The New Face of America?

Who is the man in the photo below? Is he us? And by “us,” I mean the half of the country that, with the assistance of a foreign power, ruthless gerrymandering and big, dark money—not to mention a last-minute assist from the FBI director—put the present administration in office.

His name is Adam W. Purinton and judging by his photo (and why not? Don’t we always make snap judgments about whole classes of people based on their looks?) he is a poster boy for what we used to term “poor white trash”: ugly, mean-looking and radiating ignorance and hostility.

Adam Purinton
Who is this? Is he us? Photo: Henry County Sheriff’s Office, via Associated Press.

Last Wednesday evening, at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Purington verbally assaulted two immigrants from India who had been working here legally for many years, using racial slurs and telling the men to “get out of my country.” Both worked as engineers for Garmin, a GPS navigation and communications device company and a maker of highly regarded professional running watches. When customers complained about Purington’s obnoxious behavior, he was kicked out of the bar. He returned later and shot both Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok R. Madasani, as well as an American who came to their defense, Ian P. Grillot. Kuchibhotla was killed and the other two men were wounded. Purington fled to neighboring Missouri where he was soon captured.

Purinton has been charged with murder and the federal government has launched an investigation to determine if the shooting was a hate crime. Well, d’uh.

People in India don’t seem to be in any doubt, where the attack dominated news media and the top American diplomat in the country was compelled to issue a statement condemning what she described as a “tragic and senseless act.”

Is Purinton the new face America is showing to the world? This is still ostensibly one country, and the government response here in the U.S. has been both dishonest and inadequate. White House spokesman Sean Spicer claimed it was absurd to suggest President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric could be linked to the Kansas violence.

There is one belated bright spot: a GoFundMe campaign set up to help the family of the murdered man has raised more than $625,000 to date.

Is this the way it’s going to be in Trump’s hate-mongering America? Decent people left trying to atone for the mindless violence the administration has unleashed?

Darkness Visible

Amnesty International released its 2016/2017 “State of the World’s Human Rights” report yesterday and it paints a dark picture. The global human rights organization noted that toxic fear-mongering by anti-establishment politicians, including President Trump, is contributing to a worldwide drive to roll back human rights.

Amnesty described 2016 as “the year when the cynical use of ‘us vs. them’ narratives of blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s.”

The watchdog group named Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte among leaders it said are “wielding a toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanizes entire groups of people.”

Trump’s “poisonous” rhetoric exemplified “the global trend of angrier and more divisive politics,” Amnesty said.

Donald Trump
Trump photo © Huffington Post.

The day before Amnesty’s report was released, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued a pair of memos intended to expedite the removal of millions of U. S. immigrants far more quickly, with far fewer checks and far less balance. Kelly wants to hire 10,000 more ICE officers and 5,000 more Border Patrol agents, in addition to enlisting police departments around the U. S. to assist in immigrant roundups.

Yesterday, the Amnesty report noted that “The limits of what is acceptable have shifted. Politicians are shamelessly and actively legitimizing all sorts of hateful rhetoric and policies based on people’s identity: misogyny, racism and homophobia. The first target has been refugees and, if this continues in 2017, others will be in the crosshairs.”

The White House had no comment on the report.

Can Facebook Save the World?

I won’t try to cover the absurd press conference conducted by our so-called President yesterday, as it’s already been done quite effectively (Steven Colbert stands out here). Laughter is a natural response, and many progressives take heart from the fact that every such fiasco undermines Trump further.

But I don’t share this optimism. Even if Trump fails to last a full term, as many pundits are predicting, we’re still left with Pence and an amoral Republican Congress intent on undermining every bit of social progress the country has made in decades.

Well, the pendulum will swing back, others say. And to that I respond, so what? Let’s say we manage to elect a Democratic President and control the Senate again in 2020. We will still be left with the ignorant, misguided and/or malevolent citizens who voted Trump into office last year. So how much lasting progress can really be made? The pendulum is swinging more slowly now, and the clock is winding down.

The country’s two-party system, with its electoral college and other quaint artifacts, is broken beyond repair. Universal suffrage is no cure when half the electorate is uninformed and unqualified by temperament, education and upbringing to make rational decisions. (The Republicans have done their best to increase this pool of unqualified voters through effective gerrymandering.)

All of which brings me to a surprising statement made by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, yesterday: “progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.”

Facebook
Can Facebook help create global harmony? Logo © Facebook.

This is absolutely true. Both climate change and nuclear weapons, to cite just two examples, are terrifying threats that only a global response can meet effectively. But how do we get there? Somehow I think Facebook alone is not the answer. But maybe it can help, if it does more to curtail the ignorance promulgated on its network and more to help people break out of their tight little groups and constant posting as an end in itself to take part in organizing change in the real world.

Zuckerberg has raised a very important issue and I admire him for speaking out in today’s nationalistic, close-minded environment. How do people of intelligence and good will come together to make genuine progress? That is the question more of us need to address today, regardless of national boundaries or Trump’s latest tweet.

Music for Our Times

With the Grammys coming up tomorrow, I thought I’d cast my vote in the Dance/Electronic category for Underworld’s phenomenal Barbara, Barbara we face a shining future. While I follow classical music and jazz more than popular music these days, there are some noteworthy exceptions and Underworld is one of them.

Underworld: Barbara Barbara we face a shining future
Music for today.

Back in the 90s, the group had some of the best and most popular dance/electronic albums of the day. Two of their songs featured in Danny Boyle’s controversial but widely acclaimed film Trainspotting, and the albums Dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest in the Infants were blasting people into a kind of dancing nirvana in clubs everywhere.

Barbara, Barbara is different—it’s very much of this time. From the opening track on, the album seems concerned with finding solace and inspiration where one can in the midst of confusion and darkness. The opening track, “I Exhale,” tells an abstract story of forward motion that opens out into “the lights aglow over the horizon.” It makes you feel those lights, and believe they are cause for hope.

Likewise with the other tracks on the album. “If rah,” the second track, has a line proclaiming “Life isn’t shit.” “Low Burn” urges listeners to “Be bold, Be beautiful, Free, Totally Unlimited.”“Motorhome” counsels us to “Keep away from the dark side.” And “Nylon Strung” closes the album with:

“Sliding between the dust of a scorched earth
Open me up
I wanna hold you, laugh for you
(Carry me).”

This is music for today. Barbara, Barbara deserves a Grammy.

The Writers Studio

I mentioned recently that I was taking a workshop at The Writers Studio. I’d like to expand on that a bit and tell you why I find it worthwhile.

In general, I’m in the camp that finds creative writing courses of any type to be of limited value. I’ve taken courses at august institutions, such as Columbia, which only reinforced this belief. The Writers Studio is different, and it is different because it focuses specifically on craft and the narrative voice. The method is to offer a fiction or poetry example each week (usually alternating between the two) and analyze it according to the voice of its Persona/Narrator (“PN” in Writers Studio parlance). Tone (“the surface,  the sound of language on the page, like sunlight glinting on the ocean”) and mood (“the undercurrent that draws you in”) are also examined.

The Studio’s goal is not to network or score an agent, and not to focus on publishing one’s work per se. Instead, the intent is to help students by experimenting with and trying to emulate the craft involved in a wide range of other voices, with the ultimate goal of discovering one’s own voice(s). I find it it quite helpful and thought-provoking, and the weekly deadlines are also important in producing “kernels” of work (short poems and two-page story beginnings) throughout the workshop.

The Writers Studio was founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz (the prize was for his collection Failure, published in 2007). You can read more about the history and philosophy behind the Studio here, and elsewhere on their site.

To give you an idea of what the workshop is actually like, consider the narrative voice, tone and mood of T. C. Boyle’s widely anthologized short story “Greasy Lake,” available here. Then read my two-page work derived from it following the break. (NB: the goal is not literal imitation but rather inspiration derived from materials in the original.)

Continue reading “The Writers Studio”

Some Timely Reading

I’d wanted to write about craft today, in conjunction with a workshop I’m taking at the Writers Studio. However, in light of Donald Trump’s illegal, immoral and un-American ban on refugees entering the United States, I’ve decided to focus on other fiction instead. Dystopian fiction. Fiction perfectly suited to today’s “post-truth” environment and the Trump administration’s “alternative facts.”

1984 by George Orwell
1984: the best-known dystopian novel.

First up: George Orwell’s 1984, the dystopian novel. It gives me some hope to tell you that the paperback version is temporarily out of stock at Amazon; I’ve linked to the Kindle version instead.

There are very good reasons why so many people have felt compelled to read or re-read this book—its depictions of the obliteration of objective truth and the destruction of fundamental human rights are very much in keeping with Trump’s first week in office.

Next, two classic alternative histories portraying a fascist America. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935 (and also out of stock at Amazon), still retains the power to shock. So too does Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), which describes a fascist American government run by Charles Lindbergh. It too is out of stock. With hate crimes on the upswing and swastikas popping up around the country, you’ll find both books resonate strongly.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World has entered the language.

After 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may be the best-known dystopian novel. Amazingly, the paperback version is currently available. This is a masterful portrait of psychological manipulation writ large, at the service of a totalitarian state. Helping to preserve order is a wondrous new antidepressant and hallucinogenic drug, soma. Today’s American equivalent would be opioids in the impoverished rural areas and social media among the chattering classes.

Finally, a title of special interest for those who participated in the Women’s March on Washington: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. This 1985 novel concerns the subjugation of women in a totalitarian theocracy. Many would argue that Mike Pence and the desire to destroy Planned Parenthood are steps in that direction.

In this dark time, it’s heartening that many Americans can see the distortions and deceptions of Trump’s administration reflected in classic titles. Together with the continuing protests around the country, it suggests that resistance may eventually produce change.

What Should Happen Next?

2016 election results
2016 election results by county, sans Alaska. Source: New York Times.

When you look at the map above, it’s easy to draw mistaken conclusions from the 2016 election results. At first glance, one would think “Red” voters outnumber their “Blue” counterparts by a 50-1 margin. Yet we know there were nearly three million more blue votes than red.

Similarly, you would suppose most blue voters are to be found on the coasts, while the interior of the country is painted conservative red. This is generally true, yet there are blue counties in every state on this map, and red counties alongside the two oceans.

The Daily Stormer website, an “alt-right” (read: neo-Nazi) hangout that describes Manhattan as “Shekel Island,” looks at the map above and decides the United States should be partitioned into separate countries. “Do we really want a vicious cycle of the coasts and the core fighting one another to convince a few border regions to flip one way or the other every four years?” the site asks.

It’s a valid question. I come at the issue from the left rather than the right, but I agree with the assessment that the one-step forward, one-step back routine has become counterproductive. America is now so divided that it is difficult to imagine this ever changing, at least under our current antiquated system. Trump showed no inclination to even try and unite the country in his “America First” inauguration speech—he is continuing to play to his base. In response, huge crowds in Washington and elsewhere around the U. S. (and the world) are voicing their opposition today. You do this, I do that. Now I’m up, now I’m down.

You could argue with Martin Luther King, Jr. (paraphrasing the American Transcendentalist Theodore Parker) that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that arc is very long indeed, and for now we seem to be stuck in place, at best.

The idea of secession, long a politically taboo topic, is beginning to percolate around the country, particularly in California. I personally think it would make more sense for California and other progressive states (New York, New England, the Pacific Northwest) to band together, rather than California going it alone. Yes, I know this reads like a far-out fringe fantasy and I do realize that the obstacles to realizing such an ambition would be immense.

But consider what’s happening in America. Does it really make sense for progressives to start over at ground level with the goal of returning Democrats to office in 2018 and 2020? Even if this were successful, the seething anger and confounding ignorance that took Trump to Washington would remain and the political back-and-forth would continue, ad infinitum.

There has to be a better alternative.

Fiction in the Post-truth Era

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” the saying goes, and this poses a real challenge for fiction writers. More so than ever today, in our post-truth era. Yet it’s a challenge that’s being met, often brilliantly.

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.
Post-truth and reality in a modern thriller. Photo: Post-Gazette.com.

Noah Hawley offers an excellent example. Not only is Hawley a gifted novelist—his latest, Before the Fall, made the New York Times 100 Notable Books list last year—he is a masterful screenwriter as well, as exemplified by the first two seasons of “Fargo” in particular.

Much of Before the Fall concerns the 24-hour news cycle and the ways in which appearance vies with reality. In fact, the novel’s denouement revolves around these issues. But the book is such a gripping, suspenseful read that you’re only concerned with turning the pages. The issues raised do resonate after you put the book down, though.

Fargo
“Fargo,” from FX. Photo: Backstage.com

The story (not the plot) is similar in “Fargo.” Set in the Upper Plains, the series contrasts the (mostly) polite and plain-spoken people who live there with the violent and chaotic spin of American social and political change. It does not do this overtly; both seasons are set in the past. Yet it’s there, and you become aware of it as you go along.

In both the book and the TV series, Hawley does what writers are supposed to do: dig inside his characters to present their truth. That’s one thing that has not changed in our current climate and it means that truth continues to have a bright future—at least in fiction and film.

Keep Control of Your Life

I voiced concern, in a recent post, that progressive Americans were exhibiting a strange passivity as the inauguration of Donald J. Trump approaches. This reluctance to engage with the profound transformation confronting the nation is understandable on one level—it’s painful. Yet resistance across a broad spectrum of American life is essential if the very worst is to be avoided. Mass surveillance is one of these areas. You can take a stand and help reduce its impact.

ProtonMail is free encrypted email.
ProtonMail is free encrypted email.

The NSA and other agencies have amassed enormous power in recent years and that power is likely to be more aggressively displayed after January 20. Too many people have displayed a resigned helplessness in the face of this sinister development for too long. American citizens are entitled to lead private lives. Don’t think, “If I’ve done nothing wrong, I have nothing to worry about.” You have plenty to worry about—we all do.

If you’re on Facebook, that part of your life is an open book, obviously. (Corporate power is on the verge of expanding exponentially as well.) If you send and receive your email as plain text or HTML, you can assume every word of every message you’ve ever sent or received is available to government investigators, along with any photos or other attachments in your email. Unless you take basic precautions, every website you visit can be listed against your name, along with the location you viewed it from and the date and time of the viewing.

Do you want everything you do online filed away in a government database? No? Then start taking some basic steps to resist mass surveillance. Do it now, before Trump takes office.

Email: You can encrypt your present email account using OpenPGP but this takes a degree of technical know-how. Choose a simpler path and open a free email account with ProtonMail, based in Switzerland and encrypted by default. Use it to email your friends, even if they don’t have a ProtonMail account. You can give them a passphrase so they can receive your encrypted email anyway. ProtonMail is encrypted end-to-end and on the server. The system is designed so that ProtonMail itself has no access to your data, and thus cannot turn it over to third parties like the NSA (plus, Swiss laws on privacy are much, much tougher than they are here).

Messaging: Use Signal, from Open Whisper Systems.

Browsing: If you must use a mainstream browser, use Firefox. It is open source and inherently more secure than the others. You can add to your security by using some key add-ons, such as uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger. If you want to be really secure, though, use Tor Browser.

The Tor Browser protects against surveillance.
The Tor Browser protects against surveillance.

These are the bare rudiments. If you care about keeping your life your own, do some research. The Surveillance Self-Defense project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation is a good place to start.

In order to resist the worst of what the Trump administration has in store, start by opting out of mass surveillance and encourage your friends to do the same. The more citizens who do this, the less likely we are to enter truly Orwellian territory under Trump.

What Are You Reading?

Are you reading at all? Too many Americans aren’t, at least where books are concerned. And that goes a long way toward explaining the current state of the country. After all, reading expands one’s mental horizons and encourages understanding and empathy, both of which are in short supply these days.

To underscore the need to read, the New York Public Library and others have launched a #ReadersUnite campaign on social media. You’re encouraged to post photos of the book(s) you’re currently reading, along with your thoughts on the importance of same.

I’m currently reading a novel called The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Australian writer Richard Flanagan.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

It’s not directly related to our current situation, concerning as it does Australian POWs in WWII, but it certainly encourages empathy. It’s a well-written page-turner, as well.

I tend to organize my reading in lists, to try to keep things manageable (this doesn’t always work). The lists are divided into “Classic” (e.g., The Brothers Karamazov), “Current” (e.g., the book described above and other recent books, both fiction and non-fiction) and “Craft” (e.g., The Best American Short Stories series)— anything else goes into a free-floating catch-all category. I try to read at least a book a week and usually succeed.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand — as an aspiring writer, I read a lot and as widely as I can. If you’d like to become more proficient than the average social media post at expressing your own thoughts and feelings, then pick up a book! Pick up many books and keep reading. You’ll be the richer for it.