The Cruelty Is the Point

Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.

That’s the upshot from the final paragraph, but the whole thing is worth a read as a document of our viciousness and how little progress we’ve made.

The final nail in the coffin of my both-sides-ism was the 2016 conventions. One party kept stressing how its members were bringing aid to those most in need. The other was pointing out who should be locked up.

We Are What We Pretend to Be

I just finished watching Lodge 49. It’s wonderful. No one I’ve asked has heard of it.

It’s difficult to describe, beyond the setup: a down-and-out surfer finds a signet ring from a local fraternal order on the beach and returns it to the lodge. When he sees the dying lodge and meets the struggling people within, he falls in love with it and asks if he can join.

The lodge’s history is steeped in alchemy and ritual, so the show itself has mysteries, of course. But they almost seem beside the point, despite their intrigue. Todd VanDerWerff wrote about this halfway through the season:

It’s not clear what the larger point of the series is, or where all of its mystical portents and hints about some larger purpose for these characters are going. There’s a strong subplot about Dud’s twin sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy), who’s working at a Hooters-ish sports bar named Shamroxx, because she’s so burdened down with debt passed down to her by her and Dud’s deceased father. There’s a dead body in a secret, hidden room in the lodge. There’s a loose seal wandering across the road.

All of this, I think, has led to people trying to guess what Lodge 49 means. It has some of the outward trappings of a mystery show like Lost or Twin Peaks, so it must play by the same rules as those shows, right? But the series’ fourth episode, “Sunday,” is as good an argument as anything that the series is less about trying to make sense of its many loose ends and more about realizing that you find life amid the loose ends.

Lodge 49 is the anti-Lost. It’s a deliberate inversion of the (very successful) mystery-meat show format. In this case, the mystery isn’t the main course; its function is mostly to agitate the characters into opening themselves up to one another. It gives them reasons to build and sustain a community. So the show will reveal the occasional mummified corpse or Bruce Campbell, but it’s mostly content to wander and explore and build connections. It’s been called “deceptively aimless”. And that makes it a breath of fresh air.

Todd wrote this more recently about the overdue decline of the white male anti-hero and the punishment of women for entertainment. It hits the issue from pretty much all sides, and the whole thing’s worth a read, but this bit leapt out at me:

But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve capped an era full of white male antihero protagonists with a president who feels like he might as well be the main character of an antihero drama in some other universe, where viewers thrill at how he always dances one step ahead of the forces that would bring him down, cheered on by toadies and sycophants who eagerly abandon principle in the face of finally grasping power.

This is also a delicate dynamic to talk about because the surest path toward boring, bland art is to insist that it be morally, ethically, socially, and politically palatable. We need shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad to help us ponder the darkness within humanity, and within ourselves as individuals. To insist that art conform to some code of righteousness is a shortcut to making art that’s not worth thinking about....

What I am suggesting is that advocating for representation on TV and in films is not merely about painting an accurate, inclusive picture of the world we live in. Yes, we need more women antiheroes, more antiheroes of color, and so on — but we also need to think about how the stories we tell create long grooves in our culture, grooves that eventually crystallize into reflexive beliefs about who gets to be the protagonist and how they go about being that protagonist.

Read that last sentence again. The stories we tell create long grooves in our culture. It took me a while to understand that there is such a thing as a cultural illness, and that too many Travis Bickles and Jesse Jameses and Eric Cartmans often lie at the root of it. If you don’t believe that, sit down and listen to how Johnny Cash sang “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Then go into any bar where it’s playing and listen to how the drinkers sing that line.

Vonnegut wrote “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” But he decided that wasn’t clear enough, so he wrote this too: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

I used to think that people who were troubled by phenomena like South Park were being uptight and humorless. Now I wonder whether South Park’s omnipresent “screw you for caring about stuff” theme carved some of the grooves that helped pave the way for our current predicament.

My hope is that we’re waking up to it. The current president* may not be a coincidence, but neither is the appearance of two movies about Mister Rogers or the slow rise of shows like Lodge 49 or The Good Place. I don’t think stories will save us. But maybe we’re starting to realize that stories have shaped us more than we suspected.

Russians Meddling in Star Wars

In and of itself, the idea of looking for meaning and a reflection of one’s own life in pop culture is perfectly fine. I would even argue that it’s the first step toward digging deeper into a work of art, because it leads us down a path of critical thought and invigorating discussion with friends — and maybe even a little bit of self-examination.

But here’s where things have flipped on their ear in the 2010s: Many fans of a work aren’t just looking for meaning in the work itself, but for the work to impart meaning upon them. Too often, they ask pop culture to fill the role that religion, philosophy, or psychology once did.

Todd VanDerWerff keeps giving me lots to think about.

I’ve chewed around the edges of this before in trying to understand the relationship between writing and ego, and again while reading Infinite Jest. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the decline of community and religious organizations has preceded the rise of fandamentalism and politics-as-pro-wrestling.

I’m not suggesting that the solution is “go to church”, of course. But we’ve created a vacuum of cultural and emotional need, and we’ve started the new holy war to try to fill that void.

Stories are often escape, and that sounds charmingly harmless as long as you don’t think about it too long. As long as you don’t start analyzing the structure of the most popular stories. As long as you don’t reflect that one of the biggest non-Nazi criticisms of “The Last Jedi” was its rejection of moralism and lack of a clear villain.

We love to quote Marx’s “opium of the people” observation, but my friend Dan recently reminded me that the full quote, in context, reads rather differently than most people think:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

At the core of fundamentalism of any stripe is a scrabbling desperation to change my environment to make me feel safe and reinforced. To change what is outside of me in the hopes that it will fix what is fearful and suffering inside. Whether with online fights about sci-fi or our current political climate, what we’re hearing now is the suffering cry of a diseased and possibly dying culture.

Remarkably perceptive of the Russians and modern American Nazis to see that the best way to attack our political system is to come at the new religion first. But they’re going to hurt more than just the shot at a more just and inclusive society. And they don’t care.

Vote GLaDOS/HAL 2020

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When you create a weather app whose whole concept is being powered by a murderous, anti-human AI, it’d be the easiest thing in the world to take that joke and run with it for goofs. When you use it to demonstrate how far we’ve gotten from basic human decency while running with the joke, you’re operating on the fine and delicate line between comedy and rage.

That takes skill, not to mention stones. App stores are hard to make a living in because app pricing has taught people to value useful software less than coffee and a bagel. A feature like this (which you have to turn on in settings to really get the effect, but still) potentially shrinks your revenue further. So I’m on board. They get my annual subscription.

Funny people are being asked to play the role for democracy that Jesus played in the temple. My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.

I miss the days when laughing didn’t matter so much. When I didn’t scramble for my wallet just because I found out that my favorite Git client backs women’s causes and the ACLU.

How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions

Cambridge Analytica got shit tons of data that helped the Trump campaign by gaming Facebook.

People are going to call this a “hack” or an “exploit”. It was not. It was unethical harvesting, but it was using a system that Facebook set up as a key part of their core business model. From Daring Fireball, where I saw it linked first:

This was not a security breach. This is simply what Facebook is: a massive surveillance machine.

Between this and their profiting off of Russian trolls and misinformation that they pointedly did not ask questions about, it’s clear that Facebook is a big part of the reason why a probable felon who sexually assaults women and doesn’t have the attention span to read a two-page brief is President of the United States of America.

The 21st century definition of irony: Political outrage posted to Facebook or Twitter.

Update: Facebook fixed the problem by banning the whistleblower. Letting these people install software on your phone sounds like a good idea.

More updates: Even better! Their chief information security officer left over a dispute about this kind of thing. Includes a shocking revelation that security concerns on this issue were overridden by money concerns. And Zuck knew about the Russian accounts when he dismissed the idea publicly:

By November 2016, the team had uncovered evidence that Russian operatives had aggressively pushed DNC leaks and propaganda on Facebook. That same month, Mr. Zuckerberg publicly dismissed the notion that fake news influenced the 2016 election, calling it a “pretty crazy idea.”

Design’s Lost Generation

There are two words every designer needs to feel comfortable saying: “no” and “why.” Those words are the foundation of what we do. They’re the foundation of building an ethical framework. If we cannot ask why we lose the ability to judge whether the work we’re doing is ethical. If we cannot say no we lose the ability to stand and fight. We lose the ability to help shape the thing we’re responsible for shaping....

We are gatekeepers, and we vote on what makes it through the gate with our labor and our counsel. We are responsible for what makes it through that gate, and out into the world. What passes through carries our seal of approval. It carries our name. We are the defense against monsters. Sure, everyone remembers the monster, but they call it by his maker’s name. And the worst of what we create will outlive us....

We’re killing people. And the only no I hear from the design community is about the need for licensing. If why and no are at the center of who we are, and they must be, the center has not held.

Mike Monteiro is my profession’s John the Baptist. He says “designers”, but that means developers and engineers too. He means me.

There was one time early in my career when I was handed a software project that could potentially protect people from injury or even save their lives. It sounds great, right?

But the context was about cutting the lag time for calling off a repo agent if the owner of the car he was going after was armed and desperate. And actually it wasn't even about that. That was an ancillary benefit to the real purpose: repossessing cars more efficiently.

Now we've got a whole mess to unpack. Poverty. The tight link in nearly all of the U.S. between losing a car and financial ruin. The ethics of lending and borrowing. Guns. Not all of that was on me, of course, but it cast a pallor over that project. It weighed. It makes me queasy to remember it.

When I went back to school for my computer science degree, I was told I was "lucky" that I got to skip Computer Ethics because I have a philosophy degree. What those students did not want to hear was that I was lucky, because I had at least a dozen credit hours of ethics classes underpinning my choices, not just one course half-heartedly PowerPointed at me by an engineer from Acxiom.

That education has made it hard for me to do my job sometimes. Sometimes it makes me wonder if I should leave my profession entirely. I’ve had meetings and seen project plans that made me despair for the world I’m going to leave my children. And that’s happened at jobs I liked.

We are gatekeepers. We decide what you can see and what you can do about it and where the walls are built. We choose what is shared and what is safe. We dangle the shiny things.

I've decided to stop feeling embarrassed for being so strident about Facebook and Twitter and metadata gathering and identity and white-male-viable software, because fuck your lack of concern. My profession will only care when you start screaming and throwing things at us. We control your future. We control what you think. And you need to start asking who the fuck we are and what we want.

God

Grant me the serenity

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To accept the things I cannot change

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The courage

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To punch Nazis in the youdamn face

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And the wisdom

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To shut my mouth and listen to women and people of color

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Meantime?

We march.

Mischief Managed

This is an actual Freedom of Information Act request from a right-wing group looking to punish resistance:

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This is where I’m tempted to make an “am I high right now or is it everyone else” joke, but being high is way more fun than this, y’all.  

Though I’m hard pressed to think of a more appropriate nickname for their super-white, greed-fueled murdercult than “Death Eaters”.  

Only you

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If you want to delight the hell out of some park rangers, and why wouldn't you, wear your Wokey the Bear shirt to a national landmark. One of them grilled me for the right site for "the one Neil deGrasse Tyson wears".

When Hate Is Your Life's Work

And those marchers were not alone, either. It has been sickening to live here for the past eight months and witness the staggering amount of work that many newly emboldened white Americans have put into destroying people unlike them. I’ll happily write a 1,000-word hater’s guide to a retail catalog, but my hateful efforts are nothing compared to the work these men put in. Think of Mitch McConnell, working feverishly day and night to secure votes and secretly drafting bills and calling late night Congressional sessions, all so that he could take health care away from poor people. Think of how FRENZIED he was to do this. Obsessed. Think of the sense of urgency that led him to disregard all other work just to pass a bill that could potentially harm so many, and you know that urgency hasn't faded....

Think of the utter indefatigability of these men and their champions. It’s not simply that they hate, but that they have made hatred their life’s work.

And then think of all the effort needed simply to keep these men at bay, or to undo the evil works they’ve already secured. Trump is a miserable, awful man. And even though I have heard a million times that he secretly loathes being president, the man still endeavored to get the job and shows no sign of relinquishing it, not when he can take time every day to satisfy whatever hateful itch he needs to scratch. It is exhausting to deal with him, and what’s scary is that he’s not even close to being the hardest-working white supremacist in his own government. These are men who are counting on your fatigue. These are men who are hoping that their insatiable hunger for repression wears you down eventually, and that you resign yourself to the idea that inequality is both inevitable and irreversible. It will take GENERATIONS to undo the damage they’ve inflicted upon modern America, if it can be undone at all. It’s like cleaning up after a flood.

Drew Magary, writing for GQ.

I discovered Magary through his novels. My wife got me The Hike awhile back, and I loved it so much I snatched up The Postmortal. Just finished it this week.

After reading both of those books, I can attest that Magary can imagine a whole lot of terrible shit. When a guy who writes dystopian science fiction and fantasy allegories full of dog-headed child killers is horrified by the stuff you've dreamed up, you've done something really special.

SO MAYBE JOHN MCCAIN FOUND SOME COURAGE IN BETWEEN A COUCH CUSHION

Very Smart Brothas posted a follow-up after last night's vote, so I feel I should do the same in the name of fairness.

I was happy to wake up to the news that the vote had been defeated. I do not believe that McCain did it for the right reasons, any more than I believe that more than half of Republicans actually want the repeal. They've seen the numbers, those that care about and understand numbers. And especially given the grandstanding McCain pulled on this, it smells more like a theatrically-waved middle finger than anything.

I have never believed in "moderate" "maverick" John McCain. I have never believed in him as anything other than what he needed to be in the moment to get ahead. A piece of me has that in common with him, and I've had to fight it for a long time. I know it when I see it. If you don't, this Rolling Stone profile quantifies it with hard facts.

Even so, I am fond of telling people that I am an Aristotelian at my core. Aristotle didn't give a good goddamn what's inside your head or heart. He didn't care about who or what you "love". He cared about your actions. There was another fella too went on about something to do with fruits.

That's me too, though I will almost surely whine about my intentions when I am caught doing wrong, at least until I catch myself. I don't care about your intentions, and I'm trying like hell not to care about mine.

So, in a nut, McCain probably did vote against the repeal to make himself look good and stick it to people he hates. But millions of people get to keep seeing doctors, at least for now. With that much on the line, I'll take a dirty win over a principled failure.

COWARD WITH TERMINAL BRAIN CANCER JUMPS OUT OF GOVERNMENT-FUNDED DEATH BED TO KILL OTHER SICK PEOPLE

He sure did express concerns, yes sir, and he said a lot of angry words about how wrong it is that the GOP hasn't been working in good faith with the Democrats before he gave them another opportunity to do that again, and maybe kill poor people in the process.

If they ram it through, the last two major chapters of his legacy will be inflicting Sarah Palin on the world and being implicated in the deaths of more Americans than the people who captured and tortured him were responsible for.

I'm no political expert but it seems to me that a freshly-elected octogenarian with terminal cancer could act like he has (1) empathy and (2) nothing to lose.

Beware of Dog

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If you drive any American two-lane highway long enough, you will inevitably pass a real shithole ramshackle house or trailer, blue tarp bricked over the hole in the roof, yard strewn with garbage and the rotting husks of large appliances and cars long dead. This two-bedroom ode to entropy will be surrounded by a fence which will almost certainly topped with barbed or razor wire and adorned with a sign. Something on the order of THIEVES AND TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT.

Not with a bang

A few weeks back, I linked Dave Pell saying that the current president wouldn't take much of a hit if we caught him masturbating on the Constitution while defecating on a Bible. Today proved him right.

In the parallel universe where Hillary Clinton was elected president, we are in week six of impeachment talks and hearings about an email server. In our own dimension, the president shared secrets with a hostile power that he hadn't shared with our own allies, and potentially compromised a valuable intelligence source in the process.

The GOP is defending this on the grounds that it's legal. This is what they do when faced with cheerleading the morally indefensible, because everyone loves a rules lawyer. River caught fire? It was legal. People died because their insurance wouldn't cover them? Global economy tanked by hedge fund managers playing grab-ass? Friend, show me where it says they couldn't do that.

It's a diversion, of course. What he did was a violation of his oath. This was, without question, the line. The line where those principled, moderate conservatives I keep hearing about were supposed to finally show up. The line where even faux-moral dirtbags like Mitch McConnell and Tom Cotton and Jason Chaffetz were supposed to grudgingly tap out.

It didn't happen. And it won't. The party of family values and a strong national defense have proven to care about neither. They sold us out for a power fix and a tax cut. So this is how our credibility and our standing in the world ends.

The history books will record their names. Meantime, we're coming for their jobs.

...a bit low, actually

Dave Pell putting some context on Trump's approval rating:

During the campaign, Donald Trump marveled at the loyalty of his most ardent supporters.

My people are so smart, and you know what else they say about my people, the polls? They say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters...

Actually, that’s not quite true.

If Trump stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot somebody, I’m confident he’d see his current approval level of 37% free-fall to about a 36%.

Trump could jerk off onto the constitution while taking a dump on the bible and the GOP still wouldn’t speak out against him. But, his approval rating would almost certainly plummet from 36% to around 35.2%. (I doubt the dip would last more than a couple newscycles.)

World leaders hold meetings with his daughter. You can’t make this stuff up.

Trump could lie constantly, call journalists the enemy of the American people, and introduce a budget that amounts to a full frontal assault on precisely the population of American voters who put him in the Oval Office, and he would still maintain a 37% approval rating. How do we know that? Because it’s all happened.

I'm reading that in the context of The Crazification Factor and pondering my conservative acquaintances who suddenly don't care about Russian spies or insecure government agencies or emails:

John: Hey, Bush is now at 37% approval. I feel much less like Kevin McCarthy screaming in traffic. But I wonder what his base is --

Tyrone: 27%.

John: ... you said that immmediately, and with some authority.

Tyrone: Obama vs. Alan Keyes. Keyes was from out of state, so you can eliminate any established political base; both candidates were black, so you can factor out racism; and Keyes was plainly, obviously, completely crazy. Batshit crazy. Head-trauma crazy. But 27% of the population of Illinois voted for him. They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgement. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That's crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.

John: Objectively crazy or crazy vis-a-vis my own inertial reference frame for rational behaviour? I mean, are you creating the Theory of Special Crazification or General Crazification?

Tyrone: Hadn't thought about it. Let's split the difference. Half just have worldviews which lead them to disagree with what you consider rationality even though they arrive at their positions through rational means, and the other half are the core of the Crazification -- either genuinely crazy; or so woefully misinformed about how the world works, the bases for their decision making is so flawed they may as well be crazy.

John: You realize this leads to there being over 30 million crazy people in the US?

Tyrone: Does that seem wrong?

John: ... a bit low, actually.