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.

Cassandra Watches the Ball Drop

Something I’ve been noticing lately, even among my brightest friends, is an eyes-averted tendency to focus on the narrow, the personal. The big picture is just too much to handle.

Yet celebrations are planned for the arrival of 2017. “Let’s forget our troubles and party” seems to be the attitude, and this is somewhat understandable. But only somewhat.

New Year's Eve, Times Square
New Year’s Eve, Times Square. Photo: Inside New York.

Just consider what we’re carrying into the new year:

  • An arguably illegitimate presidential election.
  • A demonstrably unqualified President-elect.
  • A hostile attack by a foreign power (including, as reported today, alarming hacks on the American power grid).
  • A President-elect who consistently praises said foreign power.
  • A new Presidential Cabinet of zealots and incompetents which is dedicated to the destruction of every key government agency (let’s hope the incompetents remain incompetent).
  • Right-wing control of all three branches of the federal government (once Trump takes office and a new Supreme Court justice is confirmed).
  • Republican control of most states as well, and an enfeebled Democratic opposition.
  • An American public which has been sundered in two, with one half unable and/or unwilling to distinguish truth from falsehood.

And this is but a sampling of what’s in store. It doesn’t exactly make for a happy new year’s outlook, does it?

However, there is one New Year’s tradition worth preserving, and that is the New Year’s resolution.

Here’s my suggestion: resolve to resist.

Consider the Source

Yesterday, the House Intelligence Committee produced a 33-page report claiming that Edward Snowden is in contact with Russian intelligence services. The report also claimed that Snowden was a chronically disgruntled employee who acted out of personal pique.

The committee had released a three-page summary of its report in September to counter the premiere of Snowden, a movie by the director Oliver Stone that portrayed him as a heroic whistle-blower.

Edward Snowden
Photo by By Laura Poitras / Praxis Films, CC BY 3.0, Link.

According to the New York Times, the full report was “not the result of an independent intelligence investigation by the committee. Rather, it was a review of the N.S.A.’s response to Mr. Snowden’s leaks and of the findings from an executive branch investigation. The committee said it did not conduct witness interviews, to avoid jeopardizing any future trial of Mr. Snowden.”

What’s more, key sections of the report remain redacted, including claims about Snowden’s contacts with Russian intelligence. As a result, today’s Times story notes, “the redactions made it hard to judge whether the report’s conclusions were merely a reiteration of the intelligence community’s contempt for Mr. Snowden or were based on new evidence.”

Considering that we’re talking about the current, Republican-dominated U. S. House of Representatives, a do-nothing body with obstructionist policies which have contributed mightily to the dystopian political landscape in store for us next year, I think the motivation for the report is obvious. While the summary was released to counter any positive effect from the Oliver Stone film, the full report is intended to argue against any possible pardon by President Obama before he leaves office (something that seemed unlikely anyway).

The post-truth machine is operating at full force here.

On the Brink

As I write this (on Monday, December 19), Donald Trump has just surpassed the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to become President. This, despite the news of Russian interference to tilt the election in his favor. This, despite the fact that his opponent had a popular vote margin of more than two and a half million.

Plenty has already been written and said about both factors. The fact that the popular vote winner has lost the presidency is nothing new; we only have to go back to 2000 and George W. Bush for another example. The Russian hacking is new, though, and it is highly disturbing for anyone who genuinely cares about American democracy. But not disturbing enough to make a difference, apparently.

The Russian connection, like Trump himself, has already been “normalized” with “Saturday Night Live” skits and jokes around the office. All the talking heads are still talking, and irony is still frequently called upon. The seriousness of the situation continues to escape most of us, most of the time.

Is America’s political nightmare so horrifying that, like death itself, we find it difficult to view straight on? Is it only possible to avert our eyes and twitter (pun intended) nervously at stupid skits and jokes? If so, things are about to get a whole lot worse.

Sneak Preview: 2017 TV Season

Big Changes Are in Store for Your Favorite Shows!

Writeside.com has learned that the Trump Administration has negotiated major changes with America’s TV networks and cable companies—plus streaming providers Netflix, Hulu and Amazon—to “bring prime time TV programs into closer accord with America’s values.”

Virtually every prime time program will reflect these changes. Here, for example, are some of the changes planned for the well-regarded FX series “The Americans.”

"The Americans"
“The Americans” title card © FX.
  • Rather than being set in the early 1980s during the Cold War, the upcoming fifth season will take place in present-day America.
  • Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple living in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., will come out of hiding and join their neighbor Stan Beeman at the FBI.
  • Paige Jennings, who had intended to follow in her parents’ footsteps, becomes an intern at the Trump White House.
  • Elizabeth and Philip join Stan in combating un-American bureaucrats at the CIA, who are alleging that America’s close ally Russia interfered with the 2016 election. Certain members of Congress who prove susceptible to these claims also become FBI targets.
  • Vladimir Putin will make a cameo guest appearance mid-season.
  • John McCain, who had been spearheading efforts to prove Russian interference in the election, is poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope. Elizabeth and Philip are seen hovering near his hospital bed.
  • At a news conference in the season’s final episode, President Trump makes his own cameo guest appearance. He is asked if Russia is responsible for the McCain poisoning. “That’s ridiculous,” the President replies. “Besides, I like senators who haven’t been poisoned with polonium-210.”

President Trump has announced that he will serve as executive producer for “The Americans” next year, along with “The Apprentice.” The President also referred to some “fabulous” changes in store next year for “PBS News Hour.”

“We’re going to bring back that fantastic two-woman anchor team,” the President said, alluding to the duo of Judy Woodruff and the late Gwen Ifill. The program’s new 2017 anchors will be Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Palin.

The Post-truth Era

If you had any doubts about what’s ahead in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, an alarming story in today’s papers—archaic media which attempt to purvey “facts”—should provide some clues as to what’s coming.

So should the Oxford English Dictionary’s international word of the year: post-truth.

The post-truth item in question: a persistent story on social media claiming that Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in northwest Washington, was harboring young children as sex slaves as part of a child-abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton.

Unbelievably ignorant. Photo: Sathi Soma, via Associated Press
Unbelievably ignorant. Photo: Sathi Soma, via Associated Press

Believing the Hillary Clinton-led pedophile pizza story to be true, an incredibly ill-informed young man drove six hours from North Carolina to D. C. with his rifle to conduct a “self-investigation.” He managed to get off a shot before he was arrested.

As scary (and to me, unbelievable) as this story is, here’s something even scarier: Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump’s choice for national security adviser, has been promoting the supposed Hillary Clinton-pedophilia connection on Twitter. His son and advisor, Mike Flynn Jr., continues to do so, even claiming that Edgar Welch, the deluded North Carolina man who drove to Washington to “investigate,” was a plant to discredit fake news websites. As though fake news sites needed discrediting.

I don’t want to live in a post-truth world. If you don’t either, then join me in standing up for the facts whenever and wherever you can.

Update: Mike Flynn Jr. has apparently been dismissed from the Trump transition team. As of this writing, his father remains on board.

Before the Election

Before the 2016 presidential election, there was widespread anxiety about the choice between two highly unpopular candidates. The poem below reflects this, although at the time it was written most people—including me—didn’t expect the worst would happen. But the poem’s last line indicates I might have had an inkling.

—Thomas Pletcher

“A Villanelle for Election Day”

When the world begins to disintegrate
And the country begins to fall apart
Just breathe in deep and steer your own thoughts straight.

Every campaign lie is defined by hate
And every campaign is a lie at heart
When the world begins to disintegrate.

If fear expands and gathers too much weight
And you fear carnage is about to start
Just breathe in deep and steer your own thoughts straight.

Some will tell you it’s really fucking great
And it’s time to upset the apple cart
When the world begins to disintegrate

The darker it grows, the more it grows late
And you know compassion won’t play a part
Just breathe in deep and steer your own thoughts straight.

Perhaps the end is really up to fate
Perhaps it’s finally time to grow smart
When the world begins to disintegrate
Just breathe in deep and steer your own thoughts straight.

To Canada.