Thank you, Harlan

>> Thursday, June 28, 2018

Back in the 1970s, there were these things called "Fotonovels."  What a lousy word.  They were like comicbooks, only they'd been adapted from television shows and movies, and what the publishers had done was, instead of hiring an artist to ink scenes from the source material, they took frames from the source material and then added in the word balloons with dialogue from the script and maybe threw in the little sidebar boxes for exposition.  So, comicbooks with photos instead of illustrations.  Where "novel" came into it was that it didn't, except that the format for these things was that they were the size and shape of your standard issue mass market paperback of the time.  But it was basically a comic book, you know.

Also back in the 1970s, Star Trek was off the air, except in reruns, and there weren't any Star Trek movies (though there were some things in the works, especially after Star Wars knocked everybody out), and Gene Roddenberry was working on "Phase II" which would sort of become Star Trek--The Motion Picture and also would sort of become Star Trek--The Next Generation, but I don't know how many people really knew that was happening.  I certainly didn't, but I wasn't even ten years old.  But even with Star Trek being a show one of your local channels aired (probably a UHF channel, too, which was the TV ghetto in those days of rabbit ear antennae) after school or late at night, there was a surprisingly large amount of Star Trek stuff out there to consume--novels for adults, and for the kids a vast range of lunchboxes and View-Master discs and picture books and vinyl records and all kinds of things.  A whole bunch of which I had as a kid, records and toys and whatever.  And among the stuff for this TV show that had been cancelled before I was born was a line of Star Trek "Fotonovels," of which I owned exactly one example: Star Trek Fotonovel #1, "City On The Edge of Forever."

It looked like this, except much more beat up and the pages were eventually falling out.  Maybe it looked kind of like this when it was new?

I can't remember when my copy was ever new.  Can't remember who bought it for me or where, or what happened to the damned thing which, if I still had it, would probably be worthless, the condition it would be in, but would probably be some kind of treasured item I'd clutch to my chest and weep tears of childhood's end over.  I loved the damned thing.

You know who probably hated it?  Harlan Ellison.

I can't say that for sure.  I mean, the guy liked actual comic books, and he won awards for writing the original thing, or some version of it anyway.  But in the 1970s he really, really hated television, a medium he spent decades writing for; and he hated the dumbing down of America, which a "Fotonovel" seems symptomatic of; and he really hated his whole experience of writing "The City on the Edge of Forever," it turned out, because when Gene Roddenberry got his hands on it he had the nerve to take fine art from the typewriter of Harlan Fucking Ellison and turn it into a watchable 50-minute television program, basically re-writing almost the entire thing start to finish and then it won Ellison awards for this ersatz fraud (this had to be insult on top of injury).

But I loved it, and in some dimly precocious way I took note of two words from the "Fotonovel" (I would bet earnest money Harlan Ellison would have hated that fucking "f"): they were, can't you guess, "Harlan" and "Ellison."

A few years later, and I'm maybe a precocious, nerdy child who likes reading and fantasy and science fiction who has entered the double-digits.  And I catch wind of something called Twilight Zone Magazine, a sincere cross-branding effort to publish SF and fantasy in a glossy literary format, as opposed to the pulp format such things usually appeared in.  Coincidentally, the first issue that trailed across my path and is still in a box in a closet somewhere in my home had Captain Kirk hisself on the front cover, only in the role of the unfortunate Robert Wilson, fresh from the nuthouse and afraid of flying, which may or may not be why he sees a man standing on the wing of his airplane when he looks out the window.  One of the gimmicky-yet-cool tie-ins TZM had with its namesake televesion series besides having Rod Serling's widow in a ceremonial titled position on the masthead was that every issue included a teleplay from the original show.  (And jesusfuckingchrist: I look at this magazine cover and realize that the very first issue of TZ I owned introduced me to T.E.D. Klein, the magazine's editor at the time; John Sayles, who was interviewed for the issue to promote The Brother From Another Planet, and goddamned Richard Matheson, who wrote "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," the teleplay featured on the cover and inside the issue.  Klein, Sayles, and Matheson between two glossy cover pages?!  You either have no idea what I'm talking about or your mind just blew up and left boogery bits of grey matter on the screen.  If you're in the first camp (sorry about your monitor and head if you're in the latter), we're talking about three pretty legendary genre writers, though Sayles snuck out into the mainstream when the cultural gatekeepers were distracted.  Klein has been woefully slow to publish and you'd be excused for not knowing his work, but Matheson is somebody whose work you know even if you don't know you know it.  Anyway, I'm having a moment, sitting here and realizing that this single issue of a nearly-forgotten magazine may be one of the most formative experiences of my entire lifetime.  Excuse me.  I need a second to catch my breath, doctor.)

My first issue of Twilight Zone came off the rack, but of course I wound up with a subscription.  No idea now whether that first subscription was a gift or something I paid for with my allowance, but there's a point to all of this, and the point is that in 1985 the mailbox had an issue promoting CBS' first big revival of The Twilight Zone (the television show).  And one of the things the 1985 revival of Twilight Zone (on television--help, I'm slipping into The Twilight Zone, what with all these references and do you see what I just did and added another?) did right was they brought in... why, don't you know, they brought in the television-loathing Mr. Harlan Ellison to write 'em a couple of scripts and to consult, and so one of the things this issue of Twilight Zone (the magazine) had to promote the new show was a Harlan Ellison short story he was adapting for the revival, "Paladin of the Lost Hour."

Let's say that the "City on the Edge of Forever" "Fotonovel," which I read in my single-digit-years (some years before I ever got to watch the actual episode, I should have previously mentioned), was the hook.  That hook stuck in my lip--I didn't even know it was there, not really, insensate fish I am--for years, for about half a dozen years I guess.  Give or take months.  Let's say that was the hook; "Paladin of the Lost Hour," a short story about two men, one of whom is young but traumatized and the other who is near death and in possession of a certain pocket watch of cosmic significance, this was where the fisherman reeled me in after letting me play on the line, oblivious to how I was going to be wrenched in.

Harlan Ellison had become very, very, very important to me.

I don't have anything at hand to give you an offering of his way around a word.  Hell, when I was reading Harlan Ellison in the 1980s, nearly all of it came out of the school or public libraries, so I don't have it now, a problem with libraries (meaning no disrespect to an ancient and honorable institution--but you have to give the damn books back, you know).  Anything of his I was reading in the '90s came out of college libraries, same thing.  By the Oughts, wise foolish me had a handheld electronic device and an account with a now-defunct e-book retailer, and so there are a half dozen Ellison anthologies I own that are encrypted by a credit card number I haven't had in more than a dozen years, so until I find the patience to figure out a way to decrypt the bleeding things... it's going to be easier to go back to the used bookstore, or a new books one.  (Do not, do not, do not take the opportunity in the comments section to smugly "educate" me as to how I have illustrated the superiority of material objects over digital files.  I have as much access to the e-books as I have to the ones I checked out of the library (or even read curled up on one of the overstuffed chairs in the Appalachian State University student library, thinking it was too cold to walk home just then and this story's pretty good, only realizing near closing time that it had grown too colder while you put off the walk up Stadium Drive).  A paper book is one thing and a digital book another, and each has their uses and disadvantages, and I have no regrets about having purchased some files I can no longer open, only amused disappointment.)

I digressed.  I'm at the office and I don't have anything at hand to illustrate what Harlan Ellison could do with a word.  I'm making excuses, and putting off the statement of a thing which you may have known before you began reading this (thank you, by the way), which is that Harlan Ellison is dead.

A friend posted the news on Facebook.  I fretted.  Harlan Ellison was getting on in years, eighty-four of them, and his health reputedly had been terrible for years, and so he'd been dead before.  I didn't really doubt my friend, who is a phenomenal editor and well-connected in SF and Fantasy circles, and so she would be one to know, but (as I just wrote), he'd been dead before (rumor, exaggeration, c.f. Mark Twain).  So I went onto Twitter, where someone had been authorized by Ellison's wife, Susan, to announce that Harlan Ellison is dead and it took this time.

Oh, goddammit.

I think I need to say something else everyone has known for years, which is that Harlan Ellison was someone who it could be terribly hard to be a fan of.  A thing that was on my bucket list and unlikely to be achieved before today and impossible now: I really hoped he would insult me someday, hopefully to my face.  This is the kind of person Harlan Ellison was.  He was not just notoriously prickly, he was aggressively thorny, noted for tossing out invective and having less and less patience as the years went on.  And then, a number of years ago, there was an infamous incident where he grabbed another writer's breast on stage and in front of quite a lot of people (not that it would have been any better if he'd done it in private), and another (less serious but still very dramatic because of who was involved) incident at a different awards ceremony involving a couple of webcomics artists who have subsequently achieved their own notoriety for what could be described as sexually abusive antics (verbal, so far as I know, nothing physical; but extremely dickish and ugly on their parts).  Even before the breast-grabbing, there was a famous story about Harlan Ellison that he told about himself and was often repeated, about a really bad date Ellison went on that was the sort of anecdote that used to be pretty funny up through, oh, some time around the mid-1990s, but was a bit ugly and cruel and misogynistic by the 21st Century; the story never changed but the rest of us did, and this is how things sometimes go, that a story that makes you a popular raconteur in one decade makes everybody cringe some years later.  On the non-sexual, non-interpersonal, but just sort of generally terrible front, there was The Last Dangerous Visions, the unpublished sequel to Ellison's legendary New Wave (the SF New Wave, not the French New Wave, the American New Wave, or the musical New Wave--there are all these waves, you see, and sometimes they're new) anthologies Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, of which there were some unfortunate accounts of stories being tied up and left on a rug somewhere; I guess Ellison definitely isn't finishing it, now.

I know that last paragraph was awfully snide and cruel to a man who I loved from afar.  But you have to understand that you can love a genius despite his flaws, and you also should understand that in some ways Ellison's flaws were... how do you put this without accidentally coming off as an apologist?  It's not that his faults were forgivable, much less likeable, but I guess you could say they were an intrinsic part of a package that in its sum could be amazing.  He was offensive and pugnacious, but when he put that into a short story it hit you in the gut and it stayed there, not like a punch but like a gunshot, a broken bullet with pieces inextricably stuck in the wound to decay into your bloodstream for the rest of your miserable life.  I would have loved being insulted by him because whatever he would have said would have been clever and incisive and possibly even true.  He could be reckless and wild, which (from what I've heard, having never been present in person) made him a terror at conventions, but in his literary work that recklessness turned into daring.  If he was a misogynist (and I hate to think it, but he probably was, all his boasting about his feminist street cred and work on behalf of the failed ERA notwithstanding), that misogyny was--and again, I don't want you to mistake this for an apologetic--but it was a part of his work in something of the way racism was a part of H.P. Lovecraft's: unpleasant, uncomfortable, ugly, but also a part of a uniquely compelling perspective on the universe.

My favorite story about Harlan Ellison isn't even about Harlan Ellison.  (My favorite story by Harlan Ellison... hm... it might still be "Paladin," thirty-two years later.  Maybe because I was young and impressionable when I was run over by it.  Maybe because it made my eyes fall out and I had to put them back in again.)  My favorite story about Harlan Ellison is a story about Frank Sinatra.  Specifically, the story about Frank Sinatra, Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," which is literally the only story about Frank Sinatra anyone has to read.  Please n.b. the italics in that last clause: I don't mean that if you like Frank Sinatra stories, or might have a passing interest in Frank Sinatra stories, or are really just bored and have nothing to do except read a Frank Sinatra story, there's this one that's exceptional and you can forget the rest.  I mean, you have to read Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," which is one of those classic pieces of journalism that there's a good chance you've heard of even if you've never had the pleasure of holding it near you.

The story behind the story with the story is basically that Gay Talese went out to interview Frank Sinatra for Esquire, couldn't get the interview, and so wound up writing a story about following Frank Sinatra around and never getting the scheduled interview with him.  It's the kind of story nobody could write anymore because magazines are all broke thanks to the Internet, and if a journalist called his editor and said, "This guy isn't talking to me," he'd be recalled home; except this would never happen because the whole thing would actually happen in a publicist's office and be more canned than a past-use-by-date container of Spam.  But this was the Sixties, and magazines like Esquire had seemingly bottomless expense accounts, and you could get paid (and comped) to go across the country and follow somebody around asking when you were going to get to talk, and then write what we'd now call a "meta" story about how all your interview subject wanted to do was go around to various places and do things like nearly get into a fist fight with then-obscure young writers hanging out in pool halls.

Which is what happens about a third of the way into Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold": Frank Sinatra went to a pool hall where Harlan Ellison and some friends were playing, and Sinatra expected a certain amount of deference for being Frank Sinatra and instead Harlan Ellison treated Sinatra about the way he'd treat any asshole who just walked in and decided seemingly at random to be snotty about Harlan Ellison's shoes.  And while Talese treats the (really trivial, when you get down to it) incident of Sinatra and Ellison acting like a pair of assholes as a minor brush-off for the larger-than-life Sinatra and a life-changing incident for the incidental Ellison (this is how you get your editor to sign your receipts when you get home even though technically you goofed the assignment), what really comes across all these decades later is that Harlan Ellison didn't really give a shit and would have probably just as soon broken a pool cue over the Chairman of the Board's blue-eyed head if Frank Sinatra said one more goddamned thing about how Ellison dressed himself in those days regardless of Sinatra's well-known connections to men willing to shoot a guy in the back of the head and bury him boots and all in a shallow grave next to Judge Crater.  It's worth mentioning, too, and maybe I should have mentioned it earlier in case you didn't know, but Harlan Ellison wasn't just famously an asshole, he was famously a little asshole: he may not have looked up to Sinatra in the usual figurative sense, but he had to look up when Sinatra was in his personal space.

I find myself trying to summarize the whole thing in a quick and clumsy way and feeling so fond of the man.  Ellison, I mean.  I like Frank Sinatra records and The Manchurian Candidate, but the guy was a shit.  So was Ellison, I guess, but Ellison was a lovable shit, and I guess that's the point of the last several paragraphs about the awful behavior at cons and stepping on Frank Sinatra's toes.  His misbehavior was cool when he punched up, and I think probably nine times out of ten... or maybe out of eleven... he was punching up, bless him.

I'm not sure when he wrote his last piece.  He'd been having the health problems.  And so I find myself feeling... it's not as much a sense of loss as of resignation.  Maybe it's also all the terrible things happening lately, and the death of a little old man who formerly wrote utterly brilliant prose but was lately hobbled by age is less significant at a time when the United States has lately been putting children in concentration camps and it seems not-implausible Roe v. Wade will be overturned by this time next year.  And here's a funny thing: thinking about this and about Ellison's corpus gives me a twinge of, what was it we used to call it?  Oh yeah, hope.  Because while Ellison wrote a lot of grim tales (and probably his most famous ones), there was a lot of it that was about recognizing the darkness and spitting in its face even if it wound up eating you (or annihilating your ability to vocalize the agony the universe was putting you through, anyway).

In "Paladin of the Lost Hour"--I don't want to spoil this, but--somebody's figured out a catch to avert the Apocalypse indefinitely.  And also in "Paladin," there's two characters who come from wholly different backgrounds, generations, ethnicity, but there's a bond formed between them.  And I guess what I'm saying right here and right now in spite of all my pessimism is that I'm hoping for loopholes and for bridging gaps between people.  Although I'm also going to say that I'm all in for stepping up to a bully, however big and unpleasant and entitled they think they are, and telling them to blow.  And then I'm going to say that even though I hardly ever write anymore (trying to fix that, I am, but it's been hard), I still believe in the almighty word.

Okay, now I'm feeling a little loss, too.

Thank you, Harlan.


Nothing's unique

>> Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Mike Godwin of "Godwin's Law" fame has a fine op-ed at the Los Angeles Times this week that's worth your consideration.  In summation, he's basically saying use thoughtful Nazi analogies as needed in perilous times, but go read it yourself.

He did use one phrase, a common one I think, that did catch my eye and crinkle my nose a little.  He writes, "It's also sometimes used (reflexively, lazily) to suggest that anyone who invokes a comparison to Nazis or Hitler has somehow 'broken' the Law, and thus demonstrated their failure to grasp what made the Holocaust uniquely horrific," "It" being Godwin's Law, of course.

What crinkled my nose about that line is something that I worry could be direly relevant to the present era, and that's the fact that the Holocaust wasn't necessarily "uniquely" horrific.  I don't mean to minimize the horror of it in any way, and I have a suspicion Mr. Godwin would largely agree with what I'm going to say here.  But part of the awfulness of the Holocaust was that it was another horrific example of humanity's ability to create an organized system of atrocity and death.  While the Holocaust had its own uniquely technological, uniquely 20th Century, uniquely European, and uniquely German angles, it was also undeniably in the same range as the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as the forcible relocation and mass murder of Native Americans by the United States, the Armenian genocide, the Holodomor, and subsequently the Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields--and I feel absolutely certain I've left crimes out.  (No, I know that I have because every page I visited to provide those links had multiple links to other atrocities.)

This is not, absolutely not to take away from the Holocaust.  And if you read into any of this some species of "whataboutism," you're a fool.  The point I'm trying to get at is actually something rather distressing: that the discrete events collectively described as "The Holocaust"--the segregation of minorities, the creation of ghettos, the street violence, the property seizures, the rounding people up and placing them into concentration camps, the evolution of concentration camps into death camps--are things that can happen anywhere, anytime, and in cultures as varied as the American frontier and postwar Communist China, from the seat of the former Ottoman Empire to once idyllic Buddhist farmlands.

Indeed, one of the reasons that the Holocaust captured the imagination of the Western world in the way in which it did, I think, is itself a kind of subtle racist thing: before the Second World War, Germany was regarded as one of Europe's highest cultures, a bastion of science, technology, philosophy, poetry, and music--and nevertheless not immune to utter barbarism.  A mid-Century European might expect the Japanese to have slaughtered tens or even hundreds of thousands in the Rape of Nanjing, considering popular Occidental stereotypes of Asians as having no respect whatsoever for the inherent value of human life; but the Germans gave us Martin Luther, Goethe, Strauss, Brahms, and Beethoven.  They basically invented the automobile and co-invented modern medicine, for crying out loud.  Not to mention basically inventing modern physics.  They had well-run trains, air travel, and were rivaled only by the British in shipping.  The best-organized army in the world.  And all the laws, so many laws, laws and lawyers and courthouses--what were they doing slaughtering millions of civilians over their ethnicity?  And in wartime--callous and tinny as it sounds, much of the Allied skepticism over the intelligence they received during the War about death camps came directly from the utter ludicrous absurdity of the idea of the Germans irrationally slaughtering a potential resource; slave camps, awful as may be, well certainly, but death camps, these spies and refugees must be kidding.

To the average racist European or American of European descent: Arabs and Slavs and the Japanese and Chinese, well, naturally they torture and murder people, what more do you expect from brutes lacking in Christian virtue and European refinement?  But Germans, why... Germans are white people, and they compose such lovely music and write such beautiful prose and build such clever machines.

But of course that's horseshit.  The Nazis weren't merely monsters or reassuringly aberrant: they were human beings, and so were their not-quite-Nazi-but-sympathetic supporters along with their not-at-all-Nazi-but-in-denial quiet collaborators.

This is the point I'm getting at, right?  That one of the distressing things about the Holocaust is that it wasn't unique, that the tendency to apply that label to it is something we do to reassure ourselves that we're better, that "It Can't Happen Here."  When it can, and in fact has (I am making certain assumptions, dear reader, that you are living in North America, where your ancestors pushed aside and slaughtered the indigenous peoples, or perhaps owned slaves, or may well have whistled about their business while African Americans were lynched or literally had cities destroyed by whites).

Infelicitous phrase that launched a few hundred words aside, I think Mr. Godwin would agree with me and that this coincides with one of the main points of the opinion piece linked to at the top.  We should make the comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis when they are apt (and highlight the contrasts when the comparisons aren't).  And we should do this, I think, because if there is something that distinguishes culturally and technically sophisticated Americans of the 21st Century from culturally and technically sophisticated Germans of the 20th, it's that we can look back on the terrible things they did and try to figure out the hows and whys of not doing the same fucking things they did.  We can, perhaps, hopefully, maybe, take our racists and would-be despots in hand and neutralize them so that we aren't falling into the trap described in George Santayana's most-quoted line.

We aren't special.  We might be educable.


Drowned world

>> Friday, June 22, 2018

One of the things that frightens me, among all the many things that frighten me, is the thought of some ordinary, middle-class Berliner in 1938, 1939, some year in those ordinary extraordinary years; this Berliner, he picks up his newspaper, he glances over the headlines, he puts it down, he pecks at his breakfast and throws the rest of it in the sink or covers it up in the icebox for later, and he goes to work or for a walk.

Because there are days when it's all just too damned much.

And you go on because you have to, and you go on because you should.  But it's still too damned much.

And you wonder why you're reading your newsfeed and you're wondering why you're listening to current events podcasts, and you're wondering why you're gamely listening to the Republican Congressman from Outer Bongolia talking to NPR about the thing, or the other thing, or the other other thing.  It's too damned much.

And you wonder if it's happening here or if it already happened.  You think of all the ordinary Germans who weren't Hitler supporters and surely didn't think things were what they really were, and how those German papers we look back on today and laud for their brave and sacrificing journalists, for their courage and prescience, were actually the crazy fringe partisan press of their day.  You think about the way humans structure time and space into bright lines that are crossed or withdrawn from, when reality is just a fuzzed continuum where red muddles into violet and whatever you'd like to say is "green" is merely an arbitrary range between hues of yellow and hues of blue.

You wonder how many Germans were just tired, so tired, so, so tired, until the roof caved in and the floor collapsed, dropping them into a basement full of water.


It is a big thing, and I don't think the story will be alright

>> Monday, May 21, 2018

Into the Facebook feed this morning pops up a thing Jonathan Chait published last month in New York Magazine, "The GOP’s Never-Trumpers Are Really Just Never-Democrats." As is often the case, Chait is perspicacious about many things, and has some good points and observations.  Except that Chait does write this: 

We have in our heads a basic model of how the parties and voters are supposed to operate: If a party swings too far to one side or otherwise forfeits its claim to responsible governance, it will suffer some political consequences from voters, who will ultimately force it back. 

That intuition has a sound historical and theoretical basis. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt show in their recent book How Democracies Die, the first and strongest defense against the election of an extreme or unfit leader is for his more mainstream partners to defect en masse. In Finland in 1930, and in Belgium later that decade, conservative politicians closed ranks with their socialist adversaries in order to block the ultranationalist right. In France last year, François Fillon called for his center-right party, the Republicans, to support Emmanuel Macron in the runoff rather than Marine Le Pen. Almost nothing of the sort has happened in the United States.

And he also writes this:

Over the long run, the country needs two small-d-democratic parties that are tethered to empirical reality. 

The problem being that a major reason you see very little coalition building in the United States of the sort you see in European parliamentary democracies is in fact the two party system of small-d democratic parties.  Those two parties are already coalition parties: the center-right and socialist wings of the Democratic Party, for example, or the libertarian and social conservative wings of the Republican Party.  There's not the kind of party-hopping Chait (correctly) sees as being a solution to the Trump problem because there's not actually anybody for a reasonable Republican to ally with who will represent him on anything OTHER than the Trump problem, and this is likely part of the reason you're seeing Republican office-holders announcing their retirements from politics and many from the small remaining fringe of reasonable registered Republicans defecting to the "independent/unaffiliated" box on their voter registration forms.  (Liberals can't really count on these defectors for future wins, by the way: it is at least as likely or more likely that these voters will abstain or quixotically vote for third parties and/or fantasy candidates like John Kasich.)

In other words, the two party system is one of the ways in which the American politcal system is fundamentally broken, hand-in-hand with the constitutional model it lives with.  In a multi-party parliamentary system, a temporary alliance between left-wing and right-wing parties to shut far-right (or far-left) extremists out of leadership roles doesn't require the parties to change their allegiances on other disputed issues like taxes, healthcare, or foreign trade.  In the United States, a never-Trump Republican faces the prospect of having nowhere else to go; to defect on Trump is to cast one's lot in with others whom one may be ideologically and temperamentally unsuited to be around, to give up on opportunities for committee appointments and leadership roles, to lose the love and trust of one's political soulmates while throwing in with people who never loved or trusted you in the first place and only grudgingly and opportunistically welcome you into their ranks.

This absolutely isn't a defense of the cowardly choice to enable Trump, or to defend (rather than explain) the meek decision to collaborate with the Occupant-In-Chief while secretly hoping the Mueller investigation or the 2018 House races or the 2020 primaries will somehow magically let one off the hook.  Rather it's an attempt to point out that Republican choices are constrained by our system, and it's a lot to ask that they choose wisely (it's also necessary to ask that they make better choices; we are not talking about what they ought to be doing differently, only about how little we can really expect from most of them by the end of the day).

(One might also point out that these circumstances constrain liberals in ways that are destructive to the body politic.  Without wishing to relitigate all the questions about the 2016 Clinton candidacy, it's undeniably fair to say that Clinton struggled to hold on the Demcrats' coalition--hence the Saunders primary campaign and the incessant critique of Clinton from the Democratic left that continued through election day and probably sucked away some percentage of Democratic votes.)

Chait talks about the Republican Party's salvation, but I think there's a fair question--one that might ultimately applied to the Democratic Party as well--as to whether it's worth saving.  This arising in the meta-context of whether the two-party system is toxic, and whether there's an actual cure for that or is it something that has become so baked into our political system that we are, in the final analysis, well and truly boned.  It's not at all clear to me that even if Reasonable Republicans rallied and purged the party of the enthusiastic Trumpers who propelled him to the nomination--the roughly one-third of the Republican voting public who are mostly white and feel alienated from a country that is going through profound economic, political, and demographic transformations that leave no place for them if the can't evolve to come to terms with Twenty-First Century America--that anything would really be solved; the Brand New GOP would be democratically compromised until or unless the Democratic coalition fell apart, the Disgruntled One-Third Ex-GOP would still be a fairly powerful faction in conservative American politics (and their numbers a temptation to the Republican Party--this being one of the ways we got into this mess in the first place).  In short, I don't really see a way out of this that continues with American Politics As We Know It, nor do I see a permanent way out of American Politics As We Know It.


An open letter to Barrister John Smith

>> Friday, April 13, 2018



    Today, 1:33 AM

    Attention: Beneficiary,

    I am Barrister John Smith, the new attorney with United Nation, I am writing to notify you of a payment file containing funds that has been issued out to you by the Federal Ministry of Finance in-conjunction with the United Nation/International Monetary Fund (IMF).

    I am new in this office and I have orders from the United Nation/International Monetary Fund (IMF) and United State Government to contact beneficiaries and make sure they receive their payment via ATM Master Card or Bank to Bank Transfer.

    Please, Can you kindly tell me the reason of your delay concerning the delivery/transfer of your funds and Why you have decide to abandon your payment worth of $12.5 million USD? If you fail to contact me back on or before 72 hours, we shall cancel the delivery/transfer of your funds and return your funds back to government reserve account, your delivery/transfer process is still pending.

    If you are ready to receive your payment then make sure to contact me back on your choice, Also make sure when contacting me you are to fill out the below information correctly.

    Full Name:................... Home/Office Address:................... Cell/Mobile Phone Numbers:...................Nearest Air Port:??????????.

    Yours Sincerely,

    Barrister John Smith



    Yesterday, 11:42 PM

    Attention: Beneficiary,

    I am Barrister John Smith, the new attorney with United Nation, I am writing to notify you of a payment file containing funds that has been issued out to you by the Federal Ministry of Finance in-conjunction with the United Nation/International Monetary Fund (IMF).

    I am new in this office and I have orders from the United Nation/International Monetary Fund (IMF) and United State Government to contact beneficiaries and make sure they receive their payment via ATM Master Card or Bank to Bank Transfer.

    Please, Can you kindly tell me the reason of your delay concerning the delivery/transfer of your funds and Why you have decide to abandon your payment worth of $12.5 million USD? If you fail to contact me back on or before 72 hours, we shall cancel the delivery/transfer of your funds and return your funds back to government reserve account, your delivery/transfer process is still pending.

    If you are ready to receive your payment then make sure to contact me back on your choice, Also make sure when contacting me you are to fill out the below information correctly.

    Full Name:................... Home/Office Address:................... Cell/Mobile Phone Numbers:...................Nearest Air Port:??????????.

    Yours Sincerely,

    Barrister John Smith

Dear Barrister Smith,

Look, John, Johnny Baby, let's just suppose for the sake of funsies that I had any idea of what you were talking about with the transfer of some completely arbitrary amount of money--it could be Francs, Pounds, Euros, Yen, Rand, Yuan, Pula, maybe even United States Dollars--from one account to another.  In order to, I don't know, facilitate the hypothetical transfer of funds from one party to another completely random stranger party never met by the party of the first part except for the several times they had really bad and degrading sex in one or more expensive hotels.  Let's just say.  And this first party, unbeknownst to itself, was entering an agreement that the despicable, treacherous, two-faced, no-good, bitch-Judas second party would never, never, NEVER admit to having engaged in sexual behavior with the party of the first part while the party of the first part waited for his hot trophy wife to get out of the maternity ward and lose all that pregnancy weight that was a total turn-off for the party of the first part and then even when she was back on her feet she no longer wanted to have sex with him as if all she ever wanted from him was a kid who'd inherit his vast estate.

Got it?  Not even if the entire thing was on a videotape in possession of a hypothetical third party sovereign nation, not even then.  Not even if the tape in question consisted of ninety-seven minutes of the party of the second part trying to think of things to say about the first party's size and sexual prowess while the first party waited for certain performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals to kick in, followed by thirty-seven seconds of missionary position intercourse, followed by the party of the second part reassuring the party of the first part that these things happen to everybody and it was really great for her, too.  No, not even then.  And no matter how much urine (oh dear God, so much urine) was in that other video in the third party's possession.  Regardless of any of that, party of the second part keeps her big greedy mouth closed if she knows what's in her best interest, and here's a big pile of money to demonstrate what good girls get for being quiet.

I may have lost the thread here.  Point is, I learned something this week.

See, what I learned this week was, turns out, remarkable this, did you know that even though everybody thinks lawyers are crooks, they aren't actually allowed to be!  It's true!  Turns out, if you're a lawyer and you do something that is technically, possibly, maybe, from a certain point of view, arguably a crime, not only do you not get fully reimbursed by your client in all instances even if you took out another fucking home equity line to facilitate all these money transfers to WOMEN WHO SHOULD KEEP THEIR FUCKING MOUTHS SHUT LIKE THEY PROMISED, but also you could have your law offices, hotel room, and home raided by Federal law enforcement authorities who managed to convince a Federal Magistrate there was "probable cause" to believe you "committed" what they characterize as "felonies"?  Seriously, who knew?

And that's not all!  See, I did some additional research, and it turns out that if the Federal authorities can "prove" that you "committed" these "felonies" to a "jury" "beyond a reasonable doubt," they can actually send you to prison, all for just trying to do a friend a small favor that might arguably skirt Federal campaign finance laws while violating the laws against money laundering!

Now, before I found this out, someone had also pointed out that fronting a client money could arguably be a violation of what are called "ethics rules."  Which is something that really threw me.  You're a barrister, so this probably interests you: turns out, when you agree to be a lawyer, and swear or affirm that you want to be a lawyer, well, turns out you're also swearing or affirming to follow all these obscure rules about being a lawyer.  Seriously!  It's true!  And it doesn't even matter if your fingers are crossed behind your back or whatever, it turns out that the "State Bar" takes really seriously.  (Did you know that the State Bar isn't actually like a real bar, it's actually an organization of lawyers who maintain professional standards for the legal community?  This is pretty embarrassing for me to admit, but I actually thought I was sending, like, club dues to a bar--we have these bars in New York City that are clubs that you have to do an annual membership for or they won't let you in unless you're with somebody famous or important, like a big-name real estate developer.  I figured one of these days I should drop in on the State Bar and see what my dues were used for, like, did they have mahogany paneling or something kind of modern like brushed steel going on, and get myself a nice Rob Roy maybe, but it turns out I was waaaaaaay off.)

So I was kind of worried that the State Bar, which I don't know why they call themselves that if they don't have a liquor license--let me just say, and I realize I am getting off the subject, here: I once had a... friend... who got into trouble because of the name of his business, which he called a "University" because it was like a college in that you would send him money and go someplace with a big room where some guy you never heard of would stand up in front of you and everyone else and tell you things you'd never actually be able to use in the real world.  So, technically true, except the state he was in had this rule that said you couldn't call yourself a "university" without going through this government scam they had going where you had to have "accreditation" which you "earned" by meeting "criteria" and "standards."  Who knew?  And so my... friend... got into a lot of trouble which he could have totally beaten in court if he hadn't decided to be a mensch about it and give some of the "students" some of their money back.  Whatever.  They learned a lesson.  Don't give your money to some guy you don't know you saw on TV.  That's a useful lesson right there.  Point being, and there is a point here: I don't see why the State Bar gets to flout these rules.  If you're going to call yourself a bar, you ought to at least serve beer, maybe have a TV with football on it.


So, the other thing I found out when these Federal agents were taking my computer and my phones and all this other stuff out of my office was that attorney-client privilege isn't what I thought it was.  This is probably the main part of the letter for you and me, Johnny Baby.  See, I thought that attorney-client privilege was that I'm an attorney, so anything I say is privileged, meaning if you ask me, I can say, "Fuck you," or I can put it on Twitter.  My privilege, right?

Well, that's wrong.

No shit!  Seriously!

See, turns out, what it means is that somebody who hired me to be their lawyer is entitled to confidentiality in communications that are within the scope of that representation, subject to certain exceptions like communications about prospective crimes and/or fraudulent acts.  So, like, if you come to me and say you murdered a no-good, deceitful, gold-digging, opportunistic porno actress who wouldn't keep her damn mouth shut (and who could blame you, am I right?), and you want me to talk about how you should turn yourself in to the police, or should you talk to the D.A., or how might you defend yourself in court against this if you're indicted, well all of that is just between you and me.  But if you come to me and say you murdered a, you know, all that stuff I just said, and you need help burying the body and disposing of the hotel fireaxe, well, much to my surprise and chagrin, I'm supposed to discourage you and tell you not to do that and I can't help you.  And if you come and tell me you're gonna murder someone like a you-know, all the stuff I just said, I may even be obligated to report this to the authorities, though this gets into all kinds of wormy territory with legal "ethics," which turns out to be an actual thing and not something we joke about sitting in a real Rob Roy-serving bar with pool tables and sports television and stuff.  (Again, embarrassingly, mea culpa.  I tell you, who knew?)

And if I do the "wrong" thing, even though you're rich and a pal and you trust me and we've been through a lot together and I'd even leverage my goddamn home and/or taxi company for you, you, I just love you and I swear to God I am loyal, I am your man, not like some pussy hick Senator who won't man up and end a goddamn witch hunt, not like some lying self-glorified cop who is so untrustworthy and treasonous he goes home right after a meeting with you and writes it all down for a "memoir" like a snitch, like a goddamned tattle-tale--if I do the wrong thing, do you know that my communications with you might not actually be confidential?  Really!  It's something else!  Apparently, I am not supposed to commit "crimes" even though everybody knows that's what lawyers do!  If we're not supposed to be crooks, how come we're always depicted as sleazebags on television?

No, turns out my communications with you in "furtherance" of an "ongoing criminal enterprise" may not, in fact, actually be confidential.  Even though I paid my fucking bar dues which turn out to really be so I can have people judge me for my human frailties AND NOT SO I CAN GO IN AND HAVE A FUCKING ROB ROY WHICH I REALLY NEED RIGHT NOW, OR FUCK IT, JUST THE SCOTCH.

And if you're not my client, then the privilege may not apply in the first place.  Even though I am still a lawyer.  I guess that's why they don't call it attorney-really good rich buddy who I would die for privilege.

Who knew?  Other people, apparently, but I somehow missed this.  More fool me.

So, upshot of all of this: please stop writing.  As useful as it would be for me to have a source of fundage I could point to and say it did not actually come from my friend/master, as useful as it would be to say, "Nope, this didn't come from campaign contributions, it came straight from the IMF and I didn't even misrepresent anything to my bank when I transferred the funds," I am afraid the heat, to quote the late Glenn Frey, is on.  And so I need you to stop sending me e-mails.  Just stop.

It's not that I can't use the cash, it's just that my life is really complicated at the moment.

(If you want to send a case of Scotch, that's fine.  Probably.  Actually, I should maybe look that up.  So much I just didn't know.  So much.  So, so much.)

- Name Withheld.


The letter I just sent Senator Richard Burr through his official website

>> Thursday, February 15, 2018

Dear Senator,

In the aftermath of the most recent of the 18 school shootings in America this year, and the deaths of 17 children in Florida at the hands of an armed teenager (19 years old, it's true; the NEW YORK TIMES keeps describing him as a "man," but he wasn't old enough to buy beer), a number of people have been publishing a sizeable figure claimed to be the amount of money you receive from the National Rifle Association alongside a statement you made last October after the Las Vegas mass shooting.  In that brief statement, you said, "This morning’s tragic violence has absolutely no place here in America."

I must respectfully take issue with this statement.  It is extremely clear that in a country in which mass shootings are a weekly event and our elected leaders can do no more than offer their thoughts and prayers, that tragic violence has become our way of life.  Such tragic violence does not have a place in democratic nations whose elected leaders have held hearings and passed effective legislation to limit accessibility to powerful weapons with relatively high rates of fire.  But it has a home here, in the United States.  I notice that as of my writing this e-mail to you, you have not elected to make a similarly erroneous comment in response to the shooting yesterday; perhaps you have come to agree, as so many of us have, that the lives of American citizens are the price to be paid for easy access to weapons that are overpowered for self-defense and hunting and yet would be of little use in a well-regulated militia, an easy access obviously demanded by the Second Amendment although nobody seemed to have a problem with, say for instance, passing Federal gun control legislation (the Gun Control Act of 1968, specifically) following the assassinations of Senator Kennedy and Dr. King in 1968.

I realize that gun control is a contentious matter, and legislation regulating firearms purchases has become a challenge since the Supreme Court's HELLER decision.  It's probably too much to face, and of course it's probably nice to be able to rely on endorsements and donations from those who apparently believe the Constitution forbids any regulation of arms.  Maybe it's for the best you shy away from the issue.  Easier, anyway.  One doesn't take on the office of United States Senator to take on difficult issues, after all.

The truth is, I don't really expect you to do anything you haven't already.  I just wanted to let you know you were wrong about mass murder not having its place in America.  We've had eighteen school shootings in seven weeks this year.  I don't think our children play baseball in school that often, so I guess we can say gun violence in schools is more American than baseball, right?  That's great, isn't it.

On an unrelated subject, I would like to express my sincere appreciation for your measured approach to matters before the Senate Intelligence Committee, and wish you luck with your investigation into probable Russian interference with our democratic processes.  The sanctity and stability of our democratic institutions is not a partisan matter.  Thank you for your service on the committee.

- R. Eric VanNewkirk
(Comments have been disabled on this post.)


Worst person on Earth gives terrible speech, news at eleven

>> Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Who cares about how much of it was true?  The worst parts weren't the lies and half-truths, the most embarrassing things weren't the gaffes, the most horrifying things weren't the miscellaneous encroachments on the rule of law, the most awful moments weren't when he trotted out crime victims and veterans as props (to be fair a stock part of these events since, what, the Reagan years?).

No, the worst thing about the speech wasn't the terrible, unqualified, awful man saying things he had no business saying.  The worst thing was watching the Republican half of the chamber give standing ovation after standing ovation until they were so overwhelmed with raw animal feeling that men and women who were elected to sit in the chairs of statesmen in the most hallowed civic chamber of these United States, a gallery once walked by the likes of Thaddeus Stevens and Daniel Webster, began to chant, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" like a lot of uncouth hooligans at an international hockey meet.

And you knew, as if you'd really had any doubt before (because of course you hadn't, not really), that the Republic is well and truly fucked because the only people in the United States of America who could step on the Charlatan-In-Chief and send him back to his sordid world of real estate scams, international money-laundering, and celebrity fraud have no ability to follow whatever conscience they still have, as Rep. Hamilton Fish IV (a Republican and former Nixon supporter) did when he voted with the House Judiciary Committee to recommend Articles of Impeachment to the House, or to change their minds with evidence, as Rep. Charles E. Wiggins (one of Nixon's most prominent defenders) did when he demanded Nixon's resignation after the release of the "Smoking Gun" tape.

Let's not kid ourselves about the coming midterms.  First, that while there is good cause for optimism, these House districts are so gerrymandered that taking back the House is going to be a terrible task and if we succeed, all we're likely to have is a marginal majority.  Second, because removal of the President for good cause ought to be a nonpartisan issue, and politically it should be a bipartisan issue; and these terrible people who stood and applauded a terrible speech by an awful person seem so unlikely to do the right thing at the expense of their tribal affiliations.  Third, because even if the House manages to pass Articles of Impeachment, the case is then taken up in the Senate and now we have to go back through steps #1 and #2 all over again, only in another venue.

It is hard to feel hopeful this morning.  Captain Bligh may be cruising for a mutiny, but where is Fletcher Christian, eh?  The crew is, in fact, mad on blood and rum and convinced the Captain may be a bad captain but he's nevertheless the best captain.  They have decided to die by his side, if needs be.  And let us be clear that they are worse than he is, because where he is stupid, they are cynical; where he is ignorant, they are Machiavellian.  I do not mean to suggest they are that much smarter than he is, actually; only that they at least ought to know better.  He was born a crook and stood little chance of making much more of himself than what his father made of him; they chose to be crooks and have decided they like it.


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