Sunday, August 28, 2016

What Kaepernick Does Next Will Determine His Civic Legacy

The Kaepernick story is the perfect storm of American patriotism colliding directly with the civil rights movement and teasing out the hypocritical and heartfelt extremes of both. As backyard beanbag and barbecue champions across the land now seize this opportunity to use the n-word between their f-words, the shrine of vicarious American violence at last has a lamb to sacrifice at its altar.
Anheuser Busch’s flagship product, Budweiser, has temporarily been renamed America, just in time for drunken halftime Kaepernick hating. The #7 shirts burned in effigy are posted all over YouTube. Kaepernick merchandise boycotts have been called for. The 2016-2017 season is not yet under way and Kaepernick has thrown a can of gasoline onto the raging bonfire of alt-right identity comfort that has recently become enheartened by the Trump campaign. Kaepernick has sixteen full weeks to continue dispatching salt into this gaping wound, and the opportunity for a full NFL season of race-baiting joy is being salivated over by opportunist pundits from the left and right.
My immediate thought was that Kaepernick’s passive-aggressive refusal to stand during the national anthem was an antagonistic, sullen and unhelpful means of expression, and that if he wished to contribute to the national dialog on this topic, which is very much welcoming of high-profile voices right now, he could do so in a way that doesn't throw such conspicuous disrespect on a class of people who absolutely do not deserve it, which is to say, veterans. The anthem means a lot me, but it means even more to veterans, and to accept harm to the hearts of our veterans as reasonable collateral damage for this unoriginal, vague and uncreative means of protest seemed to me at first blush an insensitive and disappointing play.
That said, what are we talking about right now? Oppression in America through the lens of Kaepernick’s protest. So, shut my mouth. He did it. He elevated the volume of the conversation, if not yet its clarity. He did what he wanted to do and he did it successfully. But, and it’s a very big but, the job is not over. He now has an opportunity, and I think an obligation, to offer an articulate howl of protest and to be a mouthpiece through which some of America’s persistent racial injustices can be described and identified for redress.
If he elects not to do that, if he prefers instead to keep making this dull, imprecise and gratuitously cruel gesture every week, for the mere fact alone of it delivering undeserved harm to American veterans, his protest is a loser for me. If, on the other hand, he assumes the mantle of courage and explains his frustration with the pace of civil rights reform, the unacceptability of double standards in policing and other areas of racial inequity, and does so in clear language in an open forum, I’ll applaud as loudly as anyone. In my opinion, he should hop onto this immediately and make a gesture of good faith.
Picture this. Kaepernick lays out the frustrations of minority Americans loud and clear at a press conference, and then accompanies that with language expressing hope. Were he to say, for instance, that the elevated attention to issues of racial imparity in policing makes him optimistic for real change in the near future, so optimistic in fact that he will stand proudly for the anthem throughout the entirety of the regular season, the entire tenor of his gesture would change from cynical to hopeful and from dark to vibrant.
A gesture of that sort would be a masterstroke for Kaepernick, and maybe that’s what he has in mind. He needs to do something, because without putting a finer point on his protest, it is doomed to have an identity rooted only in the problem rather than in the solution.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Last Time I Left California...

Let me tell you a story. It was February 1989. I was leaving San Francisco, having experienced a pretty devastating sequence of events that had combined to lead me to the conclusion that I wanted to return home to New England after having lived in the Bay area for four years. I was fired for suspicion of theft from the music store where I was working (I didn’t do it), my band had just dissolved, and the woman I was dating had committed suicide. Each of these events merits its own detailed telling, but none of them are the subject of this recounting. I suppose it is relevant that all three of these negative occurrences happened in the same couple of months, and all were in the vicinity of an approaching Christmas. I was devastated. In any case, I packed up and began the 3000-mile drive back to my native New Hampshire.

A vicious blizzard had come roaring across Siberia, through Alaska and Canada and had settled into an airstream pushing its way across northern California. It caught up to me in Reno, Nevada and followed me all the way across the country, shutting down Route 80, Route 70, and Route 40, forcing me to traverse our fair land on Route 10. As I passed through Texas, which was a sheet of ice, and limped into Arkansas, I saw a sign that heralded the proximity of Fort Smith, the small city where my father was born and raised, and I resolved to visit it.

My father died at 42 years old when I was 16. A Yale graduate, he never saw me get accepted into his Alma Mater, nor of course graduate from it, and in truth we never had an adult conversation, so naturally at age 30, I had some unresolved issues with my father. I had been to Fort Smith only once before when I was four or maybe five years old, and I thought it might be a fine opportunity to exorcise some demons.

I pulled into town and had lunch at a drug store counter, asking some of the folks if they knew of him or his family and the answer was repeatedly “no,” so I drove around a little bit and spotted a Catholic church. I parked, got out and walked up to the doors. I gave them a hearty tug, but they were locked. As I pulled on the unrelenting double doors, something inside of me snapped. I collapsed on the walkway leading to the entrance and fell into a fit of uncontrolled sobbing. When I pulled myself together enough to get up, I spotted a statue of the Virgin Mary and knelt before it and prayed.

I looked down at the pedestal and there at Mary’s feet was a beautiful, perfect green pine cone, still moist and pulpy, exuding the fertility of the deep South. I picked it up, still sobbing, and brought it with me. As I drove away, maybe having done myself some modicum of good, this song that I link to at the bottom of this story, The Living Years by Mike and the Mechanics featuring Paul Carrack, came on the radio. I think it was the first time I ever heard this song, and I had to pull over and listen to it, a process that birthed yet another round deep, heaving sobs.

I will remain ever grateful to Paul Carrack for writing this song, and for singing it so beautifully, and also to my higher power for forcing me to drive through Arkansas, for showing me the sign to the place of my father's birth and youth, and lastly for playing DJ that day, and providing me with a piece of music that I needed to hear. I kept that pinecone for several years until it finally crumbled to dust.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Nature Abhors a Vacuum, as Does Politics: Enter the Libertarians

Libertarian doctrine varies dramatically within the confines of Libertarianism (part of Libertarianism I guess, being as Libertarian as you care to be), but in its purest form, it is a Utopia of strict objectivism that appeases the prevailing left with a staunch adherence to personal liberty and does the same to the right with a likewise laissez-faire attitude toward business. The ruling elite in a Libertarian paradise cedes all questions of personal behavior to the citizenry, as it should be, but in devil’s trade for that, the personal behavior of commerce becomes likewise unregulated, and that’s a problem. It seems to me to be a bit of a self-assigned hall pass to rapacious mercantilists whose personal appetites veer from churchly ways.

It’s Republicans with bongs. It’s feeling bad about cutting school lunches. The core Libertarian message is that if things get bad enough, the people for whom it is bad will pool resources and correct the problem. The inferred corollary is, “and if they don’t, screw ‘em.” Whatever the attitude toward social safety nets, when it comes to infrastructure and public services, systems are required, and they need to be consistent and maintained to good health, and under the fat-trimming knives of Libertarian leadership, everything from pothole repairs to hospitals to soup kitchens falls under the butcher’s gimlet eye.

There is a strong advocacy of Libertarianism within certain elements of the tech sector, notably the highest echelons of management and ownership, one that suffers from a myopia that relates significantly to Obama’s both celebrated and reviled utterance, “You didn’t build that.” It’s the tech wealthy becoming wealthier, perceived as due reward for their pioneering individualism, conveniently forgetting that the technology their new technology hitchhikes on was developed through government research. The same is true of pharmacology, space exploration and many other fields that have more and more come into the realm of private commercial ventures. After a few decades of Libertarianism, all of that seed research dries up and you’re left with a passel of cutthroat entrepreneurs fighting over the last leftovers from the final sustained periods of pure research.

The first thing Libertarians will tell you is that they are fiscally conservative but socially liberal. Social liberalism requires funding though, and until you square with that, you’re not socially liberal. That’s just the way it is sold in the marketing materials, not as Randian feudalism, but rather ultimate freedom. It’s a second-rate philosophy popularized by a third-rate novelist whose big idea should have died right along with her.

Libertarians are refugees from the Republican Party for whom financial and environmental deregulation was proceeding too slowly. Or maybe in Johnson and Weld’s cases they were sick of being on the B-List and smelled blood in the water so they decided to make some hay while the election was unstable. The driving precept of Libertarianism remains unfettered capitalism, which wouldn’t annoy me quite so much except that it is always sold under a predictive model of spontaneous social cohesion that holds no historical model.

The Libertarian concept of a free market is flawed at its core because we no longer club each other to steal wildebeest meat, which is the beginning and the end of pure free markets. Anything more than that is influenced by structure. The restructuring of these “free” markets according to the whims of Libertarianism as pertains to patents, contracts, property, monopoly and enforcement (and these are the economic pillars that truly matter) are always going to be to the advantage of an elite that knows better, a kind of presumptive benevolent monarchy of the smug. The trick for hardcore Libertarians is to get as close to the clubs and wildebeest model as possible while keeping the lottery mentality afloat in the minds of a trusting public. I prefer an accountable democracy.