Some Thoughts on the Brexit Vote and the State of Western Politics

Author’s note: I wrote this a few months ago about the Brexit vote, then I never published it. It’s a rambling, disjointed, ill-informed opinion piece that somehow manages to begin with the Brexit vote and end with the holocaust. I felt like it was rather silly and hyperbolic, even by my own shamefully low standards. But then Donald Trump won the election here in America. I was trying to make up my mind what to say about that, and I had the idea to take about the last quarter of this piece and fold it into another article. But when I read this over again, I felt like it held up. It’s message is more applicable in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. So, here it is.

Oh, and all you Brits out there who voted for Brexit: Did you really think you were going to out-stupid America?

 

First of all, I have to say that I’m not an expert on the European Union. I don’t live there. I know there are systemic issues within the EU that need to be addressed. I know it’s not a perfect system; nothing ever is. This is just my take as a whole, as a barely informed spectator from across the pond.

In my opinion, the European Union is one of the greatest accomplishments of the twentieth century. I’d always looked at the EU, at what Europe had managed to accomplish, and thought that I was actually witnessing a turning point in the history of civilization: Human beings actually learning something from history, and then doing something about it.

I mean, think about that. We finally learned. We finally learned. After tens of thousands of years of tribalism, feuds, invasions and counter-invasions, nearly constant war throughout the entire blood-soaked history of the continent, hatreds that go back to the beginning of time, climaxing with the horrors of the world wars, the pogroms, the holocausts, the genocides, the dictators. National Socialism. Fascism. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco. Thousands of years of bloodshed and horror culminating in an orgy of bloodshed and horror.

And then, it stopped. It actually stopped.

It was as if Europe, after centuries of blood-rage, was finally shocked into sobriety by what they’d done. They finally took a look around and realized that it just wasn’t worth it. In all that time, what had this fighting ever accomplished? From Hastings to Normandy, European countries had been sending its young men into the meat grinder, often for the stupidest of reasons. Then, they finally realized that they are all brothers and sisters.

And then they stopped. They finally stopped.

Less than ten years after the second world war ended, the early framework for the EU had been created. One by one, countries joined together, uniting politically and economically, opening their borders to each other. No more armed border crossings. No more papers, please. No more invading neighbors. No more young men sacrificing their lives to the whims of Royal family feuds.

And the result? Seventy years of peace on the European continent. Seventy years. Countries that just decades before had been ruled by dictators and monarchies and despots, now solidly democratic. Quality of life that is the envy of the world and keeps getting better. Economic prosperity. Human rights. Civil rights. Universal healthcare. Education. Say what you will about the immigration crisis, (and I do agree that it’s a crisis, and must be intelligently and reasonably and compassionately managed) you have to acknowledge the fact that these people want so badly to come to the EU because it is so much better than other places.

All of this is why the Brexit vote, and the politics accompanying it, is so discouraging. I may be conflating correlation with causation, but it seems as though, in the long term, we’ve learned nothing. I can’t help but observe that the generation that built this institution is the same generation that witnessed first hand the slaughter and misery of the world wars. And I also can’t help notice that at almost the exact moment this generation fades away, at the exact moment that the horrors of the early twentieth century pass out of living memory, we start going back to our old ways. Nationalism and isolationism. Xenophobia and paranoia. Closing borders. Listening to bigoted, hateful demagogues, lining up with pitchforks in hand to deal with those people, because the angry man up on the podium is feeding off of our fear and our uncertainty, using the rhetorical alchemy of would-be dictators to transform that fear into hatred, and then feeding it right back into our hearts.

We’ve learned nothing. We’re still monkeys flinging our own shit at each other.

Maybe I’m exaggerating, but then again maybe I’m not. Maybe this is how it starts. Maybe we should really know better by now.

And, as an American, I realize that I have no room to talk in regards to idiotic politics. The reason I’m so disappointed by all this is that I thought you guys were doing better than us.

At the risk of hyperbole, I’m going to make one final point. I’ve known many Germans. They’ve all been wonderful, friendly, gracious human beings. I’ve never been to Germany myself, but I know many who have, and they all say the same thing. It’s a wonderful place, full of wonderful people. Intelligent, progressive politics. A high standard of living. Great beer. A great place to visit, and a great place to live. Before the Nazis took over, Berlin was one of the most liberal, cosmopolitan cities in the world. Pre-war Germany was a highly educated, thoroughly modern population. There is no secret black heart of the German people. They’re just people.

If the German people were capable of being duped, of being complicit, willingly or unwillingly, in the holocaust and the rise of the third reich and all of the horrors that followed, then we are all capable as well.

The Holocaust was not made possible by a flaw in the German character.

It was made possible by a flaw in the human character.

If it could happen in Germany, it could happen anywhere. Britain, America, anywhere. And it starts with the smallest things. It always starts with the smallest things. A forest fire can start with just the tiniest ember. We, as human beings, have a responsibility to be forever aware of the horrors of which our own darkest nature makes us capable. And we must always be vigilant.

We can do better. We can be better.

 

So Idris Elba is The Gunslinger

Warning: Those of you who have never read or heard of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, in any of its several forms, will likely have no idea what I’m talking about.

gunslingerSo Idris Elba is the Gunslinger. It’s official. The cameras are rolling. After years and years of false starts, rejected scripts, departing directors, and Hollywood production hell, it’s happening. I’m…cautiously optimistic. Hollywood has broken my heart too many times for me to work up anything approaching outright enthusiasm, but I’m hopeful. But it took me a little while to come around to that. Let me explain.

I have to admit, Idris Elba, at first glance, is an odd choice. Let’s address the elephant in the room right off the bat, shall we? Idris Elba is an excellent actor. He’s a bad-ass. I have no doubt he can carry the role of Roland of Gilead, and truly make it come alive. The thought of him spouting some of Roland’s lines in his low, gravelly voice gives me shivers.

But he’s black, and Roland is white. Let me say right upfront, that doesn’t matter. Does it? I don’t think so, but it took me a couple of weeks to make up my mind. Let’s discuss.

There are some movies where the casting is almost supernaturally good. The Lord of the Rings, for example. It felt like the casting director just peeled my brain open and scooped the characters out onto the screen. It was eerily perfect. Not so Idris Elba. In fact, Elba is jarringly different than what Roland of Gilead looks like in my brain. That’s a fact, for me, and for millions of Dark Tower fans. It’s disingenuous and deeply unfair to call Dark Tower fans racist if they’re having a problem with it. After thirty years of the main character of the series looking one way, in the novel’s descriptions, in Michael Whelan’s wonderful cover art and illustrations, in the dozens of graphic novels, now, without warning, Roland is someone completely different. There is nothing wrong with anybody having a knee-jerk reaction to that.

What if they remade Blade with a white guy? What if they remade Kill Bill with a man? What if they remade Ghostbusters with a bunch of women…oh, wait. Ugh, nevermind.

Destruction_of_Despayre-TEABut anyway, it gets to the heart of the question, how much ownership do fans have over the fantasy worlds they love? We’ve seen, most of all with Star Wars, that owners of an intellectual property are free to make sweeping, unilateral changes to their respective universes, and the fans don’t have a say. I mean, thirty years worth of Star Wars extended universe canon was obliterated with the stroke of a pen. Millions of voices crying out in agony, and then silenced…  And I understand why they did it, I do. But it’s a blow when you have such emotional investment in something, and then someone comes and nukes it. It’s rather like renting a home. You get comfortable there, you think you have some say over what happens to it, then one day you find out that you really don’t at all. It can sting.

But it’s not just that, there are story issues as well. Perhaps the most obvious issue with Elba’s casting is that it indicates significant plot revisions. Detta Walker, The racist, wheelchair-bound black woman who features prominently in most of the books, just ain’t going to work if Roland is also black.

But the more I think about it,  the more I realize that the Detta you see in the books would never make it to the big screen anyway. Let’s be real. A crazy, violent, racist black woman, spouting vile epithets while she tries to kill the protagonist by virtue of his skin color? This was a character created by Stephen King 30 years ago, likely at the height of his substance abuse problems. The world has come a long way since then. I don’t care who is playing the Gunslinger, if you think the original Detta Walker would make it into a major motion picture in 2016, you’re crazy. You’d likely be hard-pressed to find a self-respecting black woman who’d even agree to play the part.

the-dark-tower-coverDetta’s character is an ugly, hurtful stereotype that needs to die. I mean, let’s play the switcheroo game here for a second. What if (due to the casting of Idris Elba as Roland) they made Detta Walker into an ignorant white-trash wheelchair bound racist with Aryan Nation tattoos, screaming “n*gger” at Roland? Her character, of course, still wouldn’t fly. Mark my words: No matter who plays Roland, that entire subplot and character arc is going to be severely revised or axed altogether. And that’s not a bad thing. So, get used to it. And if Detta’s character doesn’t have that particular arc, then Roland’s race truly doesn’t matter to the story. Gilead seems to be a pretty progressive place, after all.

So, the only thing left to worry about is whether the movie is going to suck. Like I said earlier, I’ve been burned too many times to get my hopes up. But I think I can safely say that if this movie does suck, it’s not going to be because of Idris Elba, and certainly not because of the color of his skin.

 

 

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hipsters

street-art-599761_1280How does one define a hipster? Is there even such a thing? Is it a style of dress, a hairstyle? an attitude? Skinny jeans and gauged ears? Plastic framed glasses? As sometimes happens, fashions from the scene have begun to blend into the mainstream, and so we’ve all become a little more hipster. And yet, there is still such a thing as a hipster. An ur-hipster, if you will. The eternal hipster. Hipsters are like pornography: It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

God knows, it’s fun to hate on the hipsters. And there are some people who make it awfully easy. I suppose it doesn’t matter which scene you’re dealing with, there are those who take it too far. Try taking a walk down the streets of downtown Portland, Oregon sometime, and see if you don’t at least once roll your eyes and say, “Oh my god, look at that hipster.” But then, drive out of the city a little bit and you’ll be rolling your eyes and saying, “Oh my god, look at that redneck.” Wherever you go, there’s always that guy.

I’m guilty of making hipster jokes. But lately I’ve been realizing that it’s a lazy, knee-jerk response. “Oh my god, look at that hipster, riding his fixie bike,wearing skinny jeans and a vest. Look at that hipster, with a vegan tattoo and a v-neck shirt. Look at that hipster, opening an artisanal cheese shop. Dur-hur-hur, fucking hipsters.”

So yeah, it’s easy to make fun of the guy opening an artisanal cheese shop. The thing is, it’s damned good cheese.

Does Portland (and most other cities) have lots of hipsters? Yes. Are some of them insufferably douchey? Yes indeed. But you know what else Portland has lots of? Fun bars. Great coffee. Microbrews. Bands. Bakeries. Restaurants. Free concerts. Farmer’s markets. And it’s all because of the hipsters.

I suppose it’s a double edged sword. The tragically hip fashion victims get annoying, as does the attitude from the hipper-than-thou girl in the plastic framed eyeglasses at the used bookstore. But the good things and the bad things spring from the same root, the same youthful energy and creative spirit.

hipster.jpgIt’s important to realize that it’s not about the fashion. Every subculture has its fashions, and many of them look pretty goofy to outsiders, but that’s just a look. People have been coming up with weird fashions since the beginning of time. Beyond the sea-captain beards and the ironic tee shirts, you’ll find people who are trying to do something new. Who are trying to create the world they want to live in. People who’d rather take the considerable risk of opening a coffee shop or a gluten-free bakery or a microbrewery than have a normal job with a suit and tie, and they’re making the world a better place for it. Because, dammit, I like good coffee and unique microbrews and fresh baked goods. If you think these people are doing it to get rich, you must be high. Probably on legal Oregonian weed.

There’s definitely some similarities to the hippie movement of the sixties and seventies. Then as now, you had a subculture of people saying, I don’t agree with the current system, it has nothing to offer me, and so I’m going to stop chasing the carrot on the stick, and I’m going to create my own system. And frankly, they’re doing a better job than the hippies did. When you see somebody riding their bike to their coffee shop, buying locally sourced organic vegetables, teaching free yoga in the park, they’re living with the courage of their convictions, and still managing to more or less live as functional members of society.

hipster-beard-and-bikeAgain, it’s fun to make fun. Like artisanal pencil sharpening. It’s clever, yes. It’s all in good fun. But when we make fun of somebody for, oh, lets say, opening an artisanal cheese shop, what we’re really saying is, “Look at this jerk, trying to make a living doing something he’s passionate about. Who does he think he is, trying to master a craft, trying to share his passion with the world, trying to make himself a life he enjoys. Doesn’t he know that the world doesn’t work that way? Go get yourself a meaningless job you hate like the rest of us miserable assholes.”

So, maybe my resistance to this scene, my brain’s former refusal to open up and try to understand what these folks are doing, what they’re really about, is the first step of my descent into fossilhood, and the next thing I know I’ll be sitting on my front porch with my pants up to my armpits, yelling at kids to get off my lawn.

And frankly, that scares the hell out of me. So, yeah, I think I’ll just lighten up and enjoy the microbrews and the coffee and the music.

A Rant-Why Even Try?

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I’ve probably mentioned that I like to write. I’d like to make a living at it. Hopefully by telling crazy stories about vampires and zombies and space aliens. But every once in a while, I get really discouraged and I ask myself: Why even try?

Seriously though. I ask myself that every day. The odds are crazy. The amount of competition is insane. Readers are fickle. Publishers go out of business every week. The roadsides are littered with the flaming wrecks of would-be writers. You’d have to be delusional to believe that you’ll ever be anything more than one of a million hacks on the Kindle store, selling four copies a month while your co-workers at Pizza Hut chuckle about your sad ambition. You’d be better off buying lottery tickets.

But it seems to me that in this day and age, if you have any kind of goals greater than working as a fry cook at McDonalds, you’re still facing insane odds. There are no longer any magic bullets. There’s no career path or degree or certificate or qualification that guarantees that things are going to be easy for you. For every real grownup job there are hundreds of applicants. I’ve got friends who graduated with sensible degrees, solid blue-chip career degrees like accounting, and it literally took them years to find a job. Years of sending out hundreds of resumes, living at their parents houses and servicing their massive American student loan debts. I know someone who graduated with a good professional degree, found an awesome suit-and-tie job, and got laid off three different times in a year. I know teachers who get blamed for everything that’s wrong with our broken school system, who buy their kids school supplies out of their own pockets, who sweat bullets every year when the layoffs come around.

If there’s a good, safe job out there, I haven’t seen it.

I’ve seen people with bachelor’s in biology making twelve dollars an hour working as lab assistants. I’ve had teachers, PhDs, working as adjunct professors, making less money than the guy outside the window mowing the lawn. Your barista at Starbucks or your cashier at Barnes and Noble probably have English degrees. And take a look at the statistics for law school graduates sometime. Wasn’t that what our parents told us? “Get a good job, be a lawyer and get rich.” Good luck with that.

And in addition to that, some of the most miserable people I’ve ever met got where they are by chasing the money. Dentists and pharmacists and lawyers who spent years and years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to get where they are, and they hate it and they hate their lives. It makes you ask yourself: How much money is happiness really worth?

And anyway, you might get hit by a bus tomorrow.

So, given all that, given that for my generation it seems like a good, secure career might as well be in the same category as unicorns and Bigfoot, why the hell not try to pursue your passion? Why not try and do what you really want to do?

Because hell, there just aren’t any safe bets.

Welcome to My Happy Place

How to seduce Matt Kincade: It’s not that complicated. Bring me some Indian take-out food and watch a Wes Anderson movie with me. I’m yours. Or, I suppose you could show up at my luxury hotel suite in Paris.

Kidding aside, Indian food and Wes Anderson is my happy place. I can’t quite explain it, but an order of chicken korma and watching The Life Aquatic or Moonlight Kingdom will break me out of the deepest of funks.

So I just thought I’d share this perfect little vignette from one of my favorite movies of all time, The Darjeeling Limited. I can only hope it makes you as happy as it makes me.

This is mildly NSFW, so don’t watch it if you’re offended by Natalie Portman’s butt.

I hate engines-a rant

Warning: The following is a bitter, rambling, disjointed rant. I really can’t suggest that you read it.

I hate engines. I hate ’em. They’re loud, obnoxious, cantankerous, smelly, foul, smoke belching little assholes. They eat fossilized hydrocarbons and they spit out greenhouse gasses and carcinogenic particulate matter. They’re literally killing us. I look forward to the near future, when we’ve switched over to electric cars, and the thought of a gasoline powered car is looked at with mild disgust and horror. How did people ever live like that? our children will say, as they step out of their self-driving electric car to go to the museum of motor vehicles, where they’ll probably stand inside some kind of special pollution chamber in order to smell what the early twenty-first century smelled like.

All of this occurred to me as I was trying to drink a cup of coffee and read a book (a trashy paperback) at a table outside a coffee shop. A shop that was right next to a minor side street. There I was, trying to settle into my book, when a diesel truck drove by, brrrrruuuuuummmmmmmm….. kachunk! clank! kch-bruuuuuuuuummmmmm…. spitting out a great, filthy cloud of black smoke as it went. I looked around, as this cancer cloud wafted over me, and saw that I was apparently the only one bothered by this. We’ve become so used to this that we don’t even notice how awful it is.

And then, a Tesla drove by. Absolutely silent. Zero emissions. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that this is the future. Soon, the internal combustion engine will be a barbaric relic of the past, and we’ll wonder how we ever put up with it.

Another thing I hate about engines: They break. They break a lot. It’s amazing they don’t break more often. It’s basically a little bomb going off six times per second inside of a little tube, and the explosion lifts a piston that powers your car. That, in and of itself, is pretty simple. But then everything else about an engine, probably two thirds of the mechanisms in the engine compartment, are simply designed to prevent the engine from ripping itself apart, which is what it really wants to do.

It’s a giant, insanely complicated Rube-Goldberg contraption to manage the craziness going on, from the split-second choreography of valves and cams that prevent the cylinder from turning into a pipe-bomb, to the coolant system constantly shunting away excess heat to prevent the whole mess from melting down, to the lubrication system that keeps it all from fusing solid…and then it’s all strapped to a big tank full of the explosive liquid it needs in order to live…well, you get the point. The point is, I hate engines.

Now let’s compare this insanely complicated contraption (an amazing feat of engineering, don’t get me wrong) to an electric motor. Even the most simple gas engine is a miniaturized version of the above-mentioned shit-show. A chainsaw, for example. It’s a bitch to start. It needs coaxing and tweaking and constant maintenance. It’s loud and cranky and smelly. It breaks down a lot. And then let’s look at, say, an electric blender. When was the last time you had to change the oil on your blender, or adjust the valve clearance or change your spark plug wires? How many moving parts does a blender motor have? One. There’s a stator (it’s static) and a rotor. (it rotates.) That’s about it. I’ve had the same blender for ten years.  I bought it at a thrift shop, and it’s never given me any trouble at all.

This is really what excites me most about the prospect of an electric car. I mean, sure, saving the planet is cool. Paying a fraction of what gas costs to charge your battery is pretty sweet. But I’m mostly excited about cars that are simpler, quieter, and cleaner. Granted, a Tesla is a bit more complicated than a blender, but still.

With an electric engine you don’t need a coolant system. You don’t need a lubrication system. You don’t need a transmission or an exhaust system or a catalytic converter or a muffler. You don’t need to rattle the fillings out of somebody’s damned head with your engine braking and choke them with your fumes while they’re trying to enjoy a nice goddamned cup of coffee al fresco. An electric car, more or less, is just a big battery hooked to a big electric motor. Just a bunch of electrons silently shuffling around.

Of course, what would excite me even more is not needing a car at all. I love the freedom, I do. It’s great being able to go wherever, whenever, in my private motor-driven coach. It’s the god-damned American Dream. But I hate, I bitterly resent the fact that I need one.

In most places in America, it’s almost impossible to live without a car. And that sucks. Cars are ridiculously expensive. The maintenance is a pain in the ass. Insurance is a drag. They’re dangerous. They get stolen. They crash. They break at the worst possible time. And yet, living as I do in a country designed for cars, with pedestrians as a distant afterthought, in most places they are an absolute necessity of life. They’re such an absolute given, that most people never even consider that there might be a better way. I swear to god, it’s like we’re all in abusive relationships with our cars.

Growing up in a rural area, (where it was a thirty minute drive to the nearest grocery store) I’ve always had a bit of a city-phobia. It hasn’t been until very recently that I’ve spent enough time in a real city to appreciate the advantages (besides the advantage of actually having something to do). Being able to walk places. Available, affordable public transportation. Sidewalks. Taxi cabs. The possibility of being able to do without a car entirely.

Someday, that will be the case everywhere in America. Someday we’ll have actual public transportation. Someday we’ll stop designing new cities like cars are the primary residents. Someday our passenger rail system won’t be an overpriced joke. Someday we’ll be able to use our smartphones to summon a self-driving Uber to take us where we want to go. Someday there will be no reason to spend six months pay on a giant, overcomplicated money-pit of a contraption just so we can haul our groceries home.

But until then, oops, I’m about due for a new set of tires.

What’s wrong with pulp? Nothing, that’s what.

The Brothers Karamazov broke me. It straight-up broke my will.

Before that point, in my early community college days, I fancied myself as a young literati in the making. This was years before I ever had the courage to put pen to paper and transfer stories from my brain to a physical medium, but I still had this vision of myself as a man of letters, a cultured, educated person, with a deep understanding of Shakespeare, able to quote Montaigne or Kafka, sitting in some corner cafe and sipping a cappuccino while I read Sartre. Then that artsy girl sitting over by the wall would notice me, dammit!

This is why I thought I needed to read The Brothers Karamazov. I mean, I was smart. I was a reader. I’d gotten through the unabridged Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’d read Celine and Conrad and Heller and Huxley. I gritted my teeth and finished Dostoevesky’s other much-celebrated wall of text, Crime and Punishment. Surely, I would enjoy this famous, well-known, important book, right? Wrong. Good god. I gave it a try, I really did. But I’ve read more engaging soil-science textbooks.

The funny thing is, as a writer, I never wanted to be great. I’d like to be good, sure. I’d like to be entertaining. But it’s never been my goal to be profound or brilliant. Tough talking detectives. Dangerous dames. Vampires, zombies, spaceships. Dinosaurs. Vampires fighting zombie dinosaurs in spaceships. My inner world has always been sleazy and pulpy. Adventure and escapism was what sparked my love for reading in the first place. So why, now, was I turning my back on my first love for this stodgy old bitch of a novel?

And that’s the thing I realized, sitting on that bench outside the library at the community college, as I slogged through page after page of Fyodor Dostoevski’s seminal doorstop. I realized, I’m not enjoying this at all. I realized I wasn’t doing it because I liked it. I wasn’t doing it because I was gaining knowledge or insight or context or appreciation of the world. I was doing it to feed my ego. So I could be that smart guy. So I could look down on the uneducated rabble and laugh snootily. “What’s that you’re reading, Stephen King? Oh my word, how very jejune…”

That same day, I dropped The Brothers Karamazov, with a weighty thump, into the library’s book return. And I checked out a dog-eared paperback copy of Stephen King’s The Stand.

Since then, my primary judgement of “good book” or “bad book” are the simple questions: Do I give a shit? Do I care what happens next? Do I want to turn the page?

Now I’m not saying that there isn’t great literature out there to be had. Steinbeck and Hemingway were both writers who will practically bash you over the head with their brilliance, yet their stories are entirely readable. I want to turn that page. And even popular authors have gems of wisdom and insight hidden within their pulpy adventure stories. It’s like they can’t help it. The greatness just oozes out, somehow. Nelson DeMille is a perfect example. His bread and butter is writing airport-bookstore paperbacks about terrorists blowing up New York or whatever, and yet if you read The Gold Coast or Up Country, you’ll see soul-baring storytelling that approaches brilliance. The same with Philip K. Dick. It’s like he was trying to write pulp sci-fi, but somehow wound up with philosophy. Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, in their day, were considered cheap trash writers. And now they’re classics.

Now, don’t let me stop you from trying out Dostoevski. He is still in print after 150 years, and I guess that has to mean something. Just because it wasn’t for me, doesn’t mean it won’t be for you. The point is, you don’t owe a book a damned thing. If you don’t feel like it’s grabbing you, if you don’t give a shit and you have no desire to turn the page, kick it to the curb and go find something you do like. Even if I wrote it. Even if you’d be embarrassed if that artsy girl in the cafe saw you reading it.