Homogenization Nation

There’s only one thing you’re sure of: You’re missing out. You’re doing something wrong and it’s time to adapt. You’ve decided to dress a little nicer and cut off some of the rough edges. You swear a little less and stop talking about politics. You’ve got to find some stability. You’ve got to make more money. You’re missing something.

You turn yourself into a brand. Your circle of friends becomes larger and ever-less intimate. That’s a good thing, because you’ve been told to view them as a source of potential income. You no longer hit them up because you want to hang out – you hit them up because you’ve got an exciting business opportunity for them. You’re gathering information on them, probing them for weak points. Your interactions are transformed into transactions. You’re always on point. You never let your guard down.

Your income has gone up over the last few years. That’s a good thing, because everywhere you turn there seem to be more and more people who are trying to separate you from that income. Your rent has gone up. Your most expensive purchases need to be replaced every year. The things you used to buy to save money now cost more because saving money is trending. New gatekeepers seem to be popping up everywhere to charge you a fee for the things you used to do for free.

In the world around you, your favorite establishments are closing and being replaced with boutiques and wine bars. The ones that stay open are getting glossy remodels and adding new locations on the other side of town. They now have a variety of merchandise for you to purchase. Miniature shopping malls have been placed between you and all of the activities you enjoy. All you have to do is walk through them (but you might as well buy something while you’re at it). Visible signs of poverty seem to be disappearing from your neighborhood. You don’t ask where those signs went – it’s probably just because people are doing better. Everything is being consolidated, homogenized. It’s relentlessly predictable and you wonder if you should find comfort in that.

Everyone tells you that confidence is key. If you want a bright future, you’ve just got to believe in yourself. Things are looking up, you tell yourself – there’s a windfall right around the corner. But before you turn that corner, there are all kinds of people who want to cash in on your windfall before it happens. You’ve already parted with all of your current income, so why not part with your future income too? They told you to bet on yourself – you’re good for it if you believe you are. You sign the promissory note. The only possible trajectory is up. All you have to do is believe.

In the virtual world, you’re now connected to your 750 closest friends on every conceivable social media platform – and you wouldn’t want to say or do anything to offend them. You’re becoming increasingly aware that your every click and keystroke is being monitored. You adjust your behavior accordingly.  Every search yields the same 10 results. Information is harder to come by, but at least shopping is really easy. The places in the virtual world that you used to go to relax now serve as constant reminders of all that you’re missing out on – the new shoes you could be wearing, the trips you could be taking. And it can all be yours in one click.

In your more pessimistic moments, you wonder why there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to hide anymore. You feel suffocated by all of this. Your life seems ever more devoid of genuine interactions with people, but maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. Maybe being authentic is a sign of weakness. Maybe passion is a sign of youth. You push all that aside. You’ve got to be on point. You don’t want to miss out.

The economy is doing well, you hear.  This is the part of the business cycle known as a “recovery.” And in your weaker moments, you wonder: If this is a recovery, why is it so fucking bleak out there?



The theory goes something like this: Donald Trump’s campaign met with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign and asked them for help in winning the election against Hillary Clinton. In return, the Trump campaign agreed to pursue better relations with Russia in the event that Russian help ended up putting them over the top. Russia proceeded to “hack the election” by sending phishing e-mails to Clinton campaign officials and spending money to promote ads and fake accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Russia also did some other things that we have yet to uncover evidence for, such as rigging voting machines and hacking voter registries. Trump went on to win the election, and will presumably do some favors for Russia at some point as a reward for their help in winning the election.

The above narrative is both simple and compelling. But as time goes on, we appear to be getting farther and farther away from this operating theory. Instead, what you’ll hear over and over is the word “collusion.”  It’s a catch-all term that encompasses a number of possible activities, not all of which have anything to do with rigging an election. And as we get farther away from the shocking results of that election, it seems that fewer and fewer people are mentioning any vote-rigging, preferring instead to stick with the word “collusion.”

Listen: It’s pretty clear that there were Russian interests who were trying to curry favor with the Trump campaign, through a variety of means both legal and not-so-legal. But foreign countries currying favor with elected officials and prospective elected officials isn’t only not unusual – it’s actually an integral feature of our politics. Why do you think that a bill which criminalizes a peaceful boycott movement against Israel makes it to the Senate floor? Why do you think that people inside Obama’s white house referred to foreign policy think tanks in Washington DC as “Arab-occupied territory?” Why do you think our foreign policy establishment so overwhelmingly favors the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia even as our actual material and strategic interests in the Middle East continue to decline?

Michael Tracey says it best on Twitter:

Insofar as the Russia “scandal” is a scandal, it’s a political corruption scandal masquerading as a global espionage scandal.  Paranoid liberals want to frame it as the latter because it makes the wrongdoing appear unique to Trump.  But the political corruption exposed – unregistered foreign lobbying, underhanded oligarchic influence, campaign hangers-on overstating their influence as a means of currying favor and attaining career advancement – reflects an indictment of the entire political system and is thoroughly bipartisan in nature.

Conspiracy theories are a constant tornado of information, innuendo, and – more than anything – certainty. Before we even heard that people in Trump’s orbit are being arrested last week, we all heard a chorus of people yelling “SEE?” simultaneously. Yet again, as the dust settled we learned that we are still waiting for that other shoe to drop – the one that proves that the conspiracy theorists were Right All Along. Throughout all this time, as the shoe continues to not drop, we are constantly being inundated with that certainty and innuendo. By the time all of this is over, the fact that the one big thing we were all waiting to learn never came to pass won’t even matter.

Here’s a corollary for you: Can anyone tell me what the Benghazi scandal was all about?  Can anyone tell me what the central thesis was that implicated Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in some kind of wrong-doing after those attacks? I can’t either! But that’s the thing with conspiracy theories – it’s all noise and no signal. You see where I’m going with this – “collusion” is nothing more then Benghazi for liberals.  There’s a smattering of wrong-doing underneath it all, a high degree of certainty that something larger lurks underneath, and a great number of people who will pointedly refuse to tell you what that something is.

The obvious response to this is, “who cares, as long as it hurts Trump.” I have a great deal of sympathy for that argument, and if I thought that this scandal would bring down the Trump administration without further reverberating throughout our cultural and political landscape, I’d say that a little exaggeration is OK. I’d call it politics. I’d say it’s for the greater good. But as I’ve explained before, that’s not how this is shaping up. This pseudo-scandal emboldens our horrible and murderous national security state, it moves the Democratic Party even further to the right (thus ensuring that they continue to lose), and it puts us at genuine risk of another Cold War with Russia. Worst of all, it’s not even going to bring down the Trump Administration. So what we’re left with is all of the negative impacts of this hysteria and none of the benefits.

You can count me out.


Smoke and Ruin

Oddly enough, I feel it in my stomach first. It’s the feeling that I’ve swallowed mouthfuls of ash, and those mouthfuls have collected into a giant clump of black tar in my digestive system. Eventually, my eyes burn and it hurts to breathe. Outside, the light is pale, subdued, tinted yellow. Even noises are muffled – the sound of your own footsteps might struggle to make it to your ears. Everything is dim, contained. At night, the moon turns blood red, and you could be forgiven for thinking that it feels like the end of the world.

When I was a kid, I used to hear stories about the Yellowstone Park fires of 1988. I have vague memories of being able to see the smoke in Billings, but it’s hard for me to know if those memories are real or not. What I do know is that people talked about that fire as if it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Smoke making it all the way to Billings was rare, and in the 15 years that ensued, I never once experienced the feeling of having forest fire smoke invade the place that I live.

In 2004, things started to change. By that time, I was living in Missoula, and for much of that summer the valley was shrouded in smoke, and it hurt my lungs to run. At the time it seemed like a unique event, but every summer after that seemed to involve a similar event – at least one fire whose smoke hung over the valley for a week or so. Before I knew it summer smoke became a feature, not a bug – and during that time the same became true of my hometown of Billings.  

In late 2008, I moved to Portland, and summers went back to normal. I never experienced summertime smoke from forest fires for my first six years living here. The first time it showed up – three summers ago – it was treated as a unique event. Of course, it’s happened every summer since, to the extent that we’ve become accustomed to it. And today – as we are watching some of our most iconic landmarks get engulfed in flames – it feels even more stark. It feels unique.  Will we grow accustomed to this as well?

I’m now able to track many of the important changes in my life to the fires that were raging and the smoke that I was breathing in when they happened. After almost six years of working at the Albertson’s at Eastgate Plaza in Missoula,  I spent the majority of my final night shift in the loading area behind the store, sitting by the river. It was July 10th, 2008, and Mount Sentinel was literally burning across the river from me. Watching the fire creep up the mountain was completely mesmerizing. So it was that my shift from difficult low-wage labor to some vestige of an easier, more “educated” lifestyle was marked by fire. 

Last summer, Laura and I spent the last days of our honeymoon north of Fairbanks, and we were awakened on our last morning by the intense smell of smoke and an unsettling uncertainty as to where the fire that was causing it was coming from. So it was that our transition into married life was marked by fire.

This morning was Simon’s first day of daycare – and after we brushed all of the ash off of the car, we drove him east, towards the fire, leaving a wake of gray dust behind us.  And when we dropped him off and headed back west, I was keenly aware that we were leaving him closer to the fire than we were.  And though the fire posed no risk to structures within city limits, I couldn’t help but feel that we were putting him in harm’s way.  It was deeply irrational but unsettling nonetheless.  This will be another indelible memory that is added to the collection – a series of events in my life that have been punctuated by the destruction of the world around me. It’s shocking, disheartening, oppressive. So it was that our transition into parenthood has been marked by fire.

One of my inaugural acts as an adult in my early 20s was driving to Portland from Missoula for the first time.  When we pulled over in Cascade Locks, I was overwhelmed by how green everything was – it felt like I was in a tropical rainforest. I still feel that every time I go there. My favorite trail runs since I moved here have been on Eagle Creek trail and the trails that wind behind Multnomah Falls towards Larch Mountain. My best hiking memories with my closest friends are all in that area. It’s all burning now. Will we mourn it, or will we just get used to it?

It’s all starting to blend together. It’s all starting to become commonplace. The debate in Portland over the next couple of weeks will be over the appropriate use of fireworks by individial actors, because we are absolutely incapable of grasping the larger global event that we are witness to. You can see already that the outrage generated by this fire will be misdirected.  The actions of these individual kids will be scrutinized endlessly, the location of their parents at the time of their actions will be speculated upon by an anxious public looking for a place to direct their outrage. “Kids these days,” people will say, ignoring the objective reality that it’s the “adults these days” who have allowed this global catastrophe to take place in front of our eyes.

There’s a reason that our ire will be directed at the actions of these individual kids. Our broken political and economic system is collapsing and we have two political parties who are fundamentally committed to maintaining the status quo. And while we are in desperate need of a radical change of direction, there is absolutely no collective will to make that change happen. That’s why the only collective action that we’ll likely be able to muster out of this tragedy will be the institution of a harsher carcereal punishment for future kids who do stupid things. Our focus on them will allow us to continue to ignore the rot that exist at the very core of our system. It will allow us to continue to ignore our own complicity in allowing this broken system to continue.

None of the solutions that are coming down the pike will do anything to address the central problem that caused these fires. There will be genuine outrage, but it will be funneled into the only acceptable practice that our system allows- punching down instead of up. Bashing “kids these days” instead of the political and economic system that is allowing climate change to happen. Slamming the actions of these 15-year old peons while our leaders and the 1% that they serve continue to feed their insatiable lust for wealth accumulation on the backs of the people whose labor they are stealing, at the expense of the planet they are destroying.

The fire is coming our way, and it’s moving much faster than we think. Yet here we are, dropping our children off in its path. We’re driving away from the fire and leaving them behind. No matter what anyone tells you, WE are responsible for what happens to them.  Not some dumb kids with fireworks.  Not some thoughtless parents whose location we can’t determine.  It’s us.

Dear Thomas

Dear Thomas,

The day that you took your own life, you were 17 years and 6 days old – a mere 18 days older than I was when I became your father.  For your first 48 hours, I was both your biological and legal guardian, and when that time was up, I gave up my responsibility to the one part of that equation that I had any say in.  In doing so, I relinquished the vast majority of responsibility for your well-being to a beautiful family who wanted that responsibility much more than I did.  None of us had any idea what a pernicious concoction of mental illnesses we’d passed onto you, and what the very act of adopting you would do to compound those illnesses.  For my part, I was relieved that I was not going to be the one doing the hard work of finding those things out.

I’ve actually been thinking about you a lot in the past couple of weeks.  I’ve been thinking about how difficult it must be to go through your adolescence in a virtual space, with so few social barriers to keep you from interactions that may be harmful.  In this weird virtual space, I saw you struggling – with an ex-girlfriend, with suicidal thoughts, and with a deep and horrible self-loathing.  And as I have during other times, I thought – “he’ll get through this.  He’ll come out the other side stronger.”  And maybe you would have, had you given yourself the chance.  But the weight of the pain and anguish that came with this particular breakdown – layered upon past breakdowns – proved to be too much for you.

Though I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately, the truth is that there were a great many times when I’ve forgotten about you.  And now I can’t help but wonder – did I forget about you on accident or did I forget you on purpose?  You haven’t been part of my story for a long time, nor have you been a part of the story I tell others about myself.  I determined at the age of 16 that there was no place for you in my life, and I determined later in my life – either for convenience out of care for my own self-image –  that there was no place for you in the narrative of my life either.  I moved on, I carried on.

But you sought out connection with me via social media.  I kept track of you, and I wondered what you saw when you looked at my Facebook profile.  What I hoped you saw was a vision of a possible future for yourself – your biological father who made it through a difficult adolescence to find a semblance of happiness on the other side.  But now that you’re gone, I wonder:  Did you just see another family that had no place for you?  Did you see a life that you had been deliberately excised from?  Did you see someone who made the choice to move on from you after 48 hours, and was better off in your absence?


“It’s OK to touch him, you know.”  My Dad and I were standing above you in the delivery room as you lay helpless in the newborn crib.  Nothing had prepared me for the feeling I would have when you were born.  And when you were lying there, I didn’t know what to do.  My Dad put his hand on you – how small you were! – and told me that it was OK for me to do the same.  I still needed that at that point in my life – I needed someone to tell me that  it was OK.  I know that up until your last hours, you had many people in your life doing the same for you.  They told you it was OK, that you would get through this.  They told you that leaving everyone behind was the wrong choice, that you were loved and that the pain would be too great for everyone to bear.  But how could they have possibly understood the kind of pain that makes someone end their life the way that you did?  How could they possibly be seeing the same picture as you?  How could the pain you were dealing with – over, and over, and over again – possibly be worth enduring for any longer?  They didn’t understand.  I didn’t understand.

I remember when I was your age, I went on a date with a girl and was subsequently refused a second date.  So, I did what young men do, and I showed up to her house unannounced.  Right when she opened the door, she said, “please don’t fucking cry.”  She was familiar with boys my age.  So of course I fucking cried. I ended up crying over every girl who gave me so much as a tender look without subsequently agreeing to be mine forever.  I didn’t know that shit was practice.  I didn’t know that I’d be practicing for 10 more years before I felt even remotely OK about myself.  And that’s not to say that people didn’t tell me- of course they did!  But another highlight of being that age is that the emotions we feel are so intense, so visceral – that a calm explanation of the realities of our situation doesn’t hold a candle to what’s burning inside of us.  What a mess I was – and there wasn’t a single person on earth that could tell me that those peaks and valleys would level out.  That I would find some degree of contentment, eventually.  That it was worth sticking around to find out what lay on the other side.  I had to make that decision on my own.

It’s easy to become convinced as we’re growing up that there’s certainty all around us.  Everyone just seems to know what they’re doing.  The world we live in promotes the “fake it till you make it” mentality writ large.  There’s church in everything.  People are conditioned to gather in large groups and vocalize their certainty of purpose.  We’re told that God has a purpose for us too, and that if we say it often enough, it will become true.  But what does that mean for those of us who are struggling to find our place?  What does it mean when when everyone tells us that that we are supposed to feel something at a particular moment, but find only emptiness?  It’s oppressive – and at a young age it’s impossible to convince ourselves that problems lie anywhere other than within ourselves.

One of my favorite movies of the past year was Arrival.  The movie itself centers on the loss of a child.  The central question it asks the parent is: If you had this all to do over again, would you?  Would you choose to bring this life into the world knowing that it would eventually be taken from you?  It was beautiful, poignant, and it helped me deal with losses that my family has already endured.  For those losses, the answer was clearly yes – of course we would make those choices again.  But what’s the answer with you, Thomas? Would I make that choice again, knowing that the person I brought into this world would exit it 17 years later, a tortured soul full of pain and self-loathing?  Did you experience joy often enough to make the pain worth it?


There’s no playbook for this, Thomas.  I’m not your Dad.  But you were very much my son.  The things that you couldn’t control in yourself were the things that I couldn’t control creating within you.  The pieces that were broken inside of you were pieces that I gave to you.  Some of them were pieces that were mercifully dormant within me, and some were pieces that I broke by the very way in which you were created.  Yet I passed them onto you nonetheless.  So what’s my role in this, now?  How do I grieve a son who wasn’t really my son?  How do I say goodbye to a son I barely knew?

I just… I thought you were going to call.  I was waiting for your call.  I wanted to talk to you.  I wanted to tell you that there’s a place for you in this world.  That there’s a level of rationality in looking around and saying to yourself “this is incredibly fucked up, I can’t do this any more, these people are all fucking crazy.”  You weren’t wrong in thinking those things.  But we live in a big world, in a big country.  And I know that there was a place for you within it, somewhere.  I know that peace existed for you somewhere outside the confines of the town and the church that you were raised in.  And I wish you would have given yourself time to find it.  I wish I had done my part in helping you get there.

On Saturday, I will join your family in carrying you to your final resting place.  It wasn’t my choice nor was it my responsibility to carry you to term, like Holly did.  It wasn’t my responsibility to bear the burden of raising you, as Randy and Laura did.  Much like you, I chose the path of least resistance.  And now the only weight I will be helping to carry will be that of your casket.  The weight of the choices I have made.  The weight of the pain you endured during your short time on this earth.  It’s not enough, and it’s much too late.  And for that I’m so, so sorry.

Dadblog #1

This summer has given me the opportunity to stay home with Simon at the perfect time in his development – he’s 4 months old and really starting to develop a personality with the added bonus being that he’s incapable of deliberately being an asshole yet.

It’s been absurdly good – the things that I feared most about parenthood are the things I’m enjoying the most. I was terrified of not having general freedom of movement or the opportunity to travel, but I’ve found that shrinking the confines of my world down to this house and this neighborhood have been really good for me.  I’ve done a ton of house projects, I’ve brewed a bunch of beer (and it’s been good!), and I’ve relished the occcasional opportunity to take a break from the kiddo and walk around the neighborhood during these lovely summer nights – something I wouldn’t have appreciated as much before.

Anyways, things are good and I have the pictures to prove it.

We take walks from time to time

We go to the brew shop to look for tasty grains
We try to eat pizza and he definitely gets sauce on his head

Ok sometimes we cry

​But naps are the best

Never mind bath time is way better

But really it’s all about the snuggles.

This Doesn’t End Well

President Obama, for all of his many failings, was good at one thing:  he regularly refused to get caught up in the politics of the moment.  Whether it was the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the multiple mass shootings that happened under his watch, or the continually deteriorating events in Syria, he always resisted the immediate calls for him to do something.  This remained true at the end of his presidency, when liberals were demanding that he do something about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, and were ultimately furious when he demurred.  This was a key element of his leadership style, as he said in a 2016 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg:

“I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.”

So now we’re six months into the Trump administration.  Gone is the Democratic party leader who urged caution as the Breaking News chyrons urged the opposite.  Gone is the veneer of a Democratic Party that is grounded in reality – the “big kids in the room” who care about policy outcomes and rely on charts, graphs, and experts to advance a vision of a technocratic utopia.  Instead, what we are left with is a party succumbs to the politics of the moment at every twist in the news cycle.  Instead we are left with a party that refuses to accept a shred of responsibility for the outcome of the last election, placing blame solely on a foreign government.  Instead we are left with a party that, when faced with overwhelming evidence that they need to make wholesale changes, has steadfastly refused to do so.  We are left with a party suffering from mass delusions.

The big story of the last six months has been Russian “meddling” in our election.  From all appearances, this meddling amounted to a propaganda campaign, using information that was stolen from the DNC.  There’s no indication that vote tallies were changed or that the propaganda campaign had any discernible affect on the outcome of the election.  Still, with each piece of breaking news related to this story, the hysteria is palpable.  It’s now the norm for all of us to hear the reaction to breaking news before we bother to understand what the news actually is, coloring how we perceive that news.  Everyone is convinced that there is something huge underneath all of it, but no one can tell you exactly what that thing is.  It’s exactly the “hype-fest” that President Obama referred to – we are being driven by an urgent need to respond to crises before we even know what those crises are.

So how are Democrats responding to this new landscape? Well, exactly as you’d expect:

Former DNC Chair: Russian Election Hacking An ‘Act of War’

Democrats step up calls that Russian hack was act of war

Cory Booker: ‘The Russians Are Attacking our Democracy and they will come again’

Tim Kaine: Trump Jr. may have committed treason

Begala:  We Should ‘Debate Whether We Should Blow Up’ Russia

So after all of the failures of 2016, the Democrats – our supposed left-wing party – have settled on a new party platform:  Cold War 2.0.  And it’s not as if this doesn’t have any short term political value – it clearly does.  By painting the current president as illegitimate, they help ensure that he can’t accomplish much in the short term.  And there’s good news on that front:  This president and congress are deeply unpopular, as are literally every policy that they’ve proposed.  Their poll numbers are dropping and the prospect of a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in 2018 has become very real.

In the long term, however, Democrats clearly have a messaging problem.  We already have a party that plays the “America First” card to great success.  We already have a party that wraps itself in the flag and accuses the other side of being in league with the enemy.  We already have a party that is, by and large, interested in renewing Cold War-level hostilities with the Russians (See McCain, John).  And the thing about Republicans is that they’re good at that shit.  It works for them.  When Democrats do it – think Dukakis riding a tank or John Kerry “reporting for duty” in 2004 – it looks stupid.  And for a party that struggled in 2016 to tell the American people why the fuck anyone should vote for them, you’d think that they’d be interested in finding ways to differentiate themselves from their opponents.  Instead, they’ve chosen to embrace the language of the national security state.  Instead, they’ve chosen a pernicious form of flag-waving nationalism as a sort of placeholder for any actual policy that could effect positive change in the lives of Americans.  Instead, they’ve decided to double down on their 2016 message of “you’re doing just fine, and we’ve got the charts and graphs to prove it” with the important caveat that a vote against them is a vote for Vladimir Putin.

By embracing the language of the national security state, Democrats are making a choice.  And where do you think that takes us?  Which direction do you think the consequences of this choice will fall?  Has there been a single instance in our short history where the language of treason and sedition have been used to advance an agenda of positive social change?  Has there been a single instance where these politics have not been eventually been used to punch left?  By putting faith in our military and security apparatus, Democrats are sending a clear message:  they don’t have a vision.  They don’t care about your future.  They spent the entirety of the 2016 campaign studiously avoiding taking positions on anything, and they’re hoping to continue that strategy for the next three and a half years because it worked so well for them. When you’ve convinced yourself that  your past failures are all the fault of a foreign entity, why change things up?  What could possibly go wrong?

The last six months have made it crystal clear that very little has changed in the Democratic Party since 2003, when they voted en masses to invade Iraq. They are still a party that is defined by a distinct lack of courage in everything they do. They are still slaves to the hysteria of the moment, terrified to look weak on defense or earn the ire of the military-industrial complex. And here’s the problem with that:  Conflicts between nation-states don’t always happen because countries actually, you know, want them to.  Often times, major conflicts happen because actors on both sides back  themselves into positions that they can’t back down from, and an unforeseen crisis brings both parties to the brink of open conflict.  With the American and Russian military increasingly engaged in close proximity in a widening proxy war, the odds of one of those unforeseen crises rises every day.

So my question is this:  If push comes to shove, who’s going to put on the brakes when the calls come for our leaders to do something?  Who will be working for peace when the overwhelming consensus coalesces behind war?  Who will be able to see past the hysteria of the moment?

I really hope we don’t have to find out any time soon.

Terrell Johnson, RIP


Last week, Portland Police shot and killed yet another man.  The usual descriptors for victims of police violence apply here:  Person of color.  Homeless.  Mentally ill.  Possibly drug-addicted.  He didn’t sit down when he was told to.  He ran away instead of complying with verbal orders.  He was “armed” with a box knife, which carried with it a death sentence.  He was shot multiple times and died on the scene.

 Any time something like this happens, a deliberate and concerted public relations campaign is kicked into gear within the Portland Police Bureau. They’ve had a lot of practice at it, and there are rules to be followed. This year’s most egregious example of police violence, the execution of 17-year old Quanice Hayes, provides us with a clear outline of how these rules are put into practice:

  • Rule #1: If there is a piece of evidence that makes the shooting appear justified, it will be released immediately. That’s why, when Quanice Hayes was killed in February, the police were quick to release a former mugshot (which was not public record because he was a minor) in addition to a photo of the replica handgun he had allegedly been carrying the night before he was shot.  That’s why they released every sordid detail of his alleged behavior before he was confronted by police.  That’s why, when rumors started spreading that Hayes had been shot in the back, police immediately released a statement saying that he had been shot three times in the chest.  Because these pieces of information bolster the police’s version of events, there is no restriction on when they can be released.
  • Rule # 2: If there is a piece of evidence that makes the shooting appear unjustified, it will be withheld pending the completion of the investigation.  If the police’s initial statement is wanting for details, journalists and citizens are informed that the information cannot be released due an “ongoing investigation.”  That’s why we had to wait until the Grand Jury transcript was released to learn that Andrew Hearst, the officer who shot Hayes, didn’t even see the replica handgun on Hayes’ person before he shot him to death.  In fact, Hayes was not even carrying the weapon – it was found in a nearby flower bed. This information was only released after the officer had been acquitted of all charges – almost six weeks after the shooting itself.
  • Rule #3:  The media will do your dirty work for you. This is why, soon after Hayes was killed, headlines referred to him as a “man.”(They have since been changed)  This is why they posted his mugshot next to a photo of that replica handgun with every headline, despite having no information from the police as to the role of that replica in the incident itself.  This is why they dutifully reported the police’s version of events before the grand jury transcript even came out.  This is why we didn’t see a single editorial in a major Portland publication critical of the police’s conduct in this situation despite the intense public outcry, which involved protesters repeatedly shutting down City Hall meetings.

So what does PPB’s conduct in the Hayes shooting tell us about their likely conduct in this latest incident?

Here’s what we know about the night in question: Someone called 911 on Johnson because he was behaving erratically at the Flavel St. MAX station. Police responded, confronted him, and soon after he ran away from them.  They pursued him, but what happens next remains murky.  From PPB’s official statement:

As Officer Ajir and Deputy Ajir arrived, Johnson ran from the officers — first westbound on Flavel then back eastbound before running northbound on the MAX bridge over Johnson Creek.

Officer Ajir was in close proximity to Johnson when Johnson displayed a utility knife prompting Officer Ajir to fire his handgun multiple times, striking Johnson. After Johnson was down on the ground, additional officers arrived and approached Johnson with a shield for officer-safety, then began rendering immediate medical aid until paramedics arrived. Paramedics determined that Johnson was deceased. A utility knife was recovered from the scene.

Reading closely, the word that immediately jumps out from this statement is “displayed,” which was chosen very deliberately.  Saying that Johnson “displayed” the box knife is vague enough to elicit a variety of images in the minds of the public, but innocuous enough to encompass a variety of largely harmless motions as well.  Rule #1: If there is a piece of evidence that makes the shooting look justified, it will be released immediately. Because of this, we can assume that if Johnson had drawn, pointed, or otherwise threatened the officers in question with his “utility knife,” there is an approximately 100% chance that the police would have mentioned it in their official statement.  The fact that they chose the word “displayed” tells us that none of these things actually happened.

Rule # 2: If there is a piece of evidence that makes the shooting appear unjustified, it will be withheld pending the completion of the investigation.  This is more difficult to assess.  In order to do so, it is important to note which questions the department’s statement did not answer.  Namely, where on Johnson’s body was the utility knife “displayed,” and what the fuck does that even mean?  Even more importantly, how far was Officer Ajir away from Johnson when he decided to fire his weapon?  Put another way, at what distance did he determine that this box knife was such an imminent threat to his own life that Johnson’s life had to be sacrificed to save his own?  The fact that we don’t know the answers to these questions likely means one thing:  The answers do not display the officer’s actions in a positive light.  We will only find the answers to these questions once the officer has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Rule #3:  The media will do your dirty work for you.  This rule was on fine display here.  The Oregonian, Portland’s paper of record, led with the following passage in their initial reporting (emphasis mine):

The man who died in an officer-involved shooting Wednesday in Southeast Portland threatened the officer who shot him with a utility knife, prompting the officer to shoot, police said.

The first headline for this piece – which has since been changed – also said that Johnson “brandished” the box knife before he was shot.  Of course, there is absolutely nothing in the official police statement saying that Johson “brandished” the knife or “threatened” any of the officers with it.  The statement was deliberately vague, because the Portland Police Bureau understands fully that many local reporters are nothing better than stenographers for the powerful, who share their belief that those who reside at the bottom of society lack a sort of basic humanity.  The police obfuscated in their initial report because they knew The Oregonian would do the rest of their dirty work for them.

The reason for this public relations strategy is clear:  Every American knows the generic fairy tale of a typical police shooting: Our brave police officers were responding to a situation involving a human who, for a variety of reasons, did not deserve to live. These brave officers responded to the situation using the utmost restraint until they feared for their lives and the lives of their fellow officers, and only then responded with lethal force.  Immediately after a shooting, the police selectively release information, and the media and will fill in the blanks well before the full story sees the light of day.  Kill, rinse, and repeat.

 We all know what will happen here.  Officer Ajir is getting a paid vacation, at the end of which he will be cleared of any wrongdoing and allowed back on the street.   Mayor Wheeler, Chief Marshman, and City Council have done their jobs as they see them; and their message to every officer on the street is loud and clear:  You can kill with impunity.  We’ll have your back.

The Bullshit Factory

I’m going to complain about work a little bit here, so I should start by saying that I have what I can only describe as the best job that anyone could ask for.  But throughout my time in education, professional development and trainings have always rubbed me the wrong way.  I’ve always found them to be both devoid of useful content while also operating as a kind of circle-jerk where educators stroke each other’s egos.

Over the course of this school year, the staff at my school has participated in a series of trainings on something called “Trauma-Informed Care.”  Here’s the gist of it:  Many students experience severe trauma at a very young age:  chronic hunger, rape, abuse, neglect, etc.  A child’s brain has no idea how to process these things, so it goes into overdrive and produces all kinds of hormones.  Over time, these hormones have a drastic affect on the brain’s structure and chemistry.  Because of this, many of the behaviors that students exhibit later in life are a result of physical damage to their brains as much as emotional.  A teacher or social worker who is “trauma-informed” will be better able to recognize and respond to these behaviors than a teacher who isn’t, hence the training.

Unfortunately, even a topic like trauma-informed care – which treats the student as a victim of circumstance whose behavior is often times beyond their control – gets siphoned through the bullshit factory and ends up taking on a fundamentally conservative tone; one that manages to instead blame the students and their culture for their behavior.  By the time it reaches our ears, the content of these trainings are injected with pop psychology terms like “growth mindset,” which is a fancy way to say that students are in fact making a conscious decision to have a negative mindset towards school.  In this worldview, students’ behavior couldn’t possibly be the result of factors outside of their control such as crushing poverty or an educational system that’s actively trying to disenfranchise them.  So why is it that a science-based, progressive theory around how students learn been transformed into into the same old conservative lecture on the value of personal responsibility?

First and foremost, there’s clearly a disconnect between the types of people who conduct trainings like this and those of us who are in the classroom every day.  For obvious reasons, the kinds of people who leave the classroom to become administrators tend to be more conservative than those of us who stay in the classroom.  And the longer they stay away from a classroom, the more conservative they become.  As a particularly egregious example, the person charged with running our training session last week brought some of her own personal experience with trauma to the classroom.  She talked about her daughter, who recently got in trouble at her small private (!) school for wearing nail polish. Her daughter had been called into the principal’s office, and she had come home very upset.  That’s…. it.  The person who was training us on how to be better educators values public education so much that she doesn’t deign to expose her child to it, and her understanding of trauma itself is so vacuous that she thinks that having a bad day qualifies.  She’s not alone – a lot of administrators move out of the classroom because they resent the kids who attend public school, and couldn’t possibly take a moment out of their busy days to consider the baggage that students come into their classroom with.  These views are fundamentally opposed the the very idea of trauma-informed care, and yet somehow the people who are conducting the trainings are able to hold these contradictions within themselves without spontaneously combusting and bursting into flames.

The other reason these trainings lose all of their meaning is because of their audience.  When you’re presenting to a group of teachers, one of the easiest ways to kill time is to get us to talk about how difficult our jobs are.  So instead of discussing responses to trauma that our students experience, we end up talking about “vicarious trauma” and “organizational trauma,” which are things that teachers experience when we have tough students or when we have administrators who don’t back us up… or something.  We discussed these forms of supposed trauma far more than we discussed anything related to the students we work with.  In this way we transform a discussion that is supposed to be about our students into a conversation about ourselves and the struggles that we face trying to educate them.

Finally, it’s hard for me to avoid the conclusion that there is a religious element that pervades professional development as a whole.  This is true of all professions, including teachers.  Let’s say you’re a classroom teacher who views yourself as Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society or Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds.  Now let’s say that despite that belief, your day-to-day job involves a distinct lack of revelatory, life-changing moments for your students or for you.  How do you maintain your fundamental belief in your transformative power as an educator?  In much the same way that religious people go to church in order to maintain connection to a God they cannot see, educators go to conferences and trainings to ritualistically worship an idea of education that doesn’t exist in the real world.  It’s why these trainings, year after year, all seem to come back to the same mantra – “We do good work, the students are the problem.  We do good work, the students are the problem.  We do good work, the students are the problem.” If you say that often enough, you’re likely to believe it, despite everyday evidence to the contrary.



Self Interest Is Not a Virtue


In this week’s dose of depressing/demoralizing/disheartening news, we came to learn that Barack Obama is accepting $400,000 from a Wall Street firm to give a speech at a health care conference.  People have been rehearsing the arguments around this type of behavior for a while now thanks to Hillary Clinton’s failed run for the Presidency.  In fact, we spent so long debating this behavior it would be remarkably easy to assume it’s normal (it’s not).  During the election, I often found myself arguing that it doesn’t have to be this way.  I even went so far as to confidently assert that Barack Obama, for all his flaws, would never engage in the same kind of rent-seeking after he left office.  Unfortunately, I underestimated the extent to which pursuing one’s own self-interest in this country is not only regarded as inevitable, it’s actually considered to be the necessary and decent thing.

Obama inspires a lot of loyalty, and as a result a great many people have defended him against the criticism that has come his way after this news broke.   The general theme of this defense has been: Of COURSE he’s cashing in.  Wouldn’t you?  Others have engaged in impressive fits of fancy, whereby they imagine Obama going to this conference to speak truth to power and dress down the Wall Street Bankers for wrecking the economy.  In this telling, he’s taking the money, but only because he knows it’s the only way to access these guys to defend the American people.  Some have taken it yet further, arguing that the only reason people are upset is because they can’t handle the idea of a black man making a large amount of money.  So within a 24 hour time span, defending Obama morphed from the serious, furrowed-brow adult opinion into the morally upstanding position that all non-racists must have.  Even in this day and age, that’s a pretty quick turnaround.

All of this, of course, misses the point.  There is a deep level of distrust in our political system right now.  Republicans have had electoral success despite the fact that every single one of their non-racist policy proposals are deeply unpopular.  As a party, they’re transparently corrupt, and only interested in finding ways to funnel government largesse to their friends and political supporters while immiserating the poor.  Democrats, on the other hand, are the party of effective management, whose platform is basically “You don’t have it so bad, and we’ve got the charts and graphs to prove it.”  They don’t have a positive policy vision because they think things are pretty much fine the way they are.  The two parties really are different in some important ways.  But here’s the thing: for the average voter, these differences do not matter.  Your typical “uninformed” voter believes – not without evidence – that the parties largely exist to represent the interests of the ruling class.  So the question for Democrats is:  Do you have even the slightest interest in changing that perception?  It looks like we have our answer.

By and large, the people you’ll see defending Obama are from a similar set.  They’re generally younger, educated, middle class folks who tend to vote Democratic come election time. (I count myself as part of this group) And it’s not coincidental that many of us from this subset are going through a time in our lives where we are making choices that involve giving up on some of the more idealistic ambitions that we had in our 20s.  We are, for a variety of perfectly legitimate reasons, pursuing our own interests, trying to start families, yearning for a predictable, regular paycheck.  As we navigate the job market, we are bombarded relentlessly with a crystal clear message:  It’s time to give up your idealism.  You thought you were going to work in public service?  Too bad – the pay is shit and those stable public jobs we told you about are being systematically destroyed.  You thought you’d find a job in the private sector that is both invigorating and rewarding?  Too bad – you’re now an independent contractor with no benefits who can be fired at any moment for no reason.  You want to work at a non-profit?  I hope you like kissing up to rich people!  Every day, the market for our services presents us with small choices:  we can do the right thing, or we can do the thing that is expected of us. And every time we decide to do what is expected of us, we give up a little piece of ourselves in service of our own bottom line.  

Over the years, these choices compel a kind of conversion inside of us.  This isn’t just the cliched and inexorable march from idealistic liberalism to pragmatic conservatism, it’s the story we spin for ourselves about that conversion. You see, it’s just not possible for us to go through life convinced that the choices we’ve been forced to make have been the wrong ones.  We come to believe that those choices were a result of our superior agency.  We’ve decided that not only is sacrificing the right choice for the necessary choice the adult thing to do, it’s the right and virtuous thing too.  Over time, answering the question of whether or not something benefits us becomes the central consideration in determining whether or not we are making a moral choice.  

Its no wonder, then, that people from my subset of society find themselves jumping to Obama’s defense for cashing in.  We’ve been conditioned to treat the pursuit of one’s self interest as a virtuous quest.  It’s not as if we, who are also virtuous, have been broken by a system of perverse incentives that have led us to be cogs in a horrible machine of large scale death and immiseration.  No, that’s not it – we are wise and virtuous, we know things.  Above all, we know this: If we were in Obama’s shoes, we’d be doing the exact same thing.  Wouldn’t you?

Sending A Message

An idea that’s so drenched in testosterone that it will likely never be untangled from the military or law enforcement is that you can somehow use disproportionate force to “send a message” to an opponent and thereby dissuade them from fighting you.  It’s why a police Department in Florida released this terrifying video of masked policemen “sending a message” to drug dealers.  It’s why Portland Police have a hard-on for showing up to peaceful protests boasting both superior numbers to the protesters and military-style riot gear.   It’s why the “shock and awe” air campaign that targeted Iraq in 2003 gave every male cable news anchor covering it an immediate on-air erection.

It’s not as if this idea is absent on the left either – there are plenty of people who think that if Richard Spencer just gets punched a few more times, racists will be afraid to leave their homes.  It’s why Antifa protesters are showing up at Pro-Trump rallies wearing masks and carrying baseball bats.  Fortunately for these folks, the left doesn’t have the power of the state behind them.

Yesterday we were provided two examples of this mindset on the national level:  The US Military detonating the largest ever conventional bomb on a supposed ISIS tunnel in Afghanistan, and the Trump Administration mulling a military strike on North Korea if they conduct another underground nuclear test.

What do they think is going to happen here?  Are our enemies just going to retreat into a pool of their own tears?  Will they put down their weapons and start singing America the Beautiful?  Will they admit defeat and walk around with slumped shoulders and eyes facing the ground for the rest of their days? 

I suppose I’m making a mistake in assuming that resolving conflict is the ultimate goal of these kinds of exercises.  For law enforcement and police, that conflict is what defines them.  They want war, and they’ll be happy when they get it.  What comes after isn’t so much unanswered as it is unasked.  What it means for the people in harm’s way remains to be seen.