Said and read – December 2020

Standard

Oddly I didn’t read a single book in November and only read a few in October. But I ‘recovered‘ in December by reading an insane amount. As always, it’s not the amount that counts. Just read. Especially during these times. There is something for everyone in the written word and world.

“A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.”” Man’s Search for MeaningViktor E Frankl

Previous book reports: 2020 – October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for December:

I liked a lot of the things I read in December, even if I would not recommend the majority of them. I include several here that struck me for personal reasons and not so much because I think they’d be universally appreciated.

Highly recommended

*Man’s Search for MeaningViktor E Frankl

“The uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on his creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude.”

I had read Man’s Search for Meaning about three years ago at the suggestion of a friend. She sent me the book this year for Christmas, not knowing I’d read the book when she recommended it years earlier. But it’s the kind of slim volume that can and should be re-read.

It probably diminishes the value of the book to say that it could be an especially insightful thing to read in these soul-ravaging times, but I can think of very few books that can offer a guide for these fraught times. What other book teaches about human freedom and choice – our ability to choose to endure or even rise above suffering by choosing our own response to it?

“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make.”

I have had many conversations of late with people who are each enduring their own forms of suffering, and it reminds me constantly that suffering is relative. It is, as Frankl writes, omnipresent in life, but we cannot know the size of another’s suffering. But in our own suffering or in helping to shepherd others through their suffering, we may identify the source of the suffering. When we name it, we can endure it because we can strive for something else when we give the source or form of our suffering a name.

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

In choosing our path, we also find meaning. Frankl, in very few words, shows how meaning can encompass so many different aspects of human existence.

“My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing—which I have learned well by now: Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

*And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS EpidemicRandy Shilts

“How very American, he thought, to look at a disease as homosexual or heterosexual, as if viruses had the intelligence to choose between different inclinations of human behavior.”

I watch and read almost everything that chronicles the history of the AIDS epidemic, and strangely had never read this lengthy and detailed (not to mention gripping) account of the appearance of this mysterious and devastating disease. I had seen the film version, which now strikes me as inadequate.

Sound reporting for the most part, aside from its turning flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas into a villain by falsely identifying him as “patient zero”. At the time of the book’s publication, the best science available would have traced many AIDS patients back to Dugas, but later epidemiological digging would discover earlier antecedents to Dugas.

Notably thorough, particularly for a time when virtually no one was writing about AIDS with the kind of attention Shilts paid, it’s an incredible history from which we continue to learn. It covers the inattention, indifference and lethal lack of care of the public and political spheres (Conant recalled, however, that this was the dean who also once observed, “At least with AIDS, a lot of undesirable people will be eliminated.”), how frightening and befuddling the disease itself was, the incredible toll the disease took on the first group it mortally wounded, the gay community, and introduced a cast of unforgettable characters, including public health officials, AIDS activists and writer Larry Kramer (who recently died).

I can’t capture 800 pages worth of in-depth reporting in a couple of sentences, but this is one of the most comprehensive and important books of the early AIDS crisis, and time has done nothing to dim its vitality in retelling the story we seem to be, as a society, forgetting.

*The Right StuffTom Wolfe

“The military did not have very merciful instincts. Rather than packing up these poor souls and sending them home, the Navy, like the Air Force and the Marines, would try to make use of them in some other role, such as flight controller. So the washout was to keep taking classes with the rest of his group, even though he can no longer touch an airplane. He sits thee in the classes staring at sheets of paper with cataracts of sheer human mortification over his eyes while the rest steal looks at him… this man reduced to an ant, this untouchable, this poor sonofabitch. And in what test had he been found wanting? Why, it seemed to be nothing less than manhood itself.”

Having joked for years that my dad is Ed Harris (they sort of look alike), it’s hard not to then extend that to one of Ed Harris’s iconic roles, astronaut and US senator, John Glenn. I received a copy of The Right Stuff as a gift, an in-joke nod to this connection, the giver claiming I could finally get to know my dad better through his biography.

“…men who were the bearers and protectors of the most important values of American life, who maintained a sense of discipline while civilians abandoned themselves to hedonism, who maintained a sense of honor while civilians lived by opportunism and greed. Opportunism and greed: there you had your much-vaunted corporate business world. Khrushchev was right about one thing: when it came time to hang the capitalist West, an American businessman would sell him the rope. When the showdown came – and the showdowns always came – not all the wealth in the world or all the sophisticated nuclear weapons and radar and missile systems it could buy would take the place of those who had the uncritical willingness to face danger, those who, in short, had the right stuff.”

I started reading the book (having seen the film about a million times, which is of course how Ed Harris is so inextricably tied to John Glenn) the day before Chuck Yeager, who was arguably the hero of this book, died.

The book was beautifully written and captured the embryonic moments of the US space program and the competition with the Soviets but almost as a backdrop to the incipient and groundbreaking (or maybe “sound breaking” would be a more apt description) work Yeager did as a test pilot. A great deal of descriptive nuance is lost in the film (although I’d argue the film is also a classic, for different reasons. I liked having the visual image of the actors from the film in mind when I read the book).

And, in the shadow of Yeager’s death, a fitting tribute to Yeager and his apparently infectious, folksy, Appalachian drawl and how pilots ever since have sought to imitate it:

“’Pygmalion in reverse’: “It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

*The NightfieldsJoanna Klink

Poetry as always.

*I’ll Fly AwayRudy Francisco

Another collection of poetry from one of my recent favorites.

Useful, interesting and otherwise positive

*Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven WorldCarl T. Bergstrom

I’d have loved to read this when I was studying full-time – it is a great book to read any time to begin to unravel the skewed way we interpret data and statistics, eating them up as prepared. And the truth is they are prepared and fed to the tastes of the person feeding them to us.

It called to mind a book I read back in July, Rigor Mortis, about how bad/sloppy science is not only contributing to the replicability/reproducibility crisis but also wastes money, time and leads to bad conclusions that end up interpreted or used in media or other research that leads nowhere. Sharpening the BS radar, as Calling Bullshit calls for, and changing some of the particularities of academic and scientific journal publishing practice, could help alleviate this problem.

Whether you just want to understand a bit better how to critically interrogate the provenance or veracity of something you’ve read in a news article or need to think more deeply about scientific claims made in research, this is a great book to revisit often for practical how-to tactics to debunk junk claims, misleading “facts” and interpretations, and general BS. We need this kind of thing more than ever. While everyone can use it, it would be a heck of a lot more powerful if the people who need it most would read it.

*All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern ParenthoodJennifer Senior

Not much to say about this book except that it won’t surprise anyone that rearing children is difficult, expensive, and has become, if we follow Senior’s logic, asymmetrical.

“Over time, reformers managed to outlaw child labor practices. Yet change was slow. It wasn’t until our soldiers returned from World War II that childhood, as we now know it, began. The family economy was no longer built on a system of reciprocity, with parents sheltering and feeding their children, and children, in return, kicking something back into the family till. The relationship became asymmetrical. Children stopped working, and parents worked twice as hard. Children went from being our employees to our bosses.”

Mostly we see how children went from being useful to almost like being an all-consuming project. Senior touches on some of the important stuff about how rearing children outside the US, in European countries for example, is a very different enterprise, as governments usually guarantee protection for employees who take time off to have children, subsidize childcare and healthcare is universal, erasing some of the biggest worries atop parents’ minds. Having a child in Scandinavia, for example, is a good deal less… stressful than in America. Sure, it’s still hard, but all those external stresses are alleviated so parents can focus on being parents and people (individuals outside of parenthood).

*The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria, and HubrisMark Honigsbaum

“Unless and until we take account of the ecological, immunological, and behavioural factors that govern the emergence and spread of novel pathogens, our knowledge of such microbes and their connection to disease is bound to be partial and incomplete.”

I am on board with reading as many books like this as I can. I don’t know why I devour them. You’d think they would seem scarier under the thumb of Covid. But I feel like trying to get a better understanding of the history of identifying disease is comforting.

“Indeed, by the 1940s Burnet was worrying that these spillover events were becoming more common and that overpopulation, coupled with international trade and jet travel, was disrupting natural ecologies in new and unpredictable ways, leading to virulent outbreaks of vector-borne diseases such as yellow fever. While a world in which everyone and everything was more closely linked in a biological sense should favour a ‘virtual equilibrium’ between humans and microbial parasites, Burnet warned that “man… lives in an environment constantly being changed by his own activities, and few of his diseases have attained such equilibrium.”

*A Promised LandBarack Obama

Obama is a good writer, and it was comforting in some way to go back to this more innocent time. It feels like a million years ago. And it wasn’t innocent. It was just filled with complete sentences.

Even good writers, though, benefit from good editors, a point Obama himself concedes early on in this overly long book. But who is going to tell Barack Obama that he needs to shave off a couple hundred pages? Especially when he recounts with precise detail how offended he felt when others were cutting lines from a speech long ago, before he was the US president.

If you’re someone who has read his other books and Michelle Obama’s Becoming, much of this will also feel like you’re treading old ground that he didn’t need to include here. But plenty of people will appreciate the level of detail about the past he introduces.

*Death is Hard WorkKhaled Khalifa

“Surrendering to one’s memories is the best way of escaping the wounds they preserve; constant repetition robs them of their brilliance and sanctity.”

Khalifa is a Syrian writer whose work brings the day-to-day struggles and tragedy in Syria into stark view. In this brief novel, an old man dies in Damascus and has tasked his son with completing his last wish: to be buried in the family plot in Anabiya.

Yet with war raging all around, roadblocks impeding the supposedly two-hour drive between Damascus and Anabiya, the son enlists his siblings to help him achieve his father’s final wish. This book tells the tale of that harrowing and perilous journey.

““Tend to the living—the dead are already gone.” He didn’t like it, however, because of how often the line was quoted by cowards justifying retreat. And in any case, today it might be a different matter—better to tend to the dead; after all, they now outnumbered the living. He went on to muse that they would all surely be dead in the not-too-distant future. This thought had given him exceptional courage over the previous four years. Not only had it served to increase his stoicism day by day, but he was far better able to withstand the many insults he received from checkpoint soldiers and Mukhabarat in the course of his work if he bore this thought in mind, since it allowed him to subscribe to the view that anyone who gave him a hard time would probably be dead today or tomorrow, or by next month at the latest. Not that this was a particularly pleasant notion, but it was an accurate one, and each citizen had to live under the shadow of this understanding. The inhabitants of the city regarded everyone they saw as not so much “alive” as “pre-dead.” It gave them a little relief from their frustration and anger.”

*Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

*GulagAnne Applebaum

I’ve only recently discovered Applebaum, which is odd considering my long ‘relationship’ with studying eastern Europe and Russia. Still, I’ve stumbled onto her work as a result of her recent book, Twilight of Democracy, which completes a journey through (relatively) newly authoritarian regimes in Poland and Hungary, the inward-looking, xenophobic English (and mercifully Applebaum makes the critical distinction that it is an English obsession, not a Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish one) drive toward the disaster that is Brexit, and finally the Trump-in-America phenomenon.

I enjoyed Twilight of Democracy, but not quite as much as I had expected. Perhaps because I’d read Sarah Kendzior’s Hiding in Plain Sight and Masha Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy first. Even though Applebaum has different expertise and her own voice, I was put off by her tendency to write exceptionally long and not particularly succinct sentences. I have always been (rightly) criticized for my own long sentences, and I have yet to read another writer in modern literature who gets away with it. And, even though Applebaum’s long sentences made it through editing, I wouldn’t say she “gets away with it” because greater concision would have made Twilight of Democracy a better book. This is, though, a minor complaint because it is a good book. Just not as good as it might have been.

Her other works, especially Gulag, are better. The diligence of her research is clear – and she exposes a great deal of hitherto unavailable information about the history of the Gulag system. When I told someone I was reading a book about the Gulag system, he asked incredulously, “System?!” Which makes Applebaum’s point:

“Yet although they lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, and although many millions of people passed through them, the true history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps was, until recently, not at all well known. By some measures, it is still not known. Even the bare facts recited above, although by now familiar to most Western scholars of Soviet history, have not filtered into Western popular consciousness. “Human knowledge,” once wrote Pierre Rigoulot, the French historian of communism, “doesn’t accumulate like the bricks of a wall, which grows regularly, according to the work of the mason. Its development, but also its stagnation or retreat, depends on the social, cultural and political framework.”

*Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally IllRobert Whitaker

“I soon stumbled upon two research findings that didn’t fit with what I knew. First, in a 1994 article, Harvard Medical School researchers had reported that outcomes for schizophrenia patients had worsened during the past twenty years. Schizophrenia patients were now faring no better than they had in 1900, when various water therapies—needle showers and prolonged baths—were the preferred treatments of the day. Second, the World Health Organization had twice found that schizophrenia outcomes in the United States and other developed countries were much worse than those in the poor countries of the world. Suffer a psychotic break in a poor country like India or Nigeria, and chances were that in a couple of years you would be doing fairly well. But suffer a similar break in the United States or another developed country, and it was likely that you would become chronically ill.”

A damning exploration of the treatment of schizophrenia in America, and society’s inability first to see patients as people and second to appropriately understand the damage done by the litany of dangerous treatments lauded as “cures”. Whether blunt surgical butchery, electroshock therapy or highly toxic medication, the efficacy of most of the treatments administered in the United States was never established, and in most cases, patients ended up much worse off.

*The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American FreedomH.W. Brands

“The work wasn’t finished. The work of freedom never would be.”

This was one of those times I had to “nerd out” and email the author to say thanks because this book breathed fresh life into historical figures and events, which is something that always causes my heart to flutter a bit. This volume comes around at a time that lets it coincide with the raucous, much-lauded limited series, The Good Lord Bird, which certainly will act as a springboard for deeper investigation of the real people and stories that make up the actual historical record.

“The hanging was not the end of John Brown but a new beginning. Brown’s parting testament shortly surfaced, scribbled on a scrap of paper passed to a sympathetic guard before he left the jail. “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood,” he declared. The dreadful forecast made the martyr into a prophet as well.”

“Lincoln himself had raised the issue of blood atonement in his second inaugural address. Now his own blood was part of the reckoning, and his link to John Brown more compelling. Brown had foretold blood atonement while becoming one of the first sacrifices; Lincoln at the time had resisted the concept for his country and scarcely imagined it for himself. But he made decisions whose consequences included a bloodletting far greater than anything Brown had envisioned, and finally his own death. Brown was a first martyr in the war that freed the slaves, Lincoln one of the last.”

I’m partial to anything that leads people to investigate further. In this case, the book also raises points that are as relevant today as when Brown and Lincoln lived.

“THE QUESTION HAD BEEN: What does a good man do when his country commits a great evil? John Brown chose the path of violence, Lincoln of politics. Yet the two paths wound up leading to the same place: the most terrible war in American history. Brown aimed at slavery and shattered the Union; Lincoln defended the Union and destroyed slavery.”

*His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a LifeJonathan Alter

A misunderstood US president who has long been dogged by labels that he was one of America’s worst presidents. His long post-presidential life has enabled a reassessment of sorts, particularly as the man has devoted his life to doing good in the world.

Was Carter’s presidency as “bad” as it is often remembered? The book makes a compelling case that it certainly wasn’t – but Carter was a bit thin-skinned, a bit too honest and forthright, a true non-politician in the sense that he had neither the dishonesty or charisma to propel him to the inspirational heights that wholly unqualified individuals like Ronald Reagan reached.

*This Is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended ConsequencesSarah E. Hill

I am not sure how to characterize why this book was a disappointment to me. It’s not that it was bad or unreadable. It’s not that the subject matter isn’t fascinating in its own way. It’s just… I don’t know what. Still there are useful questions posed.

“Treating the pill as the big deal that it is will require a major course adjustment for all of us. We’ve all been far too cavalier about making changes to women’s sex hormones. And if you need evidence of this, consider for a moment the differences in the way we treat birth control pills and anabolic steroids, those drugs favored by athletes who don’t mind cheating to win. The primary ingredient in steroids is a synthetic version of the primary male sex hormone, testosterone. These synthetics work by stimulating testosterone receptors and getting cells to run their testosterone program. This causes the body to experience changes like increased muscle mass, skin breakouts, and the magnification of certain male-like behavioral traits (like bar fighting and wall punching). Now, as you are probably well aware, anabolic steroids are illegal without a prescription. They are classified as a Schedule III controlled substance and—if you’re caught with them—you’re looking at a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison. Steroids, because they stimulate hormone receptors, have a wide range of effects on men’s bodies and brains. When taken over long periods of time, these changes can be bad for men’s health. Given that men might want to take them anyway, steroids are illegal without a prescription, in an attempt to discourage steroid use in the service of public health. Are you starting to sense the irony? We worry about men using artificial sex hormones because of all the effects they have on the body. At the same time, women are routinely prescribed female sex hormones and kept on them for years at a time despite all the effects that they have on the body. We are willing to turn a blind eye to all the ways the pill can change women because we simply can’t entertain going back to living in a world where women don’t have control over their fertility. And we shouldn’t have to.”

Disappointing reads

*Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the WorldTom Burgis

“Compliance officers had been around for a while but following a procession of corporate scandals – Enron, WorldCom and the rest – they became ubiquitous, the designated conscience of big business. In practice, what compliance officers at banks usually did was attempt to swathe the organisation in a veil of rectitude without restricting bankers’ moneymaking in any meaningful way.”

I thought this was going to be an exciting book, and whether I was just not in the mood for it, or it was just that boring, I could barely get through it. I may revisit it later.

“For an oligarch seeking safety there was one option so bold that you might have thought it would be difficult. First, turn yourself into a corporation: one of the most powerful fictions in which Westerners chose to believe, endowed with privileges and protections, and yet blissfully easy to create. Second, add to that corporation the assets Nazarbayev had allowed you to acquire – mines, banks, whatever. Then sell a share of your corporation for Western money.”

Probably the best part of the book was the strategic deployment of quotes from other people:

“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” –Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

“You my whole life’s digression”

Standard

“You could have your arm on fire and say you’re fine”

A music-filled, middle-of-night drive to Oslo and a quiet few hours alone before the day begins, listening to Obama’s final speech. He was not perfect, but comparing him to what is coming is just… well, it blows me away. How on earth do we go from someone thoughtful, eloquent and educated (and scandal-free) to … the indescribable and constant shit show we have been witnessing and are about to witness for the next four years?

Every day the news throws some new crisis/scandal/revelation into the mix about Trump, his dealings, his proclivities – all alongside his monumental pettiness, wasting time Tweeting about Saturday Night Live and Meryl Streep, for god’s sake – somehow imagining that any of it will make a difference now. He’s been elected already – he’s heading into office in only days. And if none of the revelations before the election derailed this orange lunatic, why on earth would a person or the media expect that any of them will make a difference now? The Russians having dirt on him, him being in collusion with Russians, and any number of other uncountable other piles of shit – none of these things are going to make a difference if they haven’t already. People talk of conflicts of interest and illegalities, potential grounds for impeachment, but no, dudes only get impeached for lying about blow jobs. Trump just lies about and conceals everything else and nothing happens.

I am, as I wrote the other day, generally feeling quite happy despite the state of things in the world (Trump, Brexit, Syria, etc.) but at the same time am submerged in a place where all I do is feel. It’s not that I am an unfeeling person; it’s that I have over many years trained myself to tune out or turn off feelings when they become too much. And right now, everything feels like something. Everything takes on more meaning and depth. And part of me hates this. It is as though a flip was switched, and I can’t get it to turn off. It’s painful and distracting at the same time as exhilarating and almost intoxicating. Another part of me enjoys this entirely new experience, feeling the ‘training’ and discipline of ignoring feelings unravel and let feeling take its natural course, wherever it leads.

Part of this requires acknowledging all feelings – and I am used to silently stuffing them down, down and down to the point that I don’t even know I am doing it. As one dear soul said, in asking me how I was doing, “You could have your arm on fire and say you’re fine”.

The other part requires acknowledging the validity and value of the feelings – it’s one thing to say, “Yes, I feel this way” (whatever way it is). It’s entirely another to admit that it is important or not just some ridiculous digression with which you shouldn’t bother anyone else.

Brexit: unintended and unforeseen consequences – but who cares?

Standard

I wrote a lengthy and relatively well-researched piece on the consequences of Brexit, looking at all the things that came to my mind about Brexit’s mostly negative implications. I even took a moment to meander into random musings on how the little European star-circle symbol on people’s car license plates will have to change in Britain – back to the Union flag or to individual country flags, like those in Norway and Iceland.

And then… in not at all dramatic fashion, my computer automatically restarted, and WordPress had not saved the latest draft. Not one single word of it.

I don’t remember a time in recent memory that I have been so angry. Mostly at myself for not obsessively pressing “save” or writing it in Word from the get-go.

Despite the post being about the UK and its future following its vote to exit the EU, the exercise of thinking about and researching it also led to a great deal of thinking about the United States and what it will soon face. I had written quite a lot about America at the same time as elucidating the potential problems of Brexit – about how Britain is just earlier to the “party” in terms of heading down what may well be a very dangerous path. America is bringing up the rear, but still roaring toward voting against its own best interests and isolating itself, rolling back human and civil rights and essentially creating a living nightmare. (Is this hyperbole? Perhaps. But we can’t sleepwalk through all of it in any case.) I wrote a lot about how rights fought for and won, such as the right to abortion, are precious and should not be taken for granted. Just as at least half of the UK, and more than half of the Scots and Northern Irish, once had all the rights granted to EU citizens – and now, that is in doubt. (Much of the reason the Scots voted against independence a couple of years ago is because they were promised that the UK would remain in the EU.)

At any given moment, the whole political and social landscape can change and become little more than a circus in which politicians become clowns and verbal acrobats and contortionists and individuals are essentially powerless circus animals. In the case of Scotland and Northern Ireland, whole countries were powerless in the end.

As the clown car that was the US Republican primary process emptied out, leaving the biggest clown of all, Donald Trump, in the driver’s seat, it dawned on the “reasonable” half of America that we should all be scared shitless (but not scared into inactivity). A Trump presidency will be a disaster. Beyond which, Trump just named Indiana governor, Mike Pence, as his running mate – and, as Robert Reich describes in a Facebook post, Pence is “one of the most extreme right-wing officials in America” and went on to describe how.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FRBReich%2Fposts%2F1257689044243689&width=500

As we can see from the continued and contentious tug-of-war that defines the right-to-choose (which is a personal liberty and health issue – not a moral issue no matter what religious zealots claim), these issues are never set in stone or decided finally. Things can change, which is both good and bad. While the right to abortion may erode, which is a bad change, we can also see that the right to marriage equality has moved forward, which is a good change. But rights are always in a state of flux and subject to the winds and whims of change. This is especially true when no issue, no political candidate, no momentum ever enjoys a very clear majority – everything is split closely down the middle. No huge majority exists, generally, on one side or the other of any issue.

Only slightly more than half of the UK voted to exit the EU, meaning that Scotland and Northern Ireland, which both voted with a larger majority to remain in the EU, are dragged along with England and Wales’s bold-but-stupid plans. By extension, this means that a slight majority of Americans choosing Trump can drag the entire country toward chaos against its will. (We saw something similar when Bush II became president after a too-close-to-call, contested election in 2000 versus Al Gore. We see how that turned out.)

The point: We always have to be vigilant – about rights we already have and about continuing to vote (hopefully against lunacy).

This is why Brexit is perplexing. It feels like we are moving backwards, like when you are stuck in a nightmare and try to run but are stuck no matter how fast your legs move. Brexit was sold to the British public as a way to “take back control”: but take back control of what? Your own circus burning down?

No one framed the losses of Brexit better than political journalist Nicholas Barrett. Do read the whole eloquent thing, but what it boils down to is:

  • The working class who voted to leave will be the ones most adversely affected by Brexit (voting blindly against their own best interest)
  • The youth of both the UK and Europe both lose the right to live and work freely in each other’s countries; the older generation has taken away an unknown world of experiences, relationships and opportunities from the younger generation
  • Anti-intellectualism wins: “We now live in a post-factual democracy.” (Bush, Blair, Trump are all examples of how facts have less and less currency.)

This last point is most telling – and has been barreling toward disaster for a long time, even if it seems that the trend is more like a pendulum. Americans elected an intellectual (Barack Obama), who also happened to be America’s first black president, but will go to the extreme anti-intellect next time. At the same time, they will blindly and blithely claim, post-factually, that we live in a post-racial society because we once voted a black man into the office of president. All the facts speak otherwise, as a deeply insightful piece from Henry Rollins illustrates.

Bill Clinton was fairly intellectual, so a lot of people thirsted for the anti-intellect of George W. Bush in the post-Clinton era. (And the sliver-thin difference in number of votes between Bush and Gore left the country without a declared presidential election winner for more than a month. The fact that it was even close is what alarmed me more than the results themselves. That was the final straw for me as far as living in America goes. I had already moved away, but that cemented my resolve to never go back.)

I have given a lot of thought to these points and tried to look at them through the Brexit lens: demagogue leaders rush into Brexit without a plan, lie to the voters (who, by and large, are average people – meaning that they are not going to dig for real information for themselves; they are reactionary) and their issue wins. Once the vote is over, and they gloat (see Nigel Farage) but also backtrack on promises, back away from the supposed “facts” (see the lies about the money Britain was sending to the EU that could be used for the National Health Service) and do the most cowardly thing possible: they stepped down and said they accomplished what they wanted. Fine, that sounds Farage-like. But Trump-clone-blowhard Boris Johnson stepped away from power only to be handed the office of Foreign Secretary when a new government was basically appointed (I realize that’s how the system works but is mightily undemocratic seeming). And David Cameron was the idiot who set all of this in motion, somehow underestimating the power of the post-factual world we live in and the apathy of most voters – and the passion of single-issue and uninformed voters who have been scared into voting against their own interests. And now we seem to be heading toward a refrain of Britain in the 1980s: ultra-conservatism, economic uncertainty and unemployment and… if we are lucky, a surge of great music (since that is all there will be to cling to).

What will Brexit mean in real terms? People have had time to digest it, and with the (in)digestion, heartburn is setting in.

One journalist, Ian McConnell writes: “It has been difficult to escape the growing feeling, since the Brexit vote, of being stuck in one of the more shambolic episodes of Dad’s Army.”

Caveat: I am not British so it’s not really my deal – but it affects the whole world, all of Europe, and most of all, Britain itself. I have my own British interests in that I co-own a business there, have relationships there (well, in Scotland anyway), and have, like most Europeans, enjoyed the freedom to visit and stay as long as I wanted or needed to. I out myself here as a pro-Scottish independence, SNP supporter who forces all my Scottish friends to educate themselves, register to vote and vote – I might be deluded, but I think Scotland would be better off without England and remaining a part of the EU (as they voted to do). In this case, Scotland knows what it would be getting into if it were to vote to leave (i.e., “taking back control”), completely unlike the UK’s slapdash and uninformed vote to leave, which has left the country in a kind of tailspin – anything but in control – regardless of the British stiff upper lip they’re trying to display to the world.

A lengthy but not exhaustive list of what Brexit may mean (I am not a lawyer, an economist, any kind of expert or a psychic – but I have enough common sense to know that these may be among some of the results):

Currency value/price increases: Even before the Brexit vote, the value of the British pound started fluctuating on fears of an exit vote. The very morning of the vote’s result announcement, the currency plummeted and continues to struggle. The value of British people’s money, thus, has decreased, so in “taking back control”, they have not only made their own holidays abroad more expensive for themselves, in the short term, they have voted to probably raise the costs of their everyday goods in the long term, both in the sense that they will pay more directly and in the sense that everything will cost more as import costs rise, which will be passed on to consumers (and maybe, to make up for shortfalls, VAT will rise too – who knows?). These price hikes and less valuable money all come at a terrible time, of course, because the vote also means… uncertainty rippling throughout the entire economy.

Business uncertainty: In the lead-up to the Brexit vote, companies started preparing exit strategies, no doubt, because of the uncertainty of the business climate and no idea when the details of Brexit will be ironed out. Essentially these contingency plans have led to businesses deciding to leave Britain (a boon for other countries), scale back operations or investment within Britain and/or cut back on staff.

And what does that mean? “Taking back control” means job losses for BRITONS – not just for all the immigrants they imagined were flooding in and stealing all the jobs. It’s not just the big multinationals (think finance/banking here) that will create these holes; small businesses are already feeling the punch to the gut (and who owns small business in Britain? Quite often it’s Britons, yet again!), announcing layoffs, scaled back investment or growth plans and price hikes.

Unemployment and possible loss of employment rights: Yes, unemployment is likely to rise. The aforementioned business uncertainty and probable exodus of companies to other locations means that job cuts are inevitable. It’s going to make those previously referenced price hikes that much more painful; it’s going to make it harder to afford to go away on holiday (if the freedom of movement problems stirred up don’t bar your way first).

A Credit Suisse report warns that a Brexit recession could lead to an increase in the unemployment rate that equals about 500,000 lost jobs. The report expects an increase in the overall unemployment rate from about 5% to 6.5% by the end of 2017 (maybe sooner, depending on what happens). In the week after the Brexit vote result, the number of posted job ads in the UK fell by 700,000. Pretty significant.

By being a part of the EU, workers in the UK actually gained a number of protections and guarantees that were never guaranteed by the UK alone – and some of these pertain to (un)employment rights (as well as family leave, just so you know). Will these rights continue to be guaranteed/enforced, or will they be like the slippery and contentious rights Americans grapple with keeping, as highlighted above?

Since the mid-1970s, the European Union has played an important role in protecting working people from exploitation and combating discrimination. These EU rights have provided an important counter-balance against pressure for the UK to adopt a US-style hire-and-fire culture where there is an absence of statutory employment rights.”

Beyond the sheer rise in unemployment, though, Brexit makes the UK a much less attractive place for foreign direct investment, which could have contributed to economic growth and created a lot of new jobs.

FDI: Foreign direct investment is not something most average people think about. The UK has long been one of the world’s most attractive FDI recipients because it had a unique set of attributes that companies looking to locate and invest need and want, including being an English-speaking country with (at least in London) an international, multilingual population, great infrastructure and access to the European single market.

Britain now risks a very unvirtuous circle in which a slowing economy and growing trade and immigration barriers cause companies to leave, spurring even more economic pain.

“Brexit makes the UK a less attractive environment to invest in, particularly for companies that rely on the UK’s access to the single market,” said LSE economist Thomas Sampson. “Some companies are likely to relocate some of their activities to continental Europe, though probably not every company that threatens it is going to do it.”

I take FDI more personally, as I have worked in this industry for some time and have seen how the trends move. A company – large or small – looking at its options for relocating and investing will benchmark UK against other European locations, and where once UK competed favorably, the exit from the single market will exclude the UK from serious consideration. It’s quite complicated and multifaceted. (Ireland will probably benefit from the UK’s “taking back control”.)

Economic slowdown: Economic slowdown can mean a lot of different things, which encompass many of the other points in this list (stagnant growth, unemployment, etc.). It also includes a downturn in business output and in optimism, which have already been affected by Brexit. It can also mean that a recession is coming. The uncertainty I wrote about above also leads to a “deer-in-the-headlights” effect, where businesses are fearful of taking any action, which can likewise contribute to negative economic consequences.

Trade fits into this equation. With Britain exiting the EU, Britain will no longer be party to the trade agreements made by/within the EU. It will probably have to renegotiate and start from scratch on trade arrangements (more than 100 of them), and while the Leave campaigners claimed this would be easy, that Britain had so much to offer – so much leverage – nothing is further from the truth. US President Barack Obama even stated as much, saying Britain is at the back of the queue.

Property values/housing: In a classic case of people voting on an isolated, single issue – and not really understanding the complexity of it, many voters cited (potential) property price decreases (the Treasury warned that house prices would decrease as much as ten percent) as their reason for voting to leave the EU. Aside from the fact that voting should be about benefit to the entire country, not just what you individually think you can gain, this is naïve voting. Maybe property prices decrease as a result of Brexit, but it conversely means that property values decrease, so those Britons who already own property may experience negative equity, which could be particularly acute in northern England and real losses on their investment. The danger in focusing on a single issue also fails to take into account all the other factors at work, e.g., unemployment, wage stagnation and recession, which may lead many people to not be able to afford a home no matter how far property prices fall.

Freedom of movement: The free movement of people is one of the central tenets of the European experiment/experience. And nothing has been more central to the heated arguments around Brexit. Three million Europeans live in Britain; 1.2 million Britons live in the EU. They have jobs, pay taxes, are married to other Europeans, own property, study, etc. All of this has been thrown into a bewildering state of inconclusiveness. No one knows if they will be allowed to stay or what Brexit means for their rights (inside or out of the UK). And Theresa May’s government has not done anything to make this clearer.

A large part of the Leave campaigning focused on “taking control of” immigration and the borders of the UK; most Britons, though, did not think about what leaving would mean for their own mobility. Or what that would mean for their friends, family members and colleagues who already live in Britain – and what that uncertainty and what a mass expulsion of Europeans would mean for the economy (no, it does not automatically mean that there will be floods of open jobs for British citizens; so many Europeans work in Britain in the first place because companies often have unique needs and Europeans unique qualifications that match up; some Europeans will do jobs that British people don’t want to do).

This reasoning also failed to consider that Britain already has exceptions in place that keep people from completely freely showing up in Britain. Britain never joined the Schengen area and thus controlled its borders much more tightly than other Schengen-area countries.

Breakup of the country: The breakup of the United Kingdom is a topic I should not have passionate feelings about and don’t think it’s one about which I can be objective. (Not that I have been totally objective throughout my points here.) On this topic is even more personal. I’ve spent a huge amount of time in Glasgow and feel an exceptionally strong connection to Scotland and see its potential outside of the UK. I supported the independence referendum last time, despite having no vote, and I “activated” all the people I know in Scotland to educate themselves, pick a side and vote.

I understand why “remain” won the first time. It’s scary to leave. I know it sounds hypocritical to be angry that the UK voted to leave the EU while supporting a “leave” vote for Scotland from the UK. However, I support this now – and supported it before – because Scotland is not being represented (while the UK is within the EU) within the UK. Scotland was promised many things as a trade-off for voting to stay part of the union; those promises have not been fulfilled. And now Scotland has been yanked out of the EU without its consent. Sure, maybe they signed up for that by remaining within the UK. But that doesn’t mean they should not leave now.

I don’t necessarily think independence is going to be an easy option. But I support it. When the SNP launched the first bid for independence, they had a lengthy manifesto and a detailed plan and platform. By contrast, there was NO plan for the UK outside the EU, despite it being an even more complex divorce.

Reigniting Northern Ireland problems: I don’t feel the same passion about Northern Ireland as I do about Scotland, but I don’t think anyone needs to be reminded of the (T)troubles there. Northern Ireland is a high-stakes Brexit gamble. It’s the UK’s only hard land border with another EU (or any) country (the republic of Ireland), and what happens to this border now that the UK has voted to leave? Will this vote kick up new calls for reunification with the republic of Ireland, and will that reignite the “bitterness and bloodshed” that remains an explosive possibility. The really young may not remember firsthand the violence between Protestant Unionists and the Catholic nationalist minority and the terror that surrounded this battle. It’s not something anyone wants to see repeated, and while it may feel like peace was achieved “long ago”, it’s still less than 20 years.

Science/research/tech startups, etc.: There are a million articles online about the effects of Brexit on science, research, collaboration and EU funding. And UK policy toward science and research is shifting (probably not in a good direction). This may also be applicable to startups and tech firms. The UK, though, may have voted itself onto a path of stagnation rather than innovation.

You can search and read endlessly on these topics and do not need my help.

Food: There are areas Brexit will affect that the average voter probably did not even think about. One of these is food (and how much food is imported, and what that could mean for availability and price).

“Now that the Leave campaign has won the referendum on Europe, it is clear that far more was at stake for British food in the E.U. than our right to misshapen fruit.

Part of the driving force of the EU’s foundation was to ensure the food supply for entire populations; Britain produces only about half of its food needs. You do the math. More than a quarter of UK food imports came from within the EU as of 2015 – and what happens to that now?

There could also be a knock-on effect to British farming, which will lose EU agriculture subsidies.

Music: Maybe because I care so passionately about music, films and the arts – but mostly music – I am most concerned about its future. What happens to the industries and the touring musicians and the legal/copyright stuff? It’s complex….

And that is the thing – every single industry is facing similar complexities, extricating themselves from the ties that bound them within and often protected them from “going it alone” on so many of these fronts, often offering Brits and Europeans collective benefits that aren’t to be enjoyed outside that “togetherness”.

Alienation/isolation: The price of going it alone and “taking back control” could be isolationism and, as mentioned, moving to the back of the line. There is no certainty that the UK will end up in isolation – the world is a bit more globalized than that. But was the risk worth it? Is the “control” you think you took back keeping you warm at night and comforted?

IMG_0667

“Get a grip; this is the world we live in”

Standard

History is written to say/it wasn’t our fault” -Sam Phillips – “Love & Kisses”

Which side of the fence are you on?

I am going to start this post by writing that I am well-aware of the gross oversimplification of everything I am writing. It is a train of thought I am following without delving into any specific issues in a meaningful way. I just had a lot of thoughts following Nelson Mandela’s passing on the nature of justice, race and humanity that I wanted to express, however disjointed and surface-level they are.

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, and even during his life, he had achieved a kind of sainthood status, untouchable… which is fine except that he was human. A great human, yes. But, as some media outlets have reported, he had a lot of “non-mainstream” things to say that exposed the hypocrisies he saw in all kinds of things, such as, and perhaps most notably, American power/hegemony. Most of these key statements are left out of the soft version of his obituaries, and the powers-that-be who might be less than comfortable with that part of Mandela can easily ignore those things.

His death brings forth the question, for example, “Who is a terrorist?” It depends on who asks the question. Who defines what a terrorist is – and how does that change? When Nelson Mandela went to prison, he was seen as a terrorist. Many South Africans of all races went to jail and fought for his  cause and the cause of racial equality (making it something of a “badge of honor” – at least according to the South Africans I have known who had criminal records for political agitation and protesting) to have a criminal record within the apartheid system. What better evidence is there of the commitment to social justice or to any cause of conscience? The whole concept of a criminal record automatically carrying a negative connotation is flawed because the offense makes a difference.

Nelson Mandela was branded a terrorist. But then, the United States labels all kinds of countries, people/individuals and organizations as terrorist or as official sponsors of terrorism. The other day, out-of-touch old man US Senator John McCain threw a fit because President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro at Mandela’s memorial services. SO WHAT? McCain shook hands with Qaddafi at some point. These labels assigned conveniently to people who are enemies of the state one day and the next are not are arbitrary and self-serving.

Many would cite Palestinian organizations and individuals as terrorists, and Israel certainly treats them like they all are. But who is the real terrorist in that scenario? How can a country occupied by people whose forebears went through something as ghastly as the Holocaust ever treat another people in the ways the Israelis treat the Palestinians? Isn’t that kind of treatment another form of terrorism? What is the difference between armed resistance and terrorism? Or even just resistance versus terrorism? We have seen history filled with people who resisted, armed or not, who seem to be called terrorists for their way of thinking, for their ideas. What about, for example, the Kosovo Liberation Army that sought independence from the Yugoslav union in the 1990s. Compared to the military apparatus of Serbia, from which it aimed to secede, you could hardly call the KLA a well-armed adversary. Serbs will tell stories about all the “terror” perpetrated by the KLA, but in the end it was the Serbs who were found guilty of violence and terror by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia.

That said, many people believe in causes, to the degree that they would die for them. At what point are those causes deemed morally just by the mainstream? That is not to say “majority” – but by a loud and vocal enough mainstream that whatever the cause is becomes bigger and favour for one side or the other of a cause tips in one direction or another. Apartheid is an easy one for the liberal, equality-minded person.  On the whole, it is wrong, and there are no two ways about it. On the surface, of course, the United States ended slavery and race becomes less divisive all the time. After all, the first African-American, truly multicultural president was elected to the highest political office in the nation. I personally did not think that would happen in my lifetime. But these strides do not mean that race is not still an issue. For some people, for reasons I cannot begin to understand, it is. Whether or not people in American society face a lack of opportunity or are more likely to experience poverty, etc. Is tied to race or is a multifaceted problem that is more socioeconomic in nature, with race playing one part in the bigger picture, I cannot say with any degree of expertise. It is always much more complicated than just one thing. But to say that there is equality would be complete and total bullshit.

The point, though, was to say that some issues carry a certain moral certitude (even if this is only in hindsight and the passage of much time). Slavery and apartheid are two such issues.

But then, something like gay marriage has been, at least in the United States and some of the more conservative parts of Europe, illegal without much to push the issue either way until recently. In 25 or 50 years (??) it may be that we can look back on the fight to love and marry whomever you want to and shake our heads at how it was ever a question. In 25 years, maybe this “moral certitude” will creep in. The tide in much of America has shifted away from trying to legislate gay marriage into non-existence and has been replaced in many cases by total indifference and in even more cases outright support. I am well aware that there are large swaths of the population who will never support it, never accept it and will fight until the day they die for a Constitutional amendment to try to ensure that marriage is a man-woman thing. But assuming that the current trend continues to move forward on the path it is currently on, at some point perhaps gay marriage will become passé. Wouldn’t that be something? It’s so common no one bothers to comment on it or think about it. (It’s a little bit like that in Scandinavia already – it just does not matter who you are paired up with. It’s your life.)

But many people believe in causes and take them to extremes. Some of those causes are questionable but clearly meant something to the people involved in them. As an example, I watched the film The Baader-Meinhof Complex, based on the true story of the Red Army Faction (or Baader-Meinhof Gang), which conducted its own acts of “protest”, mostly in the 1970s, in militant and violent opposition to the then-West German government (which they considered fascist). It was considered a terrorist organization, and most of its activities were indeed violent. But they did indeed believe in their cause. But cult leaders and their followers also believe in a cause. (Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple and suicide-by-KoolAid in Guyana; David Koresh and the Branch Davidians who were killed by US federal agents at their compound in Waco, Texas, etc. The list could go on.) Did a cause like the Red Army Faction start off with such terrible intentions? Or is it just the tactics that eventually make the cause insupportable?

Anyway, back to race and the general state of affairs in the world we live in. Most alarming is that while we want to believe in the triumph of “racelessness” – Mandela “united” and reconciled a nation left in tatters thanks to apartheid; Obama became president in a fairly racist country… some of the (somehow) more unexpected racism comes from places that seem, at the same time, both improbable and common – beauty pageants. Not to start down the road of “what is beauty” (which is also a minefield) – but when an Indian-American woman won the Miss America title a few months ago, there was an uproar in social media channels that re-exposed the raw reality of American racism and the tendency toward discrimination. And why? Today I see that the newly crowned Miss France, who is mixed-race (white French and Beninese), is experiencing the very same hatred from all these anonymous sources who insist that she is “not French”.

But – short of exploring the complex questions of national identity (what makes someone a citizen and what makes them essentially that nationality or what makes them feel at home in that country?) – how is she any less French than any other? And in America, the “melting pot of the world” as is so often falsely cited, how is a woman of Indian origin any less American than someone of Irish origin or of Japanese origin or any other origin?

Basic questions because they demand basic answers. This kind of discrimination is so patently stupid and hateful that I cannot bring myself to analyze it further. All I want to do is slap the people who are most vocally hateful and say, “Get a grip – this is the world you live in.” I long for a day when all people are so obviously mixed in terms of race and nation that things are never obviously cut and dry.

RIP Nelson Mandela – A free South Africa at peace with the world

Standard

President Barack Obama just said we will not likely see the likes of someone like Nelson Mandela again. It is hard to imagine otherwise, although we can hope for someone who can achieve almost superhuman change and transformation in the world the way Mandela did. Indeed I hope South Africa will embrace Mandela’s message and example and find peace and harmony internally.

“When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.” – Nelson Mandela

If anyone deserves to rest in peace, it is Nelson Mandela.

Romney – Please learn to speak clear English in complete sentences

Standard

I wish Romney were capable of completing his sentences, even though I do not necessarily want to hear whatever he is driving at. I also wish he could complement most of what he says not just with facts but with specifics and details. I think we are out of luck on both fronts.

I was struck most starkly by Obama mentioning a contextually appropriate story about a girl he met at Ground Zero. He was quite specific, knew the girl’s name and fit the story into the topic. Romney, on the other hand (as usual), jumped all over the map, straying way off topic, trying to throw in stories of “real people” – but was totally non-specific. He met a woman in Wisconsin (or something) but did not finish. What was the point of starting but not finishing that thought? He met unemployed people before. But he is not good at, because he is not sufficiently human, to weave individual-level stories into his shtick. He should steer away from it entirely.

Not surprised about the lack of specifics since he has never produced specifics at all. “Come on our website…” and you will see how we reduce the deficit. And if he does cite specifics (like his apparent “fewer ships than 1916” detail), they are so off-the-wall.

And that plastic face. Oh, god.

Calling candidates out on their nonsense, failures and condescension

Standard

Romney’s condescending comments on letting women go home and have flexible hours (as if that is what is going to help women achieve economic parity with men!?) and lying about his endlessly shifting positions on reproductive rights and women’s health care (and ultimately family issues) and his euphemistic and slimy answer about immigration (“self deportation” to where there are “better opportunities” for you once you cannot get the benefits you want in the US?!) make me want to vomit.

I am still not pleased with Obama’s not calling Romney out on some things – quite a few things, he has been on the attack more notably. But what about Romney prattling on about how he would give a bunch of “tax relief” on things like… interest on your savings, capital gains and dividends? How the bloody hell is that going to help most of the middle class (who are often living without any savings and don’t even know what dividends are)? It just proves how out of touch he is.

Political debate analysis, losing sight of the big picture, frustration, transportation difficulties and dulce de leche bundt cake

Standard

Sometimes I can be so forgetful. When “staging” the baked-good offerings in my office (which involves a considerable amount of labor that goes well above and beyond the mere baking of these things), the process involves packaging, packing, transporting and then somehow getting everything from the car into the office, which is on several floors with varying levels of available space and quality for “preparing”, and then hopefully feeling motivated enough to take pictures of the final products. Sometimes I do this during the baking process, but sometimes I cannot be bothered, leaving me to at least photograph things just before they are eaten, but sometimes, while I manage to take a few pics, I don’t get to the point where I cut a cake or cupcake open to get a good view of what the inside looks like. I wish I had pictures of, for example, the inside of the dulce de leche cake, in order to display the ribbon of dulce de leche that is baked into the subtly dulce de leche-flavored cake.

But, as I wrote, I can be so forgetful. Or maybe even just lazy. This week I took the baked bounty to the office the night before serving and spent most of the night carrying the baked stuff from parking garage to the various floors of the building (I distribute the baked stuff to several floors so people can more easily access it) and setting everything up on plates as well as frosting the cupcakes (which I don’t do until I get to the office, making them far easier to transport). I wanted to make sure I would get to see the entire US presidential debate. My debate viewing was a leisurely affair, alone in the office in the middle of the night spreading blobs of frosting onto cupcakes while listening to Mitt Romney go on an aggressive attack – which strikes me as both uncivilized and unbecoming behavior in a potential president, particularly when lying, bluffing and playing fast and loose with the facts. (But we already know how little facts matter.) When it was not the facts, it was just disingenuous bullshit – him stating with false concern in his voice that he is running for president to help the middle class and because people are suffering. Suffering? What would Romney understand of suffering – either in reality or conceptually? After his “47% of people are freeloaders who do not care about their own well-being (and who believe they are somehow entitled to food!?)” comments (which sounded very real and sincere, particularly since he did not know he was being watched or filmed), I do not see how anyone can trust him or regard anything else he says as honest.

While I fully understand that Obama did not roll out his best debate performance, I think most pundits and commentators, and indeed people, lose sight of the fact that these debates are merely that – performances. A 90-minute event, hitting an imaginary ball back and forth. What does the behavior of each candidate in the debate tell us about how he might govern? Maybe nothing. Maybe it will tell us that Romney will continue to flip-flop and change his mind and pander to whomever he is speaking to at any given time. (The “Etch-a-Sketch” presidency to which various media outlets are constantly referring.) Beyond which, we never heard a single specific thing Romney might do other than throw Jim Lehrer (as well as Big Bird) out on his ass by cutting funding to PBS (as if that would contribute so much to deficit reduction).

I feel that the incumbent president, despite needing to fight for his job, has an obligation to be a bit less aggressive and more sober. After all, he is the sitting president. He is still doing the job of the president. He needs to be a bit less defensive and more reflective. That said, Obama may have done well to refer to some of Romney’s gaffes, tying the extensive talk about Medicare and health care to Romney’s careless and heartless comments on the “freeloading” half of the population for whom Romney supposedly felt such compassion on debate night. (And maybe only on debate night. And even if we give Romney the benefit of the doubt and assume that he does actually care about people and their suffering, the idea that he talks about them in disparaging terms in certain company but paints a totally different picture in other company, illustrates clearly how he will say whatever he needs to say but never just stands his ground and, more broadly, lacks character and conviction.)

In another broad sense, I am constantly amazed – but somehow not remotely surprised – by how basic political conversations (like the debates, including all the debates in the last few election seasons) are surface level and not at all substantive things. Worst of all, the commentators and media idiots follow the debates with opinions that claim the debate/discussion was “heavy on policy” and “wonky” … are people so lowest common denominator that just mentioning the word “policy” or “plan” in a debate somehow makes people edgy and bored and makes them think they are hearing something complex and in-depth? It pains me, and perhaps it always has, to think that the media feed this kind of opinion to consumers, in part because American consumers ARE fast-food and surface-level in their approach and in part because they have been conditioned to be this way by a crumbling, uneven education system and a media that focuses on entertainment, sound bites and the short-term game over real analysis and long-term views (and yes, facts). The debate was disappointing to me not because Romney, in media review, “kicked Obama’s ass” but because the American media and American public actually view the debate process this way at all – a win-lose competition as opposed to an exchange and debate of ideas and differences between two candidates (and parties). What we saw was one desperate man who would have said anything he had to to “win” and another man who just did not seem to want to be there at all.

-End of rant!-

By the end of the debate, the baked goods had been redistributed (what a socialist I am!) to three floors of the building, and freely available (even to those who share the building with us but do not work in our company). One day perhaps I will identify an easier, more streamlined way to bring the baked goods to work, but for now, it remains a challenge.

Dulce de leche bundt cake
1 1/2 cups dulce de leche (for an easy dulce de leche recipe, click here)
1 cup softened butter
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt (if you used unsalted butter)
3 cups flour

Preheat oven to 350F/175C.

Butter and flour a 12-cup bundt cake pan.

Whisk dry ingredients together and set aside.

Cream butter and brown sugar together until light and fluffy. Add one cup of dulce de leche. Mix well, then add the eggs one at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl after each addition. Mix in the vanilla.

Turn mixer to low speed and alternately add in the dry ingredient mixture with the buttermilk.

Mix until just combined. Put about half the batter into the prepared bundt pan. Using the other 1/2 cup of dulce de leche, add the dulce de leche to the cake, making a ring of the dulce de leche in the center of the cake batter in the pan. Once this is done, carefully add the rest of the batter evenly on top of the ring of dulce de leche. Smooth it out.

Bake about 50 to 55 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the center of the center comes out clean.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for about 20 minutes before inverting the cake onto a wire rack to remove from the pan. Allow the cake to cool completely.

You could create a caramel sauce for the cake before serving, or do as I did – simply sift vanilla sugar on top of the cake.