A new political vocabulary for a new political reality

None of these words are in this book.

None of these words are in this book.

As this 2016 presidential race has shown, 21st century America could use a new political vocabulary. We need some shiny new words, ones capable of capturing the subtleties and not-so-subtleties of candidate as well as voter behavior more precisely than shopworn Indo-European terms like “ignorant,” “deceptive,” “misguided,” “oblivious,” “gullible,” “narrow-minded,” “xenophobic,” “sexist” and “racist.”

I propose we start with these – if you have additions, send them on over and I might just add them. It’s the patriotic thing to do.

Caucacentric  adj.
Primarily interested in the well-being and advancement of white people.

Emotavoter  n.
One who votes based on emotion or general impression rather than objective reality.

Frustboozled adj.
The condition of having one’s legitimate frustrations co-opted by those with little interest in addressing/remediating the source of one’s legitimate frustrations.

Grayblind  adj.
Seeing the world in unrealistic, simplistic black-and-white terms.

Incendifriendly  adj.
Wont to embrace inflammatory, uncivil language under the false banner of standing up to political correctness.

Infoschemic  adj.
An information-starved state leading to brain-dead voting or policy behavior.

InFoxicated/DrudgeBarted  adj.
Reduced to a simpleton mindset by truth-twisting “news” sources.

Jerkstracted  adj.
Distracted from actual pertinent issues by a politician for whom no lie is too extreme to stop repeating.

Latinegatory  adj.
Disinclined to advocate for policies favorable to Hispanic Americans.

Misrealitied  adj.
Through some combination of inFoxication and underfactedness, living in an alternate political universe.

Newtonabob  n.
Characterized by a dismissal of scientific evidence contradicting one’s personal beliefs, favoring instead proclamations by infoschemic/spokescreening politicians.

Overcohered  adj.
A state of being in which one is incapable of thought independent from the prevailing notions of one’s political tribe.

Paredophilic  adj.
Fond of walls (Spanish: la pared) to be paid for by walled-off country.

Politobenthic  adj.
Occupying the lowest echelons of the national discourse.

Reactioninny  n.
Responding to observable ground truth in unpredictable, erratic and generally unproductive fashion.

Simpletempted  adj.
A delusionary state characterized by the belief that simple solutions can solve complex problems.

Spokescreened  adj.
A propensity to believe the lies of self-serving propagandists.

Status-quotidian  adj.
A penchant against change so predictable as to be boring

Theoillogical  adj.
Believing that ancient religious texts translate directly into workable policy in the digital age.

Timewarped  adj.
A state of a belief that the past was some golden age far better than the present.

Triberiotic  adj.
Placing the interests of one’s political tribe above the interests of the nation.

Trumpsteaked  adj.
Opting for a lesser product, having been deceived by verbiage hinting at a much better cut.

Underfacted  adj.
Basing one’s political posture based on emotions (see emotavoter infoschemic, misrealitied)

Wedgies  n.
Those whose voting behavior is dictated by their stance on wedge issues the person they vote for won’t do anything about anyway.

Xenomyopic  adj.
Incapable of seeing that other countries, in some cases, do things better than we do, and that we might actually learn from them.

Donald Trump and the O.J. Simpson playbook


Capping true stories with lies, a Trump mainstay, was central to the O.J. Simpson defense.

Donald Trump is coming to our Denver Lowry neighborhood today, to a rally at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum. Denver. A buddy of mine joked that we should maybe build a wall around the neighborhood. I said maybe we could get Stapleton (a neighborhood to the north) to pay for it.

I briefly considered signing up for tickets just to watch the show, the repressed reporter in me curious as to the scene and the people Trump attracts. But the novelist and shorts story writer George Saunders already did this, and his impressions and thoughts on the topic are gold-standard. My favorite line:

Above all, Trump supporters are “not politically correct,” which, as far as I can tell, means that they have a particular aversion to that psychological moment when, having thought something, you decide that it is not a good thought, and might pointlessly hurt someone’s feelings, and therefore decline to say it.

While Saunders does great reporting and is as insightful in this long-read nonfiction piece as he is in his short stories, neither he nor anyone else I’ve read seems to have pinpointed why some 50 million people are likely to actually vote for Donald Trump for president of the United States in November. So I’ll give it a shot here, with help benefactors to two killers — one fictional, one real-life — and the NRA.

Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher novels, puts us on the right track. In a recent, short piece having nothing to do with Donald Trump, he questioned whether the positives of our being such suckers for a good yarn outweighed the negatives (“Some would name us not Homo sapiens but Pan narrans: the storytelling ape,” Child writes):

Would Voyager be leaving the solar system if we hadn’t long ago formalized and mythologized our inchoate desire to wander?

But the bad things would not be happening, either. Every bad thing depends on the same two components as every good thing: people prepared to lie, and other people prepared to believe them. The habit of credulity, bred into us, albeit inspiring and empowering and emboldening, has led to some very bad outcomes throughout what we know of our history. From small things, like a father believing a son, to much larger things, like a billion miserable and terrified dead.

Which brings me to two terrified dead and the incredible story surrounding them, chronicled in the ESPN series, “O.J.: Made in America.” This five-part documentary is full of great stuff, but the recounting of the O.J. Simpson murder trial itself was most relevant to our political moment.

Here you have both components leading to Child’s “bad things.” There were people being prepared to lie — the Simpson defense team, which managed to cast doubt on overwhelming evidence (from wife-beating motive all the way to convincing blood-based DNA evidence) and help the man who once rushed for 2,003 yards in a single, 14-game NFL season beat a double-murder rap.

And you had people prepared to believe them — not just the jury, but also the African American public, some 70 percent of whom were convinced Simpson was innocent (roughly the same percentage of whites believed he was guilty; time has narrowed this gap, but it still remains). The defense team famously appealed to the black-majority jury’s experience with the LAPD’s historically ill treatment of African Americans, which we now know (see Black Lives Matter) is not confined to greater Los Angeles.

Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, Kim Kardashian’s dad and the rest of the defense team were people prepared to lie — not in the specifics, as the police did mishandle evidence, Mark Furman did perjure himself and so on. But in spinning a yarn of O.J. Simpson as a victim of a civil-rights-abusing police conspiracy, they lied to the jury and, thanks to gavel-to-gavel CNN coverage, vast numbers of people prepared to believe them due to prior LAPD misdeeds and Simpson’s public image as charismatic sports hero.

The essence of the defense team’s success was taking a true story — a long history of police abuses against black people in Los Angeles — and mixing it with a fiction, which was that convicting O.J. Simpson would perpetuate these abuses. This was Cochran’s main message in a closing argument in which he infamously compared the L.A. police detective who had happened to come across Simpson’s blood-soaked glove to Adolph Hitler, the most murderous storyteller of them all. Cochran capped a truth with the lie that O.J. Simpson’s exoneration would somehow be a solution.

Which brings us to Trump. Trump no double murderer, but all signs point to his actual occupation of the Oval Office as a potential catastrophe for American democracy and U.S. foreign relations. His inadequacies in a U.S. presidential context are epic, and probably best delineated by the man who actually wrote “The Art of the Deal,” which turns out to be a work of fiction.

To return to Child’s framework, Trump is prepared to lie — about the true nature of the threats to the United States and our already formidable capabilities to counter them, about Ted Cruz’s father being complicit in the Kennedy assassination, about the viability of his insane policies (the Mexican-financed wall, the barring-of-Muslims, the dismantling of a 70-year-old NATO framework whose benefits to the United States vastly outweigh the costs), about his own background as a charitable giver (poor), about his own finances (tax returns).

And people are prepared to believe him. As the Simpson defense team did with the Los Angeles police force’s history of abuses of power and African American bodies, Trump does with the hollowing out of U.S. manufacturing and inexorable demographic change. Huge numbers of people are hurting and have few prospects to advance on low-paying service jobs for which they sometimes compete with immigrants willing to do our dirty work, the rich are getting richer, and the body politic has ignored them in favor of those wealthy enough to hire lobbyists and threaten attack ads. Enter Trump, who builds upon this truth the lie that he’s somehow the solution. Millions of people are buying it.

Yet Trump is vulnerable to another narrative reality, one nicely put by a vendor the National Rifle Association’s annual conference in May. The writer Evan Osnos describes a conversation with Tim Schmidt, founder of the U.S. Concealed Carry Association:

For several years, Schmidt had a sideline in packaging his sales techniques. He calls the approach “tribal marketing.” It’s based on generating revenue by emphasizing the boundaries of a community. “We all have the need to belong,” he wrote in a presentation entitled “How to Turn One of Mankind’s Deepest Needs Into Cold, Hard cash.” In a section called “How Do You Create Belief & Belonging?,” he explained, “You can’t have a yin without a yang. Must have an enemy.”

Schmidt is telling stories — lies, too, probably, given the data correlating gun ownership with gun deaths. But there’s a deeper truth to this, in that all good stories need villains who need vanquishing. For the Simpson defense team, it was the LAPD. For Trump, it’s the Chinese, the Muslims, the Mexicans and other “others.”

Trump and other populist/nativist demagogues vilify as a matter of course, and Trump is gifted at stoking and steering the ire of his tribe. But what Trump seems not to recognize is that, in so doing, he has shaped himself into an enemy — a yang for many yins — at least in the eyes of those who happen to disagree with his ignorant, pessimistic, dictatorial, black-and-white worldview.

It would be hard to see Jeb Bush or John Kasich as a true enemy, someone whose very persona invites hatred. With the conventions behind us, Trump, who has risen to the Republican nomination on a raft of lies floating along on a true story, may now feel the wrath of the very power of narrative he has so deftly exploited.

Brain Bar Budapest via blog posts

Brain Bar Budapest cover logo

An old friend of mine touched base a couple of months back, wondering if I’d like to do some writing for Brain Bar Budapest. My first question was: for Brain-what?

As freelancers tend to do, I said yes. They were looking for blog posts about the festival’s speakers – quick hits, mostly: some background, an interview, and (ideally) interesting copy.

I didn’t get to go to Brain Bar Budapest in early June, but they put on a great show, looks like. And I got to talk with (or email with), and then write a bit about, some fascinating and diverse people.

Among the posts included: writer and political analyst Virginia Postrel, on the essence and importance of glamour; the transhumanist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan; Johns Hopkins University scientist Alex Szalay, whose work in big data (and astrophysics) is helping usher in the fourth paradigm of science; Gabriel Hallevy, a legal scholar on the potential dark side of the rise of robots; “Undercover Economist” Tim Harford; propaganda-and-science-fiction scholar Etienne Augé; Harvard machine learning PhD candidate Victoria Krakovna on the existential risk artificial intelligence may pose; Austrian ceramicist and humanity-archivist Martin Kunze; Malaysian-born entrepreneur Cheryl Yeoh; and MinecraftEdu cofounder Santeri Koivisto, among others.





Highest and best use of cassette tapes in 2016

Cassette tapes - Hill Campus of Arts & Sciences student project

I picked up my seventh-grade daughter at the Hill Campus of Arts and Sciences (nee Roscoe C. Hill Middle School) in Denver early today. Waiting in the lobby, I perused art. I am always struck by the creativity of the average middle-school kid.

In this case, the operative medium was what was once the mainstay portable-music storage device. Unlike vinyl, the cassette tape seems to have little hope of serious resurgence, its background hiss irrepressible despite the best efforts of the folks at Dolby.

Right Said Fred's "Too Sexy", Los del Rio's "Macarena"

Cassette singles

While the young artists knew what cassette tapes were, I wonder if they had any more idea of their ubiquity than my daughter had had when we had talked about it maybe a month ago, apropos a minor cleanout of my wife’s 2001 Jetta GL. Cassette singles of Right Said Fred’s “Too Sexy” and Los del Rio’s “Macarena” had made it to the kitchen counter. Also a mixtape of 1970s bands like the Eagles.

“What are those?” Lily had asked.

“They’re cassette tapes,” I had said. “It’s what we used for portable music before the iPod came along not long before you were born.”

She had noted the strange slot in the Jetta, sometimes home to an adapter that plugged into a phone headphone jack, but generally vacant in deference to radio advertisements and NPR reports on vital transgender restroom issues.

I had asked her if she knew what a Walkman was; she shook her head. And so I had explained the concept of tape, how it’s analog — whispering magnetic pulses that get amped up to audibility, not that different than a record needle scraping against imprinted ridges on an LP, which she’s never seen actually play, either. I had talked of the Walkman being the ur-iPod; and of mix tapes; and of how much these cassette singles had cost in modern dollars ($2.99 each in the late 1980s/early 1990s;  that’s $5-$6 now, or half a monthly Spotify subscription); and of how my $2,500 laptop back in 1998 had a 512-megabyte hard drive; and of how you wore headphones whose spongy pads tickled your ears; and of how, until later generations, you had to flip the tape. I had recalled skiing down a run called Heather at Boyne Highlands, looping over and over as Foreigner 4 did the same.

I had grown enthusiastic from all this reminiscing and interruptedmy dishwashing efforts to fetch my wife’s Walkman — from the mid-1990s, bought when we lived in Japan, a sleek model. I had used it maybe a year ago to digitize cassette tapes from which I’d rambled through audio journals, oblivious to how tedious extracting useful information from them would be. I screwed on the roughly cylindrical AA external battery case and marveled at the sheer number of mechanisms these little devices had — no such thing as a solid-state tape player. I set the headphones aside  and connected a portable speaker I’ve since replaced with a Bluetooth model. I pressed “play.”

Too sexy for my love
Too sexy for my love 
Love’s going to leave me. . .

“That sounds good,” Lily said.

And it really did.


$15 an hour is $5 a day (inflation adjusted)

Henry Ford

No less a business giant than Henry Ford was for the $15 movement (inflation adjusted) Photo Courtesy PBS.

While I’m personally all for a $15 minimum wage (economic theory be damned), I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. But just now, I was chaining away, mentally speaking, and came upon an interesting comparison.

The initial trigger happened this morning. I had dropped off my younger daughter at school and swung by the local Albertson’s for vital purchases (bananas, strawberries, and Ovaltine, which has gone from a red-dominant (angry Ovaltine) to a blue-themed (tranquil Ovaltine) design) and noted on a window adjacent to the automatic doors a help-wanted sign, for cashiers (courtesy staff? some pleasant acronym). $9 an hour.

I have seen this sign before and had shuddered at it.

This evening, I was pondering my own questionable earning status when the sign re-boarded my drifting mind. I make more than $9 an hour, thank God.

And I thought: how does anybody get by on $9 an hour — that’s, what, $72 a day?

And then the idea of $5 a day struck me. I’m from Dearborn, Michigan, so things related to Ford have an odd sway.

$5 a day (I’m not following Associated Press style, here, for the record. Five dollars a day would be how you’d start a sentence in this case) is what Henry Ford, apparently unbidden, decided to pay even his least-skilled worker – the piston-counters, the engine-crankers, the coal-polishers, the tire taste-testers, all of them – five bucks a day, minimum.

Then I thought about the U.S. Department of Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Inflation Calculator and wonderered a) when it was that Henry Ford made that unbidden gesture and b) what $5 was worth, inflation-adjusted, back then.


This is unfortunately file art. I don't typically have such sums at my disposal.

This is unfortunately file art. I don’t typically have such sums at my disposal.

For a), a Google search of “Henry Ford $5 Day” yielded 1914; for b), the inflation calculator came back with $5 back then equating to $119.07 today.

Per an eight-hour day, that’s $14.88. Which is damn near $15.

And what I also learned, courtesy of The Henry Ford, (that incomparable, eclectic, museum/village in my hometown (I worked there in high school — a “Cart Guy” in period clothing, selling fruit/candy from a wooden deal like a Mormon might have shoved along his westward march)): Ford workers did nine-hour days back until that very moment, at which Henry also trimmed the workday to eight hours.

So no less a capitalist than Henry Ford was all for $15 an hour, too. #fightfor15 indeed.