Let's level-set where we are today, September 21, 2020:
There is not nearly enough room to go through the extent of the American carnage wrought by the corruption, cruelty and incompetence the Trump Administration and the GOP enablers that have turbocharged the damage.
I've just read three pivotal Trump insider books from Mary Trump, Michael Cohen and Bob Woodward, each of which from different perspectives, carefully document the worst things you can think about Donald Trump and his utter lack of fitness for the job he's in. For all of it, the page after page of outrageous observations, the insight that sticks out for me is one from Michael Cohen, who gets to the heart of why Trump wanted to run for President in the first place. According to Cohen, a consummate insider who always was in the room, it had nothing to do with serving the country, building a movement or taking some ideological stance. It was to be "the greatest infomercial in the history of politics."
People are dying. Institutions are collapsing. Global treaties have been torn up along with our sense of common cause and common decency. Our environment is becoming more toxic every day, not just to humans, but to all life on earth. All the consequences of a brilliant con artist who (again, quoting Michael Cohen) thought it would "be cool to be president," and pulled together a branding campaign that he was sure wouldn't really hurt anyone or lead to the Oval Office. Like most of us, Trump expected to lose, then close the real estate deal he was making with Putin for his dream hotel in Moscow.
Ever since I can remember, the biggest fears were annihilation from nuclear war. The threat was made very real every time I flew under my desk during those random "drop drills." When my family moved to California, the big existential threat was earthquakes. And getting into the wrong crowd. And taking drugs, especially bad drugs.
Who knew the biggest threat to human existence would be marketing?
Yet here we are. Addictively feeding toxic algorithms on faceless Facebook and Twitter. Living in fact-free Russian created, Q-bubbles spouting conspiracy theories that would embarrass the most limber Hollywood action/conspiracy writers. We're trained monkeys. Trained to buy things we don't want or need. To measure ourselves against unattainable standards of beauty and wealth. We're never good enough, smart enough, rich enough or thin enough. Which primes us for a sociopathic carnival barkers like Donald Trump, who knows how to catalyze our collective unworthiness into a mindless mob that denies the daily deaths that are so close to us all and the flames that are incinerating ecosystem after ecosystem. A mob that denigrates science and expertise and makes excuses for the most venal of lies--even in the face of videotape proof to the contrary. It's an easy exchange. A society conditioned to "need" more stuff, more "likes," more "me" can be easily traded off for corruption, repression and absolute power under the guise of individual freedom and "draining the swamp." So long as they are pointed to "those people" they can fear and blame. The casualties are rest of us, objective truth, expertise and the laws and mores that make America truly great.
We're all stunned that this is happening all at once. But if we were paying attention to our world, we shouldn't be. Rachel Carson, James Hansen, Bill McKibben and virtually every climate scientist on the planet have been warning about this day for decades. Jimmy Carter had it right in the late '70s, which was the last opportunity to systematically pivot and solve the climate issue. The climate scientists called the sequence of events and the timing we're experiencing right now almost perfectly. First Australia, then California. Point of no return, 2030.
But our marketing mindset makes it impossible to accept anything that doesn't accrue immediate value to the "mighty me," no less make the radical moves and sacrifices that are necessary, right now, to assure survival of our species. Instead, we're being deliberately polarized and enraged keystroke by keystroke by algorithmic technologies triggered by foreign adversaries and our own bad habits. For as individualistic as we like to think we are, we're an easily stampeded herd. We're trapped by our own reflexive consumer selfishness on the one hand, and by a planet that is protecting itself on the other. We cannot give up the drug of endless entertainment and self-actualization. At the same time, IRL we are living too close to native habitats and are exposed to animals and viruses for which we have no defense. Add our unchecked consumption habits and refusal to embrace the new technologies we already have, and we're headed into a period of global chaos, if not the brink of extinction.
Joe Biden said the other day (paraphrasing) that Covid was "too big" for Trump to handle. In the context of global warming, Covid is a small beta test, which we've clearly failed. The destruction of our environment is paralleled by the destruction of the governmental agencies that can save it. For every burning acre, there are decades of knowledge, infrastructure and expertise being burned to the ground in the Trump' Administration's homicidal pursuit of dismantling the mythical "deep state." The big test is here, right now. And we're clearly failing that, too.
It is Day Four of the Democratic national Convention and while this is the first Zoom/Webex/Skype meeting in US history, it's had some unexpected, positive consequences. We got to see 50 states in the virtual nomination roll call instead or a bunch of drunken conventioneers wearing funny hats, pushing and shoving to get air time. It enabled us to have an appreciation for the diversity, not only of our people, but of this incredible land that we're blessed to live on. It was something to celebrate at a time when there is so much pain, tragedy and division. You would think we'd be unified about our incredible landscape, wouldn't you? Maybe not...
Biden's campaign theme and strategy is based on decency and normalcy, neither of which has been in great supply during the past 20 years, no less the last four. The metamessages were pretty clear too: We're better than this. This crazy quilt of people, backgrounds, ethnicities and skills are what's always made America great. And finally, all this is under existential threat and worth fighting for. We're all in and all in this together, because if we're not, William Butler Yeats becomes even more prophetic,
"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
In some ways, this was as much about media as message. Without histrionics of 20,000 people and the need for speakers to command a chaotic room, this convention was far more thoughtful and intimate. By necessity, we were one-on-one with each speaker, not at all influenced by camera angles, intensity of applause, or cutting to reaction shots of the crowd. It was pure. It was direct. Whether it will be successful as a campaign tool is yet to be seen.
Political strategists often talk about trying to encourage confirmation bias for their candidates and their ideas. Much of that comes from crowd reactions--people seen applauding, waving signs, and talking together--which is why mass-media TV remains a more powerful advertising medium than one-to-one digital media. When lots of people support a candidate, that in itself is validation. Which is why Trump is so addicted to his rallies--he gets instant confirmation that his every narcissistic utterance is good and right. It's the living version of the dopamine hit people get when their social media posts are liked and attract thousands of followers--on a grand scale.
so, on the eve of what promises to be perhaps the most brutally negative and polarizing convention since the South seceded from the Union, it remains to be seen how media as a vehicle will play. Initial post-DNC polls show Biden holding steady and not getting a big bounce in preference, but gaining significantly in enthusiasm. Wonder how much of that was due to the presentation, not the content--one can only imagine what might have happened if the same themes were delivered in a room of 25,000 people.
It remains to be seen how this will play for Trump, who's base is set in concrete, much like his hatred and contempt for our country, its laws and mores. He needs to bring new people in, not activate an insurrection if he's going to win. From what I can gather from the pollsters and pundits from both sides who know these things, there is about 6%-8% of voters in play--Trump needs everyone of them. But his tactics will makes that virtually impossible. It is clear that he's conceded any chance of winning a legitimate election and is working overtime to ensure the entire process is either deemed illegitimate or that the process itself is so broken that is simply cannot function. He's been crystal-clear about his intentions. Why he hasn't been locked up for sedition at this stage in a mystery.
Author, comedian, former hedge fund manager, lifelong New Yorker, James Altucher wrote a gut-wrenching epitaph to his beloved city in a recent article in the NY Post, in which he declared the most vibrant city in the world "dead forever." I was in the city last Fall, just a few months before Covid. If New York was facing terminal conditions, they were terminal affluence and complacency. It was Epcot, a Potemkin city with the sheen and veneer of perpetual superiority. With more than pep in its step and the swoosh of Armani meeting Louis Vuitton, New York seemed all the world like the nexus of power, progress and creativity. That it would be proclaimed "dead" a short six to eight months later was unthinkable.
Yet here we are. Altucher reads the tea leaves of the city's current plight and they're not promising. Ninety percent of the city's hundreds of millions of office square footage are empty and not likely to be refilled any time soon. New York's famous for many things, not the least of which is its restaurants. More than 60% are closed, no telling how many of them, permanently. Cultural fixtures like Broadway, museums, jazz clubs, concert halls, art galleries, dance clubs and neighborhood hangs are closed, suffocating any chance of keep the city's metabolism working at its usual high speed.
Most of the people who can leave, have left for garden spots like Florida, Denver and Phoenix. Sure, Phoenix is spread out and it's cheap. But I've spent a lot of time in Phoenix and well, it's Phoenix. NYC rents have cratered. Celebs like Jennifer Lawrence are taking multimillion dollar hits on the sale of their condos just to get out--something unthinkable a few months ago. With vacancies comes price reductions and depression. With vacancies, neighborhoods die and crime escalates.
Of course, New Yorkers boldly claim this is a short-term circumstance--New York always bounces back. After all, neighborhood establishments like Jonah Shimmel's (above) have seem WWI, The Spanish Flu, the Depression, WWII, Vietnam, the Crack & Mafia '70s, 9-11 and Hurricane Sandy come and go. NY will survive Covid, and it always bounced back, so goes the conventional wisdom. But Altcher isn't so sure and points to the real culprit: better bandwidth. He writes:
"In 2008, average bandwidth speeds were 3 megabits per second. That’s not enough for a Zoom meeting with reliable video quality. Now, it’s over 20 megabits per second. That’s more than enough for high-quality video. There’s a before and after. Before: no remote work. After: everyone can remote work.
The difference: bandwidth got faster. And that’s basically it. People have left New York City and have moved completely into virtual worlds. The Time-Life building doesn’t need to fill up again. Wall Street can now stretch across every street instead of just being one building in Manhattan.
We are officially AB: After Bandwidth. And for the entire history of NYC (and the world) until now, we were BB: Before Bandwidth. Remote learning, remote meetings, remote offices, remote performance, remote everything.
That’s what is different."
For decades, the march of technology has gobbled up whole pieces of the human experience: Commerce, engineering, creativity, music, photography, painting, meeting with friends, large-scale manufacturing, journalism, objective truth, travel, education. That a simple seemingly innocuous tech spec like increased bandwidth would so quickly and completely subvert one of the most sophisticated cities in the world is shocking, but it should come as no surprise.
It is important to remember the larger context of the times we live in. We are in a period of radical adaptation, not merely social political and institutional cyclical change. Since the advent of the PC, every digital advance, from Ethernet to 3D printing and Quantum Computing has not been just another step-up in capabilities, but a more robust way to preserve ourselves. As a species, we're clearly threatened by the climate holocaust our past technological advances have wrought. It was 130F in Death Valley yesterday. California had a rare "firenado," a tornado caused by a fire so big and hot, it created its own huge funnel cloud. Thousands of acres in Iowa were devastated by a Derecho, a rare inland hurricane. These events are not random, but are quickly becoming the norm with greater frequency and intensity.
As all species of plants and animals are instinctively on the move, so are we. But in a very different direction. On a deep biological basis, we know we are going to have to be less physical to survive. The air will be toxic, climate too hot, energy resources, too scarce to just hop in a car or on a plane to see the sights, visit family and friends or do business. Like Maryland Blue Crabs that find themselves off the shore of Maine, we find ourselves migrating to a digital tier. Text replacing conversation. Zoom replacing conference rooms. Streaming replacing DVDs and CDs. Ablelton and Pro Tools replacing orchestras and guitars. 3D printing supplementing and ultimately replacing large scale manufacturing.
The speed of this transformation has more or less mirrored the rapid increase in greenhouse gases and temperature. But with the Trump Administration hostile to any consideration of climate change as part of its policies, humans have been losing ground. Until Covid. While pandemics have been planned for for decades and much of the devastation clearly predicted, the speed and potential finality of an event like Covid was clearly underestimated, in some cases, deliberately. That New York City would be almost totally unraveled in less than six months is the tragic consequence of callous ignorance on the part of our leadership on the one hand, and a lack of awareness and imagination as to the true fragility of our seemingly bulletproof way of life on the other.
Most of us will get through Covid. But it's a wake-up call. If we remain on the same path regarding climate change, no such assurances can be made.
It is far too early to tell, but at the moment it seems that wheels appear to be coming off an attempted authoritarian takeover of our government by the most venal and incompetent president in our history. If American democracy survives the onslaught of this Russian-backed sedition, we need to resist the temptation to overly congratulate ourselves and celebrate the strengths of our Constitutional protections. Yes, it's worth celebrating that we live to fight another day. But we need to double-down on reinforcing the structures and mores that make America truly great. We need not to only recognize America's strengths, but embrace the fragility that makes America what it is.
A quick story...
In 1993 (yes, I'm a vintage American), I worked for a communications firm that had deep political ties to the Clinton Administration. We had business with the Special Olympics in D.C. and my boss at the time thought it would be great if we could arrange a personal visit to the White House. "We can do that?," I exclaimed. Sure enough, the next morning we're walking through the metal detectors in the West Wing on our way to the Rose Garden to see the president and First Lady as they took off on Marine One to Camp David. As many a photo op shows, there is always a line of spectators who rim the Rose Garden to see the President take off. I thought we'd be there, and it was a privilege just to be that close. Little did I know that my boss had enough clout to get us into a personal receiving line where we would have more than five minutes, personally, to meet with both Bill and Hillary Clinton. I won't get into the specifics of those conversations, only because I was too overwhelmed to really remember them, except to say that both, especially Hillary, had the unique ability to make you feel that for the time that you are together, you are the only person they'd ever met. Had she been able to connect like that in a campaign setting, she'd have been our president, hands-down. But I digress...
The rest of the morning was spent on an intimate tour of the West Wing. The Oval Office. The War Room. The blue press briefing room. The nerve center of the Executive Branch. And here's the thing that some have written about but rarely emphasize: It's small. Despite the cinematic grandeur of the Oval Office, it pales in comparison to the office suites of most Fortune 500 CEO's. The War Room is a small-medium-sized conference room in most corporate settings and while the Press Room looks expansive in the movies, it's tight and confined.
That's because it's the People's House. A workspace for a temp job given to citizens, not royalty, who want to serve their country. Again, by no means, an original thought. But the one thing I did take away was how fragile our government is and how easy it might be for a narcissistic psychopath to subvert it and co-opt its power. The only reason we don't change leaders by sacking the White House and parading into the streets with our former leader's head on a pole is because we choose not to. The rights and privileges we have are conferred solely by consent and compromise, not by some overarching monarchic power that dictates who gets what. That's our strength, but also our vulnerability to thugs like Trump and ideologues like Bannon, Hannity, Limbaugh and Moscow Mitch. They know it's fragile and that we are complacent. They also know that with a continuous diet of fear and blame, it can be pushed over.
Which makes this period of time so critical in our history and why the most encouraging event for our democracy was when millions took to the streets over George Floyd. The miracle of it is that it seems to actually be working as a platform for tangible change and social awareness. I have a hunch why BLM seems to be sticking when other movements flamed out. It's because at heart, the vast majority of Americans are reasonable and committed to each other. The BLM movement has been careful and disciplined to not resonate as the 2020 version of the Black Panthers. There are no firebrand leaders like Eldridge Cleaver or Louis Farrakhan whipping up extremism and hatred. BLM's ask is simple, powerful and universal: Equal justice under the law. It's as fundamentally American as it gets.
The other reason is the steady, daily does of sensational madness and hatred coming out of the White House and the GOP that's reached a critical mass. We're exhausted. Tired of the show. In a state of battered disbelief that the President of the United States can support a crackpot "doctor" who claims that alien DNA is a thing and that the root of sickness is demon sperm. We're sick of the drip, drip, drip of meanness, blame, corruption and gaslighting that oozes into our news cycles. There was no question that George Floyd embodied everything about our polarities and choice about what kind of people we are and want to be. The protests are a primal scream against the bigotry, the literal crushing of individual freedom under the knee of power run amok. Against the murderous consequences of simply being black that has been a cancer in this country since its founding. That, coupled with a blatantly cruel, racist administration and Senate majority, our people, thankfully are choosing a path of justice. It's not over yet, but it's encouraging that more the two-thirds of us say "enough." The question is whether two-thirds of us will show up and say "enough" at the ballot box.
We're living in a collapsing tripod of tragedy, each leg of which is shakily holding up the other in an increasingly futile attempt at restoring "normal." The first leg is the virus: Today's USA Covid casualty count is 4.56M cases with 154,000 known deaths. If we take experts at Johns Hopkins and the CDC at their word (not a given these days pending which tribe you're a member of)), the real count is more like 50 million cases, a 10X increase due to the homicidal failure of our Federal leadership (sic) to institute aggressive test and trace policies, nationwide. Twenty-one of our 50 states are reeling from record case loads, overwhelming resource-impoverished hospitals and emergency rooms. Deaths are climbing by the day. Left in its current state, the virus is projected to claim about 800,000 US citizens by the end of the year.
But you wouldn't know it by the reaction in DC. Louis Gohmert, Congressman from Texas and one of the leading Alex Jones, Fox-addled troglodytes of the GOP caucus. He wandered this district and the Capitol without a mask lo these many months and, my whiskers and paws, wouldn't you know that he came down with Covid? In his infinite wisdom, he blames mask-wearing for becoming infected. Worse, he insisted that his staff not only show up physically for work at the Capitol, but not wear masks at any time. And Gohmert's and Trump's enablers in the GOP, Fox and the Alt-Right lunasphere are extolling the virtues of hydrochloroquine, alien DNA and Demon sperm with straight faces.
The second leg is the economy. By anyone's estimation and objective measure, it's worse than the Depression of the 1930s: 50 million unemployed, hundreds of thousands of small businesses permanently lost and fully 1/3 of our GDP down the drain in a single quarter. You wouldn't know this by watching the stock market take off to Pluto the last three months, or housing prices firm up in the face of potentially millions of mortgage defaults coming in the Fall.
The third and final leg should be the most sturdy but is the most precarious. The aggressive and specific assault on our democracy and the rule of law. There is so much here and all of it tied to the re-election of the first foreign agent and traitor to occupy the White House. National troops sent into US cities. Voter suppression. Demonization, tear gassing and clubbing of US citizens exercising the First Amendment rights. A president, not only refusing to say if he will honor the results of a legitimate election, but advocating for overthrowing one of the most fundamental Constitutional principles and delaying voting day. Eight unaccountable phone calls to Vladimir Putin in two weeks. Bill Barr stonewalling the Congressional Judiciary Committee, basically telling them to "pound sand" when being rightfully accused of enabling Trump's autocratic putsch.
We are a nation being savaged by elected anarchists, who's boldness and gall overwhelms people who cherish institutions. due process, compromise and common interest--the things that have made America great throughout its history. And they're not the ones with spray paint defacing the courthouse in Portland. They sit in the halls of the US Congress, in state legislators, in the blogosphere and run rampant and unchecked on Facebook. We have tolerated, nurtured and promoted the kind of ignorant rage-based anarchy that has germinated tyranny throughout history. We reap what we have sown.
Tom Nichols, a columnist for USA Today gets it exactly right:
"We long ago became a narcissistic nation whose citizens believe they can become competent in almost any subject by watching enough television and spending enough time on the internet. But I was certain that a true national crisis — a war, a depression, or yes, a pandemic — would snap people back to reality.I was wrong to be so optimistic."
"There is no one more responsible for this particular moment than President Donald Trump, but all he has done is play to a gallery whose seats were already full by the time he ran for office. Trump appealed to a powerful sense of narcissistic grievance among millions of Americans, nurturing it and feeding it. An entire claque of enablers joined in, knowing there was plenty of money to be made feeding this self-centered, anti-social nihilism."
And gets to the crux of the situation we face today:
"Americans who are now driving the pandemic are not sudden skeptics about masks or distancing or expert opinion because of street protests. Some of them reject expertise because of the previous “failures” of experts. This is always one of the reflexive explanations for the refusal to listen to the educated and experienced. Expert failures are real and happen every day, but the people who sullenly refuse to wear a mask during a pandemic are not doing so because the United States failed to find Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, or because the housing market crashed in 2008.
Rather, they are doing so because they see endangering others as empowerment, a way of telling people whom they believe look down on them that no one, no matter how smart or accomplished, can tell them what to do. For these people, our national motto is not “In God We Trust” or “E Pluribus Unum,” but rather: “You’re Not the Boss of Me.”
There is a lot written these days about total cultural collapse, which for many especially in the media who have spent the past three and a half years ardently tried to normalize the abnormal, seemed hyperbolic even a year ago. They, and our elected representatives, gave these people a pass, hewing to tradition and ignoring the possibility that Trump and the GOP really meant what they said. That what looked like treason, might actually be treason. Remember the excuse, "don't listen to what he says?" The message has been loud and clear, from Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin, Beck and Breitbart. Tear it down. All of it. The wrecking ball is swinging hard, knocking the legs out of what has always been an enlightened and fragile relationship between people and power. We'll just have to see which, if any, of the pillars of our society are left standing.
For whatever reason, I feel strangely optimistic about the cataclysm we're experiencing right now. Perhaps it's my way of expressing denial, but it seems that we're at the very beginning of a reckoning that's at least 30 years overdue. We've enjoyed three generations of sacrifice-free hedonism, entitlement and greedy self-actualization, without a hint of shame, remorse or consideration of anything bigger than our capacity to consume. Which is seemingly endless. Who's surprised by the noxious polarities in our politics or the acceptance of a blatantly corrupt, sociopathic conman as "Dear Leader?" Or that there would be finger-pointing from the GOP and Fox that the most deadly pandemic since 1918 would be a media concoction or a Democratic plot? We've become all transactional, all the time without the faintest regard for past or future or truth. It's bottom line or bust. Without a foreseeable profit or capital gain, we're a study in helplessness. The only collective skill we seem to have is proclaiming winner and losers. But given this virus, we're potentially all losers in this scenario one way or the other and that just wasn't what we signed up for. It's all due and payable, right now.
So as I sit here, self-quarantined in a mandated Northern California lockdown, I'm struck, not just by the ubiquity of the virus and the range of global terror it's causing, but by its immediacy and intensity. I manage a global team for a multinational tech company. I know what's happening in Paris and Singapore in real time, how my team members are coping with their restive kids who can't go anywhere and the limitations of what they can and can't buy in their neighborhood grocery stores. Ten years ago, we might have heard about a Paris lockdown and empathized, but it's Paris not Pleasanton. We'd feel badly, but go about our business, confident that the 7,000-mile distance is far enough to keep the bad stuff from coming here. But now, with instant global reach, we are Paris, Rome, Shanghai, Mexico City. Their experiences are our experiences.
The panic over toilet paper seems strangely universal--I saw people literally bolt out of their cars at Costco only to stand on line for an hour to get a chance at buying paper goods. Frozen food stocks were decimated, as were rice and pasta shelves. One couldn't buy antihistamines or over-the-counter sinus remedies for love or money. As if they'll do any good if God forbid, you get the virus. Good luck finding a box of Emergen-C.
What makes this so difficult to deal with is the scale. I've lived through deadly brush fires that came within a block of my home in Southern California. Been slammed awake at 4:30 a.m. by a 7.0 earthquake that rocked the house so hard, it felt like it was thrown off its foundation. I've lived through race riots where mobs of angry people lit up businesses for miles. But these seemed contained. And as horrific as each of them were at the time, they were local and comprehensible. It's hard to fathom that in a week or so, there may not be a single restaurant operating in the civilized world. It's the universality that is overwhelming, making it hard to see any daylight that might lead to a solution anytime soon. That leads to despair, a sense of powerlessness and the stark realization that nothing, simply nothing, will be the same 12 months from now.
February 8, 2020
Shawn Colvin is a treasure--few people crystalize beauty and the agony of futile alienation better than she does. A relentless optimist burdened by the tragic detritus of a life lived clearly on the fringe, she tosses out phrases like the one I stole for this headline as effortlessly as she can traverse her three-octave range. And every time she does, it hits a nerve of reflection for me.
This week, especially. In the past seven days, the following has happened;
Most importantly, we weren't angry.
But that's no longer the reality we live in. With unlimited wealth and access to instant "information," we've gone off the rails. The technology that was supposed to bring us together has Balkanized us into a multidimensional place of micro-tribal warfare where minute differences are seen as major transgressions. Vegan vs. omnivores, Alt Right vs every non-white. Dodger fans vs Giant fans. Our differences used to make us interesting, but now they can end up with lethal consequences. Loneliness is rampant as is a growing suicide rate across the US demographic spectrum. We wanted to shed the gatekeepers as an intellectual matter, but as a practical matter, the constraints to bad behavior are only as strong as we honor them. And in this demagogic, fear-based climate, all bets are off. We have avatars and pseudonyms that enable us to say things that no one would say under their real names or face-to-face.
So at the risk of contradicting a 25 year-long career of fostering, launching and promoting new technologies, I think we should shut it down. All of it. And if that's not possible, the cinch up Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple into the tightest regulatory scheme ever conceived. After all they're media without liability. They're the proverbial "Fire!" in the theater without acknowledging that their theaters hold billions of people. They've become cesspools of hatred and fraud without contrition or concern that what they do can have catastrophic impact on people's lives, their political systems and livelihoods.
When Roger Maris smacked number 61 over the fence, we lived in a world where everything was possible, no matter how humble your beginnings or who you were. The astounding technical capabilities we now have come at a terrible price. That of decency and spirit. Because at the end of it, technology has no goals other than self-actualization and maximization of efficiency. Apparently, neither do we.
It is impossible to process the torrent of cataclysmic events the past 24-48 hours and it just keeps coming:
Climate holocaust. A prelude to potential nuclear conflict. Corruption at the highest levels. Overthrow of our Constitution and rule of law. It's today's Four Horseman, tomorrow's will be different. Soul sick. Welcomed to the Roaring 20s.
Happy New Year!
Reporting live from the left end of the universe... About two years ago, I got recruited by a global tech company to come onboard to lead their worldwide consumer marketing effort. Flattered beyond belief, stunned such an amazing opportunity would be offered to someone clearly careening towards his dotage and presenting yet another wardrobe change in a life that can be best characterized as chameleonic, I considered the offer for about 45 seconds and moved up to Silicon Valley.
For the record, I knew the company well and as a consultant/brand guy, had done ton of business in the Valley for decades. Yet despite the successes and high level accesses these projects produced, never quite felt that I was part of it. You know, that statement I always get backwards: "Being in it, not of it." Or is it, "Being of it, not in it?" I chalked it up to geography, being from the dreaded SoCal working in blessed NorCal. Yes, there is a blood hatred for SoCal in the North, especially Hollywood. It's a fact. I never understood it and a few years ago, asked a veteran Silicon Valley CEO/VC to explain it to me. He said it like this (paraphrasing):
"Hollywood and Silicon Valley hate each other because ultimately, they're the same. In the Valley, two guys and Labrador work in garage, create some code, get financing, pound on a business to get to an IPO. They get to liquidity, divorce the wife, buy a boat. They'll wait a couple of years and do it again. In LA, two guys and Labrador write a script, recruit a director and a star, get financing, make the picture, make millions, divorce the wife and buy a boat. They wait a couple of years and do it again. One is academically sophisticated and covert. The other is culturally outlandish and overt. Problem is when they meet each other, they realize they're the same guys don't like what they see. The hyper-smart Valley guys think they're more pure because of the complexity of the work, but they really covet that Telsa and Panerai; the hip LA guys realize they're not cooler than the nerds in the Valley, just better dressed."
Interesting theory. Either way, the net is trillions of technology-shifting, culture-shaping dollars that flow like a torrent throughout the state of California, onto its bless-ed residents and into every nook and cranny of the civilized and soon-to-be-civilized world. With so much influence, raw capability and resources, one would expect that no problem on any scale would be insurmountable given proper focus. And you would be wrong. That because Californians for the most part, South and North, live in a cornucopia of complacency and choices without any need to sacrifice one scintilla of anything anyone has. In affluent CA, we firmly believe we have earned the right to be trivial.
Which is why at least in NorCal, it is almost impossible not to trip over someone's value system, no matter what you say or how benign your intent might be. For the record, you can find a lot of the same people in SoCal. Maybe it's geographic dispersal or people in LA have more of a sense of humor, it's just not the same. To wit:
Wear an Eddie Bauer jacket into a store in Los Gatos and you'll get the stink eye because 1) Eddie Bauer does not use environmentally pure materials and worse, 2) EB Corp. might have contributed to Trump's campaign. Up here it's Patagonia or nothing.
Ordering beef in a restaurant from a server who happens to be vegan can cause life-changing trauma--as my wife found out when she misread a caligraphied menu item The server almost went into convulsions when she heard the words, "I'll have the beef tartare" instead of the written "beet tartare." We weren't sure whether our Veganette was hospitalized or would return to our table.
It's doctrinaire that dogs are higher-level sentient beings sent from God to purify mankind. I love my dog, but I'm 100-percent certain she's not on a mission to save my soul.
Unlike every other city in the world where pedestrians are vigilant about traffic, pedestrians up here have no compunctions about creating multiple rear-end collisions by blithely stepping out into a crosswalk into active traffic. No, there aren't force fields that protect them or cars from banging into each other. When Kyle and Krissie step in front of moving traffic, they're complacent that because the law is on their side, nothing can happen to them, and because the laws of physics and the varied limitations of human reaction times are subservient to their God-given right to cross any street, any time..
It goes on and on, and it can be great fun to muse about interspecies issues like whether Pete the Duck in the Los Gatos antique store that posts the sign in the photo above has the right to discriminate against certain animals' access to retail, but the downside is deadly serious.
Our planet (and this state) is on fire and things are just beginning to literally heat up. We have emerging fascism in DC, and if not that, a concerted effort by the GOP to dismantle and delegitimize the rule of law and our Constitution. We are witnessing the biggest theft in human history in the transfer of public funds like Medicare and Social Security into an emerging US oligarchy. We have a president who is owned lock, stock and combover by a foreign enemy. This is not conspiracy theory, it's the leitmotif of the past three years. And yet the most socially aware, best educated, and most affluent people in the world are noisily engaged in smug purity tests. Depending upon who you talk to, depending on the location and context, "Go Pete" up here in the Valley could pertain as much to a duck as a potential presidential candidate. We need voices, coordinated, serious, unified and committed to overcome the inertia of the global holocaust that is potentially upon us. The days of worrying about where goose down comes from are a luxury we can't afford, especially when a good portion of the continent of Australia and 100s of million of animals and forested acres are perishing by the week in an out-of-control inferno. What happens when Silicon Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains have a month of +48C days and no rain for 9 months? Anyone worried now about Pete the Duck?
It's a bit of conceit among the "educated left" that, "We're on the right side of history." Gender, racial and income equality. The Green New Deal. Voting rights. Community action. All these things are laudable in the context of a healthy planet, capitalist economy and an orderly set of interdependent international relationships. But in the face of a global, inevitable existential climate event, are they even remotely appropriate? Is democratic action the best way to forge through a crisis of unprecedented magnitude? Or will the slow wheels of compromise and consensus grind us to a pulp as our inability to act decisively brings the world as we know it to an end?
A couple of perhaps unrelated, even crackpot conspiratorial, observations: When W took over in January, 2001, there were "secret" meetings between the Bush Administration and the heads of the energy industry, the substance of which has never been revealed. The policies that came out of that meeting broke considerably from predecessor policies and the arc of history. They made little sense other than when seen purely through the lens of greed and power. The liberals among us (myself included) assumed nefarious motives and a sweetheart deal to fatten the oil barons and corporate elite. We weren't wrong. They definitely got fat. So did the military and its contractors. But what if that windfall was the byproduct of something much bigger? What if you just took the reins of power and learned definitively, that it was too late for globally scaled energy transformation, that climate change was so far advanced there was little to do in the short-term but minimize the carnage to come. You might behave as Bush and Cheney did.
First, you would try to extend the inevitable energy shortage for as long as possible by increasing/securing supply (invade Iraq, initiate fracking anywhere and everywhere). The second thing you would do is create a lifeboat for the wealthy--the ones most able to survive, through tax breaks and sweetheart financial deals. The third thing you would do would be to weaken Constitutional protections. This is the most pernicious part--in a true climate crisis, people are going to have to be moved and categorized for their survival. Our rights will need to be eliminated for the "common good." I can't believe what I'm writing here and it's positively Hitlerian. But in the context of an extinction-level event, not all of us are going to make it and someone is going to make choices. I pray I'm dead wrong, but we may look back and see that Bush set the table, Trump's band of merry fascists have sat down to dinner to feast on our Constitution and the rights that it confers -- not because any of this matters to him, but because it's even easier to fill his wallet with our money. Either way the arc of history seems to be bending in an anti-Democratic direction
In order to survive the next 50 years, and perhaps as a species, we going to need highly centralized action. Political movements, and ironically technology, are trending this way. Democracy is under fire nearly everywhere. In the US, in Europe, in Asia and India as populations become more restive and hammer-locked governments fail to meet the needs of their citizens. Strongmen are ascendant as people clamor for concrete solutions, no matter the social cost. Technology has converged into FAANG--five companies, all propelled by massive data that in turn will be sliced and diced into AI-driven decision engines. It's not too much of a stretch to envision a future where AI proscribes which products you can buy and at what price. Which medicines you're allowed to take and how much exercise you must have to retain your insurance policy or qualify for government health care. AI will determine where you can live so the community can equalize the strain on the supporting systems like food, water, education and transportation. It's not too much of a stretch to envision AI elections, where Big Data fields candidates for public affirmation, not voting as we know it now. These candidates will have been vetted based on their abilities to meet the priorities AI identifies in our society. It will be based on cold efficiency not on party, celebrity, likability or any of the other quaint parameters we use now to determine our leadership. This pursuit of efficiency will overrule everything else. Not because we want it that way, but because we have no choice.
If the scenario laid out here is remotely true, Democracy as it has existed for the past 250+ years, sadly and ultimately won't work. It's too slow, too cumbersome and vague to meet the needs of the challenges ahead. So when we claim that we're on the right side of history, we might think again.