Author: snowdenlit

Rancid Wine In A New Bottle

So this happened:

After much hype over Bill Maher’s invitation to host Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos on his show “Real Time” on Friday, the two got along famously, bonding over their shared love of free speech and the unifying power of humor in a one-on-one conversation. It seemed that Yiannopoulos had found a warm embrace on Maher’s set — but then the broadcast ended and Yiannopoulos sat down with Maher’s other panelists for the post-show “Overtime” segment, which airs on YouTube. Two of those guests told the far-right prince what they’d like to see him do to himself. (Hint: It rhymes with “cuck.”)

And during that, this was said.

Maher said he didn’t see it that way. At the start of his conversation with Yiannopoulos, the host explained: “I think you’re colossally wrong. But if I banned everyone from my show who I thought was colossally wrong, I’d be talking to myself.”

Maher’s guest agreed, saying, “If you don’t show up to debate, you lose.”

The question of debate, and whether we should be debating someone like Milo Yiannopoulos, is one of only two interesting questions that he right-wing public bigot raises. The other is what it is about our culture that let’s someone as deeply banal as Yiannopoulos get so far in life when he has so little to offer.

We like to think of debate as a forum in which we calmly discuss rational proposals and through learned discourse arrive at sensible conclusions. This is easy to believe until you actually watch a debate. Debates are seldom won by reason, or evidence, or learned discourse. They’re often won by whoever can rattle off enough unexpected falsehoods to throw their opponent off balance. (This explains a lot about how Ted Cruz became a champion debater in college.) And Milo Yiannopoulos is, whatever else he is, a fount of falsehood. Before a TV host or panelist can start debunking his first lie, he’s already on to his third, and on television, where seconds count, this is the debating equivalent of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.

Further, debating someone like Yiannopoulos is inherently problematic because the mere act of doing so says that his “ideas” are still worthwhile debate topics among reasonable people. What are his ideas?

For his shopping trip to Gieves & Hawkes, Yiannopoulos calls for an Uber. The driver is a man, possibly because Uber’s algorithm has learned that Yiannopoulos rejects female drivers. Women, he says, have been scientifically proven to be worse at spatial relations, as have Asians. “It’s the only thing Saudi Arabia gets right,” he says about the country’s ban on female drivers. “Behind every racist joke is a scientific fact.”

He says he disapproves of all Muslims—except his boyfriend of 10 years. But it’s feminists who rile him most. During Gamergate, he targeted game developer Brianna Wu. Her address was posted on Reddit, and she received so many rape and death threats that she moved out of her home for a while and hired a bodyguard. “When you’ve faced difficulties in your life—growing up gay, being a minority, suffering from physical illness—you have two paths in front of you,” Wu says about Yiannopoulos. “Some people develop a fierce sense of empathy. The other side that’s available is to become something very dark. You can look at some of his poetry, when he was an adolescent, and it’s very clear he was hurting. He’s channeled that pain into hurting a lot of people and justifying it.”

So Yiannopoulos hates women and has contempt for non-whites. Are we supposed to be debating whether these are good ideas, sensible notions for a happier world? Are we supposed to hold a symposium titled, “Resolved: Behind every racist joke lies a scientific fact”, or does it lend racism a patina of intellectual legitimacy that it doesn’t merit because of its repeated and demonstrated failure as a way of looking at human beings? Racists like Yiannopoulos have been making the same fundamental errors for five centuries now. They’ve caused extraordinary harm. We know that. We can’t unknow it. Debating them is like debating people who think the Sun goes around the Earth or that Aristotle was more right about the descent rate of falling objects than Galileo was.

But what about Yiannopoulos’s feelings about free speech, the very reason Maher invited him on his show? Surely he has some thoughts of interest about that, right?

No.

For one thing, Yiannopoulos has not had his free speech rights violated. Never. Not once. At no time has any government–federal, state, or local–enacted a law, ordinance, or rule that prohibited him from expressing himself. Milo Yiannopoulos is, by any measurable standard, freer to speak than anyone I know. Simon and Schuster gave him $250,000 for his upcoming book. He gets invitations to banter and chatter on national talk shows. Major magazines interview him all the time. Hollywood stars have to shell out big bucks to publicists to be featured in the media as often as our supposed poster boy for censored speech.

What has happened is that at times when he’s been invited to speak, people who disliked what he said, mainly because they were the targets of his and his fans’ abuse, have talked back. Guess what? That’s free speech too. Occasionally, those protests have turned violent, and that is a shame. But it’s not a violation of his right to free speech. Yiannopoulos is free to speak. The public that hears what he says is free to react. And there’s no law that requires their reaction to be polite, so long as no one gets hurt.

For another, if free speech is a topic you want to discuss, there are many more qualified people to expound on it: journalists, lawyers, judges, historians. Yiannopoulos is none of these. He’s a brain stem attached to a keyboard (sometimes, when his interns aren’t doing his writing for him). He has nothing of interest to bring to the conversation. So why talk to him?

Yes, why?

Why has our culture let someone like Yiannopoulos get this far? What happened? Are we all this easily conned? Well, yeah. Yiannopoulos has found a way of hacking into our culture, bypassing what should otherwise be robust bullshit detectors.

Our culture has a fetish for putting old wine in new bottles. We reboot old TV and movie franchises, comic books, games, everything. We crave both novelty and familiarity, and like to get both at the same time if we can. Yiannopoulos is that in spades.  If he presented himself as a cranky Public Access TV host, ranting at us with an American flag behind him, or as a Klansman on the Jerry Springer show wearing his sheet and yelling “White Power” as the studio audience boos, no one would give a shit about him. Instead, Yiannopoulos says everything the racist, homophobic, sexist uncle you dread talking to at Thanksgiving says, but he wears eyeliner and pearls. Wild! Different! What can we make of it? If J.J. Abrams were to reboot the worst of five centuries of western civilization–and I’m not for a moment suggesting he would or should–he’d have created Milo Yiannopoulos.

We should probably rethink our affection for newly bottled old wines going forward. The past is full of rancid ideas unfit for modern human consumption, and the world is full of opportunists all too eager to be the their trendy new face.

UPDATE: I neglected to add Advocate In Favor Of Pedophilia to Yiannopoulos’s list of titles. I became aware of it only after hitting Publish. Here’s the video. Anyone feel like this is one of those topics worthy of debate?

Can’t You Trump Voters Just Own It, Already?

Trump voters are sad that people are mad at their support for the Orange Menace. From the New York Times:

“We’re backed into a corner,” said Mr. Medford, 46, whose business teaches people to be filmmakers. “There are at least some things about Trump I find to be defensible. But they are saying: ‘Agree with us 100 percent or you are morally bankrupt. You’re an idiot if you support any part of Trump.’ ”

He added: “I didn’t choose a side. They put me on one.”

Others claim that they’ve been denied dates or that the sight of protests upsets them. It’s enough to make you weep, I know. If I weren’t in a cold sweat about families being broken up by deportation squads or my own health insurance going into the shredder, I might spare a thought for their woes.

But you know what really frosts my shorts, Trump voters? This “I didn’t choose a side” garbage.

You fucking well did, and you know it.

For irony’s sake, I’m going to drag out a shopworn phrase from your side of the political divide: “personal responsibility”. You have agency in life, my orange-president-cult worshipping friends. You voted for a racist, sexist criminal fraud because you wanted to vote for a racist, sexist criminal fraud. You looked at Trump in all his cartoonish awfulness, assessed him, and concluded he was preferable to a dedicated center-left public servant. Your choice. You weren’t duped by him. You sure as hell weren’t forced by us.

But it is interesting that the reaction of others to your vote distresses you so. If, a few years ago, I said on Twitter that I voted for Obama and some troll said something nasty about it, I blocked the motherfucker and went on with my life. It didn’t bother me that I’d annoyed him. It didn’t make me happy either. My vote wasn’t about him. I was comfortable with my choice and didn’t give a damn what he or anyone else thought of it. I’m tempted to think of your comparative angst and shame as a sign of consciousness of guilt. You know who feels consciousness of guilt? The guilty.

So, Trump voters who feel shitty right now, own up. You voted for Trump not because of the media, or your annoying liberal Facebook friend, or that person on Tinder who sees you in your Make America Great Again hat and swipes left. You voted for him because you wanted to. And maybe you now feel some guilt about it because you know he’s going to hurt a lot of people and that suffering is partly your doing. But if you keep supporting him, you’re reaffirming that you’re fine with families being torn apart and people dying sooner or going broke because they lack health insurance. If that’s the case, don’t blame Meryl Streep, or CNN, or me because your friends and neighbors look at your choices and decide they mean you’re an asshole.

Some That Man Might Be?

All That Man IsAll That Man Is by David Szalay

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I kept waiting for the irony to kick in.

As I read stories of one white, straight, male, European protagonist after another, I kept waiting for the joke that would make the book’s title pay off. I confess I may have missed it. By the sixth story, I was getting antsy. But if the ironic twist was in there somwhere, I never saw it. Which means I had to take the title and the book as sincere and proceed from the assumption that David Szalay thought he’d truly found something universal about the life of men on Earth, and that the best way he could think of to report his discovery through a fantastically narrow range of characters.

I don’t think he has. The book’s title writes a check that the stories, taken collectively, can’t cash. It fails even to capture All That European Men Are. Not all European men are white, for one thing. And, for another, not all European men treat women as nothing but sex objects. (Also, not all European women are as one dimensional as Szalay’s.) To be fair, the last story does have a gay, or bi, protagonist. His sexuality comes into play only insofar as its revelation cost him his marriage, but he’s still a relief after eight straight straight guys. If only there’d been more like him.

All That Man Is contains a great deal fine writing. The stories, on a line-by-line level, are well crafted, with considerable wit, humor, and pathos. It’s just that the overall project strikes me as so ill-conceived that I can’t recommend it.

View all my reviews

We’ve Got A New Republican Administration, So We Have To Hear This Again

Emma Green, whose job at The Atlantic involves taking religion seriously, wonders why Democrats don’t take religion serious and don’t talk to the 81% of evangelical voters who voted for Donald Trump.

I understand that it can be a mystery why some people voted for Donald Trump, particularly if you’re one of those people who don’t think racism or sexism are things. (We have those in The Left’s whiter, more male neighborhood, and a fuckton of them in the online atheist community, sad to say.) Certainly, if you’ve met a working class Trump voter who voted for Trump believing that he cares about people like them and would never ever repeal the Affordable Care Act, you have a right to wonder what the hell this person was thinking and why the Democrats didn’t craft a better message to reach this person.

But the voting habits of white evangelical voters aren’t mysterious. Their relationship with the GOP is transactional, and has been since the 1980s, when the Moral Majority (ask your parents) helped elect a Hollywood divorcee over one of their own because he’d restrict abortion, squish the feminists, and crush the gays. The people under threat of being squished or crushed looked to the Democrats, just as African Americans did when the GOP embraced Goldwaterism sixteen years earlier. If I were a white evangelical, I’d probably have voted for Trump because his administration is more likely to give me what I want: the right to deny services to the LGBTQ community, the further ruin of women’s health clinics, the assertion of patriarchal control over women’s bodies, and so on.  Would a change in religious rhetoric have swayed parallel-universe-Jim-with-a-beard-religious-me?

I doubt it.

After all, do I suddenly think better of Republicans when they quote John Kennedy or FDR?  No. What if they started quoting Bertrand Russell or Voltaire? No. I know who Republicans are. I know what they’ll do, and since it’ll cost me and mine, I know I don’t want them to do it. I have things I want out of government–among them services to help me afford what the market has trouble providing, and the freedom to live, work, create, and interact with a marketplace that doesn’t get to assess my skin color or ask me what my religion is or who I fuck before selling me goods and services. I know which party is more likely to give me what I want, and I vote for its candidates (unless they’re well and truly awful).

I never ask why a racist would vote for Donald Trump. He’s a racist too. Now Donald Trump’s lifestyle looks pretty messed up from the white evangelical point of view–as did Ronald Reagan’s, back in the day–but he picked Pence, and he promised to deliver what they want, so they’ll vote for him.

I, on the other hand, wouldn’t vote for a party that promised to give white evangelicals what they want. Most Democrats feel the same way. Elected Democrats, by and large, are aware of this, and that’s why Democrats don’t try to craft appeals to white evangelicals. The Democrats may need a new strategy to win more elections going forward, but one-vote-gained-one-lost probably isn’t it.

The solution to this mystery is that there’s no mystery.

When a Tweet of Mine About the Affordable Care Act Goes Viral

screenshot-2017-01-16-21-51-26

I’ve never had a Tweet go viral like this before. My small contribution to the tweets of those angry about the GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act has been retweeted a little over 1,300 times as of now. That’s not a lot for famous people, but it’s more than I’ve ever gotten. It freaks me out a little. It also makes me wonder. Why this one out of the 70,000 or so I’ve done over the years?

I don’t know, but I can guess.

I like to kid around on Twitter. Hey, who doesn’t? But while I think I can get a laugh every once in a while, I’m not Patton Oswalt. Some of my jokes have travelled far on Twitter, thanks to a well-known person thinking they’re funny. (Don’t think I don’t appreciate that, @anamariecox and @mogaffney.) But they’re mordant little musings at best, not timeless bon mots.

I’m also a bit of a politics nut. I think about politics a lot. I pay attention to political news. I try to place current political questions in historical context, if only to explain them to myself, and I fret about the impact of political decisions on me and mine. But most people aren’t concerned about politics that way. It’s a dull, frustrating subject, filled with acronyms, jargon, and cant. I get upset when Paul Ryan and his merry band of saboteurs want to force dynamic scoring on the Congressional Budget Office. (If you’re curious about why that’s bad, read here.) But I can understand how the jargon itself can dampen curiosity about what it means or why it matters. Politicians understand it too, which is why they try to fill any controversial proposal with the right combination of jargon and focus-group-tested buzzwords needed to slide it past people with busy lives and little time.

But repealing the Affordable Care Act has effects that are large, deeply personal, and hard to spin. Most adults, especially most adults who’ve been sick themselves or have had to care for sick loved ones, know the difference between good insurance and bad. They know what it means when coverage is restricted, when medications are no longer included, or when pre-existing conditions start counting again. Also, many have made life decisions based on the ACA. They’ve left their jobs to start businesses or to freelance. Losing insurance means having to shut that down to job hunt, or to keep going and hope that that cough doesn’t turn out to be indicative of something serious. This isn’t like some abstruse beltway argument that, though important, is easy to get lost in. This is going to hit people hard in ways that are profound and obvious. Some who lose their insurance will go broke, and yes, some will die.

I take it personally, mainly because Paul Ryan’s about to stick my insurance, which has seen me through depression and a nasty case of shingles, in the shredder. And though my tweet is stated dryly–Twitter is where we all go to be flip–there’s anger behind it, and somehow it was just the right combination of glibness and righteous outrage to strike a nerve.

I’m glad to know the nerve is there to be struck. Maybe it means there’s enough feeling out there to stop this nonsense before it goes any further, or to make sure that, if Republicans go through with their dismal plan, they’ll pay with their jobs.

1,581 retweets now.

Good thing I turned my iPhone’s notification sounds off.

President Elect Donald Trump Has Conflicts of Interest In At Least 20 Countries. How Dangerous Can That Be?

Donald Trump’s global business interests, which he refuses to abandon or place in a legitimate blind trust, not only raise the possibility of influence peddling and graft unseen in past administrations, but also threaten to make U.S. foreign policy subservient to the investment portfolio of a fraud.

From the New York Times:

The globe is dotted with such potential conflicts. Mr. Trump’s companies have business operations in at least 20 countries, with a particular focus on the developing world, including outposts in nations like India, Indonesia and Uruguay, according to a New York Times analysis of his presidential campaign financial disclosures. What’s more, the true extent of Mr. Trump’s global financial entanglements is unclear, since he has refused to release his tax returns and has not made public a list of his lenders.

The potential for graft and influence peddling here is obvious. Already, foreign diplomats are booking suites in Trump’s D.C. hotel in hope that doing so will improve their standing with the incoming administration. Once inaugurated, Trump can make foreign aid, military assistance, or trade policy contingent on favorable treatment for Trump properties.

How dangerous can these conflicts of interest become? Consider the case of the Dulles brothers, John Foster and Allen. Before joining the Eisenhower administration as Secretary of State and CIA director, respectively, Allen had been President of the United Fruit Company; John Foster, its lawyer. In 1954, United Fruit was at odds with the newly elected socialist leader of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz because Arbenz had promised to redistribute some of United Fruit’s land to Guatemala’s peasants. United Fruit easily convinced John Foster and Allen to foment a coup, which overthrew Arbenz, helped United Fruit keep its land, and plunged Guatemala into decades of civil war and genocide.

That 30-year nightmare was the result of one conflict of interest in one country. Imagine what President Donald Trump might do with more than twenty.

I Understand You

lizza-trump-theories-1200Hey, you. White dude with the red cap. You with the gun rack in your pickup’s rear window. You who live in a white rural town where people are real and eat real food and have real values and go to real churches.

I understand you.

You think I don’t, but I do.

What? Did you think I was born in a city? Well, actually you’re right. I was. I was born in Santa Monica, CA. But I didn’t stay there long. I’ve lived in Ohio. I’ve lived in Texas. I spent six years of my life in rural Utah, and there’s a good chance my town was smaller and whiter than yours.

I understand you.

It’s not hard. I hate to break it to you, but you’re not that deep.

I know that people of color in your towns have to be careful how they act, lest they eat your shit. The only reason I got a pass was that I was passing. My skin is light enough that people didn’t know, right away, that I was “a n—–.” (They’d have felt no embarrassment at spelling out the slur.) I know that gays and lesbians have to hide who they are to avoid your violence. I know how religion binds your communities, because I saw, from the outside looking in, how it bound mine.

I know the stories you use to explain your lives to yourselves. I know you see yourselves as standing in a line. It’s a long line. At the front are the rich people, and you think that if you stay in the line, don’t ask for too much, and behave yourselves, the rich people at the front will one day shower you with riches and all will be happy. You don’t question why there has to be a line, or why you’re the one standing in it. As long as the rich people at the front pass down an occasional treat, it’s a sign of their goodwill. And as long as the darker people are behind you, which they deserve because they’re more unruly and impatient than you, and don’t talk English as good as you talk it, all is right and just.

This is the story your ancestors used to explain slavery to themselves. Most of the more southerly of them didn’t own slaves, but they hoped if they stood in line, one day they could. Later, under our nation’s 100 post-civil-war years of legal apartheid, your grandparents could still tell themselves that no matter how bad off they were, they were better than the “n——“. They could vote, get the front seat on the bus, and ogle a white girl’s ass without dying for it. And if any “n—–” tried to get in line in front of them, there were hoods to wear, crosses to burn, and branches suitable for nooses.

When this system of apartheid was dismantled, suddenly people wouldn’t let your parents, or you, use the word “n—–” anymore. You got yelled at for it, and that hurt, partly because feeling guilty hurts, but partly because that meant that the darker people had moved up in line a little. Soon, black people were on TV and in movies and ads. They played sports. They were cops and lawyers and business executives. Black bodies were closing in on your position in line. Some were ahead. And what’s more, it looked like some of your fellow pale people, ones who lived in cities and always made fun of you, were helping them cut in front!

Yeah, I think I understand you.

Then along came a black President, with a foreign, black name. He never could have been in line. Now he’s at the front of it! How can that be fair? The treats were supposed to come to you first! And when he sends something down the line to you, bails out your auto industry, stabilizes the banks, gets you health care, you’re bewildered. Where does that–you won’t say the word because you’re not racist–get off trying to help you? And why isn’t he doing more? And why is he also helping those other people you don’t like: the gays and lesbians and Mexicans and Asians who don’t live in your town because…well…any one of them who tries gets the message? Now you’re pissed off. And now those fancy types are telling you you’re racist and sexist because you’re angry about all the non-white, non-male people ahead of you. You’re not mad because you hate them. You don’t hate. You’re mad because people of color and women don’t deserve those spots. The rich people promised your grandpappy.

I understand you.

You never got mad at the rich guys or their promises, even though they’re made of lies. You’ll never get that they told your grandpappy to stand in line because they feared he might revolt and then died laughing when the poor sap fell for it. You’ll never ask why your grandpappy, or your pappy, or you, never made common cause with the people of color to take what the rich man was denying all of you. Instead, you’ll let the rich guys pollute your land, air, and water if it means a job. And you’ll elect the smiling toady the rich man asks you to vote for so he can go to Washington and make sure that no uppity people ever try to give you health care, education programs, housing assistance, or the right to form a union. Why would you want those things? The rich guys at the front of the line will be passing down a treat for you anytime now. Anytime.

I understand you.

At last, one day, the rich guys stopped passing their treats down to you. They took your factories away and left you. And that confused you. Where’d the line go? Where’s your shower of riches? They couldn’t have been fibbing all along, could they? No. It must be the fault of those liberals in Washington. They regulated them too much. They drove them away. They’ll pay for that, them and the city slickers in Hollywood who make jokes at your expense and sip lattes and drive nice cars and know Jews. (Not that you’re antisemitic. Why would we think that?)

Idiots. You think voting for Trump upset the elites in Washington? They’ll adapt. They have money, influence, and time. They’ll be here long after Trump’s gone to Orange, Rapist, Con-Man Heaven. You may think by electing Trump you threw a brick at Washington Elites, but you hit poor people, the elderly, the vulnerable, and yourselves. After four years of Trump, your pockets will be emptier, and his fuller. Your towns will still be sucky and poor, and you’ll still be sad, paranoid, and angry. But maybe, if you’re good, Trump’ll send you some of those Trump Steaks. That should tide you over, because now that he’s at the front of the line,  the wait for the shower of goodies can’t be much longer. You’re so close. Right?

Yeah, I understand you.