Cognitively There

Culture, Justice, Media, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

Like, you’ll go: “Person, woman, man
camera, TV.” So they say,
“Could you repeat that?” Someday
the words won’t come; your lips will fan
the toaster-oven air; you’ll say, “Woman?
TV? Radio? Opera? Fannie Mae?
Elephant? Alligator? Matinee?
Mother? Birthday boy? Afghanistan?”
If you get it in order you get extra points,
although they say no one gets it in order, but for me
it’s easy. Nevertheless I sometimes fear
that each word unremembered thus unjoints
its ordered re-remembering. Words flee
the fit mind. The mouth speaks. I’m here.

Ashokan Farewell

Media, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

War

I was one of one hundred and fifty-three
signers, and am a veteran of the Twitter
wars; many good men, and brave, now litter
the twilight screens; they yearned to live as free
Americans: now their souls flee
the quiet fields; their blue checks glitter
amongst the angels: absent God’s transmitters
of this dream: that we might disagree
about how many Jews died in the camps
or whether white folk are permitted words
that black folk use between themselves without
the ad hominem and vitriol that stamp
out freedom, turn men into beasts, mere herds
of cows denied their human birthright: clout.

An Open Letter

Culture, Education, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Religion, Science, The Life of the Mind, War and Politics

Our cultural institutions now must face
a trial unlike any faced before:
@litboner69 called me a bore;
a sophomore undergrad said that my race
informed my sense of self, and worth, and place;
they didn’t put my book in the front of the store;
they added diaspora studies to the core
curriculum; now my promotion case
is held up with the provost just because
I hold a few unorthodox views:
that Blacks are more athletic by design;
true women lack men’s moral flaws;
Arabs just aren’t quite as smart as Jews.
For this you’re telling me I should resign?

Amateur Epidemiology

Poetry, Science, Uncategorized

If in a given sample size of N
a growing portion comes back positive,
you must yet understand that most will live
and those who die just once can’t die again;
if, in other words, leads thus to then;
it’s simple logic; I could for instance give
more tests, but aren’t outcomes causative?
We are not abstract models; we are men.
Have I been feeling slightly ill for days?
Will this cough persist, or disappear?
These are questions of the spirit. Science wills
its best conclusions into being; haz-
y reason is a sickness too, and fear,
not viral fever, clouds the mind and kills.

Adjudicating Claims of Truth Using Math, and Not Convenience

Culture, Economy, Education, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Uncategorized, War and Politics

I don’t believe it just because it’s true.
An interim beyond a certain length
of time attenuates the tensile strength
of a claim; our years on earth, though brief and few
against history’s vast, impersonal view,
reduce the truth each rainy spring by a tenth:
T-zero times (one minus point one) to the Nth.
It’s simple math. There’s nothing you can do.
Had you told me right away, or yet
mentioned it in 1999,
or even yesterday, I would achieve
true belief, quite against any threat
to my politics’ necessary bottom line.
Your deadline’s passed, alas. I disbelieve.

All Good Things

Books and Literature, Culture, Economy, Media, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

Last night I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall asleep, so I did what any normal person would do: I lay in bed in the dark and fixed Star Trek: Picard.

Picard was a hash, the obvious product of too many cooks combined with network pressure to turn a show about a retired near-centenarian in a Utopian future, in which starship captains teach androids to play Cyrano de Bergerac more convincingly as a hobby while they whisk across the galaxy faster than the speed of light, into a hack action feature, Flash Gordon meets  The Expendables. But Michael Chabon, the American novelist who became, in Hollywood’s dour argot, the “showrunner,” had at least a glimmer of a good idea. Utopias only remain interesting for so long; eventually, the capacity for drama is exhausted by the absence of internal conflict.

The problem: Star Trek already examined—and already examined better—the “darker” side of its universe in Deep Space Nine, which set its characters on a frontier and considered what happens when this advanced society brushes against remnant capitalism, labor unrest, the fallout of previous wars and occupations, the rebellions of its own borderland citizens, and finally faces a war of near total mobilization and all the compromises and crimes it is willing to commit and suborn in order to win and to survive. Against the latter seasons of DS9, Chabon et al. didn’t stand a chance.

Well, they were either too clever or too arrogant to recognize that, and so they tried, depicting a Federation exhausted by its own principles, closing its borders to refugees and fighting an internal conflict against a class of artificial un-people and swearing and generally enacting an incredibly on-the-nose, Very-Special-Episode, Have-You-No-Decency-Mr. Trump version of Earth and the Federation at the turn of the 25th century. With a sword-wielding warrior monk. In Star Trek. It . . . did not engage.

But Chabon’s instinct wasn’t entirely wrong. There was an interesting story to be told about an exhausted Utopia, but it required a subtler touch. The setting should not be that different. The Romulan homeworld has still been destroyed, but unlike Picard, which imagined that the destruction of a single world in a vast “Star Empire” somehow sent every Romulan fleeing toward the neutral zone, this was a terrible but localized catastrophe: a Hurrican Katrina of the galaxy’s future. Ever since the Dominion War, a fraught but durable peace has prevailed. Many Romulans have ended up resettling on Earth and throughout the Federation. Picard can even have his former Tal Shiar friends and caretakers.

Picard is still old and grouchy, frustrated with what Starfleet and the Federation have become, but emphatically not because they have become Space MAGA. Rather, he is exhausted because, contra the Picard that was made, true artificial intelligence has become commonplace. Bruce Maddox unlocked the secrets of the positronic brain, and with Voyager’s return, The Doctor’s sentient holomatrix has been replicated thousands, millions of times. There are not automatons; they are full, independent people. Moreover, they are more than people, and far from the race of super strong, super intelligent slaves that Picard fretted about in the courtroom drama of Measure of Man, they have come to dominate those areas of the Federation—Starfleet in particular—where once the highest peaks of human achievement were attained. Picard is not prejudiced against them; he is not an anti-android racist. He just looks at a society that more than ever has sunk into mere luxury—travel, food, consumption, fine wine—without the countervailing force of achievement and exploration, of striving and struggle for knowledge, and feels . . . exhausted. Has humanity become little more than a tired race of cosseted pets?

Then, in flashback, we see a precipitating event: a Borg Cube (yes, the same Borg Cube that the actual show cursed us with) en route to attack the Alpha Quadrant. But this time it is dispatched with almost comical ease. A fleet of Federation ships—neat-sentient ships, crewed by superhuman androids and holograms—sets upon it near the former Romulan neutral zone and easily defeats it. (Before, by the way, the Romulan sun goes nova.) It founders in space. Humans and Romulans begin the Borg Reclamation Project. Only . . .

Years later, in the show’s present, a slow-dawning and then terrifying realization. AI is beginning to die. A (apologies for the gross topicality) sort of virus has entered their systems, incurable and seemingly contagious. And then . . . Bruce Maddox disappears.

And then mad, bad Admiral Janeway calls Picard out of retirement to pursue the mystery. For who now can command a starship, at least among the mere humans. And here Picard puts together his ragtag team on an old, pre-AI ship. Seven of Nine, who instead of a new character we don’t care about is the one living in ragtag isolation, so far from her former place in a collective! Hey, a couple of the kids from Below Decks, now All Grown Up. His Romulan friends, who may have motives of their own. And thus they quest out into the galaxy, a crew on a ship trying to solve the mystery of what happened to the androids, what happened to Bruce Maddox, leading them eventually to the Borg Cube, the mystery of the android plague, the destruction of the Romulan sun, and the question of whether a Utopia can remain vital forever.

Psalm 122

Poetry, Religion, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized

on celebrating Passover via videoconference

The Midrash tells us there are two Jeru-
salems, but there are three: one unequal
city still on earth, and then a sequel
made of our mitzvot, beyond the domed blue
tent of heaven; the third has very few
of the tangled modern, ancient, and medieval
attributes of either; it’s only people
separated not by choice, but by a new
sickness—each trying from the dining room
or fire escape, the garden or the narrow bed,
to make the seder with their telephonic friends;
while outside the pear trees bloom
and bless even the dying, and even the dead,
and the hearts God breaks, and breaks, and mends.

What Is Left?

Culture, Economy, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Uncategorized, War and Politics

NOTE: This piece was originally published without my consent by a now-dissolving publication in March of this year. With the permission of my friend and former editor from that publication, who was fired along with his striking editorial colleagues during that labor dispute, I am posting it publicly here.

*

Bernie Sanders presumptive loss of the Democratic Party nomination for president demonstrates the limits of electoral politics for the left. I have already seen some pre-postmortems speculating that Sanders simply arrived to soon, that his staggering margins among young voters presage a socialist wave of the future, perhaps a decade or two from now, when the rising left-leaning generations become a majority of the electorate.

This is bad analysis on two fronts. First because it under-credits Sanders’s catalytic impact on the consolidation of a collective political identity for the socialist left. The two decades leading up to Sanders’s 2016 run were marked by a number of powerful and public anti-establishment protests, from the street-fighting of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, through the Occupy movement in 2011, both ultimately put down by paramilitary police brutality. But these popular movements never coalesced around an explicit left-socialist program, and there was always the risk that their fringes would spin out into vulgar anarchism or libertarianism, and the rest subsumed into milquetoast Obama-style consensus liberalism.

Sanders, then, was a figure around which some fairly diverse left tendencies could coalesce to form a coherent popular bloc and legitimate mass movement at a time when the inextricably linked phenomena of neoliberal economic austerity and dire social atomization seemed as impregnable as they have ever been. There’s no need to indulge in crass great-man speculation in order to note that Sanders served as a necessary agent in the consolidation of socialist tendencies into an actual socialist movement. If he were not here, now, then it becomes spurious to imagine some future incarnation could capitalize on a political project that no one had organized in the first place. Whatever else it may be, history is contingent.

But the second reason this analysis fails is that it indulges in the same fantasy that has dogged Democratic politics for the last forty years at least, which is a crude demographic determinism that assumes that if we wait long enough, just until today’s youth are a majority, or until the country is “majority-minority,” or until women vote as a single bloc, then historical inevitability will kick in. Yeah, well, remember what I just said about history.

A more dispassionate analysis says that there is no reason to believe that demography is destiny, no reason to believe that a popular movement that reflects—what, a quarter of the country?—will either this year or twenty years hence have the power to wrest control of the state from all of the interests and resources that will continue to be aligned against it.

Nor is it “realistic”—to use the frequently disingenuous bugbear of conservative Democrats—to imagine that this is a simple problem of communication and outreach. If polls are to believed, a majority of Democratic voters and likely voters strongly support Sanders’s policies, from Medicare for All to an at-least-slightly more modest and less militaristic foreign policy, but the evidence is pretty clear at this point: policy agreement did not drive voting choice, certainly not in the numbers necessary. There is at least anecdotal evidence that this was the result of media coverage that obscured and obfuscated the very distinct divergences between Sanders and the rest of the field, and there is polling to suggest that a substantial chunk of voters who ultimately broke for Biden believe that he supports Medicare for All, which he explicitly, aggressively does not. But again, there is no reason to believe that this media landscape will be better or fairer in the future. If present trends in media continue, it will be worse and less fair.

The left may continue to make up marginal ground in legislatures, where campaigns are still run on a smaller scale and the pavement-pounding democracy of knocking on doors in a single district really does have advantages over mass media manipulation. (You can see this in races like the one that brought Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to office, where the incumbent has effectively decamped permanently to D.C. and has only a kind of absentee-landlord connection to their ostensible home turf.) But if we are being—here is that word again—realistic, then we have got to admit to ourselves that on a national scale, in a country the size of this one, a country with two centuries of imperial inertia and a vast, entangled complex of corporate finance, media, and national security bureaucracy, the prospects of winning a free and fair election is very, very small. (Swings in exit poll data in a number of American states, including Massachusetts, during the current primary season, are already strongly indicative of direct vote manipulation, or would be taken as such if they were observed in any other country but our own.)

All of this leaves a conundrum for which I have no prescriptive answer. Labor organizing is the obvious suggestion, since it seems to present the only path to a locus of non-state power, but that will be a decades-long project at least, given the parlous state of American labor. I could of course, write, optimistically, that there is nothing inherently wrong with a decades-long project, that if the left is going to think in historical terms, it had better get used to the fact that history is rather long by definition. But, of course, the ice caps are melting; Siberia is thawing; the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached white.

But the feel of historical acceleration that we all feel, the sense that the long duration of time is compressing before our eyes, with whole relative eras passing in the cycle of a day’s news, may herald some kind of break, a tectonic juncture in which one plate slips and a few things rattle loose. I don’t hope for catastrophe, but I do think the present COVID-19 outbreak, a symptom of the same forces driving climate change itself, of a metastasizing human civilization bumping in ever closer, weirder ways against the natural world in an age of near-instantaneous travel, heralds . . . something. Maybe the best and only hope for the left is to tighten our grip on the rails and steer the prow into unpredictable times.

Corona

Culture, Economy, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Sports, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

for Matt Christman

The liberatory quality of not knowing
shit is quite honestly the strangest bit
of living indoors in hopes of avoiding it.
By it, I mean the damp and fungal growing
sense that the wheel of time, far from slowing
has slipped the axle. Calm is counterfeit
joy; real happiness is fear knit
together with the inevitability of going
anyway: the green ruined future
made beautiful by all the strange and new
life bursting from the cracked curbs and stairs,
effervescent blood from a torn suture
strikes the sidewalk where once weeds grew
and turns to flowers in the now-clear air.

Bloom

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Economy, Education, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Uncategorized, War and Politics

bloom

Bring in the boss and sit him down. The head
of the table is perfectly appropriate.
It is the last head that we’ll ever let
him have. Yes, I’m saying we’ll kill him dead.
Lop off his noggin. Weigh his body with lead.
Throw it from the gunwale of a midnight motorboat.
See if all that money helps it float.
Go home and kiss the kids and put them to bed.
“How was your day today?” inquires your wife.
“It wasn’t bad at all,” you say, and then,
quietly, so as not to wake the children,
make the quick, familiar love of a long-shared life,
watch some TV, say a quick prayer, amen:
better to live than to hoard a hundred billion.