Coyote’s Farewell

Coyote’s Farewell

    Rosa Maria Hernandez is 10 years old. She has cerebral palsy. Her parents brought her to Laredo when she was 3 months old, so she could have the best chance of health care. This past October 24th she was being transferred from a clinic in Laredo to a children’s hospital in Corpus Christi for a gall bladder operation, when the ambulance was stopped at 2:00 A.M. by a Customs & Border Patrol checkpoint. What? We have checkpoints now? Oh yeah, and you’d better damned well have your papers in order. Rosa was accompanied by her cousin, Aurora Cantu, who is a U.S. citizen. The CPB followed the ambulance to the hospital. Rosa was released the next day. Hospital officials recommended she be released to family members who ware aware of her medical condition, but she was taken into custody and sent to a detention center in San Antonio, 125 miles from her “illegal” family.
    The CPB defended their actions, saying agents were just enforcing immigration law. “The agent is wrong if he lets her go,” said a spokesman. “We don’t have the discretion. It’s not a traffic ticket.” No, it’s an abomination. This is who we are now — the jerks of the world. The agents, to paraphrase the pleas of defendants at the Nuremberg trials, were just following orders. There are supposed to be what are called “sensitive areas” like churches, schools, courthouses, or hospitals, where people are left alone. Not with Trump and Sessions’ reign of terror. ICE agents are lurking everywhere, ready to deport. This is what life in America is like for illegal; immigrants (who contribute $12 billion annually to the economy). They’re afraid to go to school, to the store, afraid to leave their homes. Make AmeriKKKa great again. And to those who say “They’re here illegally!” I say, go to hell!  It’ll be hard to break Obama’s deportation record, 2.5 million from 2009 to 2015. Then they went to a policy of singling out only felons, but Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice has turned the clock back. The way they figure it, being in the country at all is a crime (It’s a civil infraction, not a felony), so they’re rounding people up.
    All over the country, people of color, Muslims, and LGBTQ people are rightfully apprehensive about going anywhere, school, court, or even the grocery store for fear of being harasses or attacked. Hate crimes are way up since Emperor Orange Julius took office. Oh, and there’s a mass shooting on the average of once a day, thanks mostly to the nation’s largest terrorist organization, the NRA. How do you like your America now? Well, you can have it. We’re about two pubic hairs away from a full-blown, fascist police state. Lots of people toss that word around without knowing what it means. The original definition was from Mussolini, and meant the merger of business or industry with government. When the Cabinet heads are industry people with antipathy to the agencies they lead, that’s fascism.
    There are some other key characteristics found in nearly all fascist states:
    — A belligerent nationalism. I need say no more.
    — An obsession with crime and punishment. Rich white guys are exempt, as they are above the law.
    — Scapegoating other groups, and blaming them for all our problems. Again, I need say no more.
    — Hypermasculine and brutal police. Again, rich white men are exempted.
    — Massive surveillance of the population.
    — Constant wars and threatening war.
    — Rampant misogyny and sexism. Have you seen the news headlines lately? And by the way, as a man, let me apologize to all women for our vulgar behavior.
    — Fraudulent elections. This one is key, because Republicans own the election system now. The easily-hackable voting machines and tabulators, mass voter purges from registration rolls, and voter ID laws specifically designed to keep out the rabble — that is, anyone likely to vote Democrat. I don’t see Democrats winning any major elections soon, even if they figure out what the hell they stand for. We can no longer vote the bastards out.
    There was a time when I was proud of America (before I’d learned about its unsavory history). Later I was embarrassed. Now I’m ashamed. This country is finished, wrote Chris Hedges a couple years back, “and the descent is going to be truly horrifying.” Don’t blame me, I’m just the messenger. The Founders said democracy could only work as long as the populace is educated and informed, and we are neither. In fact, we get my vote for the dumbest country in history. It takes a country of dumb-asses to elect an admitted sex predator, pathological liar, and malignant narcissist who has been an abject failure all his life. And is himself a dumb-ass. H.L. Mencken said people get the government they deserve, and they deserve to get it good and hard. And while the fascists are busy destroying every social safety net, dumb-ass Americans shamble around like zombies, lost in their hand-held devices. This country deserves everything it gets. We let ourselves get fat, intellectually lazy, and complacent. Yes, yes, there are demonstrations and protests, part of some nebulous “resistance.” These will continue to be allowed as long as they remain ineffectual, but if they look like they could bring about change, they will be stepped on, as we saw with the Occupy movement.
    All the above is just one reason this is the last Wryly Coyote post. The people I reach aren’t the ones who need to read, so I’m basically preaching to the choir. I’ve got other things I need to do. Another reason is the limitations of junkyard computer technology. It’s nearly impossible to get certain texts to appear the way they do on my Word document. Sometimes that’s important; so important that if I can’t get them to look the way I need them to, I’m not interested. Yet another reason is that I’ve somehow misplaced my sense of humor. I’ve looked everywhere for it, to no avail. I may have inadvertently put it in the recycle bin.
    I want to thank all of you who did read these posts, though you’d never tell by the amount of comments left. Outside of a close friend, maybe 4-5 comments in six years. Writers write because they want people to read them. I wasn’t looking for praise, just leave a suggestion, expand on one of my points, disagree with me — just give me something. Great appreciation goes to my long-suffering webmaster, Obi John Kenobi, who is also my nonsensei. This was his idea, and it only took me a nanosecond to agree. I’ve put him through hell a few times
    So thanks again, everybody. And I have a final word for all you white men out there (of which I am one): I want you all to go forth, be fruitful and multiply with yourselves.

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On the Bus

On the Bus

(dedicated to Amelia, who likes buses too)

    A bus is a great big thing that picks you up, takes you places, then brings you back — cheaply. I’ve taken them all across the country, and I’ll tell you, you meet the most interesting people on bus trips, or you used to. Now, everyone looks down into their screen. A bus was a vehicle for one of my earliest realizations about cities. One summer while I was in high school, I took a bus trip to visit my older brother Jerry, who lived in Wisconsin. The route went through Chicago, then turned northward. I’d been in Denver, so I thought I knew what a really big city looks like. As we neared Chicago, we went past miles and miles of buildings, apartments, factories. The scene went on for an unusually long time, then I saw a sign by the road: Chicago city limits — miles. Wow. That’s a big difference in scale.
    I’ve been without a car for about seven months. I doubt most people who drive realize how blessed they are. All the years I had a car, I took it for granted. Need something? Jump in the car and go get it. Unfortunately, I live in what’s known as a food desert; the nearest supermarket is miles away. The only food nearby is in convenience stores, expensive and unhealthy. I have good neighbors but I’m not going to impose on them. Fortunately the two bus stops for either direction are across the street from each other, less than a block away. That’s a huge break. Carrying heavy bags with old, arthritic hands should be kept to a minimum. I’m also fortunate that I live in a large city with a good public transit system, and good for them. Good for us. I’ve used this bus system off and on for 25 years, and really appreciate it. There are links with other regional transit systems, and the city buses are in the midst of being converted to diesel-electric hybrids.
    The First Rule of Bus is: on nasty days the bus will never be on time. It’s like when you drop buttered toast, it always lands butter side down. Weather can be unpredictable, especially where I live in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s best to be prepared. You’ll also quickly notice the truth in the children’s song, that the wheels on the bus really do go round and round, all around the town. On a radio show once the host asked listeners where the ugly people are. By far, Walmart won, followed by the Laundromat and the bus. My building has a laundry room, and I won’t set foot in a Walmart for any reason, but it’s an unfair claim for bus people. There’s myself and a few others, but most riders are just regular folks of all walks of life. You do encounter crazy people on occasion, but there are transit police on hand at short notice. Many, if not most, passengers are low-income. This includes people with mental or physical problems. I always have a small paperback tucked into my jacket pocket; usually a collection of short stories.
    I hardly take a bus ride where I don’t see someone in a wheelchair. The ramp comes down to let them on or off. When they come on, the driver is trained to secure the chair easily. It’s all routine, I suppose, but when I see someone in a wheelchair, I’m grateful to have arthritic limbs, no matter how painful they can be. By the way, the signs reserving seating near the front aren’t for people in wheelchairs; they’re called “mobility aid users.”
    My big monthly shop is to Fred Meyer (I guess that’s Kroger back East). They have the best prices and a large garden & hardware selection. It takes four buses, though, two each way, and the longest walk is less than a block. My secondary trips are to Safeway, which I hate. Absurdly high prices, and the layout is confusing. It’s only a bus either way, but also a quarter mile walk to and from the store. Still I like going to Safeway for their apple fritters. Safeways have an excellent bakery, and from my experience must be standardized throughout at least the general area. Those fritters are heaven in your mouth, believe me.
    As a senior, the fare is only a dollar, but with no transfers. I was supposed to have a Senior Pass you need to get at the Bus Shop, but all the drivers waved me by, until one didn’t. She was a Nurse Ratchet type who said she could lose her job if she broke the rules. I was forced to agree, and paid the two bucks, and rode down to the Bus Shop. The fee is $3 a month, and the fare is a dollar. Somewhere in there was a two-hour free transfer, but it wasn’t made clear. So I get on the bus, flash my card, and pay my dollar. The driver said no, there’s no transfer. The next time I remembered to beep the card on the reader, then got out my dollar. No no, the driver said, you’ve already paid. I sat down, still confused about how this worked. Across the aisle a man in roughly his forties appeared to be developmentally disabled, as they say. He looked at me and said: “If you pay the dollar you don’t get a transfer. You have to beep you card on the reader. Then it takes a dollar out of your account and you get the transfer.” That guy just explained to me very clearly what two bus drivers couldn’t. I thanked him and said, “You know, I got a degree in college, but it wasn’t in mathematics.” We both laughed That scene made my whole day.
    The bus trips in themselves are fairly routine. There’s no talking anymore, as everyone has their face implanted in their glowing screens. When I had a car, once a month I made my big grocery run. I’d end up with three large fabric bags or more, and a gallon of milk. The rest of the month I’d make another small trip or two. Now I have to fill two large bags, one for each hand. So as I’m filling the cart, I’ve become acutely aware of both weight and volume as I go. I also have to keep on eye on the clock. A missed bus means a half hour wait (an hour on weekends, so I don’t shop then), and that stop has no bench Standing for half an hour does no favors for my old back. The whole thing is well-organized, and I have an eye for details. I always make a list because forgetting something crucial involves needless extra bus trips. I buy my milk at the convenience store for $5 a gallon. That’s a little high, but I’m happy to pay for the convenience, and the store is owned by a nice Korean family. I just finished my monthly Fred Meyer trip, four buses and all. It took only two hours, which means it cost a buck for the transportation. That works for me.
    Considering all the factors of price, walking, and proximity of bus stops, it’s a pretty good arrangement. I can’t complain about any of it. I can think of several other advantages of the bus. I’m never going to have to worry about a flat tire. I don’t have to be concerned about a breakdown, and how I’ll be able to afford to fix it. I’ll never have to go to another of those goddamned emission inspections, which are a total scam, anyway. I always had the worst luck with those things. All the while, diesel-fueled rigs are constantly belching out choking hydrocarbons all over the place. I’ll never be T-boned by some idiot who thinks he can text while driving. Or if I am T-boned, those buses can absorb a lot of impact. I never have to find a parking space. And most importantly, I’ll never, ever have to go out and scrape ice off another windshield.

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TRUMPENSTEIN

TRUMPENSTEIN;

or, the Post-Modern Profanity


   Thunder cracked in the heavens, while lightning lit up the sky and the earth below. Yes, a dark and stormy night. In a laboratory at a secluded mansion, political scientists worked feverishly. They called themselves the Doctors, and they were attempting to create the perfect post-modern (mean) Republican from lifeless matter. To do this they would stitch together old, dead conservative ideas: tax cuts for the rich increase government revenues, less burdensome environmental regulations, lower wages and benefits for workers, poor people are unworthy, rampant sexism, and No Coloreds. The thing on the slab was loathsome, barely resembling a human at all, but rather a bloated whale washed ashore by some cruel storm. They had attached a dead marmot to its scalp, to give some semblance of hair.
   “Why are the hands so small?” asked Dr. B.
   “You know what they say. Small hands, small . . .” He lifted up the sheet. “Have you seen its equipment?”
   “Good Lord,” laughed Dr. B.
   “Yes. The last thing we want is this thing multiplying. One is all we need.”
   “Well, how do we animate it?” asked Dr. C.
   Dr. A replied: “Simple. I’ll attach these electrodes to the heart, and —“
   “We didn’t give it a heart, remember?” said Dr. D.
   “Oh, right. A Republican with a heart would just be a liability.”
   “Wait,” said Dr. C. “I’ve got an idea.” He got close to the thing and yelled, “Freedom!” There was no response. “Free market capitalism!” Still nothing. Dr. D commented on how tall and powerful it looked. The creature opened its eyes. Playing a hunch, he continued, “And the hair really does look good.”
   The creature sat up and spoke: “I know words. I have the best words, believe me. You know, many people are saying I’m like, a smart person.”
   “Alive . . . alive . . . it’s ALIVE!” exclaimed Dr. F.
   “Verbal skills, check.” Said Dr. A. “Stand up and take a few steps.”
   The creature stood, and lumbered across the room like a tired old man.
   “Motor skills . . . adequate.”
   “Okay,” said Dr. A. “Let’s get it into a dark suit with a really long red tie.”
   Having dressed the creature, hey told it to remain, and the Doctors retired to the parlor to celebrate with some brandy. A few minutes later they heard a huge crash from the laboratory, and their assistant Eyegore rushed into the room.
   “It’s gone!” he cried. “It’s escaped!” They ran to the laboratory to find a large hole in the wall. They stood there, looking out into the dark, stormy night.   “What do we do now?” asked Dr. D. “How are we going to track him?”
   Dr. B looked at the TV set mounted on the wall. “Let’s try CNN.”

   The creature began rampaging across the political landscape. It declared it was running for president, and began receiving large amounts of funding from private sources, although the Russians were suspected. It gave speeches to large crowds of poorly educated folks, and later it would say, “We love the poorly educated!” It had red trucker hats printed with the message: “Make America Mean Again.” It declared: “Me build bigly wall!” It joined the Primary Debates and immediately attacked the other candidates, Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, and Low-Energy Jeb. The more viciously it attacked, the more people liked it. This was something new, different than the political establishment. They wanted someone who would shake things up. The media noticed that the creature got huge ratings — HUGE! — so they covered everything it did, every foul utterance it spewed, every 3:00 A.M. tweet it sent.

   “How did it learn to tweet?” asked Dr. C.
   “Steve Bannon probably taught it,” said Dr. B.
   “It seems awfully aggressive,” said Dr. E.
   “And it’s speaking with a 4th grade vocabulary,” said Dr. A, looking concerned. “I wonder if there’s neurological damage of some kind.”

   The Fiend continued lashing out at anyone who criticized it. It insulted the Muslim parents of a fallen American soldier. Then it mocked a disabled reporter. It demanded that the NFL fire black athletes who knelt during the anthem It attacked news networks: “Media bad! Unfair! FAKE NEWS!” It blamed all the problems of the country on the previous president, a black man. It seemed to have a disdain and animosity towards people of color. It swore in front of the Boy Scouts. It even attacked the leaders of its own party. Most horribly, it crudely groped women’s genitals at will, with its tiny little hands.

   The Doctors were appalled. “This isn’t the creature we set out to create,” cried Dr. B.”
   “You’re right,” said Dr. A. “Verbal skills have deteriorated. Something has gone terribly wrong. Bring Eyegore in.”
   The hunchbacked, misshapen assistant shuffled in, and the Doctors motioned for him to sit. He regarded them suspiciously with one lazy eye.
   “Now, Eyegore,” Doctor A began, “That wasn’t the brain of Ronald Reagan that we put into the creature, was it?”
   “No, master.”
   “Would you mind telling us whose brain we did put in?”
   “It was Abby something.”
   “Abby something.” The doctor stroked his beard. “Abby who?”
   “Abby . . . Normal.”
   “Abby Normal.”
   “I’m almost sure that was the name,” said Eyegore.

   “Are you telling me that we put an abnormal brain into a 350 pound, morbidly obese monster? IS THAT WHAT YOU’RE TELLING ME?”

   As the creature crashed through the metaphorical forest of tweets, media, and political punditry, it came to a lake. A little girl was playing near the water. She suddenly looked up and said, “My name’s Hillary. Will you play with me?”
“Crooked Hillary!” it roared, and threw her into the water, then stalked back into the forest. Fortunately, her pantsuit trapped enough air to keep her afloat until she could make her way back to the shore, then she hid in the woods. Somehow, against all odds, the creature won the election, and would be the next president. Who knew there were so many voters with Abby Normal brains?


   Back at the mansion, the Doctors were in shock. “This is terrible!” moaned Dr.
B. “Does anyone else know that we did this?”
   “I don’t think so,” replied Dr. A, “and let’s just keep it that way.”
Doctor C mused, “This thing wouldn’t even make a good apprentice.”


   The creature tried to pass off as human by marrying a Slovenian pole dancer. It picked the worst possible people for Cabinet positions, and alienated our oldest and most faithful allies with its insults. It called the leader of North Korea Little Rocket Man, and threatened to unleash a nuclear war with “fire and fury.” This grotesque mockery of a man seemed to desecrate everything good and decent that America used to stand for. It committed acts so foul and disgusting they cannot be mentioned in polite company. It even tried to take away people’s health care. It was horrible, most horrible.
   For some reason, there was a shortage of angry villagers with torches and pitchforks. The closest thing were some of the creature’s neo-Nazi supporters who burned Tiki torches and frightened people. Party leaders were terrified of it, too, and worried that if they removed the creature from power, the neo-Nazis might shoot them. The Democrats, who unfortunately were all born without spines or testicles, made tiny pleas, but they spoke so softly that no one could hear them. And to this day the monster remains at large, leading us to ask if this is how the world will end, not with a bang or a whimper, but with a tweet.


[Note: January 1st, 2018 will be the 200th anniversary of the first printing of Mary Shelley’s Gothic horror classic, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Because women weren’t considered to be on an intellectual level with men, the book was published anonymously. This little diversion is my way of honoring Mary’s life and her work]

 

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Junk Food Planet

Junk Food Planet

    As if we needed more bad news about the environment, two new developments show that things are even worse than we thought. You know how climate deniers like to say that the more CO2 in the atmosphere, the better it is for the plants Yeah, they’re wrong about that, too. It seems like it should be right, because plants take in CO2 and release oxygen. What’s happening, though, is that while plants are growing faster, they contain less protein and nutrients. As Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich writes in “The Great Nutrient Collapse,” the faster growth causes plants to produce more simple carbohydrates (sugars), and less protein, micronutrients, and essential minerals, chiefly iron. Part of this is soil depletion, which I’ll get to later.
    Basically, plants that used to contain complex carbohydrates and other good stuff are now producing the equivalent of junk food, mainly sugars and other empty carbohydrates. That means that in areas of high food insecurity there will be increased malnutrition, and where food supplies are abundant, people have to eat more for the same nutrients, resulting in increased obesity. Another report from last April by the U.S. Global Research Program calls it a “potential threat to human health.” Two billion people are already deficient in zinc and iron supplied by green plants (not so much with legumes). The NCBI (National Center for Biotech Information), a division of the National Institute of Health, published a report on June 5m 2014, titled “Rising CO2 Threatens Human Nutrition.”
    Most plants grown for food are called C3 plants, and occur in more temperate climates. These include legumes, wheat, rice, and potatoes. By analyzing plant specimens at the vast Smithsonian plant collection, which goes back to 1842, researchers found that protein content has declined by 30% since the Industrial Revolution. Plants are also down 8% in calcium, zinc, potassium, and iron. Dietary iron deficiency is already fueling anemia, another severe health problem in poverty-stricken areas. The same results have been duplicated in China, Japan, and Australia.
    The other half of the one-two punch is soil depletion, greatly exacerbated by modern industrial farming. Monocultures grown by food giants like Monsanto degrade the soil in many ways. Typical fertilizers contain mainly the so-called NPK mixture of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, neglecting other important elements and minerals. Overuse of pesticides and herbicides (like Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup). These chemicals kill everything but the food crop, genetically modified to resist the poisons, hence the term “Roundup Ready.” The microorganisms in the soil are killed, too, as are beneficial insects like pollinators. This is what you get when the only emphasis is on increasing crop yields, leading to increased profits. The Earth has become just another commodity, to be bought and sold on the open market.
    Even thousands of tilling and cultivating the soil is damaging. Topsoil is the top three inches or so. Just a teaspoon contains more microorganisms than there are humans on Earth.
    Tilling disturbs and redistributes microorganisms from their comfort layer. Further, within that topsoil is a network of fungal threads called mycelia, which are severed by tilling. And another rarity in farming these days is crop rotation. Each crop takes certain nutrients from the soil, while decomposition returns others. By rotating crops, the soil is kept more biologically diverse, and healthy.
    What is the result of this madness? Loss of topsoil, which is becoming another serious threat to human health, if not our very survival. There was a recent article in Scientific American by Maria-Helena Semedo, of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. She reported that a third of the world’s topsoil has already been degraded. If this trend continues, all of the world’s topsoil will be gone in 60 years. It takes 1000 years to create just 3 cm (1 ¼ inch) of topsoil. Other methods cause topsoil loss, besides monocultures and chemical farming. Newer varieties of wheat and rice bred for greater crop yield are lower in protein than older strains. Deforestation, which increases erosion, also reduces valuable topsoil. Global warming takes its toil as well, as it leads to increased evaporation of soils.
    Complicating the Earth’s warming is the melting of polar ice, especially in the Arctic, which of course was brought on by global warming. Less ice to reflect the sun’s heat and more dark water to absorb it, and warming increases still further. What’s worse, it threatens to expose ancient pockets of methane, which, while shorter-lived in the atmosphere, is about 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas. Even if we completely stopped emitting carbon on a planet-wide basis, we’re probably cooked by the end of the century anyway, just from the damage already done.
    I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to talk about all the positive things going on, like renewable energy, recycling, and other technological fixes. Geoengineering is a newer field that wants to mess with the atmosphere. For example, we could try introducing mineral dust that will reflect the sun, to slow down warming. It’s the kind of thing the TED people are getting high on, as if technology is going to somehow repair the damage that technology itself helped cause. I’m always dubious about messing with the environment some more. There’s always that nasty law of unintended consequences.
    Renewable energy is the only real solution, and great advances are happening worldwide. America was poised to be the world leader in this area, until Trump and his band of ecological pirates arrived on the scene. China will now lead the world in the 21st century. Their problems of pollution have forced their hand. They are about to begin a multi-trillion investment to phase out coal-fired plants for wind and solar energy.
    Even in the U.S. this technology is growing despite efforts by the fossil fools to stop it. The oil, gas, and coal industries get $20 billion in annual government subsidies, and that’s just for direct production. Without these subsidies, half of the production would be too expensive to compete with renewables. Coal is already unable to compete, and is about dead. The fastest sector of job growth in the U.S. is in renewable energy. That’s right — it’s a job creator!  The fossil fools will continue to fight the future, but they’re no dummies. They know the score. When it becomes evident to everyone that by following conservatives’ free market economics, nothing can compete with renewables, the profit motive will take over and fossil fuels will belong to the (recycled) dust bin of history.
    The question remains, will it be too late by then? And if it is, we’re going to have to answer to our grandchildren when they ask us: “You knew this was going on, and you did nothing about it for decades. What in the hell were you thinking?” And we’ll have to say, “Uh, well, it was complicated.”
 
If you think mitigated climate change is expensive, try unmitigated climate change.

                                                                                                           — Dr. Richard Gammon

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Agent of Chaos

Agent of Chaos

    To say the first eight months of the Trump presidency has been a little chaotic, is like saying Hurricane Harvey dropped a little water on Houston. It’s been fairly obvious. Last August CNBC polled some 13,000 business people, asking them what one word best describes Trump’s management style, and overwhelmingly the words were chaos or chaotic. Metaphors like train wreck and dumpster fire were most popular. Sixteen White House officials were fired or resigned in the first six months. There were constant rumors of backbiting and infighting. You’ve heard about the TV promotion called “Shark Week?” In Trump’s White House, every week is Shark Week. We’re not that surprised by all this, because his campaign was exactly the same way.
    It’s not as if he were stupid (which he is) or incompetent (which he is). It’s that Trump not only likes chaos, he thrives on it. In fact, he creates the chaos himself; as we just saw, it’s his management style. “The prince of chaos,” writes Trump biographer Gwenda Blair. Bruce Nobles, who was once fired by Trump, says “I’m not surprised by anything I’m seeing. He’s always liked chaos.” Former Trump Organization VP Barbara Res: “He’s spent his life creating and surrounding himself with chaos so that he can be the one person who can emerge in charge.” CNN political analyst Ron Brownstein says Trump “likes chaos. He enjoys a situation in which no one totally feels the ground secure under them.” Joshua Green, who writes for Bloomberg Businessweek, has a new book, Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency. In it he argues that most politicians like calm and organization, but Trump thrives in a reality show format (within the industry it’s known as the tabloid model). He believes that if you put people at each others’ throats, it causes the best and the brightest to rise to the top. I’d say that just one look at his administration disproves that theory.
    Does anyone think this is the way to run a country? Outside of his base, I mean. You know, the “poorly educated. We love the poorly educated!” Does Trump somehow believe he can apply his chaos principle to the whole nation? So maybe the best and brightest rise up. What about the rest of us? No one in his right mind believes crap like that. Well, I think it’s pretty clear that our Dear Leader is not in his right mind, if he’s in any mind at all. Let’s look at Trump’s chaos theory in practice.
    Seven days into his presidency he issued the first travel (Muslim) ban. He did it suddenly, without notifying senior advisors or anyone in Homeland Security who would have to begin implementing the policy. There was worldwide chaos in airports, as people were detained or sent back home.
    In late July he tweeted a new policy: transgender people would no longer be allowed in the military. The Pentagon was not consulted, nor was anyone else. It caused instant chaos throughout the armed forces.
    In early September he announced an end to the DACA program, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival. The ensuing nationwide chaos caused him to backpedal. How about the chaos in these people’s lives, to say nothing of the lives of their parents, who are here illegally? ICE is haunting schoolyards and courthouses, to bust and deport any brown-skinned people they can. People are afraid to go shopping, for God’s sake. And for those who would say, “So what? They’re here illegally,” I would tell them to be fruitful and multiply with themselves. This is not what America stands for, or at least what it used to stand for.

    His constant threats to Little Rocket Man, Kim Jong-un, has the military on pins and needles, not knowing if we’re going to war, or just having smoke blown their our asses. Is he crazy, stupid, or just bluffing? All indications lead to all of the above. It’s also obvious that he’s an attention whore (no offense to sex workers). The spotlight must always be on him.
    With tension high with North Korea, and after multiple hurricanes devastated Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, what does he do? He picks a fight with the NFL by going after black athletes taking a knee during the national anthem, reframing the narrative of protesting brutality against minorities into disrespect for the flag. Now the NFL is in chaos, as some players continue taking a knee, others link arms, while some teams remain in the locker room until after the anthem (as they used to do until 2009).
    It would be easy to conclude from the above that Trump’s chaos is intentional. Maybe he’s trying to break us down. He enjoys it, but I’m not so sure that it is intentional. Trump isn’t that smart, for one thing. There’s no evidence of cognitive thinking in him; he automatically reacts to stimuli. If you could look inside his head, I think you’d see a walnut over in one corner; that’s his brain. Everywhere else is swirling wind. I’m a big fan of Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post Recently he wrote: “Chaos in traditional politics is bad. It suggests a president who doesn’t really have control over his people and a White House that resembles a roller coaster . . . Remember that for Trump, appearances matter most.” I rather like the metaphor I heard just the other day — Shakespeare meets the Keystone Kops.
    Luckily for me, as I was writing this, there was another development. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and has announced he will be retiring at the end of his term. He’s made some snarky comments about the president in the last few months. In August he openly questioned Trump’s stability and competence. And so it was the beginning of Trump’s latest pissing contest. As I was writing this, Corker got two more shots in. He called the White House an adult daycare center. Then the next day he said that only (Secretary of State) Tillerson, (Secretary of Defense) Mattis, and (Chief of Staff) Kelly “help separate our country from chaos.” There’s the magic word again.
    I know I’m dating myself (no one else will go out with me), but I remember the comedy spy series “Get Smart.” The enemy organization was called Kaos. In one on the interminable Batman movies, the Joker calls himself an agent of chaos. These guys are all amateurs compared to Donald Trump. I’ve known people like this; people who seem to be surrounded by a little tornado of chaos. It affects the environment of everyone they’re around. Most of the time, it’s unconscious. These people seem to be so rudderless they’re just all over the place; in their thoughts and actions, and even their speech sometimes. In no one else is this more apparent than with Trump.
    There’s an ongoing controversy within the mental health professionals. Since 1973, part of the American Psychiatric Association’s manual of professional ethics, known as the Goldwater Rule. It says it’s unethical for mental health professionals to diagnose a public figure they haven’t examined personally. It was the result of an article in which over 1000 mental health professionals said Barry Goldwater was mentally unfit to be president. He sued and won $75,000. So psychologists and psychoanalysts are hesitant to state publicly that they think Donald Trump is crazier than a shithouse rat. Lately, though, a new principle has entered the discussion, which would appear to “trump” the Goldwater Rule. It’s called the Duty to Warn. It’s for the good of the public, and maybe the world, that more and more people in the field are finally stating the obvious — Trump is a clear and present danger.

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Reimagining Great American Literature

Reimagining Great American Literature

[Note: Plays are generally considered literature, as they can be read. Film scripts are not, because their primary purpose is a directive for a single filming. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but there it is.]

    For some reason, I’ve noticed how many American book titles seem to match today’s events, or even people. As an example, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools perfectly describes the Trump Administration, especially when you think of the expression for an administration as “the Ship of State.” For the current investigations into Trump and his associates, All the President’s Men promises to be a good match, even without the content. And sadly, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which helped ignite the environmental movement 50 years ago, is more appropriate than ever. So is Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience. In light of this government’s attack on the social safety net, Emerson’s essay Self Reliance might come in handy, too. And it’s no accident that George Orwell’s 1984 has returned to the top of the bestsellers’ lists.
    Many titles are good fits for Donald Trump. How can you do better than Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury? Last November 8th, when this clown was actually elected president, I thought of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Other titles suggested themselves, too; Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. A short story boarded the bandwagon, Raymond Carver’s “Would You Please Be Quiet, Please?” So did a poem by Edith Wharton, “A Failure.” One book Trump obviously has no clue about is Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.  As you can see, this is a rich field, open for further exploration. I would also add that a title resembling the country since Donald Trump’s inauguration would be Eugene O’Neill’s play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
    Trump supporters are well represented, too, with Carson McCullers’ short story, “The Sucker,” and Norman Mailer’s book, Cannibals and Christians. What they still don’t realize is that Trump has no intentions of making their lives better, which makes me think of another title for a clue as to what awaits them: Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.
    Dalton Trumbull’s Johnny Got His Gun is a suitable title for American white men’s fetishism for dangerous penis extensions. A suitable title for this administration’s war against immigrants and refugees might be the Flannery O’Connor short story, “The Displaced Person.” Or with a little tinkering, another O’Neill play becomes “The ICE Man Cometh.
    I couldn’t stop there, though. I’ve always loved word play, something I must have acquired from my dad reading Dr. Seuss to me when I was a child. There are a multitude of books that, with a little tweaking, are very descriptive of our modern predicaments. I’m concerned with the titles only, not the content, so please keep that in mind. By just changing a couple letters, a book title describing Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions III might be A Racist in the Sun.  A book about the doings of this right-wing Congress could be Fear and Loathing in Washington, D.C. If you wanted to portray the white nationalist movement in America today, I hope Thomas Wolfe will forgive me for Look Homeward, Anglo. A revamped children’s classic would illustrate the situation of many college graduates today, James and the Giant Student Loan Debt.
    Trump’s infrastructure plan can aptly be titled For Whom the Highway Tolls.
    There are plenty of treatments appropriate for the Republicans’ constant crusade to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying needs no revision, but I submit the following for your approval:
    — Health Care — Gone With the Wind
    — The Premium Also Rises
    — Uncle Tom’s Cancer
    — The Catheter in the Rye
    — The Old Man and the Seizure
    — Papa’s Delicate Pre-existing Condition
    And when your only option for health care is the Emergency Room, there’s always The Red Badge of Triage.
    If I wanted to delineate the oligarchy we currently live under, I could put a Half Nelson on a great Steinbeck novel, and call it The Wraiths of Grasp.
    I said I was only interested in titles, not content, but a few ideas did occur to my fevered mind. The Ugly Trumpling could be a children’s book about a baby bird who thought he was a duck, but turned out to be a turkey, or maybe a vulture.
    Mobama Dick, or the Black Whale would tell about a psychotic ship’s captain (again, think of the Ship of State) obsessed with rescinding or repealing every accomplishment by his predecessor, especially his signature achievement, Obamacare. I don’t remember how that one ends, but it contains many epic failures — that I can tell you.
    Then there’s the story of a rich, privileged white man who has some very shady business dealings in his checkered past. He loves to throw lavish parties at his estate, because he desperately wants and needs approval. But he has a nasty habit of groping women because he thinks he can get away with it. I’d call it The Great Grabsby.
    Your submissions are more than welcome.

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Freedom of Speech: What It Is, and Isn’t

Freedom of Speech: What It Is, and Isn’t

    There’s been a lot of talk lately about freedom of speech, and some confusion about what that really means. To begin with, let’s look at that relevant portion of the First Amendment:  “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” But there are logical restrictions on all our rights. The 2nd Amendment may give people access to guns, but they can’t own a tank or jet fighter. Here are some examples of speech or expression that is not protected:

  — yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater          — obscenity

  — defamation, libel, or slander                    — threatening the president

  — blackmail                                                  — perjury

  — plagiarism                                                 — child pornography

  — conspiracy or treason                               — incitement to violence

    I’ll be addressing that last one. The common legal standard is whether harm results from such expression. This is one of those thorns in a very thorny bush, as we’ll see. Who decides what constitutes harm? Mike Pence might think LGBTQ expression is harmful.
    Looking back at the first word of the amendment, Congress shall make no law. That doesn’t mean that states, counties, and cities cannot, and so we now have the “free speech zone,” which to me is an obscenity. The first such designated area was at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. The courts have ruled that government may regulate “time, space, and manner — but not content” of speech and expression. That sounds like abridgement to me. If a group wants to protest, they have to get a permit, and sometimes post a bond as well. Huh. I always thought the First Amendment was the permit. Free speech zones and permits are justified as being necessary for public safety. Several states are working on anti-protest laws right now. When protest becomes criminalized, that too will be said to be for public safety. Authoritarians always use the same playbook.
    Hate has a First Amendment right, as long as it doesn’t incite violence. In 1978 the ACLU represented a neo-Nazi group that wanted to march in Skokie, IL, where many Holocaust survivors lived. It raised quite a stir, but if free speech means anything, it has to be, if you’ll pardon the expression, free for all. When a speech by a right-wing extremist like Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter is cancelled at Berkeley, home of the free speech movement, something’s gone wrong. Something’s gone wrong on college campuses, too, when you have “trigger warnings” and “safe places” for tender young snowflakes who don’t wish to hear any challenging ideas. If that’s what they want, fine, but they should stay home and cower in their parent’s basements. As Salman Rushdie said: “A campus should be a place that’s safe for thought, not safe from it.”
    While we may have freedom of speech, we are not free from the consequences of it. When 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem last season, he was trying to bring awareness of racial injustice. But he got a lot of people’s panties in a twist, and now no NFL team will give him a chance. A similar fuss arose nearly 50 years ago at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Two American sprinters, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, stood on the podium during our National Anthem, heads bowed, raising a black-gloved fist into the air. Many people were outraged, and yet these athletes were making the same point as Kaepernick. Still, they were ostracized as unpatriotic or worse.
    For expressing their free speech and freedom of the press, journalists critical to Trump have been trolled with death threats. Jewish reporters have received truly despicable GIFs of Jews during the Holocaust. One journalist who is epileptic twice received videos with the strobe frequency that causes seizures. So freedom of speech isn’t free at all. It can come with tremendous cost, and that’s another reason it must be protected.
    This meme was unintentionally supercharged by Trump on Friday, Sep. 22nd, at one of his Nuremberg-style rallies in Alabama. As for players who take a knee during the anthem, he said “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, you’re fired!” The following Sunday not only did hundreds of players lock arms or take a knee, several teams remained in their locker rooms until after the anthem. Even NFL team owners who were friends or contributors to his campaign, spoke against him and defended their teams. But the best response by far was by Kaepernick’s mother, Teresa. Yes, mother Teresa tweeted: “Guess that makes me one proud bitch!” What a sick burn from a great mom.
    Here’s another thorn in the bramble bush. While you may have freedom of speech, do you also have the right not to be fired if your speech causes your employer business? Three instances from sportscaster ESPN have a common thread. In March of last year Mike Ditka, during an on-air broadcast, said that Barack Obama was the worst president in history, and that he’d likely be voting for Trump. He was fired. In 2015 former MLB pitcher Curt Schilling was suspended after posting a very offensive anti-transgender picture on his Twitter account. Months later he made another bigoted statement about Muslims, and was fired. Last month Jemele Hill, an African-American ESPN broadcaster, tweeted that Donald Trump is a white nationalist and a bigot. The White House called for her firing. ESPN knew the political incorrectness of replacing her with anyone but other black people, tried several, and all refused. So they just let it go, which I believe was the correct response. Note that both Schilling and Hill posted their thoughts privately, on their personal accounts. Apparently that’s no longer allowed in a “free” country, because we’ve become a nation of crybabies.
    A comment often heard as to Kaepernick’s actions (and lately by other, mostly black, NFL players) is the same as that in regard to celebrities who make political statements during awards ceremonies: This is neither the time nor place for that kind of thing. Well, it’s precisely the time and place. When you’re making a political statement, you want it to be seen and heard by as many people as possible. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?
    I want to return to Milo Yiannopoulos again, for an important point. He was part of what was going to be a four day “Freedom of Speech Week” beginning in late September. The organizers had invited famous Righties like Steve Bannon, Ann Coulter, and others, but it turned out they hadn’t even been asked. Then paperwork was sloppily handled and incomplete, so the school canceled. Milo said he’d be there anyway, there was a turnout big enough to fill a dodge van, but he went on about how UC Berkeley was trying to squelch free speech. Correspondence in the organization seems to imply they never intended to have the event, but were looking for an excuse to cry foul. This, and intentionally provoking anti-hate protesters into violence, are old tricks used by the original Nazis. Please, let’s not do that again. Don’t think it can’t happen here. That would be a huge mistake. The winning response was brilliantly shown in Boston, the week after the tragedy in Charlottesville, VA. A “free speech rally” by the alt-Reich got their permit, but for only 100, and no guns. Much less than that showed up, to be met by 40,000 peaceful protesters. That’s how you do it.
    I understand that many people who see an athlete kneel during the anthem are deeply offended. They think it shows disrespect for the flag that so many fought and died for. But I don’t think that’s disrespectful to the flag. As Texas journalist Dale Hansen said, it really shows the best thing the flag represents. I rather like a country where you even have the freedom to burn the flag. Besides, kneeling is a form of honoring, of worship, of utmost respect. What I find lacking in respect is some guy in a Stars and Stripes swimsuit, with his junk right up against it. What deeply offends me is a no-nothing clown squatting in the White House (which he called a dump), insulting the Muslim family of a fallen G.I., insulting a U.S. Senator who was captured and tortured in Vietnam, mocking a disabled reporter, and embarrassing our country by his very presence. And because of the Constitution, I still have the right to say that, unless he and his kind are allowed to steal it.

    I prefer someone who burns the flag and wraps himself in the Constitution, to someone who burns the Constitution and wraps himself in the flag.    
            — the late, great Molly Ivins   

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No Free Mulch! Gardening by Conservative Principles

No Free Mulch! Gardening by Conservative Principles

(dedicated to Phil, my own personal Chauncey Gardiner)

    Every year I plant a small vegetable garden. It’s just a small patch, 5’ by 15’. It’s more effort than what I get from it, but I enjoy the whole experience. There’s something to be said for eating food you grew yourself. This year I thought I’d perform a little experiment. What would happen if I applied purely conservative thinking, as presently practiced by today’s Republican Party? I decided to find out.
    I planted the usual sugar-snap peas, bush beans, carrots, and a couple starter grape tomatoes (Sweet Mojo — they’re the best), and watered daily. While waiting for the seeds to sprout, I did no weeding. After they sprouted, I still neglected weeding. According to free market economics, competition always produces winners, so these guys were going up against seasoned weeds; I’d see how tough they were. After a couple weeks I could no longer see the young veggie shoots, the weeds having proven the competition theory. Because I had put myself into the conservative meme, I missed the part about the weeds succeeding because they had a heavy advantage from the beginning. So I weeded. Don’t think I wasn’t resentful about it. Now the vegetables had the head start.
    My long time friend, Phil, fancies himself quite the gardener. He thinks he knows more about gardening than he thinks our friend John doesn’t know about computers. He’s constantly offering unwanted advice on the subject. “You have to mulch,” he’d say. “It keeps the weeds down, and you won’t have to water as much.”
    “I’m not going to mulch,” I insisted, “It’s too much of a hassle.”
    “Well, you’re composting, aren’t you?”
    “Hell no,” I said. “What, I’m gonna start piling garbage in a corner of the yard, or something?”
    “Why not?” He sounded incredulous, as if everybody composted and what the hell was wrong with me.
    “Because, hello — I’m renting. This isn’t my property.”
    I watered every day, and pulled weeds. Water, pull weeds, water, pull weeds. This was getting pretty labor intensive. On top of that, I had to start staking the peas, putting long sticks next to them. Their greedy little tendrils were looking for something to climb. Then the grape tomatoes started going wild, and I had to go around the yard to find branches with a V in them to stake them up and keep the young tomatoes off the ground. Boy, these vegetables were so damned needy. I had to do everything for them. Then it hit me, what was really happening. I was contributing to a culture of dependency. I was like the federal government, and these lazy vegetables had their leaves out, waiting for handouts, or as I preferred to call them, entitlements.
    Meanwhile, new weeds had been hiding among the growing plants, so I had to get in there and weed them out. Phil kept after me about everything I was doing wrong. “You should be mulching,” he said again.
    “To hell with mulching!” I yelled. “There’s no free mulch!”
    “Awww!” he said, in frustration.
    Phil is anything but politically conservative. And he really does know a lot about plant care and landscaping. So how come he didn’t know that you never water your lawn, or anything else, in the bright sun. The water droplets act like magnifying glasses and burn the plant. It’s SCIENCE, for crying out loud. He wouldn’t buy it, so that makes me a little dubious about his great knowledge.
    I’m not weeding anymore. The vegetables can take care of themselves, now. I informed them the other day that due to budget cuts, I wouldn’t be able to take care of their needs as much as I had before. I simply couldn’t afford the time, and time, as we all know, is money. Then came more unsolicited advice: “You’re watering them too much.”
    “Phil,” I said, in as calm a voice as I could muster, “when the ground is dry, as it tends to get in summer, I need to water.”
    “If you water them less, they’ll grow their roots down in search of water. It makes them stronger,” he told me.
    “I’m not trying to grow an oak tree, here! I only need them to have roots at all for about three months.”
    I thought about what Phil had said. Watering was really just another entitlement, again  from the conservative point of view. So I quit watering. They’ll have to pray for rain, like all the wild plants do. Sink or swim, I say. And the survivors will be so strong, their fruits will be superior to all others. About three weeks later, I decided to see how the garden  was doing.
    Everything was dead. Well, not everything. The weeds seemed to be thriving. I had gone purely by conservative principles, and it not only led to disaster, but now I had to dig into my overstressed  budget to go out and buy the vegetables I should have had right in my back yard.
    As for Phil, I really do appreciate his gardening advice, even though I can’t get past his ignorance of watering in the sun. Still, I’m grateful for his, well, being there.

    [The Editorial Board would like to inform the reader that the above was a fictional piece, and that no actual garden vegetables were harmed in its production, unless you count harvesting and eating.]

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This Is Your Brain on Clickbait

This Is Your Brain on Clickbait

Click here to continue to article.

    It was about 20 years ago that we found out tobacco companies were adding ammonia to their tobacco to increase the prospect of addiction. When it’s smoked, nicotine is an acid bound molecule. Ammonia converts the molecules to a base (free). Every time I smoke a cigarette (and I don’t recommend it) I’m actually freebasing tobacco. Ammonia is also part of the process in freebasing cocaine. It increases the amount and effect of the drug, making it more addictive. To a lesser extent, Industrial food conglomerates do the same with processed foods. Each one, be it Twinkies or Fritos, has been developed with various additives to enhance the combination of sugar, salt, and fat, to produce the right “mouth feel.” They want you coming back for more. Now imagine doing this to your brain, digitally.
    On the internet, when you go to any website [SUBSCRIBE NOW! No thanks] the idea is to get you to keep clicking. They offer all sorts of eye candy, or clickbait, to entice you. Google, YouTube, and the rest all do this, but nobody does it like social media. Tristan Harris worked for Google until 2016 as a design ethicist, There’s a job title for you. The Atlantic called him the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience. He studied at Stanford’s Persuasive Technologies Lab — how’s that for an Orwellian name? He learned about behavior training, chiefly the art of exploiting psychological vulnerabilities, put together a presentation on the morality of emotional manipulation, and how it might be done a little more ethically. Everyone looked at it, nodded their heads, then went back to work.
    The magic behind this enchantment is called “variable rewards.” Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner found that when pigeons were fed sporadically, rather than regularly, they ate more, not knowing when the next food would appear. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat do the same thing. People like getting a “like” on social media. It reinforces our deep-seated need for social approval. So you have to keep checking in, answering messages and posting photos or ideas. Harris compares it to playing the slot machines. Every time we get a positive response, it triggers the brain’s pleasure/rewards center, which then produces the neurotransmitter dopamine. It’s the same chemical our brain produces when we make love, hear a favorite song, or when our favorite team scores a touchdown.
    Since the rewards are variable, we must constantly keep checking in, looking for that next reward.  If a friend contacts us, we feel socially obligated to reply. When LinkedIn first launched, it had a hub and wheel icon, by which you could measure the size of your network. Size is everything, you know. It taps into our fear that we might be losers. When we send a “friend request” an alert appears on the recipient’s screen in red. Red is a psychological trigger color. That’s why fire engines or emergency vehicles are often red, and so is the President’s tie. To get you clicking some more, there’s “people you might know.” When I order a book from Amazon, it shows me other books I might like. More clicks, more engagement. All this builds up a habit, when can then become an addictive behavior. I saw a report recently that the average person with a smartphone checks their device about 150 times a day. That’s why Harris calls them WMDs, Wireless Mobile Devices. Continually looking and clicking produces a passive state, not unlike hypnosis.
    Facebook’s software tells the user when a recipient begins to read their message. Oh boy — more dopamine! Snapchat increases the ante by alerting the recipient the moment you begin a message to them. Now you can’t not finish it. You’re obligated. Then Snapchat put the ante on steroids, with a feature called Snapstreak. It keeps track of how many days in a row you and someone else connected, encouraging you to maintain the streak. More clicking. It got so bad there were stories of teens about to go on vacation, afraid of breaking the streak, so they’d give a friend their login info so they could maintain it. Just like the advertising for pharmaceuticals, internet companies both create the need and the means of relief, or reward. It’s black magic, I tells ya.
    Meanwhile, there are banner ads on the side, or near the bottom of websites, trying to get you to “click here.” They’ll promise you anything, click here to find out more. Every other website I visit scolds me for having my ad blocker on. If they won’t let me stay without removing it, screw them. But the more clicks, the more someone hits an ad, maybe buys something. There’s an inconvenient truth you need to know: we are not the consumers, the advertisers are. We are the product. Our eyeballs and brains are the product. Computers may be here to serve our needs, but it also helps to create them. It’s being called the attention economy, and there’s an arms race going on for our attention. Companies need to increase and maximize attention or they lose customers, and that’s money money money. Nothing else matters. So they all keep coming up with more sophisticated software to capture our attention. 60 years ago, Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders, about how advertisers manipulate consumers’ emotions. It’s still appropriate and worth reading. Now instead of advertisers, we have algorithms.
    We keep hearing stories and reports about the anxiety and stress many teenagers are going through. Their still forming brains are especially vulnerable to psychological manipulation. Harris portrays addicted users as “chickens with their heads cut off, responding to each other and feeling indebted to each other.” It should come as no surprise that digital detox retreats and “Unplug” events for teens and adults alike are increasing, as a remedy for this digital junk food diet. Tristan Harris co-founded Time Well Spent, an advocacy group to try and get a sense of morality back into software design. I wish him all the luck in the world.
    We all form many habits unknowingly. I’ve been taking the bus almost exclusively for the past seven months. But every time I get on and take a seat, there’s an instinct to reach for a safety belt. Decades of driving has made that instinct nearly automatic.
    That’s only one reason I will never be on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Snapchat. Nor will I ever have a smartphone. I still have a land line. That’s when your phone is physically connected to a line that feeds into a wall jack, oh, never mind. Heck, I still had a rotary phone until 2000. So just as I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 20th Century, it was already the 21st, and I was still a hundred years behind. I also steadfastly refuse to log in to any website. I’m outta there. I’m not going to have to come up with one more user name and password ever, hear me Lord. The other reason I don’t do social media is that I don’t want to be spending all my time posting and answering posts, many from people I’ll never meet. I have a life, and too much going on already.
    I don’t know what the answer is, other than at least being aware that our brains are intentionally being re-programmed to consume, consume, consume. In the 1950s these techniques were known as brain washing. If we become more aware and click less, though, the algorithms will just be pumped up into even more irresistible clickbait. If you’re interested in what computers are doing to us, allow me to recommend the following:

       Alone Together: Why We Expect More of Technology and Less From Each Other (2011), by Sherry Turkle, professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology, M.I.T.
    The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010), by Nicholas Carr. This book is very good, and was a finalist for the 2011 Nobel Prize in General Nonfiction.
    Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products (2013), by Nir Eyal, associate professor of Global Health and Population, Harvard.

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Donald Trump — a Shakespearean Tragedy

Donald Trump — a Shakespearean Tragedy

(This one’s for some friends who really know their Shakespeare: Janet, and Gina & Dennis)

    Last spring there was quite the kerfuffle about a Shakespeare in the Park version of Julius Caesar, with a Trump-looking Caesar, complete with long red tie. Curiously, another version of the play at Minneapolis in 2015, with a black actor resembling Obama, received little comment. It got me thinking about Trump and Shakespeare. What would the bard have made of him? Many of his plays concern the corruption of power, the problems of political succession, and the unreliability of alliances (see “The Apprentice”). I began digging around to see how much I could put together. At first I thought King Lear was a good match. He had a shaky grasp of reality and later went mad, and he divided up his kingdom between his family members. Then I accidentally ran into an excellent article by Stephen Greenblatt in the October 8, 2016 New York Times, called “Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election.” That was exactly one month before the election.
    Greenblatt convinced me I need look no further than Richard III. He writes that in the early 1590s Shakespeare asked himself, how does a great country end up being governed by a sociopath? Unlike Trump, people in the way of Richard’s succession to the throne somehow ended up being murdered. It was a time of deep political division, specifically the rivalry between the Houses of Lancaster and York. Richard tells the people they need a strong king. This wasn’t to be a violent seizure of power, but the soliciting of popular opinion, “complete with a fraudulent display of religious piety, the slandering of opponents, and a grossly exaggerated threat to national security.” Does that sound familiar?
    In the play, Richard is a hunchbacked, misshapen man with a bad limp. “Haunted by self-loathing, he overcompensated in bluster and overconfidence, misogyny, and a merciless penchant for bullying . . . inwardly tormented by insecurity and rage.” Yep, that sounds like our boy, alright. And like Trump, Richard’s villainy is plainly apparent to everyone from the beginning. Greenblatt goes on with Richard’s “obsessive determination to reach a goal that looked impossibly far off, a position for which he had no reasonable expectation, no proper qualification and absolutely no aptitude,” with “no glimpse of anything redeemable in him and no reason to believe that he could govern the country effectively.” He was so obviously unqualified that most people dismissed him. “Their focus is always on someone else, until it’s too late.” People go into denial that he could be so bad: they know perfectly well that he has done this or he has done that ghastly thing, but they have a strange penchant for forgetting . . . drawn irresistibly to normalize what’s not normal.” And all the time, the nobles, who would become his enablers, convinced themselves that they could control him. Richard was also immensely wealthy and privileged, and accustomed to getting his own way.
    The nobles support him because they’d rather see him on the throne than Edward’s children. Richard condemns Henry Tudor, who was living in Europe at the time, as well as his army, mostly Welshmen, whom Richard considered foreigners. “Richard’s success in attaining the crown depended on a fatal conjunction of diverse but equally self-destructive responses from those around him.” Look at the ineptness of the Democrats and Republicans to stop this man. The play suggests that the characters sketch a whole country’s collective failure. Ouch, that stings a little, because the truth sometimes hurts.
    Richard’s remains were discovered in 2012 beneath a parking lot in Leicester. My comment at the time was “Now is the winter of our disconnect.” Leicester is only a few miles from Bosworth Field, where he fell in battle in 1485. Forensic examination has produced some fascinating new information. Richard was not a hunchback, which is usually caused by severe curvature of the spine. His spine was twisted, a condition known as scoliosis. His right shoulder would have been slightly higher than the left, which could easily have been disguised by clothing. His family and court would have known though, explaining his nickname, ‘crouchback.’ He had blond hair and blue eyes, and the skull has a distinctive orange tint. It’s not from the lighting in the photograph either, because the teeth are white. But why would Shakespeare depict him as crippled and repulsive? Maybe he used physical deformity as a metaphor of Richard’s depravity and lack of morals.
    There are differences between these two psychopaths, of course. Richard was neither mad nor dimwitted, but intelligent and shrewd. Trump is a dullard. Richard died in battle, whereas Trump used ‘bone spurs in his heel’ to get five deferments from military service (at least he got the heel part right). At the end of the play, everyone is dead, but in the White House everyone gets fired. And finally, Richard didn’t have the nuclear launch codes.
    I wonder what Shakespeare would have thought about Trump. Would his presidency make a good tragedy? Well, there’s plenty of Shakespearean palace intrigue. A few weeks ago it was “Shark Week” on some TV show. In the White House, every week is Shark Week. But in the end, Trump himself doesn’t have any depth of character that might make him compelling. He’s as shallow as water on a sidewalk. He doesn’t read, isn’t curious, and seems to delight in his own ignorance. So I think if Shakespeare wrote a play about all this, Trump wouldn’t be the central character; someone more complex like Steve Bannon would.
    On Inauguration Day, as I thought of the new president compared to Obama, I was reminded of a scene in Hamlet. He wears a medallion with a likeness of his father, while his mother wears one with the likeness of his wicked uncle, the murderer. “Look here upon this picture, and on this,” he says. “See what a grace was seated on this brow,” he says of his father, and of the uncle, “like a mildewed ear. Have you eyes?” In this scenario, the mother would be the American people. There’s a treasure chest of other appropriate Shakespeare quotes sprinkled throughout his canon of work. Allow me to share some that I found.
    “Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,” from Othello.
    “What means that trump?” from Timon of Athens.
    “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” — Twelfth Night.
    Much Ado about Nothing has this: “Oh, that he were here to write me down an ass! But masters, remember that I am an ass, though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass.” Oh, don’t worry, Mr. President, we won’t forget. You’ve make that impossible.
    Here’s one from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that’s reminiscent of Trump’s paranoia: “I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of me, to fright me if they could.” (Fake News?)
    “I will praise any man that will praise me,” from Anthony and Cleopatra, oh my.
     I saved the best for last, as one would with dessert. It’s from The Comedy of Errors, and it’s absolutely perfect: “Many a man hath more hair than wit.”
    There’s one more intriguing comparison, especially for numerologists. Richard III only ruled a little over two years, 777 days, to be exact. That number has resonance in many areas. In Christian mythology, Revelations has 7 angels blowing 7 trumpets and pouring out 7 vials, but the number 7 is important in many religions and dogmas. It even has a meaning in the science of computation. In Unix chmod, whatever that is, the value 777 grants all file access permissions to all user types. The flag of the Boer separatist movement Afrikaners Resistance flag has a black triskelion of three 7s on a white circle, surrounded by red. It does remind one of the Nazi swastika flag. Trump has his own variation, though it’s not properly a 777. On Jan. 21st, his first full day in office, he had been alive 70 years, 7 months, and 7 days. Maybe he’s that antichrist we’ve been warned about. Avon to say one more thing about Will. He knew human nature, and his plays don’t so much prove that history repeats, but more like what Mark Twain said, that it rhymes. Now all we need is for some enterprising individual or group to write down the present situation in iambic pentameter. Don’t worry about the plot; the play writes itself.

 

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