WHAT YEAR IS IT?

As Twitter implodes, people seem to be flocking to Mastodon, which seems to be a an alternative social media site much closer to how the Web used to operate. In that spirit, I figured I’d post on this website! With that, here’s what I’ve been up to:

  • Published “Reverie” in The Chamber and Lovecraftiana. It’s free on The Chamber, but if you pick up the mag version of Lovecraftiana, then I might, one day, see some royalties. It’s in your hands…
  • Started a podcast with a couple of friends: The Right Can’t Read. We look at bits of culture that the right wing has tried to co-opt and yell, “no” in the hopes that they’ll hear us and stop.
  • Adopted a dog! His name is Barry and he’s the best.
  • Started writing a novel. It’s extraordinarily slow going at the moment because I’m overcommitted, but I’m hoping to get back on a fiction-writing cadence soon™.
  • Started a new day job with a company building ed-tech for community colleges and HBCUs. It’s a much better gig than what I was doing before, though I miss the travel a lot.
  • So far I haven’t caught COVID. Let’s hope that continues. Mask up, booster shots, yadda yadda yadda, do the thing

Then there’s a fair number of other stuff. What have you been up to? If anyone knows how to use Mastodon, drop me a line. My feed is barren at the moment.

NPR Counteracts My Blood Pressure Meds

On NPR just now, I listened to a story about unemployment benefits coming to an end. This, naturally, concerned people who were on those benefits. As they pointed out, unemployment does not only help individuals. The benefits help a community. Money from these benefits goes to businesses, goes to mutual aid, to the baseline importance of making sure that people remain in homes and not thrown onto the street. When that funding is cut off, what little social safety net there is in this country falls out, leading to one more person with housing or food insecurity; if that person is lucky, they’ll have friends or family they can stay with and, thus, cling to society in one way or another. If they’re not lucky, then they’re on the street – a difficult situation to be in, not least because you lose access to an address, which means you lose access to banks, to utilities, to credit lines, etc. 

The right wing will, often, try and point out that this is why saving is important. Well, saving is a middle class and up dream. For people in the situation where they have to pay ½ – ⅔ of their income to rent, saving is a nice-to-have. Food, transport, healthcare – those are the immediate concerns. You can’t think about retirement if you’re too concerned about what’s directly in front of you – and if you can think about retirement, you can’t do anything about it. Because, again, you’re at risk of being tossed out of your house because now the Supreme Court has ruled that the eviction moratorium cannot be extended. 

Landlords everywhere lick their greasy, parasitic lips and see profit.

But all of that is not why I wanted to write this. No, what I heard after the unemployment benefits story is what triggered this: The broadcast pivoted from this to a chipper announcer saying: “Accidentally stepping on your dog is the worst! You’re not paying attention to where you walk and suddenly, you’re trodding on Fido!” The pivot was enough to almost give whiplash. In the words of a friend of mine: “Pleasant news to drink a latte to, while you’re in your BMW on the way to Whole Foods or the gym in the morning.”

It is, I think, a microcosm of why the United States will not last much longer – at least as we all grew up thinking about it. The US will likely continue, but its form will have changed so drastically, the security that we like to tout will, likely, be completely obliterated, and, frankly, we will be surpassed in happiness, wealth, and security by other, less self-destructive countries.

How in the hell did I get there, you may be wondering. Well, there is a very pronounced desire in this country – specifically by the Democrats – to do the absolute bare minimum and then pivot away, thinking that the job is done and things will take care of themselves. In our example above, NPR runs a solid piece about the problems that we’ll face as unemployment benefits end, as people lose their safety nets, and more and more wealth gets concentrated in the upper echelons of society, who already have all of the wealth.* And then, as if a producer realized that would unnerve their audience and, thus, potentially impact their donation flow, the tone shifts to twee, as if something clever just happened in a Wes Anderson movie.

This twee tone is, of course, something I cannot handle with NPR. Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me may be a wonderful show if you’re upper middle-class and don’t read political theory, or think critically about the news, but the tone of the hosts – that light mocking, that “Gee, isn’t life just weird sometimes – reminds me of Portland’s Ted Wheeler, who wore a “Gentrification Is Weird” shirt on the campaign trail years ago, and somehow keeps getting elected. NPR lives and breathes on this stuff. I’ve lost count of the news pieces about, say, olive oil manufacturing or slice-of-life bullshit that appeals to people who have Strong Thoughts™ about IKEA or gardening, but can’t be asked to stop voting for people who back cops and landlords.

Anyway.

This whole thing, this problem, is what’s going to cause us more problems in America than all of the Mitch McConnells of the world. See, as long as the center and center-left approach the world like this, as long as, immediately after a huge media conglomerate runs  good piece about why benefits ending is a bad thing and then segues into a cute piece about dogs instead of, say, discussing the voting records of Congress reps on the matter, or talking about what can be done to mitigate the problem, then we’re fucked. People will continue thinking that things aren’t really that bad. They’ll continue thinking that tent cities can’t possibly pop up in their city, or that their school boards won’t be invaded by QAnon adherents. They’ll keep thinking that these are problems for Other People to consider. They’ll keep thinking that these problems are far away and, thus, they won’t need to pay attention to local elections, or that they can stand on the sidelines as literal fascists invade state capitols.

It is, in short, the problem in any liberal democracy. When people become very comfortable, they lose the perspective necessary to make them realize that their comfort is not permanent. They think that they’ll be fine if things fall apart. If they make enough, they might. But chances are, they won’t. They’ll have to contend with the fact that, soon enough, their city’s housing prices will skyrocket, because everyone’s in tech now. As their housing prices skyrocket, so too will groceries, or transportation. And as the prices of all of these rise – and as their wages stagnate, because unions and co-ops are for factory workers and the poors, don’t you know – their relative security will fall. And, soon enough, they’ll look at their budget and, even if they’re making over the median wage for their city, they’ll start to wonder just where the money’s going every year. And, once that happens, it will be that more of a shock when they have to think about what to do if they can’t afford a roof over their heads.

That, there, brings us to another problem. If you spend your time with mindbleach and not thinking about the systems we have in place – and I mean really thinking, critically, and considering that you yourself are part of the destruction inherent in what we like to call “late-stage capitalism” by not actively making things better – then you’ll be completely unprepared to deal with these problems when they come up. 

To be clear: I am not advocating that people become preppers. I am advocating that people take a hard look at American society, realize that it cannot continue like this, and start studying up on resiliency. I am advocating that people take pointers from Anarchist thinkers – the kinds that advocate for local-scale cooperatives and communities, not, like, fucking BreadTube or whatever. I am advocating that, while people do both of those things, they consider what they can do to mitigate the disaster we’re facing. That could be getting involved in your local Democrats organization and undertaking the Sisyphean task of wresting control of it from rich white people with nothing else to do, or it could be starting up neighborhood associations that do more than think about how to keep minorities out of your ZIP code. Whatever the role you take, it is important that you deeply, deeply consider the fact that America is well on a road to a dark future. 

***

After the last election, leftists on Twitter were looking at a bittersweet victory. No one wanted Trump to win a second term. Everyone was concerned that a Biden victory would effectively kill all the mainstream organizing momentum that had been gained in the latter two years of the Trump presidency. Now, looking around, it’s hard to think that hasn’t been the case. Vast swaths of the center and center-left have gone back to brunch. The people who marched hand in hand with anarchists and called for defunding or – in the case of those liberals who got it for even a moment – abolition of the prison-industrial complex are now looking at Portland and wondering why the cops aren’t doing anything about the homeless problem. 

Things will, likely, continue to deteriorate. America does not have the resiliency to protect its population from 21st century capitalism; we don’t have the infrastructure to protect ourselves from the imploding climate; we sure as hell don’t have the ethics or mental fortitude to protect ourselves from rampaging fascists. The only way we can get that resilience is to take steps on an individual level. We can read boring political philosophy (yes, even if it won’t make us money). We can build networks to help each other outside of the exchange of currency. Alongside all of this, those of us who have the energy can attempt to rescue the Democrats from their own inertia. 

It is, of course, important to have a dose of mindbleach on hand. If you were to spend all of your waking hours doing what I’ve been ranting about, you’d be a miserable person. We all need dog pictures. We all need that dose of feel-good-vibes. But please, for the love of God, join me in being very infuriated that NPR lacks the follow-through to have a slam-dunk win of following up a piece on unemployment benefits ending with a critique of the policies that led us there. 

Fuck, man, just anything other than “Accidentally stepping on your dog’s tail is the worst!” Jesus.

*I think of a comic in Tim Kreider’s The Pain, where the artist is asking for a loan from a bank. The banker replies with “Sorry, the money’s gone. There is no more money.”

Marching in the Black Lives Matter 2020 Protests

My favorite story about my family is that, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Bush campaign in the 2000 election, delivering him the state of Florida and, with it, the election my grandmother got out of her chair and declared that she was going to Washington and was going to shoot the son of a bitch. Of course, she was well into her 70s at that point and was not going to do anything like that, but it left an impact on me. As long as I can recall, my family watched the news, read about current events, and educated themselves on what was happening. We haven’t always had such, ah, strong reactions, but we never shied away from discussing this stuff with each other. Of course, it helps that we’re all more or less on the same side of things. We’re planted firmly on the left (or at least center-left) side of the spectrum and that’s given us a nice, safe, jumping ground from whence to start conversations.

It, thus, goes without saying that the folks in my immediate family are firmly on the BLM side of the spectrum. I’ve joined in on the marches in Portland for most of the last week – to varying degrees and lengths of time – and my family and I have been communicating steadily on what’s going on where we’re at. The reaction to me being in the crowds during the marches are a) wear a good mask; b) stay safe; and c) good for you.

For my part, I’m a little ashamed that this is the first time I’ve joined in on protests. Certainly, part of that is because up until college, I lived in Smyrna, Tennessee. A bastion of political activity only for hyper-local Republicans, it was not a place where a high school student who was nevertheless angry about the Iraq War could join in on protests. Nevertheless, I did go to school at the University of Tennessee, which did have protests. Aside from a few spats of yelling down street preachers, I did not join in. Why? Sheer, utter laziness.

Then, after university and returning to Nashville, I did not join in on the Occupy Wall Street movement, though I was very sympathetic. Why? Again, sheer, utter laziness. Sure, I’d talk to people about it and join in on a rare phone bank, but for the most part, I was pretty content to sit back and let things go on as they would otherwise. I had a vague feeling that I should be doing something, but I decided to build a desktop computer and get into PC gaming instead. Sure, I donated and discussed politics with people, but that is a far cry from the sorts of direct action that led to people being arrested and the first bouts of legislation passed in Tennessee to keep people from camping on public property – a state-backed method of eliminating a peaceful form of protest.

And then, after moving out of Tennessee, I moved to Portland, a city that is – far and wide – known for being contrarian and vocal. Yet, I did not join in on the first Black Lives Matter marches, the Trump Inauguration protests, or any of the other forms of protests that happened since then. It all, ultimately, came down to the laziness that, I think, is intrinsic to modern humanity – we’d all rather unwind at the end of the day with TV, movies, or whatever, than give up our evenings to join in on a march.

So why now? Why, in the middle of a global pandemic where the world is trying to stop the spread of a massive, highly-communicable disease? Isn’t this the sort of thing that I complained about people doing when they marched on governors’ offices to intimidate state governments into opening up? Isn’t this running counter to my thoughts about how stupid it is that people want to pack into movie theaters and restaurants?

Yes. It is.

And yet, this time, things have coalesced to such a degree that I have finally gotten off my ass. We’ve seen such a degree of worrying conspiracy theories, increasing hate group activity, polarization, and, indeed, an ever-increasing amount of police militarization that everything in me has finally propelled me forward to actually join in. I’ve looked back at my life, at all of the passive choices that I made, and reflected on the President threatening to use the military on protestors and the small subsection of those who turn to rioting. In doing so, I realized that the risk posed by the coronavirus is eclipsed by the risk posed by inaction. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to start pressing for reopening, or start coughing on people; but I am counting it as a social necessity to get on the streets and join everyone who is calling for change.

To start with, I thought about my family. Specifically, I thought about my mom, who took principled stances in her life about vegetarianism, the Vietnam War, hate against the Muslim community, hate against the Jewish community, and, in general, just put out good vibes. I then expanded out to thinking about how the Jewish community has played a big role in Civil Rights movements and how that is an extension of the idea of tikkun olam. Then, I thought about my interactions with friends, how I could have done better, how I could have not enabled certain mindsets, and then how, ultimately, when I finally moved to a blue state it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. And, finally, I thought about all of my friends who are currently involved in organizing, protesting, or advocating, and how I needed to be more like them.

But that was, still, not enough.

It took a couple of events on Monday, June 1, 2020 to get me to act. The first was a series of comments made by folks I’ve known for over half my life. The second was the aforementioned threat of wildly disproportionate military force against American citizens. Both of those on the same day led me to do more than contribute money or to boost voices online. I won’t go so far as to say that acting was liberating, because that would be a little hyperbolic and self-aggrandizing. It was, however, the most right thing I’ve felt since quitting my last job. Being a small, small part of the crowds crossing the Burnside and Morrison bridges, and going up Grand Ave and coming down MLK, has really hammered home what all of this means and what it could lead to. Among the calls for justice for murdered American citizens, for calls for massive police reform, the declaration of all cops as bastards, there is a sense of change.

Portland, as one of the organizers pointed out, has a reputation of being pretty flaky. The city will gladly throw on a mask of benign a progressive bastion, but still give tech companies tax breaks while the police budget increases, the school budget decreases, roads continue to be, ah, not great, and more and more minority families and individuals are priced out further and further away from the city core. Those things are, slowly – ever so slowly – changing, but the running theme is that there is no time for these changes to continue their slow pace. To the credit of some of the city’s politicians, the changes are picking up. Voices are growing louder and that, hopefully, will lead to some of the policy reform that is so desperately needed. With these changes – policies outlined in the 8Can’tWait movement, as a single example – the city’s reputation for flakiness can, hopefully, change.

*

Much has been made in national media about protests turning to riots. The right wing has hung their hat on using looting in Portland or Seattle or LA or New York as examples of why their “law and order” approach must be taken. I can only make personal statements about the marches of which I’ve been a part. Those have been, without exception, peaceful, harmonious, and examples of a growing community. People have donated money, time, water, food, hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves to marchers. Individuals have blocked off roads in advance of the march so that the protestors can get from Point A to Point B safely. The organizers have brought voices from the community to share their experiences. They have, further, reminded people of their rights, what to do if they are arrested, and reminded the crowd to stay together and stay tight.

I have not, for the most part, been downtown. I have definitely not been downtown when the police have shot tear gas canisters into the crowds. For that, I’ve relied on the writing and reporting in the Portland Mercury. Based on that, I can say that I fully agree with those who decry the police response to these protests as vastly disproportionate and doing little else than to give the country an example of why action against police brutality is desperately needed. In these marches, we have seen the police kneel in front of protestors only to shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at them minutes later. We have seen the police use SUVs as weapons to clear the streets.

More disturbing than all of this, somehow, is that the Mayor of the city has chosen to not ban the use of what is, essentially a chemical weapon. The day after stopping just short of doing so, he stepped back and provided the police the authority to deploy it, subject to vaguely-defined restrictions. As they have proven night after night, the police have no restraint when it comes to this round of protests – or, indeed, in any of the protests since Trump was inaugurated. Tear gas, riot police, and deployment of militarized units has been their calling card since the Inauguration protests. Indeed, the only reason the Women’s March was not gassed may be that people had knitted hats, and that might have been horrible optics, even for the police.

But now, when private property, high-end stores, and the police’s immunity to prosecution following murders is at stake, they have pulled up stakes and are letting loose their arsenal.

Walking back from a march last night at midnight, I heard from a mile behind me the sounds of explosions and helicopters. Some of that may have been protestors lighting off fireworks at police. (They continuously use “explosives” in their tweets, but anyone with a working brain should know that there is a difference between using a term “firework” and “explosive.” Sure, a firework is dangerous, but the term “explosive” conjures not Roman candles, but IEDs to the contemporary American mind.) Walking up my quiet, safe, Southeast Portland neighborhood street, I heard the closest thing I’ve experienced to the sounds of war. And the truth is that it is a war. It’s a war of common citizens against the dangling threat of police repression; of concerned citizens against the threat of lethal force against people of color.

This is, of course, nothing new. Any American who has gone through typical education understands that our country had, for a long time, slavery as one of the underpinnings of our economy. After that, it turned to cheap labor; it turned to security of white American jobs by virtue of color barriers. This has all been in place since the founding of the country and the underlying current has been, without a doubt, violence. It is naive at best, racist at worst, to think otherwise. The catch is that, with cell phone video and the internet, we are able to more easily share these problems. We are more able to easily discuss these problems. We are more able to point to horrific instances and say “This is what we mean.”

And now, as thousands turn out on the Portland city streets night after night and the police claims that people holding pie tins in the air and throwing roses and animal feed over a fence is a life-threatening scenario worthy of deploying lines of armored cops, barrages of gas canisters, and rubber bullets, certainly there can be less of a question of who is most dangerous in the community. Is it the provocateurs focused on instruments of state violence and economic repression or is it the easily-provoked, paranoid, and heavily armed?

For people of color – and anyone who belongs to a marginalized group – the answer to the question is obvious. Indeed, it being asked in the first place is insulting.

*

At the end of the night on June 6 – D-Day – and after a long walk back from a North Portland park, the group I was marching with stopped outside of what I term a yuppie kennel. A 3-to-5 floor building with expensive studios and 1-bedroom apartments in a trendy part of town. The organizers called on their PAs for the people watching us from their balconies to come down and join us. Most of them did. As they did, the organizers would bring them up on the back of the flatbed truck and ask them to speak. At one point, the person at the megaphone said, “I want you to go to sleep tonight with tears in your eyes. For eight nights you’ve stood there and watched us and not joined in. I want you to think about why you didn’t and what that means about you. And then I want you to feel good, because you joined in, and that’s what matters.”

I am ashamed that it took me this long to join in. But I did, and that’s what matters.