After the election we heard a lot about how things were going to get crazy, and that we really needed to pace our outrage. It would be all to easy, we were told, to get real fired up for a couple of months and then slip into a lackadaisical acquiescence of our dystonian reality.
“Yeah right,” we said. “Not me. I’m in this fight for the long haul.”
And then it happened. I’m not sure whether it was reassurances from some courts that reason could, conceivably, prevail, or additional despair over a run of luckluster progressive challenges in whackjob special congressional elections. Maybe we just saw something shiny, like, work, or something, and just sort of spaced out for a while. I stopped reading the news for a couple of weeks, and before long slipped into that familiar normalcy that comes so easily to armed white males in western states.
If this doesn’t sound like a recipe for another prolonged, directionless military foray into the middle east, I don’t know what does.
And so it’s time to renew drafting young Americans for combat roles, and to get us thinking a little bit more critically about how we spend the lives of our youth.
There’s a popular idea that the US military ranks are filled by minorities and the poor. And as convenient as that would be for this blog post, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Numerous studies have hinted that military demographics are approaching national demographics. And while the majority of enlisted recruits do come from households with below-median incomes, it isn’t as dramatic as you might think. The same is true for minorities; while blacks are slightly over represented in the armed forces, it isn’t completely lopsided.
Certainly, compulsory military service would address the issue of whether or not the armed forces are representative of the population. But I’m not convinced that ballooning our military would be effective in encouraging thoughtfulness in our armed forays. (It seems most likely that it would create a lot of expensive, cush, redundancy and mission creep within the military).
Rather, a new draft for combat roles would use intermittent reinforcement (if it can be used to train dogs, why not an electorate!) of the notion that military engagement really is a big deal. With the draft comes the persistent specter that our friends and loved ones (or ourselves!) will be snatched and away sent to die.
A reinvigorated draft for fighting men and women will not swell the ranks beyond what is necessary, but it will force an awareness and care for how those ranks are deployed. When considering prolonged military intervention we need more skin in the game. A regular draft is the way to ensure that we all pay attention to where and why we’re starting wars.
He was a five and a half foot parolee who resembled, in a grotesque, hilarious kind of way, a perfect blend of Danny DeVito and Saddam Hussein. He stood below my shoulder, wore a thick, bushy mustache, and each morning sometime before noon would clod down the stairs to the office in ill-fitting gym shorts and a bedshirt that drooped over his swollen midsection like a dropcloth across an easel.
He had convinced each of us, his three employees, to commute across town to the home office in his basement. It was the recession, work was hard to come by.
Each day our routine was simple. We’d arrive around 9am and punch paper timecards in a mechanical clock. We would pour out yesterday’s cold pot of bad coffee and make another batch, and form a crooked semi-circle around the glowing orange dot as it crackled and hissed and filled the room with the acrid smell of weeks old pre-ground Yuban. We’d each fill a cup of sour coffee and slowly race to check the emails.
Email, by this time, was well established. It was firmly in place as the standard for general business correspondence, and most people could get it on their phones. But The Man Upstairs insisted on a permanent record, a hard copy for the file, and so each morning we sipped on burnt coffee and printed emails. Paper copies of the electric mail were then laid out, indexed by client, subject, and time-of-arrival, on a folding table that overlooked the office where they waited for our leader’s arrival.
He would arrive by 11 on most days, pounding dramatically down the steps to groan loudly about how late he had been up the night before, working diligently for our cause. “All I do is work,” he would lament, “I need a vacation.” Mornings, as a rule, were hard on the man.
But his spirits improved slowly as he quaffed Bailey’s and coffee and sat down to behold the analog mail (a-mails) before him. He worked his way through the list and scrawled hasty responses on each sheet of paper, and handed them off to each of us to be interpreted and transcribed. We were to type responses, print drafts for review, make necessary edits, receive secondary review approval, and send the missives into space.
We had games. One was to transcribe The Man Upstairs’ chicken scratch word for word, so that the draft reflected the real insanity that we bore witness to each day. “WRONG. Sharon ppty different section/zone. New prop revise now.” My preferred diversion was to sneak technically correct but lewd sounding words in and see if he would catch them. Intercourse. Erect. Turgid. You understand. Other times I just played Solitaire.
But so each of these games of course added another step to actually communicating, and by the time he made it through the list, new a-mails had appeared on his desk as replies came pouring in, ostensibly from laptops and iPhones as others were out to lunch.
Ours was not an efficient way to use email. So when The Man Upstairs would declare, “I’m so busy. Busy, busy, busy.” and strut around our damp basement office, it was hard to take him seriously. But then some time around two in the afternoon, the script would change. “I’m important,” he would say. He really said that, in a squawking, nasally voice, “I’m important.” And before long it was clear to us that of course he had not worked all night, and of course he was not busy (at least on billable things), but that he really was hard at work constructing a narrative in which he was relevant. Important. Irreplaceable.
I began to feel for him, to a point. And then, eventually, I began to notice that we’re all doing the same damn thing. That “busy” is, collectively, our canned response to “how’s it going?”. That “busy” insinuates productive, successful, essential. And that “busy” insulates us both from doing things we don’t want to do, as well as from telling the people who invite us to do those things the truth: that we’d really just rather not go do that thing.
Yeah, we’re all busy. There are stacks of emails and paperworks that aren’t about to do themselves. But it’s probably not really the default that it’s become. A closer look might show that you’re not all that busy, but have a pretty good idea of what you don’t want to do.
Next time you hear yourself saying, “ah, I’m busy,” maybe think about that. Do you really have things you need to do? Or do you just not want to do that thing that’s staring you down? Because if it’s the latter, it’s ok to just say “no,” and go spend your time on something worthwhile.
We all value the news. Even those of us who aren’t all that interested in wonky policy discussions or granular breakdowns of just how the new healthcare law is screwing us over, the news media is where we turn for the latest celebrity gossip, exciting pho recipes for a Friday night in, and which of our neighbors have been arrested for DUI.
We love it. We breathe it. Now more than ever, under the current administration, the line between news and entertainment can be incredibly difficult to find. For instance, if you Google ‘trump nuts’ you find a remarkably diverse first page of results. Amid a sea of clickbait from the right as well as the left we have a smattering of pseudonews from ostensibly reputable sources right next to legitimate news from someone with the Twitter handle @GayWonk.
Near the bottom of the page we have think pieces from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Rolling Stone. The only thing notably missing is pornographic Photoshop work – even the images tab doesn’t yield anything more interesting than this:
These truly are exciting times, and material support for national scale journalism is the highest in recent memory. The New York Times is on pace to add a precedent setting 500,000 new subscribers in the first half of 2017. The New Yorker and The Atlantic both grew their circulation by more than 200% in the first quarter of this year. Even regional players like the Boston Globe are setting subscription records, and public radio stations from coast to coast have seen contributions skyrocket.
And so when I tell you that journalism is under attack, and that it’s losing, you can be forgiven for your incredulity.
And certainly, recent reports of ‘fake news’ influencing the 2016 election, anecdotes of waning attention spans, and Baby Boomers’ collective confusion about what the hell Buzzfeed is have contributed to the notion that the Cronkite Days are over. The Pew Research Center confirms that the perceived credibility of the news media dropped precipitously from 2002-2012, even while accounting for partisan divides. The sensation is real.
In spite of an actual, literal attack on reporting and waning credibility, a different study sheds light on the most pressing threat to a well informed electorate.
The report shows that newspaper circulation has remained essentially flat, albeit with a slight descending trend over the last decade or so, and in spite of rapidly decreasing ad revenue, parent companies have remained generally profitable. This has been possible through culling reporters.
But it goes deeper than that, and for this we need a case study. For that case study, I propose Montana, because I live here. In this state we have, like, 7 cities: Missoula, Bozeman, Helena, Billings, Great Falls, Butte, and “The Flathead” which is essentially 3 or 4 towns that have oozed together in the absence of any kind of zoning regulation. Each of those cities have a local daily newspaper.
These newspapers are the only real resource for local and regional issues. Anyone can turn to the New York Times to keep tabs on that knucklehead in office is up to or mass murder in the desert, but in order to stay informed on the very real issues playing out in state level elections, we have no place to turn but our local paper.
Transparency and accountability in our elected officials is, after all, essential to even a barely functioning democracy*. And both transparency and accountability rely on a news media that at least pretends to be actual journalism.
But in the face of waning ad revenue, newspapers have been consolidated to pool diminishing resources and increase value to advertisers. And it turns out that four of the 7 “actual” cities in Montana (Missoula, Helena, Butte, and Billings) are home to local daily newspapers that are owned by Lee Enterprises, a $760 million media conglomerate. And according to opensecrets.org, which tracks political contributions, Lee Enterprises has been a generous political donor – giving nearly 90% of its contributions to Republican candidates and causes.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Editorial oversight and the publisher’s duty to pay the bills are separate. That is sanctimonious. As a counter point I offer you the recent endorsement by three of the four (Lee owned) editorial boards in Montana’s “cities” of Greg Gianforte in the upcoming special election to fill Ryan Zinke’s newly vacant congressional seat.
And again, I’m pretty sure I know what’s going through your head. It’s probably something like, “That Gianforte? The one who’s running as a ‘science and technology’ candidate, but is on the record as believing that Jesus and the dinosaurs were contemporaries? The same dude who sued the State of Montana to challenge our unbelievably popular stream access law? The guy who keeps getting caught on tape selling us down the river to lobbyists? More than once? That guy? Really?” Right?
Nevermind that the Democratic candidate in this election is hardly a diamond in the rough. These papers are more than free to forego an endorsement. The Missoulian’s editorial on the issue hinged essentially on the idea that Gianforte is marginally better equipped to effect some policy, any policy at all, really, regardless of ideology, than his adversary Rob Quist. That was really it. Here’s a direct quote:
“When asked whether he agrees with the scientific consensus on evolution and the approximate age of the Earth, his answer was “I can’t honestly say because I wasn’t there.” That answer, coming from an engineer, is revealing – and deeply troubling. He absolutely must not allow his ideology to drive his public votes on things like science funding.
Gianforte’s views on women’s issues are similarly troubling. He would de-fund Planned Parenthood without any acknowledgement of the life-saving and quality-of-life-improving work done by this organization, or any plan to provide that care to women who would be left without a provider if Planned Parenthood were gone. He needs to understand that nearly half of Montanans are women, and he must represent their interests and not just his own.”
That’s from a fucking endorsement. Let that sink in.
Conservative dollars are consolidating the local and regional news media that are solely able to cover local, regional, and state candidates. These are the small, flyover races that have seen millions of dollars in campaign spending from centralized conservative groups like Americans For Prosperity, the Koch Brothers funding machine.
The journalists and reporters holding officials accountable are, by and and large, honest, hardworking men and women of integrity. But with corrupted leadership and spineless editorial oversight, we’re watching right now as the foxes move in to guard the hen house.
Readers and voters need to dig deep in order to find credible reporting, or turn to independent journalism. This can come from citizen journalists (some of whom have credibility issues of their own), or from independently funded news media. The Missoula Independent, for instance, is a free weekly paper known for high quality long form reporting on issues across Western Montana.
But limited resources means these smaller papers can’t get every scoop. Just two weeks ago reporters and staff at The Indie read in the cross town daily that they had just been purchased by Lee Enterprises.
*or republic, if you get off on pedantics. also if this is a distinction you feel strongly about I give it 60/40 odds you follow at least 2 men’s rights activists on twitter
I’m not usually one to tell you what to do, but for right now I’ll make an exception. You should really watch more television.
And I know what you’re thinking. That’s so classless. Television? Please. You probably don’t even own a television. You prefer to bingewatch Veep while huddled over a tiny, smudged laptop screen.
See, TV spent the last few decades getting a bad rap that isn’t really deserved. In the 90s and 00s it was all filled with Jerry Springer and Judge Judy and whatever the hell Friends was. Court shows and paternity tests passed as entertainment. Laugh tracks ran unchecked. If you wanted to simply sit quietly and immerse yourself in artful writing and production you had to turn to the silver screen.
But now, see, television writing has emerged as our era’s choice for haute culture. From The Sopranos to The Wire, True Detective* to Bored to Death, television has emerged as a haven for screenwriters who care. The theater is where you go now to buy $25 popcorn and get shot at, or at least sneak in beers and think about how much more comfortable you would have been at home. You don’t have to wear pants at home.
Movie production budgets have gotten so obese that to break even the films themselves need to cater to the lowest possible denominator and we’re seeing a race to the bottom. It looks like this:
Television is picking up the slack and deserves our attention.
I mean, can’t we just get on with the book burning already and just turn on HBO? And actually, why can’t someone else burn the books for us? Is that just another Millennial being lazy? (tk new argument for open borders: inexpensive book burners. could it be automated?) Now that we can skip commercials I can’t really find the time to go out and stir the embers.
Generations, you know, are kind of clumped together by a sort of vaguely shared world view. We’re shaped by the conditions into which we’re born, reared, and attempt to acquire a mortgage loan. There can be stark contrasts from generation to generation, and we frequently look back at once banal behavior and think “good god what were we even doing?”
Like, how did humanity survive the 60s? Martini and cigarette lunches counted as a prenatal lunch. We clear cut and strip mined pretty much the whole damn place, because, you know, fuck it, right? Asbestos just went in everything. We had a bunch of idiots push us to the brink of nuclear war to save face (can you imagine?).
When we look back at foolishness in the past, it’s easy shrug it off as folks then not having known better. But then if we look at the way we live now – what do we take for granted today that won’t make any sense tomorrow?
Here’s an idea:
Sledding – If you grew up anywhere north of, say, Omaha, then you saw some pretty real shit on the sledding hill and this needs no explanation. If you grew up in the south, then you might have to do a quick Google search for “sledding accidents” to get a feel for what we’re talking about. You’ll find the “News” results heartbreaking and the “Video” results hilarious.
Fireworks – We have to take our shoes off in the airport, but you can just go to the store and buy a goddamn bomb. For like $5. This is the kind of incongruity that can only stand for so long, and I’m not holding my breath for the shoes issue. Also Tannerite is still for sale over the counter but the grocery store hides the Vanilla Extract behind the customer service desk. Really?
The Whole “Car” Thing – Our dependency on/infatuation with cars doesn’t make any sense. Photographs of rush hour traffic, one hundred years from now, will look as ridiculous and short sighted as clearcutting the redwoods:
Disposables – Packaging, clothes, toys, bikes, diapers, car seats, cars, phones, plastic silverware, paper plates, food containers, cups, water bottles, computers, etc. etc. We’re in a culture that’s paired a globalized economy with marketing platforms driven by planned obsolescence. Everything is disposable and that doesn’t really make any sense.
The Apathy – The big thing, though, is that previous generations have gotten away with things like the Berkeley Pit, Jim Crow Laws, and industrial deforestation on folksy charm. On this idea that they didn’t know any better, that they were fundamentally well meaning people, doing the best they could with the information they had. That doesn’t fly anymore. Ours is the first generation that’s on the record as knowing better. Some people in the past saw changes coming, and some folks now legitimately don’t get it. But collectively, as a whole, we’re the first generation with a working understanding of how our actions shape the global landscape. Our legacy will be whether or not we do anything about it.