2014 midterm election implications

I have read very little news or punditry the past week. Most immediate post-election “analysis” is dregs-of-adrenaline meaningless noise, even by journalism’s ordinary standards, and in this case the specific election results make me physically ill.

Most of the few peeks I have taken have been over at Vox. The conclusions of their staff are thoughtful, appropriately cautious… and horrible. Matthew Yglesias has noted that “American politics is descending into a meaningless, demographically driven seesaw.” If you want more than that, well, that’s a problem, as Ezra Klein has elaborated:

The last five elections, taken together, wreck almost every clean story you might try to wrap around them. They show an electorate that veers hard and quickly between left and right and back again — shredding any efforts one might make to draw deep ideological conclusions from a single campaign. They show that Democrats can, in the right circumstances, win midterm elections. They show that incumbents can win presidential campaigns. They show an electorate that seems to be searching for something it cannot find.

Indeed. Perhaps because that electorate is doing something wrong… one could, of course, easily point to the system in a number of ways, but the strongest hope of changing that system rests in the hands of the electorate… On the whole, it’s easier than ever to see why people are disgusted by politics and declining to participate; unfortunately the spotty, knee-jerk participation that this leaves behind exacerbates the randomness and dysfunction that turn people away.

As someone wrote at The Economist a few years ago, “we have a system-wide problem with system-wide problems.”

Perhaps it might help if the idea that elections have real consequences, for real people, became once more central to political conversation, instead of just a source of anecdotal weapons. Very possibly not, but as self-indulgence is one of life’s few dependable consolations at present…

What state I live in a couple of years from now could well depend on what happens—or does not happen—next in our nation’s capital.

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Holmes, Bookshop notes Nov. 2014

Some updates on my Sherlock Holmes collection, with a visit to a new Lakewood business on the way…

After keeping my eye out for a copy for some time, I finally picked up A Study in Sherlock recently. This is now item #44 in my collection.

This is as good as I could have hoped; I believe it’s the best Holmes anthology I have read so far. (Maybe Exploits of challenges it, but only if two authors counts as an anthology.) Great variety, with a lot of tangential extrapolations of Holmes of a more thoughtful nature than, e.g., “let’s do a Holmes story but with Martians/ghosts/zombies.” No doubt these things can be good, but the inherent novelty of this kind of mashup wears off rapidly and I think you’ve got to work very hard to add some other merit. The inventive approaches in A Study in Sherlock, by contrast, offered both freshness of concept and, in most cases, quality of writing.

Lots of good stories here, and even a short, delightful comic by Colin Cotterill. Neil Gaiman will be the headline contributor for most people, and I enjoyed “The Case of Death and Honey” though I’m not quite sold on the premise. Perhaps I’m just nettled by any stories that revolve around “explaining” some major element of the canon that the author finds unpersuasive. I don’t think I’m fundamentally opposed to such efforts, but my reaction here was similar to my objections to The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, if not quite as intense. Anyway.

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Growth

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people that there is a phenomenon called “growth,” which

  1. is the result of whatever his agents want to promote, and
  2. results in something an audience wants, usually “jobs,” which might be the second-greatest trick…

The Cotton library fire, Oct. 23, 1731

The wee hours of this Thursday, October 23* will mark the 283rd anniversary of the disastrous Cotton library fire of 1731.

This is probably a questionable occasion to celebrate… but, (mostly) by coincidence, it’s also about time for me to begin promoting my book Cotton’s Library, which devotes most of two chapters to the fire and its aftermath.

So, I am pleased to share this cartoon I drew about the fire. You’ve got to have a laugh, eh?

Do feel free to share it or re-post it anywhere. At some point here I will probably post some additional notes about it at my art and design blog… for now, though, please enjoy “A Night in the Cotton Library.” Read More →

New word RFP (wuah wa wah)

I’ve decided we could use a new term. Inspired by a couple of recent, typically empty corporate “responses” to being busted for scummy behavior, I feel like we need a word for this particular variety of noise.

It’s tricky even to describe this, precisely. Time Warner’s comments here are a prime example, as are nearly any “response” from any large telco to anything. Apple’s response to default snooping through Spotlight in OS X Yosemite, in context of their recent crowing about respecting customers’ privacy, captures something of this phenomenon. It isn’t exclusively corporate behavior, either; you hear plenty of this in politics.

It isn’t “derp,” though. Nor is it “FUD.” In both cases there is probably considerable overlap, but I’m trying to define something more basic. It’s little more than noise, but “noise” alone does not capture the element of insult, almost contempt, that sets this apart. I recall Peter King once speculating that Bill Belichick favored the phrase “it is what it is” so that he could move his lips without actually communicating with media; I think now that King was probably approaching a similar concept. Belichick (in King’s portrayal) feels some obligation to go through the motions of “responding” to questions, but no real obligation to account for himself or engage with questioners, whom he probably considers impertinent nobodies who should buzz off. So he makes noises that humor them, in form, while insulting them in (the noises’ absence of) substance. That comes very close.

I think the best explanation of all, though, might be borrowed from Judge Judy’s classic admonition: “don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” The “telling you it’s raining” part is exactly what I would like a word for: comments by one who has caused injury, following confrontation about this fact, that are so absolute in their refusal to engage in any legitimate conversation of the issue that the insult rivals the original injury. There’s really less engagement than even a dismissal; it’s mostly noise and almost non sequitur.

Can we come up with a word for this?

My thoughts gravitate toward the iconic grown-ups sound from the Peanuts animated cartoons. I haven’t been able to find a sound clip, but I’m guessing most people know what I mean. That worst-PA-system-of-all-time wa-wuah wa wuah waugh wa. Some brief shorthand for this would be a good term for what I’ve been describing. I thought of “wuah” because so many other renderings seem to have familiar, unrelated usages attached to them. This doesn’t seem to have a lot, though it has some, and Duck Duck Go suggests that “wa wa wa” is the most popular conclusion of typing “Peanuts cartoon wa.”

So, I don’t know for sure. I welcome suggestions. I’m not too particular about the details, I would just really really like some kind of term for this to take hold. I realize that naming it probably won’t change the world, but being able to call this out quickly would at least feel like a small way to push back.

America seen through television

I wrote this four years ago, during the previous midterm election campaign. Most of it still applies today, particularly the first half which has nothing to do with party politics.

I see very little television. I watch a few History Channel shows on the web, and an occasional football or basketball game. But I don’t watch the evening news, or Mad Men, or SNL or whatever else people watch. I don’t claim that this makes me a better person, in any way. (I’m not denying myself television because I think doing so is “good for me;” I just have no interest).

But it does make television, when I do see it, awfully strange. Especially television advertising.

For one thing, from what I can tell, if one judges by the assumptions made and promoted by TV commercials during most “mainstream” programming, one gets a very weird and rather dismal impression of male-female relations in American society. The near-exclusively prevailing concept of gender roles seems to depict men as affable-but-dim lunkheads, interested almost entirely in beer and sports. Women, meanwhile, are apparently all ballbusting shrews with no interests whatsoever, other than enforcing their total disapproval of, and maybe occasionally mocking, male behavior.

Presumably of course this is not meant to be taken seriously, but instead, “for laughs.” Ha, ha?

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VEISHEA: rabid tradition put to sleep

The administration of Iowa State University has declared VEISHEA dead. This is, or was, a spring festival, nearly a century old. “VEISHEA” is an acronym made from the departments* at ISU when the festival began. I believe the phrase “largest student-run festival in the US” has long been attached to VEISHEA, which was in theory both a celebration of pride in things Iowa State and a point of pride itself.

That theory has been getting more and more difficult to put into practice, though, for as long as I have been aware of the event.

I think this final, no-hiatus no-probation end to VEISHEA is probably a “straw that broke the camel’s back” situation, mostly. Rioting outbreaks stretch back even before I enrolled as a student, and so far as I can tell the 2014 episode was hardly the worst. The worst VEISHEA disaster was, in fact, by most measures my very first. At the risk of mangling a metaphor, VEISHEA 1997 was probably the iron crowbar the fractured the camel’s back, leaving it vulnerable to the weight of mere straw.

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Footsteps of the Blues Brothers

A week ago I got back from a brief visit to Chicago. While there, I saw much that was cool and interesting. In a small way, though, even after The Field Museum and The Art Institute and the astonishing Driehaus Museum, it feels like the highlight of the trip was actually this:

The Hon. Richard J. Daley Plaza

Someone should install a plaque memorializing the Bluesmobile here

Somehow, it just felt particularly appropriate that this was essentially the last notable “sight” before we descended belowground and boarded the train back our suburban hotel. Yes, The Honorable Richard J. Daley Plaza. “That’s where they got that Picasso.” Read More →

Scotland, continued

The campaign over Scottish independence has continued to fascinate me. It has, I think, become a bit less entertaining as I have found myself taking it more seriously, and I kind of feel bad about that… but, it may not be all bad. It occurs to me that this whole affair has been an extraordinary brain exercise. Most topics of “debate” are familiar enough that I’ve long ago sorted out my opinion. On Scotland, however, I have wavered back and forth repeatedly, as I’ve encountered interesting new arguments and gradually digested them. I sort of feel like we should do things like this, in a general sense, more often, just to keep things a bit more fluid and keep us on our toes, mentally. As for tomorrow’s vote, specifically, well…

I suppose that in the end, my (non-voting) attitude toward this whole affair is resignation toward the impossible paradox that is life.

Having chewed it over, I believe that were I a Scot or anyone else in the UK, Scottish independence absolutely would not be my preference. My own—as ever hypothetical and unasked—preference would be for all of the Yes campaign’s energy to catalyze a nationwide effort to banish the Conservatives, and replace them with a genuinely progressive people’s government.

But of course, that isn’t on the ballot. Scottish independence is, for the reason that it has proved far more exciting than what would, I’m sure, seem too much like ordinary old tedious, futile, politics-as-usual.

I can sympathize with that attitude, yet it’s basically a sympathy of despair. I still don’t know exactly what to think about the actual question of independence itself, as offered to voters tomorrow. Opinions are scrambled up among people I usually respect (which again, is part of what makes all this interesting.) I agree with Prof. Krugman that an independent Scotland continuing to rely on the British pound would be demented. I really don’t know how much that’s a guaranteed outcome of a Yes vote, and how much chance there is that other counsels might prevail in the fluid circumstances of new independence. I think I’m a bit more optimistic than Krugman that the whole project could be worthwhile, at least if Scotland finds a better currency solution.

Yet I’m far, far from joining George Monbiot et al. in believing that the Yes campaign really represents the seed of hope. I don’t buy that this is a rediscovery of imagination. No. Sorry. Again, I think a liberal perspective can sympathize with the Yes campaign to a significant degree… but I don’t think a liberal can actually look at it and see hope. It may well be that Scots have within their grasp a chance To Begin The World Anew… but they have the same as part of Britain. Success isn’t automatic as part of Britain; it won’t be automatic as an independent Scotland. Maybe the odds are better, but even if so that seems to depend on thinking smaller, in a sense, essentially lowering expectations. Thus I look at Scottish independence and see, at best, one more compromised, misguided attempt at making do amid even uglier realities. It might be a worthwhile compromise, but accepting that compromise is certainly not what I would call hope. I would call it despair, or, I suppose, functioning edge-of-despair.

Or, as I’ve come to conclude, “life.”

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Dear Cyclone football: never back down

I was sightseeing in Chicago over the weekend, so I missed the Big Game. My brother called immediately afterward and provided a recap, though, and what a sweet sequence of events. ISU prevailed, plus, ISU prevailed as a direct result of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz outsmarting himself. Whooops. Thanks, U of I campus police, for this apt summary:

Coach Rhoads roars with laughter as Ferentz looks on… yep, that about sums it up

Bwa ha ha

Reading afterward, though, I noticed that the Des Moines Register was making noises about ending this series. It seems to be a bit more than just a daft Randy Peterson idea, also. Not only were fan reactions mixed, but the relevant officials seemed less than committed to sustaining this rivalry.

I could spend time deconstructing this, but I just want to make one point, for whatever my opinion is worth: if and when this series is interrupted (again), it should not happen with any formal approval from ISU. Ignore Peterson’s arguments that halting The Big Game would be to Cyclones’ advantage. Don’t give the Hawks cover, guys. If they want to cop out, fine. If they want to offer up excuses, claim that it has never been important to them, revive the arrogant and now ludicrous muttering about “quality” opponents, fine. That’s their business.

But please, Cyclone football, make it clear that ISU stands ready to challenge the Hawks any time, anywhere (in a manner of speaking, at least, since college football games follow a fixed schedule negotiated well in advance). Do that, and honor will be ours no matter what, no matter the result of any “last game” before Iowa slinks off to seek wins elsewhere.

We will never surrender.