Readings: The President We Deserve

Noreen Malone wrote an article for New York magazine called “Oh, And He Is Also Driving Some Liberals Crazy,” about Donald Trump. You can find it in the 3/7/16-3/20/16 issue. The main takeaway is that we all created and incubated Trump–this isn’t just on Fox News alone, nor the populist Tea Party. Colbert, as did we all, joked about Trump’s zero-percent chances of winning the primary, which made us all eager to tune in and see what he’d do or say next. (Think Bulworth.) But part of this was out of genuine delight in hearing actual honesty out of a politician–even if it was abhorrent. As Malone writes:

For the past 40 years, even as candidates have moved toward greater levels of narcissism and power-seeking, they’ve also moved toward greater precision in their narratives, in their sound bites, in their adherence to lawyerly correctness and deadly carefulness. A news cycle that hungrily fed on “gaffes” seemed to guarantee that only personality-free robots who made the fewest unforced errors would ever become the nominee.

That’s not entirely true, if you look at Bush triumphing over Gore, but it at least hints as to why Trump might have been entertaining–at first. But then Malone continues:

Trump’s directness, his ridiculousness, his often spot-on and fascinating cruelty–he’s the star of a premium-cable show about a billionaire-populist anti-hero running for president, one we loved until we realized it couldn’t be turned off. Now the question becomes: How do you feel when real life is adapted from television, rather than the reverse?

This is what terrifies us. As in Idiocracy, we’re on the verge of voting for a cult of personality, for dumb spectacle and brash, unsupportable ideas, as opposed to actual governance. We distrust intelligence, because the truth is that the majority of us are petty, not-smart people, and–as one person suggested as a justification of all the various negative -isms out there–when we realize our own shortcomings, we love to see that there’s at least one other person lower on the rung than we are. There’s a person on my Facebook feed (a friend of a friend, thankfully), who insists that Trump must be elected on account of a single political issue–Clinton and Sander’s apparent support of partial-birth abortions (which is less about the thing itself and more about the wording of the laws that have tried to stop it, and the slippery slope that comes of restricting choice). Nobody cares about next season–we’re living from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and there’s always an even worse Big Bad hiding in the wings, should we manage to dispatch Trump.

Before they were popularized in the media, vampires used to be traditionally dispatched by sunlight–the idea being that no evil could stand being exposed to the pure good of the day. True Blood let vampires skirt that with fairy magic, The Vampire Diaries created magical daylight rings, etc. Trump’s a political vampire being kept aloft by the magical thinking of monomaniacal supporters; expose his lies and weaknesses and he simply keeps moving. The only way to beat bad television is to stop watching, and yet the worst, lowest-denominator shows seem to keep being renewed. (Thanks, Chuck Lorre!)

Be prepared to welcome our first Television President into the White House. Why couldn’t it have been Jed (Bartlet)?

Readings: “Up in the Air”

Ben Wofford’s piece for Rolling Stone (7/16/15-7/30/15) is one of those pieces where I just cannot fathom the fact that people like Ben Schlappig exist. Narcissistic enough not only to carry through on deliberately exploiting faulty airline deals and mechanics surrounding “frequent flyer miles” and redemption points (think of him as the upscale combo-coupon clipper), but to be the subject of a profile piece in which he boasts, at length, about being “one step ahead” of the airlines. About paying for a $15,000 first-class cabin with miles accrued from false purchases (i.e., buying currency from the US Mint with a credit card and then using that currency to pay off the card) or with cycling through 15-40 credit cards. About trying to devise an algorithm that would help him get tickets on cheap and overbooked flights that he could then voluntarily “bump” himself off of, in exchange for airline comps. Actually, forget the coupon-clipping parallels: this is a lot like exploiting Wall Street, and the fact that these are massive corporations (airlines and credit cards) doesn’t really change the fact that they’re being defrauded.

This isn’t a Robin Hood story, either, despite fellow Hobbyist (the name for this weird, exploitative “profession”) Aktarer Zaman’s claims that airlines are “using the public’s lack of knowledge in order to profit greatly,” because Schlappig isn’t giving that information back to the public. If anything, he’s profiting from the small group he shares it with over at FlyerTalk, where he apparently gets nice ad revenue and commissions off every credit card he helps to activate through his site. Schlappig, given the opportunity, would probably be the next Martin Shkreli. Don’t believe me? Just listen to this line:

He’s treated equally well by flight attendants, who are among his rowdiest fans. When a chief steward recognized him on one superluxury carrier, Schlappig stepped into his onboard shower to find a bottle of Dom Perignon on ice waiting for him. On a recent international flight, an attendant maneuvered an unwitting Schlappig into an empty row, administering what he delicately terms a surprising and unwanted hand job. (“It was a disaster,” he says. “I tried to get out, but there was no point.”)

Frankly, given all the ways he’s bilked the airlines out of money–maybe he’s a bit like Slippin’ Jimmy of Better Call Saul fame, a small-time con-man with big-time aspirations and the smarts to make good on them–I’m surprised he didn’t sue the airline for this attendant’s attentions, because that sure sounds like sexual assault to me.

Don’t get me wrong: the airlines aren’t free and clear here. “In 2012, a European Central Bank paper classified airline miles in the same category as bitcoin, citing a 2005 calculation by The Economist that valued the global stock of frequent-flyer miles at more than $700 billion.” It’s worse, too, in that they actually control the bank, so to speak and “can constantly change the rules, devalue the points and close accounts at will.” I so badly want them to get screwed over–but in a way that really benefits the public, and at least Zaman’s mass-public version of FlyerTalk, Skiplagged, helps to get information about the cheapest flights out there.

The hubris–at least Jordan Belfort had a bit of a comeuppance in The Wolf of Wall Street, even if the damages and practices of he and his decadent cohorts are still with us in the market, or the 1%. God bless him for getting away with something that’s so extralegal that it’s not actually a scam–they do always say that you should run cons on criminals, because they can’t go to the police. I guess I just wouldn’t rub the rest of the world’s faces in it, y’know?

Readings: “You Throw a Stone,” by Juan Felipe Herrera

I can’t remember the last time I read and enjoyed a straight-up poem that didn’t come wrapped in some other form of media, but this one blew me away. (Not for nothing is the author the poet laureate of the United States.)

It’s visual, so you have to go to the actual Times site to get a feel for the way the lacunae are used to show distance. It’s political, but not specific, so it has a timeless appeal.

I love the transitions, too: “you throw a stone / i throw a stone / i throw a stone / you throw a stone” suddenly becomes “then a rocket.” The natural sun “cannot penetrate,” but these artificial bombs can tear us apart. Childish games evaporate the place where “you and i / once played (in our separate dreams).”

That’s heartbreaking stuff, really. I recommend you read it here, now.

The Trope of Calling Out Tropes

I’ve never shied away from expressing my distaste for some of the exaggerated language used by Polygon’s editorial staff, much as I admire their overall work. (Disclosure: My disagreements with them have resulted in me being banned from commenting on their site; make of that what you will.)

Here’s a peak example of how Polygon creates an attack-based narrative, taking a simple bit of reportage on angry fans from The 100 (spoilers will follow) and making a conclusion about how the show’s writers have inappropriately or lazily handled their characters:

Fans were also upset because Lexa’s death falls into the archaic trope of having one character in a gay or lesbian relationship killed off, never allowing for the same happy ending that a heterosexual couple would enjoy. The trope, sometimes known as “bury your gays,” has been around in fiction for quite some time.

This trope may be accurate. It may be worth writing about. But in the context of The 100, which currently has no happy relationships for any couple, it’s utter nonsense. This doesn’t discredit the frustration that fans rightfully may feel that a beloved character was killed off, but it’s inflammatory to assume that this is a mere trope. Watch enough genre dramas, and you’ll understand that the likelihood of any couple staying together without a messy breakup (at best) or a “horrible” death is unlikely, because stasis and happiness are antithetical to the massive plot twists and shakeups that are the meat-and-potatoes of shows like The 100. Lexa didn’t die because she was gay; this isn’t some sort of subconscious “warning” to viewers of what might happen to them. She died because she’s living on post-apocalyptic Earth, and that’s what happens.

The widespread saturation of the trope has created a media environment where gay couples who get to stay together without one or the other of them dying a horrible death are vanishingly rare.

I’d argue that it’s the opposite: that we’ve created a media environment where innocuous narrative devices and conventions are now picked apart for some sort of broader story, even when evidence of a smoking gun isn’t there. Just look at the exaggeration here: Lexa didn’t die a horrible death. She was accidentally shot by one of her most loyal supporters, a man unfamiliar with how to use a gun. If there’s any laziness here, it’s that this death echoes a famous one from the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If anything, this episode should be irritating supporters of the NRA, since it suggests that gun use should be restricted solely to those who actually understand how to handle a weapon.

And yes, I mourn “the death of a prominent gay character” given the fact that there aren’t “many other characters like them” for audiences to turn to. That’s a problem. But an equally large problem would be the defensive trope of the Invincible Fan Favorite: a tipping point at which certain “unique” characters on a show can’t be killed off because diversity or representation is more important than grim reality. Would The Walking Dead have been a better show if it had killed Daryl in the first season, and not T-Dog? It sort of makes a show less interesting when you know which characters won’t be killed, and some of the most effective on-screen losses have come entirely out of left-field, when we felt most secure (Serenity).

It’s good that the fans are pushing to have more awareness for the LGBTQ community, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of The 100‘s narrative freedom, and I wish that Polygon’s reportage of this wasn’t so one-sided and lazy in assuming that this was nothing more than an insensitively executed trope.


Readings: Obama Takes on Climate Change

This is an old piece from Jeff Goodell’s 10/8/15 piece in Rolling Stone, but worth reading for the following excerpt alone. The following is President Obama’s response to Goodell’s question about the pope’s statement that “greed and materialism are destroying the planet.” Look at how balanced Obama remains in his response!

If you look at human history, it is indisputable that market-based systems have produced more wealth than any other system in human history by a factor of–you choose the number. And that has been, net, a force for good.

Wait for it, wait for it.

What I do think is true is that mindless free-market ideologies that ignore the externalities that any capitalist system produces can cause massive problems. And it’s the job of government and societies to round the edges and to address big system failures. That, by the way, is not controversial among market economists.

The bold is my emphasis, but I love how he starts with the classic tactic of agreeing with the opposition before pointing out a negative extreme and working in his overall point and policy, before backing it up tactfully (and casually) with the reference to common sense among actual experts in the field. He continues, then, into the specifics:

Pollution has always been the classic market failure, where externalities are not captured and the system doesn’t deal with them, even though it’s having an effect on everybody.

Well, when you put it like that! He closes with a nice healthy dose of optimism (tied to actual historical precedent), one reason why so many idealistic people (like myself) voted for him in the first place.

I think the big way that we solve any big market failure is to have a broad-based conversation and to come to a collective agreement that this is something we’re going to take into account in our day-to-day doing business. And when we do that businesses will find ways to profit from it, jobs will be created. We’re already seeing that when it comes to the solar industry…. So I am optimistic about us being able to solve this problem. But it is going to require that our politics catches up with the facts. And right now, in this country, our politics is going through a particularly broken period. 

This, by the way, is why I can’t vote for most of the people running for office. If you can’t be this coherent in your arguments, this consistent, then you shouldn’t be President. We get nowhere by being self-serving and short-sighted.

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