Walls and Calls

With a barely concealed chortle the man’s ebullient voice burbled on my answering machine.  For a donation right now, he gushed, Republicans would send bricks to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to show my (non-existent) support for Trump’s wall.  Our government has been shut down for a record period over a temper-tantrum by a man desperate to leave something tangible from his wasted term as president.  Apart from the clean-up of the Trumpian incontinence that has befouled this nation, his legacy as the most incompetent holder of the office is likely all that will be left behind in the swamp.  With two full years of control of both houses of congress and the White House there has been pitifully little to show.  Now the GOP has turned to pranking the citizenry to deflect once again the fact that nothing worthwhile has been done.

Read the wall

Walls, for those who know how to read, don’t work.  Republicans have forgotten how their former darling, Ronald Reagan, both gloried in his purported role in knocking down the Berlin Wall and his hatred of the Russians.  In a matter of three decades a major political party has excelled only in having outdone Watergate and completely reversing its position on everything that used to define it.  Claiming to be the party of Lincoln they nominated and elected a man who publicly supports the klan.  Branding has never smelled so cheap.  And get off my phone—I’m expecting some important calls.

What the GOP doesn’t seem to understand is that the price of a soul is far more than a long distance call.  Building a wall is mere rhetoric reified.  It would be an incredible waste of taxpayer’s money.  I’ve been paying into the system for 42 years now—others have been paying longer—and I’ve not yet met a rank and file Republican who wants a wall.  And yet our government, one of the most powerful in the world, is shut down over it.  The 2016 election itself was stolen by a game called the electoral college.  We’ve sat two years and watched democracy crumbling.  Now that a small check has been introduced we have an unbalanced man insisting on his own way over the will of the nation.   There are more important things to buy, for my money.  With my money.  Acknowledging how government works shouldn’t be a great effort for someone who aspires to be president.  If his party has to resort to sending novelty bricks, the wall has already been built.

Taking My Marbles

Cheaters, we were told as children, never prosper. It turns out that this chestnut never grew into a tree. Cheaters become Republican congressional leaders instead. What’s bugging me today is gerrymandering. The idea that you can change the rules even as the game’s in play is, well, cheating. We all learned how that felt when we were kids with our marbles, or cards, or pick-up-sticks. Nobody liked to be called a cheater. Now it seems to be the best path to the White House. And the standard-issue Republicans are fine with it. Me, I dream of a country where the people are free and fair. Where the rules that were established centuries before you were born can’t be changed because some lout with a lot of money says he feels the right way about unborn babies. A land where reason is real.

The idea that you can redraw boundaries to consolidate your power is even more insidious than the Electoral College. That’s a game that long ago lost its purpose, but the GOP won’t let it go because it always favors them. Problem is there will never be neutral turf again. Who didn’t have the experience as a kid of playing with someone whose luck had run out and then having them pout, “I’m taking my marbles and going home”? Who hasn’t been on the other end of that scenario? I certainly have. Sometimes it takes years to play out before things start to seem fair again. The point is, most of us grow up and most of us know the rule of law is a good thing.

The rule of law, however, has completely broken down in these Untied States. Any law can be jerry-rigged. All it takes is a mogul with a lot of money and underlings panting for handouts. Plain and simple selfishness. An American classic. There was a time, in living memory, when Watergate would sink a President. Now highly public extra-marital affairs are fine. Bill Clinton was impeached for a, well, I know the rules so I won’t say. Giving secrets to the Russians? A mere trifle. Top government posts for your family? Of course, go ahead. Using high government office to enrich you personally by gerrymandering which countries you’ll exclude from these hallowed shores? What’s wrong with that? Every step of the way the GOP wallows its filthy, cheating face in the dirt. And it wants to change the rules so it can stay this way for all time. Me, well, at least I can still dream, even if I lose all my marbles in this crooked game. It’s the American way.

Contrary Living

“Where, o where, are you tonight?” If your mind has supplied the tune and pitchfork, you know just what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you too remember this old chestnut: “Gloom, despair, and agony on me…” Those who know me often think I’m just another middle-class professor-wannabe like all the others. The truth of the matter is that I grew up culturally backward, living in a place that looked up to hillbillies as our sophisticated superiors. I’m no classist. When I say blue collar I may be exaggerating the shade of gray working-class outerwear actually represents. The myth when I was young was that getting an education meant you’d improve your lot in life. Yet here I am with a car in the garage that won’t start and a president who courts my kind for reelection when he should be thinking about trying to govern.

Now that we’ve got a Beverley Hillbilly White House, I think we ought to bring Hee Haw back. For those who might secretly doubt my redneck pedigree, I was raised on a steady diet of the country-western music and comedy variety show and WWF Wrestling. And there was, at least in the former, some wisdom to be had. Reading the headlines I see that what the Democrats need is somebody that people like. Celebrities are the political future. We’ve seen enough Ronald Reagans, Sonny Bonos, Jesse Venturas, and Arnold Schwarzeneggers to tell us that. Ironically, many entertainers are Democrats. The problem is our party likes intellectuals to run the country. It’s not a bad idea, really it isn’t. The electoral college has become the Nielsen ratings board.

No matter how many times I watched the “Where, o where, are you tonight” sketch, I always turned my attention to the TV when it came on. You never knew who the second singer would be, or how the verse might change for the week. And the down and outs on the dilapidated front porch with their moonshine always sang of “deep dark depression, excessive misery.” What I didn’t know then is that Hee Haw was ahead of its time. Of course, back then the rural south tended to vote Democrat. Why, even the opening title card had a donkey on it. Perhaps I’m stretching for a little too much sophistication here. I wouldn’t know, because I grew up with back-woods sensibilities. I just wish that since Jed is in the White House we might have a little comedy once in a while to lighten things up on the way to World War III.

Ash Monday

I was traveling abroad with a friend. We’d just arrived back in the United States and were making our way through customs. Since he was from another country we were separated. The border agent told me I couldn’t come back into the country unless I demonstrated that I was a racist. Only racists were permitted. He began to pressure me, even offering to help. Should I comply? I awoke in a panic. As someone who suffered frequent childhood nightmares, this was something new. In the past it was merely a monster chasing me, or my alcoholic father. Now I’m having nightmares about the government of my own country. And here it is, Presidents’ Day. Like U2’s early “New Year’s Day” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day,” there’s a decidedly poignant tone to this holiday. Looking towards DC I see nothing to celebrate. I see a government putting the mock in democracy.

This Presidents’ Day, I have a modest suggestion. It could fix democracy. When an election (I’m thinking Brexit as well as 11/9) squeaks out a victory because people don’t vote or don’t understand the issues, a true democracy would then hold a follow-up, “what I really want” vote. If we insist on keeping such arcane tools as the Electoral College in place, this is the only way for democracy to actually work. It wouldn’t be necessary in the case of a candidate winning both the electoral and popular vote. When that happens it’s pretty clear someone won. When the two are divided, however, that’s also a clear signal. Only unthinking automatons would declare that a landslide defeat is actually a win, based purely on political casuistry. Is there an ethicist in the house?

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This Presidents’ Day feels more like Ash Wednesday to me. Ash Wednesday is for public mourning. It is a realization and confession that we have sinned. We wear ashes to make it conspicuous. This year no ashes are required. Perhaps we should wear black bands on our arms. I would, only arm bands seem to have a way of becoming bright red and appropriating ancient religious symbols. We have sinned, and we have sinned boldly. The miasma of Foggy Bottom is as clear a condemnation as is devoutly to be wished. When I start waking up in a panic, in a body-sock of sweat, my childhood monsters have become real. It’s Presidents’ Day 2017.

Reading Lesson

“The President” responded to the Women’s March on Washington by tweeting that he was “under the impression that we just had an election!” Perhaps if “the president” read more he would understand that instead of looking in a mirror you need to look out the window once in a while. The Electoral College is even more outdated than the Republican Party and has only stood in place so long because our elected officials lack the energy to dismantle it. Like Daylight Saving Time. A loss by nearly 3 million votes is not a win in anybody’s book. I would suggest that Mr. Trump and his party learn to read. In strings of more than just 140 characters. Those who read know that Russia hacked our election. Voters can speak with their feet as well as with their fingers. We can see the Republican Party for what it’s truly become. Those accustomed to a lifestyle of theft sometimes don’t realize that others have seen their fingers in the cookie jar.

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As one of the many marchers I would say if you want a mandate, look out your window. George Washington, if I recall my history correctly, did not try to put his will over on an unwilling country. Indeed, most of us believe he had too much integrity than to try to hide behind something like an Electoral College to reinforce his tenuous grasp on the reins of power. It’s our constitutional right, Grand Old Party. We can protest. Legally. We will protest. Continually. We will not let you suffer under the delusion that you won anything. Your party gamed the system and any “president” who reads would say “I can see now that I misunderstood.” Backing down is not cowardice. Listening to others is not weakness. Being “president” means having to ignore your cronies once in a while. Vox populi, for those who know how to read, means “the voice of the people.” Democracy is upheld by the consent of the governed, not electoral casuistry.

Those who rely on crooked systems to claim a mandate need to learn to read. Reading requires thought. Concentration. And the will to repair rather than to dismantle. Try ignoring the handlers once in a while. Was the “president” not at the inauguration? Did post-truth press secretaries hide the photos? Please look away from the mirror. Governing with the consent of the governed is hard work. It’s not about brokering deals and looking for one’s own best angle. It’s not about “me first.” As long as any disabled child, any woman who’s been sexually assaulted or discriminated against, and any African American can be told that his or her life doesn’t matter the job will be never ending. The accountability just started this weekend. Read and learn. We are the people.

New Year’s Resistance

Now that 2016 is safely behind us, it’s time to start looking ahead to a year of peaceful protest and renewed social activism. When you reach a certain point in your life you’d like to think your country will represent your best interest but the crooked electoral college system with which we’re shackled has lived up to unthinking obedience to convention. Now we all will pay the price. Not all protest has to be highly visible, however. Education has a way of improving things even if done subtly. The key is not to let up. The moment we do, the evil Borg will assimilate us. I’m beginning my new year with a literary protest against ignorance. I mentioned Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge yesterday. It doesn’t have to be that one, but taking on a reading challenge—any educational imperative will do—is a way of saying that the darkness can’t last forever.

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2016 was a busy year, in spite of its many challenges. I wrote two books during the course of the year. Don’t go rushing to Amazon, because neither has been published. One likely never will be, although I have high hopes for my most recent effort. I write this not to draw attention to myself, but to suggest yet another form of social protest. Writing is a powerful tool. Long ago one of the most influential people in my life, a high school English teacher, told our creative writing club to write at least 15 minutes a day. There have been times when I’ve slipped, but by far the majority of my days since then have included spells of writing at least that long. This blog is only one outlet, in addition to the fiction and non-fiction I also write. Write your protest! Your thoughts can’t be known if you don’t share them!

Most important of all, we can’t give up hope. The end of the story hasn’t been written yet. We know that Trump lost the popular vote by an historic landslide of almost 3 million. Many, many, many, many, many people are unhappy with the results of this election. The mistake is to think that so many citizens are powerless. We’re not. Even before last year ended I committed to the peaceful march on Washington the day after the “inauguration.” We need to stand up and be counted. We need to say we’re just as American as the bullies who’ve taken over the schoolyard. And we need to continue to educate this country, no matter how reluctant it may be to pre-post-truth.

Cinematic Reality

monstersmadEven without the results of the recent presidential election, I would be reading about horror movies. One of the reasons is that I wonder what the appeal might be—why do I put myself in a dark room with an uncertain future? Until recently academics had thought this was something only unreflective, uneducated people did. As is often the case, such as with the electoral college, the numbers tell a different story. Andrew Tudor’s Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie is an example of what happens when a sociologically oriented film critic explores the genre. Although not overwhelming, there are plenty of tables and charts, showing the various trends of horror films from the 1930s up through the mid 1980s. Tudor analyzes what makes us afraid and the main sources of that fear: science, supernatural, and psyche. Since these are all day-to-day things it seems that movies express the basic human condition.

Reading a book published in the ‘80s, however, makes you wonder what might have been missed. We’ve had more than three decades of further horror movies and although categories may be useful, and perhaps even stable, recent events unlock further fears. I suspect there will be a comeback of Nazis in scary movies over the next few years. Horror is, after all, a reflection of those who are willing to be honest about what scares them. There’s plenty of subject matter lying about the headlines of the past weeks.

What I found especially interesting is, at least in the 1980s, statistically the great majority of films featured a supernatural threat. Of these, Tudor notes, the vampire is by far the most popular. We’ve had a dalliance with zombies since then. And I’ve seen plenty of examples where extraterrestrials form the threat. Even ghosts have staged a somewhat unexpected comeback. And movies of demons have proliferated. The supernatural does indeed scare us. I’m not sure that we can quantify it as easily as we used to. Unlike earlier generations of scholars, I’m beginning to see the horror inherent in much of society. We’ve created a scary world with even more scary possibilities. The thing about monsters is they have no sympathy. They are cold, calculating, and all about meeting their own unnatural needs. All the rest of us are just, not to put too fine a point on it, their food. I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing much more of this in days to come.