A Game Democrats Can’t Play

Democrats are at a disadvantage in a game where the other side casually, nonchalantly breaks the rules and doesn’t get punished. Such selective impunity is emblematic of how lopsided our current political discourse is. A Democrat gets punished for an unfortunate slip of tongue, a minor, inconsequential protocol violation where a Republican, no matter how badly compromised, can always count either on a loud, wide-eyed support or a quiet shrug of the shoulder. Democrats, true to their small-d democratic creed, with their commitment to equal representation, are obliged to feel and display compassion even to those who openly hate them. Hillary was forced to display contrition to those who chanted ‘Lock Her Up’, because she understood democratic norms all too well. Democrats, in their attempts to be and be seen as fair arbiters, are thus forced to be adults in the room. But by being adults they thus close many doors – tactical and strategic – that Republicans punch open with their foot without a second thought. As much as I would like them to, Democrats can’t be like McConnell if they ever find themselves in a position of a vacant SCOTUS seat and a majority. The paths that are open for Republicans are all but closed to the Democrats due to our different temperaments and understanding of the stakes involved. For the GOP that stakes are quick tactical victories; for Democrats the stakes are less tangible but more consequential: the democratic processes, the civic discourse, the health and survival of the Republic.

This is the reason why I don’t want to blame misogyny on Hillary’s loss. Republicans don’t have problems with women in power as long as those women are Republican. Hillary lost because she was a Democrat not because she was a woman. The only way where her being a woman came into play is that she respected the rules of the game. It’s a woman’s trait. Many women have tales where they ostensibly, religiously follow the rules in their own personal and professional lives, only to be outdone on the finish line by a freewheeling, smirking brat. But then the same is true of any democratic politician – the respect for norms, the adherence to the rules, appropriate consequences for transgressions. As a Democrat Hillary played by the established norms, by the old rules while the other side dispensed with civility while demanding civility from her. Hillary had no choice but to oblige. She had to cross the abyss on the thinnest of ropes, while her opponent was drunk driving a Camaro on the empty parking lot.

The first impulse would be to advise Democrats to start breaking the rules and norms the way GOP has been doing for decades. This is not a good idea if only because Democrats can never be as good at this game as the Republicans. We would get disgusted and get the foot off the gas pedal just at the time when the right-wing loud mouths are only getting into the groove. We police ourselves too well, given the swift outrage coming from our own ranks if one of us gets out of line.

I think what Democrats can do for now is to learn to mind the context. Bill Maher slip of tongue happen not because he’s a white supremacist who’s hiding under a civil mask, but because he wanted to make a point, however clumsy, in the service of a progressive cause. We have to learn to forgive our sinners the way Paul Ryan forgives Trump. Bill Maher, or any careless leftie’s words won’t deprive millions of people of their health care. Standing up for our own are just baby steps that must be taken before we can even come close to pulling the McConnellesque legislative coups.

However tempting it is to want to jump into the mud ring, I think we have to slug it out as the adults in the room. If we decide to finally employ to the same dirty tricks as the GOP has, we will end up like the eager party goers who were finally let into the nightclub at 4am only to find all the liquor has been drunk, all the fashionable crowd gone and DJ wrapping up the equipment. We can’t outclown the clowns. And by the time we decide to play dirty that game will become so old and tired that Republicans will decide to put their ‘sober statesman’ suits on and play a different game. We should not let them. We’re the fucking sober statesmen. That’s our turf.

Chris Cornell, RIP

If my wings should fail me, Lord, please meet me with another pair.

As devastating as the news of Chris Cornell’s death today was the fact that in his final performance just yesterday in Detroit he closed the show with the rendition of Led Zeppelin’s ‘In My Time of Dying’.

For years, I can’t get this song out of my head; it has a prominent place in one of my screenplay’s pivotal scene.

This song is so haunting and its lyrics are so visceral that one would be a fool, while entranced by the song and plunged into the depths of contemplation, to rank it on any scale of favorites. Songs of that caliber, that kind of deep reach and hypnotism are in its own class. It would be silly and glib to call this song as a ‘favorite’. Its value can not be measured in aesthetics, in the same way a religious chant can’t be described simply as a recitation of words.

It is harrowing that this song was his last choice on the stage. RIP, Chris.

But enough with the profound.

How about this brutal social commentary. More than 20 years old but still relevant.

In The Vice

‘In the Vice’ is my first film project. It’s a short film that I wrote and produced. My friend Stavroula Toska directed. We wrapped up a one day shoot yesterday in Madison Square Park.

The main character is a female bond trader who comes out of an office tower to do some personal business – an illicit transaction – in the park. During the exchange with the little girl, who is a counterparty of that transaction, the woman, for a very brief moment, begins to doubt her life choices. But that moment of clarity doesn’t last as she soon reverts back to her business mode. Thus, she’s stuck or, in other words, ‘in the vice’, from which she can’t get out.

IMG_1770

I am particularly excited with the depiction of her ‘moment of clarity’. That moment comes in a form of a homeless man. Naturally, as a big Led Zeppelin fan, I had to find a way to use a subtle (or not so subtle) reference to the band and to its mythology. If I can’t use their music, I can use their imagery. An allusion to an old man – an iconic image on the album IV cover – did the trick.

Everyone will interpret this vision of a bum in many ways and this is fine; there’s no wrong way to think about it, even if one doesn’t get the LZ reference. Some may think this is just a juxtaposition of power and money vs poverty. Others may think that she’s afraid to end up like that guy and thus is forced to get back to her racket. My personal interpretation is that the old man represents our internal true self that we work hard to hide from the world, an innocence that we lost when we jumped on the corporate treadmill.

It will take about a month in post-production and editing. Then off to festivals.

Certitude vs Doubt

I find it interesting that many Republican politicians, upon leaving public office, undergo a curious transformation. Their right-wing fervor subsides, they mellow out and turn into normal, reasonable, even compassionate human beings. Look at Bush II and Schwarzenegger. Such post-factum metamorphoses don’t befall Democrats; retired Dems don’t become hardline pro-life, supply-siders and foreign policy hawks after leaving office. Such ideological shift is a purely Republican phenomenon. I won’t be the first to conclude that right-wing politics is a total act, a show. Fox News would be a prime example of such a glittering, buffoonish arcade, selling Tarot reading to the gullible. In fact, this ‘total act’ theory holds up if you look at how any of the GOP and its satellite outfits operate: they put on a show to sell you a product.  And when a right-wing pundit or a politician leaves the racket he doesn’t have to be a salesman anymore. Thus the subsequent mellowing. A John Kasich is more likely to become a hippie upon retirement than a Chuck Schumer to become a hardliner. Democrats believe in their product, thus they have no need for a later change of heart; Republicans merely use their product as a tool, easily discarded when no longer useful for business.

 

Right-wing politics is an act that doesn’t require special training. All it requires is a projection of certitude. Perhaps such certitude is why it is easy, for a liberal, for the sake of argument or for fun, to assume the role of a conservative. We can make ourselves sound like Bill O’Reilly without any effort. Hell, a Fox News personality is an easy game. To take it a few notched up on a difficulty scale, any leftie in my circle can provide a lucid, informed argument, quoting both dead and living conservative intellectuals and sound like William F. Buckley in the process. Normally, they would be talking about personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, etc. They would be quoting Burke, Hayek, Ayn Rand, Grover Norquist, etc. We’d talk about the deterioration of traditional values and sound like Frum and Brooks and Charles Murray. Of course, that doesn’t mean we would agree with the argument we were making; it means that we are informed enough to be able to make it, to assume that kind of mindset, to see where the other side is coming from. An average informed liberal, if asked, can defend conservatism better than an average conservative. We just don’t want to.

 

Conservatives are incapable of a similar role-play. A conservative’s attempt to play a liberal would quickly deteriorate into making an over-the-top caricature: “Let’s put all the disabled Muslim lesbians on welfare; let’s abort all babies; let’s take all the guns away!” Conservatives are incapable of speaking the language of liberalism, even for the sake of gamesmanship, because that language eschews simplicity. Liberalism is an awareness of the essential duality of a human nature. If conservatives made an honest attempt to speak liberal, honest being the key word, it would make them pause and ponder, which would then prevent them from engaging in a half-assed, mocking affectation. (Btw, that also explains why the majority of actors and screenwriters are lefties: they are required, by their trade, to ponder what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes). A conservative worldview, like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, is a rather simplistic, one-dimensional realm where bad guys are bad and the good guys are good. A well-written conservative character, on the other hand, would, through a personal accident or a personal flaw, begin to see others’ humanity, not just his own. A priest who doubts the existence of God; a Wall Street shark who finds Jesus – you get the idea. Real life makes that happen to a conservative, but not before he leaves the circus for good. On twitter I follow several former Bush staffers and GOP operatives who don’t hold any public office anymore, and all of them have undergone a massive turn of heart. Today they sound like bleeding-heart liberals, talking about helping the poor, forgiveness, compassion, etc.

 

A thoughtful argument of a conservative trying to imitate a liberal would go something like this: Personal responsibility is a great idea, but there will always be people among us who will need help. As a society, we can’t leave them on the side of the road. Free markets is also a good idea but they can’t function properly without at least some regulations: the vulnerable must be protected from the unscrupulous and the contracts need to be enforced. These functions need government interference. Abortion is bad, but banning it is antithetical to individual liberty – a revered conservative notion, btw. Religion has a place in society but should be kept private and if you must bring it up in public life, focus on its calls for mercy rather than on a watchful, vengeful Deity.

 

To come up with these arguments a conservative would be forced to think about a particular circumstance, an individual story, a person behind the statistic. But nuance and ambivalence don’t sell. Simplicity and certitude do. Today’s Republicans operate on such a contrived certitude; they claim to know how things should be, and the reason things are not this way is because the pure, unentangled experiment in their minds has not yet been tried. If you point out that it has, like in Kansas, they will counter that we should just give it more time. Paul Ryan knows, just knows, that health care for every American is a certain road to serfdom. Why? He just knows.

 

If Paul Ryan were to write a story, his main character would be devoid of a pensive, wistful state. If that character were to find himself thinking, it would be about how to maximize profits or defeat the baddies. His life story would be a cookie-cutter amalgam of hard work, overcoming adversity, becoming rich and driving into the sunset in a convertible. There would be no underlying theme, no personal struggle, no moral ambivalence.

 

For the foreseeable future Republicans will keep successfully selling their product; they have perfected the trade over the decades and they have a talented salesman. In the meantime, Democrats can ponder about the following narrative: an effete hipster from Brooklyn moves South, buys a gun and becomes a badass.

 

International Women’s Day: what do we celebrate?

I often think about the shortage and/or inadequacy of our modern-day female role models. Most of the celebrated women today are business leaders or performance artists. I find this a grossly unsatisfactory selection. The above occupations carry an implication of self-enrichment and self-promotion, both of which are self-focused. Both types love to talk about how they juggle their jobs and motherhood, as if that juggle would be possible without household help, performed by working-class women, lacking ambition, smarts and/or good looks. Sad!

I’m a collector of alternatives. There must be other ways beside being a ‘Lean In’ type and a half-naked ass-shaking performer.

This morning in my Facebook feed I stumbled upon a collection of suffragists’ photos from the early 20th century. One stood out for me: Charlotte Despard – an Anglo-Irish suffragette and activist.

Just look at the character and the energy coming from that old lady. The only person I can think of who, today, can display such combination of convictions and nonchalance, is Elizabeth Warren. Old, implacable, opinionated hag. Most women are afraid to become one, so they prefer to shield themselves with professional achievement or cool dance moves.

Now, compare this turbo-charged vitality of 80-year old lady to this:

Empty, psychotic eyes on the left; same empty eyes with cleavage on the right.

Both represent achievement as we understand and celebrate it in modern terms.

But there is a third way: it is to refuse to participate in the con. The system won’t improve if more women, like the two above, will succeed in male-dominated fields. It is when we stop focusing on narcissistic self-empowerment and, like that spirited old lady direct our focus outward.

For Trump’s spokesmen, the inflection point has been crossed.

“The bullshit piled up so fast in Vietnam, you needed wings to stay above it.” Captain Willard. “Apocalypse Now”

I sometimes wonder how does Kellyanne Conway, the woman who thinks that journalists should be fired for critical coverage of Trump, and other Trump’s spinmeisters sleep at night. The people who surround Trump, you can call them many names, but they are not stupid. Kellyanne is not stupid. It is, in fact, thanks to their intelligence, that they’re capable of performing impressive logical leaps with a straight face. But the proximity to power alters one’s thinking. More than a decade ago, the similar intoxication with power prompted Karl Rove to utter the now infamous “we make our own reality.”

There are, of course, usual political obfuscations and smokescreens for any political administration. Those are understandable, as any administration tries to portray itself in the most favorable light. One can recover quickly from the spin once the administration’s term is over and one moves on to a think tank and a cocktail circuit: everyone knows you weren’t serious, it’s part of the job, hahaha, pat on the back. But then there’s a point of no return when a spokesperson begins to spin the easily verifiable truth, like dispute a picture taken during the march or a comment made on tape. It is naïve to expect that Kellyanne will snap out of it when shown evidence, because it’s too late for her: the admission of being wrong would be more embarrassing than continuing to dig in her heels. What are the rewards for admitting being wrong? She would have to apologize and then perhaps even explain how she suffered a lapse of judgment and that she was only doing her boss’s bidding. It’s just too humiliating. Digging one’s heels, however, offers rewards: a paycheck, access to power, protection. And the more you spread lies, the more vulnerable you become, the more you need all of the above. It’s too late for her, even if she were suddenly to have an awakening, to stop lying. If she stops lying for her boss, she will be left out in the open, with liberals, like zombies, devouring her. It’s like in the mafia – once you kill somebody, you’re bound to the cause once and for all. There’s no walking back. Thus we hear more and more outrageous statements from her: the maintenance of the deteriorating situation requires even more breathtaking spin, not because she herself believes it; but because she can’t afford to appear as if she doesn’t. She has to continue to ‘believe’ it for her own wellbeing. Given that it’s only week one of the administration, and we’re already at ‘journalists should be fired for criticism’, I wonder what she and others will do to come up with new ideas for a spin. With every passing day this shit more and more resembles the late Soviet Union (pozdny Sovok). Which means the end is nigh.

How to Proceed?

To build up on my previous post, below are some ideas on how to proceed with the described strategy.

You know how right-wing orgs masquerading as non-profits are actually fronts for peddling various products (Ann coulter books, gold coins, herbal ED cures and such), thus essentially operating as a business? It’s a smart scheme, they are sly motherfuckers.

We, liberals, have principles, and it would, rightly, horrify us to use dirty tricks to promote our agenda. I never saw us using our email lists to sell shit, for example. We are, indeed, better than that. So what to do?

I say we don’t have to compromise our integrity and still play a good, solid game. It is a game, btw.

In a nutshell, the strategy comes down to this: If you want to make money, structure it as a non-profit (that’s the GOP way); if you want to start a non-profit, structure it as a business (that’s our new way).

Right away, you can see many advantages of such approach.

Structure it as a business, a simple LLC, and you don’t have to disclose anything to the public. You’ll have to pay taxes, but remember, it’s essentially a non-profit, so we won’t be making any money, so we will just be reporting a loss. You’ll just be burning through the initial capital. Then, when the money runs out, close the LLC and start a new one.

The beauty of this is obvious: it’s totally legal, it uses the same schemes that Trump and many of his appointees have been exploiting for decades, and if anything enjoys the best protection in this country, both verbally and in practice, it’s business.

The LLC structure is a brilliant one. It does not have to file any reports with FEC, like many political non-profits do; it doesn’t have to disclose any information about who the founders are and how it operates. So people like Alex Jones could be told politely to fuck off. I mean it’s a private business – a sacred American institution, beloved by both Paul Ryan and Trump. An attack on a small business is an attack on America. This is how we should frame it. Now, juxtapose this approach with that of Acorn and Planned Parenthood – both of which were subjects to vicious attacks and pranks where one of them had to shut down eventually. There will be no pranks and intimidation here. What are you gonna attack? We have no office, no staff.

If some nosy investigator wonders about the nature of our business? We sell artsy stickers. Now, fuck off. Yes, we’re losing money, sure, but, why does that concern you. Are we allowed to have a bad year?

Initial funding can be done the old fashioned way – through multiple donations, or via, like, kickstarter, or by enlisting a couple of wealthy people willing to kick in 10-20K, just so that then they can giggle mischievously and tell good stories at cocktail parties.

Another beauty with this approach is that we’re not selling anything. With my ‘political billboard’ idea, the passing motorists will be intrigued about what it is that we’re selling. Propaganda, many will conclude. Wrong. Doubt. We sell doubt. This country is a fertile soil (thanks to GOP) for doubt.

We’ll be using the same tricks that GOP operatives used against citizens for decades against them.