America, Inc.

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Where do you start? The Republican Mafia and the elevation of “family” over country might be a good place. Or Trump’s cozy relationship with Russian Intelligence. Maybe the obstruction of justice with the firing of Comey is where we should begin. Trumpgate.

And that’s just the news of the last seven days. Any one of these items would qualify as worthy of serious investigation, if not the institution of the articles of impeachment. Trouble is, news items of that magnitude are coming at us so fast and furiously that we’re actually becoming inured to them. Remember the Women’s March and the Pussy Hats (see my post below)? How about the overnight deregulation of most of the anti-pollution safeguards put into place by the last three administrations? France has people in the streets every single day protesting something, and thus keeping their government in check. Us? We’re too busy glued to our Facebook updates to care, and that’s perhaps the biggest news of all that’s not really getting reported (Bill Maher did make it one of his New Rules, that social media oligarchs and their companies are this century’s equivalent of the tobacco industry by virtue of their commitment to make an entire population addicted to the next “Like”): we’ve all but given up on caring about anything else because our worlds have been diminished to the screens in our palms.

Our democratic system is crumbling right under our noses and we don’t give a damn because we’ve been conditioned only to care about those things that raise our heart rate above 120 beats a minute. We don’t care about the news, about the things that actually make a difference in our lives, about the suffering of the lives of others. We just want our next fix.

Democratic Capitalism is fraying at the edges, and the saddest irony of this is that the people who can least afford it are the ones propping it up: us… the other 99%. The 1% are as happy as larks about this massive and wildly successful social conditioning that has gotten most of us to believe in Reagan’s “trickle-down economics.” Too many of us assume that if some rich white guys at the top can just get enough power and money, the rest of us in the middle and at the bottom will somehow, magically, get some, too. Trouble with trickle-down economics, though, is that the only thing that trickles down are the crumbs from the table of the oligarchs and plutocrats. Oops… guess we forgot to account for this thing called greed–called “survival of the fittest”–which has been hardwired into our brains from the days we were walking around barefoot and living in caves. A few hundred millennia of natural selection has left us with this. President Trump? Welcome to the nightmare. Yay for us.

Trumpgate indeed. He’s just the tip of the iceberg, the poster child of all that’s wrong with a capitalistic democracy in the 21st century. Maybe if we managed to cut off the head of the serpent we might actually learn something about ourselves. Chances are, though, we’d just default to the extreme on the left, which is no better. It’s why we swung to the right in the first place. Impeach Trump? Hell yes! Then lock him up! But unless we all do some deep self-examination of the sorry state of all of our souls in the meantime, we’ll end up with something else, maybe not as bad, maybe worse (hard to imagine that… President Pence?). But then, it was hard to imagine anyone worse than George Bush, remember? Now he seems like a sober-minded centrist compared to the current CEO of America, Inc.

We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.

Duck, Donald!

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Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life, Mr. Trump. Well over a million people from all over the world protesting, if not the legitimacy of your presidency, then certainly the essence of it. I take some comfort in the fact that maybe the fates allowed you this privilege only so that your demise could be more public, more historical, and more resounding. Those who rise higher fall from greater heights.

Mr. Trump feels compelled to make up facts as he goes along, and then expects everyone else to believe those facts because somehow, some way, he believes them himself. He shreds the intelligence community and ridicules its professionalism for months, then tells the CIA today, “There is nobody that feels stronger about the intelligence community and CIA than Donald Trump.” So there you have it. Because he just said it, it must be true. Technically, of course, Trump does feel stronger about the CIA than anyone else, it’s just not the kind of strong feelings they’re looking for.

The man suffers from an as-yet undiagnosed deep distrust of his own opinions, which is why he’s constantly changing them. You can see it in his face when he speaks: he’s riffing, improvising, making deals with existence like it’s a nervous twitch, and half the time his face is puckered up into this false bravado because he simply doesn’t believe what he’s saying himself. In church? He must be a Christian. In red-neck-ville? He must be a Confederate. In Mexico? He must be a Caballero. It’s truly fascinating to watch. It’s also no wonder no one knows what he’s gonna do next. He doesn’t know what he’s gonna do next.

I think Donald Trump’s presidency is the last gasp of the Old West (ironically, I think Obama’s presidency was the first gasp of the New West). And by “Old West” I mean the predominantly white, there’s-a-new-sherrif-in-town, country hillbilly, let’s-settle-this-with-a-gun, God-is-my-redeemer Old West, where women obey their husbands, children obey their parents, and Injuns are the bad guys. Trump swaggers like John Wayne with none of the good looks and even fewer good lines. Wayne you believed because he believed himself. Trump you doubt because, honestly, Trump doubts himself. That’s the secret giant elephant in the room. The guy can’t believe he actually got this far, and his over-confidence in accomplishing such a feat is the tell-tale sign of his shock at its incredulity. But then again, the Mr. Hyde part of Trump (is there a Dr. Jekyll?) thinks everything is a deal, including the truth, so who actually knows what lurks behind that clinical narcissism of his? Self-doubt, sure. But true narcissism has always covered self-doubt with a healthy dose of delusional grandeur.

As I was on the train with my son this morning witnessing the crowds flowing out of every quantum wormhole in and around the environs of L.A. for the Women’s March, I said to one guy standing next to me, “Well, this pretty much was the kick in the pants that the Democrats needed to get organized and solidified. A Hillary presidency would never have garnered this kind of intense solidarity.” He agreed. Trump’s presidency is the last major tantrum of the Old Order. This was the rich white guy’s final chance to claim supremacy in numbers and power. After this, no one will ever have the stomach to vote in someone even resembling the Trump brand–namely, a rich white guy–for at least the next few election cycles. A pretty crazy prediction, I know, but after watching the improbable happen over the last few months, nothing is out of the question anymore.

One by one, I also predict that his supporters will realize that the only thing Donald Trump truly cares about is himself and his legacy (which, purely by accident, includes his family). Trump has never given a rat’s ass about the average American… he doesn’t even know what the average American looks like. He still thinks the average American is a middle-class white guy from Michigan who used to work in a factory. In other words, a poorer version of himself.

So you better duck, Donald, because a lot of excrement in the form on an intractable Congress, angry mobs of your own citizens, and a weary world will be throwing anything it can your way just to keep you at bay. You asked for it. Well, now you have it.

A deal’s a deal.

House of Cards: The Reality Show

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And you thought the House of Cards was unrealistic. Welcome to the new reality. Rumor has it that Season 5 of the Netflix hit series will be cancelled. But that’s alright. Season 1 of the new reality show is just beginning. Watch in real time as Trump (née Underwood) upsets the apple cart with backdoor diplomacy, blackmailed press, blackwater military tactics, and backhanded ethics. No telling how this will end.

Or, for that matter, how it will begin. But the previews are tantalizing! The Trump Cabinet looks like a Who’s Who of alt-right conservatives who share a disdain for common sense, the proletariat, and the truth (thought not necessarily in that order). This is the Theater of the Absurd, and it’s running on all channels. And it’s free! Check your local listings.

And check back here from time to time for running commentary on how this whole experiment with American fascism is going. It promises to be quite a thrill.

PresidenTrumPresidenTrumPresidenT…

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Did you hear that loud bang? That was democracy backfiring. In a democracy, of course, you may not necessarily get what you deserve, but you certainly get what you had coming. An openly misogynist, racist, narcissistic xenophobe reality star was just voted in by a misogynist, racist, narcissistic, xenophobe, reality-star obsessed portion of the electorate.  And in this sense, the election was rigged–we got what we deserved and not simply what we had coming to us.

This election has strained the credulity of democracy. Of course, it was never the perfect option (Plato offered it up as the lesser of a few evils), largely because any democracy is only as strong as the body politic. Ergo, American democracy is not–really hasn’t been for a long time and certainly no longer should be–lifted up as an example of what a strong democracy should look like. And this is due to so many factors, not least among them that we’ve had our heads in our technological devices for so long that we no longer know how to reach out in the tradition of a robust commonwealth. Indeed, is a commonwealth even possible in a system where there is no common wealth, where there is no common narrative, where there is no common identity? What does it even mean to be an American anymore? Hell, if we can’t decide what it means to be a human being, how can we have a helpful conversation about what it means to be an American?

Did you hear the echo? That’s history repeating itself. A lone ranger managed to bully his way to the top spot in the country by sheer force of will and bombast. Again, in a culture that deifies both (individual will and bombast), it’s hardly surprising that this strategy won him the election, all the political pundits’ “expert” predictions notwithstanding. So now we have our own version of a charismatic leader who peddles in hate-mongering and appeals to the disenfranchised nationalist. History repeating itself, only this time it’s repeating itself in what we thought was the impenetrable wall of American democracy. We just never actually believed that a Joseph McCarthy could ever actually get elected.

The only other time I remember feeling this kind of punch in the stomach was when O.J. Simpson was found innocent. I remember remarking to myself that the system worked as it was designed, but it was a miscarriage of justice all the same. And so the electoral process worked like it was supposed to yesterday, but a miscarriage of justice was the result. Democracy is imperfect, and sometimes it’s downright flawed–even dangerous. Just like with the O.J. Simpson trial in which the jury got snowed, so the American electorate got similarly snowed (or should I say “Snowdenened”?).

Trump’s ardent supporters said they wanted “change.” Well, that’s all good and fine, but hurricanes represent change, and so did Pearl Harbor, and so does the common cold, and so would fascism. Not all change, in other words, is good. But this incredibly obvious idea was completely lost on 50% of the electorate, so we got change all right, just not the change that will be any good for just about anybody but other billionaires like Trump. The poor, uneducated white male in the rust belt (Trump’s bread and butter) naively believed that he could bring manufacturing jobs back, this in spite of the fact that no one can bring manufacturing jobs back (that train left the station two decades ago), and Trump has never shown even a scintilla of evidence that he’s ever actually cared about the poor, white male worker. On the contrary… and yet they voted for “change.” The other demographic that did was the white, educated, evangelical male. Which calls to mind the adage, “Be careful what you pray for. It just might be answered.” Well, I say be careful who you vote for. You just might get him. And last night, you did. We all did. And I’ll tell you what. I’m angry, I’m depressed, I’m frightened. And I’m a white, evangelical male.

Welcome to the Brave New World of ideological “chaos-politics.” Trump will lead by his gut, and if his past is any indication of his–and now our–future, we’re in for a very bumpy ride.

A Patriot’s Letter to America

(The following letter is an open editorial from a friend who wishes to remain anonymous)

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My Fellow Citizens,

You don’t know my name but you know who I am. I’m the neighbor down the street who you’d call if you were in trouble. I’m the guy who proudly flies the American flag and loves his country but who doesn’t judge immigrants just because they’re from different countries–as long as they’re here legally and want to try their chance at the American Dream. I honor the Constitution and believe in God but respect the right of people who believe different than me. I’m a proud member of the NRA who supports the 2nd Amendment but who thinks gun violence is a problem we need to solve. I’m a Pro-Life conservative who believes that children, including unborn babies, are not only our future but our responsibility. I believe that the men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line every night and day for our freedoms should be accorded the highest respect in society. I’m a 7th generation American whose family Bible traces its roots back to Pennsylvania and 1784. I now reside in the Great Northwest, have been married 41 years, and have two grown and beautiful daughters and four grandchildren. And yes, I’m a life-long Republican who has always voted right down the party line.

Until now.

Because I love my country, I cannot and will not vote for Donald Trump. Though there are Presidents who have done far worse than Donald Trump when it comes to women, locker-room talk or not, if I ever heard a man talk like that about my wife or my daughters, I’d punch him in the mouth. And though he may be a successful businessman worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he’s done nothing to convince me that he would take any of that knowledge or success and apply it to the office of the President. He only talks in vague terms about what he’d do, but he never specifies anything. What am I supposed to do? Just trust him? If he governs the way he talks, unrehearsed and on the fly, we’re all in a load of trouble if he’s elected.

And speaking of the election, I’ve watched Trump now over these past months, and though I began as one of his most enthusiastic supporters, the last few weeks have forced me to wizen up, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s no patriot. He’s a narcissist who will do anything he can to win, including putting this country on the verge of another civil war by undermining the very bedrock of democracy this country was built on. He says he loves the Constitution, but he’s willing to debase it by denying the fairness of the electoral system. The fact that he couldn’t answer the simple question in the last debate about whether he’d honor the country’s vote come Election Day showed me just how dangerous of a man he actually is. Donald Trump loves himself more than he loves this country, that much is clear, and he is willing to unravel the very fabric that holds this Republic together just to get elected. No one who espouses such views, Republican or Democrat, belongs in the Oval Office.

Bottom line: Mr. Trump’s pathological inability to take responsibility for anything he’s done or might do, including accepting the possibility that he might lose fair and square, is all the proof I need about his fitness for the highest office in the land. Donald Trump is that spoiled rich kid who never had to grow up and who now whines, points fingers, and passes the buck whenever he doesn’t get his way. He’s apparently always done this, and my father taught me to never respect a man who couldn’t accept defeat.

I grieve for my country and am ashamed of the Grand Old Party. It’s time we stood up and faced this clown of a candidate down. He doesn’t represent Republican values, can’t be trusted to look out for our interests, and doesn’t respect our most cherished laws. Neither does Hillary, but at least she’s “man” enough to accept the election results if it doesn’t go her way. She won’t get my vote, of course, but neither will Mr. Trump, which is why I’m writing in his running mate, Mike Pence, who is the better man and would make a better President than either of the candidates. Mike Pence is willing to stand up for conservative values, he defends the Constitution, honors God, and supports those of us who have worked hard all our lives to help make this country great. Yes, I know that election laws don’t allow a write-in candidate, but it’s better to vote for someone who doesn’t have a chance than someone who doesn’t deserve one.

I’m asking you to join me in sending Trump a clear message by sending him back to television land where he belongs. I loved his show, The Apprentice, but right now he’s the contestant who needs to be fired. As for Hillary, we’ll give her hell for four years and enjoy doing it, then defeat her and her fellow Democrats once and for all. But we’ll do it fair and square the way we’ve always done it: by casting our vote.

Sincerely,

A Proud American Patriot, Father, and Husband

Trumped Up, Dumbed Down

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Donald Trump is not the worst thing to happen to American politics. He’s the second worst thing to happen to American politics (which is still saying a lot if you think about American politics). It’s his supporters (the “Trumpettes”) that are the worst thing to happen to American politics. Now that Trump has continued to hang on in spite of himself (or, more soberingly, because of them), I’m now actually worried that he may just do the improbable. I still don’t believe the math adds up for the general election, but the larger point here is, if he does actually manage his improbable rise to the top, it will be the biggest stain on the experiment of American democracy in 250 years. And our country is only 240 years old.

Superlatives no longer suffice to explain the incredulity that I feel about Trump’s rise, and I can only explain it by going back to my metaphor of the roaches (aka the “Deplorables”) from an earlier post. The xenophobia in this country of ours runs really, really deep, deep enough to actually give someone like Trump a national audience. But then, Rush Limbaugh has had a national audience for years, and so has Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity… Turns out, though, they’ve just been the hors d’ouevres.

Trump is this country’s id, which helps to put some things in perspective. But it doesn’t bode well for the culture wars ahead, because the Super Ego in this scenario–the tireless machine of political correctness–is what helped fuel the rise of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, and Trump in the first place. The pendulum swings from side to side in American politics, and sometimes it swings farther then normal. Think 50s (swing to one side) and then 60s (swing to the other). Well, it’s about time we had another one of our big swings, and from the looks of it, this election will be the tipping point. Trumpettes are now saying that they don’t trust the electoral process, which just gives them license to dig their heels in even deeper and draw lines in the sand and become more recalcitrant against authority when Hillary wins (which is still the likely scenario, as far I’m concerned).

The antics are just getting started. The Donald, narcissistic ranting buffoon that he is, hasn’t stooped as low as he can get (which, in itself, is fascinatingly disturbing). That we can have someone like him representing one of the two major political parties in this country is the most disturbing thing of all. Every time he opens his mouth, I’m reminded how far we’ve fallen in our level of public discourse, civic engagement, and polite debate. We no longer know how to debate–we now only know how to hate. And Trump, like Hitler before him, will just stoke that hate. And unfortunately for the world, at least half of the electorate is apparently willing to take the bait.

We have seen the enemy, and the enemy isn’t Donald Trump. The enemy is us.

Man vs Machine ~ Man as Machine

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At the same time we’re getting more fake, machines are getting more real. Pulled up next to a bus this morning and a banner ad on the side of the bus for some new teen exploit movie screamed for my attention. As I stared at the ad, I got this weird pit in my stomach. Strange reaction, I thought to myself. But something about it bothered me. It was disorienting. It wasn’t until I drove away that I figured out what was so disturbing: I couldn’t tell what part of the picture depicted reality and what part didn’t. I couldn’t focus. Let me explain.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a bit obsessed with cameras. I love taking pictures. And I mean that quite literally — taking pictures. I have the means, of course, to tinker with the pictures and turn them into something I’ve made. In other words, making pictures. But as much as possible, I want to capture light, not create it or add it in later or in some other way doctor up the image I saw with my naked eye. I realize that this puts me in the minority. Most photographers love to tinker with the image after the fact. Indeed, film photography was all about working in the dark room to dodge and burn the image. But somehow, that was different. It wasn’t easy to do, for starters (you needed access to a darkroom and chemicals, for example), but beyond that, there was an organic process involved in changing or enhancing the image. Subtle effects were usually the goal. But besides all this, I chose most often to shoot in chrome precisely so that the image that was produced was, as close as possible, an accurate representation of the image I saw. No post-production involved beyond the parameters set by the slide film itself.

Today, however, with the means at our disposal using Lightroom, et al., you’re just a few clicks away from enhancing an image to such a degree that you effectively change it and it no longer represents what your eye actually saw. Of course, my philosopher friends will, at this point, begin trotting out arguments about phenomenology and perception and that we never really reproduce exactly what our eye beholds, that our brains are truly the image makers and our eyes are just the receptors, that reality as perceived is entirely relative, and so on and so forth. But back in the world of common sense, even my philosopher friends know what I’m talking about. I stared at that image on the side of that bus this morning and couldn’t honestly tell if the nose or skin or lips or eyes of any of the three sorority girls on the right side of the poster were, in fact, the noses, skin, lips, and eyes of the actresses themselves.

Lately, of course, there has been an ongoing kerfuffle about touching up photographs on the covers of magazines. But we saw it coming, didn’t we? Plastic surgery is as common as teeth whitening, a significant uptick in pubescent girls who are having plastic surgery done to enhance (read “make perfect,” whatever that even means) their genitalia has recently been documented, and what grown woman (and more commonly, man) doesn’t include make-up, or skin products, or hair product in their morning routine in order to enhance their image? The cosmetics industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and has been around for a hundred years (or a few thousand if you’re really picky), and then of course there’s liposuction and breast implants and penis enlargement and collagen shots for your lips, all while a burgeoning A.I. industry is committed to making machines more and more real. “Ex Machina” anyone?

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (2015).

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (2015)

The premise: blur the difference between fake and real to indistinguishable proportions. And we haven’t even touched on the fact that we’re wearing our technologies like digital appendages around our ears, and over our eyes, and on our wrists… and pretty soon, in our brains. And how’s this for a brave new world: Facebook’s LAPGAN technology using generative parametric models? There’s also Microsoft’s Tay AI, which is laughably amateurish (you can interact with “her” on Twitter), but she’s just the start. Where the folks at Google and Microsoft and Facebook go from here is anyone’s guess. Actually, it’s everyone’s guess. And everyone’s guess is the same: they’ll only get better at this stuff. Tay will be a punchline in a few months (actually, she already is), but machines will have the last laugh if we aren’t reeeaaally careful. Mark that. Scary thought: humans as a species aren’t much good at being reeeaaally careful.

The rub: we’re losing touch with what “real” is because we’re becoming less and less real ourselves. There will be honest debates about what counts for real anyway in the coming years, and I don’t mean among philosophers. They’ve been arguing about that for millennia. I mean among the general public. The trickle-down theory works here, too. What’s generated in labs and graduate classrooms now will be fodder for chatrooms and bar stools in a few years. In the meantime, we continue to be bombarded with doctored images every day, images that do not represent the reality of what they’re pretending to show, while at the same time we’re doctoring up the real thing so that the “real” is no longer a distinguishable category. And where does it all end? Is there any turning back? Would it surprise me if we arrive at the point where we no longer can reasonably distinguish between man and machine? Surprise me?? Hell, the pit in my stomach as I drove away from the bus this morning is what surprised me. We’ve already arrived.