There’s No Normal to Go Back To: A Quick Note on Evaluating the Democratic Presidential Candidates

So, I have my preferences, loosely held at the moment, because it’s too early to get all worked up and the infighting/circular firing squad thing we went through last time (and how many other times before that?) just isn’t gonna work for us this time, so I’m saving my shots for the other side, who far more richly deserve them. That said, I do have a thing I want to say about how I’m going to be making my choices, donations, and decisions about whom to support in the 2020 election cycle. And though I shan’t tell you, a presumably grown-ass adult human capable of making your own choices, what to think or how to come to your own conclusions, I do hope you’ll give this a read and a good long think, afterwards.

We are at war, and have been for a long time. Decades, at very least.

No, I’m not talking about Afghanistan, or any of the other various and sundry American military deployments abroad, however hot or cold their current theater of operations is. Not that that’s not worth talking about, especially Afghanistan where we’re almost two decades in and I still don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish. No, the war I’m talking about is the war here at home, between left and right, and it’s a war only one side has been fighting for most of the time it’s been going on.

That has to change. Like, yesterday.

Look, I get that you may not think of it that way, and you probably don’t want to think of it that way. It’s comforting to think of the Trump era as an aberration, a Black Swan event that, while it’s doing some damage to our republic, our cultural and institutional immune system is even now spinning up antibodies (Congressional investigations, various state AGs, the Mueller report, etc) to combat it. Once the fever breaks, we can go back to normal, with good-faith bipartisanship and West Wing-style governance by whoever makes the best argument.

We can’t. Continue reading “There’s No Normal to Go Back To: A Quick Note on Evaluating the Democratic Presidential Candidates”

Dear My Fellow White People

I’d like to suggest that if the color of your skin and the doings of people who lived in the same countries as your ancestors constitutes your greatest source of pride and self-worth, then maybe you should consider doing something worthwhile and constructive enough with your life that you can cultivate that pride and self-worth there. I think you’ll find that it’ll make you much healthier and happier, and no one has to die because you can’t think of a good reason to like yourself.

The Best of Both Possible Worlds

I have always referred to myself as a pragmatic progressive. Progressive because of the policy goals and political ends I think best pursuing, pragmatic because I’m not super particular on how we get there, as long as we do. I often find ideologies interesting, but ultimately I think they do more harm than good, because they circumscribe what is thinkable. Also, they often work best on paper, and while theoretical space is a useful tool for playing and working with ideas, the lived world of actuality is almost always too complex for ideology to usefully encompass.

At the end of the day, though, I’m much more interested in (and motivated by) ideals than ideology. And I’m much more inclined to use them to pick ends than means, though they do very much play a role in both.

So, what ideals drive me, politically speaking? What political ends do I seek?

It’s pretty simple, really. I want everyone – by which I mean literally all humans – to have all the tools, education, and material support they need to prosper and thrive, individually and collectively; the opportunity to do meaningful work (whatever that means to them); and the material, cultural, social, and spiritual means to pursue and find happiness, again both individually and collectively.

Pragmatically, it seems to me the best way to get there is a combination of two systems of societal material allocation that often seem at odds: socialism and capitalism.

Both have virtues and shortcomings. Continue reading “The Best of Both Possible Worlds”

Black History Month Book Report #4: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

I hadn’t heard of this book before my lovely partner, Dr. Bae, bought a copy for me for Valentine’s Day (along with several other candidates for my BHM reading project and/or readerly delectation). “I’ll be really interested to see what you think about this,” she said, with both eagerness and trepidation in her voice.

I knew I was in for it when I read the back cover, which describes the (mostly) unnamed black narrator’s attempt to put his southern Californian town back on the map, by way of reinstating both slavery and segregation, landing him, as you might expect, in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, who don’t have any more of an idea of what to do with him than anyone else does.

Then I read the prologue, which was so fucking funny that I stopped and read it again, just to make sure I had properly enjoyed and appreciated it. Wow. Just… wow.

The Sellout is satire, yes, of the highest order. Satire which takes as its target not only these disUnited States of the twenty-first century, but skewers in particular what I can only describe as American Blackness, at least as presently constituted. It’s a particularly cogent way in to skewering America more generally, because we are defined – significantly if not solely – by our nation’s Original Sin of chattel slavery and, more deeply, by our persistent unwillingness to face the nature and consequences of that sin down through the ages to the present day. The cognitive dissonance that lies therein fucks with all of us, which is not great for our psychological health on a societal or individual level but constitutes a gold mine for the perspicacious satirist, and boy howdy is Paul Beatty that guy.

As the narrator tells us, everything that happens happens naturally. All he sets out to do is put his tiny hometown in the south end of the Los Angeles sprawl back on the map. Dickens is a bit of an anomaly, in that it’s a farming community in the middle of one of the world’s sprawling-est cities. What’s not anomalous is the racial character of its population, historically. Thanks to redlining and segregation, Dickens is black, or was til the powers that be saw fit to disincorporate the town, much to the dismay of the narrator and his friend Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal. As both faded child star and relic of a (mostly, supposedly) bygone era, Hominy plays an outsized role in what follows once our narrator, a farmer/surfer/soCal stoner raised and homeschooled by a controversial black sociologist, rescues him from an attempted self-lynching. Hominy is, for lack of a better term (and with apologies in advance for my inelegant language) a shuck-and-jive pickaninny who derives a weird but totally believable contentment, even serenity, from his bone-deep belief in whites’ racial superiority. He’s a caricature, yes, but no more so than the other, opposing pole in The Sellout’s satire/critique of contemporary blackness, Foy Cheshire, a self-important do-gooderish Black Scholar and racial activist who spends his time penning uplifting, ridiculous updates of canonical literary texts (think ‘Tom Soarer’) and scheming to take over the Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals, who meet in Dickens’ donut shop to debate contemporary blackness and partake of the credibility associated with doing so in the ”Hood.’

It would be easy to misread Beatty’s accomplishment and (I suspect) intent. After all, in the world of the Sellout, bringing back overt racism and segregation has only positive effects. ‘Whites only’ stickers on the bus driven by our narrator’s one true love bring crime down. The local middle school’s performance improves significantly after a fake charter school serving white students is announced and the narrator convinces the principal to segregate the school. A shallow interpretation might read Beatty as implying that racism and segregation were good for black folks in America, and maybe we ought to go back to that, for everyone’s sake.

I don’t read it that way, though. What I take from the novel is that it’s not so much a return to segregation Beatty might be calling for, but simply a return to honesty about racism and segregation. That white America’s tendency to believe that what writer Charlie Pierce calls the Day of Jubilee has come, in which the Problem of Racism is Solved (thanks in no small part to our first black President) and that it’s All Good Now, and the pretense that our Original Sin has been, if not redeemed, then resolved, only serves to obfuscate the painful truth that things are not so much better than they used to be and may in fact be worse, since America is almost as racist as it used to be but won’t cop to it anymore. When the narrator and his friends cordon off a space to be theirs, it’s not so much the edification and uplift of black folks they’re seeking, but simply a space where they can be themselves, on their own terms.

I don’t know. I’m just an old white guy. But that’s what I got out of it. Either way, you should totally read this book, because even if you don’t come away with any big lessons, it’s goddamned funny as hell, and so deftly and expertly edgy that it shows the internet’s ‘edgelord’ boys for the whingey, overprivileged twerps that they are. Seriously. Don’t be like me and sleep on this one.

Black History Month Book Report #3: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

So, unlike many if not most spec fic writers, I never had a Lovecraft phase. I mean, I knew the name. But if I read anything until much later in life, it didn’t stick. So I hadn’t read The Horror at Red Hook, of which The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle is a retelling from the point of view of a black man.

Not that it’s required to enjoy this page-turner of a dark mystery novella set in ’20s-era Harlem and New York. Which is good, because I’m about three decades past the point where Lovecraft’s turgid prose and particular brand of cosmic horror was going to land. Victor LaValle, I’ll be reading more of.

Tommy Tester is a hustler and musician living in Harlem with his father, who makes his living playing music for white people and doing the odd odd job for them, too. When Robert Suydam, a mysterious and wealthy white man with a very strange plan to liberate New York’s poor and marginalized, hires him to play a party in his mansion, it opens the door (alright, eldritch portal) to a whole new (horrific) world for Tommy. Continue reading “Black History Month Book Report #3: The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle”