The Allure of Hatred

When James T. Hodgkinson shot Representative Steve Scalise and three others on an Alexandria, VA baseball practice field on June 14, his anti-Trump, anti-Republican Party views were widely noted. It wasn’t long before the Republicans started saying the left should “tone it down,” and pro-Trump supporters in Central Park interrupted a performance of Julius Caesar, protesting “the normalization of political violence against the right.”

Political violence on the diamond.
Political violence on the diamond. Photo: CNN.

No group has a monopoly on political hatred, but most would agree that hate groups and violent individual incidents occur more frequently on the right than the left. In fact there was surprise expressed at Hodgkinson’s political views, since anti-Republican violence is somewhat unusual. Not that Hodgkinson was any sort of political activist—he seems to have been a disturbed individual and a domestic abuser with little political involvement at all, apart from his comments on social media. But political hatred is alluring these days, whether one has a troubled background or not.

American politics has disintegrated to the point where each side views the other as the enemy. Enmity has reached the point where, for many people, members of the opposition party appear as enormously damaged human beings, if not actively evil. Eric Trump was recently quoted as saying, of Democrats, “to me, they’re not even people.”

This kind of hatred can be enticing. It’s like a drug that intensifies emotion and makes colors pop. For people leading uneventful, ordinary lives, it can add a jolt of excitement. For the increasingly large number of people whose lives are stressed daily, political hatred provides an outlet, a target, a scapegoat.

I can empathize and I suspect you can, too. We’re all flawed human beings, to be sure, but how can those people believe in such utterly destructive nonsense? How can they behave as they do? What hypocrites! What heartless, self-serving bastards! Look what they’ve done to America’s economy/education/healthcare/infrastructure/politics!

Can these divisions be bridged? I doubt it. It seems likelier that incidents like the one in Alexandria will only increase, with “partisans” from both sides doing the shooting. And each new outrage will only harden the hatred.

It would be helpful if the country could fully acknowledge this, if only to begin the process of constructing a solution. Increasingly, that solution seems to be that we will go our separate ways, either violently and chaotically, as at present, or formally and permanently with a political solution that codifies our divide in a way that makes sense.

Brilliant Fragments

Trump. Comey. Russia. All very important, yes, but also very exhausting to focus on exclusively. The mess in Washington is serious indeed but like all of our endeavors, it stems from the mysterious processes that govern human behavior. Granted, compulsive tweeting is a relatively new manifestation of troubled conduct. Still, it can sometimes help to examine behavioral patterns from another angle.

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris.
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris.

The writer Joshua Ferris is a case in point. He has an excellent grasp of the tragicomic nuances that underlie all our behavior, especially in intimate relationships, and The Dinner Party, his new book of short stories, may be a helpful distraction from the current news. Although there aren’t any direct political references to our present situation, the book may still help to put things in perspective.

Ferris is best known for his three novels (Then We Came to the End, The Unnamed, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour). Of these, the first and the third and most recent have been widely praised. Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed, features a protagonist who is seized with an uncontrollable urge to walk and keep walking, no matter the consequences. It seems to have been widely disliked and/or misunderstood but I think it may be the best of the bunch, an existential journey that, as Tim Adams in the Guardian put it, shows us how “our biology will sooner or later remove us from the things we hold most dear.”

The Dinner Party is Ferris’s first short story collection and it continues the rather bleak existential outlook, leavened with flashes of humor, found in the novels. Some reviewers have savaged the book but the majority of reviews have been very positive. The stories vary somewhat in quality—stories in collections invariably do—but the best of them are very strong indeed. These include the title story, a devastating portrait of a disintegrating marriage and also the consequences of failing to know oneself, “A Night Out,” which deals with male infidelity, and “Fragments,” which counters with the female version.

The last story in the collection, “A Fair Price,” does have some direct relevance to America’s current social inequities. It concerns a clueless, self-involved privileged character and the day laborer he hires to help empty out a storage unit. The consequences of their interaction certainly gave me pause.

I think Joshua Ferris, only in his early forties, is one of the best writers currently working in America. If you’d like an extra helping of insight into the way a certain class of Americans (educated, liberal, urban) lives today, I wholeheartedly recommend The Dinner Party.

 

Denial and Destruction

I won’t spend much time on the twisted announcement reversing U. S. climate change policy that Trump made yesterday. There’s plenty of analysis regarding that already. Instead, I’d like to suggest you focus on something other than our buffoonish president for a moment. That something is the Republican Party itself, which MIT gadfly Noam Chomsky recently said is “racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life.”

Hurricane Sandy aftermath, 2012.
Hurricane Sandy aftermath, 2012. Photo: NY Daily News.

The GOP, and conservatives in general, have always been laggards when it comes to keeping pace with change—any sort of change. But today’s Republicans are another breed entirely. Motivated by a toxic combination of greed and hatred, and almost entirely devoid of empathy, the Republicans, as David Brooks puts it in today’s Times, “share [a] core worldview that life is nakedly a selfish struggle for money and dominance.”

Chomsky, in addressing the dangers this worldview and the Republicans pose, cites a 2013 Daedalus article by conservative political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in arriving at his dire prognosis. They wrote that the Republican Party is now “ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Those words date from four years ago and their truth has only intensified in 2017. Moreover, Chomsky is not only considering climate change when he speaks of dangers to human survival but nuclear weapons as well.

Given what we saw yesterday in Washington, and given recent developments on the Korean Peninsula, we would do well to take Chomsky’s warning seriously.

An American Kakistocracy

Many of you probably intuit what a “kakistocracy” is but may be a little fuzzy on the exact definition. According to Wikipedia, a kakistocracy is “a state or country run by the worst, least qualified or most unscrupulous citizens.” (Or, in the case of the United States, people who occupy all three categories simultaneously.)

Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan. The worst.
Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan. The worst. Photo: Salon.com.

The word comes from the Greek kakistos (meaning “worst”) and kratos (meaning “rule”), thus meaning government by the worst people. Despite the Greek roots, the word was first used in English and was coined by author Thomas Love Peacock in 1829.

In spite of its long history, the word’s usage has been infrequent. But I think the times we find ourselves in could make “kakistocracy” a strong candidate for 2017’s Word of the Year.

Trump’s election has obviously given the word a boost. As economist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, “[Trump is] surrounding himself with people who share his contempt for everything that is best in America. What we’re looking at, all too obviously, is an American kakistocracy—rule by the worst.”

I want to do my small part to promote widespread usage of the word, since in my view we are living in a moment when kakistocracy has supplanted democracy as our country’s governing principle. Democracy has in fact been subverted (perhaps with foreign assistance) to allow the rise of kakistocracy in America. This has been achieved through the canny use of social media and “alternative facts,” heavy Republican gerrymandering and a politically masterful stoking of widespread, free-floating resentment. Plus copious amounts of money, of course.

Our American kakistocracy runs far deeper than the three ugly (in every sense of the word) politicians shown on this page. A large portion of our citizenry has indeed been taught to hate all that is best in America, and cheer when the crass and the ignorant tear down another standard of civility or excellence. Everything that has traditionally represented progress in the U.S. and around the world—education, science, the arts, social integration—is now suspect, part of a “politically correct” elite which must be overturned.

Kakistocracy is in full flower thanks to the Trump administration, and the nearly 40% of U.S. citizens who still support it. This must change. But how?

30 Years of Creative Coaching

The Writers Studio, which I’ve covered previously on this site, celebrated its 30th anniversary this weekend. To mark the occasion, there was a sold-out, standing-room-only reading at the Strand Bookstore in NYC last night, followed by a party for faculty, students and guests at a private apartment overlooking Union Square. There was even a 30th anniversary cake.

Mark Peterson, the Studio's San Francisco Director.
Mark Peterson, the Studio’s San Francisco Director. Photo: Thomas Pletcher/Writeside.com.

Philip Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who founded The Writers Studio, kicked off the evening’s remarks at the Strand. He seemed very pleased by the Studio’s durability and growth, if somewhat astonished by how quickly three decades have gone by. Schultz was followed by a parade of writers associated with what the New York Times has called “the most personal of the [writing] programs.” Perhaps my favorite piece of the evening was by Therese Eiben, the Studio’s Hudson Valley Director. This was a funny and frightening take on the perils of flying today, and all too evocative.

The Writers Studio at 30, Epiphany Editions.
The Writers Studio at 30, Epiphany Editions.

In addition to the reading and the party, The Writers Studio has commemorated the occasion with the publication of The Writers Studio at 30 (“Fiction and Poetry from the First 30 Years of the Landmark School of Creative Writing and Thinking”). The paperbound volume is 500 pages and contains a wide range of work from writers associated with the Studio, including the Studio’s advisory board and friends, teachers and students. Starting today, you should be able to order a copy directly from the publisher.

Department of Injustice

Of all the perverse and destructive appointments Trump has made since taking office, Jeff Sessions to head the Department of Justice may be the worst. Sessions, in my opinion an unreconstructed, ferret-faced racist of the worst sort—the sort with power—demonstrated just how destructive he is yet again yesterday, when his decision not to prosecute the police killers of Alton B.Sterling in Baton Rouge last year was announced. The determination not to file federal charges was made without notifying the Louisiana attorney general, the mayor of Baton Rouge or Mr. Sterling’s family.

The decision follows a newly implemented Sessions policy to back off from federal oversight of law enforcement agencies around the country. Sessions has said that “the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn” entire departments, and that “[police] morale has suffered.”

In the video on this page, you can see that Mr. Sterling is pushed to the ground by the police and held there as one officer points a gun at his chest before shooting him point-blank.

Last night, around the Triple S Food Mart parking lot in Baton Rouge where Mr. Sterling was killed, people congregated and discussed the federal decision not to prosecute.

“I’m not surprised, because it happens all the time,” said Kosher Weber, 21, her voice cracking in anger. “Where do things go from here? There’s no justice. There’s no nothing.”

Derrick Brody, 45, said: “Over and over again. They kill a human being, and they get away with it, just ’cause they got a blue suit.”

Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, said Mr. Sterling had been “shot in cold blood” and wrote on Twitter, “The DOJ’s decision not to pursue justice is a travesty.”

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. So did a spokeswoman for the Baton Rouge Police Department. She also declined to confirm the employment status of the two officers who had been under investigation, referring inquiries to the Justice Department.

This is one more sickening step backward for America.

An Enemy of the People

As we arrive at Trump’s 100-day landmark, there is an astonishingly wide array of catastrophic decisions to examine (the Korean peninsula, which is bubbling in the red zone as I write this, may turn out to be the most catastrophic of all).

Trump: Appalling ignorance and a dangerous tone
Trump: Appalling ignorance and a dangerous tone. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

Of the many abominable actions and statements we have had from this president and Congress since January, I think their hostility toward a free American press is among the most alarming. Trump’s characterization of the press as an “enemy of the American people” is straight out of Orwell. Not coincidentally, this governmental animosity is reflected in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by the non-profit, non-governmental group Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières). The U.S. slipped two places, to rank 43rd out of 180 countries surveyed. The United Kingdom also slipped two places, largely due to laws permitting generalized surveillance and a proposal for a new espionage act that could result in journalists and whistle-blowers being prosecuted as spies. Even so, at number 40, the UK still ranks ahead of America.

If you’ve heard of (or remember) COINTELPRO, the FBI’s “counterintelligence program” of some 50 years back which involved massive amounts of illegal surveillance, then having the president refer to the press as an “enemy of the people” should be especially chilling. The FBI of the 50s, 60s and 70s was not even close to today’s NSA in terms of surveillance capabilities. No wonder major news organizations like the New York Times go to great lengths to try to provide confidential access to members of the public who would like to submit tips. We’re way beyond Watergate days, when a reporter could safely meet an anonymous source in an underground parking garage.

Still, the First Amendment remains on the books. The Times can publish stories showing how deeply compromised the Trump administration is, and I can publish this humble blog. But—and it’s a big “but”—things can change very quickly.

Trump and his cronies are setting a very dangerous tone where press freedom is concerned. Already, a very large proportion of U.S. adults have been convinced that mainstream media is corrupt and untruthful. Already, U.S. education has been undermined (quite deliberately) to the point where today’s young people need to be taught how to distinguish truth from falsehood—the ability doesn’t come naturally any longer.

Ignorance is extremely dangerous. That’s why, upon Trump’s election, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” was moved forward by 30 seconds. We’re now at two and a half minutes to midnight. Let’s hope that the “major, major conflict” with North Korea which Trump is threatening doesn’t bring us any closer. Let’s also hope that a free American press keeps shining a light on this disastrous administration, for those are are still able and willing to see.

Slow Start for Saul

Sometimes America’s political fiascos and the world’s imminent threats become a little too much to bear. This is one of the reasons we have a “Golden Age of Television.” “Better Call Saul,” offshoot of the late, lamented “Breaking Bad” series, is one of the exemplars and Season Three is now underway.

It’s off to a somewhat slow start, especially in the season opener. Here, after a black-and-white sequence showing the erstwhile Saul as “Gene,” manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha, we have a plot line contrasting the warring McGill brothers, Jimmy (who is to become Saul Goodman) and the electromagnetic hypersensitive Chuck, with the dangerous but fascinating Mike Ehrmantraut.

 Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul.”
Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul.” Credit Michele K. Short/AMC.

The McGill brothers’ interaction is entertaining but leisurely. We learn that Chuck has secretly recorded Jimmy’s felonious confession, which Jimmy has offered in an attempt to help alleviate his brother’s (partially feigned) symptoms. Meanwhile, in a carryover from Season Two, someone has planted a tracking device somewhere in Mike’s car and he is determined to find out who and why. Again, this is interesting to watch but actual events seem in short supply.

Episode Two picks up the pace a bit: Jimmy learns about Chuck’s betrayal and is devastated by it (thus digging himself in deeper), while Mike begins to make progress in his quest to find out who’s tracking him. The extremely sinister Gus Fring pops up, which energizes things for “Breaking Bad” fans. At this point, one begins to realize this excellent series from co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould is likely to provide a compelling season after all.

As an unrelated bonus, Noah Hawley’s outstanding “Fargo” series starts its Season Three tonight as well.

Stop Police Misconduct

With growing existential dangers abroad and a president ill-equipped to handle them (see Charles Blow’s excellent column in today’s Times), I’m going to direct your attention instead to a long-standing domestic problem: police misconduct. We may not have answers for dealing with North Korea, Syria or Russia at the moment (as I write this, a headline on my phone’s home screen informs me that the Pentagon is developing options for a military strike in Syria), but surely we can address a problem that plagues every American city (and many small towns and rural areas as well). Or at least we can try.

Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. Pantaleo was not indicted.
Eric Garner being choked to death by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. Pantaleo was not indicted. Photo: Wikipedia.

When I speak of police “misconduct,” I’m being euphemistic. What I really mean is criminal violence perpetrated by the police, up to and including murder. What I really mean is systemic brutality and racism and a larger culture that encourages and excuses criminal police behavior. What I really mean is a judicial system that kowtows to the police as sacred “public servants,” not to be penalized under any circumstances.

Here I will introduce the obligatory reference to the admirable service that “good” cops provide. “Good” cops risk their lives to help people in need. “Good” cops are altruistic when it counts, doing their utmost to protect people from harm. “Good” cops, unfortunately, are something of a rarity. And even they tend to keep their mouths shut when it comes to criminal behavior by their colleagues on the force.

The cops who “misbehave” are antisocial thugs with lifelong inferiority complexes. Guys too stupid or emotionally immature to handle college but who want to earn a decent living anyway. Guys who hunger for respect and deference, which were in short supply as they were growing up. Guys who perhaps couldn’t cut the armed forces but managed to find a haven in a local police force. Guys who, if they sense even a hint of disrespect, will make you pay for it. Sometimes with your life, especially if you’re black.

You’ve all met these people, I’ll wager more than once.

So when Attorney General Jeff Sessions (I hate granting Sessions that title, since he is so blatantly unqualified for his job) attempts to roll back efforts to reform police departments around the country, it’s cause for great concern.

Jefferson Beauregard “Jeff” Sessions III is, in my view, an unreconstructed Southern bigot. It shows in his weaselly face—you can easily imagine spotting him in a photograph, standing in the front row at an old-fashioned lynching party in a Southern town square back in the fifties. No matter how many niceties and courtesies he tries to layer on top, his essential character still shines through.

We need to rally around the police reformers. They have two important jobs to do. The first is to get rid of the obvious “bad actors” on their forces. The second is to change their recruiting practices to avoid replacing current bad actors with new ones. If policing really is such a hallowed profession, then maybe it should be treated more like one: increase the requirements (educational, professional, personal) for joining the department, and increase the rewards proportionately.

The mindset that cops can do no wrong has got to go. So does Jeff Sessions.

A Focus On Writing

Sometimes I wonder which category has grown fastest: the number of people aspiring to write in one form or another, the number of MFA or independent writing programs designed to serve them, or the number of writing applications created to address their every need—particularly their need to focus.

Ever since WriteRoom began the focused writing craze many years ago, its imitators and progeny have expanded exponentially. From direct copies like JDarkRoom and PyRoom to Markdown-enabled programs like Byword and iA Writer to full-scale writing environments such as Scrivener (and even Microsoft Word), virtually every writing software program available today offers a full-screen, “distraction-free” mode to aid writers’ ability to concentrate. Many take this a step further by enabling one to focus on individual paragraphs or sentences.

However, just as with MFA programs (and writers themselves), these programs diverge significantly in their overall capabilities. Some (Scrivener, Storyist, Ulysses) aim to fill the many diverse roles involved in creating longer works, including research, note-taking, formating and so on. Others seem intent on streamlining and doing one or two things well, and these latter programs tend to specialize in creating an aesthetically pleasing environment in which one can concentrate and be productive.

Write!, one of the newest programs tailored for writers.
Write!, one of the newest programs tailored for writers.

Write!, a program I had been aware of but not yet tried, is in this mode, but with some distinctive new twists of its own. Last week, a member of its marketing team reached out to inquire whether I’d consider doing a review. Intrigued, I decided to investigate further. I saw enough promise in the program to purchase a license and give it a test drive. A quick overview follows below.

Let’s start with what is immediately obvious: Write! is a beautifully designed piece of software. On purely aesthetic grounds, it rivals anything else in its field and surpasses most of its competitors. If you’re looking for a program that will get out of your way and let you focus on drafting your story, this is as good as anything out there. It’s also much more capable than the WriteRoom-style editors.

This is the light theme. The Write! cloud panel is at left, the text Minimap at right.
This is the light theme. The Write! cloud panel is at left, the text Minimap at right.

Write! began life as a Windows program; subsequent versions were quickly released for macOS and Linux. Since I write on Mac and Linux, this cross-platform compatibility is a big plus. The program looks and behaves the same on both platforms, as it should. (And it’s easily the best-looking writing program on Linux.) It also syncs your work seamlessly between platforms, thanks to its own, built-in cloud integration (which costs $4.95 per year, starting one year after the purchase date). The program itself costs $14.95. Rather than a traditional license, Write! sets up an account for you—you need to set up this account before you can download the software. There is no trial version, but you can cancel your account and get a refund within the first seven days, should you so choose.

The program is under very rapid development and the developers are quite responsive to users’ suggestions. For example, the program originally defaulted to saving documents in the cloud; there is now an option to save locally. I’m told that, very soon, there will be a localized version of the Cloud panel, which will make the program much more flexible in terms of organizing your work.

This is the dark theme. The Write! cloud panel is at left, the text Minimap at right.
This is the dark theme. The Write! cloud panel is at left, the text Minimap at right.

Write! is a text editor that supports Markdown, Wiki and Textile syntax. It can export to any of those formats, as well as to .docx, .odt, plain text (.txt), PDF or HTML. A unique feature of the software, visible in both of the above screenshots, is a pure prose take on the Sublime Text coding editor’s “Minimap,” running down from the upper right corner. This bird’s-eye view of your text shows you where you are in your document and you can use the map to navigate up and down.

Here’s a quick rundown of the program’s other features:

  • Tabs and writing sessions—you can save groups of tabs as a session and return to it later.
  • Thanks to Write’s built-in cloud storage, you can create links to your documents for sharing with others (NB: Write! uses AWS and 256-bit encryption for cloud storage).
  • Again thanks to cloud storage, there is an unlimited undo feature. Not that most of us would need that (I hope), but it is a unique feature nonetheless!
  • Productivity counters, which you can tweak.
  • Native spell-checking (in multiple languages!), plus online access (via links to your browser) to a thesaurus, Google lookups, translations and Wikipedia.

And here are the quirks and drawbacks, some of which the developers are already working on:

  • Proprietary cloud storage, as opposed to Dropbox or Google Drive. There are advantages to this, as noted, but you’ll need to determine whether it works for you.
  • Limited functionality with local files (this will soon be remedied, according to the developers).
  • Limited import capabilities (though export capabilities are quite strong).
  • Limited functionality for longer works. Documents can only be combined manually, which would make for extra work in something as long as a novel.
  • Style restrictions. The built-in styles are gorgeous, but you’ll need to export your work and reformat it to industry standards before submitting.

To summarize: Write! is a relatively new entrant in the highly competitive field of distraction-free text editors and it is already quite strong. The program has a great look and feel, and new features and functionality are being added regularly. If you’re okay with the caveats cited above (some of which are already being addressed) then you’ll find this program provides a satisfying and productive writing environment.