Still Not My President

 Kansas City residents protest the election of Donald Trump on November 9th.

Kansas City residents protest the election of Donald Trump on November 9th.

I’m finding it difficult to pick the right words for this moment. I imagine I’m in good company. Donald Trump is now the president of America. Too bland. A light rain began to fall on Donald Trump as he placed his hand on the Bible to take an oath. The pathetic fallacy. Fuck Donald Trump. Too aggressive.

Today, January 20th, 2017, Donald John Trump was officially sworn in as president of the United States of America, but I categorically reject his ascendance as legitimate. Donald Trump’s presidency is invalid due to his statements and actions during his candidacy, his unwillingness to put the American people before his own financial interests, and unlawful interferences in the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump deserves neither the respect, nor obedience, nor the cooperation of the American people. In short, he is still not my president.

Supporters of Donald Trump, or those who didn’t support him during the campaign but respect the outcome of the election, may criticize this position as immature, partisan, and contradictory—if I support democratic principles, isn’t it hypocritical of me to question the legitimacy of a president? Fortunately one need not look far to find another example of someone doing the exact same thing: Donald Trump. Trump was the one of the most vocal actors in the birther movement, whose primary aim was to undermine President Obama. The difference in this case is that questions of Trump’s legitimacy are supported by evidence, by Trumps own words, and by the consensus of every single American intelligence agency (seventeen to be exact)—not racial resentment. I owe it to country and conscience to speak out against this man, even if only to my own limited social sphere.

There is one thing that most supporters and opponents of Trump can agree upon—that he represents something completely unprecedented in the history of American democracy (that’s usually where agreement ends). There has never been a president with a temperament like his, and a visit to his Twitter page provides all necessary proof. Trump is vain, childish, vindictive, petty, greedy, allergic to facts, impatient, and impulsive. How did the man who boasted about the size of his penis in a presidential primary debate come to possess the nuclear codes required to end the human species as we know it? Trump’s biographers and critics have recognized his flaws for decades, but to have a man like this in charge of the most powerful nation on Earth is incomprehensible.

While not legally binding, Trump’s previous statements and behavior should disqualify from the presidency on moral grounds. This is the man who insulted war heroes, incited violence at his rallies, mocked a disabled reporter, established a fraudulent university, discriminated against African Americans, and bragged about sexually assaulting women. None of these things officially bar him from the office, but all of them undermine the credibility of the executive branch, the credibility of America abroad, and the credibility of the American people.

I refuse to acknowledge Trump as my president because he is a threat to American democracy itself. His contempt for democratic norms and institutions, his enmity toward the free press, his hate mongering, his open call for another nation to interfere with the 2016 election, and his praise for foreign despots all reveal his authoritarian aspirations. It is truly a shame that comparisons are made to Nazi Germany for so many partisan ends and with such frequency that an authentic, alarming similarity is cheapened. Nonetheless, the state of our democracy is in several key respects eerily comparable to that of Weimar Germany in the early 1930s. We now have a populist leader (though not popular) who rose to power with a message of anti-elitism and economic revival but who has also advocated for restriction of the press, registries based on ethno-religious criteria, and aggressive nationalism and militarism. Just as in the 1930s, the party loyalists now think they can control him, and a large segment of the population is complacent—viewing his less-savory rhetoric as peripheral or unrealistic. If Americans are able to learn from the past (and the fall of virtually every previous democratic society), we will reject this demagogue.

While I believe the moral argument for Trump’s illegitimacy as America’s leader is compelling enough, concrete legal questions of his legitimacy arise when scrutinizing his financial dealings. Unfortunately, Trump can get away with a great deal as president. There are few legal restrictions on the office, in part because it has been assumed that no person as corrupt and financially entangled as Trump could become president. Trump, for example, has still—astonishingly—not released his tax returns. There is a dizzying and ever-growing list of conflicts of interest. He has refused to put his businesses in a blind trust. Trump is now vulnerable to legal challenges that he is violating or will violate the “emoluments clause” of the Constitution, which prohibits public officials from receiving gifts or payments from foreign governments. The press is largely to blame for a lack of discussion of these critical issues during the campaign, but now it’s the American people who are stuck with a leader in legal limbo.

Lastly, Americans have cause to deny the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency due the election itself. It is haunting to think a US election could be co-opted, that one of the oldest and most powerful democratic nations could be manipulated, yet this appears to be the case.

Donald Trump does not have a popular mandate. We must never, ever forget that the majority of American voters did not pick this reprehensible man as our president. Of course the Electoral College decides the winner, but it’s worth noting that the College failed in its original intent—to guard the presidency from a populist demagogue. Questions of the Electoral College’s validity as an institution in a democratic nation will continue, but that’s another discussion entirely.

Less debatable than the priority of the popular vote, there is strong evidence that FBI Director James Comey used his position to intentionally (end effectively) influence the outcome of the election, violating the Hatch Act. When the FBI discovered that the Democratic National Committee had been hacked, the only person contacted at the DNC was an IT contractor, by phone, without any authentication that it was in fact the FBI calling. It took almost seven months before DNC higher-ups were adequately informed, and by then it was too late. There was also the revelation of “potentially relevant” information about the Clinton email investigation, and then—just days before the election—the dismissal of that information. Contrast that with Comey’s unwillingness to discuss with members of Congress the ongoing investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia, and there’s a strong case that Comey abused and continues to abuse his position.

But the most profoundly disturbing challenge to the legitimacy of the election’s outcome is Russia’s intervention. Essentially every intelligence agency, politician, and news outlet is in agreement: the Russian government made a dedicated effort to influence the result of the American election in Donald Trump’s favor. They waged online propaganda campaigns to sway American public opinion. They hacked the DNC and the Clinton campaign manager’s email, and they leaked the documents so as to achieve maximum effect. They hacked the Republication National Committee as well, but they released nothing.

Trump takes office in the midst of ongoing investigations into sensitive personal information that might make him beholden to the Kremlin, his financial connections to Russia, and collaboration between the Russian government and his campaign. It’s difficult to fathom how Trump could receive so much power with so many vital questions left unanswered. While findings are not yet public, from the reactions of those receiving confidential briefings it looks bad. Everyone agrees that the Russians tried to influence the election, but few can bring themselves to utter the unutterable conclusion: they succeeded. While certainly not the only factor contributing to the election’s result, when the scale of Russian interference and the narrowness of Trump’s victory are taken into account, the truth is undeniable. 

Trump is manifestly unfit to lead the United States of America by nature of his temperament and moral bankruptcy, he is a threat to American democracy, he is corrupt, he is the product of a perverted election, and he is not my president. As I watched Trump deliver his grim inauguration address, I asked myself the same question that I’ve silently repeated for two months: what now? There’s no longer any time for despair—it’s time to act. The only way the people of this country will be able to push back against a government dominated by a single party with a monster at the helm is by mass popular mobilization. We must do more than sign online petitions and post Facebook statuses. We must stay informed, organize in defense of civil liberties, incessantly call the offices of our representatives, put our money where our mouths are by donating to causes we care about, raise awareness, sway opinions, and march and manifest and make our discontent material and undeniable. It will be difficult. If Trump’s cabinet picks are any indication, there will be a deluge of corruption and deception so forceful that it will be nearly impossible to prioritize, track, and coordinate responses.

But there is room for hope. Popular vigilance and resistance immediately stopped the Republican effort to dismantle the Office of Congressional Ethics. We can forge unlikely alliances as Trump supporters realize they’ve been deceived and that he has no intention of fulfilling campaign promises. We can stand with marginalized communities as they face unprecedented persecution. We can use these years to galvanize opposition to policies of regression, violence, discrimination, and economic neo-liberalism. We can remind ourselves that the majority of Americans did not vote for Donald Trump, and we can take comfort in the fact that the people of this country are not as backward as their leadership.

 

Why I Support Bernie Sanders

 

The New Hampshire primaries are tomorrow, and politics are on the minds of Americans. It seems that this election cycle has elicited greater involvement than perhaps any other in my lifetime. It’s logical; Obama’s finishing his second term, the 24-hour news cycle is as insatiable as always, and a dizzying number of candidates clamor for its attention. The race features a xenophobe with an outrageous combover, a sleepy neurosurgeon, two people with very familiar names, a senator who shut down the government, and even a democratic socialist.

Hillary Clinton was the heir apparent for the democratic nomination from essentially the spring of 2014 until the Iowa caucus last week. There a virtual tie with a Vermont senator, unheard of one year ago, exposed the fragility of Clinton’s campaign despite her name recognition, political infrastructure, and vast expenditure. Nevertheless, I too used to see her as an inevitability, a default option preferable to any of the clowns offered by the GOP over the past few years.

I first heard about Bernard Sanders from an episode of the Daily Show covering the announcement of his bid for the presidency. He was so obviously ungroomed and unfiltered. I couldn’t help but admire his authenticity, even as I chuckled. During the following months I learned more about his policy stances, his worldview, and his refusal of super PAC money. Slowly I came to see Sanders as the ideal (but idealistic) candidate. At the same time Clinton became progressively less appealing, but I nonetheless considered her as the probable 45th President of the United States.

My cynicism came to an abrupt and joyous end in September when I watched Sanders' appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I had always seen Bernie as inspiring, but I believed he would be ultimately doomed in a general election. That changed when I learned that he has been polling better than Hillary Clinton in theoretical matchups with Republican candidates since this summer. I was also, once again, convinced of Bernie’s extraordinary honesty and reliability. He’s had a long and meaningful career, including exceptional prescience in both domestic in foreign affairs. Lastly, I found out that Sanders has the most small donors of any political campaign in the history of the United States; as of February 8th he’s received over 3.5 million individual contributions, averaging just $27. The conversation between Sanders and Colbert invigorated me with hope, a belief in the viability of a campaign unassociated with corporate money. He could win.

I’m proud to be part of that democratic vision; I made my first ever campaign contribution to Sanders in January. This, for me, is the ultimate issue: campaign finance corruption. As I’ve become more informed as a citizen of the United States, and as a citizen of the world, it’s become apparent how broken our democracy is. I believe that America has become what Noam Chomsky describes as “a plutocracy with democratic forms”—every few years we undergo the ritual of checking a box, but the real political power rests in the hands of the extremely wealthy. The rich have a radically disproportionate influence on public policy due to a political process that institutionalizes bribery. No issue, whether Democratic or Republican, can be addressed in a way that prioritizes the interests of citizens over those of unaccountable private wealth unless the election process undergoes serious repair. Lawrence Lessig articulates this much better than me:

 


I am so passionate about this point that I would vote for a candidate who differed from me on every other issue, as long as campaign finance reform was their first priority (and they weren’t a sociopath). Luckily, no such compromise is necessary; I side with Bernie Sanders on many issues, and I’m proud to back the only presidential candidate seriously addressing our corrupt system while putting his (individually-raised) money where his mouth is.

Bernie is not a perfect candidate. I’m getting a little tired of his stump speech, he can sometimes confuse his statistics, and he has yet to effectively communicate his phenomenal civil rights record to black and Latino voters. No single person can fix our country, and Sanders readily admits this fact. Real change requires popular support and cooperation. Bernie is perhaps the candidate that most inspires this enthusiasm, as the success of his unlikely campaign suggests. Despite progressive ideals that draw criticism from those invested in the current status quo, Bernie gains new allies each day—of which I am proudly one. 

If I Die Out There

Hiking up to Longs Peak

 

I am the last in a line of kayaks to face the imposing rapid. I’ve waited what I estimate is long enough for the person in front of me to descend safely. As I slowly approach the precipice, the surge of water becomes deafening. I can’t see what awaits me until just before I rush over the edge—then it’s all a blur. I barrel down the first several chutes unscathed, exhilarated. Then a whirling current catches my boat, and I’m unable to set myself up for the next drop. I paddle as hard as I can, but still enter sideways. I’m immediately thrown out of my boat and tossed around like a ragdoll by the immensely powerful water. I frantically lash and kick in an attempt to stabilize myself, but I am absolutely helpless against the awful rush of the current. I choke on water. I gasp whenever my head breaks above the surface. Panic fills me. I’m thrashed against the rocks until knocked unconscious. I am pinned underwater by the force of the current, and by the time my friends start to worry, it is too late.

I’ve been climbing all day long in the blazing summer heat. When I reach the top of my last route, my entire body is drenched in sweat and every muscle in my arms is completely spent from the one-hundred-foot climb. I fix myself to the anchors, my belayer takes me off belay, and I prepare the rope to lower myself. The process is mechanical, and I do it without thought. I am so comfortable in the routine that when I make a grave error I don’t even notice. I’ve put the rope through the anchors, I’ve attached the belay device to my harness, but I don’t see that the rope isn’t actually in the carabiner connected to my harness. I take myself off the anchors, and as I lean back to rappel the rope pops out of the rigging and I feel my stomach drop. Every fiber in me is immediately, fully alert. My hands grasp at the air. Just when I realize what has happened I hit the ground, dead. 

I'm hiking up to a snow-covered pass. The trail is hidden underneath a gleaming field of white, and the tracks of previous hikers have almost entirely melted in the afternoon sun. I climb slowly upward, my feet slipping a little with each step. The gradient becomes steeper and steeper. As I stand alone on the side of the mountain catching my breath, my feet suddenly give out from beneath me and I rocket down the mountain, consumed by the avalanche I've just triggered. I struggle to stay above the snow, but in an instant it all comes to a halt and I am buried. The snow sets around my body like concrete, and my chest has no room to expand. I try to remain calm as I inhale my last few shallow breaths.

I do things that kill people. I hike alone, I rock climb, I crawl around caves, and I kayak when I get the chance. I also hope to try bungee jumping, skiing, skydiving, canyoneering, and more serious mountaineering. All of these activities have some level of inherent risk, and I've considered them seriously. I've vividly imagined the possible accidents and potential consequences, yet I still choose to go out there. To me, the reward is worth the risk.

The fact is, we all do things that kill people. We drive cars, we fly, we eat poorly, we sit in chairs all day. Most of the things we do present some possibility of danger, even if it’s not obvious. So what changes when the possibility of danger is obvious? How do we understand risk, how do we evaluate it, and how do we respond to it?

The difference between outdoor sports and some of our daily activities is often no more than the perceived level of risk. There are many different factors that influence how risky an activity appears. A key aspect is familiarity; something seems more dangerous if it is unfamiliar. The average person is unacquainted with the risks of hiking in the mountains. They lack knowledge of the various available safety precautions. They don’t know how frequently accidents happen. They can’t recognize which factors the hiker can control and which they cannot, and this makes the whole affair appear much more dangerous.

What they can understand, however, is the consequence. If something goes wrong in the middle of nowhere on a mountain, it will go very wrong. It is important, however, to distinguish risk from consequence. The probability of something bad happening is different from the severity of that bad thing. Poor diet and inactivity are risky habits that greatly increase the likelihood of heart disease, but the consequences aren’t immediate, so over time it doesn’t seem that dangerous. On the other hand, a plane crash means almost certain death. The majority of people, however, can reason that the probability of this happening is extremely low.

Experienced practitioners of extreme sports are aware of factors that pose objective risk, and they can accurately evaluate danger. Thus they have a great deal of control over risks outdoors. They understand their own levels of conditioning, ability, and preparedness, and they can accordingly choose the difficulty of whatever obstacle they are facing. They know of the dangers posed by weather, and they plan accordingly. They estimate what equipment they’ll need, and they decide what to bring. They can even assess the accuracy of their assessments. Although it’s impossible to control everything outdoors, experts can identify and mitigate risk to a surprising extent. On the other hand, each time you get in a vehicle, you don’t have control over a drunk driver that may rocket across the median and hit you head on.

We will all die. So although I've evaluated the risks associated with my activities, and although I have no intention of dying anytime soon, I still know that it’s a possibility. I would be content, however, to die doing something I love. Someone once told me, “Don’t live the same year over and over again seventy times and call it a life.” I've tried to live as fully as possible, and I’ve had some incredible experiences and opportunities. I’ve seen a good chunk of the world for someone my age. I’ve spent countless nights falling asleep under the star-filled sky. I’ve experienced solitude and the sublime. I’ve pushed my body beyond what I thought were absolute limits of fatigue while paddling against headwinds. I’ve tasted mountaintop views that satiate like food to a starving man—views that can only be earned. I’ve consciously taken my life into my own hands, something most people never do, and come out more alive as a result. I’ve made mistakes and suffered the consequences in fatigue and hunger and headache. Along the way I’ve met some incredible people who share a love for adventure. I feel most at home in nature, and I’d be happier if I died out there than if I died choking on a burrito.

Again, I don't have a death wish, but the fact is that something could go wrong. Sometimes there are unforeseeable dangers. Sometimes accidents happen, or are amplified, due to poor judgment. Sometimes the best of us can get careless. If I die out there for some reason, that’s okay. Even in just two decades I’ve lived an incredible life, better than the vast majority of the estimated 107 billion people who have ever lived. How many of those people were fortunate enough to have any education whatsoever? How many lived unencumbered by the threats of disease and war and starvation? How many were able to travel across the world, and how many even knew that the world existed? How many people had even a fraction of the resources, information, and entertainment that the average American has at their fingertips?

The most humbling realization isn't that, when looking at the grand scope of humanity, I’ve won the quality-of-life lottery. From time to time I realize the profundity of a simpler fact—I'm alive. All of a sudden I remember that, against mind boggling odds, out of all of the people who were, will be, or could have been, I actually am—in this very moment. I am enjoying the exceedingly rare opportunity of life, in a spectacular universe, and the fact that I can grasp the weight of that for just one second makes my whole life worthwhile.

Album Review: I Love You Honeybear

The word love isn’t the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the name Father John Misty. The moniker of Josh Tillman is far better known as the sarcastic avatar of hedonism, cynicism, and self-loathing narcissism. So how is it that this unlikely character could fall in love, get married, and make an album about it? This is the query I Love You, Honeybear explores. While the tension between persona and reality has always been part of Father John Misty, this sophomore release is markedly autobiographical—the listener experiences far more of Josh Tillman and his struggles than the intoxicated nomad of Fear Fun.

I Love You, Honeybear represents an evolution not only in Tillman’s subject, but also his style. The album retains the acoustic guitar and tender vocals of his roots in folk, but it’s also elaborately produced—featuring wonderful string compositions from Paul Jacob Cartwright and Gabriel Noel throughout. The production is strikingly more conceptual as well; Tillman often attempts to pair the genre of the track to theme of the song.

The connection to Tillman’s previous work, however, is evident in his mastery of songwriting. Honeybear delivers its subjects with intense images, distinctive voices, and compelling narratives. The sprinkled references to Oscar Wilde, Julian Assange, Bruce Springsteen, and the Chateau Marmont add additional layers of meaning to Tillman’s anecdotes. The whole album, of course, is topped with a sugary coating of Father John Misty’s sardonic humor.

In the inaugural song, Tillman lays out his approach. The first lines of “I Love You Honeybear” are a sort of thesis: “Oh Honeybear, Honeybear, Honeybear / Mascara, blood, ash and cum / On the Rorschach sheets where we make love.” From the very beginning Tillman juxtaposes the extremes of exaggerated sentimentality with explicit and dark imagery. What could be more dissonant than a silly pet name and a sexual encounter so graphic that it evokes psychiatric evaluation? Yet throughout the album, Tillman uses this discord (as well as the discord between his sweet voice and his strong words) as a method for processing his experiences in an original way.

Another tactic for avoiding clichés is apparent in the opening song; he casts the couple as antagonists. These two lovers aren’t the heroes of a fairy tale; the neighbors view their love as a hellish product of The Omen, complaining “That the misanthropes next door are probably conceiving a Damien.” But the lovers even see themselves this way. Facing their malaise and the end of the world, they cleave to each other. Tillman expresses romantic sentiment with lines like, “My love, you’re the one I wanna watch the ship go down with.” They are united, but it’s a unity against society, optimism, and all things proper.

Many of the songs on Honeybear are devoted to exploring specific facets of relationships, and it’s in these where Tillman’s fusion of genre and theme is most evident. “True Affection” is a reflection on the hollowness and artificiality of communicating with “strange devices” instead of “with a face.” It’s as if he used these same strange devices to produce the synthetic, electronic track; it bears little resemblance not only to the rest of the album, but to Tillman’s entire oeuvre. Some listeners may find that the sonic dissonance, while no doubt deliberate, isn’t worth disrupting the rhythm of the album as a whole. Tillman’s shift to blues (“Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow”) is more effective; the whining lap steel guitar slides perfectly compliment Tillman’s honest examination of his feelings of suspicious jealousy and male possessiveness. Both the melody and the lyrics feel like the backdrop for a machismo bar fight: “You may think like an animal, but if you try that cat-and-mouse shit you’ll get bitten / Keep moving.”

 

 

“Bored in the USA” could be interpreted as an examination of love in American society, but the song appears to be principally a critique. It’s an expression of disillusionment with the vapid materialism, broken institutions, and hollow relationships of middle class America—and it expresses this well. Lines like “When I was young I dreamt of a passionate obligation to a roommate” and “Is this the part where I get all I ever wanted?” echo the disappointment of reality chipping away at the idealistic and youthful dreams. The song crescendos with a bitterly ironic laugh track behind the bridge, “They gave me a useless education / And a sub-prime loan on a Craftsman home,” closing with a retreat into apathy and tedium. “Bored in the USA” feels much more like the old Father John Misty, but, while the song is excellent in its own right, it doesn’t seem to fit well with the rest of Honeybear.

As could be expected from a philanderer’s album about discovering true love, much of Honeybear follows Tillman as he struggles to understand and resolve his past. “Strange Encounter” relates the story of a near-fatal tryst, presumably after some sort of overdose. The experience overcomes Tillman with the desire to change, and he strains to reconcile his actions with his self-perception of being “a decent person / just a little aimless.” He realizes that giving away precious physical and emotional intimacy has disastrous consequences.

“The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.” recounts another one-night stand between Tillman and a woman he disdains. After wittily detailing “the few main things [he] hate[s] about her” Tillman apposes his thoughts to his subsequent actions, “I feel so unconvincin’ / When I fumble with your buttons.” He’s caught between contempt and attraction, loathing and lust. This dissonance is distilled in the final line “I obliged later on when you begged me to choke ya,” where the image of erotic asphyxiation embodies Tillman’s twisted contradictions. The song begs the question—how can a man with such warped experiences ever find meaningful intimacy?

The internal battle reaches a fever pitch in “The Ideal Husband,” a laundry list of Tillman’s transgressions: “I’ve done things unprotected / And proceeded to drive home wasted / Bought things to win over siblings / I’ve said awful things / Such awful things.” He confesses to obsessing over himself, neglecting friendships, resenting loved ones. In desperation, under the weight of remorse, he truly exposes himself. Tillman’s self-indictment is a pre-requisite for allowing himself to be loved. The song reaches a manic climax, shouting:

         I came by at seven in the morning

         Said, “Baby, I’m finally succumbing!”

         Said something dumb like,

         “I’m tired of running

         Tired of running

         Tired of running!”

         Let’s put a baby in the oven!

         Wouldn’t I make the ideal husband?

Tillman is even critical of his own words, and he highlights the absurdity of the situation. “Wouldn’t I make the ideal husband?” may be Father John Misty’s most bitterly ironic line yet. 

Yet if love dismantles, it also rebuilds. I Love You, Honeybear also has plenty of ballads, and, when taken in the context of his descent, they transcend the pitfalls of sentimentality. Energized by a mariachi band in “Chateau Lobby #4,” he celebrates not only his first night with this unique woman, but also discovering a level of affection he’s never experienced before: “You are my first time / People are boring / But you’re something else completely.” Tillman still tempers the sentiment by framing them as antagonists with lines like “We’ll have Satanic Christmas Eve” and “I haven’t hated / All the same things as somebody else / Since I remember,” but they’re as charming as a cynic can muster.

 

 

“When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” is undoubtedly the most intimate song on I Love You, Honeybear. Supported by soulful background vocals, Tillman is alternately crooning and exultant in experiencing real physical and emotional intimacy. He declares, “I’ve got nothing to hide from you…You see me as I am, it’s true / The aimless, fake drifter and the horny, man-child, Mamma’s boy to boot.” But if the confessions in “The Ideal Husband” are prompted by guilt, those in “When You’re Smiling” are motivated by a desire for total vulnerability and proximity—to love fully, to omit nothing, “To truly see and be seen.”

Whereas “The Ideal Husband” is Tillman’s emotional apex, “Holy Shit” is his intellectual apex (albeit with a mocking title). After a charming list of oxymora there’s a moment of clarity:

         Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty

         But what’s your paradise got to do with Adam and Eve?

         Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity

         But what I fail to see is what that’s got to do

         With you and me 

Tillman’s realization: cynicism, irony, and pessimism fizzle in the face of authentic love. He can try as hard as he wants to defend himself with rationalization and intellectualization, but in the end he’s confronted by a reality that forces him to be sincere—this is the essential transformation of Father John Misty. 

The album comes to a gentle close with “I Went to the Store One Day,” in which Tillman permits himself to reminisce a bit. He looks back on their meeting, as well as his inward evolution. Who could have envisioned Father John Misty singing fondly of a constructive ritual, “Say, do you want to get married? / And put an end to our endless, progressive tendency to scorn / Provincial concepts.” It all ends with their beginning: “I’ve seen you around / What’s your name?”

I Love You, Honeybear achieves a skillful balance between pushing the scope of Father John Misty and staying true to his fundamental voice and perspective. Tillman still has his sharp wit and sarcastic viewpoint, using them this time not as a veil, but as a foil for a newly discovered self. The album is an honest look at intimacy; the listener feels as if Tillman holds nothing back. It’s because of the ugly journey, because of the unexpected protagonist, that I Love You, Honeybear achieves a moving and refreshing take on love.

Jon Stewart's Departure

Last week Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, announced that he would be stepping down from his position later this year. I received the news while traveling, so unfortunately I was unable to post something in time to participate in the chatter. Still though, while it may be a bit early for a tribute, I’d like to offer a few words.

Over the past sixteen years The Daily Show with Jon Stewart has become a cultural powerhouse. He may have only wanted to entertain, but Stewart has accumulated millions of regular viewers, nineteen Emmy Awards, and immeasurable influence. He’s hosted the Academy Awards twice, he's written and directed his own film, and he was the subject of my professor’s doctorate on the rhetorical use of humor. Stewart has advanced satire, and comedy in general, as an art form. In my sincere opinion, he’s a modern Shakespeare.

Why is it that a fake news show became so popular and so profound? Jon Stewart is a lovable guy. He is truly honest. Whether or not you agree with his views and conclusions, he sincerely searches for the truth. He apologizes when he’s wrong. He’s an adept and natural interviewer. He candidly handles all subjects, both laughable and somber.   

Oddly enough, Jon Stewart's primary tool for uncovering the truth is satire. This satire, however, is supported by data, evidence, and rationality. He harnesses comedy to subvert corrupt power structures (primarily the media and the political system) and reveal their underlying hypocrisies and absurdities. Comedians have always done this, but The Daily Show excels in a new way. It has proved the commercial viability of opposing corruption and infotainment. I disagree with the oft-repeated assertion that young people turn to The Daily Show (and previously The Colbert Report) for news. They turn to it for entertainment. With the exception of exposé pieces, The Daily Show doesn’t report news—it analyzes and reinterprets. You can’t fully appreciate the humor if you aren’t already familiar with current events and how the media has covered them.

Jon Stewart’s occupation is to entertain by criticism and ridicule, but he manages to do this without descending into cynicism. He balances the pessimistic nature of his task with his own inherent optimism. Stewart criticizes not out of hopelessness, but with the aspiration of creating a better reality. He doesn’t just condemn the Iraq War and subsequent treatment of returning veterans, he does something about it. He knows how to use his influence not only to amuse, but also to help.

So, with all of that in mind, I hope that you can appreciate the last episodes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It’s been a moving, illuminating, and hilarious run—enjoy the rest.  


If you’re not familiar with Stewart’s work, here are a few illustrative examples:

September 3, 2008. The clip highlights double standards in conservative coverage of Sarah Palin.

December 13, 2010. Stewart criticizes Congress for obstructing the 9/11 first responders bill.

January 27, 2011. A mini-feud with O'Reilly develops into a case study of Fox's use of Nazi rhetoric.

February 9, 2015. Stewart offers a model critique of the media's failure to inform and investigate. 

Mastering Genre

 Photo credit: Universal Pictures 1993

Photo credit: Universal Pictures 1993

 

I read a splendid article yesterday, written by Julia Drake: The Boy from Jurassic Park’s College Application Essay. Take a look at it before reading this.

I love the piece so much because it perfectly encapsulates the genre of the application essay. Drake captures the voice of a high school student; the word choice of the speaker is totally authentic (in that it is inauthentic). The piece, of course, begins with the overly detailed and indulgent description of a scene. Everything scrabbles or shocks or sears as the speaker combines as much sensory detail as possible. Later on, awkward word clusters bear the marks of a thesaurus: the prospective college student inhabits a world of copious obstacles with a plethora of challenges.  

The entire essay is beautifully stitched together with jargon and clichés. Nothing like hands-on learning can pique the intellectual curiosity and instill a passion for academic discovery. Oh yes—passion—the king of application essay clichés.

Then there are the clumsily included examples. The speaker is so delightfully transparent: you can almost see a high school boy with his chin in his hand, trying to figure out where he can add his experience as French Peer Tutor. You can see that he intended to appear well rounded, but tacking on figure drawing is just arbitrary.

The genre is perfectly parodied in the speaker’s mechanical and questionable connections. He unashamedly repeats the process over and over: past experience, lesson learned, future application. Drake exposes how the dubiety of these connections is central to the average application essay. Will the speaker’s traits acquired surviving dinosaurs really make him an enthusiastic and passionate member of a college community? Does his grandfather’s learning experience with terrible lizards really mirror his personal experience in [his] position as Senior Class Co-Treasurer? Also, there is nothing more real than mentioning a co-treasurer position in an application essay.

Of course, the entire piece is laden with the unavoidable combination of narcissism and naiveté. Much of it is an exposition on his complicated and profound transition into adulthood. This is a young man that takes himself very seriously: he can easily foresee continuing his senior capstone project in college’s rigorous academic environment. In a swift move he claims, the raptors were the guillotine—nay, the Robespierre—of my childhood. The irony is impeccable: he tries to prove his maturity with elevated speech, but in doing so he disproves it. As the cherry on top, the essay begins its conclusion with an arbitrary quote from Pliny the Elder. Hint: no high school student is just casually reading Pliny the Elder.

Drake’s article is brilliant because it outlines the genre of college application essay for us. By substituting the standard subject matter for something absurd (the experiences of the boy from Jurassic Park), she reveals the underlying structure. She shows her mastery of the genre by making our implicit understanding explicit. But why does this revelation create humor? Maybe it gives us pleasure to know that we were aware of the genre and its patterns all along. Maybe we are laughing at the absurd combination of Jurassic Park and a college application. Or, maybe it’s funny because we realize that we did it too.

Technology: Achieving a Healthier Equilibrium

Men have become the tools of their tools.

-Henry David Thoreau

We are living, right now, during a revolution. Call it what you will—the Information Age, the Digital Century, the Internet Era—but humanity is experiencing a wave of change, a spasm of exponential innovation that is without precedent.

Although this revolution has no peer in scale, it is not without parallel. Indeed, there are striking similarities between the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century and our situation today. People, both then and now, see the wealth of opportunity, dramatically advancing technology, burgeoning professions, shifting mentalities, and evolving culture as signs of the dynamic times.

The Internet enables people to access the wealth of collective human knowledge in an instant. Computers render nearly every aspect of our daily routine faster, easier, cheaper, and more efficient—radically so. Social media provides a breadth and ease of communication that would have been inconceivable a mere twenty or thirty years ago. Not only can we access information, but new means are being developed to better create, alter, share, and employ that information. Increasingly (with the advent of mobile devices, for example) we are developing technologies that fit our bodies, minds, and lives better. It is a time of advance and novelty, promise and excitement.

These advances have far-reaching effects. The applications of new technologies often exceed the vision of their creators; people are still discovering, for instance, the manifold uses for tablets. The Internet has proven to be a strong equalizer: despite the threats from internet service providers, government surveillance, and censorship, it remains a remarkably democratic sphere. Voices previously marginalized in a world of traditional media (are television, radio, and print really traditional?) can now engage in broader discourse. In less quantifiable ways, this revolution is also changing how we think, interact, work, and play.

Our current situation resembles the Industrial Revolution in another way: not everyone is excited. Such rapid change can be disconcerting. Although there are some who reject technology and its conveniences altogether, more commonly, people are becoming concerned with the growing power it wields in our lives and in our society as a whole.

There have been unintended consequences. The ease of image sharing is a powerful capability, but it has paved the way for a teen sexting epidemic. The same resources that make our lives convenient and efficient, like Google Earth, are also exploited by terrorists. The minerals needed for our electronic devices fund conflict in Central Africa. Unceasing iterations of gadgets—and, in some cases, planned obsolescence—not only drive unhealthy consumerism, but they contribute to an ever-growing pile of e-waste.

Then there are some who, on a fundamental level, challenge how technology is affecting our human nature. If it is changing how we think, interact, work, and play, is it worth it? What do we gain, and what do we lose? As outlined above, there are plenty of concrete benefits reaped from the digital revolution: money, time, and information. Everything is so convenient—entertainment, communication, knowledge—but is eating from this tree of knowledge killing us? 

The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Technology has advanced, but our relationships have regressed. The minds behind social media expected us to grow closer to each other with its use, but we’ve become more distant. The startling ease of communication has cheapened our interactions (although people are now trying to recharge those interactions with meaning, for example, by handwriting letters). We’ve sacrificed depth for breadth; instead of having a circle of friends, we have a mob of acquaintances.

As we cleave to social media, we cleave ourselves. It becomes difficult to live authentically when we share our quotidian experience with the world. We embellish, omit, and reinterpret our lives before presenting them: we lose our identity in our attempt to construct it. The result is not a social network that builds intimacy; it is a marketplace where everyone peddles abstractions of themselves.

We are all too happy to trade control for convenience. We entrust a growing proportion of our lives to digital entities: passwords, personal information, and finances. A system of technological feudalism is emerging: we swear our allegiance to tech companies in return for services and protection. Ultimately, nothing online is completely secure—period. To those who have enough power and knowledge, virtually anything is possible. Concerns include criminals stealing personal information from smaller companies, government surveillance, and China’s incessant cyber attacks. This general risk is mitigated, however, by that fact that the average person isn’t a valuable target. Still we must ask if it’s worth exchanging security for convenience. 

When we rely on technology, we sacrifice independence. How many people can competently navigate, research, or entertain themselves without gadgets? Who could survive in a natural disaster or an extended power outage? In any public space you can see that we are becoming dependent, addicted, and bound: drivers constantly on cell phones, teens removed from the world by headphones, people hardly looking up from their hands—and the trend isn’t reversing anytime soon. The future promises wearable tech, the fusion of the human and digital. Technology is already a figurative appendage, and it is soon to become literal.

We are sacrificing part of our connection to the physical world to be more engaged with the virtual, but we are also becoming even more distant from the natural world. While the separation of people from nature by no means began recently, it has been accelerated by current technological advances: it is more difficult to be immersed in the outdoors when cell service reaches all but the most remote corners of the planet. Admittedly, experiencing the natural world isn’t strictly a need (many people live without ever knowing its wonders), but it is convalescent and fulfilling.

Maybe the reason nature is so cathartic, especially now, is because it can return us to simplicity. Technological advance enables us to work efficiently and communicate quickly, but this is a curse as well as a blessing. We become slaves: constantly checking email, scrolling through social media, and being interrupted by calls. When we are always connected to technology we lose the borders between work and rest, between friendship and obligation. It is so difficult to be tranquil; peace is elusive.

All of these concerns contribute to one: are we losing our humanity? In gaining technology, do we surrender some of our nature? If assembly lines and urban poverty were dehumanizing influences during the Industrial Revolution, what are the parallels in the digital revolution—and where are the accompanying reactionaries? Or maybe human nature’s primary characteristic is its flexibility, and we are just evolving along with our surroundings. To have a more detailed discussion about all of this, an explicit definition of human nature is required—but that goes beyond the scope of this piece. I’ll let you consider these things, and I’ll say this: it seems to me that the sum of all of these issues is certainly damaging our essence—however you define it.

This all sounds quite hypocritical coming from an essay posted online. Many people could certainly be called hypocrites when it comes to technology: we understand that it’s adversely affecting us in some ways, we talk about it, but we don’t do much about it. Is it even possible to stop all of this change? People here and there are starting to deactivate Facebook (it’s easier now that it’s in decline), but few can bring themselves to completely disconnect. Those that do may benefit personally, but they lose their voice in the discourse—if you want change, it’s self-defeating.

Viewed through a different lens, maybe sharing these thoughts electronically isn’t a contradiction. Highlighting the issues of this digital revolution doesn’t necessarily make me a technophobe—I want a compromise concerning the role of technology in our lives. We need to reach a better balance.

Let us use what is helpful and avoid what is harmful. Let us proceed forward with innovation, but let us be informed. Let us make decisions about our participation in this revolution, knowing the risks and the sacrifices. We will define our boundaries and uphold them. We will use technology to enhance our lives, not dilute them. We will take breaks from our trinkets—if only at punctuated times. By cultivating awareness and discipline, we will be able to avoid becoming the tools of our tools.

Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

-John Muir

What is This?

This is a website: if you haven’t figured that out by now, I don’t know if we can be together.

More specifically, it is a site for (among other things) writing. I hope that it will perform many roles: journal, salon, storehouse, portfolio, cabaret, and exhibit. I want to show you what I’m making, entertain you, and see what you are making. Eclectica is the goal.

The site is organized into three different sections—a triptych of sorts. Creation houses literary and artistic work. Exploration is a place for sharing and processing experiences from travel and adventure. Conversation has been a bit more difficult to categorize. What is this?

All writing is an act of conversation, abstracted. This is a reality that I want to make explicit in this section. Our thoughts and scribbles do not take place in a vacuum; when we produce something, it is inevitably part of an imagined community—and an imagined community is no less real than a material one. I want to emphasize reading and writing as acts of community building, and then facilitate them.

Lofty, or whatever. That amounts to engaging with other writers and synthesizing disparate sources. Conversation is a place where I can digest what I’m ingesting. That may be an essay on current events, or it may be weaving together what I’ve absorbed today (brushing up on the Vikings, a killer Daily Show segment, or an article from NPR). I want to respond to others and elicit responses from others.

So, with all of that said, welcome. I sincerely hope that this brings you enjoyment alongside food for thought.