Why we're doing any of it at all?

>> Friday, September 16, 2016

I have been grappling with punishment lately.  Criminal punishment, I mean.  I've been having a bit of existential angst over it.  Part of it has been the result of a couple of cases I've had over the past year where I really wondered what we--the criminal justice system, I mean--thought we were really accomplishing.  And part of it has been watching some of the ongoing publicity surrounding the Adnan Syed case that was covered by Sarah Koenig's Serial podcast last year (for those who have already been distracted by the Internet's most-recently unveiled shiny thing, a judge has ordered that Syed get a new trial and the State of Maryland is currently appealing that order).

Syed's as good a place as any to start, maybe.  I'm thinking about this case, a teenager who was convicted of murdering his teenage ex-girlfriend.  And I'll tell you that I'm thinking he's very probably guilty, that although there are issues (surprisingly typical issues, I'll tell you) with the police investigation and prosecutorial presentation, and while I think Syed's codefendant, Jay Wilds, lied about a lot of things, I get stuck on Hae Min Lee's car and it leads me to think Syed probably strangled her in it.1

And so I find myself conflicted about Syed's appeals process and results.  On the one hand, I have to confess, I find myself feeling irritated and resentful that Syed is able (in my opinion) to game the system by garnering positive news coverage by taking advantage of a journalist's naiveté and lack of foresight.2  There seems to me something vaguely unfair and dissatisfying about getting an undeserved do-over of your murder trial just because your case became a seven-day wonder on the Internet years after all the evidence that might have been used to prosecute you has been effectively scattered on the winds.

And yet--and yet I have a weird question and misgiving about this on the other hand: what's the point of leaving Adnan Syed in jail even if he did do it?  If my suspicion that murdering Lee was a spontaneous crime of passion enacted by an immature man-child is correct, it seems improbable that Syed is now still a danger to anybody, or that he's in need of further rehabilitation (if he ever really was in need of any to begin with, oddly enough), or that you could hope to deter other possible crimes committed by other mentally and emotionally immature children who aren't particularly thinking about laws and consequences when in thrall to rage and insecurity.

Maybe we do it to even the scale for the loss Hae Min Lee's family and the world lost when her life ended.  Except... how is a lifetime enough?  Or if we're just going for crude tits-for-tats, why don't we just let a member of Lee's family, or their appointed representative if no one has the stomach for it, strangle Syed?3  In no way will it ever bring her back, of course.

Assuming he's guilty, do we leave him in prison because it makes us feel better about ourselves?

Or do we do it simply to announce that we don't approve, as a society, of strangling ex-girlfriends?  Something one might have thought we already knew, though I understand a lot of people will point to the poor treatment of domestic violence victims as the counter-argument.  More importantly, does it do any good to send a message that remains obscure to the point of secrecy until a This American Life reporter has a fluke smash hit with a podcast about it, a podcast that leans heavily towards doubting whether he did it at all and has fostered a popular sentiment that someone else surely must have done the deed?

In short, is there any useful reason to keep Syed locked up even if he's guilty?  Or is the sole reason part of me really hopes he loses his appeal a kind of petty vindictiveness that my clients aren't featured in podcasts, my clients aren't fought over in Reddit forums, some of my clients will do more time than Adnan Syed might and for less-grotesque things than choking a girl to death?

And those clients of mine?  What are we doing with some of them?  And I'm talking about the ones who are legitimately guilty, guilty as hell, guilty as guilty can be, as sullied as the old half-melted snow freezing and thawing in a steel mill's employee parking lot.  People who are starting their criminal records because we don't know what to do with them, and repeat offenders who we don't know what else to do at all.  People who, I guess, have to be punished somehow, and we have this proscribed list of socially-sanctified options for doing so set forth in the books of law, but what is the goal, what is the endgame?

It's not always obscure, understand?  Sometimes, you know, we go through that list above and options stand out.  Hey, put this guy on probation, so there's someone goading him through rehabilitation.  Send this lady to prison, because she's proven she can't get along anywhere else and she just needs to be removed from the world, even if it's merely a few months or years we're protected from one another.

But a few months ago, I had a woman who ended up with a felony criminal record following her first offense and failure to comply with a deferred prosecution agreement.  And there was nothing in the list of reasons you can come up with to justify the conviction--the victim was at peace, the woman has had no further offenses and is unlikely to ever be a danger to anyone, she's in no obvious need of rehabilitation, there's no grand statement of social condemnation that seems called for.  And yet I can't fault anyone in the system for doing what the system required once certain switches were thrown and the system ground to life; consequences arise from action and inaction and the whole thing has an inevitable inertia that will keep things moving just as forcefully as they were immobile when the machine was at rest.  Something had to be done.  It was done.

I just can't really get my head around why.  Other than, "because," I mean.

I thought about writing this months ago, really, and then decided not to.  I mean, what's the point, and I'm sure it can only cause trouble if it's noticed at all?

But then a lot of friends--liberal fellow travelers, I think, most or all of them--began posting and reposting to Facebook an article about a teenager accused and convicted of rape who, a liberal website claims in summary fashion, is being inadequately punished.

They suggest his punishment is inadequate because he's white, and not because there's a gap between our gut-level horror of the allegations against him and the vague and intangible consequences our instinctive vengeance demands.  And they suggest the punishment is too light because we live in a misogynistic society that doesn't take sex crimes seriously enough, and not because of any facts or context that may be hidden from all of us who aren't a part of the case and really have no idea what the dimensions of the story might be.

And it's true that our society is racist and sexist, which means that our legal system--a manifestation and reflection of our society--is, too.

But I just resolved a case for a juvenile, a child, who was accused of something horrific, and who could have been tried as an adult and might have been if I hadn't worked out an arrangement with the State where he goes to a Youth Development Center--kiddie prison--instead of facing a jury of adults two and three times his age, and perhaps being sent to an adult prison, to reside with adults much older than he (although the prison system would try to keep him apart from them until he was a little older), with the minimum, the minimum he could have been sent off for as an adult being 12 years for a first-time offender.  He is, for whatever it may be worth, an African-American child.  His maximum confinement in a Youth Development Center will be his 21st birthday.

And when I argued with the Assistant District Attorney prosecuting this case, who I believe did the right thing in allowing the case to remain in juvenile court--not just because the decision is a positive outcome for my client, but because I think it was a moral decision--the argument I kept coming back to was that there is, or ought to be, in my mind at least, a bright-line rule that you don't send children to prison.  You.  Simply.  Don't.

A sentiment that is factually incorrect, because all the time across this great land of ours we send children to live behind stone walls, in narrow cells, simultaneously with and apart from adult felons, to get whatever education the Department of Corrections can offer and come out,4 eventually, sometime, eventually, as convicted felons who are branded with the scarlet letters of their convictions.  But a moral sentiment.  A faith that is blind and foolish.

Is there some greater good that would have been served sending this kid to living hell for grown-ups?  It wasn't going to make the victim feel better; I'm afraid you'll have to take my word for that, since I don't think I can say more than I already have about the facts of the case.  It wasn't going to undo anything terrible that had been done.  It wasn't going to prevent anything that couldn't be prevented in less-cruel ways.  It wasn't going to rehabilitate in any way that couldn't be done in a less-intolerable way.  It wasn't going to send a message to anyone who didn't already know what the message would be.  The most it would do is send a strong message of societal condemnation by breaking people more than they were already broken.

And had the Assistant District Attorney and I reached an impasse, if we hadn't found a middle ground that leaves people with some slim prospect of healing and reconciliation?  What else could I have done but tried this awful case, the victim getting up on the stand to tell a courtroom populated by strangers what had happened while the alleged offender sat twenty, thirty feet almost directly in front of her next to the mean man forced to ask cruel questions?  This is a fact the ADA took very much into consideration: forcing the victim to testify, a right accorded to the accused by our Constitution (a response to the evils of secret tribunals and witch hunts), would have been a re-victimization, would have been an unkind and terrible thing.  (Hence, again, why I believe the ADA made a moral decision.)

A fact, I find, that seems to be frequently overlooked by critics of the handling of various crimes.  We have, for better and worse, an adversarial system in which the accused has a fundamental right to confront their accusers.  A system that, again for better and worse, has rules--some of them almost ancient--that are intended to ensure fairness and regularity; rules of admissibility, of hearsay, of impeachment, just for instance off the top of the head.  A system of justice that has, for better and worse, established a high burden of proof before liberty or life can be taken away from somebody (taking their property is generally easier).

So that it is not enough for a police officer to take the stand and say that somebody told him something happened; proof of guilt must be established by non-hearsay evidence.5  And the proffered, would-be proofs will be tested in court, prodded and poked and gone over and questioned.  It is frustrating to read complaints about police officers "doubting" a victim by asking her hard questions about an offense when the complainants hardly seem to realize that one of the things an officer needs to do if she's going to present a case to the District Attorney for prosecution is present the strongest possible prosecutable case, and the questions the officer asked are the questions that the DA will ask, that the Grand Jury will ask, that a competent defense attorney will ask, that the petit jury hearing the case will ask themselves behind closed doors, and it's best to have the answer ready (or, frankly, if the answer is so dissatisfactory, perhaps save a lot of people the humiliation and/or wasted effort that may come from attempting to prosecute an unwinnable case).

I digress.

To get back on track--

There is a now-famous experiment in which two Capuchin monkeys are given different rewards for the same task (I know, this sounds like I am still digressing), and the monkey that receives the lesser treat will totally lose her shit when she sees what has happened, sees that she's being treated differently from her peer one cage over.  And I mention this because fairness, apparently, is very possibly an instinct that we have inherited from way back along the primate branch of the family tree.  And so I get it, I really get it, when I read a story in which a terrible action has repercussions for the perpetrator seem vaguely unfair.  I think this is very possibly some very old monkey section of my brain losing its shit; and the fact this may be an instinctive, reflexive reaction doesn't mean its wholly wrong, either.

But.  But I see these comments about these rape cases by folks, friends--good people, friends, people who I share so many principles and morals with--and while I know what they want and have an inarticulate sympathy for why, well... I also don't know what they want, or why.  If they are highlighting racial disparities in sentencing, for instance, are they saying that minorities should also receive lighter sentences for convictions?  Would that resolve the unfairness?  Or, if they're saying (what I think most of them probably are saying) that a sentence was too lenient, and the fairness issue is that it should have been much worse for the defendant--what is it they hope that will accomplish?  I don't ask rhetorically; well, not exactly.  I ask because, as I said a lot of words ago, I'm not sure I understand what we, what I (to the extent I have a professional part as a cog in this terrible grinding machine) am doing anymore.

Will a longer sentence undo the crime?  Deter anybody?  Rehabilitate anyone?  Neutralize an actual threat?  Send a "message" that we don't put up with that with which we will not put up with?  Just make us feel better, at least until the perpetrator gets out and now we have to figure out what to do with someone who has already been completely rejected by society at least once when we forcibly removed him for so many years and months?

Do we actually have a goal, or are we just screaming through the bars of our own cages?

And do you know, there's so much about the case that my friends are angry about that I don't know, and that I doubt they know, either?  I know the perpetrator in that one was seventeen when he committed the crime (this is not apparent in the article my friends link to, but can be learned by clicking through to the upriver source of the source).  I know that he was in Iowa, where this story happened.  I know that there was another "man" involved, which I put in quotes because I don't actually know if this was another teenager--another child, also being treated as an adult in this context and no other--or if this was a much older male (therefore suggesting, perhaps, the involvement of a more culpable party).  I know that, interestingly, a person who helped police catch the kid described the situation and the defendant as, "It's sad, he is such a young kid"; and suggested something known by those of us who deal with these situations too often (once being too often), that others may be overlooking--that frequently sex offenders were themselves victims, and are repeating learned behaviors.  I know the article mentions the defendant having had at least two psychiatric evaluations in the past two years, though the story doesn't say whether these were for the purposes of determining competency to proceed to trial, capacity to be culpable for the offense, for the purposes of sentencing, or for some other forensic purpose.

The story doesn't say--and its author probably doesn't know--anything about the convicted defendant's mental health diagnoses, if any.  His education, his intellectual capacity, his emotional development.  Whether the victim was a family member or a stranger.  What the victim's family's wishes are, if any.  Whether there are further arrangements between the state and defendant regarding his testimony against his codefendant.  Whether there are evidentiary issues that might make a conviction at trial less than certain even with video of the offense.  And while the point-of-view that the sentence is somehow unfair comes through very clearly, what isn't even touched is why another sentence might be better, more fair, more whatever.

If the author's feeling is that death would be too good for the defendant, he's entitled to that and might as well come out and say so; he just needs to recall that that isn't actually how we sentence people in this country.

Maybe it should be?  Though I have a feeling that's not really how people feel about it, considering that we--like most of the countries we like to identify ourselves with even when we publicly mock them (you know, France, Britain, European countries--as opposed to North Korea or Yemen)--have actually abolished the death penalty for rape.

We could reinstate it, like a lot of the punishments we've abandoned.  If the purpose of what we're doing here, if the end game is simply to send a strong condemnatory message to the universe that we don't like things, nothing speaks louder than drawing-and-quartering.  You might think I'm joking, that I'm being sarcastic.  I'm not.  I'm being sad and ironic, I'm being forlorn and angsty.

If there's a reason we're not drawing-and-quartering people, maybe we should be wondering why we're sending them to prison.  Why we're giving them permanent marks that will make them pariahs and outcasts the rest of their lives?  Why we're taking away chunks of their lives that will make them alien and useless when their lives are given back to them?

Why we're doing any of it?

1Wilds apparently led police to Lee's car.  This could mean a lot of things, but the Occam's Razorest would be that Wilds knew where the car was because he was involved in the crime somehow.  Wilds has maintained--in multiple conflicting stories--that his involvement was confined to helping Syed dispose of the body.

One strong possibility, of course, is that Wilds killed Lee and pinned it on Syed.  There are problems with this scenario, though.  For one thing, it doesn't appear that Lee and Wilds had much connection besides being close to Syed.  For another, if this is the scenario, then it seems more than a little odd that in neither of his two trials nor in any of the interviews that Koenig used in Serial has Syed come out and accused Wilds of killing her.  Neither of these points is conclusive, but I find them suggestive.

Another possibility would be that a yet-unknown third party murdered Lee, and... and what?  They know Wilds and roped him into helping?  Wilds is covering for them by pointing at someone who for some reason doesn't seem to be pointing back?  This, of course, is the big problem with all the "Maybe it was a random serial killer!" proposals that have been floated hither and yon since Serial aired; if Lee was killed by a Phantom Stranger, how is it Wilds knew where her car was?

The possibility that resonates most with me (and I will admit that it may be because it lines up with my own confirmation biases) is that the spine of Wilds' story is true--Syed contacted him and needed help covering up what I suspect was an impulsive criminal act--and that the variations in Wilds' story are largely the product of the kind of embellishment you frequently (in my experience, at least) see in accessory statements: a suspect inevitably gets the sense that making a story "good" will help him even if nothing is explicitly promised, and the kinds of questions investigators ask him point towards what constitutes "good."  In this case, I think you have Wilds realizing that an account in which Syed has planned things out and he (Wilds) is a minimal participant (because suspects almost always minimize their participation anyway--that's just human nature, really) is the story that the police want to hear.  They don't want to charge someone with an unpremeditated Second Degree Murder if they can collar someone for a planned-and-schemed First Degree, so they're hinting (perhaps even unwittingly) that surely, surely Syed talked about killing her on other occasions and had his day planned out.  And Wilds, he's not dumb and he doesn't want to go to prison, so he's game.

That's my hypothesis, anyway.  What do I know?  I wasn't there.

2I think Koenig wasn't really prepared to deal with a charismatic, somewhat bullying interview subject, first of all.  And second, I think she really thought that once Serial was underway, additional sources would emerge, eager to be heard; instead, additional sources remained hidden away or refused comment.  Not all of them, certainly; but key sources like Lee's family, Baltimore police investigators, the prosecutor, and Jay Wilds refused comment or dodged her, leaving her pretty much with Syed and his most ardent defender, a family friend named Rabia Chaudry who provided Koenig with documents that either weren't public records or that would have taken months to get through public record requests.  Which left her, in turn, with a dilemma: if she concluded Syed was guilty, should she tell him and risk losing practically her only source, or not tell him and risk becoming another case study in journalistic ethics and maybe even risk a lawsuit?

Or, she could be supportive and sort of agnostic, repeatedly expressing her inability to say for sure whether he really did it....

3Ah, but this is why we have the death penalty, yes?  Well... but not exactly.  Because while we talk about the death penalty as being an "eye-for-an-eye" kind of thing, it isn't, is it?  We don't kill convicts the way they killed their victims.  We insist on doing it "humanely," whatever that means, even if the convicted killer terrorized and brutalized a victim.  And we impose all kinds of other rules.

I am a staunch opponent of the death penalty for a lot of reasons that are an entirely separate thing from this, and that are beside the point I'm really trying to make here; that point being, even if we, for argument's sake, condone death, we don't really do it in a way that "balances the scales" even if this scale could be balanced by foolish and ignorant mortals such as we.  We don't actually take an eye for an eye, even if you find such trades acceptable.  And I don't really think we have the stomach to make such trades, despite the fact that a lot of death penalty advocates will talk big about it: we try, instead, to have it both ways when we kill in this context, congratulating ourselves for showing mercy to an "undeserving" killer by killing him in what we hope is a painless way, behind impenetrable walls and closed doors, in hidden chambers, at lonely and forbidden hours, as if we're ashamed of the things we boast of and have trouble bringing ourselves to commit an act we otherwise claim is overdue.

4We have decided, you know, that people come out of prison, eventually, for most offenses.  We are down to First Degree Murder and (in some states, anyway) certain sex offenses as being the only offenses for which there is officially life without parole; and then there are the effective life sentences we give to certain habitual felons whose sentences will exceed the lifespans of anybody who isn't an Old Testament character; and also the fake life sentences we give for those who our laws allow to be indefinitely "civilly" committed after they've run out their prison sentences and "done their time".

And we are moving away from giving children these sentences, when we try and convict children as adults.  We are doubting whether it's humane to give a teenager a life sentence, which means we are considering the possibility it's cruel, and cruelty is supposed to be forbidden by the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution.  (None of this applies, natch, if you're reading this in Canada or some other enlightened place.  I know there are a few of you.  Hi.)

Which means, you know, people will be released from prison.  Something that gets forgotten, except when someone is trying to instill fear while arguing for a longer sentence.  But you realize, of course, that even with the longer sentence, the defendant will eventually get out?  Unless it's life, of course, or the equivalent Methuselah-ean span of years.  But most people in prison, you see, will eventually get out.

And we ought, perhaps, just maybe, remember that point?  And ask ourselves, maybe, just perhaps, if that ought to affect how and where and why and for how long they're to be in prison?  Maybe?  To think that sending a person who has done horrible things off to serve five or ten or twenty years may be satisfying right now, while we're pissed and bitter, but is it going to still seem like a good idea when this person is gently pushed through the prison doors with thirty dollars and ill-fitting clothes and no possibility of employment and a screwy education and the only living people they still know are parole officers and other convicts?

Because, I dunno, maybe we ought to think about whether we're just pushing somebody under a rug so we can pat ourselves on the back for the housecleaning we've just done, with no regard to what kind of mess will reappear when the rug is lifted some time from now.

5Or, if you want to be technical, non-hearsay testimony and/or hearsay testimony that satisfies one of the many exceptions to the hearsay rules.


Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam - "A 1000 Times"

>> Thursday, September 01, 2016

The former lead singer of The Walkmen (R.I.P.) has a new earworm out.  Someone in the comments section at YouTube said this song hurt their heart in a good way, which seems about right.  Me?  I haven't had the chance to slow dance to it with my baby yet, but it seems like it would be a good song for it.  In fact, I'm planning on giving it a shot.

I'd suggest you maybe clear a space and find four minutes to do the same?


How to talk to a woman who is performing some kind of complicated surgery

>> Tuesday, August 30, 2016

These days, many women have graduated from high school, attended (and completed!) college, have gone on to accredited medical schools, completed internships, and have been licensed by state medical boards to be doctors, allowing them to perform surgery in hospitals.

Yet that doesn't mean you can't talk to them.

Of course, not all surgeons with breasts and vaginas* are open to being approached, because not all surgeons with breasts and vaginas are single and looking.

However, if a woman performing intensive, life-saving surgery in a hospital operating room is single and hoping to meet a boyfriend (or even a fuckbuddy for one glorious night in heaven), she will usually be happy to stop in the middle of her heroic medical efforts to save a patient to give you an opportunity to put your penis** in her.

Her putting down her scalpel doesn't always mean she's interested and wants you to ask for her number or drop your pants and jerk off in front of her or anything.  It may mean that she needs somebody to sponge up excess fluid around an incision, or it's time to sew the patient back up, or that the patient has died.  But it's possible she wants to see where the conversation will go.  Especially if the patient has died, and her afternoon just cleared up once she signs the death certificate and tells an administrator that it's probably the anesthesiologist's fault, somehow.

What to do to get her attention

1.  Stand in front of her.  I mean, not right in front of her.  You'll probably have to stand on the opposite side of the operating table.  And there may be other people--you know, like nurses and other doctors and possibly an angry cop clasping a loose surgical mask against his mouth and nose while he demands a chance to interrogate the patient as soon as he wakes up, people like that--who also need to be there.  You could maybe stand next to one of the machines that has a squiggy thing in it that goes up and down with the patient's breath, or the one that tells you whether the patient's heart has stopped or if his brain is working.  No, not by that one.  A little over.  Well now you're in the way.  Watch your feet.  Oh, good grief--now you're not supposed to stand on that.  Try backing up, and now a little to the left--my left.  Your other left.  There.  No, wait.  No.  Can you maybe--okay, yeah, that's good.  That'll work.  I think.  Yeah, that's fine.

2.  Have a confident, easy-going smile.  Oh God, no.  Not like that.  That's a little frightening.  I said easy-going.  Not squeamish.  Relax.  Okay, that's alright.  No, I get it, you probably shouldn't have glanced down at the table when the nurse moved that tray--yeah, that was a lot of blood, alright.  Just relax.  Smile.  Confidence.  Chicks love confidence.  There you are.

3.  If she hasn't noticed you, get her attention.  No, she didn't see you.  Try coughing.  Wave your hand a bit.  There you go, I think--no.  Sorry.  Try moving up a little and sticking your hand directly in front of her face, that'll get her atte--oh God!  Shit!  Shitshitshit!  Back up!  Clear!  What the hell, man, what the hell?  I didn't say do it while she was cutting the dude!  Oh shit!  Fuck!  Fuck, fuck!  Just--back up, back up, guy!  Okay!  Okay!  It's all going to be okay!  I think she's got it under control.  Jesus fucking Christ did you see that?  Shit!  All over the goddamn ceiling, dude!

4.  When she looks at you and yells who the hell let you in and get that guy out of here and why the fuck isn't he in scrubs and why doesn't he have a mask, point to her scalpel and confidently ask, "Can you stop operating on this dude for a minute?" as you pretend to not be sickened by all the blood soaking into her surgical scrubs and dripping from the ceiling tiles.

If she doesn't understand what you're trying to convey, it's possible she's a little slow because, you know, women menstruate*** and it causes them to not get enough blood in their brains.

If she calls hospital security and insists that you should be escorted from the premises immediately and possibly ought to be charged with trespassing, try speaking slowly.  Really exaggerate the words with your mouth, like you're talking to a deaf person or a Mexican.  "Arrrrre!  Yoooooou!  Bizzzzzzz-ieeeeee!"  Point at her when you enunciate "you" and make other big gestures, but try not to knock any expensive-looking electronic equipment off any racks, because that stuff is hard to replace and is the reason healthcare is so expensive these days.

If she starts shouting at you, calling you a "fucking moron" and telling you to "get the hell" out of "her" surgery, remember that some girls are shy.  Try showing her how manly you are by lifting up something large in the room.  Probably not the patient, because he's got gross stuff sticking out of him right now.  Maybe one of those machines, but--again--not one of the expensive ones, because God only knows you probably can't pay for it on a telemarketer's commission.

5.  If she actually puts down her scalpel and starts talking to you--possibly very slowly, mirroring your own slowed-down conversation ("Are.  You.  Some.  Kind.  Of.  Goddamn.  Idiot?"), do what we call, "Acknowledging the Awkwardness" by quickly acknowledging the awkwardness, to demonstrate that you acknowledge that approaching a woman this way is pretty darn awkward.

For example:

You:  "Hi.  Wow.  Are you a doctor?"

Her:  "What the f--seriously?"

You:  "You have doctor pajamas on."

Her:  "Oh my God.  This is not happening."

You:  "This guy is full of guts.  Is everybody full of guts?"

Her:  "Where is that goddamn rent-a-cop?  Somebody call fucking 911.  Oh my God."

You:  "If you cut me open, would you see lots of guts?  That's weird.  Being full of guts, I mean.  I mean, I guess if bugs have guts, people have guts, right?  And I guess our guts are bigger.  Do dogs and cats have guts, too?  What about rocks?  I guess rocks probably don't have guts.  Or maybe they just have some guts, but they aren't all guts.  You're pretty.  Do you always wear that mask?  It makes you look like a bank robber.  Did this man rob a bank, is that why his guts are all over, because the cops had to shoot him--kapow!  Kapow!"

Her:  "Oh thank God, where the fuck were you guys?  Him.  Over there next to the EKG monitor.  Get him the hell out of here.  Right now."

You:  "Remember when I put my hand in front of your face and then sploosh! there was, like, blood all over, and I almost ralphed.  That was gross.  I kinda peed myself.  But only a little."

If it's clear that the people grabbing you by the arms and frog-marching you out of the building have Tasers, you probably shouldn't wriggle too much.  Remember that "Don't Tase me, Bro!" video on YouTube?  Yeah, that looked like it hurt, didn't it?  Owwie!

Common Mistakes That Guys Make When Approaching Women Who Are Performing Some Kind of Complicated Surgery:

1.  Knocking over an expensive piece of important medical equipment 

That stuff is totes expensive, dude.  And if you knocked it down and then plugged it back in wrong, I'll bet it could turn somebody into a Frankenstein, and that would be, like, bad, probably.

2.  Giving up too easily

She's probably wearing that mask because she's shy, not because she's ugly.  And I know that it's hard to tell when she's wearing doctor pajamas (or "scrubs") whether her breasts**** are Damn Fine or Just Okay, but I'm just going to let you in on a little secret and point out that doctors are always concerned about physical fitness and good diet and shit like that, so you know she's got to be fit under those jammies, right?  Plus she knows how to talk dirty in doctor-talk.  And she can hook you up with some good pills.

So you gotta work on it, okay.

3.  Not giving up easily enough

On the other hand, she's got a knife, dude.  And she probably learned how to do use it when she was at doctor school.  Maybe you ought to let this one pass and head back to Hooters.

I mean, come on: it's not like you were actually going to get laid.  Seriously?  You didn't think...? 


*These parts of the body are more commonly known as tits and pussies, but if you want to impress a woman who is also a doctor, you should probably get used to using the professional doctor words for tit and pussy, hence we will be using the proper doctor terms for them.

**This is the word a doctor will use instead of "cock".  Again, proper medical terms are important if you want to have a chance to put your penis near enough a vagina to prematurely ejaculate around it.

***You know, "go on the rag," "that time of the month," "me and the guys will be down at Hooters," but pro-doctor talk it's called "menstruation."

****See previous note about medical terminology.

Photo credit: By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Valcarcel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The Decemberists, "12/17/12"

>> Friday, July 08, 2016


While his guitar gently weeps (and sings, and howls, and...)

>> Thursday, April 21, 2016

He steps out front about three minutes and twenty-five seconds in, and his guitar doesn't just gently weep, it cries, it howls, it wails, it stutters and it sings.  Dhani Harrison, himself the child of one of the rock gods who once made the Earth tremble, looks like a three-year-old watching a magician make a coin slide out of his ear the first time.  Prince hammers and slides and bends, effortlessly trills off a firecracker chain of fractioned notes and slides his hand down the Fender's neck like its greased.  And the wrecking crew of Hall of Fame inductees and pop legends up there with him might as well not be there at all, he just blows them right off the stage.

It isn't his number, of course.  It's a little challenging finding Prince tunes on YouTube because he was skeptical of the Internet; he filed a lot of DMCA takedowns, and then he'd go on a tech binge and relent and try to fit in with the new world order of online musical distribution, and then he'd relapse and send out a slew of takedowns.  Didn't make a lot of friends doing that, but it was his right to be prickly and controlling.

That control, in fact, was what made him a brilliant guitarist and songwriter.  And the guy, he was brilliant.  Prince was just utterly amazing when he was firing on all cylinders and still interesting even when he wasn't.  I'm not sure he ever quite lived up to the monster run he had from 1981's Controversy through Sign O' The Times (1987), a run that included 1999 (1982), Purple Rain (1984), and the often-overlooked gems Around the World In A Day (1985) and Parade (1986).  It may be that not even a genius could have kept up that kind of home-run record, or maybe he got derailed a bit during his infamous and very public beef with his label, Warner Bros., in the mid-'90s.

He was an eccentric, to be sure, and prickly, to be surer; but that epic fight with WB left a lot of people with the wrong impression.  It was commonly misperceived, probably because it was commonly misrepresented in the press, as a personal meltdown.  "Wow, is Prince nutty, he says he doesn't want to be called 'Prince' anymore, he wants to be known by an unpronounceable symbol!  And he shaved the word 'SLAVE' into his sideburns, is that wacky, or what?"  Easy for the press to dismiss, I suppose, in light of Prince's gender-bending costumes and makeup, which were less a matter of drag a la Bowie or The NY Dolls and more a matter of imagining we lived in a world where sexuality and gender were solved problems.  Of course the "Artist Formerly Known As Prince" business was a brilliant bit of publicly trolling Warner, trying to seize back control of his catalogue and career by making himself damned-near impossible to market even while he was still recording earworms and generating extraordinary publicity; the "SLAVE" was a more personal and (ironically) subtle-yet- (paradoxically) hammer-fisted statement; when he was a teenager and a nobody, he'd gotten himself stuck into a bit of a suboptimal recording contract, and the loopy shenanigans were part of a twisty and often-clever escape act.  And I believe--I'd have to relearn the details, but I think--it ultimately worked, he got the label to cave.  Of course, by the time they did, labels were facing the extinction-level-event of the Napster Impact and its global aftermath, a bit of off-timing (no wonder he didn't trust the Internet).

He was one-of-a-kind, anyway.  One of the last true originals, probably.   A synthesis of James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Sly Stone, and David Bowie, along with undiscovered elements that appear on the periodic table in boxes marked with question marks and unpronounceable icons, and that scientists have failed to reproduce in lab experiment after lab experiment.  Apparently capable of playing any instrument he set his hands upon.  An extraordinary lyricist, and don't get distracted by the playful (or pretentious) substitutions of letters and numbers for words ("Nothing Compares 2 U," a Prince-penned song made famous by Sinead O'Connor, may have a deceptively childish title, but the song, an utterly wrenching flaying of an abandoned and lost heart, is anything but).

And now he's gone, another artist lost in a year that's been cruel so far.  Not just the quantity of artists, which is inevitable as we all grow older and pass into history, but the quality.  Prince Rogers Nelson, June 7, 1958 to April 21, 2016.  A few years shy of his 60th birthday.  Someday, some kid is going to hit play on whatever it is they listen to music on (the way things are going, hell, it could be a good ol' vinyl platter), and not believe that this guy walked the Earth.  Is going to wonder how he did it.  Is going to pick up a guitar and blow his friends away by learning to be half as good.  Some day, hell, some kid is going to come along and be better, and he's going to tell every music journalist from pole to antipode he learned to play listening to Purple Rain over and over and over again, a bit of "When Doves Cry" here and a snag of the title track there.

Don't rest in peace, Purple One: may the ghost of your eminence imbue the fingertips of a hundred thousand thousand kids with an uneasy longing that can only be eased with calluses.  May your spirit flow through our speakers and headphones, stay with us for a century so that generations of rock and roll prophets can study your secrets and keep you alive in hearts and hearts again.



An open letter to My Friend, Engr. Thomas Kune

>> Friday, April 15, 2016

Oil License Mandate For You My Friend‏
Engr. Thomas Kune (info@viola-online.de)

7:58 AM
From:     Engr. Thomas Kune (info@viola-online.de)

Sent:    Fri 4/15/16 7:58 AM


Hello Friend,

My name is Engr. Thomas Kune, I work with the Triumph Oil & Gas
Company of Madagascar also known as T-OIL. I will officially guide you
on how to obtain a crude oil sales license with T-OIL. This crude oil
sales license gives the beneficiary the mandate to sell T-OIL ALBA
crude oil to any part of the world and the license attracts a host
commission of $3 per barrel sold.

This means that T-OIL will be paying you a total commission of $3 per
each barrel sold under your license as the license operator. This
crude oil sales license has a capacity of one million barrels of crude
oil per month, this means that at the end of every sales transaction
monthly, you are entitled to receive a total commission of $3MUSD from

I will give you details on how this works as soon as I confirm your

We shall proceed as soon as I hear from you.

Dear Engineer Kune,

Hello, friend.  I hope that this letter finds you well and in good spirits, and that the weather in Madagascar is good.  I have to make a confession: I always find it a bit weird to write to you, as I always sort of imagine you are a talking lion or lemur or some other kind of animal (not necessarily one starting with the letter "L," of course), since the main exposure people in my part of the world have to your country is through a delightful series of movies about zoo animals.

But probably you are a human, in which case I wonder if you work for a lion or lemur or giraffe.  Or maybe that's a foolish question, I don't know.

Anyway, I wanted to write to you and express my concerns with how our venture is going so far, and seek your advice regarding some minor inconveniences and issues I have been having.

As you probably know, things started well enough.  I applied for the license as you encouraged me to, and my first shipment of oil arrived the following week.  The deliveryman was extremely courteous, polite, and helpful, and I have no complaints at all.  In fact, I'm extremely grateful that he helped me get the twenty 55-gallon drums I'd signed for into my garage after I moved the car out, which I imagine isn't exactly part of his usual job description.

So far, so good!  Alas, I do not want to be a fount of negativity, but things have not proceeded so smoothly since.

I assumed, for what I think are obvious reasons, that the oil would practically sell itself.  It is, after all, a precious international commodity currently selling for more than forty dollars a barrel as of this writing.  I figured, not unreasonably, I don't think, that if I went up and down the street and offered barrels for, say, five or maybe even ten dollars under the current international market price, I could still make a sizable commission, you could make a swell profit, and we would all be happy.  It even seemed to me that I would probably be able to sub-market the oil, letting some of my most-trusted friends in for a share of their commissions, relying on the same model used by such famous and highly profitable enterprises like Amway and the Church of Scientology.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I wheeled a fifty-five gallon barrel of oil up to my neighbor Bob's house, and he was completely uninterested in purchasing it!

As soon as he opened his door, Bob greeted me the way he usually does, "Kids weren't in your yard and I don't want to hear about it."  This is a friendly joke he and I have, an "in-joke," if you will.  Also, I would like to add that I'm sort of transcribing what he said for clarity: for instance, he didn't say "weren't," he said, "warnt," like a common hick imbecile, and "an'Idonwannaherboutidt," instead of "and I don't want to hear about it."  But he's a good guy, even if he sounds like he repeated the third grade a lot before he turned eighteen.

"That's not why I'm here, neighbor," I said, "and anyway if I find their bikes on my property again, I'm giving them away to the first hobos I see."  This, again, being a total joke between us, since we haven't had a hobo problem in our neighborhood since CSX stopped using the track back behind the woods four years ago.

"No sir," I went on, "I'm simply here to give you the opportunity of a lifetime!"  I didn't mean that I was going to offer Bob the chance to be a business partner, since he's the reason I chain my gas grill to the back porch, but I did want to sell him a barrel of oil, and he was first on my list because I considered him a viable sales candidate, or what my grandpa used to call "an obvious sucker," which was a technical carnie term grandpa learned when he was with Sterling and Schnarq's Traveling Revue.  It's not meant in a derogatory way, it's just what they call a "term of art."

Anyway, Bob showed what a viable sales candidate he is by cutting right to the chase and saying, "I'm not buying your cookies and what the hell is that thing on my porch?"

I should pause and explain that Bob is always high on my list when Girl Scout Cookies go on sale and that I had, with some difficulty because it didn't want to stay on the hand truck, brought a sample drum of oil up onto his porch so that he could see I wasn't making anything up.  (The last time I came over to sell him Girl Scout Cookies, Bob seemed suspicious about me not having any kids and also that the Thin Mints box I was selling only had one sleeve of cookies in it.  Come to think of it, he may be a less viable sales candidate than I pegged him for.)

Well, I went into my spiel.  Explained how crude oil was a great commodity, internationally sought after, wars fought over it, nations toppled by coups, how it was important for automobiles and plastics, how it could be used as a safe substitute for vegetable oil in "romantic time" and some Chinese dishes, the whole nine yards.  His eyes were glazing over, which I took as a good sign and so I wrapped up my pitch with the advice that he could, if he acted now, have this barrel of crude oil right here (I was pointing to the one I wheeled up onto his porch) for the perfectly reasonable price of $37.50 (this was when it was going about $38 on the international market; I figured I wouldn't start out with too big a discount).

"What the hell am I going to do with a barrel of crude oil?" he asked me.

"Well," I said, prepared for exactly that question.

"Aren't you supposed to process it at a refinery or something before it's usable?" he asked.

"So, going back to your last question," I replied, "as I said, there are many things you can do with this barrel of oil.  For instance--"

"That thing is leaking all over the place!  How much oil is in that thing?" he said.

You can see, perhaps, that Bob has all the etiquette you'd expect of a man whose mastery of birth control and basic good manners results in having three drooling beast-progeny who are incapable of keeping their games of tag and kick-the-can or whatever-they-do-these-days out of a man's yard even after he's threatened them with an air-pistol (you'd think a sense of basic self preservation would be the minimal level of intelligence for motile organisms, but apparently not).

"It's a standard fifty-five gallon drum," I said, "now, going back to your first question: there are many things you can do with this barrel of oil.  As an example--"

Unable to contain his excitement at this great opportunity and lacking in all politesse, Bob interrupted me.  "Is that my hand truck?" he said.

"Fine," I responded, "this missed once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is your loss.  Thank you for you time."

"And patience," I added, ironically.

Of course, I didn't really mean it.  I don't just mean my quick rapier-wit of sarcasm there at the end, where I thanked him for being polite even though he wasn't polite at all and kept interrupting me and I'm not joking about shooting his children or giving away their goddamn bicycles next time.  I mean that I fully intended to come back and sell him a barrel of oil, probably at the going market rate, after I'd gone around the neighborhood and sold most of my other barrels and he'd had a chance to see how much opportunity he'd missed.  I might even, I figured, wait until the next shipment of oil came in to revisit my good friend and neighbor, so he could stew for a couple of weeks in the rich broth of missed opportunity.

Well, I'm afraid to say that my revenge didn't quite work out as planned.  I next went across the street to see Ms. Dudley.  She is a fine old lady, a retired school librarian, and as sweet and kindly as you can imagine.  For instance, some people would hold a grudge if you called the police to file a noise complaint against them, but Ms. Dudley almost never mentions it.  And I really think she's forgotten about the misunderstanding where her grandson's car was towed at Thanksgiving that year, or at least she's had the good grace and breeding (unlike Bob Mitsky) to pretend she doesn't know who called the city towing.  And I sort of regretted not going to see her first, frankly, because she has a wheelchair ramp from her driveway up to her front porch, which made it a lot easier to get the barrel of oil up to her front door.

"GOOD MORNING, MS. DUDLEY!" I shouted when she opened the door.  I believe she may be a little deaf, or at least that's what I've assumed from the volume she used to blast out those swing records at.

"Why are you shouting?" she asked me.

"I'd like to give you a once in a lifetime opportunity," I said.  "You know, in this day and age, there is no commodity as valuable as crude oil--not gold, not spices, not fine silks--"

"What have you brought up onto my porch?" she cried, even though in her wheelchair she was at about eye-level with the "C R U D E  O I L" that was stenciled on the side of the drum and was wearing her old lady glasses.

"Well, about that," I said, "this, you see, is a genuine fifty-five gallon drum of one hundred percent genuine Madagascar crude oil, and--"

"Is that Bob Mitsky-across-the-street's hand truck?" she interrupted me.  (Old people are allowed to do that, because their advanced age entitles them to repay decades of deference and respect with an utter lack of it.)  "He was looking for it the other week, wasn't he?"

Well, long story short (and this could, indeed, be much longer), she didn't buy the drum, even though I offered her a senior citizens' discount.  (I have to confess I may have queered the pitch by accidentally calling it a "senile citizens' discount," but I think I played it off pretty well by saying that I didn't actually think she was senile, it was just a discount for people who might be, because of their advancing decrepitude.)

And--here's the discouraging part--nobody else on the block bought a drum either.

Now, I would like to be absolutely clear about something: you and I are good.  I am not trying to get out of our arrangement, which I think is a viable option.  The fact that my efforts have yielded very little fruit doesn't mean too much to me: I consider myself a patient man, and my grandpa's lessons are something I've taken close to heart and have served me well.  "Eric," he said to me when I was a wee lad at his knee, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.  Unless you're on the trapeze, in which case you're probably pretty well fucked."

(I apologize for the coarse language, but grandpa was a frank and salty man, from his years working the circus and carnival circuit.  That's literally true re: the latter, since decades spent in the presence of roasted peanuts had left him with a cured look and an unforgettable tang of the sea about him.  This proved fortunate when he passed away and we buried him, as embalming expenses were completely unnecessary.  But I digress.)

Anyway, anyhow, I am willing to keep trying.  I have several other neighborhoods to canvas, plus the local gas stations.  I also feel the Internet is a promising avenue to follow; while my eBay auction has not garnered as much attention as I'd like, my Craigslist listing, "The Crude Man Is Ready To Keep You Lubed!" has garnered a lot of attention and I feel extremely optimistic about the leads it's generating.

No, the problem I'd like to address is our current shipping arrangement.  As we'd agreed, you've been shipping me twenty barrels of crude oil every week for the past seven weeks, which would be an excellent supply if my outgoing crude oil were keeping match as we'd hoped.  Instead, I am now in possession of 140 barrels of crude oil.

These drums, alas, are all about two feet in diameter and about three feet in height, while my garage is a one-car garage about 12 feet in width and 25 feet deep, with an eight-foot ceiling.  This means that I can only stack one barrel on top of another, and that the most barrels I can get in are six across and twelve deep if I want to be able to close the garage door, for a maximum garage crude oil barrel capacity of 144 barrels.  And I have to park my car in the driveway.  Where Bob's kids can get to it.

You, perhaps, being an engineer, see the problem?

I hope you will not take offense if I make the observation that some of these barrels have seen better days.  The very first day I was out trundling around the barrel that I tried to sell to Bob, Ms. Dudley, the Franklins, Tommy Smith and whatever his wife is called, the Boxers, Terri Habro, those people with the RV that never goes anywhere, Delores and Arthur Wanning, Dan Elbing, the lady who thinks it's still 1967, and the pot-smoking college kids renting Steve Banting's ranch-style, I was quite pleased at how strong I was getting over the course of the day until I slipped on an oil slick in front of the Wanning kid, Candace or Shandi or whatever it is, and realized it was less a matter of the barrel feeling lighter thanks to my day of lifting and pushing and more a matter of the barrel being lighter thanks to a leak in the bottom.

(Let me interject right here that I don't see this as being a sales problem so long as I'm scrupulous in maintaining in my pitch that the purchaser is buying a fifty-five gallon drum of oil, as opposed to fifty-five gallons of oil.  This is what my grandpa called "tailor the pitch so you don't get pinched."  Have I mentioned how wise grandpa was?)

Anyhoo, because of the condition of some of these barrels, I'm a bit concerned about having them piled up outside, where they can get more rust spots in the rain.  Not to mention that Bob Mitsky is a thief--he even took my hand truck, so God only knows what he'd do if he was tempted by the sight of a stack of fifty-five gallon drums in my driveway.  Even if I put them in the backyard, which is fenced-in, I fear his brats might see them over or through the fence while trespassing in my front yard again, and would report back to him and then where would I be?

No, I can fit four more barrels in my garage, and no more, and that's all there is to it.

So I would ask for one of two concessions to our agreement.  First, you could just send me four more barrels until I'm able to sell the ones I have, and suspend shipments until I can move them (by which I mean "sell," since moving them is currently difficult because of the hand truck issue alluded to earlier).  Or, second, you could just suspend shipments now, until I move the barrels I have (by which I still mean..., etc.).  Whichever is easier.  But I think you'll agree, expecting me to take on more barrels right now is a bit of a problem for both of us.

I do not mean to cancel or breach our existing agreement.  I am an honest man, and I'm not going to skedaddle in the middle of the night and leave you without a star attraction like a bunch of no-good conjoined twins.  No, I will take possession of back shipments as soon as my garage is a little cleared out.  If the Craigslist thing works out like I think it will, for example, you could send me sixty more barrels in three weeks and we'd be back to capacity.  I will sell these barrels, I promise.  I just need a little bit of space, literally and figuratively.  I know you'll understand.

Thank you.


R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets


I thought about using Bob's garage temporarily, but he changed the locks right after he stole the hand truck.  He's not a good neighbor at all.  Do you know, I think he may have even called the EPA?  Like he's got nothing to hide.


An open apology to Ross Douthat for causing Donald Trump

>> Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The spectacle of the Republican Party’s Trumpian meltdown has inspired a mix of glee and fear among liberals — glee over their rivals’ self-immolation, and fear that what arises from the destruction will be worse.

What it hasn’t inspired is much in the way of self-examination, or a recognition of the way that Obama-era trends in liberal politics have helped feed the Trump phenomenon.
- Ross Douthat, "From Obama To Trump"
The New York Times, February 27th, 2016.

Dear Mr. Douthat, 

I am not actually a New York Times subscriber, so I don't read your column very regularly unless someone points an article out to me.  But I do visit Slate pretty regularly, and William Saletan wrote a response to your February 27th editorial that steered me over to that piece, which I read with some interest.

I have to confess that there is some dim truth to your first two paragraps where I, personally, am concerned; I have not viewed the "spectacle of the Republican Party's Trumpian meltdown" with a mix of "glee and fear," so much as with a mix of what I would call "amusement and horror," but it is utterly true that I have not engaged in much "self-examination" or "recognition of the way that Obama-era trends in liberal politics have helped feed the Trump phenomenon."

In part, that may be the result of not seeing the Obama era as being terribly liberal, except (perhaps) in contrast to the exaggerated conservatism of the post-Reagan years, during which Bill Clinton was passed off as a Democrat and Obama, a thoroughly center-right politician whose policies can't be described as radical departures from those of such commie Molotov-cocktail-tossers as Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, has commonly been labeled a socialist.  I should add here that I've liked and admired the President, despite his obvious role in creating Donald Trump, and have largely approved of his Presidency, despite being far to his left on so many issues; I suppose President Obama has been exactly the kind of moderate conservative that I could see actual Democratic Socialists in a parliamentary system forming temporary and even semi-permanent coalitions with; the kind of moderate who cares about people and policies (in that order, too) and so can be worked with.  (Perhaps explaining in a nutshell why Bernie Sanders, an actual Democratic Socialist, caucuses with Democrats in Congress, has publicly supported while simultaneously critiquing the President, and currently runs for the Presidency as a Democrat.)

But I digress.

The point is that I hadn't given much thought to self-examination or recognition of how Trump was really Obama's fault--or, ultimately, my fault--because it just hadn't occurred to me that Trump wasn't the ultimate manifestation of a number of larger trends in the American political system combined with some long-standing trends in Republican politics.

I mean, Mr. Saletan makes all kinds of excellent points about Republican obstructionism during the Obama Presidency, and about how Obama has had to resort to executive orders to deal with an obstinate Congress and how bizarre it is that Congress has gone to extremes to reject their own ideas just because they came from the Obama White House (we're talking about the ACA, natch).  But one could go back even further and wider when looking at Trump's rapid takeover of the GOP.

One could, for instance, take his anti-intellectualism and his propagandistic "it is what I say it is" approach to "truthiness" as being the logical endgame of the conservative media critique that engendered Fox News.  Liberals (and I realize these are generalizations and there are exceptions) tend to criticize the media for perceived omissions (the mainstream media aren't reporting on this or that because they're afraid they'll lose their access to persons or institutions, or because they're afraid of alienating sponsors or owners); conservatives, meanwhile, have bought into a far more toxic (in my opinion) critique that the mainstream media is simply lying, altering or misreporting facts in order to promote a liberal agenda.  Never mind whether either of these critiques is true, or how true: the point is that if there's a widespread belief on the part of conservatives that the media is actively lying about things (as opposed to simply not taking on controversial topics that might make individuals, agencies, or corporations look bad), it's no wonder that many of those same conservatives wouldn't care that the media is reporting that only around 7% of the things Donald Trump says are "true" or "mostly true."  The mainstream media--or "lamestream media," as I believe Ms. Palin calls them--lies pathologically and doubtlessly smears Trump as part of a larger agenda to support establishment (and preferably liberal) candidates for office.

And speaking of Ms. Palin: as another f'r'instance of what one might have thought was blowing in the wind, surely the sudden and astonishing rise of Sarah Palin from Governor of an eccentric, provincial, backwater state (sorry, Alaskan friends, but I suspect you agree with me) to Vice-Presidential nominee and reality TV star is a harbinger of the Trump sweep?  Our dear Ms. Palin was promoted out of obscurity by a gaggle of conservative journalists and pundits who saw in her a charismatic conservative blank slate, with no real record to work against her.  Of course, the former pageant winner and TV sportscaster showed them, quickly embracing the lights and cameras of the national spotlight when she became John McCain's running mate.  It somehow seems worth noting, as you know, that she was McCain's petulantly made second choice after McCain's advisors completely vetoed McCain's first choice, Joseph Lieberman; say what you will about Lieberman (or McCain), that would have been the kind of party-crossing, principled, over-the-aisles nomination that a lot of people suggest they want when they complain about how partisan everything is these days (so unlike our golden, non-partisan past).  With all due respect to Trump's alleged status as the sometimes-so-called "first reality show candidate," he's surely the second, at best.

Of course, mentioning John McCain reminds me: you know how everyone talks about how mean and personal Trump's attacks on his rivals are?  It is so unprecedented, you know.  It isn't like anybody ever, say, oh, just randomly and plucked from thin air, it isn't like anybody ever ran for the Republican Presidential nomination and made a grab for South Carolina's delegates by accusing another candidate in the race of possibly being mentally ill because of his tenure in a POW camp during the Vietnam War.  Yes, Trump is definitely unique in his abrasive, insulting approach to politics, saying whatever he wants about others even concerning matters in which it isn't hard to see those others as his betters.  One might think--this is our purely hypothetical candidate, here, and not Donald Trump (we're merely making a comparison)--that an imaginary candidate who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War by joining the Air National Guard and then apparently spent much of the rest of the war running a family friend's unsuccessful Senate campaign would have some nerve insinuating that his rival was crazy from getting shot down over North Vietnam, having his body almost completely broken in the crash, and spending years in a prison being tortured.  Such an imaginary person--thank goodness nobody this crass and craven has ever shown up before Trump--who insults those who served in his place would have to be a pretty low-down son-of-a-bitch, pardon the expression.  Fortunately, such sad tactics would never work in the real world, at least not until now, in the age of Obama.  It's only now that being a mean asshole gets you anywhere.

Thanks, Obama.

We should probably talk, of course, about what I should do about Donald Trump's racism and xenophobia.  I don't know where he gets it from.  Well, I mean, obviously he gets it from Obama and me.  Because he's our fault and our responsibility.  I have to admit, though, I feel this--I hope forgivable and understandable--urge to deflect blame.  And I have to admit, it doesn't work, because of course you have to dig around a bit, right?  After all, I could try to deflect the criticism I so hugely deserve by trying to pin Trump's appeal to racist voters by dredging up Kevin Philips, Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign strategist who is often credited with inventing the Southern Strategy.  But that was a million years ago.  Or forty-eight.  Same difference.  Point is, it's a long time ago and ancient history and can't possibly be relevant.  Plus, Nixon is dead and so we should say nothing but nice things about Richard Nixon; e.g., "Richard Nixon was a pathologically insecure creep who probably did more to undermine democracy than any President since James Buchanan" is definitely not something we should ever say, but, "Richard Nixon is dead," is okay, since it's a nice thing to say about Richard Nixon and De mortuis nihil nisi bonum and all that.

Or I could try to make some kind of excuse that Trump's appeal to racist white Republicans is merely reaping what Lee Atwater sowed during the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.  Which would be silly of me, I know, because Reagan was a saint, a saintly man, the next bestest thing to Jesus on Earth, and if he ever went around any county fair in Mississippi talking about his belief in States' Rights--secessionist code since, what, the 1850s?--or giving speeches about "young bucks" and "welfare queens," well, nobody would ever take that as blowing a dog whistle.  Nobody sensible, and we know how sensible voters down here in the South can be, give or take a Federal fort or schoolhouse or college campus or two.  And Willie Horton is so 20th Century, who could get bothered by that anymore, when George H.W. Bush is a skydiving grandfather and what a clean old man.

I would also like very much, Mr. Douthat, to praise you before I get to the on-my-hands-and-knees part of this letter, for your brilliant assessment of how Obama has turned the Presidential race into mass entertainment--

First, the reality TV element in Trump’s campaign is a kind of fun-house-mirror version of the celebrity-saturated Obama effort in 2008. Presidential politics has long had an escalating celebrity component, a cultish side that’s grown ever-more-conspicuous with time. But the first Obama campaign raised the bar. The quasi-religious imagery and rhetoric, the Great Man iconography and pillared sets, the Oprah endorsement and Will.i.am music video and the Hollywood stars pledging allegiance — it was presidential politics as one part Aaron Sorkin-scripted liturgy, one part prestige movie’s Oscar campaign.

And it worked. But because it worked, now we have the nearly-inevitable next step: presidential politics as a season of "Survivor" or, well, "The Apprentice," with the same celebrity factor as Obama’s '08 run, but with his campaign’s high-middlebrow pretensions stripped away. If Obama proved that you can run a presidential campaign as an aspirational cult of personality, in which a Sarah Silverman endorsement counts for as much as a governor or congressman’s support, Trump is proving that you don’t need Silverman to shout "the Aristocrats!" and have people eat it up.

How true!  Of course, I'm too young to remember Richard Nixon appearing on Laugh-In in 1968, so I can't argue with you at all about Presidential candidates rolling with changes in technology and culture, especially as they try to appeal to younger voters and to voters of any age who might rely on newer forms of mass communication in lieu of older media formats and who might have more interest in a popular TV show than in newspapers.  I have some dim, nagging memory that a Presidential candidate possibly appeared on a late-night talk show in the early 1990s, something--this will sound absurd and you can laugh at me, Mr. Douthat, but I have this distinct impression that the Presidential candidate played a flugelhorn or clarinet or some other kind of blowy-into-ey musical instrument for the benefit of a national audience of mostly younger, hipper viewers, and that this candidate was roundly criticized for this and yet appearances on late-night talk-shows nevertheless became the norm for aspiring politicians.  This is, of course, silly of me.  Delusional.  Nobody did this before Obama, who was also the first President to acknowledge pop culture ephemera like George Lucas movies and Bruce Springsteen albums in his speeches.  There is no way on Earth, anyway, that an aspiring Presidential candidate could appear on a comedy program and get elected twice, much less once.  (Yes, that last sentence was written that way on purpose.  For some reason.)

Anyway, this brings us to the nitty gritty of it, which is that I would like to be the first liberal to reflect and self-examine and admit that your party's decision to give a strong showing to Donald Trump is my fault.  It is true that I have never voted for a Republican beyond supporting a few friends' local, non-partisan judicial campaigns because I knew them socially and professionally.  It is true I am registered independent, that I identify as a Democratic Socialist most of the time, that my top two choices for President would be Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders, and that I would rather have eaten a bag of nails slathered in fecal sauce than voted for Mitt Romney or George W. Bush.  It is true, too, that I think Ronald Reagan was an awful President, and that Richard Nixon should have been indicted.  That I am thoroughly disgusted by the kind of Southern Strategy politics that Trump has adapted into a national campaign, and that I feel the Democratic Party (which I am not a member of) is ultimately better off without the Dixiecrat-ish "Democrats" whose parents and grandparents remained with the party of national secession out of inertia and habit even after Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson turned it into the party of the New Deal and Great Society--or at least until Nixon and Lee Atwater wooed them over to the former party of abolition (that great historical reversal and realignment of party politics that is so vital and so complicated to explain).

These things may be true, but they evade a more fundamental and vital truth, which is that those things were then and this is now, and surely there's no point in looking backwards when we're always twirling towards freedom (to paraphrase a fictional Presidential candidate).  And the here-and-now-and-oh-look-shiny is that Barack Obama is President.

Nixon is forgiven, Reagan is a saint, Bush the Elder is a little old geezer, and Bush the Younger an awfully nice chap to have a beer with, am I right or am I right?  Heaven knows, not one of these guys would blow a racist dog whistle, not one of them would smear an opponent with weird and ironic ad hominem attacks on their fitness for office, not one of them would make a campaign moment out of going after a network anchor, not one of them would ever say something that might be patently less-than-true.  Not one of them would have pitched to ignorant and frightened voters convinced that the fix was in, convinced that they'd never noticed who the suckers at the table were until they figured out they were the suckers.  Not one of them would have tried to convince voters they weren't on the losing end of social change, that there was a silent majority who agreed with them, that there was a new morning in America just waiting to dawn.

And not one of them would have ever tried to appeal to a phobic, insecure, feeling-un-enfranchised white lower-middle-class voter worried about changing demographics and a rapidly shifting borderless economy where ideas are manufactured in America by a few people with degrees and shipped abroad for production in developing world sweatshops with consolidated, on-sight supply chains.

So I apologize.  I am sorry, so very, very sorry that I caused your party to go to Hell by following the path it's been set upon since Barry Goldwater's 1964 bid for the White House.  I am so sorry that I'm not likely to fulfill my obligation to save you from yourselves by voting for Marco Rubio instead of selfishly voting for Bernie Sanders in the open primaries.  So, so, so sorry.  Like, Tenth Doctor sorry.

Wait.  No, hang on.

I meant, I'm Roy Bean sorry.

Sincerely (or not),
R. Eric VanNewkirk
Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets


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