This is an outstanding and thought-provoking piece of work by the New York Times. It deserves to be circulated. Spread it around.

After watching this, I was left uncertain about my reaction to it and what I might want to say about it. So I’ll limit myself to a tangential observation. I’m not a pacifist so I hope I’m not sounding sanctimonious about this, but unless you have some ideological commitment to violent revolution, this is headed in the wrong direction. Whatever else this video is, it is a warning about how violence in politics feeds on itself.

A Trumpster Full

Photo by Roman.

Of course, the message really is ambiguous. If you happen to like or approve or otherwise support Donald Trump, you can take this as a draining the swamp metaphor, rehabbing America, making it like new if not great. On the other hand, I see an American flag over-filled with garbage, a disrespect made invisible by social superiority.

Social superiority? I mean this in a visceral, primate pecking-order sort of way, though it does translate into more abstract and generalized phenomenon, such as class, race, gender, etc. etc. etc. But for now, think of two baboons doing a screaming dance to determine which of them is indeed the boss. If you take that as the root, the 21st Century practice of insulting the opposition rather than persuading them becomes a lot more understandable… at least to me.

Disrespect? Well, legislation is partly an expression of that “screaming dance” and there is in the United States a Flag Code as to how one is supposed to treat or not treat the U.S. Flag, most relevantly:

“The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.

“The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.”

There’s actually a lot more to it. If you want to get out into the weeds, you can find it all HERE.

To be fair, almost no one outside of government organizations and political professionals has been paying much attention to the Flag Code… not even conservative America… except when it relates to something they disapprove of.

Well, that’s just too bad.

On the other hand, if you’re going to the trouble of flying the U.S. flag, is it too much to ask that it be done with some attention to the Flag Code? Or is your patriotism not much different than your identification with the local sports team?

I guess so.

Coup de Idiots

C’est pire qu’un crime. C’est une faute.

— attributed to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (disputed)

The attempted coup on January 6 should not have been much of a surprise to anyone but maybe the most naive. As I wrote back in 2016, Night of the Living Trumps:

“A geezer I am. I have lived through Nixon, Reagan and Dubya. Should I mention LBJ? One might think of this as yet another spell of really bad weather and verily the sun also rises. But there is a stink of existential threat from Trump that hasn’t been so strong in the air since Nixon.

“Part of it is Trump’s so nakedly disordered personality. Nearly everyone who aspires to be President is likely to be a bit insane, but until now most have been able to simulate normality. Part of it is the enthusiastic bigotry used to motivate Trump’s electorate; there’s no putting that back in the bottle while Trump holds office and the Republican caucuses control the legislature. Part of it is the solid wall of chaotic uncertainty about just what a governing Trump actually means in terms of policy.”

This post is written in early days post-riot, but my impression from a great distance is that the riot was essentially a clusterfuck, to use a bureaucratic term of art: The organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching and consequently people went where anger and hysteria led them or the organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching but others at the rally did have a plan or some (or all) of the organizers had a plan but it wasn’t shared with everyone. You might think of additional possibilities but regardless, people did bring young children, infants in fact, to the rally and march. What expectations do you think they had?

One ongoing discussion that I find particularly interesting is the examination of conspiracy theories as role-playing games. A good introduction to this (lots of links) is Reed Berkowitz’ A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon, posted back in September of 2020 at the curiouserinstitute. Berkowitz begins his analysis with:

“When I saw QAnon, I knew exactly what it was and what it was doing. I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming’s evil twin. A game that plays people. (cue ominous music)

“QAnon has often been compared to ARGs and LARPs and rightly so. It uses many of the same gaming mechanisms and rewards. It has a game-like feel to it that is evident to anyone who has ever played an ARG, online role-play (RP) or LARP before. The similarities are so striking that it has often been referred to as a LARP or ARG. However this beast is very very different from a game.

“It is the differences that shed the light on how QAnon works and many of them are hard to see if you’re not involved in game development. QAnon is like the reflection of a game in a mirror, it looks just like one, but it is inverted.”

While the technology Berkowitz writes about is ideologically neutral (like Alinsky’s organizing techniques), this particular exercise was targeted:

“Another major difference between QAnon and an actual game, is that Q is almost pure propaganda. That IS the sole purpose of this. It’s not advertising a product, it’s not for fun, and it’s not an art project. There is no doubt about the political nature of the propaganda either. From ancient tropes about Jews and Democrats eating babies (blood-libel re-booted) to anti-science hysteria, this is all the solid reliable stuff of authoritarianism. This is the internet’s re-purposing of hatred’s oldest hits. The messaging is spot on. The “drops” implanted in an aspic of anti-Semitic, misogynist, and grotesque posts on posting boards that, indeed, have been implicated in many of the things the fake conspiracy is supposed to be guilty of!”

If Berkowitz’ analysis is even approximately accurate, it has important and existential implications for democracy, media, journalism, and politics generally. Yet that isn’t quite what got my attention. Berkowitz’ description of the QAnon phenomenon (“A game that plays people.”) suggests that it is a genuine meme, the first that I’ve actually heard of.

Wait. Meme? Don’t we see these every day, those graphical and sometimes comical little factoids that people trade back and forth? Well, yes and no. Richard Dawkins gets credit for coining the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As Wikipedia helpfully explains:

“Dawkins wrote that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission — in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplified another self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.”

So “yes” in that an internet factoid could be a trivial example of the concept, “no” in the sense that some folks felt that these “replicating cultural entities” could do much more than entertain. They could conceivably warp human history, indeed even human evolution, as part of their process of natural selection. So if conspiracy explanations on the internet are in fact “memes,” QAnon is a research opportunity of major importance.

Alas, the study of memes hasn’t prospered, has failed to be naturally selected if you will for obvious (to me anyway) reasons: How do you operationalize the concept? How do you define and measure a meme so that it is possible to trace its ecology, evolution and spread? Also IMHO the concept carries an alarming burden of social Darwinism.

But if, conceptually, “meme” has such social Darwinist baggage, is discounting it as social science so unfortunate? Well, maybe, because there are analogous phenomena in the physical sciences: “quasiparticles” and “collective excitations.” These “are emergent phenomena that occur when a microscopically complicated system such as a solid behaves as if it contained different weakly interacting particles in vacuum.” Yeah, your computer and phone and any electronic solid state thing depend on an “emergent phenomenon.” Human consciousness is sometimes speculatively described as an emergent phenomena, a consequence of neural size and complexity. It may be that mass culture has emergent properties as well.

I think we’re in the process of finding out, through experience rather than research.

Postscript: Among the people who took memes seriously is the science fiction author John Barnes. He wrote a series of speculative novels around memes, wherein he turned memes into something resembling computer viruses. All of the books are good albeit some are seriously depressing. I’d recommend (in order) Candle and The Sky So Big and Black. Barnes has gotten favorable cover blurbs from both Poul Anderson and Steven Brust…

“Portland’s Burning Heart”

Portland’s Burning Heart uses a combination of iPhone footage, on-the-ground photography and haunting voice over to tell the story of Portland’s ongoing street protests from the perspective of a woman who knows them well: Emmy-winning photojournalist Beth Nakamura of The Oregonian. Beth is the burning heart at the center of the film, and over the course of its 13 minutes we watch as she evolves from local reporter to teargas-dodging, stab-vest-wearing conflict journalist.

“Commissioned by the Dutch public network HUMAN in anticipation of the 2020 US elections, the film is a collaboration between Nakamura and the Tim Hetherington Visionary Award-winning filmmaking team Jongsma + O’Neill.”

I’ve been wondering if sending Federal “law enforcement” to Portland was an attempt, in a general sort of way, for Trump (or perhaps his minions) to emulate Ronald Reagan and Peoples Park. Just asking for a friend…

Gold Water

Photo by Roman.

Yes, this was actually a thing back in 1964, a soft drink named for the Republican nominee for President, Barry Goldwater. It was the brainstorm of some Georgia lawyer. It was not an official campaign product, and I recall reading that Senator Goldwater was not happy about it but only commented publicly that he hoped the name didn’t hurt their business prospects. News reports from the day, including the New York Times, variously described the flavor as “lemon lime” or “ginger-ale” or “citrus” when in fact it had no taste whatsoever. The can contents show that it was no more than food coloring and carbonated water… much like what passes for U.S. conservatism for most of the past 100 years.

Gold Water: the right drink for the conservative taste. Contents and distribution. Photo by Roman.

Note that the can is a steel “tin” can, and it shows its age with a bit of rust. If you should acquire one of these, unopened, in pristine condition, you might reasonably pay as much as $40 for it. Repurposed as a pencil holder, maybe $10. My parents paid less than 10¢ per can for a case of the stuff… immediately after the 1964 election. At that price, they were still ripped off.

And that, my friend, is a fable for our times.

“Toyota Man”

When I was watching this short video from Neon Indian, I realized that I had seen it before. And this time I thought it was worth sharing. There’s no memory of why I had decided not to post it before. Maybe because it’s a music video.

In any case, what’s not to like? See if you can spot all the pop references. I only know a few of them. Many others are sufficiently caricatured that they are obviously references but the originals are beyond my ken.


[1970 anti-war meeting at the University of Illinois at Chicago, photographer unknown, scanned from a print in my possession.]

For geezers much like myself, the covid lockdown is still pretty much in place. I spend a lot of time, days on end, at home. Far too much of that time has been spent as a couch potato in front of this computer screen, though in fact I’ve not owned a couch for at least a few decades. Whatever. Somewhat less time has been occupied by re-reading books from my own library. (The Chicago Public Library has reopened but in an understandably not-so-user-friendly format.) I find the non-fiction to be more engaging.

Right now, I’m re-reading Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man. The dust jacket bills it as a “study of Richard Nixon and a deeply troubled America.” This was originally published in 1969, and neither Wills nor anyone else really knew how the next several years would work out, but it was pretty commonly felt to be a time of crisis (for the United States but also for much of the world) not unlike this time of Trump.

I don’t mean this to be a review of the book but maybe something of a reminder about our history.

Wills is at his strongest as an observer and describer. As a political analyst, he mostly reflects the commentariat of the time: the “politics of resentment” for example. It’s an individualistic, psychological approach, so it should be no surprise that Wills began his career as a public intellectual as a conservative. Covering the civil rights movement of the time moved him to the political center, at least, though a 21st Century conservative might consider him a flaming lefty. That said, for all those who feel that 2020 U.S.A. has become a strange, foreign land, it’s a worthwhile to pause to read chapter 2 of part I: “The Center Cannot Hold.” It begins:

“There was a sense everywhere, in 1968, that things were giving. That man had not merely lost control of his history, but might never regain it. That palliatives would not serve, and nothing but palliatives could be found… The cities were in danger, and the college campuses, and the public schools.

“And the President. Lyndon Johnson traveled nowhere, toward the end, for fear. He was allowed to run out his term because he had, in effect, abdicated. It was the year of the Secret Service men, their faces variously angled out across the crowd as it faced in, each trained pair of eyes raking an assigned arc. A time of mutual surveillance, when those of different races, when young and old, when policemen and ordinary citizens passed, if possible, on opposite sides of the street, warily; or — too late to cross over — went by each other with eyes down. A time of locking up and closing in, of “How to Defend Yourself.” Michigan housewives pushing baby buggies down to the pistol range for practice.”

Wills goes on to describe George Wallace’s independent campaign for President as “a weird ‘third party’ — no party at all. It lacked platform, personnel, history, future, or program. It was a one-man phenomenon… Wallace offered neither palliative nor real cure; just a chance to scream into the darkness.” Wills asserts that a “nihilist vote is something new in America, the home of the boosters.” I’m not convinced that was true even then. Any political system that customarily presents the electorate with just two viable choices will have “kick the bums out” as a major motivation for voters. That’s not a form of nihilism?

Well, okay, creeping nihilism perhaps. Wills goes on to write:

“…In 1964, many thought it shocking that, at the Republican Convention, delegates turned to the press booths  and shook their fists in anger after Eisenhower’s criticism of reporters. But by the 1968 convention, cops beat newsmen and broke their cameras… Meanwhile, newsmen who followed Wallace said they felt like patsies, straight men for the candidate’s act, so much did he use them to elicit boos and jeers from his crowds. Spiro Agnew got a similar response when he held up a copy of the New York Times and mocked it.”

It was all so very familiar and far more violent than today, including state-sponsored terrorism in places. And there were periods of U.S. history that were so much worse.

Having said that (and yes, I also said that back in the 1970s), one uses the past as a template for the present and the future only at a pretty fair risk. 2020 is not 1968 nor is it the 1933 Weimar Republic. Crisis? We may be standing in the middle of one, but it’s our crisis not the demons of the past come to do battle. History rarely really repeats itself. It may have rhythm. It may rhyme. Just what that means is irrelevant except to invoke a vision of parading historical actors, ranks hands in hands, marching down the avenue (This is Chicago. It’s an avenue.) on trochees and iambs.

Google Books has 60 pages of Nixon Agonistes available as a “preview” so you may be able to read the chapter if you wish.

On the other hand, if music is more your thing then here is “John Flip Lockup” by the Daughters of Albion, a bit of cultural commentary from that same time that is every bit as apt as anything Wills ever wrote about it:

Mr. President

a message for Donald

This is a remastered from the version that was on Randy Newman’s 1974 “Good Old Boys” album.

We’ve taken all you’ve given
It’s gettin’ hard to make a livin’
Mr. President have pity on the working man

We’re not asking you to love us
You may place yourself high above us
Mr. President have pity on the working man

I know it may sound funny
But people ev’rywhere are runnin’ out of money
We just can’t make it by ourself

It is cold and the wind is blowing
We need something to keep us going
Mr. President have pity on the working man

Maybe you’ve cheated
Maybe you’ve lied
Maybe you have finally lost your mind
Maybe you’re only thinking ’bout yourself

Too late to run Too late to cry now
The time has come for us to say good bye now
Mr. President have pity on the working man
Mr. President have pity on the working man

— Randy Newman, 1974

“We Are George Floyd”

From Julian Marshall, featuring Cornel West and Killer Mike:

“On May 25th, 2020, Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, murdered George Floyd, a black man, by driving his knee into George’s neck for 8 minutes and 45 seconds until he died. This film chronicles New York City’s overwhelming response. Please help me share this film with the world.”