A Gorey-Styled Ode to Trump

A is for Alt-Right, whom Trump primps and goads.
B is for Brietbart where Bannon implodes.
C, oh Covfefe, which flew from a tweet.
D is for Dotard, said Kim Jong with heat.
E’s for Election, long-plotted for years.
F is for Fox News and Fake News and fears.
G is for groping, both public and private.
H is for Hair hockered up by a civet.
I is for ICE Raids, Gestapo reborn.
J is for justices, pressured and worn.
K is for Kim Jong, a-wavin’ his nukes.
L is for lies upon lies till we pukes.
M is for Miller who pines for his fuehrer.
N is for NATO Trump put in a furor.
O’s for Obstruction, the tyrant’s best whore.
P is for Puerto, now Rico no more.
Q is for Quislings, the warts on this wart-hog.
R is for Russia, where Trump is the lap-dog.
S is for Spicer, and Sanders, and Sessions.
T is for Tariffs and brand-new recessions.
U is for Utterly over his head.
V is for Voters whom fraudsters mislead.
W is for Wanting a war where he’s wiener.
X is for Xenophobes—make ‘Murca meaner!
Y is for Yelling. They really should bleep him.
Z’s for the Zoo were the country should keep him.

(Thanks to my husband, James, for helping with everything.)

My Review of Stephen King’s The Outsider

On a whim, last week, I bought Stephen King’s The Outsider while I flew from California to Iowa. Now I’ll say up front that I have some ambivalence about Stephen King. He has trouble writing women who don’t fit the 1970s tropes. (Even his most bad-assed heroines still pull their fingers and bite their lips, and say things like “Ooough!” and “Hold it right there, mister.”) On top of that, I have trouble with some of King’s gratuitous vulgarity. (Such as the sex scene in IT, and the pistol scene in the first book of The Dark Tower, and the nearly inevitable animal violence that crops up every which way.) But considering all of that, I think King can build a locale like nobody’s business. I admit that he can create a genuine sense of dread. And finally, the more I see how his books connect, the more I respect him for his staggering sense of scope. For me, Stephen King is usually a better storyteller than he is a writer. But the world needs storytellers—so props to him.

So The Outsider surprised me. (Minor spoilers here.) The story is about a boy’s horrific rape and murder. The story goes into all the spooky directions that King calls home. But before it gets there, it spends nearly half the book empathizing—that’s the word—with every character in the story. You have the detectives and the DA who make a public arrest that becomes more and more doubtful. You have the arrested man, and his family, and the media’s court of public opinion. You have the victim’s family. In short, you have this whole gamut of folks whom King puts, individually, into the palm of his hand, so that you can see them as the terrified, conflicted, and basically decent people that they turn out to be. This means that the first half of The Outsiders is a character study of community tragedy. It’s deep, and it’s humane, and in that sense it is more literary than King usually is. It speaks, in fact, for justice.

If you aren’t paying attention—or don’t want to let it register—you might miss an instance at the very beginning of the book, when two black kids see the police, and run. They’ve got no reason to do so, other than the fact that they fear the cops. The police have nothing to do with these kids—because, in fact, they’re on their way to arrest their prime suspect. The moment is just a vignette; the kids never show up in the narrative again. But here they serve as a prologue for a book that is, at least in part, about cops making a bad arrest and trying to decide how far they’ll go to condemn an increasingly-innocent-looking guy, just to avoid bad press. And in this sense, of course, the kids do show up– again and again, throughout every convolution of this case.

Is The Outsider a good book? Well, it’s good in a pulpy sort of way. But unlike a lot of King, you get more from this narrative than you pay for. The Outsider offers two stories that center on humanity and monstrosity, each. And because of King’s careful focus on humanity, the first story will haunt you at least as long as the one about the eventual bogeyman.

The Artist’s Job in the Age of Trump

Today NBC reported how a religious kind of Netflix–known as Pure Flix–is on the rise among Trumpers. This is a “wholesome” programming alternative that produces–or at least distributes–everything from Bible-story specials to mainstream cinema releases such as The Case for Christ. Pure Flix isn’t new; it’s a decade old, but over the past few years, it’s swelled its subscribers to 125,000 folks.  I have no problem with a network that seeks to provide PG-level programming as an alternative to the HBOs of the world. That sort of channel can even provide a service. But all this so-called wholesomeness becomes far less so when Pure Flix distributes films that claim how intellectualism is synonymous with atheism (as in 2014’s God’s Not Dead), or that Trump is another Lincoln (as in D’Souza’s current Death of a Nation). That sort of shlock heads into FOX territory–which is to say it becomes propaganda.

One could argue, of course, that much of Pure Flix’s programming does not intend to function as news. (D’Souza claims to produce nonfiction, but I’m not sure about God’s Not Dead.) And yet by my lights, the demographic most likely to embrace Pure Flix is the white evangelical. And the white evangelical gives Trump a 75 percent approval rating. And when it comes to Trumpers, the difference between fact and story is both muddy and increasingly negligible. Come to think of it, they are the people of the alternative fact. Or at the very least, they are the ones who dismiss the mainstream media’s critically-vetted facts. All of this is to say that the Pure Flix audience is particularly receptive to the self-serving story (as their FOX allegiance suggests). And this means that the Pure Flix propaganda can become just as influential as FOX itself. In fact, we could make the case that Pure Flix could become even more insidious than FOX, insofar as it presents itself as (particularly!) harmless entertainment while it reinforces the (particularly!) harmful idea that, say, religion (and other disciplines) should not be skeptical.

And that rejection of skepticism has been the point for a very, very long time. “Reject what they tell you,” says the despot. “Listen to me.” With facts increasingly suspect, narrative is nearly all that’s left*. So the narrative programming arrives, with conservative politicians (such as Carson and Cruz) attending its movie premiers and with its production budgets sometimes turning 30-1 profits (excluding marketing expenses). Whether it means to or not, the Pure Flix movement provides the next step in people control. It is the best ratification of that most hateful claim about how religion is the opiate of the masses.

If there’s any good news here, it’s that the Pure Flix propaganda provides the rest of us an opportunity. And it goes like this: If Pure Flix’s audience has truly shed the facts, this audience’s subscription to a “wholesome” entertainment channel suggests that the audience is still receptive to narrative. And narrative affords artists a very large opening. We storytellers–we novelists, filmmakers, painters, and photographers–we too operate through chronicle. We startle, we captivate, we give all the feels–and if we’re good enough, we also move. That is, we use empathy to transport our audience from one stance to another.

Right now, we have to tell our stories to those who cling almost exclusively to narrative. We must. And we have to tell them in such ways that are not egregious with the f-bombs, or gratuitous with the sex and the violence. Do we have to keep them PG? No. The truth is seldom PG. But the truth isn’t salacious either. It has so much power that it doesn’t have to be.

If you are an artist, your job is to fight the Trumper propaganda with your work. Your job is to be accurate, efficient, clear, and authentic. And then your job is to publish your work. Put it on shelves, and in galleries, and in blogs, or even on Facebook. Put it out there in such a way that it says what you mean, and not just what’s catchy. Say what’s true. You are one of our last bastions of truth. And in that way you are vital to the cause.

Listen. We are past the point where we can fight for the Trumpers’ minds. We lost that war. Now the battleground is the soul.

* The other remainder is encounter–the homophobe, say, who re-examines his stance after his son comes out of the closet. Narrative artifice strives for the realness of encounter.

 

Building a Better Box: How My Friend’s Death Appeared as a Video Game

A few years ago, I found a friend’s suicide.  She–Meg–was brilliant and solitary, depressed in a way that good people can especially become.  We weren’t close, but a mutual friend had returned from out of town, and he said that he hadn’t heard from Meg in three weeks.  So I drove to Meg’s section-8 apartment, where I noticed that she had drawn all of her curtains.

Around this time, I was also playing Mass Effect 3.  This is a video game.  Specifically, it is a role-playing game, where the player becomes Commander Shepherd–a spaceship captain who amasses an intergalactic team of allies in effort to stop the villainous Reapers from devouring the universe.  Lots of people have at least heard of the role-playing video games.  Meg played them–and she’d enjoy that I mention them here.  

Nothing–and certainly not a video game–can make sense of her death.  But in light of all the suspicion about video games instigating death, I think she’d be pleased to know that this video game helped me to cope with her death.  I’m not talking about the grief of her death; that took both everything I had and some other things besides.  But the ordeal of discovering her death received some help from Mass Effect 3

These days, the ESRB bestows lots of video games with Mature ratings.  These M-17 titles peddle the flashy-splashy sex and violence, along with the use of theft, drugs and profanity.  And the fact is that these elements function a lot like profanity, where their presence begins to show the developers’ lack of imagination instead of any amount of artistic panache.  But in addition to indulging in some of this more pedestrian material, the Mass Effect series asks for maturity by involving the player in relationships with characters–relationships that, though admittedly predictable, can last literally hundreds of hours.  Then the game forces the player to make choices about these relationships, as the universe goes to war.  In general the game requires the player to act the heroine all along, but it also gives her options about what kind of heroine she’ll become–whether she’s a Paragon who’s orderly, kind, and restrained,  or a Renegade who’s chaotic, ruthless, and aggressive.  These decisions happen frequently, and some of them must happen quickly. And it was with this character-crisis mindset that I stood on Meg’s blooming and neglected lawn.

I confess that I’d volunteered to check on her because I have a naive love for adventure.  That is, perhaps, also a reason I play video games.  I did not expect to find my friend three-weeks dead in her living room. Not really.  But when I saw that Meg’s mail had piled out of her box, and when I spoke with the neighbors, I got scared at first. I mean a sick, unfunny scared. And then I surprised myself with a question:  I didn’t ask: what would Commander Shepherd do? After all, Commander Shepherd isn’t Jesus.  But I did ask: what would a Paragon do? I blinked in the sun and deliberated.  I could almost see the choice on a computer screen.  This was an illusion, of course—or at least an illusory framing of circumstance. But in crisis, the mind will do what it can–and even manufacture what it can–to grasp at any modicum of familiarity and training.  Illusion allowed me to peer below the bottom of Meg’s curtains (Paragon), to remove the window pane (Renegade), to smell death, to back away, to call the police (Paragon), and to remain calm and lucid (Paragon) while the detective questioned me about Meg and my desire to break into her living room.  

Before that last part, I sat on the steps of the apartment complex, while a neighbor stood before me with her silent, nine-year-old child.  

“She’s dead?” said the neighbor.

“Yes,” I said.

“How do you know?”

“It smells like death.”

“How does death smell?”

“It smells like bad meat.”

“So that lady’s dead inside there?”

“Yes.”

“She’s been dead for three weeks?”

“I think that’s the case.”

“So you’re her friend? And you didn’t check for three weeks?”

I can be a heroine in a video game.  That’s perhaps the primary reason I play them.

In Mass Effect 3, it’s possible to fail your friends.  If you don’t heed your companion’s rather overt calls for attention, he won’t flourish enough to survive a mission.  You’re left with his grayed-over silhouette on your ally screen.  His story arc has closed.  Any future moments that he could offer to the universal narrative have also closed.  Most every benefit that he has given your character has ceased.  

Video games have begun to return to the idea of Permadeath.  This is the notion of the squashed Mario–three stumbles, and you’re done.  Such a thing offers the challenge of the irrevocable, and as such, I think it can offer the instruction of the irrevocable.  I’m reasonably sane.  I teach college; I have a husband and a household; I participate in a liberal church.  And yet, during one of the most visceral moments of my life, I relied on the conditioning that I acquired in a video game.   And because of this, I wonder what would happen if something like Mass Effect 3 faced us with the irrevocable by employing circumstances that were better cloaked in the ordinary.  We should still save the universe; few things can replace the allure of becoming a big heroine in a big way.  But let’s make games that challenge us with something more subtle, more real.  Some games, especially the indie ones, have lately allowed us toe these deeper waters.  But I ask for more mainstream games to ask us to save the universe a little bit at a time.

I know a game of that sort would not have enabled me to prevent Meg’s death; I’m not that naive.  But this game might have moved the world to be a little nicer to her–if only insofar as it moved me to be nicer.  What is the Paragon response when a bleak friend asks you for coffee while you’re dealing with forty students and don’t have the energy to share another’s depression? Beyond the obvious prompts, how do you best nurture any one of your allies?

In 2015, the Entertainment Software Association reported that over 150 million Americans play video games.  Of those folks, 42 percent play video games at least three hours a week.  So:  A significant number of people spend a significant amount of time giving  a significant amount of attention to video games.  They must be teaching us something.  

I’m not saying that video games should offer us our moral codes.  We have religions and philosophies that are much deeper wells for that sort of thing.  But it is possible that video games could allow us to practice our morality–in every sense of practice, even if they granted us the Renegade’s gift of experimenting with that morality.  We’ve done this sort of thing before.  In fact, we do it all the time.  We imagine what we’d do if we were Rick Grimes, or Starbuck, or King David.  Stories let us practice ourselves.  And when video games get to the point where they move us to achieve this same level of empathy–when they truly show us what it’s like to both save and be saved–they too will become art.

The Cost of Doing Business

After reflecting on the financial good news of last week, I can’t figure how much of the US economic recovery is on account of Obama’s old work, or from Trump’s new policies. I suspect it’s a little of both. I also suspect the removal of regulations has played a major part in our energy production, at least. In this case, it’s ironic that the administration is calling such production “sustainable.”

I have no problem with a booming economy. (And as my mother pointed out, we Democrats better be very careful about how we react to the boom—because we do not want to sound as if we’re rooting against the economy.) That said, I’ve got everything against my country getting rich to the tune of environmental and humanitarian degradation. Just today, I got an e-mail from the NRDC about how the Trump administrations’ drilling plans will threaten such areas as the Bears Ears National Monument. Last week, as the court-ordered border reunification deadline passed, CNN reported that 33 percent of detained children still remain separated from their parents. (How this detention ever affected the economy is beyond me—but the Trumpers claim that undocumented immigrants take their jobs, so…)

And here’s more behavior I reject: I reject Trump’s implication that America is a victim and that we’re just now reclaiming respect around the world. According to Gallup (from last January), the median approval of US leadership dropped 30 percent, among 134 countries, during 2017. Last month, tens of thousands of British protestors dogged Trump with—among other things—the Trump-baby blimp. Later in that same month, world leaders were still condemning Trump’s lap-dog routine with Vladimir Putin. And last May, while I was in Iceland, our tour-guide, who depended on tips, joked about Trump to a busload of high-end, excursion-booking, Americans. All of this is a far cry from President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize.

And let’s not forget that this victim talk is actually despot talk. Victimhood, such as it is, has been used to justify atrocity and tit-for-tattery from Carthage to Dachau to the border detention centers. Stalin used at least the threat of victimhood to liquidate tens of millions of his own people while his Soviet Union transformed itself into an industrial super power. (Hmm.)

And speaking of Russia… In his annual foreign policy speech, last October, Vladimir Putin said this: “The biggest mistake our country made was that we put too much trust in you [the west]; and your mistake was that you saw this trust as weakness and abused it.” Sound familiar? Putin says that the US humiliated Russia. (Just this week, Trump said that other countries have humiliated us.) Putin says that NATO has betrayed Russia. (Earlier this month, Trump called NATO delinquent.)

The script changes, somewhat. Obviously now, Trump and Putin are such good buddies that they have secret conversations. But the voice is the same—and the stance is the same. Trump sounds like Putin’s protege. And our economic growth, though welcome, is far too small a compensation for us embrace the same tradition of totalitarianism that we’ve resisted since the pilgrims fled it 300 years ago.