Friday, January 5, 2018

Three Paths from the 2018 Election

Despite voter suppression in key states, a massive, unprecedented misinformation and propaganda campaign orchestrated by a foreign power in favor of and quite likely in coordination with the Trump Campaign, a mainstream media that perpetuated false equivalences and fed oxygen to what amounted to conspiracy theories, a mainstream media narrative driven, in large part, by misogynist men now accused of sexual harassment and/or assault, a thirty or so year smear campaign by the Republican party, an apathetic citizenry that had long ago mostly given up on the political process, culturally entrenched partisan identities, and, of course, systemic sexism and racism; despite all that almost three million more Americans voted for Hilary Clinton than Donald Trump. That is the story of the presidential election of 2016. Anyone who tries to spin some idea about the white working class (whoever they are) or the flaws of Hilary Clinton (which exist) or anything else is an apologist for a flaw in our constitution that benefited one party over another, trying to justify the actions and very existence of the Trump administration as legitimate, and/or hiding from a simple fact: a lot of Americans were manipulated into making a mistake.

In discussions about the future of this country over the last year, I've had one overriding, organizing principle: we will know the health of American democracy in 2018. For most voters conned into voting for Trump or staying home, it will be their first chance to make amends for their mistake. For most Americans who didn't vote as part of a general practice, it will be their first chance after learning just how fragile our democracy is. For most Democrats and liberals, it will be their first chance to get a tangible result from their new anger and organizing energy.

And there are some good signs. Democrats are flipping seats all over the country in special elections. Doug Jones's win in Alabama proves that, under the right circumstances, Democratic organizing can overcome voter suppression in even the reddest of states. Furthermore, historically, legislative power tends to shift away from the party of the President in the first mid-term election. In short, there are some reasons to believe that, for all the long lasting damage the Republican party and Donald Trump have done, American democracy isn't over yet.

But we won't know for sure until we get the results from the 2018 mid-term elections. There are a number of different ways it might shake out and we need to be prepared for as many of them as possible. Here are the three that I see and what I think we should do if they come to pass.

One or Both of the Chambers of Congress Flips
What we do next will depend in large part on which chamber flips (most likely the House) and by how much, but regardless, the first order of business (if it hasn't happened already) is to impeach and remove Donald Trump (and hopefully Mike Pence) from the presidency. If the swing is big enough, if Trump's toxicity is revealed to be strong enough, I bet some not insignificant number of Republican Senators will vote for removal. And the swing could be plenty big enough to scare whatever Republicans remain right off the Trump train. Paul Ryan doesn't appear particularly up for an actual election battle. Ted Cruz doesn't have many allies in, well, life and there is a lot of energy around getting him out. I think we can wonder about Jeff Flake's seat and John McCain's seat and I don't think Romney taking Hatch's seat is an absolute guarantee. There are also a few hundred-thousand new voters in Florida from Puerto Rico and I can't imagine a lot of those votes going to Republicans. Given how there really isn't much evidence for courage of convictions in Congressional Republicans at the moment, how many of them would actually stick up for Trump once it was definitely proven that doing so threatens their power? Even if there aren't enough votes for removal, Democrats need to make the formal effort, if for no other reason than to have receipts for 2020.

After that it depends on who is president, and what the actual composition of Congress is. There are two bipartisan fixes to some of the mistakes in the ACA that seem like an easy place to start if that hasn't happened already. (Two bills that were theoretically promised in return for Susan Collins' vote on the tax bill.) Same goes for a clean DREAM act and a reauthorization or restart of CHIP if it also hasn't passed. (Of course, this is assuming those bipartisan bills and apparent commitments stay that way, which, there is real reason to doubt that Republicans would maintain their support for these bills if they would be passed by a Democratic Congress.) It looks like Congress will also have to ensure that the upcoming census is both fully funded and fairly run, which might be the most important under-the-radar issue of the moment. And then there's the recent tax bill that Democrats should at least try to do something about. We could also, I don't know, start passing legislation to prevent this from happening again by requiring all presidential candidates to publish their taxes before the election or formalizing the norms around conflicts of interest or creating some kind of election review process. There is only so much Congress can do, especially if Trump or another Republican is President, but I think there are lots of small places where steps can be made to solve some of the problems created by the Trump Presidency.

And then, it's gear up for 2020, not just for the presidential election, but for state and local elections. A big part of why we're in such a catastrophic mess right now is that Republicans in 2010 weaponized redistricting to disenfranchise American voters because Republican policies cannot win on merit in the marketplace of ideas. (This redistricting also aided the takeover of the Republican party by its radical right-wing by protecting fringe candidates who won in low-turnout primaries.) Big state-level wins in 2020 will allow Democrats to reform our redistricting procedure so Red Map strategies can never happen again.

Republicans Control Both Chambers in a Relatively Close Vote
Through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and, well voter decision, despite everything Republicans (you know, the ones who supported a fucking child molester) and Donald Trump (you know, the fucking serial sexual assaulter) have done to this country, they retain power. The cultural and systemic racism is too entrenched, the electoral system is too rigged to favor a rural minority, Russian misinformation muddies the waters, the inertia of voter apathy is strong enough to keep people home, and the mainstream media doesn't take the lessons of 2016 to heart. The rage and energy and organizing we've seen since November 2016 just isn't strong enough to overcome the structural flaws of the Constitution, racism of so many white people, and authoritarianism of the contemporary Republican party. I have been holding out hope for American democracy. Especially with the Democrat wave of special elections, I am hoping that the election of Trump is essentially an extreme stress test and that the actual majority of American citizens will assert themselves. But, it might not happen. The vast majority of Americans might not be able to overcome the fact that the framers of the Constitution did not foresee massive population concentration in urban centers. 

If that happens, I think the blue states need to explore how best to take care of their residents. Even if the majority of Americans vote for a Democrat and even if Democrats pick up a ton of seats, Republicans will act like the election is a mandate in their favor because they always act like everything is a mandate in their favor. They will say it is a ringing endorsement of everything they and Trump have ever done despite what all the other evidence shows and then they will finally finish destroying the New Deal and returning America to the capitalist feudalism they love so fucking much. State attorneys general will need to explore and pursue legal action to ensure that their residents receive the Social Security and Medicare benefits they have been paying into their entire working lives. States will also need to explore how to replace federal spending in a way that doesn't overburden their residents with new taxes. Blue states already pay more in federal taxes than they receive in federal spending so there is a chance they can simply transfer some of the tax cuts the Republicans will ram through Congress to their own budgets, especially those blue states (New York, Massachusetts) that have significant financial sectors. There might also be a general willingness in blue states to pay higher state taxes if people know the money will go to programs they believe in.

Furthermore, the blue states should find a way to band together to provide universal healthcare to their residents. Most of the American people live in blue states and most of the American economy is in blue states. California alone is a larger economy that most countries. A joint effort by the blue states should have more than enough population and economic clout to provide universal health care in some form. I mean, they'd be way bigger than Canada and Canada can do it. If they're able to significantly recoup much of the extra funding flowing to the federal government, they can probably offer free higher education too and maybe fund a transition to renewable energy. Maybe even subsidize childcare while they're at it.

Unfortunately, this is likely to create an even wider gulf between blue states and red states and it's hard to know exactly how wide that gulf will get. Will we see another great migration? How tense will the relationship between the states get? How much poorer will the red states get if Republicans at the federal level successfully remove the social safety net? And how will red state Republicans use federal power to punish blue states? Let me be clear about this: I think this would be a tragedy and I think the poor and vulnerable in red states would bear the brunt of this tragedy. But at some point, you have to give people the policies they vote for. Democrats and liberals from blue states and blue cities can't keep protecting everyone else from Republicans if we want American democracy to survive the Trump administration.

Also, if this happens, you can leave. I don't like the idea of leaving because the Americans most negatively impacted by this bullshit don't have the privilege of leaving, and a brain, money, and energy drain is likely to leave the less powerful even more vulnerable. For all it's flaws, I think the American project is still worth fighting for and I think, despite Trump, there is some evidence that we are relatively close to some major humanitarian and cultural breakthroughs. But I am not you. I am not responsible for your family and your well-being. I don't know what resources you have or don't have. I don't know what a fulfilling life means to you. I also don't know if I could lead a fulfilling life in that America. America was founded by people who had the privilege of leaving their home countries for a better life and if I'm not going to condemn those immigrants, I'm not going to condemn you.

Republicans Control both Chambers of Congress Despite Getting 40%ish or Less of the Vote
Because of gerrymandering and because of the likely unprecedented voter turnout in Democrat leaning and heavily populated districts, it is entirely possible that Republicans will narrowly hold on to a majority of seats in both chambers, while getting historically blown out in total vote count. Given the distribution of population, it is entirely possible for 60% or more of the vote to go to Democrats without control of either chamber shifting. If that happens, as above, Republicans will act like it's a mandate in their favor even though it is a clear statement of opposition. Paul Ryan will look us directly in the eyes and say it's clear the American people support his platform. He might even believe that.

If that happens, we march on Washington, D.C. and occupy it until Trump or Pence or whoever ends up being the President (it would still be a Republican) is removed from office and somehow replaced with a Democrat. We turn that momentum, we turn that energy, we turn that organizing power directly on Republicans in Congress. We bring proof of the popular will directly to those who are trying to crush it. If you can't make it to D.C. go to the closest Republican office. Hell, go to the closest Republican Congress person's house.

You might say that looks like a coup, but, well, yeah, it does, but so does a radical authoritarian minority acting like it has a mandate. But here's the thing. It will be clear to Republicans from that result that gerrymandering can only protect them for so much longer. Depending on how the state races hash out, it could signal the end of their state level power and their ability to gerrymander themselves to victory through 2020 and beyond. It reveals the farce of their claims to any legitimacy. And then they will make sure no fair and free election ever happens again. If this happens in 2018 and we don't take to the streets, I don't think there will be a legitimate 2020.

And the tools are already there. If #BlackLivesMatter, the Women's March, Run for Something, Indivisible, Swing Left, MoveOn, ActBlue, and even Our Revolution and organizations directly affiliated with the Democratic Party, picked a date, we could easily fill the streets.

Would this mass protest work? I have no idea. Congressional Republicans are just fine ignoring the will of the people. I think many of them are also just fine with fascism as long as it's their fascism. I don't know if, when you look at the long arc of human history and governance, liberal democracy progressing towards a truly humanist system of power is actually just a fluke of the last 50 or so years and we are now reverting back to our more standard feudalism. But I do know that if democracy is going to die in America I want to make sure we go down fighting.

Want to help that first path happen? Send a little money to Swing Left's district funds. This money will go to whichever Democrat ends up winning the primary, giving them an immediate boost in resources.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Reading is Resistance: On Tyranny and the Anti-Trump Cottage Industry

The United States of 2017 is not Germany of the 1930s. Our recent martial traumas do not include a humiliating defeat from a bordering long-time adversary. Our economy is not in free fall. We are not subject to destructive sanctions. Our status on the world stage is different. We have technology that allows for the quick organizing of opposition and the spreading of information, as well as an information technology infrastructure that is difficult to control. Even with the massive wealth disparity, as a population, we have more money. Democracy itself is an older, more developed system of government.

There are many reasons why the United States might avoid the rise of fascism in this country when Germany did not, but perhaps the biggest one is that Hitler already happened. We can correlate the strategies with the outcomes. We can compare what Hitler (and Stalin and Mussolini and Franco) did with what the Trump administration is doing. Unlike the Germans of the 1930s, we can say, “Oh, this is the same thing that Hitler did to discredit the press.” Of course, some people are refusing to believe the signs and, of course, some people are quite comfortable with the rise of fascism in America if that fascism embodies white supremacism and/or narcissistic capitalism and/or a theocracy based in their Christianity, but they do that in opposition to what is obvious to the rest of us. In short, we are prepared to prevent a Hitler in this country in ways the Germans simply could not have been.

That is the thesis of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, and, in many ways, of the study of history itself. By knowing how Hitler came to power, by studying the failures of people, not just in Germany but around Europe and, even in the United States (haven't forgotten you, you America First assholes), we can avoid those failures and prevent that rise of power today. As a document, On Tyranny is a pretty handy tool. You can read it straight through, use it as a starting point for greater research, build your life around it, or even just leave it in your bathroom as a constant reminder of what is at stake and what you can do about it. It's the kind of little book that can be life changing in big ways and small ways. I would go so far as to say, even if we do prevent the rise of fascism in the United States, there's a lot in this little book about just living a fully engaged life. (Implying that living a fully engaged life is a barrier against fascism, which has merit. I do wonder about the weight of sadness Trump supporters constantly carry with them.)

But that isn't what I really want to talk about. As important as it is to build anti-fascism into our identities through books about fascism, On Tyranny connects to another trend in America since the 2016 election, one that has been driving me fucking nuts, and one that speaks more to the reaction of Republicans today than any thread of human history.

Publishing is (for many good reasons) a slow industry. It takes a long time to make a book and so it inherently takes a long time to respond to trends and social changes. (Which is also often a good thing.) Publishing is also (for less good reasons) an under-capitalized industry. Books are expensive to produce and under-priced (if you've got all day, I am more than happy to talk about that), which means that publishers often don't have a lot of financial flexibility. This leads to a lot of different practices, but it also means that it is very difficult for publishing to respond in a timely manner to current events, even when they know that response could ultimately be profitable. (Sure, while we're talking about books being under-priced, I'd be happy to explain why the industry could easily churn out a million adult coloring books in, like, six months.)

And yet, within months an entire cottage industry of anti-Trump and resistance literature, like On Tyranny, sprung up. My publisher Melville House (which has some experience in this) crashed an anthology of responses to the election, a history of antifa, and a book about impeachment and has more on the way. Their book on impeachment wasn't even the only one that came out this Fall. There were so many of these books coming out that PSB had a rotating activism/resistance display that was extremely popular with our customers. This really isn't about publishing, but as I saw these books piled on our new nonfiction table, as I thought of the energy it takes to move the wheels in publishing, and as I connected that energy to other events in the world, like thousands of us stupidly throwing money at Jill Stein's recount, an idea emerged that really stuck in my fucking craw.

Why the fuck were any Republicans actively supporting the Trump administration? Americans are so desperate for any kind of resistance to Trump, especially from Republicans, that even mostly meaningless gestures, like Jeff Flakes's, inspire rounds of praise. I mean, imagine if Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain, all of whom pride themselves on their independence and don't particularly need the Republican party establishment to maintain their power, formed a new party right after the election. Or, if not right after the election, some time after it became clear the Russia meddled in our election and that an investigation of the Trump campaign was underway. Or at any point in the year, when the Trump administration did something terrible.

First of all, they would be swamped with applications from Republican strategists, pundits, and staffers. (You know, all the Republicans that are on MSNBC.) I think they would also see other people in Congress (Jeff Flake most likely) join them or at least express sympathy for their cause. They would probably have also been joined by a number of other anti-Trump Republicans, like Ana Navarro, Evan McMullin, and potentially even Mitt Romney. I know I would have called Mass Governor Charlie Baker to let him know he had a new option. But even if just those three in Congress switched, they would immediately become the three most powerful people in Washington as the Republicans would be unable to accomplish anything without them. Sure, Mitch McConnell would almost certainly retaliate by removing them from their committees and refusing to bring any of their bills to the floor but nothing he could do would make their votes any less valuable.

And how they would be praised! Doing this would have pretty much sewn up Time's People of the Year. The entire right-of-center world be talk endlessly about “a new path for conservatism” or something. And think of the New York Times profiles! They'd have to establish a special pension just for copy editors rendered only able to think in synonyms for “brave” and “principled.”

But most importantly, their new party would have been drowning in money. Not just from those who might eventually join said party, but, well, from everyone who has been donating in special elections, donating to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and other organizations actively fighting against the Trump administration, and buying copies of On Tyranny and all of those other books in that anti-Trump cottage industry. The American people have been and for the most part still are desperate to spend money to oppose Trump and a Republican splinter party could have raked in a fuckton of it.

And here's what sticks in my craw. They didn't. Not only did they not form a new political party, they didn't even leave the party to become independents. Not only did they not become independents, but they rubber stamped all of Trump's cabinet nominees, even those who were obviously unqualified and obviously crony appointments. (And they continue to rubber stamp catastrophically unqualified nominees in a way that will cost taxpayers for decades to come. Looking at you unqualified federal judge who is going to get every single one of his decisions appealed.) But they didn't just rubber stamp his appointments, they let their colleagues drag their feet in investigating the election, they did nothing about his raft of toxic executive orders, and they only responded with any amount of courage on anything after massive, sustained, almost unprecedented push back from their constituents.

I mean, if we still have a democracy at the end of this, someone is going to have to lead whatever is left of the Republican party and there are a half dozen or so people who could have grabbed that role. (Who could still grab that role!) It would be so easy and yet they didn't do it. And this is one of the things that keeps me up at night. Not a single fucking one of them did a single meaningful fucking thing. The power was there for the taking. The money was there for the taking. If publishing can turn on a dime and create a whole cottage industry, politicians whose organizations are designed to respond to the whims of the people should have been able to also turn on a dime and capitalize on this opportunity. Shit, if the founders of this new party published a “statement of principles” or something as a book, that would have been the bestselling book in 2017. By a wide margin.

I'm a lefty, so to me, this reveals the fundamental rot at the center of the Republican party. To me, this reveals how decades of coded racism, rhetorical judo, fact-denial, and crony capitalism has rendered even those Republicans ostensibly independent from their party, unable to understand and respond to Trump's threat to America. To me, this fits right into the progress of the Republican Party into a cash cow for con artists scamming old people, authoritarians, theocrats, and narcissistic capitalists. That not a single fucking one of them took this opportunity, to me, is just proof that the process that started with McCarthyism and picked up steam with Nixon's Southern Strategy is reaching an end point. But you can write that off as just anti-Republican bias if you want.

But even if you do, you can't deny one major fact. The American people are so hungry for anti-Trump action that even a slow-moving, under-capitalized industry like publishing can respond quickly to that trend and churn out books like On Tyranny. At the very least we have to ask ourselves why politicians in general and Republicans in particular have not.

I generally like the wrap these pieces up in a way that connects reading to resistance, to show how the act of reading in general and reading specific books give us the tools to fight against the rise of fascism. But this piece is really more about the book industry than the act of reading itself. And the book industry is kinda strange. On the one hand, it is driven by storytelling, by perhaps the fundamental human trait. On the other hand, the contemporary American book industry is relatively new, developing in and around WWII when a perfect storm of lowering material cost, universal literacy, and unprecedented economic growth created an entirely different type of demand than books had ever had. Even then, you'd probably have to argue that publishing is almost entirely different now than it was after WWII, late capitalism having threshed what had been hundreds of publishers into a concentrated handful of tiny fragments of massive other non-book corporations, surrounded by dozens of small presses doing much of the cultural labor. Furthermore, it's hard to know exactly how much of a direct short-term impact book culture and thus the book industry actually has on American society. Sure, many of the most popular and critically acclaimed TV shows and movies started as books and, sure, I would argue the recent growth in great television comes from television applying the storytelling techniques of books and novels, but, all too often, the wider popular culture doesn't know about the bookish origins of their favorite movies and shows and isn't familiar enough with contemporary print storytelling to identify its influence on TV and movies. And, of course, we've all see those dire statistics about who reads books, who buys books, and how many books are read and bought each year.

Regardless, books are fundamental to culture even if their impact isn't always visible, and the health of the industry and what comes out of it says something about American culture. I don't think publishing has ever made a clearer statement. The American people want leaders to fight Trump and they are willing to pay for even the illusion of that fight.

Friday, December 1, 2017

A Unified Theory of Twin Peaks

This is going to be kind of a crazy statement, but puzzling out the madness in Twin Peaks: The Return and fitting it into Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me is relaxing compared to puzzling out the madness of our world and trying to fit a life of activism and art around the demands of our capitalist society.

Part of the fun of Twin Peaks, and similar works of art, is that, by leaving so much ambiguous, by not drawing connections between all of the different events and images, by leaving questions unanswered, Lynch and co invite, even encourage, us to fill in the gaps on our own, to come to our own conclusions, and to fight about those conclusions with the passion of things that are really important to you in the moment, but bear no long term consequences.

So, here is my “Unified Theory of Twin Peaks,” written mostly to give me a way to keep thinking about Twin Peaks and as a way to think about something that is meaningful, but not in the same way as thinking about antia or the literature of resistance or the novel or other art I'm working, drawing from both series, the movie, and both of Mark Frost's accompanying novels. My theory won't answer every question about the world, but I think that is actually part of its strength, that it “explains” things while preserving that Lynchian ambiguity. For a big example, it won't necessarily explain the ending of The Return (though it implies a theory), but it might provide some avenues for consideration. (And also, stay tuned for a Stranger Things cameo.)

Here goes.

There has always been a spirit world existing alongside our own world that sometimes interacts with us. Our spiritual, magical, and religious traditions are evidence of that interaction. Those traditions were, in large part, collections of techniques we used to get that world to help us in some way and to protect us from those aspects of that other world that would harm us. We asked the spirit world for rain and for good harvests and for easy births. We asked the spirit world to keep disease away from us and our animals and to protect us from the attacks of our enemies. Because that world follows different rules than our own, our interpretations of that world flow from our own specific cultures and belief systems. (In Twin Peaks, drawing from Hawk, this other world is described as The Black Lodge and The White Lodge.) As humans got better at technology, we relied less and less on the spirit world to contribute to the success of our endeavors. Why sacrifice a perfectly good goat to a fickle spirit when you can just use fertilizer, crop rotation, and pesticides to ensure a good crop? Or, to put this another way; before modern hygiene we needed beings from the spirit world to protect us from bacteria and viruses. Afterwards, we didn't. A border that had kept relatively thin by constant exchange, got thicker and thicker until, by the early 20th century or so, the only meaningful interaction between our world and the spirit world most of us experienced was in dreams.

Splitting the atom changed all that. The nuclear tests traumatized the border, both creating a new permeability and distorting the nature of that permeability. (I could probably make up some fun quasi-multidimensional physics to “explain” why that would be, but this post is already long enough.) Furthermore, we still continued to interpret our interactions with the spirit world through our current world view. Therefore, all the UFO sightings and alien sightings (which were fundamental to the founding of The Blue Rose Project) weren't beings from outer space but entities that slipped through the new holes in the border between our world and the spirit world. Because we were looking outward to space at the time, we interpreted them as coming from space.

This fundamental act of trauma on the place, coalesced a force of trauma in the spirit world into its own independent entity: BOB. I think we could make the case that BOB is actually an aspect of Joudy that was broken off by the nuclear explosion and that's why, unlike say The Fireman, The Woodsmen, or the various dopplegangers, tulpas, and homunculi, he needs a human host to exist in our world. Perhaps Joudy had a plan for BOB, perhaps BOB was always something Joudy had prepared and was just waiting for a moment when the border between the two worlds was vulnerable to send him in, but given how localized BOB ended up becoming, I don't suspect that was the case. However powerful Joudy actually is, I suspect that, like us in our world, Joudy was also just trying to figure out what it meant to split the atom.

Obviously, the government was watching the test very closely. “Blue Rose,” is the name of the ongoing investigation into the strange phenomena that followed the nuclear blast, especially those phenomena that we originally suspected to be extraterrestrial. (In a way, they were.) From the Secret History of Twin Peaks, we get the longer arc of the story of The Blue Rose project, and specifically it's relation to longtime Twin Peaks resident Douglas Milford, but nothing in that necessarily contradicts my theory.

This traumatized border doesn't exist in a vacuum. The border has always been thinner at some places than others such as Twin Peaks, specifically the cave with the map in the mountains and the Ghost Wood Forest. This is one reason why so many strange things happen in Twin Peaks and might even be why BOB eventually found its way there. Perhaps being that close to the spirit world made BOB more powerful. This thin barrier had other impacts on Twin Peaks as well, most notably with Douglas Milford, Margaret Coulson (the Log Lady), and The Great Northern. We might also be able to conclude that the trauma of the nuclear test actually punched a hole through the barrier, at the circle of trees that Cooper uses to enter the Black Lodge. From The Return, we can assume that Las Vegas (which as Atomic City makes perfect sense), Buckthorn, South Dakota, The Dutchman's Lodge, and maybe even Odessa, TX were older nodes of interaction between the worlds. And, we can also assume that so was New York, because there's clearly a portal in the glass box. Perhaps also Buenos Aries as that's where Philip Jeffries disappears from.

Everyone in both worlds had to figure out the new relationship. The reason why it often looks as though characters are just wandering around in a new space is because that's exactly what they are doing. The spirit world continued to evolve and change even after we stopped interacting with it, so the figures we would expect from our traditions have also changed. This is on top of the trauma created by the nuclear blast. Entities in the spirit world have new and shifting responsibilities and powers and a big part of Twin Peaks is less about people figuring this shit out and more about entities of the spirit world, like The Arm, The Evolution of the Arm, The Fireman, and The Woodsmen, figuring it out.

Finally, it's clear that, though the story of Laura Palmer was the center of gravity, this isn't just her story. She ends up being a linchpin for the events we see, but, especially in The Return, you get the sense that there is a lot more happening out in the world in relation to these forces than what we see. For example, from The Final Dossier we learn that Philip Jeffries might still have been pursuing Blue Rose investigations with Ray Monroe, so what's up with that? There's also the monster that comes out of the glass box in New York. As far as I've seen, it's still out there. And how was The Double able to set up such a massive crime syndicate? In some ways, the Twin Peaks story was never about people so much as it was about forces and spaces.

Obviously, this doesn't specifically explain everything: why the green glove? What's up with owls? Where was Major Briggs? Where is Philip Jefferies? What was the deal with the Woodsmen? But it provides a structural explanation: the border between the spirit world and our world was totally fucked, a fundamental evil traveled to the wrong world, and everybody who is good is trying to figure out a way to stop it. Laura Palmer was clearly one attempt to stop BOB. So were all the efforts to reach Agent Cooper. So was, I think, the Log Lady. Some of the things that might seem random are really just attempts by the forces of the spirit world to deal with BOB that don't go anywhere. To put this another way: Twin Peaks is a story about brainstorming solutions to a traumatic problem.

Two things I like about this “unified theory.” First, it doesn't exclude further exploration and explanation. Even if we assume this explains the overall state of the world, we can still ask questions about, say, electricity or Chet Desmond, or sheriff Harry Truman and we can still come to different answers that are consistent with this world. In many ways, this unified theory simply gives a structure for answering and exploring these other questions. Second, it opens the world up to further exploration, even if Lynch is done working within it. Imagining Philip Jeffries as a kind of Constantine in the spirit world? Have at it. Web comic following the reincarnated Log Lady (or the Log itself using the death of its caretaker to create a new human host body for itself)? Yes please. An anthology collection of stories imagining other stuff coming out of that weird box in New York? Why not? What are the Chalfons up to? Somehow Diane gets back and teams up with Tammy to shred the patriarch? Obviously that's a thing that should happen. I'm sure one of you could come up with something. If we can have dozens of novels, comics, and video games set in the Star Wars universe (some of them quite good, many of them at the very least fun and enjoyable) why can't we have something similar from the Twin Peaks universe?

Secondly, it also preserves the possibility that the ending was actually a fairly traditional, if obscured, dramatic twist ending. Like this: What we have been watching was not the interaction between the spirit world and our world, but JUST THE SPIRIT WORLD. Why should we assume that this other world is radically different from ours? Wouldn't it make as much sense if it were just slightly off, if it were an uncanny valley version of our world? I mean, did we see any other animals at all besides owls. There's a lot of talk of the “pine weasel” in season 2, but do we ever seen one in real life? Does anyone have a pet? Do we ever see a dog? Isn't that really weird? So, when Cooper wakes up as “Richard,” he has actually passed through a border (in the basement in the Great Northern) into our world. Rather than one of us going into the spirit world to solve one of our problems, an agent of the spirit world has come into ours to solve one of theirs. So the ending is actually an agent of the spirit world (which would have no problem with a dead guy in the living) using a human equivalent (the older Laura Palmer) to finally solve the problem of BOB in its world and maybe succeeding or maybe failing.

Or something else entirely. Storytelling often relies on a series of assumptions that make sure the plot moves towards a satisfying conclusion. The villains always have bad aim, the hero never catches malaria, and the crazy plan works exactly the way it is supposed even the parts that only have, like a 1% chance of success. But in Twin Peaks, it seems to me like David Lynch has jettisoned those assumptions and essentially shown us a “slice of life,” story with everyone just trying to figure shit out, at a point in time when shit was getting really weird. Which creates a very different kind of satisfaction, when we got to that final scream, one based not on closure, but on potential.

Bonus Stranger Things Tie-In

Let's set the Twin Peaks and Stranger Things in the same world, shall we?

So, obviously, the Upside Down is the spirit world in Twin Peaks. It doesn't look like the “spirit world,” because access to it is not through one of the existing permeable borders that has been shaped by human thought and culture. In essence, the Upside Down, is what the spirit world looks like when it's appearance is not shaped by a transfer of culture facilitated by older, longer used portals. Because a new gate was just ripped in a random location, we can enter the spirit world as it is, and beings of the spirit world can escape it without adopting a mediated form. It is, of course, also possible that the spirit world has geography just our world does, even if it operates in a different way, and the Upside Down is just in a different “place” in the spirit world than The Black Lodge. (I still prefer to think of the Shadow Monster as being Joudy's true form.) If we go with the “they're also just trying to figure shit out” theory from above, then we could be watching just another version of the spirit world figuring out how to handle its traumatized border. Maybe some beings in it feel as though the nuclear bomb was a direct attack and the opening of the gate was an opportunity for a counter attack. Perhaps there are those in the spirit world who want power over our world again. Perhaps the spirit world is becoming a dangerous place to live and some of its residents are thinking of immigrating.

But, because I'm having fun, I want to take this imagined world one step further, obviously by extrapolating from recent research into the neurology of meditation.

From above, before science solved most of the day-to-day problems of survival, humans got help from the spirit world. We interacted with the spirit world through spells and rituals. Essentially spells and rituals consisted of specific words said and/or bodily movements taken and repeated in specifically delineated intervals. Sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn't and when washing our hands kept us from dying with more consistency than performing spells, we stopped performing spells.

Meditation (the repetition of certain words and phrases in a certain bodily position at specifically delineated intervals) produces special kinds of brain waves (theta waves) not seen in daily life. (Knitting can as well, which is, yep, specific bodily movements repeated in specifically delineated intervals.) Therefore, it wasn't the words or movements or even the sacrifices of the spells or rituals that made contact with the spirit world and leveraged its help, but the special brain waves the spells or rituals created.

Eleven doesn't need meditation, spells, or rituals, to engage the brain waves that interact with the spirit world. Thanks to super science, she can just engage them. That's why she can “travel” to listen in on conversations, find people from pictures, throw people around, tear open a gate, close a gate, and interact directly with the beings from the spirit world. Whatever Papa and the other scientists did to her brain, turned her, literally, into a mage.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Little Ditty 'Bout Joe & Rachel

It has been a long time since my hometown of Lewiston, Maine has had a bookstore, so when Quiet City Books opened a few years ago, I was extremely excited. Lewiston is one of those New England mill towns that has been rebuilding and redeveloping and still struggling for decades and the ability to support a bookstore would at least imply that some of that long process of transitioning from a factory economy into whatever comes next is beginning to take. (Lewiston also now has great craft beer. Maybe a “craft beer and local bookstores are the pioneer plants for a local economy” post should be in the works.)

It took me a couple of years, but I was finally able to get to Quiet City. It sells almost exclusively used books, though it also sells books by local authors on consignment. Wanting Lewiston to have a bookstore, I did some shopping there. I bought a book of poetry by a friend of mine, The Keep by Jennifer Egan, a mystery by Rex Stout (that I left in Maine for my mom), The House of Suns by Alistair Reynolds (because there is something fun about buying mass market sci fi at a used bookstore) and then a book I had never heard of by a someone I had never heard of but it was poetry and it was in translation. So, you know, by internet law I had to buy it.

It was Le Contre-Ciel by Rene Daumal. Daumal was a French poet roughly contemporary with the Surrealists who experimented with radical negation (including intense experimentation with drugs) as a kind of course through non-being into true being. Daumal also became a staunch critic of Breton and the Surrealists, seeing them as unwilling (or unable) to actually produce works drawn from experimentation with their principles, which makes him A-OK in my book. (Dada or GFTO.) It was also, as I discovered later, inscribed on the inside of the front cover.

Think, for a second, what it would mean to give a book of radical, experimental self-negation to your boyfriend, to say to him “You are my heart,” and to sign it “Love.” There are many reasons to give a book to someone you love and many messages you can convey. You can use a book to describe your feelings about them or your feelings about the relationship. You can reference a shared experience or memory. You can encapsulate your hopes. But you can also open yourself up and say to someone “This is important to me, this is a part of who I am, this is something you need to know in order to know me.” Sharing a part of yourself in this way puts you in a very vulnerable position. It is a risk even when you've been with someone for a while and no matter what the book is. A powerful, beautiful risk. And Rachel took it. Daumal died young, probably in part because of his experiments with drugs, and he wrote formally experimental poetry that sought to erase the self and the self of being to reach some grander truth in a new verdant void, and he didn't abide Breton's bullshit and Rachel wrote “You are my heart,” in it and gave it to Joe. She had to be telling him something important about her.

There are some other possibilities of course. Rachel and Joe could have talked about the book prior to the gifting. They could have talked about poetry. Maybe Joe was really into Breton and the Surrealists and Rachel wanted to show him what else was happening in and around that movement. Or perhaps he was really into Rimbaud or Genet and Rachel wanted to show him a lesser known French poet who also lived an extreme life. But do you inscribe “You are my heart,” when you are continuing a conversation about poetry? I supposes it's possible, but, most likely, to my schmaltzy book-heart, only after you've inscribed several other books with "You are my heart" in English and this had become something of a standard inscription from Rachel to Joe.

Regardless, this leads us to the next big question: How much of a piece of shit is Joe, right? Unless he's dead. If he's dead and the book was sold off as part of his estate then he's not a piece of shit. (Or, rather, this particular bit of his personal narrative doesn't prove he is a piece of shit.) Sure, they probably broke up, and maybe even the break up was Rachel's fault, and maybe he got rid of the book with everything else that reminded him of her as we sometimes must purge ourselves of the ephemera of painful relationships, but, I don't know. Something about the phrasing and the book itself suggests to me, at least, that Joe is, at best, a piece of shit who just didn't understand how beautiful and powerful this gift was and, at worst, a piece of shit who was intimidated that his girlfriend knew more obscure French poetry than he did and rather than using it as an opportunity to grow, he read a handful of pages, dismissed Daumal as derivative of the poets he assumes he introduced to Rachel, (Trust me, Joe, Rachel heard of Artaud and Cesaire, she just choose not to interrupt you.) and got rid of the book on the sly.

Of course, there is no way for me to know for sure what went down between Joe and Rachel, but they still left traces of their story on this book. Rachel imbued the book with her love and gave it to Joe and then something happened. If nothing else, we know Rachel loved this book. There is something about holding a book you know someone else loved. As much as we spend our time and attention on screens we are still bodies interacting with space and objects and those interactions leave traces. For all of the other advances made by the book as technology, its ability to retain and transmit these interactions will be the hardest (if it's possible at all) to replicate digitally. Gift inscriptions. Notes in the margins. Underlined passages. Receipts, postcards, pictures, notes used as bookmarks and left behind. The discoloration the oils from skin causes on the paper. Setting an old book down on its spine and seeing where it opens. And even if the traces don't provide anything close to a full story, they still tell you that someone else held this book before you did, they still ground you in a past, and connect you to other readers and other people in the future.

And not only that, but these traces are then scattered throughout the book world to be stumbled into randomly. And that randomness becomes part of the story. Maybe this connects to our time as hunter/gatherers when any good fortune was treated as a gift from the gods because it was the difference between life and death or maybe this doesn't have any psychological or rational explanation but there is something to seeing a book cover that “just grabs you,” and there is something about a song coming on the radio at the right moment and there is something about buying a book for some reason you don't quite remember and discovering it has information you need to know or tells a story you need to hear. We are storytelling animals and odds are pretty fucking good that not a single one of us is living a life that fits into the storytelling structures we prefer, but then there are these moments when it finally does feel like a narrator taking control and putting the right thing in front of you. These moments of connection can be motivation for the next chapter in your life.

A new chapter in the story of Joe and Rachel is now, "Josh randomly found the book in Quiet City and spent way too fucking long trying to figure out the shit that went down between Joe and Rachel." And just to add another level, the first poem in the book features short stanzas in verse followed by a kind of tangential exegesis in italicized prose, which (again randomly) speaks to one of my current poetic projects. At this point, it's too early in my reading of the book and in my work on this project to know what, if anything, is transferred from one to the other, but, through this book, at this moment, it feels like I fell through the floor but landed in the secret chamber like a hero in a story. And then some day, I'll die, and this book will go somewhere, with the inscription and, at the very least, the bookmark I've added to it and through this object the saga of Joe and Rachel will continue.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

An Open Letter to Male Rugby Players

I remember heading down to a basement in one of the buildings just off campus, maybe still a little dehydrated from the game, definitely still a little sore from the game. We played drinking games and sang songs. The drinking games were played by all types and groups of college students, but the songs were just for us, secret songs known only to rugby players. (Maybe a few known only to St. Mike's ruggers.) The drinking games, the nicknames, the songs, the rituals; all of these are why the rugby team felt more like a community than a team, why rugby players form lifelong connections with their teammates. I've played a lot of different sports and for a lot of different teams and none of them forged the connection like the rugby team and a big part of that connection was the drinking, the rituals, the nicknames, and the songs.

Some of those songs depict sexual assault.

In isolation, no one could take those songs seriously. They are sung in a very specific context. The violence is ridiculous, even cartoonish, and most of it is designed to explicitly test the bounds of taste, to be vulgar for vulgarity's sake, to be something you would never, ever say in public, to be more like a secret handshake that declares membership in a club than anything else. But they are not sung in isolation.

They are sung in the world where a man can brag about sexual assault and still be elected President of the United States; a world where powerful men can abuse women for decades and face no consequences; a world in which, as #MeToo has shown (here and here), virtually every woman in America has faced some form of harassment and/or assault.

There are other songs. Sing those instead.

Don't get me wrong. I know rugby songs seems like a pretty small part of the problem of misogyny, but, given that I'm speaking to a group of men some of us, whether we know it or not, are occasional or serial harassers, some of us, whether we know it or not, are occasional or serial assaulters, and some of us, (and again I have to say this) whether we know it or not, are Weinsteins, Cosbys, and Trumps. Furthermore, a lot of those songs are sung on college campuses where sexual assault is an epidemic. We all learned that behavior somewhere. Odds are, we probably learned it long before our first rugby match, but that doesn't absolve those later forces and behaviors and rituals that reinforce, support, and apologize for those crimes.

Because the permission to depict cartoonish sexual violence against women as meaningless and the permission to put your hands on your co-worker's shoulders and press down in a way that shows her how much stronger and how much bigger you are than she is come from the same place: the belief that women are not fully human.

There are other songs. Sing those instead.

It has been fifteen years since I sang songs in a basement, so perhaps this has changed. Other circumstances have prevented me from playing rugby since then. Perhaps these songs are no longer sung. Perhaps, one by one, in team after team across the country, someone stepped forward, said something, started a conversation, had a meeting, and excised those songs from their repertoire. If that is the case, then it is time to step forward and lead, because we desperately need male leaders and male voices. Share your process with the school newspaper or the town newspaper. Put a statement on your website. Offer to meet with other teams to help them start their own conversations. Organize a league-wide training. Bring that training to other sports. Use our professional and social networks to steer other men away from harassment and assault. And—I know you had some great times with them, I know they were there in the rucks, in the goal line stands, walking you back to your dorm—don't let the men who abuse women leverage those networks for personal or professional gain. You don't have to hire them. You don't have to give their name to your boss. You don't have to connect them with your friend in the Chicago office. 

This also could have been a passive process. Perhaps you're on a team that never sang those songs. Perhaps they just fell out of fashion as things just kind of fall out of fashion. Make a statement anyway. Share how you don't miss them. Start a newsletter and send those other songs around. Confront the history. Be public and explicit. And then, if you think you've done all you can around this particular aspect of misogynist culture, find another one and work on that.

We talk a big fucking game about how rugby prepares us for life, how rugby prepares us to lead, how strong our community is. Time to back that talk up. Time to show the strength our community by leading other men. Time to collect our own.

There are other songs. Sing those instead.

At the very least, if you still sing them, have a team meeting to talk about these songs. You'll probably find a few guys were just mouthing the words the whole time because the songs made them uncomfortable but they were afraid to say something. There's a chance that they were uncomfortable because they were sexually assaulted in their lives. Maybe that's why that one guy quit.

Whatever decision you come to, the conversation at the meeting is important. I mean, there's a difference between vulgarity and violence just like there's a difference between a dirty song and a sexist song and maybe you guys will be able to hash that out. Maybe you'll get to how big, strong men use their bodies in the world in ways that threaten and oppress women, often explicitly because we are not thinking about our size and strength.  (I mean, if you have the bodily control to keep your feet in the ruck, you can move in a way that doesn't crowd into the space of the women you work with.) Who knows where your conversation will go, but it has to happen.

I know it seems like a small change, a change so small as to almost be pointless. One aspect, of one part, of one sub-culture. How many men would this really impact? A few thousand? Maybe a few tens of thousands? Why bother, right? All big change is just a bunch of small changes stacked on top of each until some critical mass is reached. More importantly, big policy changes can only do so much. Misogyny is an aspect of our laws and our policies and how those laws and policies are applied, but it is also, perhaps in greater part, an aspect of those behaviors that laws and policies can't reach. You can't really pass a law about how close we stand to our coworkers in the break room, about how many times we can ask a woman on a date after she says “no,” about physical contact we can pretend was an accident, was friendly, was just joking around. Fixing it at the government level will only accomplish so much if we don't fix it at the personal level, at the water-cooler level, at the work party-level, at the rugby party in the basement level.

There are other songs. Sing those instead.

The strength of the rugby community presents us with an opportunity to do the real work, to make a real difference. It is a strength to be honest with each other. A strength to be honest with ourselves. If you've already done this, a strength to take your good work public and lead other men. The strength to demonstrate a different kind of masculinity. The strength to show what "strength" and "toughness" and "masculinity" can be next.

And, I have to ask: if getting rid of a handful of stupid, silly songs no one is supposed to take seriously tears the community apart, how strong was that community to begin with?

What exactly does this cost you? There are other songs. Write new songs. Sing those instead.

As rugby players respond, I will update this post with corrections, stories, strategies, and whatever else moves the conversation forward.  

Biographic Note: For those who don't know me, I played for three and a half seasons at Saint Michael's College in Vermont during a time when (at least I think so) our program took some big steps forward in terms of quality of play. I was in the pack, starting out as a prop, then a flanker, and playing eight my senior year. Though I was forwards captain my senior year and felt I was a member of my team's community, I was also, slightly set apart. For example, I refused to participate in any hazing. If I didn't want to be in a boat race I wasn't. (Often I did.) If I didn't want to sing a song, I didn't. (Often I did.) My nickname was "The Prophet." I tried to play a few times after college, but I could never get the logistics to work out. The teams in the Boston area all practiced in places that were extremely difficult to get to and I ended up working second shift at my job meaning making practices would have been tough even if they were convenient to get to. I now work Saturdays and, as you all know, Saturday is rugby day. I'm sharing this because I want to be honest about how relatively thin my connection to rugby has become. I could be wrong about those songs. I want to be wrong about those songs. So, I invite responses and corrections. If we have excised that bit of misogyny from our culture, we should share how we did it. We should lead by example.


Other athletes are stepping up and taking leadership roles. For those of you who are more active players, check out Athletes for Impact.

Another friend of mine shared MAP on her timeline. They also run offer a free Coaching for Change online course.