Thursday, September 27, 2018

Your Hero Opportunity

Most of the time, it's hard to know the real value of what you do. For most of us, we know that whatever we did today was good enough or at least not bad enough that we kept our jobs for another day, that our marriages stayed together another day, that we got the kids back and forth to school, and as important is it is to do all of those things, it's hard to know exactly whether what we said was good or just good enough, whether what we did was right or just not so wrong someone would say something about it. With the exception of professions like nurses, doctors, EMTs, soldiers, fire fighters, pilots, and a few others and very rare cases like car accidents and natural disasters, we can only guess at whether or not what we did was the best thing we could have done.

And, that's fine. For me, one of the primary skills we need to develop to live fulfilling lives is a base level of comfort with ambiguity. Honestly, I'd go even further and say some of the most destructive forces in human society, fascism, racism, theocracy, are based in creating a false sense of certainty. They are supported by and destructive because they create these certainties upon which people then live their lives, regardless of the consequences or impacts their actions may have on others.

Which is a long way to say that ambiguity is not a problem and not something I routinely try to remove from my life and my writing.

There is no ambiguity here. There is no doubt. Even in this postmodern, post-structuralist, deconstructed world, there is a right thing to do.

We've all wondered, in various lexicons and with various fantastic or realistic scaffolding, what we would do if we were put in a life and death situation, if we were given a dramatic choice, if we were called on to be a hero.

There may not be an actual ticking time bomb, their may not be flames or car chases or dearly beloveds dangling from cliffs, but this is your life or death moment, this is your hero opportunity and what you must do is clear.

You must vote Democrat in every race this election. If you always vote Democrat, if you always vote Republican, if you mix it up, if you vote third party, if you don't vote, if you've never voted before, the right thing for you to do, the heroic thing for you to do is vote for every Democrat on your ballot.

If you're reading this, odds are you already planning on doing that. I don't know if I have the eloquence and insight to breakthrough to those of you who are not already planning to vote Democrat this fall, but you can't succeed if you don't try. That said, I know there are some of you who will never vote Democrat, who will always vote Republican, and this is the part where I'm supposed to say that I respect you and that we're supposed to find common ground, but I don't, there is no meaningful common ground, and though I will applaud those of you who undertake the long and difficult personal journey away from this current incarnation of Republicanism, right now your votes are literally tearing families apart, literally destroying our system of government, literally traumatizing millions of your friends, neighbors, and family members, and literally killing people and if Fox News is protecting you from that truth my little blog post isn't going to bust in.

So I'm going to focus on three types of people who might not vote for Democrats in November.

I Oppose the Two-Party System
How much has voting third-party or abstaining from elections done to diminish the power of the two-party system over the last twenty years or so? How many Green Party members are there in Congress? Governors? State legislatures?

Listen the two-party system is undemocratic, has pushed American policy far to the right of the American public actually believes, and fundamentally stifles the conversation around policy and legislation, but how does helping Republicans maintain power, despite the fact that most Americans do not support the Republican agenda, push us towards a multi-party system? In fact, because Republicans are actually disenfranchising voters, specifically progressive voters, on top of everything else, empowering Republicans by voting third-party or abstaining from voting actually hinders our ability to transition to a multi-party system.

If you really want to begin diminishing the power of the two-party system, vote for very Democrat on your ballot and then do whatever you can in your state to reform your elections to include ranked choice voting or instant run-off elections. It is a popular idea, it won on the ballot in Maine, and it is the first step in breaking through the two-party system.

The Democrats Are Whores to [Insert Special Interest Here]
With the exception of radical conspiracy theorists, you're also probably right. Contemporary politics is a money game and in contemporary American capitalism very few good people have the kind of money it takes to influence politics. Look behind your favorite Democrat politician and there's probably at least one really bad corporation or industry (probably pharma) donating to them.

But does that put them on par with what Republicans do? Really? Does the fact that many (but not all!) Democrats take money from problematic corporations really mean that the Trump administration is acceptable? Is your ideological purity worth all of this collateral damage?

Furthermore, as above, how does helping Republicans remain in power by voting third-party or abstaining from voting help get money out of politics? Do you see any Republicans at any level advocating for campaign finance reform? Cause I don't.

So, vote for every Democrat on your ballot this Fall and help get money out of politics by donating to politicians that reject corporate and PAC donations and pushing for campaign finance reform in your state.

I Don't Care
Someone you love does.

The most important voters in America are nonvoters, those who are eligible, but don't. There are lots of reasons for this, many of which come from structural impediments to voting (many of which are intentional) so I'm not really talking to those who are logistically prevented from voting (but let me break in here to say, do whatever you can. Lyft will take you to the polls, Get out the Vote organizations will get you there, coordinate with your boss, your coworkers whatever, because, honestly, you might not get another chance to vote.).

Whatever reason you have for not caring, whether it's that feel as though your vote doesn't matter, or that no politicians represent you specifically, or whatever is fine and I'm not going to try to argue against that idea. I don't know what matters to you so I have no idea how to make you care.

Someone you love cares. Someone you love was traumatized by what happened yesterday in the Kavanaugh hearing. Someone you love was traumatized when the Access Hollywood tape didn't end Trump's campaign. Someone you love is terrified because they emigrated here recently or are first generation or just happen to have a Hispanic sounding name and there is a real chance ICE could sweep them up. Someone you love is scared of the uptick in hate crimes, someone you love is scared of LGBT information being scrubbed from federal websites, someone you love is scared their asthma will become unmanageable if the air quality regulations are eliminated, someone you love is scared of dying from an illegal abortion. Someone you love has gained weight and lost sleep and felt a pit with sharp edges in their stomachs for what feels like forever and someone you love will never be the same again the way our grandparents who lived through the Great Depression would keep old junk in their basements because they could never quite shake the fear of bread lines.

Maybe politics doesn't actually affect you. Maybe you have good reasons to not care. Maybe those reasons are good enough for whatever logistical challenges you face to voting to count as a hassle.

Fine. Whatever.

But you are not the only person in your life. If you're not going to vote Democrat for yourself, vote Democrat for someone you love. And let's put a rational self-interest spin on this too. If Republicans hold on to the House and Senate, someone you love will look up from weeping and ask you if you voted yesterday and your relationship with them will never be the same if you say, “no.” Shit, vote Democrat for someone I love. I mean, if it really and truly doesn't matter to you, why not make my grandmother's day?

Your Opportunity
So this is your opportunity to be a hero. I won't say we're lucky to have this opportunity and I won't say we should be thankful our opportunity is so easy to capitalize on, but here it is. Our chance to do something great.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Turinng the NHL Into a Two-Tier League

For fun, let's imagine restructuring the NHL into two-tiers, sort of like professional soccer leagues around the world. There would be a Premier League (or Prince of Wales division, see what I did there.) and a Second League (or Adams division). Reorganizing the league this way would greatly reduce the number of “meaningless games” during the regular season and reduce the value of “tanking,” while producing more potentially exciting games and more interesting interactions between the teams, and, give the league a structure for incorporating all the expansion they're desperate to do. You'll see how all of that could happen as I get in to the details.

First, some basics.

36 teams, 18 in the Prince of Wales Division and 18 in the Adams Division. Each division would be divided into an East and West conference of 9 teams each. (This will also work just fine with a 32 team league, though the playoff structure would have to be redone.) Only the teams in the Prince of Wales (or Adams, doesn't really matter to me what the premier division is called) will be eligible to compete for the Stanley Cup (more on the playoff structure soon). (Obviously, the Adams division will have it's own playoffs, again more on that later.) All the teams will play every other team in the league at least once, but no team will play any team in the other division more than twice. (With the extra game being for “natural rivalries” between teams in different divisions, say, going from this year, Calgary and Edmonton.) In theory, once this is in place, you could keep adding teams as much as you want. Just keep the PoW at 18 and stick as many expansion teams as you want the Adams division and adjust the playoff structure accordingly. In theory, you could even add another tier if you wanted to.

The draft lottery would work essentially the same as it does now, with the entire league drafting together, so the last place team in the Adams would have the best chance at the first pick. Trades could also happen between divisions (more on that later.) Every team makes the playoffs within its division with one exception (more on that later). There will be a system of relegation and promotion (more on that later). That's pretty much the basics.

Let's get into the weeds.

Let's start hashing things out by getting the League up to 36 teams and dividing them into the two divisions. The league has 31 teams at the moment, so we'll need five more to get there. Here are the cities that I think should get teams: Seattle (since it seams like they're going to get one anyway), Quebec City and Hartford (since they already had teams), Hamilton (since there has been some momentum around a team in Hamilton for years now, but for some reason we care about what the Sabers think), and...

a team owned by the NHL located in some city that wins some crazy-ass year long competition. Does Montreal have room for a second team? (Maybe.) Does Boston? (No.) Could somewhere small, but with hockey history like Saskatoon (birth place of Gordie Howe) make a case? Is there another Las Vegas hiding somewhere? (Branson?) PEI? Madison? A team shared by the Dakotas? Lake Superior? New England? And if, after some reasonable amount of time (5 years, let's say), that city, can't support an NHL hockey team, well, they just hold the contest again. The operations of the team would be independent of the NHL, but the NHL could potentially use it as a kind of ambassador team. Moving it around North America (or beyond), and trying out new things (ticket packages, carbon neutral arenas, municipal stakes a la the Green Bay Packers). Maybe this makes it hard to keep top talent and compete, but, well somebody's got to be last and if somebody's got to be last it might as well be a team that is also doing interesting things for the game of hockey.

Once we have all the teams we'll need to divide them into the two divisions. So, the PoW division would be composed of the original 6, plus the next 12 teams with the highest total of regulation and overtime wins over the last, say, five seasons. Yes, this means that an undeserving team or two might get bumped for an original-6 team that's had a bad run of late, but I honestly can't imagine starting out with any number of original six teams without a shot at the Stanley Cup. If they play their way into regulation after the league has been reorganized, well, that's on them. (Every redemption story, starts with a fall.)

The long term wins total, as opposed to say, the end of season ranking, is a way to reward long term success and prevent a good franchise that just happens to be going through a rebuilding year or two from being relegated and a bad franchise that happens to get a few good bounces down the stretch from being promoted.

With the divisions and conferences set, the regular season plays as it does now, with the scheduling exception described above. Oh, and while I've got you: 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for an overtime win, 1 point for an overtime loss, and...1.5 points for a shootout win.

The first thing one might object to, to this current structure is there isn't really a playoff race. Every team will end up in some form of playoff, either for the Stanley Cup or whatever the Adams division trophy is called. (The Kenora Cup, perhaps.) The only thing the regular season will decide, in terms of the specific season, is the seeding going into the playoffs. But that seeding will be significant and whether a franchise is safely in the PoW or in jeopardy of being relegated will be determined by their seeding. Let's see how that works.

First of all, the top seeds in the Adams East & West conferences will play the 9th seeds in the PoW East & West conferences in a one game playoff. We could have both games played on the same day, maybe a Sunday, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. This essentially creates a hockey holiday, in which pretty much all hockey fans are watching both games and both games are absolutely vital for both teams. Think of how much money the bars in Canada would make on this day. Think of the parties. Think of how much fun that would be, to be with a group of neutrals and just pick a team to root for. Think of the parties the winning teams' fans throw. Think of the parties the losing teams' fans throw! The NHL could even throw a whole bunch of weird and awkward ceremonies all over the place and it would still be about as much fun as you can possibly have as a hockey fan.

The winners of these one-game playoffs, face the 8th seeds in the PoW East and West conferences in a best of five series. The winner of that series enters the official Stanley Cup Playoffs as the 8th seed. Depending on the situation, what happens in those playoff games and in that series, could have huge implications for the teams involved, but I'll get into the more when I get to relegation and promotion. And then it's a regular 8 team playoff. 1 plays 8, 2 plays 7 and so forth.

I want to point out one other benefit to this playoff structure: ta da! We have created a bye-week at the end of the season for seeds 1-7. One of the things no one really acknowledges about the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that, often, it's the good team that happens to be healthiest that wins. A bye-week doesn't solve all of the health problems that can impact the results of the playoffs but it mitigates them, at least a little bit. Every 1-7 team will have a week to give their legs a chance to rest, to recover from small injuries, to get their goalies off their feet a little bit. And since there will be hockey going on during that time, it's not like it would be dead time for the league or the fans.

And how about the difference between the 7th seed and the 8th seed? Significant games indeed.

Most of the new significance, though, will come from the relegation and promotion system, so let's do that now.
First of all, the Stanley cup winner is protected from relegation for two years. (Success should be rewarded.) Conference champs will be protected for one year. (So, you know, they can finally all touch the conference trophies.)

If an Adams Division team wins its way into the Stanley playoffs, it is promoted to PoW and the 9th seed of the PoW is relegated to the Adams. Now the difference between the 8th and 9th seed in the PoW conferences is massive. Furthermore, in the Adams division, the difference between 1 & 2 is huge, as 2 doesn't even get a shot at promotion. But wait, there's more.

As above, the Stanley Cup winner is protected from relegation for two years. So they are not eligible for relegation, even if they end up 9th in their conference, and even if they lose that one game playoff. If that happens, the 8th seed is made eligible for relegation. If they lose that subsequent playoff series, they are relegated instead. So, if a Stanley Cup winner struggles at the beginning of the season, the significance between 7 & 8 is huge (on top of the significance of the by-week), as the 8th seed could become eligible for relegation. But, also from above, it is possible for a PoW conference to have two teams protected from relegation in the same season; the Stanley Cup champ from two seasons ago, and the conference champion from the preceding season.

What happens if they're both terrible? And the 1 seed from the Adams beats them both. We can't have that team play the 7th place team to settle the relegation issue, as that would wreck the playoff structure. So in that (most likely) rare case, if the Adams team wins more total playoff games than the 7th seed PoW team, they are promoted and the 7th PoW team is relegated. This means, that not only is difference between 6 & 7 significant, but, we could find ourselves with two playoff series where 4-1 is significantly different from 4-0. We could also see (again highly unlikely) a conference final in which the winner is protected from relegation for one year and goes on to the Stanley Cup finals and the loser is relegated.

So, now, through this system two-tiered system, there is a huge difference between the 9th and 8th place teams in the PoW, as moving up to 8th most of the time protects you from being relegated, and there is a huge difference between 8th and 7th because the 7th place team dodges that extra playoff series and is even more likely to be safe from relegation than the 8th seed, and, in rare years when two protected teams are bad, the difference between 7th and 6th is now everything.

In the Adams division, teams that would normally be churning through their season without a shot at either the playoffs or the top draft choice, will have something to play for as the difference between 2nd and 1st will also be huge. The 2nd place team, settles for playing for the Kenora Cup (look it up!) and the first place team gets a shot at promotion.

The primary goal of this reorganization of the NHL is the create more meaningful games over the course of the season and the playoffs, and so we could see a last week of the season or even last day of the season, in which massive rewards are played for, and playoff wins that are significant even in playoff series losses. Sure, there might still be some tanking, but that would only be at the bottom of the Adams division. And you know what, that's fine. They're the bottom of the Adams division.

As you can see, promotion is actually pretty difficult to achieve. You could have a team do well for several seasons, and just choke in the one-game playoff. Likewise, you could have a team hanging out in 9th place for awhile, getting saved from relegation over and over again by 8th place teams. Or who knows what else could happen? So, I'm also totally on board with the idea of a semi-regular reassessment of the tiers, maybe every five or six years, in which some quorum of significant members of the league (owners, managers, coaches, players, scouts, journalists, etc.) get together and, through some formalized and transparent process, consider promoting and relegating teams outside of this structure.

For the most part, trades and the salary cap would work in the exact same way they do now. (However that is.) There would be trade deadlines and trades could happen across divisions. Free agency would work the same way, though, of course, Adams division teams would have a tougher time signing top name players, but, for the most part, things would look the same. But I would introduce one wrinkle, specifically around “rental” players.

A “rental” period would be open sometime after the formal trade deadline, but, only trades between the divisions would be allowed. This would give PoW teams a chance to stock up for the playoffs AND give good players stuck on Adams division teams an extra chance to end up in the playoffs. But let's add another wrinkle. PoW would be able to include “cash considerations” in their trade, however, that cash paid to the Adams division team would count against their cap for the year. (Who knows, maybe that's how it works already. I certainly don't understand all the cap rules and well, I'm not going to look it up.) But it will be different for the Adams team.

The Adams team would tag that as cap-free salary and as long as they apply it to players salaries it is excluded from cap considerations until it is “spent.” Here's how that would work. Say a PoW team sends a prospect and $10 million in cash to an Adams team. The Adams team could then use that money to bump up the salary of a youngish top-pair defenseman approaching the end of his contract by $5 million a year for two years. Or if they think they can play themselves into promotion with one big free agent signing, they can pay someone an extra $10 million the next year without any cap consequences. You could actually see a smart GM in the Adams division, draft well for a couple of years, make a couple of “rental” trades every year for a few years and end up with enough cap free salary to build a promotion team in one off-season. The important thing about this, is it provides a way for Adams divisions teams to compensate for the natural disadvantage they have in signing free agents.

It should also be noted, “rental” players wouldn't just be for teams looking to stock up for a serious Cup run. It could also be for teams trying to jump up to 8, 7, or 6. More teams would have motivations to make some kind of play near the end of the season to protect their place in the PoW and so more of these deals would happen, redistributing a fair amount of wealth downward.

Furthermore, the fact that inter-division trading exists and that there will be some incentive for Adams division teams to trade their players in rental deals, means that Adams division players, along with playing for the success of their teams, will also, essentially, always be trying out for the PoW division. Even if your particular team doesn't have the combined talent to do anything more than languish in the bottom of the division, you don't have to. You can play your way into the PoW division and perhaps right on to a Stanley Cup contender.

The Adams division will also have a playoffs, which, I think, will be great for everyone. More hockey, with more significance. Maybe there's a fan base somewhere that just needs to see playoff hockey to get excited. Maybe there's a player who will thrive in that environment but never gets the chance because he's on a shitty team. The NHL is good at trophies, so why not have another. (The Kenora Cup. I made up this whole thing, so I can name the trophy.)

The Kenora Cup playoff structure will be the inverse of the Stanley Cup playoff. If the number one seed in the division plays its way into the Stanley Cup playoffs (one-game playoff, plus best of five series) it has essentially moved out of the Adams division, meaning that its conference will now have eight teams in it and a good old fashioned 8-team playoff will start. If the number one seed does not advance into the Stanley Cup playoffs, the 8th and 9th seeds in the conference will play a best of five series to become the 8th seed and then we'll be back to the regular 8 team playoff structure.

And there you have it. More significant games. More playoff hockey. More story lines. New rivalries. More fan bases will have the opportunity to celebrate a kind of success. Better teams will play each other more often. More games with playoff implications would happen. There'd probably be more trades at the deadline. And the league can keep adding teams as long as they want without potentially compromising any of that. And we get a hockey holiday. It may be an impossible dream, but it's a good dream.

Also, 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for an overtime win, 1 point for an overtime loss, 1.5 points for a shootout win. Think about it.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Sean Spicer at BEA

The Trump administration's first, definitive step towards authoritarianism was so quick, so small, so...stupid, that I think most of us missed it. Maybe we were still reeling from Trump's “American Carnage” inauguration speech or from the images of this obvious con artist standing next to President Obama or from the failure to trigger any of the constitutional mechanisms that would have prevented his inauguration or from the fact of his presidency at all or from the trauma of election night. Maybe we were thinking about how stupid we were to send money to Jill Stein for that recount. Maybe we were expecting the administration to at least try to pretend for an entire fucking day that this was going to be a real presidency with a real President. Maybe we were thinking about the Women's March, or planning our activism, or maybe, we were just expecting something else, something bigger, something more calculated, something closer to the Muslim ban, or at least something less...stupid.

On January 21, 2017, Sean Spicer, in his first official act as Press Secretary for the President of the United States of America, lied to our fucking faces. He lied about an objective truth. He lied about what we could see with our fucking eyes. He lied not for some kind diplomatic or strategic reason, not in an attempt to keep us safe from some kind of threat, or to forward some kind of policy they believed justified being dishonest with the American public. He lied to assuage the ego of a narcissist.

And nothing happened. He and the administration were criticized in the press of course, mocked in certain corners of the media, but no one involved in that obvious, profoundly stupid lie suffered any negative consequences. One of them is still president and one of them is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

In some ways, the inaugural crowd-size lie was a test. Would Congressional Republicans let the President obviously lie to the American people? Would Congressional Republicans allow the institution of the Presidency and the institution of Congress be radically diminished as institutions of society and governance? Would Congressional Republicans do anything more than pay the occasional lip service to the idea of objective truth and rule of law? If they are not willing to stand up to the administration over matters of arithmetic, and say, demand Sean Spicer resign or demand the President issue a retraction, or censure the President, or ask if someone who is willing to lie to the American people about what the American people just saw with their own eyes should have nuclear codes, would they be willing to stand up to lies with more ambiguity or lies that help them advance their agenda?

We, of course, know the answer to all of these questions. Sean Spicer tested Congress and Republicans with an obvious lie and they failed the test. Sean Spicer was told to lie to the American public and he did, without batting an eyelash. And in doing so, Sean Spicer is directly complicit in the current existential threat to American democracy.

Now he wants to “set the record straight” with a new book. Which, to me, translates to, “now I want to make a ton of money on being directly complicit in the current existential threat to American democracy, while trying to extract myself from the dumpster fire that is the Trump administration by claiming I had 'concerns' or that I 'voiced objections.'” Everyone makes mistakes, everyone has regrets, everyone does things they wish they hadn't done. I think we can accept that and accept that you don't get a fucking take-backsie on abetting the rise of fascism. I mean, it's not like there was any ambiguity here. If Spicer truly believed that lying to the American people is bad (and yes, I understand that spin is a Press Secretary's job) he would have refused to call Trump's inauguration the largest in history and then would have either resigned or been fired if Trump pressed him on it. Instead, he said it, stayed at his job, kept lying to the public, and now Aunt Lydia archetype Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies with breathtaking ease.

Obviously, don't buy Sean Spicer's book. But, if you're reading this blog, I doubt you were planning on it anyway. So why am I spending my time on Sean Spicer when I could be doing, well, anything else?

Sean Spicer is going to kick off promotion for his cynical-money-grab-masquerading-as-a-redemption-tour at Book Expo America, the annual gathering of the publishing industry. Or, to put this another way: a fascist collaborator is going to shill his book at BEA.

Here is what I would like to see happen. BEA should drop him from the programming. (Maybe send event director Brien McDonald an email to that effect. They should issue a statement that they were wrong to invite him or to accept Regnery's proposal for the above delineated reasons and they should give that space to an author from a marginalized community or a community directly impacted by the Trump administration. Sean Spicer's presence does not “welcome a conservative perspective,” or “reflect a commitment to free speech,” or whatever other bullshit defense they'll offer for giving a platform to someone who assisted the rise of fascism by lying to the American people. Short of that, (which I honestly don't think will happen) I think booksellers, publishers, authors, readers, and everyone else in the book world at BEA, should come together and empty the trade show floor during his event. Ideally, the meeting rooms should be empty, the booths should be empty, the other signings happening at the same time should stop, and the ABA lounge should be empty. (Ideally, this should be an ABA-endorsed practice, but I wouldn't hold my breath on that.) If you're an author who is scheduled to sign during his event, you should demand to be rescheduled. If you have a competing event on a different stage, you should demand to be rescheduled. (Maybe that would help increase the chances of option 1 happening.) The silence that descends upon the floor as Spicer's event starts should be the loudest statement made at BEA. Short of that, his specific event should be empty. Not only should every single seat set out for an audience be empty, but there also shouldn't be any journalists covering his event either. Sean Spicer does not deserve our attention. Perhaps, if we can't do that, it's best to make sure enough willing people attend to shout him down, so he never actually gets to pretend he should make money off of his complicity. What would twenty plus people shouting “How big was the crowd?!” throughout his event accomplish?

I'm going to be honest. I'm not an organizer, so I don't have the skills to help facilitate any of that. So far, the best I've come up with is that booksellers should gather at the entrances to the floor during his event, but there are also workshops going on, and meetings with publishers and an event called “Publicist speed dating” which I'm even signed up for.

At the very least, I don't want the book world to just shrug its shoulders. It's one thing for a fascist collaborator to try to make money by writing a book, and it's one thing for a publisher to try to make money by publishing that book, (And Regnery is a primary actor in the great conservative con) but it's something else entirely for that publisher and that fascist collaborator to center that book at the industry's biggest event and it's something else entirely for the industry to let that fascist collaborator use its platform. The book world might not be able to stop this, but that doesn't mean we have to accept it.

So, if you're reading this and you are an organizer and you'd like to help, reach out to me in the comments or on twitter (@InOrderofImport) and let's see if we can make something happen. Reach out even if you're not an organizer but hope something organized can be pulled together. If you're reading this and you're attending BEA in some capacity, maybe publicly commit to leaving the floor during Spicer's event and to convincing your friends and colleagues to join you. We don't have to commit to some huge, well-organized gesture to make a point. (Would #BEAEmptyFloor be useful?) At the very least commit to not attending his event and to convincing your friends and colleagues to join you as well. If we can't de-platform him, maybe we can at least de-audience him. (#LonelySpicey?)

There are times when I think we've got this. That the barricades are stressed but holding. That the blue wave will hit in November and crass survivalism will force Republicans to finally untether themselves from Trump. There are times when I think we'll use this trauma to break through longstanding barriers to true social, political, and economic progress, and in a decade or so, we'll end up with universal healthcare, an end to mass incarceration, a meaningful climate change strategy, massive campaign finance and corruption reform and, I don't know, maybe even a livable wage. There are other times when I think Republicans are going to roll out some kind of October surprise, they'll martial voter suppression forces and techniques in ways we are not preparing for, and their existing gerrymandering will protect them enough for them to consolidate power and finish their decades long process of turning America into a neo-feudalist state run by wealthy white oligarchs.

But the former won't happen on its own. And if the later is going to happen, well, then it will happen despite our best efforts. In the grand scheme of things, de-platforming Sean Spicer from a publishing industry event will be a relatively small victory. But all big victories are made up of small victories, just like all big lies are made up of small lies. And if there's a choice between doing nothing and failing and doing something and failing, I'm going to do something.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

And Now I Own (1/9 of 1/2 of) a Bookstore

I could never save enough from my wages to buy Porter Square Books. Thanks to abysmal failure that is Republican economic policy that demolished the American middle class, I'm not sure even the nine employees involved in the recent purchase combined could have put together enough capital to secure a small business loan on just what we could save from our pay. There would have been options of course when it came time for David and Dina to retire. There's crowdsourcing (which I imagine would have been successful). And some of us might have partners and other family members who would be willing to help and maybe there would be some applicable government loans available for small businesses, but, on our salaries and wages alone it would never have been possible.

This is, in part, because bookstores, especially new bookstores, are relatively expensive to buy, even more especially in relation to their profit margin. Books are expensive, you don't really finance the purchase of an entire store the way bookstores finance purchases of books from publishers, and the profit margins of even successful bookstores mean that business loans of any significant size will take a long time to pay off. (I remember the day when the founders of PSB finally had the liens taken off of their personal homes and they would have gotten credit from publishers for their initial inventory.) But, really, as above, the Republican economic model has guaranteed most Americans have much less buying power than they used to, more of that is spent on housing, healthcare and education than it used to, and the economy is subject to recessions in ways it wasn't before we put one of those classic Hollywood conservatives in the White House. Honestly, I don't know if there is any industry in America where the wages are high enough for an employee to save up to buy the business they've spent their lives working for.

From about 1998 (or maybe even 1996) to about 2011 or 2012, independent bookstores were struggling for survival. There were a couple of times, especially around the recessions of 2001 and 2008, when it looked like independent bookstores were going to vanish completely. The wage stagnation above hurt book sales and put downward pressure on the price of books (meaning that books aren't really priced high enough to support all the people working to produce and sell them), a problem only exacerbated by the recessions. The deep discounting at first Borders and Barnes and Noble and later Amazon hurt independent bookstores even more. That Amazon was able finance predatory pricing through stock sales, tax avoidance, atrocious labor practices, straight-up losing money for a decade, and pressure on vendors while improving and developing their sales infrastructure, including Prime and their ebooks monopoly, only put independent bookstores at a greater disadvantage. But, many of us figured that shit out.

So for many stores, the long term problem they face is no longer survival but succession. Given the desire to keep independent bookstores open in general and guarantee that one's own community has an independent bookstore, and the basic economic reality above, how do bookstore owners make sure their stores pass on to committed, talented, and capable new owners? How do they make sure they don't end up just hoping for an angel investor to come in from the tech or finance worlds?

Even though David and Dina aren't retiring any time soon, they wanted a plan for succession. They didn't want to find themselves just hoping the right person could come along to make sure Porter Square Books stayed open and vibrant in Porter Square. They wanted to make sure that the committed, talented, and capable people who were already contributing to the store's success would be able to buy the store when they retired. Their solution is actually pretty simple and replicable. (more on that later.) Essentially, they loaned nine management-level booksellers the money to buy 50% of the store (at the value Dina and David originally purchased it for) and we will pay back that loan on a ten-year schedule from the profits we are now entitled to as partial owners. In some ways it's kind of like a car loan from the dealership. You get to drive the car home, even though you still owe most of its cost to the dealer itself. This deal is structured to have as little impact on our taxes as possible and, if the bookstore does well over those years, should leave us with a little extra cash after the loan payment. The financial needs of a bookstore (or any retail) in an economy in which the majority of sales happen in one quarter and the general fragility and fluctuation of yearly profits, make it essentially impossible to commit the level of cash in salaries and wages necessary for an employee to save up to purchase a store, but by redistributing the profit when it's there at the end, David and Dina can pass that money on without risking the cash-flow and stability of the store itself. And by creating what is essentially a low-interest small business loan with favorable terms they made the purchase affordable, given projected profits.

I should note, this isn't just altruism on David and Dina's part. Sure, they take home a dramatically lower percentage of the yearly profits and forfeit some of the money an outright sale would generate, but, they also save themselves the cost of retraining management-level employees and protect a substantial amount of the bookstore's institutional knowledge. They saw in their years since buying the store, a staff with a...uh...unique set of skills that contributed to the store's profitability and they found a way to protect that set of skills that keeps the store financially secure in both the short and long term. Furthermore, a big part of how independent bookstores succeed is through the relationships booksellers develop with readers over time. Any time a long term bookseller leaves, for whatever reason, and is replaced, it takes some time for the store to make up the sales lost because that particular bookseller isn't there any more to talk to particular readers. By giving us a financial reason to stay, David and Dina have saved themselves the cost of staff turnover and protected institutional knowledge and by connecting those finances to store profitability they have given us an extra reason to work for the success of the store. It's hard to know anything like this for sure, but there is a chance that, even with their generosity, they might make out ahead in the end. I know, it's a shocking, perhaps even revolutionary economic idea that if you invest in the people who generate the profit for your business in a way that also communicates how you value them, they will continue to generate profit for you instead of leaving in three years for the first available promotion at another business. Why, you could almost create and sustain an entire middle class on that principle.

Not every bookstore will be able to ensure succession this way. The current owners would have to be clear enough from debt that they could afford to redistribute a percentage of the profits. There has to be enough appropriate employees to bear whatever new tax burden might be created. The store also needs to be profitable enough so those profits can cover the loan. Of course, there are also lots of different ways to apply the idea of “low-interest loan paid off through a share of the profits.” You could sell a quarter instead of a half of the store. You could change the time frame of the loan. You could create optional escrow accounts for all employees almost like a store based social security. You could do a similar loan-profit-repayment but for the full value of the store when you retire.

But, looking at the bigger world for a moment, imagine if, instead of building a fucking personal space program and continuing to avoid taxes, Jeff Bezos established a similar profit sharing model for Amazon workers at the management level. Sure, he founded Amazon and lead it to it's present behemouthness, but eventually he is going to retire as well. Why not transition it to a partial worker-owned business? (Well, we know the answer to that: it's stock value would tank because, even though more people would make more money, it's quarterly profit margin would end up shrinking, but more on that later.) Imagine if the Waltons did that. Imagine if the Koch brothers did that. Imagine if Bill Gates did that. Imagine if we had a business model that understood and respected all the contributions made by all employees at all levels and not one that saw non-ownership, non-executive staff as just expensive overhead. Imagine if our business decisions were guided, at least in part, by relationships with the community as a whole. Imagine if quarterly profits were, I don't know, just one part of how we assess a business's success. Imagine if the primary question of business (both large and small) was “How do we continue to have a positive impact on our community while making a profit?” instead of “How can we make as much money as possible as quickly as possible and stash it in the Cayman Islands so future generations never ever ever get a chance to enjoy the social progress lead by large scale federal investment in infrastructure, research and development, and a financial safety net that gave us the opportunity to make all of this money today, and wouldn't be cool if I got to Mars before that Musk guy did so I could somehow trademark or patent or claim ownership over the idea of colonization and teraforming before any legal precedents are set, making me even more like the 'mayor' of one of those late 1800s company towns, yeah, Bezosville Mars with Oxygen Prime?” Sorry, got a little lost there.

The point is, the biggest challenges of our economy, from wage stagnation, to the rising cost of living, to climate change, to the damage done to minds and bodies by decades of 40-60 hour work weeks, are only challenges because certain powerful aspects of our economy have prioritized short-term personal profit over everything. (More on this soon.) Once you open up the goals to include say, long-term health of the business, or maintaining your quality of service to your community, or whatever it is, a lot more options for how to run the business, and how to solve problems like retaining talent and succession open up.

Stepping even further from there book world, there is this weird idea that gets repeated a lot. In some ways, it's the basis for our entire economy and now (thank you Republicans) large swaths of our government and society. It's one of those ideas that can be casually expressed in conversation and just as casually accepted. It often goes something like this, “Hey, man, people are just really selfish and there's nothing you can do about that.” Of course, there is some truth to that. I have been selfish in my life, as have you, and pretty much everyone else. But if you take a step back and look at how people interact with each other, it's pretty clear that, for the most part, selfishness isn't what drives the vast majority of us the majority of the time. From independent bookstores, to Little Leagues, to parades, to acts of generosity after every single tragedy, to the fact that almost no one shoplifts, it's clear that people, even though we can all be selfish at times, are driven by community. David and Dina's succession plan is just another example of this fundamental fact of human life. The vast majority of us, the vast majority of time, want to have good relationships with the people around us (even the strangers) and are perfectly willing to take home less personal profit to do so. I bring this up because the idea that “everyone is greedy and selfish” is a very convenient idea if you, in fact, are greedy and selfish and don't want anyone to get in your way. Too often, we let a lot of bad shit happen in our economy and our world because we have been convinced, despite the evidence we experience every single day, that humans are inherently greedy. Listen to who says this and when. Don't accept it.

So, now I own a part of a bookstore. In terms of my day-to-day life and work, this doesn't have a huge impact. I was already selling as many books as I could not just because it made sure the payroll was met, but because I think selling books is important to my community. I'll still push readers towards challenging works, works in translation, works from under-represented identities and communities and I'll still help you find the perfect airplane read (which is The Long Ships, though in a conversation with another bookseller, Signs Preceding the End of the World is actually a pretty solid airplane read, you just have to read it again a week later for the full impact.) or wordless picture book, or YA novel with a lot of feelings (like The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue and Dairy Queen) or, you know, “just a good read,” (uhh, can you tell me any more, no, OK, umm, Shadow of the Wind, I guess). But now I get to do that with, essentially, a pension fund, (one that is probably a lot more stable than anything in the stock market) the opportunity to eventually help shape the bookstore around a new vision (if it needs reshaping), and a model for making sure PSB endures when it's my turn to retire.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Are Independent Bookstores Recession Proof?

In 2017, sales were up at independent bookstores. Again. More stores are opening than closing. More stores are finding new owners or new locations. Stores are thinking less about survival and more about succession. It's damn near impossible to leave Winter Institute, the annual educational, social, and celebratory conference for booksellers without feeling rejuvenated, without feeling that the best days are yet to come, without feeling as though this network of passionate, creative, thoughtful, intelligent, and empathetic people is invincible, without feeling as though books in general and the role booksellers play specifically, is saving the world. This isn't just the afterglow of a great party (though it certainly is some of that). The sales and growth numbers don't lie. And beyond the numbers, bookstores are taking active roles in their communities in new and important ways while working on improving the flaws and weaknesses (whitenesses) in their own industry. There are data; emotional, anecdotal, and numerical that suggest independent bookselling has never been as strong as it is today and is only going to get stronger for the foreseeable future.


Furthermore, bookstores are uniquely positioned to combat the rise of American fascism. Everything about Trump and the Republican party; the disregard of science, the fundamental lack of curiosity, the fundamental lack of empathy, the pathological lying, the fear of the other, the use of rhetorical tricks to avoid actually defending their terrible fucking ideas, the fragmentation of society, and the deferral to authority is combated in some way by books and literature and reading and the people who connect those books to the readers in their community. Even beyond books, bookstores offer the safe community space, the ability to be quiet for a minute, the chance to know that humans have been through worse and survived because you can look at the books from that time, that can rejuvenate one's energy for the struggle. And that's before considering the active work that independent bookstores are doing in the community. With reading series, author events, book clubs, and displays, independent bookstores are both nodes of resistance against Trump in particular and loci for the general strengthening of our social and civic institutions. We now know what happens when we drift away from the type of community independent bookstores support. It's hard to imagine us going backwards any time soon.


Furthermore, it isn't just Trump and this particular incarnation of fascism. Even before Trump the lies of late-capitalism like the promise of convenience at all costs, the seduction of low prices, the safety and primacy of the nuclear family unit, were starting to erode. People who had been raised on screens were turning to books to escape them. The ebook revolution that was supposed to be the end of bookstores didn't happen. The algorithms that were supposed to remove all the guesswork of buying books were shown to be woefully inadequate. Even as it seems like all shopping is moving online, more and more people are re-discovering the value of talking to a human being before spending their money. Or maybe not spending their money. Because that's the other thing about bookstores that is something of an antidote to the emotional grinder of late-capitalism: it's OK if you don't buy a book every time you browse, every time you meet for coffee, even every time you get recommendations or conversations from booksellers. Maybe it's part of why no one makes a lot of money in books, but in a bookstore you are a human being who might buy a book, not always and only a potential purchase that must be “off-ramped” or “funneled” and “captured.” Which is not to say we don't need to sell you books, but that there is always more to your interaction at a bookstore than the purchase. As the crimes of Amazon continue apace, as the country and young people in particular become more progressive politically and more critical of late-capitalism, and as we continue to rediscover the value of community beyond our nuclear family and beyond our circle of friends, independent bookstores are poised to capitalize on those changes in ways maybe no other industry (except for maybe craft brewing) can.


Furthermore, something changed when Borders closed. Before that it was easy, despite all the other closures, to assume that there would always be bookstores. Sure, maybe indie bookstores wouldn't survive, but there would always be Barnes & Noble and Borders if we need a present on the way to the party. But then Borders wasn't. And then it was clear that if something wasn't done, bricks and mortar bookselling would die. Borders owed publishers millions of dollars when it finally went bankrupt and I've always wondered what the landscape of bookselling would look like if publishers had spread that credit around to the hundreds of independent bookstores that were struggling with the predatory pricing of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon, who were trying to change their model to adapt to online sales and who just needed to get to the next holiday season or the one after that to make those changes and be newly sustainable. I don't think I'm alone in asking that question. I think a lot of people with power at publishers asked that question. So the relationship between independent bookstores and publishers changed and publishers in general started to see independent bookstores not just as one, rather small, sales channel, but as partners in the grand project of books and literature. Independent bookstores drive discovery. Independent bookstores incubate writers. Independent bookstores support the small and independent publishers that often incubate writers and publishing professionals. Independent bookstores celebrate risk. Independent bookstores sustain the conversation around books. And independent bookstores create sales that end up at Amazon. When Borders revealed that a world without bookstores was possible, publishers changed their relationship in real and tangible ways, to treat independent bookstores like partners, making the entire industry more sustainable.


Furthermore, we're really fucking good at selling books now. There might have been a time when all a bookstore needed to thrive was a halfway decent buyer and the right neighborhood. But that won't fly anymore. We need to offer our community and our customers more than what they can find online. And we do. All the time. Both in person and online. Sure not every store has had to make the same adaptations to our economic reality and no store is perfect, but I'm pretty confident that you could walk into damn near any independent bookstore in the country and walk out with a book you didn't know you needed. Taken together, just about everything points to an industry that has figured out how to thrive.


But books are not rent. They are not healthcare. They are not student loans that are immune to bankruptcy. They are not car payments or gas money. As vital as they are to many of us, they are still not as vital as food. I've seen others try to inject a note of caution in all this optimism around growing sales, because, maybe those sales are only growing because the economy is. Though, for all the reasons stated above, I don't think it's just general economic growth behind the growth of independent bookstores, when the economy collapses next, who will have enough money after dealing with the necessities to buy books? Who will cut down on their coffee? Their beer? Who will drop Netflix? Who will find ways to trim their phone bill, their gas bill, their electricity bill? Some will. Many will. Enough to continue the growth we've seen over the last few years? Enough to sustain the level we've reached through this growth? Enough to sustain a viable industry through to the recovery? Are independent bookstores recession proof?

I don't have an answer to this question. The recessions of 2001 and 2008 took their toll, but bookstores were able to survive. And we're stronger now than we were then, but every recession is different and, maybe I'm just being cynical, I think the next one is likely to be catastrophic. (I mean what happens when almost an entire generation gets slammed with double-digit unemployment AND cannot disburse a bunch of their debt through bankruptcy? How does an economy recover from that?) Could we survive that?

I like to offer answers in these posts, not as some kind of final say on the topic, but as a starting point for further conversation, with the assumption that by discussing said offered answer we can find our way to a better one. But, perhaps it's best to conclude this with a different question, one that contains the optimism I think we all rightly feel with a rational concern for what we could face. So...

How do we make independent bookstores recession proof?

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Reading is Resistance: Translation as Transhumance

Translation as Transhumance. That second word in the title. “Transhumance.” It seduced me from the moment I saw a picture of the cover on Twitter. I tried to deduce what “transhumance” meant from its component parts but I was wrong and only more invested in the book. I eventually reviewed it for the Los Angeles Review of Books, but found Gansell's memoir of her vocation as a translator had a much bigger impact on me than could be communicated in a review. It gave me new language for describing my relationship with works in translation. It gave me a new perspective on American English and an insight into its potential power. And, of course, because we read with our daily lives, it illuminated the political power of translation in the face of our growing fascism.

At some point in my bookselling career, I read one of those articles that talks about how little work in translation Americans read, how many Americans can go through their entire education and almost entire lives without reading a book written in another language. As a bookseller, I saw this as an opportunity to do some good in the world, to use my place in the community to move the needle a bit, and to help, in my own very small way, broaden the spectrum of reading for the American public. So, I committed to reading more translation, reading translation with more intention, and recommending more books in translation both through staff picks and in conversations.

In doing so, I learned of the joy of being baffled. It is a strange joy, one that you rarely encounter in your daily life, but one that is important nonetheless. Perhaps it is a joy unique to art, unique to moments we enter with intention. It happens in moments when I have absolutely no idea what is going on in the book, absolutely no idea how to interpret an idea or image or sentence, when I am thrown off the train of my own thoughts. Most of the time we read to understand, but there is real power in reading when you can't. Because when you encounter something another person made that is unfathomable to you, you also encounter the fact that you, as a person, are capable of creating the unfathomable. You are shifted and in the parallax between your new perspective and your standard perspective an entire world opens up. Gansel approaches this unsettling opening of perspective in a number of different ways over the course of her book, but saying a work “...allows us to see the familiar in the foreign, the foreign in the familiar, and thus to create a sanctuary where you are no longer foreign but someone who is learning.” is the best articulation I've read of reading works in translation. By baffling us, we are reminded that we spend our lives as students of the world.

In some ways, it can be easy to understand that sense of being baffled, that sense of being unsettled, that encounter with the unfathomable as an abstract, intellectual experience, one more relevant to the mechanisms of understanding, than understanding itself. Because it is an experience of intellectual difficulty, we're tempted to put it in the same mental space as the papers we wrote in college and distant from the political and emotional experiences of out daily lives. But that is to miss one point of being baffled and being unsettled. Or, as Gansel puts it: “I remember clearly how, one morning as the snows were melting, as I sat at the ancient table beneath the blackened beams, it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand from the other. That was probably my most essential lesson in translation.” Empathy, that building block of community and society, is rooted in the ability to displace your self, to de-center your self, to know at a fundamental level, that, from a different perspective, you are the other. Reading works in translation, especially those that are unfathomable to you, might be the easiest way to create that displacement and confront your own otherness.

And once you start seeing the otherness in yourself, once you begin to imagine how you might look to those who are not conditioned by their culture to understand you, it becomes easier to see the complexity and humanity that drive your decisions, in the decisions of other people. When you internalize how you can be misunderstood, your relationship to what and who you don't understand changes. By displacing your self, you create a new space or new perspective in which it is easier to see the humanity, see the universality in the actions of other people, even if you don't understand them. Through interaction with, even celebration of, that which makes us different, that which does not cross cultures or languages, we strengthen our understanding of what does.

But, at an almost more practical level, translation is an exchange of ideas across cultures. It opens up the possibilities for how you might solve a problem or describe an experience by showing you how others solve that problem and describe that experience, often in ways and in terms you never would have imagined. It is a constant conversation about all of the options we have for being human beings on this planet; which means, it is also a constant conversation about how some systems of power, some forces in society, and some people want to limit the options you have for being a human being. Even if the different options for living that you're reading about don't feel political, are concerned more with topics that don't seem to have direct applications, it introduces you to the idea of imagining a problem from a totally different perspective. It gives you the option of at least trying to consider a problem without all of your cultural baggage lashed to your answers. Asking how someone from China or Nigeria or Iran or Mexico might solve a problem, inherently creates the idea that the American way isn't the only way and (gasp!) might not even be the best way.

Fascism, in whatever form it takes, including the one Republicans in power are working directly towards, is rooted in homogeneity, in an erasing of difference and a reduction of the scope of human life to a small set of beliefs, actions, and thoughts. Even when it is practiced at a relatively tepid level, it is based in the idea that everyone should think and believe the same things and limit themselves to essentially the same behaviors, even if it is impractical to force them to. Ultimately, contemporary Republicans (or at least those in power) think everyone should be Republican, not even in an ideological sense, but in an identity sense, in a daily lived what they wear what they eat what music they listen to way, and, barring that, they will do everything they can to ensure that only Republicans are in power. To put this a slightly different way: the primary goal of the Republican party is to ensure that only Republican solutions are adopted.

Reading in translation is, essentially, an inoculation against this virus-like homogeneity, against the idea that there is one right way to be human, against the idea that you and those like you have a monopoly on ideal humanity. With our eyes open, looking at the world, watching people do different things, solve problems in different ways, think different thoughts, and take different joys, it is obvious that homogeneity is a fraud, that fascism is a lie, and that all those who fight for it, in whatever incarnation they fight for, do so out of fear that whatever their identity is, isn't as right as they claim. But that fear is still powerful. That illusion of safety and security that homogeneity promises is still compelling. The false equivalency of sameness with community is still alluring.

Finally, as we all know from Orwell, how we think is guided, in large part, by the language we use to think with. This is why so much effort, both in good and bad faith, is put into the terms we surround political ideas with. Often, controlling how we label something, like “pro-life” for example or “fiscal conservative,” or even more recently “chain-migration” goes a long way in advancing or hindering an agenda regardless of that agenda's merit. Language and rhetoric can be used to further or hinder a cause without actually making a point about what that cause is or what that cause would do. Furthermore, history adheres to language, allowing words to carry significance and implication that have nothing to do with the idea under consideration, but can greatly impact how we react to and understand an idea or a person. There is a reason why it was effective to refer to Hilary Clinton as “shrill.” The act of translation is a direct interaction, perhaps even confrontation with that limiting force of language. By pulling meaning from one language with one set of assumptions and one set of limits on thought into another language with a different set of assumptions and a different set of limits on thought, the translator makes us aware of these mechanisms, introduces us to the limits of our own thought, and deepens our own relationship with how language functions and how we use language to converse, argue, dictate, and think. And by developing that awareness, by building the particular skills needed to make sense of words from another culture, you also develop the skills to see through propaganda and to understand the mechanism behind an act of bad faith rhetoric and to counter it.

Ultimately, fascism has a grammar. It has a system of speaking that emphasizes fear and division and curtails curiosity and exploration. It displaces the context of the discussion so somehow, instead of arguing about the merits of an idea, you're arguing about your own patriotism or how much you value your heritage. The hyper-awareness of the mechanisms of language that comes from immersing yourself in a work whose ideas came from a different grammar also gives you the tools to see and dissect the grammar of fascism. To borrow another classic image from literature, fascism is the man behind the curtain. Reading works in translation isn't going to suddenly empower you to tear down the systems of power threatening our society, but it will give you the ability to see the curtain protecting those systems from scrutiny. And seeing the curtain is the first step in tearing it down.

Translation as Transhumance is one of those books that gets bigger the more I think about it. Even for this piece, as the core ideas have expanded as I've worked on them, I've had to discard my thoughts about the potential power of our international American English, the relationship between a language and a nation, the power translation has to dissolve political borders, and Gansel's own direct use of translation as a political act. (That last part I at least discussed in the review linked above.) Every time I took a step, the distance I could travel increased. Every time I got to the top of a mountain, I saw a higher mountain ahead of me. Every opened door revealed another room filled with more doors to open. For me, literature is an act of potential. It is an ongoing testament to humanity's potential to grow, to change, and to improve and to the joy of improvement, change, and growth. Translation as Transhumance is a change to celebrate all of it, both in the type of reading it pushes us towards and the beauty it contains within itself.

Buy Translation as Transhumance from IndieBound or your local independent bookstore.

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.