last one: short of this—which I wouldn’t believe would ever be in Star Wars if I hadn’t seen it—there’s no good explanation for the events leading up to Episode VII. “Our” Luke would never turn his back on either his friends or the fight, and that’s exactly what he did. Turns out, he had what I think might be the only explicable reason for doing so, which is a point of view that’s never been hinted at in any other movie (and certainly never from a Jedi).

And who should come back to exemplify this, but Yoda himself? Mr. “Do, or do not; there is no try” is now “failure is the greatest teacher,” and he puts the exclamation point to it by burning down the Jedi library-tree. (Which is kind of a weird concept unless it’s a swipe at Avatar.) Put simply, Yoda’s self-assuredness in the original movies is a bit odd after the decisions we see him make in the prequels—flying in at the lead of a platoon of stormtroopers rather put me off the little green dude for a while—and it’s interesting to see that wherever Force ghosts go when they’re not enjoying a big Yub Nub party, they’re giving some thought to their past actions.

Leia’s “Death”: after the dispatch of poor Han in the last movie (sending him off a trademark Death Star balcony, so there would be no misconceptions that maybe it was just a flesh wound), I think we were all steeling ourselves for the loss of the rest of the Big Three this time around. And there goes Princess Leia, whooshed out into deep space, her body drifting around for enough scenes for us all to think, “wow, they just did that.”

Then we get the dramatic close-up, and the hand flex, and I had just enough time to think, “okay, here’s the dramatic last message to Luke,” before she proceeds to Iron Man back to safety with goddamn Force powers. Which is, at a single stroke, both badass, and redemptive of one of the worst failings of the original trilogy.

First, there’s what she does. The Force can keep you alive in space? Wow. That’s new. But it also makes sense—it’s a life force, after all. So it’s easy to say, “sure, it’s 3° Kelvin and she’s out of air, but if you’re strong enough with the Force, maybe you just don’t die until you’re ready to.” After all, dead people get to become Force ghosts (even if they were evil for most of their lifetimes), so sure, there’s some serious mojo working there.

Second, there’s that she does it. She’s the sister of Luke, the Jedi master. She’s the daughter of Vader. Without mentioning that horrible midiwhatsis concept, the Force has a serious genetic component. And all we’ve gotten to see her do so far in Episodes IV through VII is have a cosmic Force awareness of things happening light years away. That’s great, but come on; Artoo can do the same thing with his T-Mobile antenna.

This, however, is a superpower. And just to remind you, she’s a girl. Which means that the most amazing Force badassery we get to see in this movie is wielded by two women. (I’ll get back to Luke in a moment.) Maybe you had to be alive for the original trilogy in theaters, but man, this is as big a deal to Star Wars as that interracial kiss was in Star Trek. Goodbye, gold bikini.

Luke’s Twist: Meanwhile, we get to see Luke pull off some never-before-seen Force powers as well, walking out of a vaporizing First Order barrage like some goddamn Kryptonian. I halfway expected him to wave his hand and blow away every attacking AT-AT seconds later.

But it’s not him; it’s a Force ghost. Which is at once a brand new superpower (we’ve only seen that from dead guys before), and also a perfect explanation for how he pulled that off. We all got to see hundreds of Jedi mowed down in Episode II, so it’s just not credible for the Force to confer invulnerability. But if he’s not there in the first place? That’s just some damn good writing—especially since it’s completely in character for him to not attack Kylo all during their lightsaber fight, so it’s only in retrospect that I realized that the only person who ever touches him is Leia during their conversation. (The Incomparable podcast notes something else I missed: everyone else’s feet kick up the salt to show the red layer, but Luke’s don’t.)

It also nicely wraps up, “how the hell did he get in?” Poe Dameron’s one-liner sets up the first (incorrect) explanation, which we see is impossible when they get to the rockfall. You get just long enough to think, “maybe the rockfall happened after Luke arrived,” before you’re told, “nope, ghosts walk through walls.”

Considering how much handwavium we’ve all had to deploy for the classic trilogy (seriously, I’ve seen explanations that time moves slower on Dagobah because it must be orbiting a black hole), this sets up an obvious plot hole, gives us time to justify it with a hand wave, corrects it in dialogue, destroys it again on screen, and then makes it all completely sensible.

Han Fauxlo: I don’t know how much there is to say about Benicio Del Toro’s character, at least maybe not until after we see Episode IX; I won’t be all that surprised for him to complete the Han Solo arc from scoundrel to hero. But for now at least, he’s the embodiment of the discarding of the light side-dark side dichotomy. Unlike earlier scoundrels we’ve come to love, his good guy turn is a matter of convenience, and he switches right back when the tide turns. But he gets off several one-liners exactly regarding how the line between good and evil is not so much gray as irrelevant, punctuated by the hologram showing that the same arms merchants who build Death Stars build X-Wings.

I’d rather keep the remainder of the new series redemption-free; it’s clear that Finn never needed one because he was never a “bad” stormtrooper to begin with. Del Toro can just vanish without loss, or remain a bad guy; he doesn’t need to be the next Han. (And probably can’t be, after “responsible for the deaths of half the Resistance.”) But this is interesting in-universe commentary that the new Star Wars universe is just as mixed up as ours is regarding good and evil, which is all to the good.

Rey’s Parentage: Likewise, we also seem to be somewhat finished with “everyone important is related to everyone else important.” Sure, Ben Solo is strong with the Force because he’s a Skywalker, there are still some genetics about. But unless Kylo is lying about Rey’s parents (always a possibility), Rey’s Force sensitivity is sui generis. That nicely democratizes the Force in a completely non-Lucasian way, and also resolves a lingering problem left over from Awakens: there really weren’t that many viable candidates for Rey’s parentage. Couldn’t be Leia and Han, very difficult for it to be Luke, nonsensical for nearly anyone else. I had my bet riding on “Kenobi granddaughter” as of two years ago, but considering the amount of backstory that would be necessary for Ewan or Alec to have had a descendent on Jakku, I’m happy to be wrong.

Remember, this is the universe that made Leia a princess, although her “official” Dad was a senator, because her secret Mom was… uh… an elected queen? But no one knew Padme was her mother, so why… oh, forget it. Princess Leia is a princess because it’s iconic, because rescuing princesses is a trope, and because Leia calling her rescuers idiots and blasting away the wall to escape was badass in 1977. Attempts to be Watsonian are doomed to failure here, and it’s simply completely weird that Lucas became uncomfortable with perpetuating hereditary monarchies, at the same time he was cementing the view that only certain people get to use the Force, those people mostly being the children of other Force users.

Carrie’s Dedication: “For our princess?” Oh, man. I’m not crying as hard right now as I did during the closing credits, but I haven’t been able to think of those three words without getting choked up.

Somewhere, there’s an alternate timeline where Carrie isn’t dead, and there’s no cosmic irony that Leia’s the last survivor of the Star Wars trinity, but can’t have whatever sendoff was planned for Episode IX. I wish I could see that movie.

Wrapping Up: So, yeah, I get it, there are flaws. The porgs have more than a whiff of Ewok to them, and scenes with them were a bit more Tex Avery than I’d like. Laura Dern could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by not keeping so many secrets from Poe. My particular favorite: really, no one has ever tried lightspeed at an attacking fleet before? Seems like it should be an obvious trick. (Considering how often Hux screws up in this movie, Vader’s strategy of rapid general disposal starts to look a bit better in retrospect.)

But not enough flaws to take it out of the running for best Star Wars ever, and since that’s a wholly subjective opinion, I’m comfortable saying it won. Which is to say: the original Star Wars is forever going to be the most fun movie ever made, partially because it’s pretty damn good, and partially because I saw it when I was seven. That’s also why I’ve always had less regard for Empire than most people: age 10 me didn’t get a lot of it, age 13 me judged it the weakest of the three, and while adult me likes it more now (and Jedi less), Star Wars still takes the cake and leaves no crumbs behind. Sure, you can appreciate Empire on a deeper level, but once you do that, you also need to evaluate it for its flaws, of which it has many. The worst flaws of Star Wars, they fixed in Rogue One.

(And to repeat age 10 me’s biggest objection to Empire: the whole point of movies is that there’s never a “wait until next week to see the conclusion.” Empire had one which you had to wait three years for. That should be considered child abuse.)

Coming out of Awakens, I was ready to say that it was on par with Star Wars, based on the simple fact that it made me feel like I did when I saw it the first time. That’s pretty damn rare; the only movie I can recall making me as giddy in theaters recently was Spider-Man: Homecoming. (There have been six, count them, six swings and misses at this by movies with Superman in them since Superman II, when making a feel-good Superman movie should be the biggest gimme in Hollywood.)

My joy at seeing a movie isn’t necessarily correlated with the quality of the movie as a movie; my favorite movie doesn’t have to be the best movie I’ve seen. I’m equally leaning towards saying Discovery has knocked DS9 off its perch as the best of Star Trek… but my favorite is likely to always be TNG. Likewise, Star Wars is always going to be my favorite… but for right now, I’ll call it. Last Jedi is better. It breaks the most ungainly Lucas toys and builds something better from them. Not only am I looking forward to what JJ does in IX, I can’t wait now for Rian Johnson’s run at X through XII.

Some profane advice for Nancy Pelosi

When the Democratic response to Trump’s white supremacist sympathies is empty, pretty words, and their only action is to legislate architecture, that’s so batshit incompetent, I start to believe the people who say we deserve to lose.

Pelosi should have gone on CNN Tuesday night and said exactly this: “Fuck Nazis and everyone who supports them.” And then introduce legislation about statuary and restricting Trump’s powers.

It would have emphatically set the Democratic position and removed the perception that they don’t stand for anything.

It would have explicitly told every group persecuted by Nazis and white supremacists, who happen to be the Democratic base or ripe targets, “we have your back in no uncertain terms.”

It would have been safe, because opposing Nazis is the biggest gimme position since, “Ogg, don’t stick your face in the fire.” Safe shouldn’t matter, but it seems to be the top priority for at least a plurality of pusillanimous Democrats.

The use of the word “fuck” would have dominated the media and gone viral, ensuring that it made a permanent impression that Fox News can’t spin.

It would have ended “the Pelosi problem” whereby her name is being used as a dog whistle for communist takeover. Anyone criticizing Pelosi from the right would have to explain they’re not supporting Nazis. Message buried.

Probably would have also shut up antsy Democrats who prefer an internal turf war to actually defeating Republicans.

Anyone criticizing her language would have to explain they’re not supporting Nazis or being polite to Nazis. Message buried.

CNN would make noises about her language, unbleeped because they had no warning for a 3-second delay, and would be secretly thrilled about the ratings bump thereafter.

This is how you win, Democrats. Maybe you take issue with this particular tactic, but this is how you win.

Tina Fey is a goddamn hero

The Internet is going through a minor uproar (its default state) over the Tina Fey sheetcake video. Twitter hashtag #sheetcaking is a thing, mostly by people (as of last night) who say that Fey’s “position” comes from white and wealthy privilege. Either that, or Tina Fey is a brilliant metatextual satirist.

I don’t entirely disagree with the latter point; Tina Fey is a smart cookie and I doubt that she missed the historical resonances of “let us eat cake.” But both of these points of view completely miss what she did say.

She did not mock Nazis. She did not mock Nazi sympathizers. What she said was, “It is so blindingly obvious that all of you are rightly upset about Nazis and Nazi sympathizers that I’m going to poke fun at how we’re coping with those chinless turds.” It’s a message of inclusion—but only to antifascists, which Fey rightly assumes to be damn near everyone.

“But she told people to stay home!” Yes, she did. Let’s even give you the benefit of the doubt, and not say “she’s a comedian” or “she meant that satirically.” Let’s unpack that.

As I write this, there are approximately 50–100 “free speech attendees” (it’s unclear to me whether they identify as “alt-right” or neo-Nazi or whatever, but they’re clearly sympathetic) in Boston, literally surrounded by 20,000 counter-protestors. 200–1. That’s a good turnout, a good ratio, makes for excellent news coverage of our side, makes the “alt-right” look pathetic.

There are 4.7 million people in Boston metro. Assuming the crowd is all locals (which is certainly not true of the “alt-right” people they’re protesting), that’s a turnout under 0.43%.

On January 21, when the Women’s Marches across the country got more people to show up than in pretty much ever, estimates were over 4,000,000. That’s about 1.2% of the country.

SNL Summer Edition got 6.5 million viewers the week before Fey’s broadcast, and that was before she went ridiculously viral on the Internet. As I write this, SNL’s YouTube clip has been viewed just under 4.5 million times. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other copies generating their own views. And it’s Saturday afternoon, 36 hours after broadcast; there’s still the rest of the weekend.

Are those 15–20 million viewers going to take Fey literally and be less likely to show up at a protest? I think that’s pretty damned unlikely, but let’s say yes. 98.8–99.6% of them weren’t going to show up anyway. But all of them are primed with the belief, “It is so damned obvious that Nazis are despicable that I’m laughing with people who are laughing at them.” How do you think these people will react when fascist sentiment is aired in their communities?

Protests aren’t about absolute numbers. You want enough people to be numerous for the venue; don’t put 100 people into a stadium, or underpopulate your inauguration compared to somebody else’s. If it’s a counter-protest, it’s nice to have more people than the other side. But the big thing, the key number, is “enough people so people hear what we’re saying.”

There’s no benchmark for that. 400 fascists showed up in Charlottesville, and we’re all talking about how much we hate them. (And yes, that means that some baby protofascists might be getting exposed to them that way; this is why they must also hear louder ridicule.) 250,000 antiwar activists turned out to protest the Iraq War nationwide in 2003 and didn’t get on the nightly news.

It’s not about who’s there, it’s about who hears about you. And usually, it’s not about making the other side look wrong, it’s about making the other side look ridiculous. You literally can’t be taken seriously when everyone’s laughing at you. Trump supporters can argue that they’re right forever and a day against all evidence; bring up the inauguration, though, and they have to lie about the numbers and say the pictures are fake, because we all know what an empty Mall says about Trump.

Yes, we must turn out in counter-protest against Nazis, fascists, and not to put too fine a point on it, Republicans. Which we’re doing. Tina Fey is fighting the other front in this war of ideas. We can’t win unless she does.

Correction: Boston police reported at 5:30 that the crowd was 40,000, not 20,000.

Don’t identify the Nazis

Don’t identify the Nazis. Don’t share social media pictures asking people to identify the Nazis. Don’t spread the names of people identified as Nazis. And no, you’re not doing this because some innocent people might be misidentified. You’re doing this to protect the Nazis.

Look, I get it. Nazis are so bad that it’s a grave insult to call any other reprehensible person a Nazi. Nazis are the ne plus ultra of reprehensible. We shouldn’t give a damn what happens to anyone who calls himself a Nazi. But still, don’t identify Nazis.

Picture this: it’s 2022. Everyone has really really good cameras, not just on their phones. Everyone has access to much better face recognition than we have today; maybe it’s a subscription service, maybe it’s a freebie on Facebook. Privacy protections have continued to erode, so most folks have exposed home addresses, employers, family members, and email addresses and social media accounts where they can be harassed. 4chan is still a thing, and there are thousands of people with automated tools to completely fuck with anyone whose name they type into a search bar.

Or, if you prefer, it’s 2019, and Jeff Sessions’ DOJ has the same damn tools. Take away the social media harassment, add a soupçon of prosecution.

Do you think these tools will be used against the Nazis? Hell no. Sure, they’ll get doxxed too, but they won’t be doxxed first. The first targets will be the people who piss off the alt-right white nationalists, who will be angry, disaffected, and with time to burn. Trump protestors, anti-war activists, Black Lives Matter; pretty much anyone who takes to the street with a left-wing or liberal political message is going to be targeted. (Will conservatives also be targeted? Maybe. There isn’t really a hotbed of liberal digital assholes yet.)

All of this is going to happen anyway. It’s inevitable. (Or rather, it’s inevitable because we live in a country that doesn’t give a damn about privacy if it impedes the almighty dollar or corporate power.) Outing a Nazi won’t affect the outcome one way or the other. But what it will do is provide the Fox News chuckleheads with ample opportunity to equalize what’s happening to Nazis now (using low-key, manual methods) to what will happen to us then (using firehose, automated methods). Said chuckleheads will empower their lackeys in Congress to implode or impede any legislation that might provide some relief. Said chuckleheads will also spread the word to low-information, disaffected, and underemployed idiots who might want to get in on the fun.

So that’s why you shouldn’t out Nazis; it’s in your best interests. But there’s one more reason.

It’s wrong.

Think Nazis are reprehensible? Great. They weren’t in the 1930s. But not too much earlier, labor unions were. Martin Luther King, Jr.—sainted MLK himself? Contemporary white sentiment was sorta kinda in favor, but thought he was way too radical about how fast he wanted change; and by all means, when all those negroes turned out to hear him speak, it was a threat to the public order and they should stay home.

I’m not invoking a moral relativism to say that Nazis aren’t always evil. They are, and any society which says otherwise (including this one) should give up all aspirations to calling itself civilized. I’m saying that a lot of folks who aren’t evil and aren’t reprehensible, by our current standards, used to be, and might be again.

Are you in favor of American values? Well, here’s the thing about values: they don’t mean a goddamn thing if you only hold them when it’s painless to do so. Believe in freedom of speech? Then you’ve gotta let the Nazis march. Believe in the rule of law and the right to a fair trial? Then you’ve gotta give your captured al-Qaeda or ISIS asshole a goddamn lawyer and a jury.

The Nazi fuckers and opposition in Charlottesville who hurt people? Identify them, find them, prosecute them, and lock ’em up if they’re found guilty. (But, you know, try to find out who threw the first punch and who acted in self-defense.) The ones who committed property damage? Go ahead and do the same, but for God’s sake, let’s not treat them like they’re nearly as bad as the people who were violent.

The Nazi fuckers who “only” carried a Nazi flag, and yelled at nearby counter-protestors that they were vermin? Guess what? Not illegal. Protected speech. Of course protected speech has consequences; if a Nazi is dumbshit enough to give an interview to CNN and get seen by millions of people, fuck it, let him lose his hot dog job. Same thing goes for any organizer of the rally, or the officials of organizing groups; they’re public figures.

But your average brownshirt? He gets to go home, and that way, when you’re out there protesting him, so will you.

Rule of thumb. Someone goes out in public and says, “North Koreans are evil and all of them should die in nuclear hellfire”? Protected. Someone says, “Attack a Korean today”? Fuck him, and lock him up.

Postscript, August 15: since I’m making strong First Amendment arguments in this piece, I want to add something that I’ve written elsewhere.

The First Amendment crucially clarifies that it only extends to peaceable assembly. In my view, this means that if you show up at a protest with a weapon of any kind, you’re abrogating your First Amendment rights by doing so. No guns. No pepper spray. These are offensive weapons, and remain weapons even if they are used in self-defense. Guns and obvious weapons also carry a heavy intimidation factor which is the antithesis of free speech. Objects like torches, which are dual-use items that can also be weapons, must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Worried about your safety at a protest? By all means, bring helmets and shields (although you might look a bit silly doing so, and prepare yourself for a dual-use argument). Bring goggles and Visine if you’re concerned about being pepper-sprayed or tear-gassed. These are defensive items and allow you to maintain both your moral and legal arguments for First Amendment protection.

I think there are very interesting questions that can be raised about the prior conduct of Nazis and white nationalists; there is a long track record of showing up to protests with weaponry. Governor McAuliffe said yesterday that Virginia police have found caches of weaponry stored around Charlottesville by the Nazi marchers. This obviously means a premeditated intent to use them. I think this raises a valid question of whether Nazi organizations can be presumed to bring weapons to future protests, and if so, whether they retain First Amendment protections. (The same can be said of Antifa activists, but in the research I’ve done since Saturday, I’ve found almost no evidence of actual Antifa activity; nearly all references to Antifa are right-wingers indiscriminately calling every liberal and leftist organization Antifa.)

But what’s clear is that a violent ideology on its own cannot be construed as an intent to commit violence. Nazis are genocidal; nearly all neo-Nazi organizations attempt to distance themselves from this, but such claims cannot be taken seriously. On the other hand, similar claims are made about Black Lives Matter regarding white people. At the Sunday vigil I attended for Charlottesville, multiple speakers called government and police actions against black people genocide.

I think it’s entirely rational to call Nazis genocidal, and it’s entirely ridiculous to call Black Lives Matter, police, and the federal government genocidal. (Regarding police and government: violent, yes. Genocidal, no. For genocidal federal policy, c.f. colonial and American governments regarding Native Americans between the 17th and 19th centuries.) But the rationality of the claim can’t be taken into account, unless you want to give the power to every judge in Alabama to restrict protest for any group he deems too violent. Again, it’s protected to have a violent political ideology; it’s illegal to incite violence.

In my view, this reinforces the idea that free speech protections only extend to people who don’t prepare to be violent. But I have no idea how such a view can be pragmatically enforced.

Nazi Sympathizer Donald Trump

Yesterday, it was a violation of Godwin’s Law to say that Donald Trump is a Nazi sympathizer. Today, it’s a statement of fact.

Here’s the video where he says this, starting one minute in:

Note his lack of interest while he’s reading his prepared text, the bored tone of his language, until he gets to the words (or ad-libs) “on many sides.” Then repeats it. No, the fatal attack in Charlottesville wasn’t the fault of actual swastika-wearing Nazis. It was the fault of many sides.

He’s being pilloried today for his language from many sides, indeed, but not in terms that are nearly harsh enough. There were Nazis demonstrating. He is sympathizing with them by not calling them out. Ergo, Nazi sympathizer.

How, in any context, could this not be the most immediately salient aspect of this man? Incompetent Donald Trump. Warmonger Donald Trump. Corrupt Donald Trump. All of these are, and must be, superseded by Nazi sympathizer Donald Trump. It’s now the first line of his obituary: “the president who expressed sympathy for Nazis.”

But here’s the problem: we’re not allowed to say this. I have little doubt that some people who saw the headline of this post decided not to read it because “Nazi sympathizer Donald Trump” is too incendiary. I clearly must be a wackaloon to write it. Never mind that it’s now factual.

This is why it’s important: there are damn few people willing to wear swastikas and parade in front of cameras. But there are many people who happily call themselves alt-right. The guy who “built the platform for the alt-right” is, as of now, in the White House advising the president. (There are rumors today that Bannon’s about to be fired, not because he’s a Nazi sympathizer, but because he leaks to the press.)

We haven’t been in danger of having a measurable Nazi political movement in the United States since the 1930s. We never will be. But we’re currently experiencing a powerful alt-right political movement, and alt-right is a term invented by Nazis to deliberately rebrand themselves. Maybe there are many people who call themselves alt-right who would never have joined the Nazis; maybe they’re just that gullible and naive. That doesn’t make it unfair to call the alt-right Nazis, because it’s also not required for us to go along with their branding effort.

There are many pretty things being said by Republicans today, but so far, I haven’t heard the beginnings of a whiff of any action to impede, restrict, or remove the president from office. These statements are designed to take the heat off of his Congressional abettors. Without action or followup, they are meaningless.

And here’s why this matters: we’ve known all along that the guardrails are off on our democracy, and we’ve repeatedly questioned if there’s a red line that Trump can cross which will cost him the support of the Congress he needs to stay in office. Yesterday, he crossed a red line we didn’t even know was necessary. If there’s no action, then don’t kid yourselves: there is no action Trump can take that will cost him his power.

The corollary: there is also no longer anything hyperbolic about envisioning what Trump might do. Cancel elections? Declare martial law? Call upon his armed supporters to take to the streets? (He’s already asked the military to become activists on his behalf.) All of this was hyperbole yesterday.

But today, we know Donald Trump is a Nazi sympathizer, and there are no guardrails.

Some mostly unnoticed things in the Trump call transcripts

A few things in the unexpurgated transcripts that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere.

1) As noted by the Washington Post, Peña Nieto always calls him Mr. President or… (that other combination of title and last name that I haven’t written or uttered since January, and I’m not going to start now). Trump calls him Enrique, every time.

I could see this as a way of trying to establish bonhomie as a negotiating tactic—but Trump is famously a guy who lets almost no one call him Donald. The “first name basis” thing generally involves reciprocity, at least among us mere mortals. So is this like the W thing where he bestowed nicknames as a dominance show? Or just a dominance show in general (I get to use your first name, but you don’t use mine)? In any case, it’s more than a bit weird with heads of state, and utterly unnecessary.

2) I’m skipping the many examples where Trump appears to be grossly ignorant which I’ve seen reported elsewhere. That still leaves a few.

It’s kind of a big deal if we start abrogating NAFTA and slap a bunch of import taxes on things that are currently duty-free. And here Trump says two things at the same time: on the one hand, he’s “happy” to just go ahead and tax Mexican imports (at least, until the inevitable lawsuit reminds him that NAFTA is a treaty obligation); on the other, he talks about reciprocal taxation if other countries tax us first. That’s… not the same thing at all.

3) Always a good idea to encourage goodwill in other nations by saying their military is more cowardly than ours is, but that’s what Trump does. So—we’ve already got quite a bit of DEA and other law enforcement cooperation going on with Mexico, but that’s not what Trump says. He offers to send in the military. As in, a threatened invasion? An invasion putatively at the invitation of Mexico? I mean, invading Mexico under any circumstances sounds batshit, but when you mention “military” in nearby context with “there are things you must do which you’re not doing,” it’s generally considered a message.

4) I know Trump has a tendency to exaggerate, which is a nice way of saying “lie his ass off.” Still, it’s really bizarre for him to refer to the “billions and billions and billions” that the drug lords are making, and then say, “some people say more.” Really? That would be trillions, seeing as how multiple billions are nicely covered already.

5) Once again, I am utterly boggled by Trump, this time when he says that a trade deal with Mexico will make him “almost” a father of the country. No. For that, you need a time machine.

6) “It is you and I against the world, Enrique, do not forget.” Um… you’re saying this to the guy whose nation you just threatened to slap a 35% tax on. And maybe invade. And why are you against the world, exactly? This is either very scary or very weird.

7) On to Prime Minister Turnbull, or I guess, just Malcolm is fine. I’m sure he doesn’t mind. The odd thing here is that everyone said at the time how this was really vituperative, but this call doesn’t seem much more angry than the conversation with Peña Nieto. One gets the impression that an audio leak would be a lot more damaging than the transcript.

8) Alright, so apparently the sticking point here is that we made an agreement last year to take up to 1,250 refugees that Australia is holding (one might say “concentrating”) on Nauru. Trump keeps saying 2,000, Turnbull keeps saying 1,250; 750 people really makes that much of a difference? But then Trump says he’s heard up to 5,000, presumably from the voices in his head, to the guy who actually negotiated the agreement.

Here’s the bizarre thing: it’s an own goal. Turnbull makes clear: the agreement is for the US to consider allowing the refugees to come, using whatever screening process we wish. If we decide they’re all “bad people,” Turnbull says it’s perfectly fine to turn them all down. Trump seems to think they’re bad people because they’re on Nauru, despite hearing Turnbull say 10 seconds earlier that they’re perfectly fine and just caught up in Australian immigration rules.

It’s like the Paris Agreement; since the entire thing is completely voluntary, Trump could have said, “We’re staying in, but we’re changing what we’re doing.” Sure, anyone who knows a damn thing about it would understand it was just as shredded, but idiots in the media and on Trump’s side would have given him a ton of accolades. He withdrew for no reason. And he started a rift with Australia, for no reason. Again, it’s boggling.

What to do in case of a dirty bomb

The Washington Post reports today that ISIS has potentially had the ingredients of a dirty bomb available to them; at this time, apparently they did not have the skills to retrieve them. But radioactive materials are widely available, and a dirty bomb is the scariest weaponry that may become available to terrorist organizations in the future. (Nuclear weapons are very difficult to obtain and build; biological weapons are currently difficult, although that might change in the future; chemical weapons are very difficult to deliver to a target.)

The following is a discussion about how you should feel, and what you should do, about dirty bomb attacks. I am not an expert; this may be amended after expert colleagues have read and commented on it.

What is a dirty bomb?

A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive encased in or containing radioactive material. When the bomb explodes, this radioactive material is dispersed over an area as large as, or slightly larger than, the blast radius.

A dirty bomb is not a nuclear bomb. Nuclear bombs are immensely powerful and widely devastating. The radioactive material in a dirty bomb does not contribute to its explosive power; the bomb is no more powerful than the conventional explosive would be without the radioactive materials. As a result, the area which is irradiated by a dirty bomb is likewise constrained. There is no fallout. There is very little chance that radioactive materials will be carried by wind, and if it is, there is so little of it that it poses a small risk. Nuclear bombs create fallout because they create a large amount of airborne debris which is highly radioactive; dirty bombs do not create airborne debris (or very little), hence no fallout extending the radioactive radius.

A dirty bomb can kill you with radiation if you are within the blast radius. However, if you’re inside the blast radius, the conventional explosion will already turn you into pudding. Dirty bombs are only really an additional concern for those people within an injury but not lethal zone, or perhaps for people who feel the blast but are not injured; these people may have radioactive health impacts beyond the conventional blast.

If you are outside the blast radius, you are not at risk from radiation. You will not be at risk from radiation in the future.

The Washington Post article mentions the possibility of a dirty bomb going off and irradiating a large area. To the best of my knowledge, this is only possible with particular kinds of explosives in an airburst; such weaponry is not available to terrorist organizations, so the article should have noted that this becomes a concern only if we’re at war with a nation-state.

What you should do

Summary: stay in place, as long as you can, unless you are evacuated. Tell your family to do likewise. Do not try to reunite, not yet.

Most people have no idea that there is a difference between dirty bombs and nuclear bombs, and will be terrified. They will likewise be terrified of radiation (which, to be fair, is terrifying in large doses). Expect a mass migration away from what is perceived as the affected area (much larger than the actual affected area). Expect gridlock as families try to reunite. Expect civil law enforcement and authorities to fail at first in containing panic; even if they’re well-trained, they’re going to be overwhelmed.

This may also happen in case of conventional attack, if a disinformation terrorist broadcast announces radiation where there is none, or if an irresponsible media or government report does likewise. This happened briefly after 9/11. It may happen again. Act on your best information; listen for better.

Stay where you are, as long as you can.

The greatest danger to you and your loved ones is not from the bomb, but from your panicking fellow citizens. (This is also the case with biological, chemical, and nuclear attacks if you’re outside the much larger affected area, but in those cases, panic may very well be justified. “Stay in place” is not necessarily the right thing to do in those cases.) If your fellow citizens are well-armed, there will probably be bloodshed. Even if everyone remains non-violent, there will be gridlock on local streets and highways leaving the city. Fleeing is likely futile; furthermore, it’s unnecessary.

Eventually there will be an all-clear alert from the authorities, or you may notice the traffic and panic is lessening in your area. It’s probably a good idea to wait longer until you can be certain, but that’s when you can reunite with your family and—if you wish—get the hell out of Dodge.

Cell phones will likely be unable to place calls; your phone Internet may still work, but will be very slow. Due to this, it is an excellent idea to buy a portable radio now, especially one which is hand-powered. Landline Internet and phone connections should still work. Use these to contact your family if they’re available.

If you are evacuated, it is entirely likely that the beat cop or firefighter who is doing so has no more understanding of dirty bombs than you do. But they know enough to get you away from the dangerous blast radius, which will remain radioactive. Conventional civil emergency procedures are appropriate here, and we have good training programs in place in urban areas for police and firefighters. This may be less true in exurban and rural areas.

Finally, the last thing you should do. Share this with your friends, neighbors, and coworkers. (If they are nearby during an emergency, their best interests are also your best interests; reducing panic is crucial. Sharing this information during an emergency is unlikely to do that.)

Also: contact your local and national politicians and express your concerns with them. We’ve had 16 years since 9/11 for a widespread campaign to inform the public, similar to what was done in England during the Blitz. We have not done so. Rather we have often increased fear and the likelihood of panic; I have also never seen a general media story containing the above information. This is civic negligence. Ask for better.

An open letter to Donald Trump

In the whirlwind of the last week, when you found yourself committed to a job you do not want and did not expect, perhaps you have not considered the personal cost of what you have just accomplished. Your legacy, everything you have worked for up until last Tuesday, is now guaranteed to be utterly forgotten.

Only academic historians remember the words and deeds of 19th century tycoons. But schoolchildren can name Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan. You are now playing on a stage where legacy is measured in decades and centuries. From the moment you take the oath of office, everything you have done to get to that position becomes completely irrelevant. You become a president, and that is all history will remember about you.

Already, history is watching. It will be recorded that you ran a campaign not seen by Americans in decades, and even then, always by fringe and losing candidates. History’s first draft, indicating that you had no idea what the job entailed until your meeting with the current president, is already written.

Perhaps you believe you will be able to control what is said about you, and maybe that is true within your lifetime. But history has a long memory. Eventually, your closest aides and confidantes will talk to the media, or to historians. Your every misstep will be dissected. Your every mistake will be magnified. And when it becomes clear what the outcome of your presidency will be for the future of the nation, your legacy will be written long after you are dead, when you have no control over what it says.

The most likely result of this does not look good for you. You have no experience at this job. The world is dangerous, complex, and vulnerable. A plurality of Americans already believe you are the worst man in history for this position. Your putative allies, the Republican party, has deep fissures and strong political traditions which run in opposition to what you hope to accomplish. Even people who voted for you have deep doubts about your ability.

The open question now is whether you will be remembered in history as a laughingstock, or whether you will actually supplant Buchanan as America’s worst president.

But the crucial point is this: regardless of what you achieve or fail, your legacy is erased. Everything you have built is ashes. You are going to be judged purely based on what you do, or fail to do, starting January 20th. All else is irrelevant.

Everything that has been written about you indicates that you are deeply concerned with what people think about you. Fill as many rallies as you like with your adoring fans; their numbers will be utterly meaningless next to the generations of Americans who will learn your name, possibly alongside the historical verdict of “worst in history.”

There is one thing you can do to avoid this, and your deadline is December 19th. Simply take the stage at Trump Tower, the place that will be forgotten, and announce that you do not want the job.

The immediate result will be a crisis; five hundred and thirty-eight nonentities from around the country will suddenly have the power to appoint the next president. It could be Mike Pence. It could be Hillary Clinton. In fact, it could be any native-born American who has lived here for the past fourteen years, is at least thirty-five years old, and who has not already served two terms.

It will be a crisis, but one that will be less severe than any number that may occur once you take responsibility for the nation. Let’s talk about what it does for you.

Instead of being history’s greatest failure, you get to continue doing exactly what gave you the most pleasure during the campaign. You will still have the support of millions. You will have a position of power and influence for the rest of your life. Most importantly, you can spend the remainder of your days saying what you would have done in office, criticizing the office holder, and have no actual events proving you wrong.

By all indications, it is the outcome you wanted: the title without the responsibility. You will still have won the election. You will still have mortified your enemies. The story of your life will still matter to history. If anything, being the first person in the history of the republic to turn down the job will ensure that you are remembered well by posterity.

You have just under five weeks to decide. This is your last chance to go out as America’s greatest winner. Take it.

Musings about “Not my president”

I’ve been giving some thought to the chants of “Not my president” at various anti-Trump rallies, and which is a hashtag I’ve seen trending on Facebook. Plenty of people are crawling out of the woodwork to say that this is destructive of a democratic norm; that we all have one president and should unite behind him. (Him, of course. Still, always “him”.)

I think this is interesting, taken in conjunction with the fact that Hillary is going to win the popular vote, possibly by a large margin once California finishes counting. (By way of comparison, her losing share could be larger than the winning shares of Kennedy and Nixon.) That’s in addition to the Senate, which is inherently undemocratic in how it apportions power to the less-populated states, and the House, which sends an outsized Republican contingent than its voter share thanks to gerrymandering. And of course, once the White House and Congress are undemocratic, the unelected judiciary has to be as well.

This is especially ironic given that the original point of the electoral college was to prevent the democratic mob from sending someone to the presidency who was manifestly unfit for office. Well, now the democratic mob has spoken, they’ve spoken for Hillary Clinton, and thanks to the rules we’ve elected the other guy, who is manifestly unfit for office.

That no one is saying shit about this is striking. In 2000, I was utterly outraged that Gore won the popular vote and it meant nothing. I honestly believed that people would be protesting in the streets for four years straight. In 2016, my reaction is, “Fuck, again? That sucks.” This is what I meant by “we can normalize anything” in a prior essay. Two unelected Democrats with the popular vote margin in 16 years? What was unthinkable is now routine.

That brings me back to the question of democracy. The razor-thin plurality of the voters voted for the loser, and lost the Senate and House as well. In nearly no time at all, this will lead to the permanent (measured in my remaining lifetime) loss of the judiciary—made possible by the antidemocratic measures taken by the Republican Senate under Obama.

At what point do we say, “no, the hell with the norms, the hell with civic polity, this undivided, unified, undemocratic government is the step too far.” More importantly, how do we say it? There are no remaining levers of power with which to express ourselves. The Internet gives everyone a voice, which ensures the impossibility of a single united one. The public sector is nowhere near strong enough to stand in the face of the awesome power of government united against it. And the next elections are two years away.

So what does this mean? Not my government? Not my America? “I want my country back?” Yes, we mocked the Republicans who said that under Obama, and they are still deserving of mockery for using that language under a president who was elected democratically in every sense of the word, with a Congress not rigged in his favor, who governed according to historical norms. But of course, it also ensures that no one else can say it, however justified they might be.

But that’s what’s driving the fear, the anguish, the mourning for the death of a loved one, among the plurality of voters in this election. We had a belief that America was special, and that she could not elect a… a what? A Berlusconi? A Mussolini? A Hitler? That everyone took seriously the idea of country first, party second. That despite the partisan divide, the manifest flaws in this man which other Republicans had pointed out would be enough to prevent this catastrophe.

So no, not my president, I guess. Because it’s not the America I believed in long before I ever became a partisan. This is an undemocratic country where the people who hold power received fewer votes. Where vote margins in many places are far smaller than the numbers of people who are blocked from voting. Where half of the eligible electorate doesn’t vote, and where those people are most likely to be the most marginalized. And where the driving force among the people who do vote, and the media that covers it, is politics as tribalism and entertainment, not governance.

How can I possibly cheer on the success of a president when I despise the man personally, and bitterly oppose most of what he proposes? When his office works for a policy that will ensure the literal death and suffering of millions? (Have you seen the Ryan budget yet? Don’t sugarcoat it. People will die.) When there is a clearly defined, large, and profitable media geared up to support him no matter how bad he is? When he is a fascist? How do you possibly define “success” in those terms?

I’ll close with a memory, I can’t remember if it was from 9/11 or 9/12. Most people remember that time as when the country united and came together. What I remember about it was W’s first speech on television that I saw, a few unplanned words. I can’t remember what he said. I can find the bullhorn speech, the Oval Office speech, the National Cathedral speech, but not this one. But I remember watching it and thinking, in the moment, “This man is terrified out of his gourd. He’s not up to this job.”

Most people, of course, looked to the Oval Office and saw there what it comforted them to see. Some of them surely changed their minds later. I suspect most people who went through that conversion don’t think about it much.

The point is, it took me from January 20th until September 11th to understand that the office was held not merely by someone who I opposed politically, but by someone who I was certain would fail. I never felt that way about Bush’s father. (And I can’t speak to my feelings about Reagan, because back then, I was a low-information Republican.) This time, I’m certain not just on Day One, but long beforehand. And I was right the last time.

What now?

Dissecting the postmortems

Responding more to some themes I’m seeing in the media and social media as they conduct their instantaneous, uninformed postmortems.

I read a lot of leftist commentary, and of course there’s been a smattering of “Bernie woulda won.” Right, the Socialist Jew would have gone down gangbusters in this cycle. There’s very little doubt that the Wikileaks ratfucking depressed some turnout, but that’s not saying Bernie would have won; that’s saying that beating Bernie hurt Hillary. Bring up Joe Biden, and maybe you’re talking about someone who might have carried it.

Likewise the people who think of Hillary as a “tragically flawed” candidate; give me a fucking break. I have zero doubt that Trump is going to make good on his pledge to try to put Hillary in jail, but that’s because if he doesn’t, no one is going to fucking remember any of Hillary’s so-called “scandals” unless there’s a constant barrage of biased media hatred banging the drum. Also, he’s a motherfucking tyrant, and that’s how tyrants do. History is going to forget about 95% of the bullshit that seemed oh so fucking important on Tuesday, and 2016 voters will look even more astonishingly ignorant than they do today.

Meanwhile, the endless cries of “What should the Democrats dooooooo?” are ridiculous, especially when it’s from non-Democrats offering “advice.” We just lost a razor-thin election folks, and no one would be saying shit if the percentage point had gone the other way in a few key states. Sure, we could analyze our navels endlessly and re-examine the beating heart of the Democratic party; much more accurate to say that the margin was pretty much up to the antics of James Fucking Comey. The GOP is facing serious, endemic, and critical divisions in their coalition of Neanderthals. We have a much more minor conflict between our resurgent progressive wing and our more moderate mainstream; our “divisions” shouldn’t eclipse the fact that everyone agrees on the mainstream position, but some people want to take it further.

Aside from that, there’s one more distinction: we have a common enemy and fuck all to do between now and the next election. My prescription is to take a page out of the British playbook and form a shadow government; make it damn clear each and every time a Republican policy attacks the poor and middle class exactly why their policies are harmful, and make it equally damn clear how a Democratic proposal and a Democratic Congress will do better for them. If we believe our policies our better because they’re reality-based, get that information out there. Every damn day, not just during an election, when 96% of the coverage is horse race.

Beyond that, trust in being right. The Republicans haven’t had to put together a governing coalition for years, and the last time they did, not only did they fuck it up so badly we still haven’t cleaned up the mess, but they did so quickly. Each third of the Republican party wants policies that will fuck the other two-thirds (and of course, the rest of America). We’re about to be served a platter of war, recession, race hatred, misogyny, and attacks on anyone born without a trust fund.

The core thing the Democratic party should be thinking about now: the GOP wing of the media is going to spend the next two years telling their viewers how tasty their shit sandwich is. These people don’t read the same damn newspapers we do. Your job: reach them with your message. Find low-information voters who are getting fucked and teach them why it’s important to be a high-information voter.

We believe our ideas are better and their ideas are shit. Their ideas are about to fail explosively, miserably, and catastrophically. Be ready for that.

While we’re on that topic, we keep hearing about how the Democrats (and the news media) need to learn how to “listen” and “reach out” to those special, special snowflakes in “flyover America.” (I put that in quotes because I’ve never once heard anyone seriously use the term “flyover America” except when someone is saying that other people shouldn’t use the term “flyover America.”) Those people are hurting, poor things, and we must pay extra-special attention to them.

Bullshit. We pay attention to them, and it’s called “every Democratic platform since 1932.” Rural America seems to be dying because rural America has been dying for over a century and a half. We ain’t gonna to fix that in policy; urbanization is a worldwide trend. And we should acknowledge that if the tolerant people live in cities and the intolerant people are rural, it’s because the intolerant people fucking want to stay intolerant, and they’re never going to be our voters. We don’t reach them because we don’t want them. But try to get a message to their kids.

Here’s the deal: right now, most people are focused on how we’re about to lose the gains of the last eight years. The thing is, we’re going to lose the gains of the last eighty if the mainstream Republicans carry through on their threats, and barring wizardly usage of the Senate filibuster, they’re going to. That’s before we get to Trump’s platform or whatever the Freedom Caucus and Pence get into their precious little heads. If you can’t form a platform that defends a century of the progressive agenda, which all Americans grew up understanding as “America,” you don’t deserve to lead a political party.

Finally, let’s be extremely fucking clear about who is now explicitly a Republican. I don’t know how many Republicans are neo-Nazis, white supremacists, misogynists, or currently race-bashing women in hijabs, but I’m pretty fucking sure that it’s large enough to have been well over Trump’s margin of victory. Republicans want to say that “not all Republicans” are like that? Time to put your money where your mouth is and repudiate all of this shit. Because we are going to shame you like shit-stained baboons until you do. These people—and we’ll leave it to the social scientists to eventually tell us their numbers—are extremely fucking happy that your agenda won. When literal neo-Nazis are cheering on your guy, it is fucking time for you to say, “Shit, are these really the people I want to publicly associate with?”

Democrats need to reach out to sane independents and Republicans not because it’s a good strategy, not because it might help win an election, but because it’s the American thing to do. Republicans own those people until they say otherwise.