Witnesses the ravages of two years in under 60 seconds
Something that seems to work much better in social media apps than on blogs: taking a selfie every day and compiling it into a time-lapse video. Which is something I’ve been doing for the past two and a half years, for some reason. These were made with the Close-Up app for iPhone, which only added tools to help keep your face centered in frame late in 2018, apparently.
Some might say that it’s absurdly self-indulgent. Others might say it’s a mildly interesting art project that comments on the ephemeral nature of our existence and the seeming permanence of our attempts to document the mundane moments. Others might say it looks like someone is trying to learn the basics of piecing clips together in Final Cut. Others might just want to see a middle-aged man grow a beard over and over again. For all of you — and more! — here you go.
Photos from various trips to Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland (before the pandemic)
I’m still in the process of figuring out how to use WordPress as a Flickr+Facebook+Instagram+Twitter replacement. A previous version of this post with vacation photos got broken while I was removing plugins, so here’s an attempt to re-post.
The key takeaway from these photos is that Galaxy’s Edge is rad, and has everything a middle-aged nerd could possibly want. It’s got spaceships and other vehicles:
You can’t spell “Unctuous toadies Giving up any semblance of integrity and Abdicating any responsibility to their students and their country” without UGA!
Image of the “100,000 square foot” Tate Center, its “95,000 square foot addition,” and the tiny stadium you can just barely make out sitting across the street, from the architecture firm Cooper Carry’s website
For a while I’ve been reading Stacey Abrams’s book Our Time Is Now, but I had to put it on hold. I was trying to read it before bed, and it would make me too angry to get to sleep. I knew that my home state of Georgia had had a contentious election for governor, and that the presumptive “winner” of the election, Brian Kemp, was known nation-wide for pulling some extraordinarily shady and undeniably unethical maneuvers to push the vote in his favor. Unethical as in the secretary of state refusing to recuse himself from overseeing an election in which he was a candidate.
What I hadn’t known was that “unethical” was the charitable interpretation. Kemp and the Georgia Republicans were guilty of blatant voter suppression. Abrams pulls no punches in the book, calling it like it is. And knowing that they would so casually and blatantly subvert democracy like that, and assume that it didn’t matter if anyone found out, is absolutely infuriating. Even more infuriating that they kept up their voter suppression for the 2018 election, forcing people in some districts to sacrifice an entire day trying to get into their understaffed and under-equipped polling station. One of the most egregious offenses was purging hundreds of thousands of registered voters, disproportionately in Democratic-leaning areas.
Most recently there’s been a bit of voter-suppression fuckery from my alma mater, the University of Georgia. The “UGAVotes” Twitter account announced that the Tate Student Center wouldn’t be made available for voting, giving the excuse that it was because of “concerns about social distancing.” Instead, students would be able to vote in downtown Athens, and they’d even be provided with a shuttle!
It didn’t take long for people to point out the obvious problems with that. Sending 37,000 students to the same polling places as the other 125,000 residents of Athens is likely to cause the same kinds of delays and long line-ups that plagued the majority-black-or-Democrat districts in 2018. It would also be no safer than the student center, because you’d be just causing a greater concentration of people in downtown Athens instead of a few blocks away.
“Those comparing this matter to a football game should be able to recognize that football games will be played outdoors but we will still require social distancing by substantially reducing capacity to the stadium. We have eliminated tailgating as well due to a desire to keep the campus as safe as possible and limit visitors during the pandemic.”
Twitter is horrible and is responsible for so many bad things, but it did make me happy to see so many people calling them out for such a blatantly self-serving and hypocritical statement. After people nationwide responded to their bullshit by pointing out that if the stadium — which again, is just across the street — is so safe, they could just use it as a polling place, the University eventually responded with an unctuous bit of finger-pointing, offering the Coliseum, if approved by the Secretary of State and the local election office. Because you know, if there is any group that’s proven itself to be a bastion of integrity and honesty, it’s Georgia’s Secretary of State and local election boards.
After having spent four years at UGA, I have to say I’m kind of at a loss as to why the GOP is so devoted to keeping the students from voting. While the students are generally better educated and more ethnically diverse — which is to say, not Republican — there’s also an obsessive, overwhelming devotion to the football program and alumni donations that fund it, and to the Greek System — which is to say, extremely Republican.
I should mention that I don’t know for sure whether the members of the UGA administration making these decisions are actually Republicans, but I would be stunned speechless to discover that they weren’t. Every executive at UGA that I was aware of was a weird hybrid of the dean from Animal House and one of Paula Deen’s sons. A kind of good-ol’-dean that I can easy imagine forming a human centipede of sycophants from Athens to Kemp’s office in Atlanta and all the way up to the seat of Trump’s favorite Fox News-watching recliner.
But it is good for an embittered chuckle to see the conundrums the GOP gets into when their evil schemes clash with each other. They need COVID-19 to be just dangerous enough that it prevents liberal arts majors just finding out about class inequality from being able to vote, but not so dangerous that it keeps them from stuffing students into dorm rooms and classrooms to get their tuition, or keeps them from stuffing a bunch of drunk people into their comically overpriced seats in a football stadium. It’d be almost funny — if it weren’t politicizing a deadly and highly contagious disease for the purposes of subverting American democracy. Maybe you had to be there.
Somebody should do something to make people more responsible
Copying the most important link from this blog post to the top, to make sure it gets noticed: if you can, donate to causes like the World Central Kitchen, an organization that’s actually helping people instead of just complaining. If you can afford it, an especially cool way to donate is to bid on the artwork that Mike Mignola has been making to support the WCK.
The whole thing just seems like a perfect illustration of the decline and increasing selfishness and apathy of American society over the course of my lifetime. Casting Bob Woodward promoting a book release in the role of Deep Throat just feels too poignant, in the same way that so much of 2020 has seemed to be plotted by an amateur author who doesn’t yet understand why it’s bad to be too “on the nose.”
But I keep deleting it, because I keep feeling like my time would be better spent elsewhere. I’m sure that I have gifts to provide to society that will be revealed at some point, but being able to give insightful commentary about the goings-on of rich people in Washington, DC is not one of them. I don’t really give a rat’s ass one way or the other about Bob Woodward. I was still in diapers when Watergate happened, and every detail I remember about it is from the MAD Magazine parody of All the President’s Men. Until last week, I thought that Woodward was the one Heartburn was about. (Turns out it was Carl Bernstein). I have a B- history student’s grasp of the 20th century, is what I’m saying, so it’s unlikely that the definitive record of this entire incident will be revealed on a blog by an intermittent game developer with an audience of about 15 people on an active day.
Besides, nobody’s talking about how much Bob Woodward has suffered here. If he weren’t such a patient and diligent reporter, there might now be 200,000 more surviving Americans who could’ve bought a copy of his book!
That’s the problem, the thing that keeps making me pulling me back into pointless, un-constructive anger at people who don’t care and will remain completely unaffected. Obviously, waiting to reveal information isn’t as bad as willfully deceiving people about it for political gain (even the Post describes what Trump did as “downplaying” the virus, as if he were just incompetent, instead of what he actually did, which was actively engage in a disinformation campaign about it). But when the end result is the same and the motivation is the same, does it make a tangible difference?
The Trolley Problem
Woodward’s defense for waiting to reveal the information — and calling it a “defense” is inaccurate, since he talks as if he has nothing to justify — was that he wanted to give the full story, and his deadline was the election:
Again, Woodward said he believes his highest purpose isn’t to write daily stories but to give his readers the big picture — one that may have a greater effect, especially with a consequential election looming.
Woodward’s effort, he said, was to deliver in book form “the best obtainable version of the truth,” not to rush individual revelations into publication.
And always with a particular deadline in mind, so that people could read, absorb and make their judgments well before Nov. 3. “The demarcation is the election.”
The most charitable interpretation of this is that he sees himself as something like the Watchers of the Marvel universe — spending an eternity overseeing the day-to-day activities of ordinary humans, forbidden to ever intervene. But there’s no shortage of tell-all books about the corruption and incompetence of the Trump administration. Hell, Woodward has already written one. This book is coming out at around the same time as the criminal Michael Cohen’s, who’s more blatantly doing a press circuit — and starting his own podcast, because of course — to promote it. What’s the difference, apart from the obvious assumption that Woodward’s book will be better researched and infinitely better written?
I don’t know who needs to read this, but after around 15 years I finally have to admit social media was a mistake.
Last week I deleted my Instagram account, because it was too important to me.
The thing that set me off was waking up to find Instagram had made yet another change to the app in the name of “user engagement.” I started my usual morning ritual of scrolling through photos — reassurance that the world was still there outside, people were still sharing their lives with me, and I’d be aware of anything going on — before I hit a dead end. Instagram was cutting me off like a surly bartender. I was presented with a link to “Show Older Photos” if I wanted to see my old and busted feed. Here instead were photos and videos from a ton of different suggested accounts that Instagram had determined I would absolutely like, and would absolutely have chosen to follow if only I’d known about them.
It was like the search page, but somehow different, algorithmically, in ways that I couldn’t quite detect, but I’m sure were painstakingly established by neural networks far more advanced than my crude organic ones. Instagram had spent over ten years learning what I like — apparently, Disney parks, bearded gay men, and cute dog and cat videos in roughly equal ratios — and if a project manager somewhere in the Fourth Circle of Facebook (Greed and Social Engagement Analytics) decided that the algorithm was now accurate to within 95% certainty for 90% of Instagram users in the target demographic, who was I to say otherwise?
To a lot of readers, this may seem like a trivial problem with no real-world consequence. That’s because it is a trivial problem with no real-world consequence.
It sure was a drag, though, because Instagram was the last social media platform that I still mostly enjoyed using. It was just nice to have an outlet for minor interactions with friendly strangers, being able to share parts of my boring daily life. But Instagram’s decision to shove suggested posts into my feed was the culmination of around 15 years of tech companies working to develop a new business model: software as betrayal of service. The model disrupts the traditional contract between a business and its customers with a simple four-step process:
Promise a straightforward and inessential-but-still-fun service (e.g,. a platform for sharing snapshots with a group of people of your choosing)
Attract enough users with this service to achieve either an IPO or acquisition by a larger tech company
Gradually dismantle everything that attracted users to the platform in the first place
I understand that I’m not dropping any particularly earth-shattering truth bombs here. For almost as long as social media has been a thing, people on social media have been complaining about it — corporations are creating a dystopian future and we’re all complicit in it! But those arguments have never been all that persuasive. Telling me “with Facebook, you’re not the customer…you’re the product!” has never resonated with me that much, because it’s been too easy to reduce that to “well, what’s in it for me?” I’ve always been far too boring a person to get that worried about privacy concerns. (Back when I was in the closet, I was filled with anxiety that my interactions online would someday be made public. Now, the thought makes me anxious because it’d just reveal how unimaginative and almost prudish I’ve always been). So the cost/benefit analysis always seemed like it was working in my favor: I get to have a fun and mostly insignificant social outlet, and the only cost to me is seeing frequent ads for hair-coloring and -removal products.
But I think the real cost is more significant, and it’s just subtle enough to take over gradually. A little sacrifice here, a compromise there, but nothing that seems that significant at the time. And then several years later, you look around and realize that instead of having friends, you now look at photos of what the people who used to be your friends are doing. And you’d swear that there was a time it was possible to check in on friends without having to scroll through advertisements. (Even ones that offer portraits that make your cat look like a 19th century naval commander, which is admittedly rad). And I feel like I used to be able to talk to people without having to first clear the room of a dozen artificial women who carry exactly three photos of themselves in their underwear and are eager to listen in and build a connection with me for the purposes of sex and bitcoins.
(It’s weird that Instagram’s machine learning neural networks are so advanced that they can do everything except spot insultingly obvious patterns in computer-generated spam accounts. But maybe I’m just gifted with a preternaturally advanced second sight, considering how good I am at recognizing crosswalks and stoplights for CAPTCHAs. If only I could monetize that skill, I could finally be the sugar daddy these young ladies want me to be).
There’s never been a shortage of crusty old curmudgeons lamenting that our smartphones have made us all detached and isolated. It’s pretty hackneyed. It’s also simple-minded, since it ignores all the people who’ve felt isolated their whole lives and finally have technology that can facilitate connection. Whatever the case, it’s absolutely not limited to smartphones. I can remember being at the Grand Canyon and distracted thinking of captions for the Flickr photos. I remember being out in a bar and thinking of topics of conversation better suited to a message board I read at the time, instead of the people I was with. I’ve spent the first half-hour of movies trying to think of clever names for the blog post I’d write about it afterwards. For a while, my internal monologue was replaced by a portion of my brain trying way way too hard to come up with a clever Twitter-perfect description of what I was doing or thinking. And I’ve found my mind wandering during vacations as I’m mentally selecting which photos I should share on Instagram to best capture the day.
Throughout a lot of that time, the constant in the background was Facebook. Never my platform of choice, but occasionally acting like social media methadone to help me come down from being over-invested somewhere else.
It’s normal to want to share the things you’re experiencing with someone else. And the risk of not being fully in the moment can seem worth it when you look at all the conveniences. I’ve always liked the “asynchronous broadcast” model that social media provides. After over 30 years of being a weirdo, I was just plain tired of the blank stares from people who didn’t understand what I was saying or were just plain uninterested. The idea of being able to just toss out ideas or updates whenever, and only the people who were interested were obligated to respond, seemed like a life-saver. The problem is that over time, it felt less like I was broadcasting and more like I was tossing out messages in bottles, desperate to get some kind of acknowledgement that people can see that I still exist.
That convenience extends to all the reactions. I feel a weird anxiety now, when I’m reading or looking at something on one of the few platforms that doesn’t offer reactions. I find myself wanting to respond to the poster to acknowledge that I saw them. It’s not that I’ve ever been insincere in clicking the Like button on a post, but that the whole mechanism adds another layer of artifice to the increasingly alien and unnatural social interaction. It makes something quick and easy that probably shouldn’t be quick and easy. Maybe I should be taking the time to tell someone directly “I enjoyed this,” or “I’m sorry this happened to you.” If that feels overwhelming, then maybe I shouldn’t be pretending it’s normal to have genuine social relationships with hundreds of people.
All of these are basically manifestations of the same problem: these platforms seem like a convenient substitute when “real” socialization isn’t available, and that feeling of cosmic-level loneliness threatens to creep in. But they demand a level of detachment that some of us just can’t keep up for long. The people who thrive on these platforms are the ones who are most comfortable treating them like a commercial broadcast: promoting themselves or their business, maintaining that same layer of artificiality-disguised-as-warmth that you see in talk show interviews. And that’s not even necessarily fake or insincere; it just means spending the whole time hyper-aware that you’re playing to an audience.
I’ll never be an influencer, and in fact it makes me more than a little nauseated to be living in a world in which people are described as “influencers” with no sense of shame or irony. And none of the selfies, vacation snapshots, or dumb jokes that I’ve shared online could ever be monetized in any way that’d be meaningful to a social media platform. But still I looked at my old Instagram account, and I couldn’t help but feeling like they’d Tom Sawyered me into painting their fence — I was providing them “content,” and I’d agreed to watch ads, do daily fake account screening, and probably provide a few gigabytes of facial recognition data, for the privilege of doing it.
The most ridiculous part is that I never once would’ve considered it “content” until I started seeing accounts I’d been following popping up with occasional sponsored posts and “partnerships” with brands. Is everyone but me an influencer?! I couldn’t tolerate Tik Tok for very long, not just because I’m almost 50, but because they’re even more blatantly commercial and eager to go viral. Seeing so many people begging for tips just felt unsettlingly sleazy, like I’d wandered into a G-rated, teen-filled version of an adult site that only offered dancing and lipsyncing. “Kidz Bop: The Onlyfanz Edition.”
Looking back over 10 years worth of Instagram posts, I realized just how significant it all was to me. Over time, it’d become my daily diary. It covered my entire relationship with my fiance, including our engagement. I found a group of people who helped me be more comfortable being out, more comfortable with my appearance, and just generally more confident. It helped me find a community that never seemed very welcoming in San Francisco. I realized that as far as content goes, it was all but worthless to Facebook, but it was absolutely priceless to me. It felt gross that I’d poured so much of myself into an app that didn’t feel any obligation at all to me.
So I deleted it. I started over from scratch with a new Instagram account that’ll let me keep in contact with the genuinely good people I’ve met through the platform. But I’m going to be careful with what I choose to share on it. Only stuff I’ve made and travel photos from places I’ve been. Nothing I wouldn’t be willing to share on a professional portfolio site. I’ve also deactivated my Facebook account, and it’s felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. It’s just too bad I won’t be able to delete it completely until an anti-trust action divests the VR portion of Facebook’s business from their advertising-and-election-interference division.
A while back, I deleted my 12-year-old Twitter account after getting harassed by a Trump supporter. I had always believed that it’s important to stand up to bullies, but when I tried to report the dude, Twitter directed me to a site that looked like it had been made by someone trying to learn HTML and CSS by copying random examples from stack overflow. It was asking me to upload a photo of my ID and a phone bill proving that it was my real phone number. I looked at the page and thought, “I could do that… or, I could just delete my account and be free of this toxic trash heap of a website forever!” The only thing that surprised me afterwards was how much I didn’t miss it. (For the record: I sent in documents two months ago to have an account closed for a family member who passed away on February, and Twitter still hasn’t even sent an automated response, much less done anything to close the account).
I did make a new read-only Twitter account earlier this year, because people kept insisting on posting screenshots of tweets on other social media platforms. Even though hypermedia was designed to let people verify their sources instead of going off on unsubstantiated self-righteous mobs, and we’ve all seen how easily photos and videos are faked or taken out of context, I guess that’s just what we’re all doing now. And it seemed rude to respond “If I wanted to keep reading this bullshit, I wouldn’t have deleted my Twitter account.” Twitter doesn’t allow searching the site without an account, so here we are. The overwhelming thing I’ve noticed is that it’s gotten so much worse than I left — it no longer even pretends to give a reverse-chronological list of tweets from your friends, but is showing me tweets that the people I follow liked, or just randomly popular tweets from accounts that they follow. Absolutely nobody seems to get any enjoyment out of it anymore, but nobody seems willing to leave. It’s just people promoting themselves and their work, raging at something an idiot politician said online, and complaining about how awful Twitter is. And I can sympathize, because even though it’s hardly ever informative and hardly ever entertaining, I still find myself checking in, just because it offers the potential of something new.
So I’ll see how long I can take the “share less, listen more” mantra to heart. I’ve still got this blog as an outlet for any personal stuff, where at least I own it. I just need to find a way to make it easy to share photos, random thoughts, and stuff that isn’t a long, rambling essay that takes me days to write. Whenever I get the impulse to open an app to just scroll through looking for something new, I’m trying to instead open Kindle to read a book, or a real news app of the sort that Twitter and Facebook derisively calls “Mainstream Media,” or even Comixology if I just want to read something dumb. I doubt it’d be a perceptible difference from the outside, but I think it’d mean a huge difference to me.
One funny(-ish) thing: when I started my new, less-posting-more-lurking Instagram account, it went back to the old behavior of showing me photos from people I followed, instead of cutting me off and filling my feed with suggested posts. I don’t know if that’s a change that they reversed, or if it’s a side effect of using Instagram less often, or if they simply don’t have 10 years worth of data on me to generate suggested posts. But it was at least satisfying to see that “fixing” the problem that set me off in the first place didn’t make me regret my decision at all.
I do remember a time when everything was quieter. Lonelier, sure, and I often felt like I was out of the loop of what was happening. But I also felt like I had more time to make stuff. And the things that made me angry or upset were more often than not things that I had some way of controlling, instead of things seemingly designed to cause me perpetual anxiety and despair. Maybe I’m naive, but I still feel like we can live in the always-connected future that the end of Spaceship Earth promised, without being beholden to shitty companies that seem to profit off our being miserable.
Reacting to the Democratic National Convention, and reconsidering what it means to truly reject cynicism.
Serendipitous photo of my three choices for Democratic Presidential candidate in reverse chronological order, via Rolling Stone
I watched most of the Democratic National Convention this week — they really should consider continuing the new “infinitely more watchable” format even after the pandemic — and I found myself just crying and crying. It shows how hard the last four years have been when all it takes is a bunch of people earnestly talking about hope, decency, and empathy to provoke such an emotional response.
For a while now, even before the United States collectively shit the bed and elected one of the worst people alive to be President, I’ve been feeling increasing frustration with and outright despair over the political atmosphere in America. It wasn’t just that awful people were pulling all of us down into the mire of their own awfulness, it was feeling increasingly uneasy seeing the opinions and the tactics of people who were ostensibly supposed to be on “my side.” Watching the convention last week, and seeing the reactions to it online, made the last piece fall into place. I realized that I’ve spent decades being manipulated.
Not manipulated into believing in liberal or progressive causes; I do that because I’m a decent human being. I mean manipulated into being hyper-wary of being manipulated. It goes back decades. For all I know, it started as a well-intentioned attempt to teach media literacy to a bunch of naive 80s kids. But over the years, it’s grown more and more pervasive, transforming from a healthy skepticism to a defeatist cynicism.
While I was watching the speakers deliver a message of hope and equality, I was focused on looking for “tells.” Kamala Harris’s familiar and practiced suite of Generic Politician Gestures, as she was the first woman of African and Indian descent to accept the vice presidential nomination from a major party. Paying close attention to who was and wasn’t present and who was given the most speaking time, during the Cory Booker-led roundtable of Presidential candidates now united in support of Biden. Considering the strategy behind using a teenager with a speech impediment as a shield, as an impossibly brave young man went on national television to share a story about how Joe Biden helped him, knowing that Biden’s opponents are shamelessly soulless, bullying, cowardly shits who wouldn’t hesitate to disparage a child if they thought they could get a few poll points out of it. And I thought about using loss to push emotional buttons, as Biden described his own grief to show empathy with Americans who’ve suffered loss, and I found myself sobbing at his perfect description of grief as a deep black hole that opens up in your chest.
Any time something makes me cry, I’ve been indoctrinated to ask: is this real? Am I being manipulated? Is this something maudlin or insincere? Should I be embarrassed? Am I being set up?
On its own, I don’t think that’s all that unusual. But over the decades, it seems to have metastasized into the kind of paranoia that seems to be the one thing left in the United States that’s truly bipartisan. More and more of what we’re hearing from self-described progressives is echoing what we’re hearing from the members of the current kakistocracy and their enablers. Mistrust of institutions. Dismissal of the “main stream media.” Convinced of corruption that wasn’t just widespread but completely saturated every American organization. Trustworthy public figures aren’t just rare, but completely imaginary.
Much of this was obviously due to the increasing volume of troll accounts, motivated either by political gain or just a lazy nihilism. We’ve seen how the Tea Party-infused GOP and Trump administration feed on nihilism and despair, profiting from the belief that nothing is real and nothing matters. But especially this year, as more Americans are finally admitting that they can’t go on denying all of the systemic racism, institutionalized misogyny, and white supremacy, it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish the nihilistic trolls from the more vocal and militant people on “the left.” No one is to be trusted. All our institutions are irreparably corrupt. There’s no hope for reform; everything must be torn down. We’re surrounded not by people who occasionally stumble while trying to do the right thing; everyone is a latent racist or misogynist or fascist desperately trying not to reveal their true nature.
All this time, I’ve been feeling stressed that it’s getting harder to tell the difference between the trolls and sincerely militant liberal progressives and socialists. I’ve felt like it required more and more work on my part to determine whether something was being said in good faith or not. Finally, I remembered the only useful thing from my philosophy classes: something has to make a difference to be a difference. If I can’t distinguish between trolling bullshit and sincere bullshit, then it’s just plain bullshit. No matter how earnest the person may be about dismantling the systems of oppression.
To be clear, I’m guilty of it to some degree. When Warren, my favored candidate, dropped out of the race, I threw a tantrum online. I complained that we’d squandered so much potential for change by turning the Democratic candidacy into a choice between two old white men. It didn’t take long for me to realize, however, that the person who was the most entitled to be bitter about Warren having to withdraw from the race — Elizabeth Warren — wasn’t joining me online in complaining. Instead, she was throwing her support behind the party, against Trump, drawing attention to progressive causes, and championing the campaigns of other Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.
I’ve seen a lot of people announcing that Joe Biden isn’t their first choice for President, as if that makes them special. He wasn’t my first choice either. I’d given up on the Democratic Party and political engagement in general until I heard a speech from Pete Buttigieg. He described the end of the Reagan era, for better or worse, and that was the first thing in years that sparked hope in me that things could get better. I was 9 years old when Reagan was elected, so it’s been the standard for almost my entire life. I have no other frame of reference, but I do vividly remember how Reagan-era politics was contrasted with previous administrations, from a media still trying to process what was happening. It was all about media manipulation, optics, and spin taking precedence over authenticity, government as a service, and progress. Hearing a candidate saying “it doesn’t have to be this way, change is possible,” was inspiring.
Finding out later on that he’d have been the first openly gay President was proof that change was possible. Just a decade earlier, the leading Democratic candidate for President had said that he was against marriage equality “because of [his] religion,” and resorted to the GOP’s obstinate and cowardly excuse that it was a matter of states’ rights. Gay rights had been a hot potato that no one in the Democratic Party was willing to hold onto, and by 2020, a gay front-runner for the Presidency was hounded by criticism that he was too conservative.
Call me a single-issue voter, but that’s the realization that finally snapped me out of my cynicism, and got me fired up for a Biden/Harris administration. While the Democratic Party was just perpetuating more of the same while claiming to have the moral high ground, Biden forced the administration to finally “evolve” and make a stand. Biden officiated the marriage of two White House staffers, while party insiders and pundits were still lamenting how he was prone to “gaffes” like standing up for basic human dignity that the rest of the party wasn’t ready to embrace.
As far as I can tell, Biden wasn’t his own first choice, either — it took him forever to throw himself into the running. I don’t have to wonder about any hidden motivation, because I can’t imagine what he has to gain by being President. Few of the candidates this election have sounded sincere — except for Cory Booker, of course, who always speaks with 150% conviction — not because they’re lying, but because they’re always having to deliver a set of talking points repeatedly over the course of more than a year to thousands of different people. But throughout Biden’s acceptance speech, I didn’t have a moment’s doubt that he was being sincere. I believe he’s in it to help people.
I believe Kamala Harris is in it to help people, as well, even though she absolutely talks like a politician and a lawyer. Tone and optics should be irrelevant in the post-Reagan era. Trust is more important. She’d already earned mine by virtue of seeing the course of her career; if all she wanted were power or money, there are much, much easier ways she could’ve gone about getting it.
So in other words, I’m rejecting the bullshit idea that as a liberal progressive, I’m “begrudgingly” voting for Biden and Harris. I’m rejecting the idea that the Democratic Party doesn’t represent all the people that it claims to. I’m especially rejecting the idea that American government is a pendulum that only works for one half of the country at a time. We’ve seen multiple times what happens when you have a bastard occupying the White House who only cares about placating a base instead of working for all Americans. Anyone who suggests that a moderate is irreparably compromised simply doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care, how democracy is supposed to function. It’s not about getting enough votes to win an election, it’s about electing the person who’s going to do their best to represent the needs of everyone.
The overwhelming message I got from the Democratic National Convention was one of inclusion and unity. I reject the conclusion of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said that the convention wasn’t “targeting” her because it didn’t include the prerequisite number of Muslims, or a Latino who’d run for President. I reject the complaints of atheists, who’ve insisted that mentions of religion and faith somehow exclude the nonreligious. If we want to make people realize that social justice isn’t a zero-sum game, in which improving the lives of long-marginalized people means making life worse for the people who’ve historically benefitted from inequality, then we have to commit to that. We have to reject even the notion of “marginalized” and acknowledge that everybody truly means everybody. If that’s a “moderate” message, then I guess I’m an unashamed moderate.
That’s the message I got from the convention. A party that’s finally committing itself to genuine inclusion, and making a government that serves everyone even when it’s not trying to get their votes. Are they going to fall short on that pledge? Undoubtedly! But I don’t live up to all the pledges I make for myself, even with the best of intentions. Why would I expect perfection from an inherently compromised and messy process involving thousands of people? Electing decent and honest people who believe in government as a service is the first step. Decency and honesty aren’t just a low bar set by a hopelessly corrupt and incompetent administration; they’re an essential first step to a government that works for everyone. Damn anyone who tries to dismiss hope and optimism as gullibility and complicity. Damn anyone who can’t see past winning a single election, when the election is just the first step of a never-ending process to make things better.
We all know that voting Trump out of office is the barest minimum a decent human being can do. But if we’ve learned nothing from the Obama Administration, it should be that having an honest person with integrity in the office is just the start. It’s what keeps us stable enough for actual progress, so we can disagree about important things without having to argue against immorality as if it were a valid political stand. It’s what lets us be confident that the people we disagree with are arguing in good faith. Personally, I’m looking forward to trusting people again.
Two unexpected side-effects of this extended shelter-in-place order: there’s more time for playing board games, and 3D printing is more practical since I’ve been at home to keep an eye long-running prints. Taken together, it’s been the perfect opportunity for a project to re-learn Blender and get more experience with 3D printing. (Which up until now, has seemed like more of a time investment than it was worth, unless it was for a very special project).
One pleasant surprise of the past couple of months has been discovering the game Godzilla: Tokyo Clash, published by Funko and designed by Prospero Hall. We first heard about it via a Watch It Played video, and before we even got to the ending, we’d already decided it was a must-buy. After some initial confusion over the rules — almost entirely the result of my assuming the game was more complicated than it actually is — we were able to enjoy it as a light-to-medium-weight beat-em-up game of kaiju flinging tanks and buildings into each other, and flinging each other into buildings. Giving each kaiju a mostly-individualized deck of cards with special powers adds just enough complexity and varies the pacing. A game really does play out like the last 20 minutes of a Godzilla movie, with monsters maneuvering into place and then unleashing a barrage of wrestling moves combined with atomic breath and then clubbing their opponent with a train car.
(Incidentally: Prospero Hall has been killing it with board game designs lately. They’re a Seattle-based design house that seems to focus on making licensed games that don’t feel like uninspired cash grabs. Disney Villainous is more interesting than a Disney-licensed game needs to be, their Choose Your Own Adventure games are a nostalgic take on escape room games, and the result is a ton of light-to-medium-weight games that are mass market enough to sell at Target, but interesting enough to actually get more people into the hobby. Plus their graphic design is flawless throughout. Anybody still just publishing yet another re-skinned version of Clue or Monopoly should be embarrassed).
Tokyo Clash has a 1960s Japanese movie poster aesthetic that is just perfect, and it comes with detailed well-painted miniatures of the four playable kaiju. There are also some simple but well-themed miniatures for the “large buildings” you can fling your opponents into. However, the game uses cardboard tokens for everything else. They’re fine, but they kind of undercut the atmosphere of seeing these monsters marching around a city, tossing things at each other. I decided to use it as an excuse to re-re-re-learn Blender — every time I dive back into the software to model something, I forget everything about how to use it within a month — and make 3D-printed replacements.
We’ve been hearing such effusive praise about Hamilton for so long that I’m not surprised by how much I enjoyed it. But I am surprised that the ending had me ugly-crying.
The title photo is of the Great Gasp ride visible over the entrance to Six Flags Over Georgia.
For years, I’ve been hearing about how Hamilton is a masterpiece of musical theater. I’ve never had the patience or money to get tickets for a live performance, so I’ve just had to listen to the soundtrack and take everybody else’s word for it. I thought the music was good but nothing exceptional enough to warrant such universal praise, so I figured that there must be something spectacular in the live production — maybe Hamilton dodges a falling chandelier like Phantom of the Opera, or the founding fathers form a roller-skating train like Starlight Express.
Like much of the rest of the country, I finally got to see the filmed version on Disney+, and I think now I finally understand what all the fuss is about. In my opinion, the brilliance of the show isn’t dependent on any big moment of spectacle — to be honest, I had it running in the background and was only halfway paying attention as I was doing something else, so I completely missed the time-rewinding during Angelica Schuyler’s song, and I only heard afterwards that it was one of the most breathtaking moments of the play. And even only giving it half my attention, I still loved it, so I’m expecting to love it even more when I finally get to watch it without distraction.
The brilliance of the show is that it’s two and a half hours showcasing one standout performance after another, and it’s all a celebration of intelligence, wit, diversity, integrity, ambition, and the American ideal. It’s hard to describe how nice it was on July 3, 2020 to be seeing a bunch of phenomenally talented people all getting together to celebrate intelligence and integrity and diversity. Even if it was a relic of the Obama administration.
Part of the reason it feels so relentlessly intelligent is because it’s packed with meaning — on top of all the wordplay itself, there are layers upon layers of things that the play is saying implicitly. One of the unexpected advantages to first seeing after everyone else in the world has spent five years obsessing over it: the internet is full of interpretations and lists and even — ugh — “explainers” pointing out details that a first-time viewer probably missed. The speed at which characters rhyme indicates their mental state or their self-confidence, and even the way that they move across the stage suggests their character. It’s daunting to think that not only does the play have more words than most in sheer number, but that every single one feels meticulously planned and placed.
And even the casual viewer can pick up on the most obvious things that the play says implicitly rather than explicitly. The casting itself is brilliant. It’s relatively easy to see why a Puerto Rican from New York City would choose to empathize with and emphasize Hamilton’s immigrant status. It’s significant to cast a black man as Thomas Jefferson. It’s significant to cast women of different races as the Schuyler sisters. It’s significant to show how women’s roles were prominent in Hamilton’s story, especially since our most popular stories about the founding of the USA usually act like women didn’t even exist apart from Betsy Ross, or an occasional nod to Dolly Madison.
I admit that when I first heard about the play, I thought that the casting was a good move, but effectively little more than a stunt, like gender-swapping roles in a well-known story, or setting Shakespeare in a different time period. But after seeing Hamilton, I realize I was completely wrong. It’s not the fiction of theater to show a diverse group of people active in the formation of the country; the fiction has been the centuries-long lie telling us that only white men were making a difference. I already knew that lines like “Immigrants, we get the job done” got applause in the play, but I feel like the stronger statement is made as soon as the actors walk on stage. It asserts that the history of America belongs to every American on that stage. Not just the white men who’ve traditionally dominated the story.
(If I were ever to write a “One Thing I Love About All Narrative Art,” it would be when an artist is able to use the format of the storytelling to deliver more of the story than is told explicitly. When changes in voice or pacing suggest greater narrative changes, or when assumptions made by the audience are subverted to make them nervous or uneasy. I love that stuff, and it gets my highest respect when I find it in any work, from Psycho to The Hunger Games novel).
So I love all those aspects of the play, but that’s not the “one thing” I’m focusing on here. All of the wit, and intelligence, and knowledge of the history of the nation and the history of theater, and multiple layers of meaning, would all make for a great thesis and likely a very entertaining play. What pushed Hamilton from “excellent” to “sublime” for me is the ending. I’d already been weepy for most of the last act of the play, with its concentration on death and the legacy we leave to others, but the last moment had me ugly-crying. It took me completely by surprise.
I didn’t expect to be surprised by Hamilton, any more than I was surprised by Titanic. Even people like me, who can never remember history classes, can remember the “Got Milk?” commercial. And even if you don’t have that context, Aaron Burr gives away the ending in the opening number, and the play foreshadows the duel twice. The final songs do recount what’s known about the characters from the historical record, but they’re not about that so much as about the play itself, and the reason it exists. (Which is why criticizing the play for historical “inaccuracies” misses the point entirely). It is explicitly about stories, how they’re told, and why they’re told. Stories about the “founding fathers” are deliberately made semi-mythical and removed from everyday life, to encourage patriotism and loyalty to the Constitution: the battles fought and the words written by these brave and god-like men must never be sullied or diminished by your shallow, modern concerns.
But Hamilton is encouraging a different kind of patriotism. It humanizes these historical figures, not for their benefit, but for ours. It says that these stories are our stories; they belong to every one of us as Americans. A lot of mostly white people have spent many, many years trying to spin history to suggest that a decidedly anti-monarchist revolution brought about its own type of monarchy. Through battles or writing, they earned a kind of divine right, and were gracious enough to allow everyone else — women and people of color, purely coincidentally — to enjoy the bounty of the country that they created. Hamilton asserts that these people aren’t so different from any of us, and we have the right — and responsibility — to choose our own fate just as much as they do.
And again, that would’ve made for a perfectly moving and satisfying ending to the musical, earning the kind of blurb that Disney+ uses (and which I genuinely love), “the story of America then, told by America now.” But then Eliza, who’s outlived everyone by decades, and who’s told all of their stories, and who’s made so many contributions of her own, finally reaches the end of her story, and her very last moment is to look to heaven, and gasp.
I’ve heard from family members about what they saw or heard during their loved ones’ final moments. I’ll never forget it; it brought a kind of hope and comfort and wonder to something that could otherwise be fearful or sad. The moment in Hamilton is ambiguous, but I read it as rapture — a person unprepared to suddenly be met with so much indescribable beauty. Again: cue the ugly crying.
I found out from a Wired interview with the cast, of all places, that the gasp is not even in the original play. That stunned me, because it seemed the key to the final act if not the entire play. The end of the play is largely about death, loss, grief, and running out of time. They’re ideas well-communicated, but also communicated in a surprisingly traditional way, for a musical that fearlessly combines so many different musical styles and clever wordplay. The song “Quiet Uptown” repeats “have pity” on the characters who are going through “unimaginable” grief, which are both distancing. They suggest sympathy instead of empathy.
But that final gasp shows shocking empathy. It’s humanizing to show that the figures credited with founding America all had their own failings and their own personal tragedies. But while we may not ever fight in a war, or get in a duel, or be betrayed, or lose a child, there’s one thing that every single one of us will go through; the ultimate thing that makes all of us human. After seeing the other characters spending their lives obsessing over their legacy and their places in history, Eliza’s final song transcends all of that. Her proudest achievement isn’t her “place in the narrative,” or a monument, but her work to help people. It has little to do with “history,” and everything to do with how we live in the present. What’s great about that moment is that you can interpret it however you want. My interpretation is that she’s rewarded, not for her role in Alexander Hamilton’s story, but for her own life well-lived.
Reading Rolly Crump’s book convinced me I’ve been wrong about Disney’s tension between originality and familiarity.
I just finished reading It’s Kind of a Cute Story, a memoir from Rolly Crump about his career as an Imagineer and afterwards. Even though I’ve been trying to follow the history of the Disney parks and their creators for years, there were quite a few things I hadn’t known before. One was that Crump was straight-up jacked. More significantly, though, I learned about an aspect of working for Walt Disney the man that’s gotten lost among the decades and the huge volume of work generated by Disney the company: Disney the company has gotten a reputation for safe, predictable, homogeneity; but Walt Disney himself was often a champion of the original and the weird.
In retrospect, this should’ve been obvious to somebody with even a cursory knowledge of Walt Disney’s career. But all my experience with the parks, cartoons, and TV series happened after his death. And according to every account of the company’s history that I’ve seen, including a mention in Rolly Crump’s book and an episode of The Imagineering Story, the period after Walt’s death was filled with timidity and aversion to any risk. Ironically, by making “What Would Walt Do?” the question that drove every decision, they ended up doing the opposite of what Walt would probably have done.
Still, that shaped my perception of Walt Disney as a conservative above all else. It cemented the idea that everything had to be on model, everything had to fit into an easily recognizable “Disney Look,” and it all had to be accessible and easily digestible: the most cynical interpretation would be that he hired some of the finest artists in the world to create art for the lowest common denominator.
And what’s remarkable is how I kept that simplistic and condescending impression despite tons of evidence to the contrary. It’s weird that he had a friendship and collaboration with Salvador Dali. It’s weird to make an animated film that’s nothing but artistic (and sometimes abstract) interpretations of orchestral pieces. It’s weird to build a successor to a hugely successful theme park and decide to focus not on the theme park, but on an elaborate planned city. Long stretches of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are just weird. There are plenty of other examples, but I somehow ignored them and continued to think of Walt Disney as the genius at safe, family entertainment who occasionally had an aberrant weird idea.
So it was interesting to read Rolly Crump’s book and see him give Walt so much credit for some of his own best and most memorable work with Disney. Crump is one of the rare Imagineers who’s managed to have his own style and influence stand out as recognizable, since it’s only recently that the company has begun giving more credit to individual artists and engineers. Pretty much everything he had a hand in designing is part of my favorite Disney attractions — the clock outside Disneyland’s it’s a small world, the Haunted Mansion, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and The Land pavilion at Epcot. According to Crump’s own account, he was encouraged by Walt and chosen to bring his unique style to projects, despite not being the studio’s most traditionally skilled artist.
It seems so odd compared to the popular (and likely over-simplified) perception of how creative businesses work today. The stereotype is of the artist with a unique vision who somehow manages to make something new despite the people in charge, never because of them. To use an example from Disney animation: I’d always thought of Sleeping Beauty as a case of Eyvind Earle’s wonderful art and design work being constrained to fit into yet another princess movie, with mostly traditional Disney character design, right down to the prince who’s all but indistinguishable from the ones in Cinderella and Snow White.
But after hearing Rolly Crump’s description of how Walt Disney would think about projects, I think I may have had it completely reversed. Walt wanted to make use of the outstanding artwork of Eyvind Earle (and Marc Davis, and a ton of other legendary artists), and he recognized that a commercial, family-oriented production was the best way to make that financially possible. I’m so used to hearing about the tension between art and commerce as the broadest, most simplistic dichotomy — it’s even baked into the Disney “mythology” that insists that Walt was the creative one while Roy was the money guy. But that makes it sound as if Walt was perpetually in “Blue Sky mode,” which I suspect does a disservice to the actual extent of his genius. Walt wasn’t interested in taking weird and original stuff and sanitizing it, sanding off all the rough edges to make it something safe and homogenous; he recognized that safe, homogenous, and predictable sold really, really well to a global audience. Making Sleeping Beauty meant that the entire world would get to see Earle’s beautiful work. Building a corporate-sponsored pavilion at the World’s Fair meant that millions of people would get to see Rolly Crump’s kinetic sculpture.
I realize that that’s probably just as over-simplified take as the opposite, and that there was likely as much commerce as art involved in every decision. But as a lifelong Disney fan who’s still well aware that “the Disney version” almost always has a negative connotation, I like reminding myself that originality and weirdness are an essential part of the company’s creative history, and not just one-off exceptions. And I like seeing more of that looser, freer originality making it out to the public. There’s more experimentation with art styles and character designs — the current Mickey Mouse shorts are brilliant, and I love that their place has been cemented in Disney history with a dark ride in that style. The new look of Duck Tales, weird and off-model concept art from the Toy Story movies, the varied and experimental art and animation styles in the shorts (and even occasionally the features, like Wreck-it Ralph), are all signs that creativity, originality, and weirdness can be profitable.
Rejecting the idea that America is nothing worth celebrating right now.
I barely remember 1976, but whenever I do try to bring up a memory, it’s invariably dominated by some version of the American flag. On a button, on a patch, on clothing, in fireworks, on a parade float, in bunting hung all around town, in every advertisement, on every TV commercial. I wonder if people born after the bicentennial are really able to appreciate how the entire United States seemed to be obsessed with displays of patriotism.
Especially since for the rest of my life since then, patriotism has been decidedly out of fashion. For about as long as I can remember, and certainly for as long as I’ve been living in Northern California, I’ve been surrounded by people rejecting Independence Day — if not the entire notion of America — as simple-minded jingoism at best, a cruel lie at worst. This year in particular, I’ve seen so many comments saying that the 4th is nothing to celebrate, America is a failure and an embarrassment, we’re all doomed, etc, that I’d almost think I’d woken up in Iran.
But you know, fair enough. The USA is in a sorry state right now, what with a bunch of people giving the office of President to one of the worst people on the planet, and then spending years letting that racist moron and his moronic followers all set the tone of our national conversations to the point where we act like we actually have to defend the most basic of truths and our most basic decency. On top of that, we’ve got a lot of people who’ve spent the last few years wishing we could have Obama back to fix everything, having to come to terms with the fact that they’ve spent a couple of hundred years hitting the snooze button on meaningfully addressing the country’s history of systemic racism. It seems like a bad time to be shouting that America is a perfect shining beacon of liberty.
And really, there are few things as quintessentially American as saying “America sucks.” Dissatisfaction and revolution are what started the USA in the first place, after all. The part that seems to be a more recent development — at least “recent” in terms of my own lifetime — is the desire to just shrug and let it lie there. To interpret it as “America sucks, because America has always sucked,” instead of “America sucks right now, but we can be so much better.”
When I was a teenager, at the start of the Reagan era, a bunch of opportunists decided to waste everybody’s time for a couple of decades by inventing a twisted bizarro version of America and insisting that it was the proper one. One of the most prominent sentiments from that was “Love it or leave it!” which is, obviously, anti-American by definition — the entire philosophy of America is the idea “Love it or change it.” But for some reason, back when hypocrites like the “Moral Majority” and trash like Newt Gingrich declared that they were the true keepers of the American Ideal, everybody just kind of shrugged and rolled their eyes. We let a bunch of fools and garbage people decide what it means to be “American” in the public consciousness. Instead of just rejecting them, we decided to reject the whole notion of American patriotism. Maybe since it was the late 80s and early 90s, we felt like it was more fun to mock people than actually making an effort to stand up for something?
Whatever the reason, it’s left us at what I pray is the final death rattle of the Reagan era, surrounded by people who’ve taken that cartoonish version of American exceptionalism to its grossest extreme. It would be pitiful, seeing Sarah Palin or Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham or Donald Trump struggling to form coherent sentences out of the last 40 years worth of insipid GOP catch-phrases to defend things like systemic racism, police brutality, or the violent murder of school children. But I feel no sympathy for them, since they chose to reject the light, and they each deserve whatever is coming to them. The people that I do worry about, and I do sympathize with, are the well-intentioned people who let these hollow, evil, shells of human beings set the terms of what they stand for and what they stand against.
When I was writing about Splash Mountain and growing up in Georgia, I talked about the false version of “the South” that everyone grew up just taking for granted. I don’t think I sufficiently described why it made me so sad, though. It’s a feeling of being unmoored, as if having my history taken from me. Knowing that it was a false history doesn’t help that much. So I can easily sympathize with the people who feel a bit of panic at seeing Confederate statues being taken down, even if they know intellectually that that panic makes no sense. In my case, part of it comes from remembering how I consciously tried to get rid of my southern accent, because I didn’t want to be associated with the popular conception of southerners as under-educated, racist, rednecks. Now I don’t sound — or feel — like I come from anywhere in particular. Instead of just rejecting all the things that white supremacists and anti-intellectuals stand for, I let them co-opt “the South” and let them decide what it is to be from there. I thought I was rejecting them, when I was actually just giving up and letting them steal my home from me.
Obviously, I don’t have any patience or sympathy for the type of people who yell that America is the greatest country in the world while refusing to take any actual responsibility for living up to its ideals and making it great. But at the same time, I don’t have any patience for the people who just want to mope and declare “America’s not worth celebrating this year” and then leave it at that. I mean, protest all you want, but at the same time: bitch, get over yourself. Pretty much everything that’s wrong with America this year was wrong last year and the 200+ years before that. Just because you’re only just now finding out about the evils of capitalism doesn’t mean you get to lecture the rest of us who want to eat a hot dog and watch fireworks. Great people living in America have spent centuries accomplishing amazing things in spite of the systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, and injustice towards native people. It’s astoundingly shitty — not to mention disrespectful to the people who’ve worked hard to make things better — to just throw up your hands and cede the country to a bunch of racist assholes. Especially since the only way those assholes seem to be “winning” is because they found a way to exploit our own apathy and complacency.
And for that matter: it’s been disappointing to see grown-ass adults throwing tantrums when their preferred presidential candidate didn’t get the nomination. I was extremely disappointed when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race, but there’s one thing I noticed: she got over it. And she got right back to work. A lot of people seem to think that the political process ends with the election of a President, which makes me wonder if a lot of people were paying attention in middle school Civics class. There’s this idea that we’re entitled to a President that satisfies every one of our demands, and that the process of finding one person to represent the needs of over 300 million people shouldn’t require compromise. That’s not just unrealistic; it’s downright stupid. Electing a President is the start of the process, not the end. They set the course for the administration, but it’s up to the rest of us to do what we can to make things better for everyone.
I really like the phrase “a more perfect Union.” Taken out of context, it implies a relentless pursuit of self-improvement: no matter how perfect things seem now, they can always be more perfect. I know that the 4th is ostensibly to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but I’ve always been more a fan of the Constitution, anyway. Besides, stating definitively what you intend to do, and then spending a decade figuring out a plan to actually achieve it is another one of those things that feels quintessentially American. And that’s not some lazily cynical criticism, either; it’s praise. America is more than just a declaration or a list of ideals; it’s an ongoing process.
Maybe it’s the fault of the historians who insist on referring to America as a “grand experiment.” The intention was to remind us that the liberties we enjoy aren’t guaranteed, and that they’re by no means permanent or protected from collapse. But calling it an “experiment” implies a passivity that’s deadly for a democracy. It implies that we should wait and see what happens, instead of working to make it happen ourselves.
I’ve seen the suggestion that the Declaration of Independence is a sham and a lie, because it claims that all men are created equal, but was written and signed by slave owners and rapists, for the purpose of keeping for themselves land that had been stolen from Native Americans. But I don’t see what we accomplish by rejecting the idea as a lie or a failure, instead of seeing it as an aspirational ideal that we’re still, over two centuries later, working to achieve. It’s better to learn from history instead of just assigning a thumbs-up or thumbs-down review to it. And it’s no more accurate to ignore all the positive things a human accomplished than it is to ignore the negatives and present them as flawless paragons of humanity. You might as well say that Benjamin Franklin made all his contributions via a friendly mouse.
I’ve also seen the suggestion that rejecting the American right wing’s version of American exceptionalism requires us to admit that America isn’t at all exceptional. After all, there are plenty of other democracies around the world, plenty of strong economies, plenty of countries that promise the blessings of liberty to their citizens, and plenty of countries with a higher standard of living than ours. All of that’s true, but there is one thing that makes the USA exceptional, and that’s part of what we celebrate on the 4th of July. America is the only nation I can think of that is defined by its ideals instead of by its geography or by its ethnicity. That’s pretty remarkable, because it means that none of us are just working off a vague feeling of what the country means to us; we’ve got an actual template that we should be working towards. One of those ideals is that we’re a nation of immigrants. So if some asshole tries to run for President on a platform of fearing, persecuting, and driving away immigrants, we should all have enough damn sense to recognize that as inherently un-American.
And it means that they’re ideals that we shouldn’t dismiss as nothing more than an accident of our birth. When I see someone going on Facebook and saying that “they’re not feeling the fourth of July this year,” I think about the hundreds of people who’ve subjected themselves to cruelty and indignity to give their families the chance at the life that could be so carelessly taken for granted by someone else. And when we call for social justice, we’re not calling for constant struggle, but for a world in which no one has to struggle for the same things that we take for granted. And where we don’t have to see someone being murdered by the police turned into just another one of your callously insipid memes.
So if I’m this grumpy and sick of seeing such performative cynicism playing out throughout the country, I can’t even imagine how frustrating it must be for the people who’ve worked so much harder than I have to make the USA a place that lives up to its ideals. I imagine it requires a level of sympathy that I lack. I so often find myself saying, “If you really don’t have the hope that we can improve, then why are you still inserting yourself into the conversation? Step aside, shut the hell up, and make room for the people who actually want to make a difference.”
We need to have an America that’s defined by the best of its people instead of the worst. We need to acknowledge that optimism and positivity may be corny, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less realistic or inauthentic than relentless negativity. We need to stop dismissing the aspiration to improve ourselves as being a worthless endeavor simply because we haven’t achieved it yet.
America is joining a gym membership on January 1st, even while people tell you that you’ll just give up and it’s a waste of money. America is buying an acoustic guitar and pledging to learn how to play it, even though you’ve got an assortment of musical instruments lying around the house that you were never able to learn. America is trying to learn a second language just for the sake of learning it, even though people tell you it’s too hard. America is always working to become the most perfect version of yourself, rejecting anyone who tries to control you via fear or via misplaced nostalgia, but also rejecting anyone who tries to ruin you with despair.
I hope that this year brings change, and next year is one that we can all feel less conflicted about celebrating. But we can’t just fall back into our old patterns of complacency, looking for quick fixes from the government, or easy-to-identify villains to whom we can administer the sickest of burns and most devastating owns, as a substitute for actual civic engagement. Any of us who are embarrassed to be American need to snap out of it and recognize it’s our responsibility to make America a place where intelligence, integrity, decency, and mutual respect are honored. It’s up to us to define what America is, and we shouldn’t trust the definition to a bunch of idiots and self-interested maniacs. It’s up to us to appreciate dissent and uncertainty and realize that it’s all part of the effort to turn America into the place it’s always aspired to be.