What A Year It Has Been—And Will Be

Having taken a week off from my blog to enjoy Christmas and family time, I have now been encouraged to share my thoughts at the end of a tumultuous year both here in America and around the world.  Therefore, I have taken a little time to review my commentaries from the past year in order to see if there might be a theme or a focus I can build upon.  Thankfully I found exactly what I was looking for right back at the start of this year in my January 14 post entitled Change Can Be Painful.

People are pushing back against experts and policy makers who promote punitive and half-baked ideas regarding what is best for us.
As for government and government officials, they are disliked, distrusted, and disrespected by the vast majority of Americansmany of whom are now approaching a state approximating open rebellion. This is not surprising because our long national experiment with expanding government to provide endless freebies fueled by reckless borrowing has now crashed into the inevitable arithmetic of profligacyeventually you run out of money. Avoiding real-life financial decisions by charging the spiraling costs of government programs rife with waste and inefficiency to future generations of taxpayerswho are now stuck with the tabwas loads of fun for elected officials who could keep handing out goodies without the political inconvenience of raising taxes to pay for them, but the incredibly large check for that stupendous party has now been dropped in our laps. Tough and divisive discussions are certainly ahead.

This phenomenon has not been limited to the U.S. of A.  One need only look around the world to see the leaders of the globalist status quo teetering and falling due to populist insurgencies in their own countries.  France, England, Italy, Germany, Greece, Mexico, Brazil, and many other nations are dealing with wholesale rejections of their traditional elite leadership.  Alarm bells are ringing in government offices around the globe as something approaching a physical revulsion for the insiders who have long ruled with impunity sends so many officials scrambling to understand the anger that has spread like a virus.  Many nations now have their own Donald Trump-ish disrupters gleefully goring the powerful and holding them up to ridicule on socialmedia, which elected officials and appointed bureaucrats are naturally now desperate to control and censor under the guise of suppressing hate speech.  Just how far all these protests around the globe will go is still an open question, but it is easy to see that business as usual is no longer an option.

Although it is our natural tendency to see only that which is right in front of us, we must take a moment to realize that the election of Donald Trump was but a part of a larger worldwide political movement that has, in essence, been a revolt of the beleaguered and neglected masses against their own governments and the entrenched policies that are designed to favor the few at the expense of the many.  

Although government has, from the dawn of civilization, functioned as a tool of the rich and/or connected, the stench of corruption and back room deal making that empties the pockets of workers to pay for the summer houses of the elite has grown so grotesquely pronounced since the Great Recession that the bread and circuses of social welfare policies are now insufficient to the task of keeping the peasantry from wielding their pitchforks.  The Yellow Vestprotests in The City of Lights and the howls of outrage over the billions of dollars in tax breaks showered upon Amazon by New York in exchange for the privilege of King Bezos building a headquarters in The Big Apple both share a common parentage: The stunning awakening of the common folk mated with the oblivious and obsequious largesse of government toward the wealthy.  The average New Yorker may have to count their pennies to buy a slice of pizza at lunchtime, but they will at least be able to rest easy knowing that Jeff Bezos will have a private helipad paid for by their tax dollars.  Hooray!

The revolt of the downtrodden in America, which found its most public expression in the election of Donald Trump, has thrown the comfortable and insular establishment into a rage that is daily printed on the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post (which is owned by Jeff Bezos, by the way) and nightly broadcasts on the talkfests of CNN and MSNBC that remind us that Donald Trump is a monster and Putin puppet while his supporters are knuckle-dragging cretins and bigots.  

That existential wail that you heard over the past year was Democrats realizing that many voters detest the rickety and stupendously expensive edifice of bureaucratic inertia and lunacy they have spent 70 years constructing and justifying. The Great Society and its many, many governmental offspring have not eliminated any of the social and economic ills they claimed to be able to cure, but the response of Progressives, who now seem to be curdling into diehard Socialists as we speak, has been something akin to the bleating sheep in George Orwells famed dystopian fable, Animal Farm: Big government good. Bigger government better!”  

Instead of trimming their sails and reassessing their basic premises, the new crop of Democrats set to storm the House of Representatives in just a few days seems determined to propose new spending programs that will run into the tens of trillions of dollars.   Most of their plans will, of course, die in the Senate or under President Trumps veto pen, but we will have yet another opportunity to ignore fiscal reality in pursuit of that which can never be attained: Utopia.  The hopes of statist Democrats were rekindled by 2018 midterms, which resulted in gains in the House of Representatives mostly due to the super-bluing of California and New York, but the harsh fact is that their powers are still mostly limited to sanctimonious raging and endless investigating.  

Now that the narrative of nefarious Russian collusion has degenerated into a discovery of hush money paid to a Playboy model and a porn star in exchange for some pre-Presidential nookie, Democrats will need to keep their base energized by huffing and puffing over clearly tangential nonsense and hinting at imminent impeachment in every fundraising appeal.  Frankly, I am much more concerned about Russian and Chinese plans to deploy hypersonic nuclear weapons next year, which will greatly enhance the possibility of extinguishing all life on our planet; however, I realize that missile defense policy is depressingly dull compared to the chirpy prattling of Stormy Daniels about the shape and size of President Trumps penis.  

Perhaps I need to realign my interests to better conform to the priorities of those who truly control public opinion in America nowlate night comedians and cable news clowns.  Only in this way will I be able to resist the urge to repeatedly slam my head into the top of my desk as I flip through the destructive sneering and snark that passes for news in our major media today.

 

 

 

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Is Technology The New Creativity?

I am of two minds about living in America today.  Setting aside any discussion of politicswhich I am glad to do for the momentI find that I cannot escape my belief that our popular and fine arts and entertainment are, by and large, horrifically bad and stupendously boring.  However, this shortcoming is more than made up for by the near-magical world of technological innovation we live in today.  Although we clearly have our problemsevery age doesI can firmly assert that I do not wish to live at any time other than now.  Our daily cultural life may be a wasteland, but our work and play are made immeasurably better by the incredible creativity in technology that has relegated most fine arts and popular entertainment to a purely secondary role in early 21st century American life.

A while back I was appalled to discover that a total of sixSharknadomovies have been made.  I cannot believe we actually needed even the first, but this odd phenomenon brings a stark fact of the universe of popular entertainment into sharp focus: New ideas are typically few and far between.

There are, of course, many reasons that endless iterations of so many idiotic ideas plague our modernity.  One is that investors and entertainment companies are desperate for a sure thing, so they reason that if Sharknado 3 made money, there is some likelihood that Sharknado 4 will as welland, for reasons that surpass understanding, they often do.  By the same token, the business executives who green light this kind of falderal presume that a flop will be more easily excused by their bosses if it can be presented as a wise decisionone derived from a sensible expectation based upon prior successesthat for reasons beyond their control simply failed this one time.  Money in the arts and entertainment tends to chase conservative investments, and gambling with the cash provided by your corporate overlords is not a prescription for a long career in this business.

Consequently, artists and entertainers who long ago lost their edge are recycled beyond the point when they have any work truly worthy of our consideration.  Even if the caviar of their early career has now degenerated into stale corn flakes, it has some intrinsic worth as a known brandthat can still make a buck off name recognition and former notoriety.  This explains why the late work of Pablo Picasso, which basically was terrible and derivative, continued to sell well and the tours of aging rockers still command premium prices despite the suspicion that their current artistry owes much to the wonders of lip syncing and hip replacement surgeries.  We know what to expect and fill in the blank spots from our own memoriesand so the illusion survives.

We are, in addition, now besieged by recycled drivel simply because there are so many more media outlets in need of contentany contentto fill in the spaces between infomercials.  Cheap and disposable entertainmentcontrived and packaged to present the best possible platform for advertisements or to encourage streaming subscriptionsrules a great deal of the entertainment world today simply because there are twenty-four hours and seven days in a week that must be programmed.  No one plays the National Anthem and turns off their transmitter at midnight anymore because dead air is anathema in a culture where constant stimulation is the norm—and necessity.

However, as much as the traditional forms of creativity—music, sculpture, poetry, theater, dance, etc.—seem to have landed in a ditch today, we do live in an age of mind boggling technological inventiveness that has transformed every facet of our livesand which provides sufficient compensation for the dreary state of our arts and entertainment.  

I sometimes shake my head when I think about growing up in a world of land line telephones, rabbit ear antennae on boxy cathode ray tube televisions, clacking typewriters, and rooms filled with library card catalogues.  Medical care was often diagnosis by stethoscope and exploratorysurgeries because there were no wondrous medical imaging technologies available beyond a simple x-ray.  Cars, which were attractive but unreliable, could not instantly tell a mechanic via a computer link what was wrong with them.  Our connection to news and events in the outside world was a daily newspaper tossed on the doorstep in the morning or the six oclock newson a black and white television.  K-12 education was all pencil and paper, and the height of workplace computing technology was punch cards and slide rules.  Carbon paper was still a common office tool, and eager young women strove to master shorthand (how many even know what this is today?) prior to entering a heavily hair sprayed career as a secretary.

It is, of course, quite natural that technology will outpace the arts when it comes to the application of creative power.  Customers demand cutting edge innovation to justify the investment of their hard-earned cash.  However, those tired souls seeking mere distraction from their daily toil are content with that which is as comfortably familiar as a pair of worn house slippers  Therefore, the artists of each age tend to move as a herd so as to not stray too far afield from the tastes of their audiences, but the technological innovators become rich precisely by bringing new and wholly unfamiliar products to market.  

There is, of course, always an audience of elite tastemakers who seek out edgy art and culture, but there is an obvious reason why The Monkees sold many, many more records than John Cage ever didthe art that is the most popular is always that which soothes rather than assaults.  Middlebrow is always where the money is to be made, so this is what will always dominate as long as artists need food and shelter to survive.

Although the pace of creativity in engineering, science, and medicine may move faster or slower at any given time, it is always moving in one directionforwardand this is precisely what humanity demands.  There is little market for nostalgia except as it pertains to the collection of key technological artifacts of the pastclassic cars being one obvious examplein order to preserve and enjoy the genius of a particular age.  

However much we may still watch the plays of Shakespeare or read the poetry of John Milton, no one wants to again live in an age when travel from city to city meant days of bouncing along rutted roads, fire was the only source of heat and light, and surgeries were performed without the benefit anesthesia or antibiotics. The worlds that people inhabited in the past may have been more elegant in some very limited ways, but the vast majority of human lives were stalked by hunger, disease, vermin, and pain.  Our knowledge and understanding of the actual daily misery of those days have their limitations, but we are willing to look past all that for a few hours of engagement with the music, paintings, or plays of centuries gone by.

Therefore, before we get too carried away complaining about the world we live in today while romanticizing some time period long ago, perhaps it is worth taking just one small moment to celebrate the many wonders of the world we have right now.  We may have to occasionally endure the existence of the Kardashians, but we can also microwave some popcorn, stream some Miles Davis music through our ear buds, and read a classic novel on our iPads.  I have to admit, it works for me.

 

 

Bombs Away?

The recent spate of mail bombs sent to prominent Democrats was abhorrent. Sadly, those who are angry—and likely isolated and delusional—can terrorize us in a variety of ways, but attempting to murder others with anonymous bombs is particularly cowardly and awful.

Thankfully, law enforcement has already identified and arrested a suspect, and one can only applaud the incredible work of the FBI and others who worked so skillfully and quickly to apprehend him. We are lucky indeed that no injuries resulted from these explosive devices, and continued investigation will discover whether others were involved with these criminal actions.

Now let us take a step back, count to ten, and watch the actions of a dangerous and disaffected looney become immediately tangential to the political blame game that will blaze through the media between now and the midterm elections—and likely far beyond.

This is the sad and divided nation that we live in today. Rather than simply be grateful that an obviously crazy individual was captured and no one was hurt, we are going to have to portion out the blame for a crazed bomber to one party or politician based upon our own blame-filled political beliefs. How fortunate we are that the period between now and the midterm elections can be packed with some extra bitterness and bile beyond that which already is poisoning our national dialogue.

For the record, it is my belief that trying to find a logical reason to explain the actions of those who are clearly mentally unstable is itself just a bit crazy. Keep in mind that President Reagan was nearly killed in 1981 by a cuckoo who believed that political assassination was the ideal way to impress a famous actress—these oddballs aren’t renowned for their logical and linear thinking. The history of political violence throughout our world’s history is basically a parade of lonely losers who were deluded enough to believe that killing a leader would somehow redeem their miserable and empty lives.

It would certainly be for the best if all our pundits and politicians could refrain from riling up their viewers and supporters in their eternal quest for ratings and votes, but this will never happen. Conflict is, perversely enough, a winning strategy; to pretend otherwise would be both foolish and naive.

Moreover, because we quite naturally revel in hearing that the viewpoints and actions of others prove our own moral and intellectual superiority, our increasingly partisan news and information systems have ready and credulous audiences. More and more hearing and reading no thoughts other than those that match our own, daily tailoring what we hear and read to match our preconceived notions about the “reality” of the world around us and those who inhabit it, creates an intellectual echo chamber that only further narrows our already narrow minds and hardens our hardened hearts.

The word bombs that destroy our tattered unity will only become worse if we do not take action. Therefore, I suggest that we consider reviving an updated version of the Fairness Doctrine, a federal policy that we heedlessly and needlessly discarded in 1987 which required news and information programs to present contrasting viewpoints regarding the issues of the day. This policy was not a perfect solution—and discussions about implementing any similar policy will crash into today’s enormously complex and interconnected digital world—but it did provide for some welcome and necessary measure of balance regarding the presentation of news and opinion.

Our nation and its citizens are poorly served by the hyper-partisanship of our media today. The very existence of, for example, a super conservative Fox News and an abundantly liberal MSNBC—both sneering at the sheer stupidity of the other side—contributes little to creating the bipartisan consensus that is necessary to govern a country as diverse as our own. Each monocular and insular side of our national dialogue is equally culpable for creating the anger and divisions within what is perhaps now ironically called The United States of America. We are anything but united at the present time, and it will be a long and difficult road back from the chasm where we now stand—suspiciously staring at one another.

For any improvements to occur, we will also need to surrender that which is so precious to so many: a smug and intellectually lazy sense of our own correctness. As hard as it might be, admitting we can be wrong is the necessary first step to national reconciliation and unity.

Spy Games

It feels a bit like 1950….

Back in those panicky early Cold War days, the biggest show in town was the investigation of Alger Hiss, an American government official accused of being a highly placed spy working on behalf of the Soviet Union.  Over the past several weeks of today’s spy scare, it was revealed that a foreign policy advisor during Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was placed under government surveillance due to suspicions (as yet unproven) that he was a Russian spy, a Russian woman who is here on a student visa was arrested and charged with being a spy, and a recent magazine article even explored the idea that President Trump himself is an agent of Russia.  All we need to round out the picture is an updated version of the House Un-American Activities Committee, some sweaty new version of Senator Joseph McCarthy at its helm, grilling terrified witnesses and loudly accusing them of espionage and treason.

However, before going any further with this discussion of spies and spying, two salient facts must be acknowledged.

The first is that every nation has spied on every other nation from the dawn of civilization.  It is both prudent and smart to make every effort to peek at the inner machinations and motivations of your neighbors, who might, sad to say, not always have your best interests at heart.  Given the terrifying weaponry washing around the world today, to not spy on other nations in order to divine their decision making would be both foolhardy and irresponsible.

In addition, it is both obvious—and understandable—that American politicians are always accusing their rivals of being un-American.  Wrapping yourself in the flag to win political and—even more importantly—moral advantage is as tried and true a method of winning votes as kissing babies.  Our opposition to Russia after the end of World War II in 1945 (Who now remembers that the Soviet Union was one of our most important allies in the fight against Nazi Germany?) only added a new twist to this old ploy, and Presidents from Truman to Trump have been accused of being Russian dupes by political opponents who saw advantage in making this charge.

I am not certain the ferocity of the attacks are any worse than they used to be.  President Truman was, for example, regularly excoriated by Republicans for having “lost China” to the Communists, and Republican Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater continually barked that President Lyndon Johnson was “soft on Communism” during his own failed campaign for the Oval Office.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the red-baiting disappeared for awhile because the Communists suddenly seemed like they wanted to become compliant capitalists, but the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin, his KGB credentials flying, signaled there were limitations to the goodwill that could be bought via a McDonalds dishing out Big Macs in Moscow

 What makes today’s iteration of the Cold War political attacks so difficult to understand is that it is now the Democrats accusing the Republicans of being blind to the Russian threat.  Even as they are busily embracing “Democratic Socialism”, which sounds like some focus group phrase concocted to make Communism palatable in Cleveland, Democrats are furiously lobbing accusations of treason at President Trump for having the temerity to attempt to de-escalate superpower tensions at the Helsinki summit.  Given that only a few years ago Democratic leaders like Senator Chuck Schumer and former President Clinton were best buddies with Vladimir Putin, the resurrection of this harsh and uncompromising Reagan-era “Evil Empire” rhetoric is apt to give one a bad case of whiplash.  What is not new are the old charges of treasonous intent that are on Page One of the “I’m more of a loyal American than you” handbook for demonizing your political opponents.  

None of this is, of course, connected with any tangible reality.  Many of the actions Donald Trump has taken as President have been the opposite of what any actual Russian agent would have done.  Whether he was pushing through a stupendous increase in U.S. defense spending, sending arms to Ukrainian separatists fighting for their freedom from the Russian Federation, or pushing rules of battlefield engagement in Syria that have already resulted in hundreds of Russian casualties, President Trump has been a much harsher adversary of Russia than his predecessor ever was.  

Indeed, if one flashes back to 2012 and President Obama—who was unaware that the microphone was on—timidly asking Russian President Medvedev to inform Vladimir Putin that he would have more flexibility to deal with difficult issues “after my election”, you have to wonder where all the Democrats and overwrought media were at that time.  Was Barack Obama colluding with Russia to swing the Presidential election in his favor?  Not surprisingly, there was no breathless inquiry regarding this question.

Of course, reality and rage do not have to necessarily coincide—what would be the fun in that?—and painting a hammer and sickle on President Trump’s back is a handy tool for escalating the anger necessary to drive Democratic voter turnout in 2018 and 2020.  Whether voters believe any of this or not is hardly the point.  The accusations that Donald Trump is a Russian spy or agentprovide a uniting issue for fractious Democrats, lend fresh legitimacy to Robert Mueller’s endless investigation, and hopefully distract voter attention from historically low unemployment and a roaring domestic economy.  Whether this will translate to Democratic electoral gains in the midterm elections and beyond is anyone’s guess, but it does not mean that we have heard the end of this discussion—and the many baseless theories it will spawn.

Divided We Fall

The late United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously observed that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” This perfectly reasonable bit of wisdom seems lost upon our perfectly unreasonable age. Those with opposing beliefs see no event the same, so we are now defined by our disagreements and revel in the different and—as far as we are concerned—superior nature of both our own opinions and the sometimes questionable facts that inform them.

My worry is not only about our degree of political atomization, which is now so abundantly visible that it has almost descended to cliché. I also worry about the regional divides that have been building for many years—and which were starkly revealed on Election Night in 2016. Today’s Democratic coalition is mostly located on the coasts, college towns, and urban areas—elsewhere it is largely a sea of red.

This harsh reality explains a good deal of the unreality of the expert predictions leading up to Donald Trump’s thoroughly unexpected election victory. Pundits always live in big cities filled with like-minded Democrats on the east and west coasts—a scant 4% of voters in Washington, D.C., for example, cast their votes for Trump—so they were stunned down to their socks by the outcome. Call it the revenge of “flyover country” if you will, but the slack-jawed and occasionally tearful shock of the talking heads on network television spoke clearly and loudly on Election Night. We are, unfortunately, two nations living in two entirely separate worlds.

These divisions are exacerbated by media coverage that demonizes and denigrates those who hold opposing opinions. I am rather exhausted from reading articles that entirely skip reasoned analysis and instead focus on how someone has (these are, by the way, just from a quick browse of today’s online articles) “attacked, burned, scorched, destroyed, clapped back at, called out, or fired back at” another human being because they are a “kook, crook, dupe, hater, fascist, criminal, Nazi, fool, or idiot.” No wonder so many people now shudder when they see the front pages. Hurtful and harmful invective is now so thoroughly woven into our daily conversations that it is remarkable when we encounter grace and consideration, which is as about as sad an observation about the state of our nation as I can possibly imagine.

Inflammatory headlines and copy, sad to say, attract viewers and readers, so there is a built-in economic incentive that benefits media that are routinely rude, insulting, and unfair. In addition, the political interests of the most extreme are well-served by dehumanizing their opponents in order to attract equally outraged donors and followers. The unfortunate synergy that consequently arises between hungry media and angry partisans reinforces the worst in each, and those who adopt more moderate positions can expect to be ruthlessly and endlessly attacked by those at both fringes of the political spectrum—which serves only to squeeze the moderation right out of them.

My concerns have been increased by hearing accounts of people ditching social media because they simply cannot stand the levels of venom and vindictiveness that so many routinely display in their posts. The net result is to leave the dialogue to those who have the least interest in actual dialogue. What we see today is that famous couplet from William Butler Yeats poem, The Second Coming, in real life: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

We are lost if thoughtful and fair-minded Americans, who are those most likely to forge and support the consensus solutions our nation needs to survive, retreat from our public forums. The grim solitary comfort to be found in growling at our glowing televisions pales in comparison to taking part in a national conversation that involves listening intently, speaking respectfully, and caring intensely. As much as we may sometimes be discouraged by the wild anger of others, we cannot allow ourselves to be driven to the political sidelines by those who care for little beside the sound of their own brittle voices. A chorus is most robust when everyone sings their parts together, and we should not be afraid to raise our own voices to create America’s song.

For those who frown upon such foolishness, please forgive my little flight of poetry. It is an outcome of my fears regarding the foreboding path ahead if we do not—I hope—find it within ourselves to remember that we are all Americans.