Of Lebensraum and Lapdogs

That idiot, PewDiePie, had the self-awareness to say that the New Zealand shooter’s call out to him made him sick to his stomach. That idiot, our president, has made no such rebuttal to the shooter’s mention of him. A generous soul might think that Trump covered all this when he tweeted, “God bless all people.” But I have no more generosity for Mr. Trump. And anyway, considering that the NZ shooter is just one of a series of white supremacists who have acted in Trump’s name, you’d think Trump would take care to say something that would distance himself. But he won’t do that—at least not without equivocation. And the reason is because 1) he thinks some white supremacists are very fine people, 2) he knows that he can carry this thought without alienating his base of lapdogs, and 3) he knows that this thought can actually win him more lapdogs. I suspect that Trump himself is a bigot. (Okay. I’d put money on the fact that Trump is a bigot.) But I think he refrains from distancing himself mostly because he knows that bigots help him. They keep voting for his platform. They keep mentioning his name. They keep giving him their approval. And Trump is a sucker for approval almost as much as he’s a sucker for power. And this…er… suckage makes him so malleable that he won’t even reject praise from murderers. He is actually that weak.

And really, the NZ massacre isn’t the first time we’ve seen Trump play footsie with terrorists. We saw him grovel for Putin, last July. We saw him praise Kim Jong Un, last month. We talk so much about Russian election collusion that we rarely mention the other risks to national security that Trump’s spinelessness engenders. As a bully, he’s a pack animal. He impresses and dominates the less-powerful. And then he shows his belly to those who impress and dominate him. It’s the same mechanism that got authoritarians to vote for him: If you have money, then you must be strong—and we want our leader to be strong. We want our country to be strong. We want to be great again.

The problem—or one of the problems—is that a pecking order follows a transitive effect. If you bow to Trump, then you also bow to those who make him their bitch. If you bow to Trump, then you bow to Kim, and you bow to Putin, and you at least share words of praise with a white supremacist who killed 49 Muslims. As far as you are concerned, maybe this truckling is worth the big dogs’ approval—their praise of your race, or of your so-called Christianity, or of your so-called heroism in the face of those who are different from yourselves. Or, I could be wrong here. Maybe you don’t care about approval at all. Maybe you’re not really a lapdog, but an actual jackal, where you’ll join any pack that tears enough from the scapegoats that it’ll leave some fat for you too. It doesn’t matter, really. Not in the end. You’re still debasing yourself for scraps.

EDIT: Regarding NZ, there’s another post that somebody should write about social media and massacres. Perhaps it will be more original than this one. I just tire of Trump and his platform escaping blame for crimes that literally invoke him.

Customer SATisfaction

I’ve told this story before, but with all the test fraud in the news, I’m going to tell it again: In high school, I posted thoroughly mediocre SAT scores. (For those of you who knew me then, I’ll just say that my math and my verbal were exactly the same.) I’m sure they kept me out of some schools, to say nothing of the scholarships. So a few years later, when I wanted to go to grad school, I actually bought a book to help me study for the GRE. As I prepped, I hauled myself through the algebra and geometry sections. I got myself acquainted with the logic section. I pored over hundreds of vocabulary words that I may, or may not, still remember.

I took the GRE in the late nineties, when the test had just become computerized. On the day of reckoning, my dad drove me to the examination site. While we sat in traffic, I gave the vocab list a final look. When we got to the testing place, I sat alone in a room, wearing one of my favorite author’s shirts, facing a PC that had a fair chance of deciding my fate. I stumbled through the math section. (“Why, Lord? Why TWO variables?”) I got to the logic section, which consisted of little, syllogism thingies and those big matrix puzzles. My GRE guide had told me to skip the puzzles, so I could save them for last, and to do all the syllogisms first. So I tried that with the first matrix. And then the computer gave me another puzzle. I skipped it again, and the computer gave me a third puzzle. It was around this point that I realized that these puzzles were getting easier, and that by passing them up, I was tanking my score. Talk about logic tests! So I practically chewed a hole in my cheek, while I did my best to salvage what I could. Then I held my head in my hands, while I waited for the machine to cue up the verbal section. The verbal section: It was my exact vocab list. It was so exact that I got a little suspicious. But the timer was ticking–so in the end, I just dumped everything out of my rote memory, and dispatched the thing.

I sat back. I watched the score calculate. The returns suggested that I was half-crippled in math, extraordinarily verbal, and completely out of my mind. The score kept me out of some graduate schools, but it got me into the one I wanted. And that’s all there was to it.

The rage today surrounds the news that some people got into elite universities because their test scores were fake. That scandal is nasty—I won’t say otherwise. But let me tell you: To a greater or lesser extent, all test scores are fake. The original SAT emerged from Princeton as a means of keeping immigrants out of the United States. It was a eugenicist’s tool. And while I admit that, these days, board scores report some forms of academic speed, memory, and savvy, I suspect that they mostly report advantage. They ask if you know how to react to a computer that’s testing you; if you have access to the right vocabulary list; if you have somebody who can drive you to a test, so you can give that list one last look; and whether, if you do poorly on the test, you have the time and the money to take it again.

I can respect a standardized test as a single indicator of somebody’s intelligence. But it is fallible enough, and biased enough, that I cannot accept it as anything beyond a number that also reflects circumstance. And if elite schools have been basing admission decisions largely on this number, it’s no wonder that people from a particular circumstance mostly populate those universities. I don’t need Felicity Huffman to show me that. In a way, I’d purchased my results too.

Assassin’s Screed

This is a post about video games. Specifically, it’s about Assassin’s Creed. I’m in the middle of AC Odyssey—which is to say I’ve played only 200 hours. Despite its unusual brutality, it’s kept me interested for the reasons that all AC games attract me—namely, locale and history. For those of you who don’t know the AC franchise, you play as a member of the ancient, worldwide Assassin sect (as opposed to the ancient, worldwide Templar sect). Your job is to dispatch targets who seek to destroy humankind. And (until recently*), you accrue serious penalties if you kill civilians. This is all standard video-game stuff. The difference is that the AC series devotes each entry to a historical place and time. And its developers pour near-excruciating effort into making its settings as accurate as possible. The games have toured Medici Italy, gaslight London, Peloponnesian-War-era Greece, and Revolutionary New England, just to name a few. I’ve visited 3D renditions of the House of Parliament, a Spartan trireme, and the Battle of Bunker Hill. I’ve been menaced by Jack the Ripper, I’ve lost a debate with Socrates, and I’ve helped Ben Franklin find lost pages of his Almanac. I’ve committed some killings along the way. (Alexander Graham Bell helped me develop a hook launcher, so I could better skulk along the London rooftops.) But what I remember most is how I’ve caught a glimpse of what it might have been like to cross the Atlantic in a British galleon, or fear a plague as it sweeps ancient Athens, or just watch the haze as it spread from the child-run factories along the Thames. I wouldn’t say that AC educates me. (While its settings strive for authenticity, the story itself can bend the facts.) But for a game series that’s all about killing, it sure brings history to life.

The trouble is that, for the most part, AC is really, really white. Or at least, it’s really, really western. (You get to play somebody who’s half Native American in Assassin’s Creed III–but you also help him participate in the American Revolution.) I think some smartphone spinoff once situated the player in India (during their colonial era). And last year did offer AC: Origins, which takes place in ancient Egypt. But the Egypt outing gets only half credit, because Egypt is so very part of the western canon. What I’d like to see next is something that shatters that canon. I want the rest of the world. Here are some ideas:

*The Empire of Ethiopia. (Coptic lore holds that Ethiopia holds the Ark of the Covenant.)
*Feudal Japan. (For extra spice, throw in the Mongols. And the oni.)
*Ivan the Terrible’s Russia. (You can make the case that Russia is European—but then you can also argue the reverse. And anyhow, those pesky Tatars were not. Plus: Baba Yaga.)
*Or, let’s play with anything having to do with Aztecs, Olmecs, Toltecs, Incas, or Mayans. (Picture it: Jaguars! Were-Jaguars! Ball games! Alien visitation! Chunchucmil! AND MOSTLY, regular people trying to resist invaders.)

Right? Shouldn’t these be some of the next steps? Or maybe I’m missing something. Where do you want to see Assassin’s Creed?

*The Greek iteration of AC is a straight-up bloodbath. I don’t know if this is because the series wants to let people depart from the stealth mechanics of the old games, or if, as the descendant of 300’s Leonides, you’re just supposed to be that Spartan. In any event, it’s nearly unavoidable to lay waste to some peasant grandma who’s decided that, despite the fact that you’re wearing Theseus’ actual breastplate, she needs to come at you with a broom.

Sunday Brunch


I live in Iowa City, down the street from the Writers’ Workshop. We have a restaurant on Iowa Avenue that keeps this photo of Mr. Vonnegut on the wall. He has the writer’s mustache. He has the writer’s stare. Clearly, he didn’t have cats while he was here, or both his novel and that carpeting would be in shreds. He says, “Why are you eating in this restaurant, when you know what you should be writing instead?” He says, “Are you impressed with this picture, where I’m trailing my novel behind me like something that got stuck to my shoe?” He says, “I bet you’re surprised that Kurt Vonnegut wore such nicely-pressed shirts.” I dab my napkin and plunge my French press. I say that I read Slaughterhouse 5 in a lawn chair, in the middle of a fallow field, while a pheasant ogled from the ditch weed. “Ditch weed,” says Vonnegut. “You can’t smoke that shit.”  I tell him it was a high anyway. I tell him that sometimes, when I’m writing, I can grow my hair like that. He doesn’t change his expression. This is the look he gives me. He says, “Get back to work.”