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.

Carelessness Kills

After initially denying responsibility for scores of civilian deaths caused by American bombing in Mosul Jidideh on March 17, the senior United States commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, has acknowledged that the U.S. “probably had a role in these casualties.”

Amnesty International said as many as 150 people may have died in the strike. Hundreds of other civilians have been killed in their homes by airstrikes, the group said.

Civilian deaths in Mosul.
Civilian deaths in Mosul.
Photo by Felipe Dana/Associated Press.

“Evidence gathered on the ground in East Mosul points to an alarming pattern of US-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside. The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser, who carried out field investigations in Mosul.

In a recent interview, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the commander of United States Central Command, said new procedures have made it easier for commanders in the field to call in airstrikes without waiting for permission from more senior officers.

As a consequence, some groups contend that US coalition strikes are now causing more civilian casualties than strikes by Russia are causing in Syria. Russia was accused of war crimes for its bombing of Aleppo, Syria, last year. There have been more than 1,300 reports of civilian deaths in airstrikes in March alone, around three times as many as were reported in February.

Is this part of a trend? It sure looks that way. Just yesterday President Trump relaxed some of the rules for preventing civilian casualties when the American military carries out counterterrorism strikes in Somalia.

This new level of carelessness in conducting airstrikes is both callous and counterproductive. A strike supposedly aimed at the enemy which kills scores of civilians instead is an instant recruiting tool for ISIS. Not to mention wasteful, counterproductive and demoralizing for the United States and its allies. It’s also deeply immoral, in some cases veering extremely close, if not over, the line defining war crimes.

It’s just one more instance in which the new president’s “I don’t give a shit” attitude is producing widespread damage, this time producing a stark rise in innocent (and preventable, with more care taken) civilian deaths.

Lincoln in the Bardo

This novel from George Saunders, probably America’s premier short story writer, is nothing short of an event. It has reached #1 on the New York Times hardcover best seller list, and the Times has produced a ten-minute “immersive narrative short” based on excerpts from the novel. The book’s publication has been accompanied by a spectacular audiobook version with a 166-person cast. Lincoln in the Bardo has received very strong reviews, both here and in the UK. And, it is the author’s first novel, which is yet another reason why so many people are so eager to read it.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
A novel from America’s premier short story writer.

Saunders’s short stories are phenomenal works of art. I think “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” from Tenth of December, does as fine a job as anything I’ve read of capturing the pre-Trump American zeitgeist. In fact, all four of Saunders’s short story collections are believably absurd renditions of life in America in recent years, poignant and heartfelt, with great empathy for those who are struggling and savage satirical depictions of the powers that be. Many of the dazed and confused characters in these stories would have no doubt voted for Trump, believing (like their real-life counterparts) they had nothing to lose.

It’s a long way from Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, just as it’s a major transition from the concision of a short story, no matter how brilliantly rendered, to the larger canvas of a novel. Saunders used this analogy to describe the task: “It’s like I’ve spent my whole life making custom yurts and someone said, ‘Can you build a mansion?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I could link a bunch of yurts together.'”

But Saunders has done much more than string his yurts together. He has done extensive research on Lincoln at the time of the Civil War, and on the unexpected death of his beloved son, Willie. The quotes unearthed have been used strategically to propel the story, alternating with the narrative of his characters in the bardo (Saunders is a practicing Buddhist). These are extraordinarily well done.

There are three principal narrators, in addition to Willie Lincoln, and each is trapped, for reasons unique to him, in the bardo, unable to move on. They don’t want the same fate to befall Willie, so much of the narrative consists of their efforts to persuade the lad to leave his transitional state, in a “matterlightblooming” phenomenon. Lincoln’s grief at the death of his son, and his heavy responsibilities as President in a time of national emergency, contribute to the novel’s elegiac tone. This is very different from the atmosphere of most of Saunders’s stories.

The unusual way in which the story is told somehow reflects the transitional state in which it is set, and does so with growing power throughout the novel. The characterizations, both historically based and invented, are wonderful. This is a book you will remember and think about long after you finish reading it.

Global Humanitarian Crises

While the United States wrestles with its self-inflicted wounds regarding health care and other moral imperatives, the world at large is experiencing the worst humanitarian crises since 1945. Bad as Trumpcare promises to be, it’s not going to result in mass starvation (even if millions of poor Americans will have less money for food and healthcare alike). Yet some 20 million people around the world face imminent starvation and death, more than at any time since the end of World War Two.

Two thirds of the people of Yemen are at immediate risk.
Yemen, where two thirds of the population is in desperate need of aid and seven million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Photo: Yahya Arhab/European Pressphoto Agency.

America seems intent on tearing itself apart while much the world is coming apart, in ways that most of us cannot imagine.

Without collective and coordinated global efforts, “people will simply starve to death” and “many more will suffer and die from disease,” Stephen O’Brien, the UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the security council in New York yesterday.

Of course the UN has long been anathema to “conservative” Americans—one can easily imagine Bannon and Trump attempting to kick its New York headquarters out of the country. Yet for all its dysfunction, the world’s intergovernmental organization still provides a moral call to action that is genuinely altruistic and meaningful. U. S. “conservatives,” on the other hand, hate and fear the Other, both in this country and abroad. Twenty million people starving to death in Yemen and Africa? So what?

Yet the other half of America, the half trying to resist the destructive Trump takeover, still does care, by and large. Might I suggest a short pause from town hall confrontations and resistance marches, at least one long enough to write a check which will prevent a number of people from dying in the next week or so? The largest need is in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. And there is plenty of need elsewhere around the world as well, including the massive, ongoing refugee crisis.

Let’s not permit the mass starvation of 20 million people to become part of the world’s “new normal.” Please visit this page to select an aid organization and donate to do your part to help.