Wednesday, July 26, 2017

What We Talk About When We Talk About Trump

(With Apologies to Raymond Carver)

“I’ll tell you what we should do…” Phil said.  “We should start up a third party and call it the goddam “Jesus Cowboy NASCAR” party…  Jesus.  Cowboy.  NASCAR.”

There were four of us sitting around the table drinking beer and talking about politics. 

“And that’s not just the name of the party,” Phil went on,  “I mean that’s the whole fucking platform.  Our candidates believe in Jesus, they like Cowboys and they’re into NASCAR.  There.  We’d win every election in this country from now until Doomsday.”

Everybody laughed except Lynn, who’d probably heard it before.  Lynn was Phil’s second wife.  I’d never met the first one. I pictured myself in a voting booth, looking down at the candidates names with the words “Republican”, “Democrat” and “Jesus Cowboy NASCAR” after them. There was no question in my mind about who would win.  

The table went quiet for a second.  There was sadness in the way the light was coming through the curtains and in the way the word “Doomsday” kept hovering in the room. 

“So it pisses me off when I hear journalists start talking about a national divide.  Where the fuck were they when Tinyhands McPussygrabber was running?  The asshole was a lying fascist scumbag from the start!

My wife, Therese, put her hand on my shoulder.  She’d been up north, taking care of her mother for the past two weeks. I was glad to have her back.  “Oh come on,” Lynn said, “You don’t know that.” 

“Of course I know that.  We all knew that! Right?”  Phil looked at Therese and me and we nodded.  The asshole been a lying fascist scumbag from the start.  And we’d all known it.

“Well I didn’t know that.” Lynn said.

“He called illegal immigrants murderers and rapists. That was practically the first thing he did.” Therese said.  Usually I called her Terri.

“Yeah.” Phil said, “As if they were all just monsters and that was it. No economic factors, nobody trying to get ahead, make something of themselves or trying to help their families. It was like the only reason people came here was because the United States was some kind of irresistible Shangri-fucking-La for raping and murdering people.”

Phil was a cardiologist, so he could say things like that.  He was an alright guy.  Kind of a drinker.

“It wouldn’t be so bad,” Terri said, “if his mental problems had’t been so obvious from the start.”  I was thinking about the bottle of bourbon I had in the cabinet, whether or not to bring it out.  I thought it was about half full.

“And if evangelical Christians weren’t such utterly hypocritical idiots…”  Phil said.  Lynn rolled her eyes and put her hand on top of his on the table.

Terri started talking about tribalism and I decided to get the bourbon while I still could.  “Does anyone want glasses?”  I asked.

I put the bottle on the table.  “’Nother Beer?”

I went to the refrigerator and took out four beers.  That was it: now we were out of beer.

“Just exactly when did they decide that a draft-dodging pussygrabbing New York real-estate playboy wanna-be was the voice of rural working-class Christian America?” Phil asked.

“Around the time he started saying Obama was from Kenya.” Terri said.

Phil said “The guy spends his entire life - builds a whole brand around nothing except celebrating bullshit luxury items. He never gave two duck farts about working people, the Bible, or even the whole goddam Republican Party. And now they think he’s practically Jesus Fucking Christ. Can anybody please explain this to me?” 

Terri opened her beer, put it down, giggled a bit and then took a swig from the bourbon.  Outside one of the dogs began to bark and I watched the curtains glow for a moment as the sun came out from between the clouds. I wondered if there was any gin left.

Lynn said something about people she knew back in Indiana and how crazy in love with Trump they’d all been. “Even if it turns out he’s working for Russia, they won’t care… Hating Mexicans and Muslims. That’s what they care about. Banning transgender people from the military - they love that shit.”  Phil said there was no way he’d pull anyone out of the military because he was going to need them for the wars he was going to start right after he fired Mueller.  

Lynn asked if Phil thought he’d start a war with North Korea and Phil said maybe but figured it was more likely Iran or even back in Iraq. When Phil said “Iraq” Terri reached under the table and squeezed my hand. That’s where her brother had been for so many years. I think it was three or four tours of duty, maybe even more. Then he came back and killed himself.

“The trouble with Iraq…” Phil started saying and then Terri cut him off.  “I’ll tell you the trouble with Iraq…” she said.  “The trouble with Iraq is we told a bunch of kids they were killers when they weren’t really killers.  They were high-school football players and videogame champions.  And we sent them over there and told them it was just like football or a videogame but it wasn’t:  It was killing people.  And people trying to kill them.”

Phil and Lynn were holding their beers, elbows up on the table.  I don’t think they knew about Terri’s brother.  

Lynn said she knew about war and Terri said “Do you?” and Lynn said she did.  Phil put down his beer and picked up the bourbon.

“My husband was in the first Gulf War.” Lynn said.  “My first husband, Tom. When I was in Raleigh.”  Phil put down the bourbon so I picked it up, drank some and passed it to Terri.  I was pretty sure we still had some gin, but wasn’t sure about the grapefruit juice.  For mixer.

“He was a fireman… well, a volunteer fireman. And when he went over there, he was supposed to be an ambulance driver.  He’d taken some tests or something.  Once the war started though, it turned out they didn’t really need any ambulance drivers.  Nobody got hurt in that war.  Not on our side anyway.”

“So what did he do?”

“He ended up on a truck clearing out bunkers – going through all the Iraqi positions after it was all over and helping clear away the bodies.  Put them all in body bags and loaded them on the truck.  He said there were hundreds of them… thousands.”

“You’d think that’d be their job… the Iraqis I mean.” Terri said.

“Well that was the thing – all those dead guys, they were the Iraqis.”

“Oh yeah.”

“He said there were Australians too, helping.  But they had their own truck.”

Terri stood up and braced herself for a second with her hands on the table.  She walked into the kitchen and came back with the gin.  “I think we still have some grapefruit juice.” I said.  “In the cupboard.”

“Anyway, he said the bunkers were the worst.  The closed places.  When the bombs hit they didn’t blow everything up.  Sometimes they did, but not usually.  He said the bombs created a shock wave - I think he called it ‘overpressure’ -  that went through all the buildings and the bunkers. He said most of the people died from that.” Terri put the gin bottle down next to the bourbon and went back for the grapefruit juice.  The room was getting dark but I didn’t feel like turning on the lights yet.  

Phil said that didn’t sound so bad: “I’d rather be picking up that – whole bodies - than a bunch of little pieces.”

“He said he had to do that too.” Lynn said.  “And, you know, try to figure out what went where. He said it was bad but not nearly so bad as the other ones.”

“How come?”

“He said the concussion victims didn’t die right away.  Sometimes they did, but most of the time they didn’t.”

Terri stood in the middle of the kitchen listening.

“He said what normally happened was that their sinuses burst.  Their sinuses and eardrums.  They’d still be alive for a while, but with all their brain fluid coming out of their ears and noses.”

Terri came back to the table with the grapefruit juice and sat down.  

“And so that’s how they’d die.  You know… crawling around.  He said he hadn’t expected that…”

The light through the curtains was fading fast.  Nobody moved or said anything.

“He thought when people got bombed they just, you know, got blown into pieces and died.  But they don’t.  They stay alive, a lot of them… They can stay alive for a long time.”   

The four of us sat there for a while in the dark, just breathing.  I was pretty sure we were all out of ice, but one of us was still going to have to get up for glasses.  Probably me.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The 1st Amendment is More Than a Right: It's a Responsibility

The framers of the Constitution gave us the First Amendment for precisely the kind of situation we’re in now. By making our right to political expression so fully protected the founding fathers weren’t just allowing us to protest, they were practically demanding it. In both the amendment itself and other writings, they made it clear that free political speech wasn’t just the heart of democracy, but also its safeguard. And if you think the ability to protest still isn’t going to be enough, remember there’s over 300 million of us, and we’ve all got it.

Apart from the violent overthrow of the government, you can openly advocate just about any cause, say whatever you want, however you want, using whatever means are at your disposal to reach to as many of your fellow citizens as you possibly can. If your free speech breaks other laws you can still defend it in court, but only if they catch you. If it involves vandalism, violence or threatening people they’re probably going to come after you. If you’re violating traffic codes by putting signs on freeways, they’re probably not — at least that’s been my experience so far. By making my signs easily removable and putting them on the inside of fencing so they can’t fall into traffic, makes me relatively harmless so there’s little impetus to catch me. Also my ability to strike anywhere at any time and be gone in seconds makes me pretty damn difficult to catch. Nevertheless, given plenty of evidence and at least a dozen opportunities to arrest me, the State of California (and to a lesser extent, Arizona, Oregon and Washington,) has shown no interest in bringing me to court. I think that’s at least partly due to understanding the strength my constitutional rights have versus the relative insignificance of my infractions. 

Putting aside the whole signs-on-freeways thing, think about how much is covered by the scope of the First Amendment and how you might be able to take advantage of it. There’s an old saying that goes “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission...” meaning it’s better to just do something assuming you have the right than to forego the benefit of the doubt by first asking permission. While there’s a lot of things where that philosophy is probably both wrong and dangerous, the First Amendment isn’t one of them. The way I see it, pushing the free speech envelope isn’t just our privilege, it’s practically our responsibility. And so long as we’ve got a congress seeming blind to the mounting evidence that the President is acting as an agent of a hostile foreign government, it’s not just our responsibility but our goddam sacred duty as citizens to push that envelope as far as we possibly can.

Can protesting get you hassled and arrested? Damn right it can - happens every day at demonstrations. But it ONLY happens when you’re doing it in front of police. The disorderly conduct and  “failure to obey” charges police stick on demonstrators are understood by the courts as primarily as a form of crowd control and almost always thrown out. Still, in any kind of protest done in front of police exposes you to a dangerous, and in my opinion unnecessary, degree of hassle and risk, both legally and physically. I’m especially doubtful about getting arrested as a means of political expression. Although it makes a powerful statement, being held captive reduces your political agency to little more than just being a body, whereas freedom and the first amendment allow you to do practically any and everything your mind, hands and heart can come up with.. the sorts of things you should probably be thinking of right now.

I have at least a hundred reasons why I put so much time and effort into putting signs on freeways, but mostly it boils down to numbers. The ability to reach hundreds of thousands of drivers for so little cost would be irresistible even if it wasn’t so politically satisfying and so much goddam fun. Although I was first inspired by the Bush V. Gore decision in 2000, the real necessity of reaching that many people came from listening to talk radio after 9/11. For a week or two the bad guys were Bin Laden and the Taliban, but after that they went back to blaming the Real Enemies of America: The Liberals and Democrats. Although I always knew this was the case in talk radio, it was the first time I’d really listened to it and recognized how truly dangerous it was. Beyond the falsity and sheer evil of the rhetoric, what frightened me was how constant it was and the number of people that it reached. And it’s not hard to see the ubiquitousness of hate speech on the airwaves as largely responsible for the mess we’re in now..

I saw signposting on freeways as a way of evening the score, at least numerically, and was disappointed by what I’d seen done with it so far, which was “No War” or “Stop the something-I’m-not-quite-sure...” spray-painted on bedsheets. 
I thought that adding legibility to a medium that was mostly unreadable might help make it more socially acceptable as a means of political discourse. In other words, putting signs on freeways made more sense if people could read them. Beyond just the aesthetics: using a stiff medium allows you to put a sign up almost anywhere, quickly and securely, with the simplest of tools and the greatest of ease. Using a projector for the lettering allows far more thought and precision in your language, while spray, or even hand-painted messages can rarely go beyond polemics. The difference between white-washed cardboard over bedsheets is so profound and comprehensive I should, and will, write a whole post about it, but for now let’s just say it’s like the difference between the last President and the one we’ve got now.

Although I succeeded in some ways, my efforts were largely a failure. Although I’ve spent years contemplating all the reasons why, I won’t bore you with all of that now. I think the main reason it hasn’t caught on yet is because people are afraid it’s illegal, and I’ll be the first to admit that technically they’re right. Before I explain why that doesn’t matter to me and shouldn’t matter to you, I’d like to suggest that ultimately the legality of it isn’t really the problem. The thing that keeps people from doing things that others aren’t is probably little more than a fear of looking foolish. Short of physical limitations, whatever reasons you have for not putting a sign up today would probably melt away if you knew ten thousand people had just done it yesterday.

If what’s keeping you is the thought it’s somehow too difficult or strenuous, let me assure you that it’s not. Physically what I do amounts to little more than driving around and taking short walks. With tens of thousands of miles of fencing and infrastructure to choose from, it’s not that hard to find signposting spots that require no work at all to get to. If you live in Seattle, for example, there’s a fence that’s highly visible to a dozen lanes of heavy traffic, and signs I’ve put on it have lasted for hours and usually days. All it takes to get there is parking at the end of a cul de sac and walking 200 feet or so through Kobe Terrace Park. Spots like that can be found everywhere once you start to actually look for them.

Why freewayblogging is illegal and why that doesn’t matter: While George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and people like that thought free speech was a sacred, untouchable right, there are thousands of police officers, city councils, homeowners associations and transportation boards who think they know better. So called “free” political speech is subject to all sorts of rules and regulations, and technically speaking, every sign, banner or flag, whether political or commercial, placed without permission within 600 feet of a California freeway is a criminal act and subject to a fine and/or prosecution. Fortunately, the State of California hasn’t shown much interest in enforcing these laws, which is lucky not just for me, but for every gun show, bridal expo and tattoo convention that papers the roadsides with their crappy little florescent advertisements. If I was ever brought to court, those signs would be Exhibit A in my defense. Selective prosecution of like crimes is one thing, but prosecuting political speech that’s Constitutionally protected while ignoring commercial speech that’s not begs at least a bit of explanation. 

The only argument that has any merit against freewayblogging is that of driver distraction, which is thoroughly undercut by the signs mentioned above and every billboard, advertisement and jumbotron screen visible to drivers on the freeway. Additionally I’m protected by every single flag that went up on overpasses after September 11th, as argued in the case Brown vs. the California Dept. of Transportation. That case was filed by two Santa Cruz activists, Amy Courtney and Cassandra Brown, who charged that their being denied the right to hold an anti-war message on an overpass was fundamentally unconstitutional for a lot of reasons, but especially so given the state was allowing the overpasses to be used for flags and other patriotic displays. This led to some back and forth where CalTrans said they’d take down all unauthorized displays, including flags, and were brought back to court by the women when they didn’t. Ultimately CalTrans determined that all displays were illegal with the punishment being that they would be taken down. Since, like all other state agencies, CalTrans is woefully undermanned and underfunded, the turnaround time between placement and removal of a sign can be days or even weeks. That means I can still get a million or more views for my nickel’s worth of cardboard and paint, which is fine by me.

If I ever do get taken to court, I expect the prosecution to argue as they did in Brown that the speed, danger and traffic density of freeways set them apart from other public spaces, and that extra regulations are required for safety. If someone wants to use public property to post their political opinions there are plenty of safer and more appropriate places to do it, like in front of the post office or in a city park. Thus prohibiting signs from freeways does not infringe on my first amendment rights so long as these other public venues are available. My defense would center on what the framers of the constitution intended when they gave us the right to free speech. If it was intended as a nicety or some sort of window-dressing for democracy where we’re all allowed to speak out so long as we kept it to a minimum, then yes: the difference between reaching a hundred thousand people or a dozen would be irrelevant and the park or post office would be just fine.

If however, the founding fathers intended the right to free speech to be more than just a nicety or gesture, and that it’s actual purpose was nothing short of being a failsafe for Democracy, then the difference in numbers means quite a lot. With that in mind the court should recognize what I’m doing is my patriotic duty, and rather than punish me they should join me in getting others to do the same. And furthermore, if the founding fathers could somehow appear and and see one of my signs over a planet-killing freeway, they’d say something had to go alright, but it wouldn’t be my sign. (You can probably tell I’ve fantasized this courtroom drama for awhile...)

For now that’s all I’ve got to say about the legal issues of signposting on the freeways. Even if you’re not ready to join me just yet, give some thought to what you can do with your right to free speech. Try to think of the First Amendment less as a right and more as a responsibility, and figure out how you can best live up to your end of the bargain. Go through your talents and find which ones might be useful in the situation we’re faced with. For the best results, pick something you’re good at and actually like doing. I’ve found the process of making signs to be quite enjoyable and relaxing no matter where I put them. Think of what you want to say and the best way of saying it, use a bit of artistry and then go hit that park. I’ll keep posting here to convince you all to join me on the freeways though, because I swear, it’d take less than a hundred of us to start turning this whole fucking thing around.

Signs Posted: 7,250
Arrests: 0

Monday, July 17, 2017

The People of Iran, Guatemala and Chile Extend Their Condolences...

Dear American Friends…
Please accept our deepest sympathy, and know you have our full support and that it's with the very best of intentions that we say, Payback’s a Bitch, ain’t it ? 

The transition from sovereignty to servitude isn’t an easy one. As citizens of your own former client states, we know all too well the suffering, indignity and embarrassment that accompany it. We’re happy to answer your questions and hope you’ll consider our knowledge and years of experience just as historically you’ve considered our agricultural and mineral wealth: as valuable resources yours for the taking. We know this is all very new for you, that some of you are probably confused and even a little scared. Many of you are no doubt experiencing feelings of moral outrage, injustice, helplessness, etc… Trust us, we’ve been there. 

We understand it’s a difficult time and while we don’t want to preach, we do hope you’ll take some advantage of this opportunity to reflect a bit on how your own behavior may have effected the rest of us over the years.

We’re not going to lie here: living under a puppet regime can be nasty business and there’s going to be a lot of things you’re not going to like. Although far less rewarding materially than your previous role, you’re bound to find life on this side of the puppet strings to be very rich in terms of being a learning experience, and discover as we have, at least a few silver linings. In that spirit we offer the following bits of advice and random observations we’ve picked up along the way hoping you’ll find them useful.

1) Losing Your Sovereignty Is Not The End of the World.  In fact it’s how most of the world lives! Living under a puppet will give you a much better understanding of people from places like Nicaragua, Haiti, Panama, Vietnam, Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam, the Philippines and El Salvador than back when you were the one pulling the strings.  You’ll probably be getting lots of letters like this from many, many nations, so be sure to check your mailbox!

2) You Will Quickly Be Able To Recognize Who Can And Cannot Be Trusted.   One of the very few advantages of living under a puppet regime is how easy it makes it to recognize traitors.  Almost invariably, it’s those quickest to question the loyalty of others and loudest in declaring their own that prove to be the very worst of traitors. And yes, we are talking about FOX News. You are probably already learning, just as we did, an important historical constant: People who are betraying their country always do it while waving the flag.

3) You’re Are About To Learn a Lot of Things And Many of Them Will Be Painful.  Listen, it was bad enough when you did it to us, and we were barely even industrialized. Frankly none of us can even imagine how shocking and painful this must be for you. You’re America after all,  “Number One!” as you were always so fond of saying…  Okay, sorry - we don’t mean to rub it in - but it’s time for a little tough love.  There are some things we’ve needed to tell you, and now it’s really important that you listen. Despite everything, we’ve always looked up to you guys, and while many of us are just as appalled by what’s happened to you, none of us can say we’re honestly shocked.  

We’re not going to say we told you so, because we didn’t. And the reason we didn’t was because you know just as well as we did that you wouldn’t have listened to us anyway.  But don’t think for a second that we didn’t see what was coming. Donald Trump was exactly the same pompous, windbag, idiot clown as the ones you dumped on us… just without the uniform and all the medals.  From the moment that pig-ignorant, farcical bastard first opened his ugly hole of a mouth and started insulting and condemning the most defenseless people in your society, we recognized exactly who he was and precisely what you all were in for. Hopefully next time you will too.

4) What You Have Lost in National Pride Will Eventually Be Replaced By An Appreciation For Much Greater Things.  We know how mad you must be about this and how much you want to fight back. Normally we’d advise against it since whenever we tried we always ended up getting crushed by the US Military. In your case of course things are a bit less clear-cut… Nevertheless, we suggest you stick with the basic rule of military conflict: regardless of cause, weaponry or terrain, just be sure you’re fighting on the same side as the money. 

Which brings us around to the basic point we’d like to make here: the high-minded concepts you so recently cherished - the sovereignty and independence that you now feel so crushed by the loss of - were ultimately little more than philosophical luxuries - their nobility only affordable by having money and power. I know that sounds like sour grapes, but down here with us, that’s a taste you’ll get used to.

We know it sucks right now, but hey… You’re America! You brought us airplanes and cars and you went to the moon! You’re not going to be brought down by some tiny-handed douchebag and a couple of Russian thugs in polyester tracksuits. We know you’re going to make things right again, and when you do we hope you’ll remember us, and maybe we’ll be able to get along a little better in the future. In the meantime though, take this time away from being Number One, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave and all that, to take stock of some of the other blessings that come along with life on this earth. Go home, make love to your husbands and wives, play with your children… Take a little time out to breathe in the air, stare up at the sky and marvel at some of the fortunes we all share, regardless of what country we’re in or who’s running it. With even the most cursory contemplation of your existence you’ll find your current problems rendered meaningless by just a fraction of what you’ve been taking for granted. 

We’re all rooting for you America, and we have faith that in no time you’ll be back back on your feet as the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. But first take a moment to join the rest of us in the simple wonder of our humanity… the miracle of just being alive and sentient on this beautiful garden of a planet, spinning through space in this most amazing of times…