Two lovely articles; let’s pair them, despite their slight ideological kiltering. In this eloquent screed about the shenanigans used to pass the 2017 tax bill, we have a reminder of some basics about democracy, for those of us who are being cooked slowly, like frogs, into thinking it’s always been this bad. We like to talk about recipes, fashion, or spices; anything but the heat in the kitchen.
“Democracy doesn’t strangle the golden goose of free enterprise through redistributive taxation; it fattens the goose by releasing the talent, ingenuity and effort of otherwise abused and exploited people…At a time when America’s faith in democracy is flagging, the Republicans elected to treat the United States Senate, and the citizens it represents, with all the respect college guys accord public restrooms.” I’d add that it wasn’t just abuse of democracy, but in fact a violation of sound, transparent government, no matter the governance method.
The other is a takedown of capitalism, or, rather, a takedown of the specifically consumerist version of capitalism we’ve gotten to with this Ayn Rand version of libertarianism we’re enduring. I’m not a fan of bits and pieces of the article, but people ignore anti-capitalism articles because they seem so other-worldly, when they’re often brutally clear about some of its major downsides, almost uniquely so in this society.
Reagan is mentioned in both articles, a ghost we cannot tiptoe around in these conversations. He was an on-the-record Rand fan, and was a mixed morals human, like anyone else, but more so. Though he was bright, and he hired alert, capable men, he was careless, and crudely employed a simplistic Rand-inspired “Objectivist” view. This perspective allows a great streamlining in one’s affairs when one is the most powerful person in the world (which choice gives the businessman more freedom? Well alrighty then.)
Reagan articulated libertarianism as the “heart” of capitalism. Most libertarians go tinny quickly for me, with their bang-on-a-can, half-notions of liberty; Rand’s followers are the worst that way. In the field of moral psychology, there are two primary types of freedom: the freedom to succeed, and the freedom to not be impeded unfairly from success. Guess which one encompasses all of the notion of freedom for Objectivist, and which one is either ignored or reviled as destructive.
Pairing these two notions of our imperiled democracy and the toxic prominence of a certain brand of capitalism, we arrive at our present political leadership style. This is beyond inequality and leaning into autocracy, with the typical lawlessness, legalisms, abuse of due process, and vast consolidation of unchecked power at the top. Obama expanded the Executive overrreach that has been the hallmark of American politics for six decades, but there’s no “Obama did the same thing” when it comes to building toward autocracy via the mercantile domination of modern society.
Rand ignores the rapid and inexorable tendency toward autocracy implicit in her ideal society, so controlled by the business classes. The implications of unhealthy, extreme power consolidation, regulation distortions, and election corruption risks all scream at the actors from the wings, but she stays silent. Sometimes, she skitters over inequality by lauding it in general, as a solution to all kinds of problems; she thus assumes it to be an absolute good at any level, without a discussion of the perils of gross inequality ever being required. That’s Paul Ryan, too, a proud Rand follower, implicitly denying that gross inequality is any different beast than low or high inequalities in society. In fact, gross inequality has been shown to lead to violence and instability in a variety of historical societies, in predictable ways.
Rand assumed that the charity from the ultra-rich would always be great, creating a paradise on earth eventually through “maximizing value”. It’s strictly trickle-down, for hundreds of fiction and nonfiction pages, religiously following a standard system 1 type thinking, via a common form of faulty heuristic, egged on through simplistic notions of freedom, and one very elegant idea: that selfishness in individuals creates the best overall society through the miracle of free markets. She never mentions how incredibly convenient this philosophy is for those with the skill and position of gaming the supposedly free markets, once the real game is afoot, once dominating the markets is the game. She rushes around early on to assure you that you can raise babies and still be selfish, still jump on grenades, etc.; what her philosophy really means, without her realizing it, is that 1) people who can afford it should be able to do whatever they want, as long as it’s legal, and 2) hopefully they’ll be good people, because business needs to be a strictly amoral affair. It purports to avoid a moral aspect, outside of freedom worship, while having morality written across its bones, and in the flesh of its victims. The market’s invisible hand is a fast train to extreme consolidation of power, through the neglect of the effects of selfishness to the system itself. It answers a fine question, while ignoring more important ones any cultural system should address.
Ryan and his fellows maintain this farce while claiming, against strong evidence, that they’re putting their arms around the whole science of international economics, one of the most complex (mathematically speaking) sciences we have. In philosophical terms, I see “Objectivism” as sophomoric utilitarianism, with loose bits of tripe joined to it uncertainly*, and a little Stoicism mixed in (that’s the part about how you get rich, for the better students; it’s the moral part, too.) I’d stop my dog from chewing on it, and my leaders are using it as their plan book, behind a President who will use any such permissive philosophy for his own purposes, as many powerful people do.
One point they make is perfectly valid: democracy is a shithole, a gruel of genius, stupidity, ignorance, and unworkable ideas. Their solution is to avoid it whenever possible while stringing us along, like chickens at feeding time, with promises of riches, superiority, and great freedom. My solution– ours, hopefully– should be to shield and protect democracy, to fight this monstrosity with all we’re worth. We’ll worry about what a pain democracy is once we switch out management.
* Rand hated utilitarianism, but didn’t see that she’d substituted an implied “for the greatest overall good” mandate via her own theory’s assertion of free market proxy for the same thing. Autocracy substitutes elegantly for her much-feared “tyranny of the majority” in destroying the commons, or, as she’d have it, in destroying the free markets.
In “How Ta-Nehisi Coates Gives Whiteness Power,” the young, black writer argues that Coates assumes white power in America is all-powerful and unchangeable, that he panders to “woke” white liberals, and that he plays into the hands of racists with a poor-me picture that should be made more complicated, independent, and hopeful. This is an old center-left diversionary argument that goes something like ‘don’t ever paint a bleak picture of reality unless you:
1) make sure everyone says it’s way more complicated than the particular bleakness we’re addressing;
2) proclaim your problem not anywhere nearly as important as another big picture bleakness;
3) focus on solutions, on practicalities, you freaking whiners; and
4) sprinkle any testimony with anthemic hope. Or at least end on a note of it.
A witness names what is. I love being positive and feeling strong sometimes, but that’s not what witnessing means; not to Sinclair Lewis, Ella Baker, Studs Terkel, or James Baldwin. Coates’ great lesson to me is noticing, acknowledging and explaining the terrible costs of the hidden and powerful unconscious bias in our society.
Some things aren’t complicated. He doesn’t focus on future policy. He highlights the notion of “overcoming” in maybe the most important sense, to give me a sense,of what others must achieve to obtain my birthright. He notes progress, and makes warnings, and can bear an elegiac despair, as have many of his ancestors. His words can certainly sound to the unconvinced as if he fetishizes victimhood and rejects potential for improvement. But he’s just pointing out risk and pain where we don’t see it, now and in our history, explaining what W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness,” the jumbled, sometimes irreconcilable sense of what it means to be American and black at the same time.
As to pandering to white liberals: I had been unaware of much of the history in his work, and was shocked at the grinding and consistent waves and creative manifestations of discrimination in recent history. It is not pandering to teach history– is it soliciting pandering for me to want be included in the conversation? What if I feel good after reading him– or bad– what might that mean?
That same sense of being acquainted with misery and cruelty also helps me. Poignant despair arising from unnecessary suffering isn’t part of me. Through witnesses, I can leap to a sense of what it means to have those losses, and to have them lurking in the future. Because I was inspired with insight into another person’s experience, I’m probably less likely to participate in this blind man’s bluff of bias that tends to enter the world through us. Thanks to his thoughts, I’m certainly better at identifying bias, in myself and others.
The center-left should find and herald the clear witness. They shouldn’t expect him to also be their favorite philosopher, or worry how he looks in a suit. The center-left may certainly address the complexity, and solution set, and big pictures, and we many others can march right alongside, but witnesses give us a proper sense of history and scope. A witness speaks to what is.
Report Alicia Roman’s Firing
as Chair of Sonoma County’s Citizen’s Advisory Council
April 18, 2017
Ms. Alicia Roman was elected as chair of Sonoma County’s Citizen Advisory Council in 2016, serving the Sonoma County independent oversight effort over the Sheriff’s Office, or IOLERO, created as a result of the death of Andy Lopez. She was fired from that position on March 15, 2017 without warning by Mr. Jerry Threet, the head of the oversight office. There are many facts of grave concern to the community about the firing, especially how Mr. Threet executed it. Items 1-10 and 15 concern why and how Mr. Threet fired Ms. Roman; item 11 roughly represents the view of the Police Brutality Coalition and other local citizen groups advocating policing oversight; and items 12-14 concern the Sheriff’s negligence of the community’s oversight effort under Mr. Threet. The below has been reviewed and approved by Alicia Roman.
1. In early February, 2017, Ms. Roman told a community circle, when she was given the opportunity to speak, when a deputy in the circle had said to the immigrants in the circle that they ”had nothing to fear”, that that wasn’t entirely true. Originally, when he had said it, Ms. Roman shook her head in frustration, because she didn’t have the conch and couldn’t speak and didn’t want to interrupt the deputy while he was speaking.
Shaking her head as an officer spoke was given as a reason for Mr. Roman to be fired.
2. When a lady told a group in Ms. Roman’s citizen’s circle that she didn’t trust law enforcement, because she’d been involved in an incident with them, a deputy, who didn’t have the speaking conch and shouldn’t have spoken, began peppering the lady with questions about the event, “interrogating her.” When he did that, Ms. Roman rolled her eyes in frustration, but didn’t say anything because she didn’t have the conch.
Rolling her eyes while an officer spoke was given as a reason for Ms. Roman to be fired. In a investigatory interview of Mr. Threet after the firing by members of the Police Brutality Coalition, items 1 and 2 were clearly indicated by Mr. Threet as best revealing the flaws in Ms. Roman’s approach that led to her being fired.
3. No due process, advance notice, or warnings were given to Ms. Roman that she was being fired- she found out when she went to a meeting she thought would also be with her vice-chair and Mr. Threet on another subject, and the vice-chair wasn’t present. Ms. Roman believes Mr. Threet intended to fire her March 7, the day after the CAC meeting and after she sent an email to Jerry stating she wanted to allow questioning during public comment, but he waited another week in silence during scheduling difficulties.
4. Ms. Roman was selected by the original advisory council as their board chair on December 5, 2016, by an 8-2 majority. None of the council members had any idea that any problems that may exist with Ms. Roman’s approach were bad enough to even discuss, let along to cause her to be removed from the chair position and the council.
Per by-laws, Evelyn Cheatham, the vice-chair automatically became chair, and a vice-chair will need to be elected. At the first CAC meeting after the firing, Elizabeth Corzine was nominated for vice-chair, but rejected the nomination. The members voted 7-2 to delay a vice-chair election until a discussion and investigation into the firing of Ms. Roman was done over the next month. The whole council seemed upset during the CAC meeting after the firing, and the meeting agenda was radically adjusted at the beginning of the meeting to accommodate their need for initial expression of their frustration over being shut out, and to resolve how to proceed. His secretive, speedy, and assumptive action has delayed other important work, and placed his relationship with the community in peril.
Mr. Threet did not apologize to the council for firing their chair in secret. He has taken to repeating that she served at his pleasure, and that her attitude simply made her unfit for the role. The email record between the two provides more detail on his perception of Ms. Roman’s attitude problems.
5. Mr. Threet complained that Ms. Roman’s first, quite direct “Close to Home” article could be interpreted as CAC’s official stance, and contained her personal opinions. He insisted in an email that it was best that she withhold some of her opinions from the public while in that position. After the firing, many citizens took issue with this advice, providing examples of local board members and chairs expressing pointed, controversial opinion in public, and many deemed it highly desirable to juxtapose activism and voluntary official duty in that way.
In her next “Close to Home” article, Ms. Roman stated at the bottom that the article reflected personal opinion and not that of the CAC. However, Mr. Threet did not want Ms. Roman to mention the CAC.
6. Mr. Threet complained that Ms. Roman was being “antagonistic” when she went to the Board of Supervisors to see if the county could legally issue policy that the Sheriff would be required to comply with. Ms.Roman viewed it as a simple logical point that should be investigated, since, if it was possible, it might aid greatly in community goals.
After Ms. Roman was fired, she wrote to Mr. Threet, “I have felt constant pressure by you to among other things: stop asking questions that upset people, not “working within the government system”, or to stop stating my point of view.“
7. Mr. Threet disclosed orally on at least two independent occasions that there was “pressure” to fire Ms. Roman. He didn’t say where the pressure came from. This pressure may have come from either the Board of Supervisors (his employer), the Sonoma County legal or administrative departments, or the Sheriff, or from more than one of these.
It must be considered that this pressure, in and of itself, may well have influenced Mr. Threet greatly in his decision. There is no way to know whether the Sheriff or a County stakeholder actually caused the firing. It may have been done secretly merely because Mr. Threet was foolish, or the firing may have flowed from Mr. Threet’s stated desire to make better progress without Ms. Roman.
8. Mr. Threet disagreed with Ms. Roman on the Know Your Rights (KYR) slide-show presentation- about advising people that they should exercise their constitutional right to remain silent. But Know Your Rights isn’t a local but a national procedure, virtually universally accepted; as Ms. Roman says, his is an uninformed perspective, because KYR doesn’t exist without that statement; it is an incontrovertible part of the card handouts that are the key KYR tool of dissemination. He suggested instead a vague statement for a person to use one’s judgment, because it might go worse for an immigrant to not talk to the police. Mr. Threet later said that he had not declared the KYR procedure unacceptable, only that HE would not be telling immigrants that they should remain silent; however, Mr. Threet does not do KYR seminars himself.
9. Ms. Roman mentioned to citizens at an English Learner Advisory Committee meeting, in her greeting, that she had sued the Sheriff’s Office; she felt it simply gave citizens trust that she represented their interests. Mr. Threet felt that she was being divisive and prejudicial. In fact, Ms. Roman was merely stating what she did for a living– it’s unlikely in her field that she would not sue the Sheriff’s Office.
Telling immigrants that she sues the Sheriff’s Office as part of her work was given as a cause for her firing.
10. Mr. Threet is against allowing questions from the community to their volunteer advisory council members during public comment. This is a common tactic in Sonoma County, used by bureaucrats afraid of losing control at public meetings; it is an abuse of the Brown Act that badly needs to be challenged in court, and is utterly contrary to the principles of government transparency that are the foundation of the office Mr. Threet leads. We are, per my last investigation, the only county in California that interprets the Brown Act to forbid government representatives to answer direct questions from the public. It was a hard-fought reform act that mandates certain protections of public intercourse, including questions of the public being amiably answered by staff or member. Mr. Threet strongly dislikes the potential for unscheduled public comment time, and the risk of the public not accepting Sheriff Office answers, asking the question repeatedly, or getting exercised over an answer.
The only disagreement between the two that was weighed on by the council was centered around Ms. Roman’s strong desire for questions by citizens to be answered by IOLERO, CAC, or the Sheriff’s office members. Mr. Threet invited discussion on the point. Ms. Roman compromised by agreeing to allow questions to be submitted in writing, to be answered at the CAC’s discretion. Mr. Threet complained that her divisiveness in that situation was a reflection of her intractable nature, even though she compromised a strongly-held belief, as she had done many times during her tenure as Chair.
11. Ms. Roman was fired for being a strong, clear woman who addresses the many Sheriff’s Office delays, lies, and deceptions straightforwardly. Mr. Threet thinks that approach with the Sheriff’s office is inappropriate; we don’t know, of course, but it may be because it annoyed the Sheriff enough to insist that Mr. Threet fire Ms. Roman. Mr. Threet’s unconditional approach of courtesy and restraint (rapprochement) toward the Sheriff is roughly similar to that of the Board of Supervisors’, historically; this approach has ensured that Mr. Threet’s office has been co-opted (ignored) by the Sheriff. Mr. Threet seems unaware that this has happened, despite the evidence from items 12-14 below. He is hopeful that this Sheriff will work in good faith with the public at some point, and believes that community leaders such as CAC members must be polite to the Sheriff and all his staff at all times, and not express in public certain long-held frustrations, based on experience, that are disagreed with by the Sheriff, or that embarrass him, or that the Sheriff got away with through collusion with the Board of Supervisors. As Mr. Threet said in an email after firing Ms. Roman from the council and chairmanship, “you may be more effective without the constraints inherent in a role as an IOLERO CAC member.” These “constraints,” which Mr. Threet assumes that he knows, needed to be discussed with the advisory council before the firing, and weren’t.
In defending his action, Mr. Threet stated that his office was “independent”, and made the case that he can’t stand consistently with the community in his job of Sheriff oversight; that he has a strong mandate to stand apart from the community to make decisions like the firing of Ms. Roman, in an attempt to be “independent” of the community, as he is independent of the Sheriff. This is a deep misreading of his mandate, and a twisting of the word “independent” in his office name, which was clearly and purely a reference to independence from the Sheriff’s Office when we created the office, so that the office could advocate for marginalized citizenry. This assertion of independence from everyone may make him feel justified in firing Ms. Roman in secret, but it is a fabrication of one mandate, and a denial of others related to good will, transparency, and the community’s desires.
12. In late 2016, the Sheriff was on the record as in the middle of adjusting his immigration policy, but he did not invite the CAC to review the adjustments or provide input. The Sheriff then displayed zero interest in the citizen council’s March, 2017 published recommendations on immigration, stating through a representative that he wouldn’t work on the policy suggestions until a related California State bill’s fate was decided (SB 54). The irritated advisory council called this “unacceptable” and not a response, explained how the bill didn’t address key aspects of the recommendations, and insisted on receiving the written response they had asked of the Sheriff. As of this date, no written response has been received by the CAC.
While CAC was working to make immigration policy change recommendations to a 2014 superseded Sheriff policy that was all they had, which they thought was the current policy, the Sheriff put out yet another new policy, also unannounced, on January 15, without the Sheriff’s Liaison informing CAC. The police liaison claims that was an early printing date only, not a release date, but his story didn’t make sense, because he was uninformed as to the chronology or versions involved. Even if that were true, it was a secret policy change, worked on without the CAC’s input, while the CAC was working on the same immigration policy using an out-of-date policy. The latest Sheriff’s immigration policy changed the procedure from 9 to 3.5 pages.
13. The Sheriff has not attended any of the five CAC meetings. The CAC was quite vocal during the fifth absence, questioning openly the Sheriff’s good will, and asking on the record if the Sheriff respects their efforts as volunteers and citizens.
Though Mr. Threet has assumedly conveyed the community invitations and frustration to the Sheriff, there has been no public criticism by Mr. Threet of the Sheriff’s absences. This is not “independence”, nor is such silence dictated by his fiduciary strictures; it is effectively colluding in the stonewalling that has become the norm for this Sheriff.
14. The Sheriff Liaison will no longer answer questions from the public during public comment at CAC meetings. Mr. Threet supported this change, against the strong wishes of Ms. Roman, because he was concerned that such questions can get repetitive, and citizens can get angry and irrational, creating a burden or time cost to the liaison and the council. Since the Sheriff doesn’t attend the meetings, this effectively means that the public has been officially shut out of any communication with the Sheriff.
15. Mr. Threet’s announcement to the CAC that he had fired their chair stated that the firing was a “mutual decision,” when it was nothing of the kind, as made plain in the email record. If the council had been fooled into thinking it was a mutual decision, Mr. Threet would have been able to adjust leadership without reviewing the management issues that were involved in the firing. The activist community, the CAC, and the public-at-large must now be torn between trying to support the important planned work of the CAC, and addressing appropriately the integrity and communication weaknesses of IOLERO.
The irony is that the conflicts between Mr. Threet and Ms. Roman desperately needed the spirit of community and of transparency to hold sway, to allow the kind of teaching, compromise, and apologies to occur that are the reason why the oversight office was created. After all, there are questions of balance and style and politics that bureaucrats must address. There are also communication and clarity and unity considerations for volunteers and leaders. Here was an opportunity for Mr. Threet to involve the council, and therefore the community, in a spirit of trust and openness, to create a conversation about how the council suggested approaching the differences between his and Ms. Roman’s views. This would’ve had many advantages, but a glaring one is that Mr. Threet would’ve been relieved of his several misperceptions of proper policy or protocol by an experienced public (items 1,2,6,8, and 9). He would’ve certainly seen better how Ms. Roman’s “antagonistic”, seemingly counter-productive approach to leadership was at least partially borne of expertise, deep familiarity with the challenges of the voiceless, and a style that addresses the Sheriff’s dissembling and citizen neglect directly. It is likely that such a discussion would’ve yielded productive adjustments on all sides, as transparency and working in good faith tends to do.The community would’ve likely taught Mr. Threet that Ms. Roman’s approach had advantages he should consider as complementary to his own of compromise and restraint. The council seems anxious to do that with him, but now there is a demonstrated lack of good will, and a lack of regret evident over the breach in trust.
Mr. Threet has not apologized for stating the firing was a mutual decision.
Our upcoming Labor Secretary and other fast-food execs are considering replacing humans with machines. “If you’re making labor more expensive, and automation less expensive — this is not rocket science.” I’d expect any businessman to react so, especially if others in the industries are doing it. I also think it should be illegal, so that the industry competition pressures that drive that move to machines are reduced dramatically.
Allow me to be an early advocate of legislation against automation that systematically destroys massive numbers of low-paying jobs, depended on so completely by the poor and the young. This is a terrible solution, really, but the problem it’s trying to address is much bigger than the market system that we depend on.
It’s a terrible situation because bureaucrats are forced to come in and select specific automations that aren’t ideal for society for elimination. That’s one of the slipperiest sentences I’ve ever written: “ideal for society”? Determined by who? How?
Yet, here we are, with many millions of jobs on the line, and, as usual, the jobs in question are those of the poor and the young. I’m not a fan of assumptive market manipulation, but machines and man will be doing a dance for the rest of our history, and narrow-minded libertarian ideas and invisible hands have a place at the table, but not at the head. Markets are blind: they serve their masters. Heretofore, its masters were arguably a large swath of the people, but it’s increasingly in the business of providing for the wealthy minority of Americans.
I don’t know where we draw the line on automation, which will be a nightmare- have no idea– but labor is on the run in the world, having largely lost the battle to capital. That’s what all this inequality really is: a grinding, worsening shift between the importance of labor and capital in the global economy.
Yet another policy front where the conservative shrug is wholly inadequate as a solution, and where the left is asleep. It’s really another face of the same pressures that have kept the minimum wage going down in real terms for decades, but this is the larger issue in the long run. Who gets to hold a job in America? How sacred is the current absolute right to automate away jobs whenever we like? When machines eliminate low-skill jobs, how will we ensure adequate economic health, training and education to avoid an America of haves and have-nots?
for you to wake up to.
I skipped politics completely all day and night yesterday. My work with ideology is quite removed from politics, in an odd way, because I focus on understanding these people as individuals– as our friends, lovers, parents, work associates and bosses. I was blessed to catch the news all at once this morning, the battle over. Like being led sleepily to a hole in the ice and being thrown in at 5 am. I kept circling back to thinking that I had to be in an unusually detailed dream; kept wondering how the news feed could look so real, for so long.
Life is funny– tricksy. When I look back on the most satisfying work of my life, it was done when I knew I was doing the right thing, but there were few beside me, or when I was forced to stand alone. Standing with you this time will be a similar privilege, a similar feeling of pride and joy mixed with frustration. Standing with great souls again, knowing that representing our causes now is much more urgent, because it will be less popular. People will lose their way, you see, and fade back into busy lives. Each of us left at the barricades has just become much more important, much more efficacious, even if it seems the opposite is true.
Now is the best kind of reminder, a stinging one, that life isn’t about the arrival, but the paths we take, the choices we take at the junctures like this one. We stand where we do as liberals because we must, if we’ve lived correctly. I’ve found it to be more than enough.
I’ll be talking to liberals and conservatives all week, continuing what I’ve been intermittently doing for the last few months, in between book and promotion stuff. I’m in North Carolina at the moment, moving through South Carolina on the way to Georgia. I think the vast majority of these winners aren’t thrilled– more like bemused, or surprised, or justified, or satisfied that America’s trying something– anything– that doesn’t look like regular politics.
Their reasons defy our usual instinct to complicate things. Almost every single one is incredibly frustrated with the lies of commission and omission, of hubris and realpolitik in the many shades possible which candidates trade in avidly as the lingua franca of their worlds. Few of the people I talked to are truly happy with Donald Trump. They’re frustrated people, many of whom have lost money or work from Bill Clinton’s NAFTA, or seen their health insurance premiums go up while their coverage became worse. They whisper among themselves about terrorism and immigration, which seem to them to stand silent around a near corner, awaiting their moment. The Republican leadership ground a lesson into their bones for two generations that the people were puppetry, while the left loudly celebrated every gain that seemed to pass the white people here in a slipstream. No one was speaking either to them, or for them.
They’re very proud of this people’s victory, even without the usual assurance and joy that I’m used to with political success. It’s hard for me to blame them. As I walk among them and talk to them, I can’t separate myself from them, from their lives and dreams and heartaches. My life has been a far country from theirs for many years, but I do this work about understanding them because I love them, because the research got far enough along to justify and clarify my deep appreciation to be based on characteristics I can sketch out for others. I spent much of my life among them; I know them as well as any liberal can. We are right to focus on their foibles and weaknesses when it comes to policy, but we shouldn’t discount the heart of these people, nor their goodwill and conscientious natures, notwithstanding all the populist stupidity and rancor flaying away on the harder edges of the conservative movement. These are people who mean well, who intend an America that’s strong and safe, that provides her people jobs. As they speak, it’s clear to me that they don’t realize how closely they hew in spirit to the broad-minded and generous spirit of conservative thinkers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Colin Powell of the right, who have shined with generous and insightful commentary the last few months, in brave opposition to authoritarianism and lies. They’re all, people and pundits alike, earnestly articulating the hope that we turn from corruption, inefficiency, and removed, insider politics, to solutions that work for a broader set of Americans. The left doesn’t know the language of those solutions yet, and neither does the right. There will be some brutal learning ahead, with some twists as surprising as the one last night.
We’re going to watch the right grow up a little, as the excessive parts of their loose coalition try once again to gain the confidence of the people. Trump will have to backpedal on promises like no one ever before; that should be fun. It will be fascinating to watch the conservatives who didn’t support Donald Trump be forced to truly take on the mantle of leadership, and speak more truth than they have, as they can’t just sit back anymore and take pot shots at the left, but make an earnest effort to abide by whatever their principles are to lead the nation through the many conflicts they have with their new chief executive. I’m quite hopeful, in medium-term way. Not that we’ll avoid populist excesses and bad legislation, which are inevitable. And we’ll continue our fantasy of permanently cheap oil and money, and harmless consumerism. But Americans on the right will learn to listen better to minorities, our allies, and their young as the old conservatives die off. They’ll renew their approach in unpredictable and sometimes sensible ways, as people of color take more and more of a voice in our country.
It’s an early winter’s dawn, this good news. Wan, bleak, perhaps even hard to see, but good news nonetheless. Yes, the left is now a sideshow in national politics, even if we’re quite alive and well in the states and our towns. The Supreme Court will be taking a turn to the right for a good chunk of this next generation. There will be filibusters and civil disobedience just for basic services and sanity– some of which won’t work. But one must take the long view. There is a great work afoot for each of us, if we want it. That’s one of the best things to have in life, it turns out. We can each be an island of hope and inspiration for how to live, and what to stand for. We can keep on the selfsame journey together, only with more urgency, and a little less known about the destination.
Americans are a remarkable people. We have a darkening coming for a little, and then a gradual lightening you and I will all participate in, as we learn the lessons we need to as a nation to move together into the heart of the 21st century. We’ve only been reminded more forcefully than usual that we are yolked together on our way to our children’s America. It will be a humbling and disorienting lesson, but we should turn it into a useful one, or we’ll not do as well as we can for each other.
Being liberal just became a much more vital, much more courageous thing to be. I’m so glad to have you with me! Let’s move the needle together, if only a little.
Dr. Jennifer Love wrote a very nice, simple, astute commentary about how necessary it is to be counterintuitive in the public marketplace of ideas. She’s complaining about an emphasis on titillation over substance. Her final paragraph:
“The counterintuitive has its place. But our love affair comes at a cost. It leaves little room in the public consciousness for social scientific work that is incremental, for work that shores up and teases apart, for work that complicates, for work on the boundary conditions—those fragile social and mental habitats upon which decisions turn. In other words, it leaves little room for most of social science.”
If she’s right, it’s a terrifically sad thing to say. I’m certain she is to some degree, but there are some offsets, some bright spots in the argument. Continue reading
Life in East Poultney
I’ve listened to Tin Hat’s “A Life in East Poultney” about a hundred times today. I’m still listening to it now. One of two clumps of myself- the quiet, dark one- orders this sort of looping without hesitation, usually when I’m a little distracted with something else. Days like this have happened with this song for 15 years or so. It’s a lesser wife to me now. One would think I’d have the work’s ins and outs figured out, like a cartographer who knows the landscape he walks in the morning. But a song isn’t built from musical notes. Or if it is, the notes aren’t sufficient to pin the song’s appendages to cork, to be examined and deconstructed fruitfully. The notes, or even the major parts of the song, are not accorded latin names, or phyla: they aren’t a logical input. They’re a spell, cast to set us astir, to release things we only suspected were present within, that needed out. We let songs stroll into our lives unannounced, and sometimes they stay, like a good friend who stops by unexpectedly, talking through the wee hours with us.
A rational brain wouldn’t put up with this much repeated listening, but mine isn’t rational. People like me are used to having what motivates us inexplicable: we don’t ask those drives to speak in a language we can understand. The conscious parts of us, where rationality supposedly roams the halls freely, are sealed off from understanding most of why we live. Those well-lit parts are in a kind of cocoon, limited to foraging in the newer parts of my brain near the front- the parts that were missing, or that were a scrap of what they are now, back when we were a mélange of Australopithecus and other early man species. That older part of my brain presumably knows damn well why I listen to this song over and over, since it requests it on incessant repeat about once a month. I suppose it knows nothing of technology’s manipulations of time and space, or it doesn’t care: it likes having the band come by, set up, and play just the song it wants, on demand, as if it were the Sun God. I get slight evidence of that sometimes, perhaps imagined– that my nonconscious mind is surprised and pleased every time the first notes of the song sound again, as if I was seeing friends again after a long time apart. Like how a dog gets excited about your arrival when you’ve only gone to the store to get milk.
But that could be all wrong. It might damn well understand modern music machines. It might be aware that musicians will be outlived from now on by the sounds they created during their lives, to be heard when asked for by their children, by their children’s children. This quiet self may be wise or stupid, or somehow both- I don’t know. I can’t talk to that part of me, and it doesn’t answer questions. Evidence is shaky that it’s listening, even when it seems important it should. Trying to communicate with it is like talking to a feral cat: sometimes it seems that a word here or there gets across, but only in its most pointed moments of self-interest, when it shows an extraordinary, fleeting ability to comprehend, lost almost as soon as it’s seen. We are separated from ourselves by a great gulf, and cannot cross; will never cross.
From within a darkness, the song is set to repeat on the modern artifice. There’s a combination of feeling and thought as instruction; I can’t put my finger on it. I think the the interface between the two parts of me is profoundly proprietary to this older brain who’s still in charge, hopelessly outranking the new growth; it bids the younger part of me to be still and stay out of the affair- to make breakfast, or pick at my to-do list. Normally I do so, but today I decided to be disobedient and act as a diarist, to peer speculatively within. It’s an introspection my nonconscious mind either resents or is supremely indifferent to, I’m not sure which, because I’m not in the planning meetings—I just receive urges that are almost directives, as charged and magical as “go get that girl, no matter what”. Or as straightforward as “time to wake.”
Nothing of that clarity, nothing so determinate breaks the surface as “A Life in East Poultney” plays. I think music is a mystery to both parts of me.
There were certain aspects of the tune that consciously attracted me to hearing it as I woke up; a few minutes later, I found myself listening to it. Most things we do are like this– a bit of collusion between the two parts of us, without a clear record as to how things got started. Whether these conscious enjoyments burgeon first in the back rooms is an open question; I think so. For me, the first notes are often a small version of the first few seconds after a dose of heroin; familiarity, pleasure, anticipation. A settling in. Mark Orton wrote a simple melody, focusing on a few simple timbre additions as the only real change through the piece.The style lends the piece a feeling of consistency that befits a simple town. The build to the end is modest; small town doings are robust and deep, but only in a very particular way, and they don’t lead to the crescendos of our cities. Key parts of a broader life are missing in East Poultney; the locals have forgotten to look for them. The children who couldn’t do without them have moved away. Lower your eyes to just over the horizon, squinch the view at the sides, and one has all the depth and breadth that melody, harmony, and rhythm can provide of a life there- the gift and dearth of small town life, arrayed elegantly. A kind of Quaker modesty, the colors hidden from view.
I’m at a homestead in the country as I write this. I think my nonconscious mind is especially delighted with this particular steeping within the song, removed as I am from the trappings of modern life. I think it appreciates anything that invigorates that illusion of Tin Hat playing the song in person for me over and over, without complaint or instruction, until asked to stop. It usually takes about an hour until the signal appears to stop the song, though it is a longer assignment for the Tin Hat crew this morning as I walk this long, winter sunrise into being. I envision Carla, the violin player, stretching a bit upwards and slightly twisting her diminutive frame she scrapes through the first raspy notes. I see Mark plink his way through the first verse, nearly alone, the rest of the players rumbling in with their parts, the last just 20 seconds or so before the end. It’s as if each of the musicians only exist to add musical accents at the right time in just this song, the way a tube of a particular green waits and waits nearby while the artist paints her canvases. The precise placement of notes, and the dreariness conveyed in the melody, help to bring the wan light that filters through the murky wood into focus. The oaks yield their mysteries to another sunrise, marching one-by-one out from the darkness to segregate into individual trees for the day. I climb the little rise in front of the house, and descend into the valley that divides the house from the cabin where I’ll stay today. Mark has accepted the unlikely assignment to be here just outside Cazadero, to play a song that’s ostensibly about somewhere else. He dutifully, gently insists that there is a musical parallel here with small town life. I half believe him, but the rest of me is convinced there is a way to lever this melded walking and listening experience into any form of life, like this one. Among people or alone. It’s a trick of the music, I think. A hallucination, almost. Gone quickly.
Caught so, I hit upon the realization that the notes are this black, cold sunrise’s theme. East Poultney in particular does that for me- it’s just small and precise enough to become about wholly other things, or specific events. Even scenes of a different emotional bent. A happy scene of children at a merry-go-round was once encapsulated by the slight tensions of the piece, as if this joy I saw in the children secretly prefaced surprisingly hard lives. Lives where others- wives, best friends- will disappoint them. Maybe unexpected children of their own will heave their lives in a direction they resent in a not-so-distant future. Yet these giggling children are asked to enjoy that future life, just as they are able to enjoy life now. They’ll be asked to appreciate what they were gifted at this white elephant exchange, the chances to trade what they didn’t want long past.
Maybe my nonconscious mind pulls something sinister from the piece, like a supposition that my horizons are being scrunched down, or that the small storms that carve our lives will come and I won’t be prepared. Or maybe something innocent and slight engenders this pleasant feeling I get from it- a memory from childhood of someone’s similar, simple banjo playing. Or joy in a parent’s actions one fine day, unfathomably brought back to me through ¾ time and the piece’s marching, elegaic consistency. Maybe all these things and more pass through our mind to hold its attention, a kind of parade to order the tumble of emotions and images. A full round of reasons that provide the kind of attraction a hundred listenings or more might seem to require.
What is East Poultney, anyway? Is it a country town? A close suburb of Hartford? Not to me, usually. Sometimes. I know I made that connection at the beginning for you of the song as an interpretation of life in a town, but I’ve never looked up East Poultney to see what it is. Not because of a sacred need to carve out my own definition, but because I’m not curious what Mark was trying for precisely when he wrote the piece. An artist is a conveyance, bearing something they can’t possibly understand. They bring it part of the way from their own nonconscious mind to us. We string these creations across to each other via our rational minds, for reasons we don’t understand. The art is brought forth for ends we trust, though we have no reason to.
That’s why East Poultney is not a town at all sometimes. It can seems like an otherworldly place to me, the place my nonconscious mind runs to and looks out from, fearful and frustrated, yet comforted nonetheless. A home scratched out of driftwood on a beach of the west Irish coast, beset by winds; a brilliant sun forever threatening to burst through the great pillars of grey directly above, always shooting through somewhere to the north. Miraculously dry, for once. Not a town or anything such; It’s not a grey mid-morning in front of the neighborhood barber shop, after all. The notes being played don’t form the outlines of a sanitation man, cigarette in hand, distractedly painting over faded graffiti. No; the sounds describe a cow, a round-bellied, milk-eyed Jersey, unaccountably munching on my pile of seaweed from a recent storm, at the edge of high tide, just outside my hut. I look away from her, and scan the inside of this hut I’ve grown to love. Why did I first come here? Why did I stay? I’m not sure.
It may be time to move soon. To muster the wherewithal to hike from the beach toward inland, perhaps to scrape out a better life there, within the green and the stone. Amidst people, maybe. I’m not sure. Not sure about whether to go soon, I mean. At some point, yes. I wasn’t meant to stay here.
Stories are a way to let the rational mind and the secret, irrational part of us look upon the same thing and share it silently, like we do our dreams sometimes. We are like two people sharing a small apartment who don’t speak each other’s language, who make do with signals to sort things out. That’s probably why stories are such an essential part of most art- they act as a faery bridge between our two selves. Of course, things can be simpler on a given day with a song- there may be no story, no link attempted. It’s possible my nonconscious mind can revel in the song’s melancholy; what’s been choreographed by the writing, the instruments, and the inevitability the arrangement hints at. But I think that’s projection on my part- that’s too close to what my rational mind likes about the song. It’s likely something else. I know my silent partner has no understanding nor respect for the passage of time, nor how far-flung my sources of emotion and pain were, parsed fitfully across my life, across so many places, people, and reasons. It has no respect for most of what we think of as facts. Events and feelings are layered together in a careful logic, but an unfathomable one. A murmured Dewey Decimal System we can’t recast to something sensible, or array for a reasoned, calm perusal.
Our nonconscious mind’s storms are never contained. The mystery and quiet of mornings like this can bolt to a violence unexpectedly. Levees are breached. We find ourselves wading in our raw, unprotected fears, or in hopes and joys. But when things are calm, like now, and we try to peer within, we see only a purposeful darkness. Maybe the silence is a sign it resents intrusion into its business, like a union lockout, staged because we’ve gotten our inner workings completely wrong. We’ve muddied the floors of our innermost selves before, anxiously prescribing, or purging, or explaining in a way not meant for that inner world. We have misapprehended ourselves, you and I; have misled others about our purposes. I trust you’ll forgive me if that’s happened here with A Life In East Poultney. We’ll never know, I suppose. You’ll sympathize with my plight. Maybe you have missed the mark, too, and dragged others alongside you to places none of you belonged.
There are always rustlings we sense on the other side of the curtain. We swipe at them roughly, unseeing, and can’t gain purchase. It’s tempting to think we have to know what’s behind there to be happy, but I say the fun is in the respectful banter, in the workings between our two crippled parts. We are only whole in a form of union that we can’t quite define, and will never settle wholly to. As I walk and listen to A Life In East Poultney, we two stand a respectful difference apart. We do each other’s bidding just a little, forever unrequited, forever dependent upon one another to see our way through the morning together, to where we’re going.
Mark Orton, the writer, developed a simple melody, focusing on a few simple timbre additions as the only real change. The theme, which is repeated once, builds and ends in less than 30 seconds. Our melodies in the West are brief like this, though we string 2 or 3 together to form a piece. Perhaps melody entwined in harmony is secretly dense, like bar codes that pass into us and split apart into meaning for an ancient, emotional brain. Time may take on a different meaning, like it does within a photon, when it’s used as a canvas to frame a family of notes, to record the puddle jumps that form a path between tones. What’s unusual about this piece is the slight, unrepeated harmonic complexity, and the way this modest melody is left to fend for itself within it. A rhythmic alteration that occurs just before the end of the second and last time through the melody lends the piece a closing finality. Yet the muted ending also offers a kind of opposite to closure- a feeling of continuity and sameness. An assurance that East Poultney will continue as is after the lingering notes fail. There’s a resignation at the close, a slight sigh of boredom and, in the final seconds, a touch of foreboding.
As I recall, what pushed my conscious mind this morning to action was the desire to hear the steady, driving plunk-plunk of Mark’s banjo. I’ve been pushed toward putting this song on repeat in other ways. Sometimes it’s the mournful, wistful feel of the overall song, or the hammer dulcimer-like timbre on the little buildup to the end; and sometimes it’s the simple, stunning counterpoint (harmony), a signature of much of Orton’s work. There’s a few others reasons that engender me listening less commonly: a few seconds of hush as the theme dissolves the first time through; a scraping of the violin strings that creates random tonalities, lending the piece its first hints of foreboding; the way the piece can encapsulate a bit of life in a town within a minute and 16 seconds, if you try to see that; or that gentle buildup that goes almost nowhere, yet just far enough, as I prepare my breakfast, or lumber through a run.
But most days, it’s Mark’s banjo playing that consciously attracts me. Orton seems to favor the dobro, with turns at the guitar and banjo as suits him. It’s an odd choice for a post-modern group of jazzy classicists like Tin Hat, but an apt one because he’s the main writer, because the whole business is slung around the slinking or plinking so naturally that one simply can’t notice the oddity in the instruments. The distinctly American slides and plucks belong in East Poultney as well as they ever belonged anywhere in Tin Hat’s work. In this song, the banjo drives forward and through, with a consistent, traditional ¾ (three beat) rhythm. It’s a slower piece. The banjo strikes a couple of notes almost simultaneously every beat, from beginning to end, a little gap wedged between every little duo of notes. The style lends the piece a feeling of consistency that befits depiction of a simple town. The build on top of this rhythmic base is modest because small town doings are robust and deep, but only in a very particular way. Key parts of a broader life are missing in East Poultney; the locals have forgotten to look for them, and the children who couldn’t do without them have moved away. Lower your eyes to just over the horizon, squinch the view at the sides, and one has all the depth and breadth that melody, harmony, and rhythm can provide of a life there- the gift and dearth of small town life, arrayed elegantly. A kind of Quaker modesty, the colors hidden from view.