Deck the Malls


In the past I’ve railed against the Christmas excess, particularly the consumeristic aspects of it, starting well before Thanksgiving (and even before my beloved Halloween). Seeing as how this year some stores (all of them) are opening on Thanksgiving for their “Black Friday” sales, I’m giving up.

That’s right; I’m throwing in the towel. You win. I even wrote a little song for you heartless bastards, just to show I care. Enjoy.

 

Stores are open, let’s get hopping.

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la

Screw the family, let’s go shopping.

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la

Out into the hurly burly,

Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

Black Friday is starting early!

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la, la-la

Save the turkey and the stuffing.

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la

Human contact we’re rebuffing.

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la

We’ll be loyal Christmas elves

Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

All those gifts won’t buy themselves!

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la, la-la

Fast away Thanksgiving passes.

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la

Lines move like frozen molasses.

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la

Looking for that coat of leather

Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

Instead of being all together.

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la

 


The Vote’s On You


Just because it will color everyone’s perception of everything I say on the subject, I’m going to get it out of the way right now: yes, I voted. No, I am not going to say how I voted or what I voted on. That’s none of your damn business, but if you’re a regular reader or do a dive through the archives there shouldn’t be much doubt.

Now that I have that out of the way, let me get something else off my chest: I really don’t care if you vote. If you choose not to vote, that only increases the value of my vote by some small, practically imperceptible amount. But I’ll take it. Pennies add up. The fewer people who vote, the more each vote is worth, and I want my vote to be worth as much as possible.

If I were going to encourage you to vote, I would point out that if you don’t vote, you can’t vote “no”. I am a big fan of “no”. It’s something our government doesn’t hear nearly often enough. Vote “no” on as many things as you want, even if you have to vote “yes” in order to vote “no” to government (D.C., I’m looking in your direction, and I’ve got two ounces in my hand as we speak.)

I would also like to call for a moratorium on the oft-used and completely fallacious “if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain.” You may as well say “if you don’t pay taxes you don’t get to complain about the debt,” or any number of equally irrelevant couplings. The sad fact is we all live under the same roof and obey the same laws made by the same government, and whether or not someone chooses to participate in the process of selecting that government does not remove their right to complain about it. Complaining is one of the few things we all get to enjoy equally, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or social standing. Putting a price on that is ridiculous.

Finally, I would like to thank everyone who has made it possible for us to have the chance to decide whether or not to participate in deciding the course of our democracy. Certainly that includes the soldiers that have defended our democracy throughout its history, but I want to also acknowledge the others who don’t usually get mentioned.

Thank you to the teachers who have explained the process for generations. Thank you to the philosophers and thinkers who created and sustained a system that has endured. Thank you to the businessmen who have helped our country continue to grow and prosper so that we can continue to have a democracy. Thank you to the artists who have broadened our minds and given us a culture worth exploring and defending. Thank you to the workers who participate every day, not just once every couple years. Thank you to everyone who makes America a place worth voting for.

The politicians? They should be thanking us.


Shutting Down Politics


So we have a solution at last to the latest installment of the ongoing fiscal crisis (#thanksfornothing), which involves yet another passing of the very large buck down the road to some near-term future date when it’s likely something equally ineffectual will be done, mostly because the same teams will be running the same plays (kind of like watching the Jacksonville Jaguars take on the Denver Broncos every Sunday for a year. What? I can be topical.) The real questions at this point should be “how did we get into this mess in the first place?” and more importantly, “how do we prevent these ^(#_*%!$& from doing it again?”

As for how we got here, I’m not going to take a partisan stance. As I’ve said before, a plague on both your houses (of Congress). But there is one answer that applies equally to both parties, one that has been coming for a long time, and it is a word that gets hurled at both equally (usually by the other side): gerrymandering. As long as one party has control of a state when redistricting time comes along, they rig the elections – excuse me, draw the districts so very carefully that there is no way they can lose. This creates a scenario in which the extreme elements of either party are more likely to win out and “compromise” becomes a dirtier word than “moderate”. It’s been more apparent among Republicans than Democrats in the last few years because they’ve been more successful with this strategy in the latest round of redistricting, as well as the fact that the only powerbase they have is in opposition to the sitting President, so of course they push back, but both sides do it.

So what’s the answer? I would suggest a third party organization that is not directly connected to the process gets to make the districts, perhaps the folks behind the United States Elections Project. Or maybe a panel composed of a representative from each party currently eligible to produce a candidate for that state, with ties being broken by the current governor. The current “winner takes all” strategy masquerading as “politics neutral” is clearly broken and needs to be done away with to be replaced by something that more accurately represents the needs of the constituency; perhaps actually injecting some real politik into the process at the beginning rather than the end will help to break down the borders and create détente, if not civility.

Another option (and one that I favor even more) is to get the money out of the hands of politicians. Now I know I have argued before that money equals speech, and I’m not backing away from that. But note what I said: get the money out of the hands of politicians. They have chosen to be public officials (even the candidates), which means different (and stricter) rules should apply to them. Also they pander to the most extreme causes because those are the people most likely to donate to them, not just to vote. If we capped the amount of money they can spend in an election, suddenly the incentive isn’t there for them to be so fast on the trigger with the votes. There’s also a world of other organizations and individuals who are free to spend all the money they want (or should be) in support of the candidates they like, so long as they don’t coordinate directly with those candidates. The more moderate candidates will have a broader base of support, both from individuals and organizations, and are at least more likely to have a better chance of getting some second-hand support.

This would also free the current office-holders up from the constant “campaign treadmill” where they win an election and then start the donor circuit just to pay for the next campaign. Maybe then they’ll have enough time to sort out all the problems that still plague us. Or maybe they’ll just spend more time arguing with each other. Either way, it’s something new, which is one step up from the current broken system.


What Do I Owe You?


I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about society, specifically an individual’s place in it and what we owe to society as a whole. I’m not speaking about taxes and such per se, but rather the social conventions that make up the social mores of society, and the point at which those social mores conflict with our belief in the spirit of the individual and individual expression. With Miley Cirus quickly tanking her musical career with twerking, Anthony Weiner destroying his political career with his… Twitter account, and President Obama rapidly, well, for the sake of civil discussion let’s say “adjusting” America’s reputation in the world on a daily if not hourly basis with the Syrian situation, clearly we hold public individuals accountable. But at what level do we hold private individuals accountable? And should we?

Obviously there are some actions that, while not necessarily physically assaulting others, we believe to be beyond the boundaries of appropriateness. Screaming profanities at a child is not acceptable. Public nudity is (generally) considered outside the lines. Even the unauthorized use of someone else’s property, and no it doesn’t matter if you return it with a full tank of gas, is completely out of the question, whether they were inconvenienced or not. But is that all? Or is there something more?

In our personal relationships we set boundaries, and those boundaries can be somewhat flexible. As we get to know others better we adjust those boundaries, although some things will always be off limits (although what and to whom varies from individual to individual). The difference between standards that we set amongst ourselves and for ourselves can occasionally cause conflict, the most common of which is people judging others or feeling judged. Personally I have no problem with either one; feel free to judge me, because lord knows I’m judging you. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying, has a different word for what they are doing, or has no standards for behavior at all.

But that doesn’t mean we have a right to restrict each other’s behavior. Should we call each other out on it? Depends on the relationship. In a work environment, there are (hopefully) guidelines for what is and is not acceptable, and ways to address unacceptable behavior. Outside of those narrowly defined terms, you either need to find a nice way to address it or live with it. For example, maybe the person in the next office talks on their phone really loud. Not so loud that it justifies a complaint to HR, but still. Either you need to find a way to talk to them about it, or get some headphones. And that’s the way life goes.

Personal lives are the same way. If you know someone who engages in what you consider to be obnoxious (but not illegal) behavior, you either need to find a nice way to approach them about it or let it go. Of course they may not listen, or they may be unwilling or unable to change. Then you either have to live with it or stop spending time with them. Life’s full of tough choices like that.

Which kind of brings me back to where I started. There are no guidelines about public behavior, but there is this: if you put it out there for everyone to see, you’re inviting comment from everyone who sees it. Right or wrong, good or bad, fair or not. Public figures accept this as part of the package (or at least they should, because they’re gonna get it anyway), but private individuals need to accept it too, on the small scale. Being a private person doesn’t mean everything you do is private, and we all need to accept that, as well as accepting the consequences of our actions. Even twerking (which I promise to never do).


A Little Slice of the American Dream


In about a month My Not So Humble Wife and I will be taking a big step and moving into our own place. I know this doesn’t sound like much, but we’ve been living with our current roommates (who are fantastic guys) for the better part of a decade now, and we have never lived on our own together (does that make any sense?). At any rate, it will be a big change for us, but a good one, and one I feel ready for, despite the fact that I’ve never lived without a roommate and/or fewer than three family members at once.

While I was talking about it with a friend at lunch the other day, I realized why I’m so excited about this move. What it really comes down to is that we’re finally going to capture a little slice of the American Dream. Sure we won’t own our own home, but I think the American Dream is more basic than that, more primal. I think it all comes down to autonomy.

When you go all the way back to the beginning, the American Dream was about owning land. Even if it was just a small piece of land, it was still yours, to do with as you please, and no lord or master to tell you otherwise. Coming out of an age of feudalism and many countries that still operated along socioeconomic systems that were barely removed from feudalism despite the Black Death, this was no small thing; it was everything. It was, quite literally, the American Dream.

As the country became more urbanized and people moved into the cities, owning your own business became the new aspiration. But why? More often than not you would have to work the same long hours for little money, and the only difference from being a laborer was that you couldn’t just pick up in the middle of the night and leave if things went sideways. But what you did have was self-determination. You were your own boss. In an age when the bosses made all the rules, this was no small thing; it was everything. It was, quite literally, the American Dream.

Fast forward a ways to when the cities started pushing out into the suburbs. The single family home, the fenced yard, the 2.5 kids and a car in the garage (the car, not the kids), all of this was what people longed for. Even if it meant you had to be away from home longer because you had a commute, and there was always the terrible traffic to consider, and maybe you didn’t get to know your neighbors as well, it was all worth it in the end. Why? Because your space was yours. Every house a castle, and every man a king. In a time when radio and television were bringing the world into your living room, this was no small thing; it was everything. It was, quite literally, the American Dream.

And so it goes. America has always been a culture that values the individual. There are other countries, like Japan, that have cultures prioritizing the community over the individual, and those are fine cultures, but they are not ours. The American Dream is and always has been about self-reliance, self-ownership, and self-discovery. Autonomy is at the heart of who we are, what we believe, and what we desire, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even when we form, join, or participate in communities, it is as individuals coming together, not communities deigning to acknowledge the individual from time to time.

And so at last we will be starting down the road of that American Dream, together.


Calling Off the Fall of Civilization


There is an ingrained and pernicious belief that the birth of modern communication, and particularly the World Wide Web, has created the ability to form microcosms of communities based around interests, ideas, ideologies and beliefs rather than around the necessity of geography or shared experiences (such as high school). This in turn creates communities that are more extremist in their belief systems, less inclusive and perhaps even xenophobic, and certainly less open to shared experiences than what we used to have “back in the good old days”.

Let’s unpack that a bit and see if there might be some rose tint in those glasses.

Has anyone ever heard the term “northern liberal”? How about “southern conservative”? “Dixiecrat”? Then there’s the notion that “out west is where the weirdoes live”, and we all know about the Left Coast. Then if you really want to get into it there’s the ugly fact of “the black side of town” and other ethnic ghettos (which every wave of immigrants has experienced, including the Irish, Italians, Jews, Polish, Russians, Koreans… and that’s just in New York City), where people would move just to be close to others who were like them (or were “encouraged” to).

It’s not that the internet and other forms of mass communication have insulated us from people like us; it’s only that it’s insulated us from the people we don’t like. It’s enabled us to connect with people that we do share interests and ideas and beliefs with. For example, people would (and still do) go to church…or synagogue, or the place of worship most appropriate to their form of worship… but that only emphasizes my point. You went to the place most like your belief system. Your worldview wasn’t being challenged, it was being reinforced (and if it wasn’t you were being made to conform). In a similar fashion, most sites people visit on the internet will conform to and agree with 90% of their worldview, and the 10% that is being challenged will be a modest challenge at best… just like your place of worship. The difference is that the internet untethers you from physical space; if there is no place you feel comfortable close to you it doesn’t matter, because you can find what you need electronically. Anyone who doesn’t think that’s valuable, or who thinks that what we gain is outweighed by what we have lost, has never been the outsider.

More than that, when people did gather in these geographical or experiential groups of necessity, what was gained in comity and politeness was done so at the expense of real connection. Here’s another older phrase some of you might recognize: “There are certain topics you don’t bring up in polite conversation; religion and politics are at the top of the list.” You didn’t discuss these things (and still don’t at family gatherings) because the neighbors may not and probably don’t agree with you, and unless your intention is to make sure they never invite themselves over again you stick to certain safe topics (usually weather and sports, unless your neighbor is a Browns fan). Usually the goal was polite conversation, for everyone to have a good time and to come back again for more empty conversation and good times and high balls.

The internet has none of these things. There are no high balls, there aren’t many good times, there’s an absolute dearth of polite conversation (although empty conversation still abounds), and trolls lurk under every comments section. But there is at least a chance of having a real conversation, of engaging with another person while everyone else is busy talking past each other, and that chance is better than another night at the Rotary Club knocking back drinks and mouthing empty nothings. Sure, most people just go to places where they know everyone already agrees with them and takes their turn preaching to the choir, but how is that any different than what used to happen in clubs and meeting halls across America before the advent of the internet? Again, the difference is less about the effect and more about the scope; more people talking to each other, mouthing the same words at each other, and a few loners finally finding each other.

Is it paradise? No. But it’s not the end of civilization either.


No Secrets Allowed


It’s been all over the news, and it keeps popping up. It certainly seems to be President Obama’s latest headache, and I would argue for good reason: it seems the NSA, despite agency head Gen. Keith Alexander’s protests to the contrary, has been spying on the American people. Oopsie. At the risk of sounding like one of those crazy, far-out there civil libertarians, I have to ask, did anybody not see this coming, for sheer irony if nothing else?

This follows so closely on the heels of other revelations of domestic spying by our own government that even the New York Times has started to call out the Obama administration. While it’s nice to see that there’s something besides the Justice Department seizing phone records that can ruffle the media, it’s almost gilding the lily at this point. If things follow their usual pattern, there will be an outcry, perhaps even a Congressional investigation which will bog down in cheap political point scoring, and both Republicans and Democrats will focus on getting the upper hand in the next election. It almost feels like déjà vu all over again.

Now it’s well known among magicians that the worst thing you can do in front of an audience is to make a big deal about how unremarkable an object is. “Just an average, every day, perfectly normal handkerchief, nothing unusual or exceptional about it.” This draws suspicion, makes people wonder what’s going on here, there must be something hinkey. This goes to President Obama’s insistence that “Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.” (I have to believe he’s regretting that particular turn of phrase right about now, considering how often it’s been thrown back at him by now.)

The problem is with each new revelation those voices that warn of tyranny sound just a little more like they might be on to something, and I think it’s important to focus on another part of that passage as well: “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems.” Note that’s not one specific administration, one particular party, or one named ideology. The current problems began under the Bush administration, or (arguably) even further back. Government writ large, as an entity, is what the warning cry is against. It is Leviathan the voices cry against, the absolute power that Lord Acton warned corrupts absolutely.

The primary purpose of power, before any other, is to aggregate unto itself more power. That power does not then exist simply to exist – it exists to be used. The more people demand security the more security theater we’ll get, but in addition the more (quietly, behind the scenes, when we’re not looking) we’re going to get the things we didn’t want. Will they ultimately make us safer? Marginally, perhaps. But at what cost?

And if anyone ever says “security at any cost”, think very long and hard about the Faustian bargain they’re proposing. There are times in our recent history (for example the 1950s and the McCarthy hearings as well as the Japanese internment during WWII) when we have pursued “security at any cost”, and it is all too easy to see that we are headed down that road again. With very little effort any person of imagination can conjure scenarios of costs that vastly outweigh the benefits that might accrue, even if we were willing to set aside the cherished institutions and beliefs of our country.

Even those without imagination can conjure a vision of what “security at any cost” would look like, and what the down payment would be. All they have to do is watch the news.