Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trumpocalypse Maybe

So that happened. And quit it with that post about the electoral college overriding the will of the electors. Hillary had more total votes, but this election was contested under a certain set of rules, and we have to honor the fact that she lost with more total votes.

1. The electoral college has to go, as Trump said himself in 2012.
This is the second time in five elections that someone has lost with more votes than their opponent. Obviously this is one of the very dysfunctional systems Trump won by lamenting in the first place. Go ahead, candidate of change, show us some integrity!

2. It wasn't all racists.
There just aren't that many white hoods to go around. There also aren't that many white people to go around anymore. A big part of the Trump vote were people who felt left behind, people whose insurance premiums are skyrocketing. Many of them mistakenly think Obama personally raised their rates. (Price-gouging big pharma C.E.O.s seem to have avoided blame...) Many more voters didn't know or didn't care that there was a Republican congress in power who should've been equally accountable. It doesn't matter. It's over and the damage is done. Even the non-racist Trump voters voted in the name of change, and boy are we all going to get it.

3. Your black, latino, gay, and female friends get to be angry with you the first time racist, homophobic, or misogynist legislation happens.
You voted based on the interest of your family, or at least you believe you did. The fact that you didn't consider what might happen to the families of your friends and neighbors is going to come back to haunt you. Expect some backlash. Expect some declined invitations. Expect fewer wedding and Christening gifts from your gay friends, friends of color, and some female friends. You just showed us that at the very least, our rights weren't important enough to consider when you voted. If laws making us second-class citizens are passed, we have every right to be pissed off at you. Friendships end when there is a lack of basic respect by one of the parties involved. It's a lot more than sour grapes when you show your friends that level of disregard.

4. Democrats, governing to the center leaves you vulnerable.
I give Obama credit as a human being for reaching across the aisle as many times as he did, but as a politician, it will be thought of as his fatal flaw. He looked at the Republican-majority congress and got the legislation through that he thought he could, but voters mistook those compromises as his principles. By running to the left and governing to the center, he discredited left-wing populism. Trump stepped into the vacuum with nationalist, right-wing populist rhetoric, and appeared principled (to some) by comparison.

The next time Democrats have power (assuming we recover from whatever form the Trumpocalypse takes) in the White House and not in congress, the president and his Democratic allies in congress need to put forth the laws we need and force the other side to reveal themselves as the problem when they shoot those laws down. Then we need to loudly show the voters who the problem is. Obama, in his pragmatism, probably thought that would be a waste of time. His legacy will unfortunately suffer because the voters mistook him for all three branches of government. Many of them probably believe Democrats have been in power for decades, based on how George W. Bush has been erased from history.

5. We owe Trump a chance not to be as terrible as we think he'll be, based on his atrocious campaign.
Trump was credited with "being real" while running, so he now must make every effort to fulfill his promises to the working class. If he brings Apple factories back to the U.S.A., and allows those jobs to be good union jobs rather than the child labor jobs they currently are, we all have to expect to take a hit on our retirement accounts. (Remember, we are Wall Street too, whether we want to admit it or not.) We'll all have to pay more for products as well, and as a result, our employers will have to be forced to pay us more. This will be worth it, if it means an economy where everyone's labor is valued and everyone can participate in the economy. To keep his promises, Trump must harm the fortunes of all of his oligarch golf buddies and old prep school roommates. I never believed he would actually do it, and I still don't, but I'd be thrilled to be wrong.

The anti-government radicals must now govern, and be held responsible for all of the results. You no longer have the black boogeyman to kick around, boys. It's all on you to reign in corporate power without becoming the fascists many of us fear you to be.

6. You are responsible for the increase in hate crimes that has already happened, and all that happen during your tenure.
When Chad and Todd and the neanderthal frat boys, who somehow feel ostracized despite their trust funds, go out on a Saturday night to gay bash or run over someone they perceive to be an illegal immigrant, that's on Trump, and all of you who voted for him. He showed you who he was and you failed to recoil in horror. You need to own that shit.

7. If Trump starts to live up to his fascist rhetoric, we must all shut this country down to stop him.
Whether you like him or not, we all need to admit what Trump said on the campaign trail. He did threaten to attack the press by "expanding libel laws" if they criticized him (though in truth, they couldn't have rolled over harder for their orange ratings cow if they tried). He did threaten to jail his political opponents. He did play footsie with assassins with that "my second amendment people, maybe there is a solution" bullshit. He did say "I alone can solve all of these problems" during his odious R.N.C. speech (which Hillary would've been crucified for, based on the level of America-bashing in it). The promise of solving all of our problems if we just give him all the power is something that fascists do. The fears of the majority of us who didn't vote Trump are real: they are based on his own words.

In the event that he attempts to overreach, we are prepared to shut this country down in the name of justice. Remember, we are the majority, though we lost. And Trump needs us a hell of a lot more than we need him.

I didn't sleep very well election night, but I slept fine the night after, because I realized there are still more of us, and all of his supporters are not deplorable, though they do need to answer for those among them who are. I realized I owe this man a chance to earn my vote in 2020. I owe him a chance not to be what I think he is based on the hideousness he's shown me so far. If he reigns in corporate power without becoming a fascist, brings jobs home, invites all of us into the economy, and owns his inevitable failures and shortcomings rather than scapegoating the least powerful among us, there's a chance I could get behind him. If he does what I think he'll do instead, and gets congress to legislate like a more racist, more homophobic, more ignorant, version of the George W. Bush crew, I'll be among the many stubborn obstructionists he'll have to contend with. I think we just burned down the house because some of us were mad about our helpings from the kitchen, but I would love to be absolutely wrong about that.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Damnation (Salvation?) and Technology in Black Mirror

All week I've had two songs stuck in my head: the soul-crushing "Exit Music (for a film)" from Radiohead's 1997 tech-angst masterpiece "OK Computer", and Belinda Carlisle's sugar-bop scrunchie anthem "Heaven is a Place on Earth", from ten years earlier. The reason for the manic-depressive playlist in my head is the Netflix show "Black Mirror".

You hit a certain age and everything reminds you of ten things that were very similar. You aren't cynical, but you've seen and heard a lot, and pop culture is aimed at young people who spend a lot of money on shit they don't know they don't need. "Black Mirror" is one of those wonderful experiences that makes you struggle to find something it reminds you of. The series is a master class on plot twist embedding, re-purposing pop music, and leaving the viewer haunted and questioning the way only a good book usually can.

The standout episodes from season three include the first episode, which focuses on our cultural obsession with social media instant gratification in the form of views and likes, and the third and fourth episodes, which may be the best two hours of television I've seen this year, including the final two episodes of "Game of Thrones" season six, which I loved.

I never would've thought a television villain would top Cersei's triumphant wine-tasting as she watches the Sept of Baelor, full of her enemies, burn to the ground on her orders. But the troll in episode three of "Black Mirror" pulls it off, in part by staying off the screen.

(Black Mirror spoilers from here on down.)

The episode, masterfully titled "Shut Up and Dance" in another pop music reference, focuses on a sad, weak kid who gets a virus on his computer. His sister borrowed it. He understandably barked at her not to do that and took it back, shutting himself in his room. We know he's a sad, weak kid because he's a busboy at a greasy spoon. He gives a little girl a toy she left behind by accident. Her mother thanks him, taking in his popsicle stick physique and sad dog eyes. The buff cooks call him a knobber, which is the Queen's English for something less than civil. We never see him at school, but are left to guess he's underage due to his riding a bike to work and his later confession to be waiting to take his driver's test.

At home, in his room with his laptop, he locks the door and pulls down his pants. Next scene, he's washing his hands. We get it. He gets a message from an unknown e-mail saying "I know what you did". A hacker taped his solo session without his knowledge and threatens to send it to all of his e-mail contacts if he doesn't do as he's told. This moment was psychologically scarier than anything I saw on the visceral season premier of "Walking Dead", and I mean that as a compliment to "Black Mirror" rather than a knock on the former. (Sorry Glenn, sorry big ginger gent who also died.)

The boy does everything he's told, meeting others whose online sins have left them vulnerable to the same troll or team of trolls. The boy buddies up with Bronn from "Game of Thrones", who has a name, but to me he's Bronn. Bronn is a husband who the troll caught seeking a prostitute because "you get bored and want to fuck a twenty-something". They're forced to rob a bank and Bronn is told he can go home. The boy's punishment continues, though, and we're left with this nagging feeling like, why is he being pummeled so hard for having a good English wank? Shouldn't that be the very definition of a victimless crime?

The boy is forced to fight a man to the death, and the man reveals he was "looking at pictures of kids". We realize the boy has done the same and think, "You fuckers, you just made me feel bad for a pedophile for forty minutes." We remember his kindness to the little girl at his job. We remember how protective he was of his computer. We remember all those times we thought "but all he did was masturbate, this seems harsh" and it all makes sense. Plot twist embedding at its finest, subject matter aside.

Somehow, floss kid manages to win the fight against the older perv and it cuts back to all the people the troll had been blackmailing. They receive that grinning troll meme-emoji-whatever the kids call it and the troll wrecks their lives anyway. Radiohead blares as the beaten-up boy receives a call from his mother, shrieking about what he's done, and the police grab him.

The real trick with "Black Mirror" is it makes you think for days afterward. Who was the real villain? The troll was absolutely merciless, but his victims were far from innocent. At the same time, who the hell was (s)he to do that to four human beings (s)he had no context to judge? We lack context, as the troll does, and I think that's the point. The boy's family is destroyed, and they are innocent. Bronn's family is likely destroyed, and we don't know if his infidelity was brought on by a frigid partner, we don't know if his wife was cheating too. Another character is revealed to be a CEO who forwarded a racist e-mail, but we don't know if she's racist in her hiring and firing, or merely guilty of distasteful humor. The fourth character's "crime" is even never revealed, we just see his family imploding in their living room. Lots of collateral damage. No context. The trolls are merciless, omnipresent, and unaccountable. The secret destroyers are so terrifying, we're left wondering if it's okay to pity a potential pedophile. That's how you hammer home a point. I was overwhelmed with the horror of the plot and the beauty of the writing structure all at once.

After all that, a palate-cleanser was in order, and episode four provided not only that, but the most uplifting television sequence since the end of HBO's "Six Feet Under". "San Junipero" is a love story between women where thankfully the fact that they're both women is incidental. It starts in a setting so eighties you can smell the Aqua-net. This is a story of a reluctant lover (the hilariously named Yorkie) being won over physically by the more experienced party girl Kelly. Then Yorkie has to get Kelly to admit there's something between them emotionally, and she's worth Kelly overcoming her fear of emotional attachment.

If all that sounds pretty standard, it is, until we find out the party town is actually virtual reality, and in the real world, Kelly is elderly and dying of cancer, and Yorkie was paralyzed in her youth in a car accident following a coming out to her parents that didn't go well because religion. The first emotional thing Yorkie convinces Kelly to do is to visit her in reality.

Then we learn San Junipero isn't just for ill people. The consciousness of dead people who've spent time there can be saved there for as long as they want. (They never really explain how this is funded, which is the only little wart on a flawless hour of television.) We realize they've created Heaven.

The rest of the story hinges on Kelly's decision to either join the husband and daughter who predeceased her without being "saved" in San Junipero, or to enjoy Yorkie's company for as long as they both choose to be there. Kelly marries Yorkie so she can let her off life support, but we aren't sure she'll join her.

Cue Belinda Carlisle cooing "Ohh, bay-be do ya know what that's worth? Ohh, hea-vun is a place on earth". Of course Kelly joins her as the credits bleed in, but that's where the cut gets devious. During that one synth part of the song, we see shots of Kelly and Yorkie dancing in slow-mo ecstasy, followed by side-by-side high-tech U.S.B.s, stored by robots, likely the devices containing Kelly and Yorkie's...collective consciousnesses? Souls? In a cut shot, we see all the blinking lights of all the "saved", and one last "hea-ea-vuhn" from Belinda. You cheeky bastards. If I'm not doing it justice with my writing, I sincerely apologize. It's brilliant and needs to be seen, heard, and felt.

Does it matter that the gods in the machine gave Yorkie the romance she deserved to have during her life? Should that cheapen it somehow? Does it matter that, in this instance, the gods we made were kinder to us than the gods who made us? Fluff that '87 'fro and spin with your love on the dance floor like you're young and carefree again, but know that with a show this good, the questions it generates will linger on your mind for days afterward.

The key to great sci-fi is that it doesn't stretch reality too far, it only advances us two or three steps from where we are today. For a terrifying, exhilarating look at where we're headed, watch "Black Mirror".

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Revolutionary Changes We Should Consider

I'm always obsessed with a book, and right now it's So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. The phenomenon he's exploring is the return of public shaming, via the internet, for the first time since the inglorious days of stockades, those brutal tar and feather, torch and pitchfork days. (Though their hats and wigs were cool, at least.) The two main reasons for the return of public shaming are outlined by Ronson: it's easy to be evil - to hate a stranger with the internet feeling so anonymous - and false indignation mixed with instant mob hi-fives is a drug like no other.

I would've added another reason: people are finally starting to process how ripped off they've been by our economic system. But how do you hold billionaire C.E.O.'s accountable when they've consolidated power to the degree they have? We don't know where to begin, so we turn on each other.

My last post was all about the revolution we don't need: the Trumpening. Thank you all for the 200+ views. Because of the resulting conversations, I've done a lot of thinking about the changes we might want to consider. This will be an exercise in reckless speculation, in the hopes of having more civil conversation. I've got Republican friends. I hate their philosophy, but I love them personally. I have reason to believe they feel the same about me. The return of civil disagreement is the first revolutionary change I'm trying to start in my own circles. The others below would require voting for the right kind of candidates, pressuring them once elected, and probably a good deal of civil disobedience in many cases.

Make the Senate more like the House:

Wyoming has just over 500,000 people. California has over thirty million. There is one Wyo-man (Wyomian? Wy-woman?) Either way, for every one person in Wyoming there are sixty people in California. The way the Senate is set up, the one person in Wyoming has far more influence over our government than the sixty people in California. I know our founding fathers set up Congress so one house was based on population and the other had two Senators regardless, but they also set up the system so that we could amend the rules based on need. The difference between the most populated colonies was far less than sixty to one in their day. (450,000 in Virginia vs. about 25,000 in Georgia) We would be more of a democracy if we balanced the Senate.

This might not mean making the Senate exactly like the House, but there has to be a way to figure out how to make it more fair. One senator representing one million Americans regardless of state lines might be the right ratio. Or maybe it should be one per half-million, so Wyoming and other small states can still have one senator just for them. Either way, it isn't fair to California, Texas, or New York that such a large portion of America is punished for living where lots of people want to live. The Senate can still be the more elite half of the legislature without giving such a disproportionate voice to the states with the fewest people.

Publicly financed elections with low spending ceilings:

This would accomplish a few necessary reforms. For one, we'd have more people with less money in our government. Our government has very little diversity in terms of professions and wealth, featuring far too many wealthy lawyers. While there are obvious advantages to lawyers becoming lawmakers, it also stands to reason that humans should be part of the discussion as well. (That's anti-lawyer humor, har-dee-har! Easy target but I couldn't resist...) Empathy comes from experiencing what the other's life is like. Laws that benefit the rest of us will probably have to come from the rest of us.

Making our politicians cheaper to buy would also limit the amount of influence wealthy individuals, foreign entities (terrorists, for all we know under Citizens United), and corporations could have on our elections. This would help to end the vicious cycle of government by and exclusively for the rich.

The Maximum Wage:

Speaking of tar and feathers and torches and pitchforks...I love bringing this one up with my Republican friends just to watch their heads spin. For those of you who embrace deregulated capitalism as our national religion, I know this is a hard sell. You'll call it communist or socialist or fascist depending on your mood.

The thing is, other very sane countries are considering it. Switzerland, those icons of neutrality, will vote on it in November. It works by linking the highest legal wage in the country to the minimum wage. (The wealthiest C.E.O. in the country can only make twelve times minimum wage, or whatever ratio is agreed on.) Then the rich become advocates for the poor, because they now have incentives to use their government-influencing superpowers for good instead of evil.

Of course, we would have to let go of one of our most cherished lies to make this happen. We would have to let go of the idea that everyone is either rich, or will be rich one day if they think of the right idea or work enough overtime, or something. The number one indicator of how much money an American would make used to be our education level. Now it's how much money our parents made. This is in part because of laws the rich have sold us on. I'm not saying great ideas or rags-to-riches stories don't happen. They do, and they're lovely. We make adorable movies about them for a reason, though: They're really fucking rare. The idea that we'll all win the lottery soon is the very thing stopping us from living far less stressful lives. With a Maximum Wage, you'll never live a life like a party rapper, but you'll pay your bills on time, have a few weeks vacation a year and money to travel with, and find yourself far less angry as a result.

The Swiss are embracing the Maximum Wage because they know it will benefit everyone, including the rich. When there is very little poverty in a country, there is very little crime, and even the rich get to breathe a sigh of relief. All that money our wealthiest people spend on doomsday prep and alarms and firearms could be staying in their pockets. Every country decides to fight poverty or fight the poor. For the last thirty years, we've chosen to do the latter, and look at all the rage that has created. We aren't obliged to keep making the same mistake.

I realize I lean left, and by modern standards I might as well have sunflowers growing out of my sideburns while I strum Woodie Guthrie ditties, but we haven't really given the left much of a chance in this country, at least not economically. In the last forty years, while we were making revolutionary social gains for every minority group, we were still violently doubling down on unfettered capitalism. Perhaps the lesson of the Reagan and post-Reagan political era should be that social justice can only advance so far without economic justice following. Advancing one while neglecting the other just leads to an imbalance, a stretch, and a rip if we let it go too far.

Giving one party time and a majority:

George W. Bush had a sympathetic legislature for the first six years of his presidency. Between Katrina, the odious changes to bankruptcy law, the Iraq war, infrastructure disinvestment, and the crash of '08, I would argue the results were terrible. Bill Clinton and President Obama each had a sympathetic legislature for the first eighteen months of their first terms before voters chose to elect Republican majorities in the midterm elections. Part of this is that liberal voters (especially the youngest of us) don't vote in midterms. Another part is that people complain about government gridlock, but they are also comforted by the idea of balance. Balanced government worked to a certain degree in the mid-eighties and late nineties. It doesn't work right now, I'd argue, because our right wing has been taken over by anti-government radicals intent on proving that government doesn't work by being the very thing that makes it fail.

That six-year window during the Bush administration showed us something. It showed us the results of prolonged, conservative-majority government. You can argue it was wonderful if you want. I disagree, but that's fine. There was something refreshing about seeing what would actually happen to the country if the philosophy was permitted to be translated into laws for an extended period of time.

What if we gave another party a chance like that?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Revolution We Don't Need

There's this Sting lyric I can't get out of my head lately: "I never saw no military solution that didn't end up as something worse." It makes me think of revolutions starting with the promise of populist renewal but ending in dictatorships or theocracies. It makes me think of Donald Trump, a career con-artist who came along at just the wrong moment in history. This week's R.N.C. festival of white hate and fear left me with a shame for my own country I haven't felt since our collective shrieking hysteria over Janet Jackson's boob in 2004.

We have real reasons to fear. The world is changing faster than most people are comfortable with. Unchecked Climate Change could be as devastating as thousands of terrorist attacks. Far too much money and power is still in far too few hands. Radical Islam seeking a nuclear weapon is dangerous to everyone on the planet. Vladimir Putin is a loony douche and right-wing American fanboys of his need to stop invoking his name whilst touching themselves. Under his rule, Russia is a homophobic retrograde threat to world peace.

But we have survived gargantuan threats in the past with a logical reading of data, civil arguments over solutions, and a stoic resolve to carry them out. We thrived under the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. We overcame isolationist attitudes to help defeat the threat of global fascism in World War Two. We balanced the economic brutality of the Gilded Age with strong unions, unapologetic trustbusting, and the New Deal.

So why is such a large portion of the nation seriously considering electing an inexperienced narcissist with nothing but platitudes, scapegoats, and mood swings at his disposal?

Global trade deals sure have something to do with it. Naomi Klein's 2007 book "The Shock Doctrine" explains how unfettered capitalism went from a fringe ideology in the 1960s to our unofficial national religion in the 1980s better than I ever could. It was forced on the world militarily in many instances and quietly slimed into massive budget bills in others. Whenever it has been put to the people, the idea of the world's rich having a circle jerk while the rest of us mop up has been, to say the least, unpopular.

Now the bill has come due. The real fear of power and money hoarding by the global mega-rich has been deviously merged with old silly fears of brown people, women, gays, and the nonviolent majority of Muslims. In America, poor white people are justifiably angry, but they're aiming their anger at people who have suffered just like them, rather than the old, fat, white C.E.O. class who actually dicked them over. Many of us, in our illogical fear, are turning to a shortsighted billionaire asshole to solve the problems created by shortsighted billionaire assholes.

The rise of Donald Trump has only been possible because of all of these factors. Throw in the internet and 24-hour news cycle and you get a fixation on what's wrong with the world that is wholly unprecedented. So right now it doesn't matter to many Americans that Trump is an intellectual lightweight who inherited his fortune and enhanced it by ripping off subcontractors, committing fraud, and being a shameless corporate welfare queen. It doesn't matter to many Americans that his menstrual mood swings, lack of constitutional knowledge, and utter lack of curiosity prove that he will be a completely inept president (until he declares martial law and dictatorship). It doesn't matter to many Americans that his solutions are, as Matt Taibbi expertly summarized, "ideologically vicious and logistically impossible". All that matters to his acolytes is that he has at least acknowledged the problem. The wall won't keep "them" out, but he's pointing at "them", which means he must be for protecting "us".

As his popularity has grown, his diseased mentality has been adapted by many of his devotees. Don't know facts? Shout platitudes! Tired of having to be nice? Punch a bitch! Who cares? The guy who could be president's doing it! Common courtesy was the first to go. Next will be nuance. Look at the response to the police murders of African Americans and the retaliatory murders of innocent police. In a rational society, we would add civilian review boards and police body cameras (to protect honest police from false accusation and to protect civilians from sadist cops) to the justice already meted out to cop killers. We could acknowledge wrongdoing by fringe elements on both sides. Then we could take other moderate steps to improve the relationship between the police and the communities they serve, working backward from crisis mode to "how did this happen?" mode to "how can we stop this from happening again?" mode. One community recently solved a lot of its problems with a "meet your cops" picnic followed by some of the moderate reforms mentioned above. It's easy to hate a faceless "them". It's much harder to hate Harry who you just had ribs with.

This is not to say problems like police racism and police being murdered can be solved overnight. That's the point. Problems like these are solved incrementally over decades. Stop looking for someone to blame when they don't immediately resolve themselves. And please stop listening to shills who offer you an instant solution to a complex, entrenched problem.

There's no room for nuanced solutions in Trumpland. Only one thought at a time in that dystopia. Scapegoats, mood swings, and platitudes. That's all we're cookin' at this here barbeque.

Want to test a politician? Use the word 'how'.

Donald: We're gunna build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.

Logical Voter: How?

Donald:'s gunna be yuge.

Meanwhile, lost in all of this is the fact that the Obama presidency was good for America. Ten million new jobs. Fifteen million insured. Job openings at a fifteen-year high. The unemployment rate just dropped below five percent. Wind and solar power quadrupled. Oil imports down 53 percent. Debt remains a bipartisan problem (check Bush and Reagan borrowing if you need a reminder). We're still in too many foreign wars. But overall the numbers point to progress. So he wasn't the messiah we elected in 2008. Maybe there's a lesson in that. Stop looking for a messiah.

Contrast Obama's record with where we were before. Does anybody else fucking remember 2008? Do we remember the horrors our national religion of unfettered capitalism wrought? Do we remember three quarters of a million jobs disappearing per month? Do we remember the Iraq war that created I.S.I.S? Do we remember the abandonment of New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina because, you know, gubment cain't get too big? Lost in the horror of this week's R.N.C. hate festival was the fact that some of Trump's platform was announced, and it isn't populist at all. It's just Dubya 2.0. Tax cuts for the rich, anti-gay bible-thumping bullshit, and depressed wages as "the market" is allowed to union-bust, outsource, and start another round of merger-orgies. The laws Trump would seek from congress wouldn't match his pro-worker rhetoric at all.

This is where the Democrats have to avoid a fatal mistake. The T.P.P. is a trade deal meant to check China's growing influence in the Pacific, but like its predecessors, it's loaded with corporate giveaways, union-busting sludge, love letters to polluters, a fucked-up lawyer tribunal that can overrule local government laws, and a continuation of the downsizing and outsourcing that led so many of us to seriously consider electing a sassy reality show bitch.

Obama is for it. He thinks he can make it worker friendly enough so that everyone will benefit. He can't. He may suspect this, which is why he's trying to get it passed during the upcoming lame duck congress. Again, globalization would be forced on us, because if we voted, it wouldn't pass.

This would make the Democrats look like the exact elitist pigs Trump calls them. It would lend him credibility despite all the data to the contrary. Never mind that it would be a Republican congress passing it while the majority of Democrats oppose it, facts done got cancelled when we nominated a wig.

The President is wrong about T.P.P. It will be the mistake that undoes his legacy if we allow it. In addition to the toxic effects of this agreement, it could have the far more tragic consequence of turning us fascist by electing an ignorant, incurious, incapable megalomaniac president in what would likely be our last free election. I don't like our oligarchy, but I want to replace it with democracy, not anarchy.

Bernie supporters, I was one of you, and you simply have to get over it. Hillary has her faults but she's at least a qualified adult. On a side note, she's actually the most honest politician in the race according to Politifact. Her empty space of an opponent is the least honest, not that facts matter anymore. Get behind her, people. Get behind her even if you wouldn't forgive your mans if he got himself a B.J. on the side. Stop being infants. You aren't electing someone you like. You're electing the best person for the job. She's been a Senator and a Secretary of State. Her approval rating once elected has always been high. It's only ever dipped when she was running for something, because we have some lingering issues about women seeking power. So what if you don't find her sexy? The laws she will seek will help enable you to improve your life. The judges she'll appoint will make us a more just nation. The treaties she'll negotiate will be fair to all (she's already opposed T.P.P.) and she won't alienate our allies or start World War Three because her ego gets bruised sometimes. She's clearly dying to do all the un-sexy work an adult president does. It's all right there in her e-mails. (P.S. She's either the smartest legal ninja in history, smart enough to hire the smartest legal ninjas in history, or her "scandals" were just bullshit thrown into the right wing echo chamber to make them seem like something. Nothing among her "-gates" makes me consider an inexperienced emotional midget with a spray tan as a viable alternative.)

This election may be the best example of why we need more of a menu, as many other democracies have, and less of a binary system. That may be the revolutionary change we need, moving forward. But it's too late in this round of the game to change the rules. We'll either have an occasionally disappointing professional who is capable of compromise and adult discourse or an unqualified seventy-year-old toddler. Looking at the data, it isn't much of a choice at all.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Guy Movies with Active Brain Cells

Memorial Day weekend is a fine time to go see a movie where Michael Bay make stuff go boom, but if you're like me and enjoy reasons behind the boom, consequences after the boom, and some semblance of character depth for the parties involved in the boom, options can be limited. In honor of a very mixed year in popular storytelling, and the stupification of the male population at the tiny hands of a certain presidential candidate, I thought I'd share some films that have both action and plot, in honor of other people who have both testosterone and thoughts.

Terminator 3
So everybody loves the first one, and the second one had effects so suave we forgave the fact that they just happen to find a smelting pool off of the freeway in downtown L.A., just when it's time to kill the T-1000. T-3 generally doesn't get a lot of love due to some schlocky humor (The Termanatrix inflates her boobs to get out of a traffic ticket...why not just give her machine gun nips already?). But if you look at this entry compared to 2008's "Salvation" and the two-hour abortion that was "Terminator: Genysis", T-3 is a pretty solid film. Giving the T-X the ability to control other machines differentiated her from the T-1000, plus there was a top-shelf car chase, and at one point Arnold breaks a urinal over her head. Original choice of weaponry should always count for something in an action film.

The real coup is the ending though, in which young John Connor realizes he can't stop Judgment Day, he can only survive it. A summer blockbuster with the balls to end in a nuclear holocaust deserves a little love.

The Tarantino Collection
"Reservoir Dogs", "Pulp Fiction", and "Inglorious Basterds" are perfect films. Both Kill Bills and "Django Unchained" are near-perfect. "Hateful Eight" is solid. No comment on "Jackie Brown". Action storytelling was changed by Tarantino. He popularized the phenomenon of explaining the action after it happened, rather than before. He made non-linear chronology cool rather than confusing. And how about his use of music? Can you hear "Stuck in the Middle" without picturing Michael Madsden shouting into a severed ear? I thought not.

Many times, an action movie will benefit from low expectations. I didn't think much of Kingsmen going in, and now I check online once a week for rumors about how the sequel is coming along. The movie is campy and self-aware, but it uses wit to turn these into strengths. The characters talk about Bond and Bourne, rather than insulting the audience by pretending the competition doesn't exist. Samuel L. Jackson isn't a total black hat because though his solution is villainous (genocide via ringtone...they make it work though) the problem he identified is real (climate change). The hero isn't 100% successful, and there's likely to be fallout over his partial failure if they write the sequel well.

After Rob Zombie's use of "Freebird" in "The Devil's Rejects", I didn't think another film would be able to use the song again, but the hate church massacre in "Kingsmen" completely overshadows it. This is the most re-watchable action sequence since Quicksilver rescuing Magneto from the Pentagon in X-men. And at the end, the hero is rewarded with anal sex. Incentive!

30 Days of Night
It isn't going to be mistaken for "Citizen Kane" anytime soon, but this vampire movie won me over with a highly original premise: Eager to maintain the myth that vampires don't exist, a pack of them hunt in a refinery town in northern Alaska just as night falls for a full month. Sometimes a movie benefits from its timing. When this one came out, we had just been bombarded with romantic vampires of high quality (Anne Rice's books) and loooooooooow quality (the fecal smears known as Twilight). What was fun about these vampires was their savagery. They wore their victims' gore stains like war paint. Their leader was a sadistic philosopher of sorts, opining that the world was "only hunger and pain". At one point, one of his victims realizes she's going to die and says "Oh God!" and the head vampire looks up in the sky, turns his head around a bit, looks back at her and says, "No. No God." before draining her dry. Even an atheist has to admit that's cold.

Live Free or Die Hard (Die Hard 4)
Stooopid title, smart movie. Forget the atrocity that was Die Hard Five, this one nailed cyber-terrorism like no movie before or after it. There were multiple top-notch action sequences, including the terrorists opening all lanes of traffic on both sides of a tunnel in an attempt to mash Bruce Willis in the middle, there's a fight in an S.U.V. in an elevator shaft, and in the finale it's Holly Gennaro's husband vs. a Harrier Jet. Of all the modern fears, the most credible to me is the chaos a tech-savvy maniac could unleash. Tim Olyphant embodies that fear in the best sequel of the series.

X-2: X-men United
Here's to the hope that Apocalypse isn't as bad as its reviews. Regardless, X-men has been a smart series overall, and the crown jewel is the second entry, which forced Xavier's good mutants and Magneto's baddies into an uneasy alliance against a genocidal branch of the military industrial complex. The limits of each mutant's powers were tested against one another. Wolverine is shot by a jumpy cop, Pyro goes crazy and blasts fire at them, Rogue drains his power and calms the fire before any of the cops gets worse than sooty, Wolverine recovers and gives the cop who shot him a dirty look. The whole movie plays out in brainiac sequences like that, and the pinnacle is Iceman coming out to his parents as a mutant. Sci-fi social commentary at its best.

Honorable mention to "Deep Blue Sea", another one that won't be mistaken for "Citizen Kane", but give it credit for a genetically-enhanced Mako shark shredding Samuel L. Jackson in the middle of his "be motivated motherfuckers" moment.

Look for news soon about my latest publication, "Eagle Eye", the origin story of the sniper of the 99% and my attempt to add to the "both brains and balls" tradition of storytelling.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Superhero Movies That Don't Suck and The Super-basic Reasons Why

When I picture successful Hollywood writers, I picture pony-tailed film majors with bleary eyes behind their glasses, hunched into screens. They quote Proust at parties without irony, and when someone pours them wine they swish it around and sniff and say something like "hints of autumn" before sipping.

Part of me knows they're just people, but there's always that part of you that can't quite think of the other except in generalized terms.

One of the reasons I picture successful screenwriters as being out of touch is the work they produce. You look at any big budget flop and wonder, "How did they forget writing 101?" They had support. They had a budget. They had a team behind them. For those of us writing on our own, it's unfathomable how anyone with so much talent and support could fail.

There may be a lesson in there about too many cooks, but I can only speculate about that. Given the magnificent floppitude of some recent hero films, I thought it would be worth a back-to-the-basics analysis. Here are three basic writing principals that good superhero films follow and bad superhero films forget:

1.) The plot must challenge the protagonist.
2.) The protagonist must be somewhat vulnerable in order to establish audience empathy.
3.) The plot must have consequences for the characters.

Which brings us to the Superman dilemma. How can anyone relate to a flying tank with laser eyes? The Superman dilemma is a big reason why he's had one good movie in what seems like 40,000 attempts. 1980's "Superman II" worked because it followed the above principles. Although Superman was still nearly indestructible, he was faced with three villains who shared his powers. The antagonists were crafted with the knowledge that they must challenge the protagonist. These villains knew that Superman's caring for the squishy mortals below was his real weakness, and they made every effort to use it against him. In the end, he had to outsmart them before he could use brawn, and the plot benefited by making him win by using something other than his primary asset (strength).

The first Avengers movie worked for the same reason. When I first heard it was going to be all the Avengers vs. Loki, I didn't buy it because it seemed like a mismatch. (Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and two professional assassins vs. the Norse God of mischief?) The writers used in-fighting and an alien army to balance the equation, and the results were stellar. Wiseass Tony Stark had to discover a bit of his inner Captain America to make the save at the end. Banner had to trust himself enough to unleash the Hulk. The plot challenged them by taking them out of their comfort zones, making the plot consequential.

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" was the last good Avengers movie. I couldn't have cared less about the sub-plot with his brainwashed friend, but the writers used a real-life modern fear very effectively: the agency we made so powerful to keep us safe turned on us. When the previously established (as heroic) hovering aircraft carriers turned into fascist drones, it was legitimately terrifying, particularly the scene that showed the Hydra algorithm erasing any line between dissident and "terrorist". Again, the plot was consequential. At the end of the movie, Shield was destroyed, so the movie mattered. Age of Ultron sucked, despite James Spader's amazing performance, because nothing changed. Franchise-ism negated the idea of an important character death, and killing Quicksilver felt like retaliation for his having the best scene in a far superior X-men movie. (A movie that also did time-travel in a consequential way.)

Speaking of X-men, notice how even nearly-indestructible Wolverine works better than Superman, because he has a broken heart and feels pain, even if he does recover quickly from the latter. The worst X-men movie is probably 2006's "X-men: The Last Stand", because it just tried too hard. If you kill everyone, no one death stands out. But even that movie towers over all of the disposable Avengers cash-grabs. They (along with the solo Wolverine movies, now that I remember them) don't work because nothing that happens in them has any consequence. If you've seen "Iron Man", "Avengers", and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", stop.

There are other great superhero movies that succeeded because of basics, such as the Nolan Batman trilogy. Batman is effective because he's tortured and vulnerable--the fact that he feels pain makes his sacrifice for the people he's protecting meaningful. Even in "The Dark Knight Rises", the writers realized Batman needed to be hobbled in order for him to have something to overcome. Bane breaking his back was a nod to comic book enthusiasts, but it also allowed the villain time to shine, making his comeuppance that much more rewarding (though it might have been better without that last minute switcheroo to a different antagonist). Taking Bruce Wayne's fortune away was also courageous. As was introducing Catwoman without an origin story, but by having her pretending not to be who she already was.

Also, the beginning of "The Dark Knight Rises" left no doubt that the previous two films had taken their toll on Batman's body and psyche. Batman's existence in the first film created the Joker in the second. His Pyrrhic victory over the Joker left Batman a bitter, battered, and reclusive martyr to begin the third installment. Each film had consequences for the next, which is why that trilogy will still look good in thirty years.

It must be difficult to get back to the basics when a billion-dollar franchise is on one's back. But the basics are there for a reason. It's worth noting that the hero franchises that hold peoples' imaginations over long periods of time are also the ones that made audiences care about their plots and characters. They accomplish this by challenging their heroes and making what happens in their stories matter.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

White Rage (and the Orange Thing)

My first encounter with working class white rage was in 1990. My best friend Derek and I were being driven by his father to go see then-W.W.F. Champion the Ultimate Warrior defend his gold bald eagle belt against "The Macho King" Randy Savage. (Yes, we knew it was staged. No, we didn't care.) The truck told me Derek's dad worked construction, and that only added to his coolness. Being twelve, and a pro-wrestling fan, I thought it was amazing being driven in a vehicle where all these potential murder weapons slid around every time he came to a sudden stop.

Before Road Rage had a cute nickname, Derek's dad had a full-on tantrum, including threatening to bludgeon to death a woman who cut him off. (He did have the right of way, to be fair.) Then he was going off on the damn taxes, and how you couldn't even take your kids out for a good time anymore without getting ripped off. He almost took us home. Thankfully, we talked him off the ledge and we got to see Warrior lose by count-out. (Tangent: we also met the Big Boss Man.)

If you remember 1990, George H.W. Bush was president, and boy does he look moderate compared to the slobbering remains of the current Republican establishment. He knew better than to remove Saddam and create I.S.I.S. He broke his promise not to raise taxes because the government needed revenue and he was an adult pragmatist rather than a dead-eyed free-market zealot. And the economy he inherited was really just Reagan's bills coming due and aftershock from the deregulation-fueled crash of '87. Bush Sr. has even been an excellent ex-president.

Unfortunately, he did little to undo the radical deunionization, merger madness, and deregulation hysteria that led to my first encounter with working white rage. What struck me most about Derek's dad was how nice he was the entire rest of the night. I was a bookish queer dweeb. He was supposed to hate my guts. Instead, he made small talk about school and wrestling and sports in a way that didn't seem forced or awkward.

He had every right to be mad, but he wasn't political or well-read, so he had no idea where his anger belonged. He knew he was working harder than ever for less money, and if he's still in construction, I can only imagine his rage growing tenfold. Even 26 years ago, when Reaganomics were only a decade old, he knew he was mad, but he had no idea where to aim it. And the dark lady in the next car was an easier target than the wrinkled white fuckers who were actually responsible for the policies eating his wallet. He was overtaxed, (because "only the little people pay taxes", if you're old enough to remember...) and that was part of the problem, but the far larger problem was that he was underpaid for his labor. Illegal immigration played a role in that, to be sure, but illegal immigrants weren't the ones demanding cheap labor to satiate their greed. Like Derek's dad, they were desperate and exploited.

I wonder if he's still being convinced to rage in the wrong direction. I wonder if he's thrown his support behind a certain empty hairpiece...

Consider the contradictory beliefs you have to unironically hold in order to be a Trumpette:

The system is inherently unfair/I will inevitably be a billionaire too one day, and so I vote for tax cuts for the rich.

The elites ruined this country/We need a successful elitist businessman to solve Washington's problems.

The market is a mighty force of nature we all must defer to/The market is so frail it shatters the instant you regulate it slightly.

We need a non-intellectual "buddy president"/Non-intellectual "buddy president" George W. Bush was a disaster.

We're going to build a wall/Government spends too much money/No new taxes or debt/Mexico will pay for it without us undertaking a big expensive war to make them pay because _______?

To say nothing of the biggest lie: people who are good at business will be good at government. I propose the opposite. The skills it takes to enrich oneself might be the exact opposite of the skills it takes to act in the greater good.

I understand the logic behind these illogical thoughts. Believing all of these bad ideas is easier than believing the truth: Globalization was forced on us by both major political parties, and it isn't going to reverse itself overnight, even if we elect the "right person".

If you're a bookish liberal like me, what you see now at the orange head-white rage rallies scares the hell out of you. I understand the snarling resentment, I really do. We've been ripped off for decades, but does anyone really think politically powerless illegal Mexican immigrants ever had enough clout to infect the entire political landscape with the toxic philosophy of free trade? No. The powerful are supposed to be the most responsible by default. When we punish the weak for the crimes of the strong, we're just being bullies and tools.

Anger makes logic go bye-bye. The first victim of over-reaction is nuance. You can see it in the halls of any school. Big kid pushes medium kid, medium kid sizes up big kid and realizes he can't take him. So he levels the next small kid he sees.

I hate the ugliness of it: the appeal to that tiny part of each person only concerned with stacking cash and ammo as high as possible and starting every argument with "me" and "my". I hate how many working people are so focused on the dollars they lose in taxes, they miss the hundreds coming out of their base salary. Most of all, I hate how the radicalization and lobotomizing of the right has ended the potential for civil political conversation in so many circles. Everyone who isn't a billionaire has a right to be angry, but we really have to be more careful about where we aim it.

We are, in all seriousness, following a nasty hairpiece down a whirlpool. Please, let's not. I know the left also got sidetracked by corporate money. I know political correctness has spoiled into censorship in many places (college campuses, in particular). But electing a narcissistic amateur president would be an act of national suicide. Being disappointed in your kitchen isn't a valid reason for blowing up your house. Anarchy is not the alternative to our current oligarchy. Chaos is not a viable alternative to injustice. This one billionaire has no interest in ending the free-trade policies that have lined his pockets (and emptied ours) for 36 years. He isn't even trying to sell you a new deal, just an imaginary wall and some point-and-punch road shows. Our anger needs to be logical righteous indignation, or the worst of the orange head-white rage rallies could become the new normal.

That wrestling show, like George H.W., looks pretty damn dignified in retrospect.


P.S. On a happier note, 2015's Saints and Sinners New Fiction from the Festival, featuring my story "Femorph", is up for INDIE FAB's book of the year award!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Taboo Thoughts: What I'm Writing

Every now and then I have a creative outburst. Here's what I've been up to:

Disposable Culture - A cyber-terrorist calling him(?)self the Luddite threatens to delete the internet while an ambitious F.B.I. investigator tracks him-her-they to Sunrise Island, a leper colony for the digitally disgraced (and one of my favorite surreal settings). As a teacher filmed yelling at a student, a bunch of white people who were filmed saying the n-word, and a douche of a tech guru assert their agendas, they are forced to take sides based on if they think we really were better off without "that carcinogenic distraction in our pockets".

A Colossus Stirs - In a series of cities in an Egyptian fantasy setting, everyone has a choice to live among savage desert tribes, or in the cities, where the drinking water is clean and the land is fertile. The price of city living is existence under the eyes of the colossi, who destroy cities when the gods are displeased. Of course, being the gods, they never tell you exactly how you earned your genocide. When a city falls for the first time in centuries, the leaders of the known world have to figure out what the gods want before the colossi leave all the world a barren desert.

And if you're a gamer it was inspired by "Shadow of the Colossus", which features one of the best plot twists in gaming history. 

Not a Real Boy - If we create artificial life, what do we owe it? Dr. Ava knows she isn't supposed to feel anything for Jep, the synthetic child she's raising. She knows the purpose for his existence is both essential and loathsome, but it will save "real" children. What does a creator owe her creation, if anything at all?

Billy Currock is Consumed - Paternal abandonment meets shark fin soup. And...scene.

His Fascist Ex - I'm dangerously close to halfway done with my third novel, where a has-been author watches the rise of the American Hitler from his bar stool. His story could derail his ex-boyfriend's ascension among the homophobic American right, but he's reluctant to tell it because of lingering feelings of guilt and loyalty. He is talked into telling his story by a handsome newcomer, who may be with one of the leftist militias or may be testing his loyalty on behalf of his powerful, and paranoid, ex.

The Zombie Apocklips Ain't for Queers - Virus, not undead, and the way the virus works is you can save yourself by passing it on quickly to someone else. As a side-effect, the person you sacrificed to save yourself will never stop hunting you. I wanted a personal zombie apocalypse. Also, the protagonist is gay and he finds refuge among the type of people who stored a lot of ammo and canned food (Trump voters who ain't too fond a lib'ral book learnin'). And the zombie tracking him is his husband. It's all about finding the courage to reach across the aisle to defeat a common enemy.

But the President still gets to appoint Supreme Court Justices without the Senate saying no to every possible nominee in advance. Let's not have any motherfucking confusion about that one.

-James Russell

P.S. and tiny author celebration: Thanks for getting me across the 5,000 view mark!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Let's Disagree in 2016

I have conservative friends, and we agree on very little. We bond over agreeable topics like sports and alcohol as a warm up to arguing, our real shared passion. Sometimes it gets heated and I'll question if my friends' arguments aren't a little too missile-happy and they'll question if my ideas aren't a bit naive. Or to put it in "Team America: World Police" terms, I'll say they're thinking like dicks and they'll say I'm thinking like a pussy.

The point is, we critique the ideas, not the person.

At some point, someone will casually suggest that we not talk politics. We're at a party. We should "keep it light". By this they mean gossip about the neighbors, like them. One thing my conservative friends and I agree on wholeheartedly is contempt for this suggestion.

As far as personal contempt, there is one type of person we can both agree on having nothing but spite for. This person is called "politically correct" but there are plenty of them on both sides of the aisle. This person is addicted to a drug that's hit the market slowly over the past few decades. The drug is fake indignation.

You know the type. They spoil every discussion by listening on the periphery, waiting for a chance to "be offended". Once they've declared their offense, loudly and in hyperbolic fashion, they inevitably hold their hands out.

What do they expect? A cookie? Tire coupons?

They expect apologies and reparations because you stated an opinion and they had a feeling. But unless your opinion was an outright declaration of racism (as in race A is always > than race B) or a "we ought to round up all the _______ people" and they're a ______ person, you likely don't owe an apology. You are allowed to have opinions. Other people are allowed to have feelings in response to your opinions. But their feelings do not inherently take priority over your opinions.

We should have a standard response for an indignation-addict when they hold their hands out: Congratulations on identifying your emotions, but you are not entitled to any form of compensation. Or, in the terms of the cosmic pessimism of Stephen Crane, "A man said to the universe, 'Sir, I exist.' 'I know,' the universe replied, 'but this has produced in me no sense of obligation.'"

The trouble with indignation addiction is that it puts vital debate in a deep freeze by creating toxic levels of self-censorship. Perhaps worst of all is what it's done to college campuses: the places where new ideas used to be born via free, passionate disagreement. Many comedians won't play college campuses anymore because the audiences are so uptight they're immune to comedy. That's tragic. Immunity to comedy is usually a hallmark of dictatorships and theocracies.

We always need to debate certain balances in our society. Taxation and government services will always be linked, so we will always need to debate the level of taxation and government services we need. Liberals are likely to remain suspicious of the profit motive while conservatives are likely to continue to revere it. We need to find a better balance between security and freedom. There are no solutions without discussing these topics civilly, without hair-trigger over-reactions and censorship based on emotion.

According to a recent Princeton study, we are now functionally an oligarchy rather than a democracy. We need to talk about that.

More Americans have been killed in the U.S. by lightning since 9/11 than by terrorists. Does this mean we should spend trillions on a never-ending war on clouds? We need to talk about that.

Right-wing Christian terrorists have killed more Americans in the U.S. since 9/11 than Muslim terrorists (48 > 45). We need to talk about that.

Most importantly, this is an election year. Contrary to many of my liberal friends, I want to hear everything the Trumps of the world have to say. I want them to reveal themselves via their free speech. They are, in effect, on a public job interview. The last thing I want them to do is shut up. I want to hear which candidates on either side promise massive infrastructure projects (expensive) and tax cuts (expensive) and a lower national debt (expensive) with no explanation of how that magic trick works. I love it when they show me they're lying because the promises they make contradict basic math.

Let's not allow our freedom of speech to be frozen by the imagined right of an emotional few to never be offended. Though our society isn't exactly suffering from an over-abundance of compassion, we can't let the feelings of a few end our most vital conversations before they even begin.