Oct 142016
 

We’re a little more than three weeks away from the end of this waking nightmare of an election and I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted by Trump’s descent into a toxic wasteland of paranoid nationalism and cultural resentment. I’m exhausted by his supporters’ terrifying ardor for a man who is just a few more bad news cycles away from giving a Nazi salute at a rally. I’m exhausted by the cowardice and opportunism of a Republican establishment that allowed a raging bully and sexual predator to come within a few percentage points of the American presidency. I’m exhausted by the hate and bigotry that shows up with alarming frequency on my Twitter feed, which I now check compulsively throughout the day.

I feel as if I’m living through the opening chapters of one of those dystopian novels that I’ve read over the years. I always enjoyed those books because I could enjoy the spectacle of our ruin from the vantage of my relatively safe and enlightened reality. The rise of Trump now has me questioning how long that reality can endure.

To be clear, I’m reasonably certain that Clinton will win this election and it might not even be close. With a little luck, Democrats might also take the Senate, although a House majority is probably beyond their reach. A resounding Clinton victory will give me some comfort, at least temporarily. But this election will leave open wounds that won’t heal anytime soon. Too many Americans have lost trust in government, science, the media, and other civic institutions. This mistrust has been building for a while, but Trump has skillfully fanned the flames, convincing millions that only a strongman can stand up to the elites who are ruining the country. I can imagine another self-styled populist–someone more stable and disciplined–following a similar playbook in four years and finding more success with voters.

Perhaps Clinton will be able to work with Congress to pass some kind of jobs and infrastructure program that will restore some faith in our elected officials and give people hope for the future. Perhaps the Republican Party will reshape itself into a party that emphasizes economic and regulatory issues over cultural issues, leaving the racists and reactionaries without a home. Our country has survived more serious threats to our democracy without succumbing to authoritarian rule, so we can survive a huckster like Trump. Yet we can’t afford complacency. This election has revealed cracks in our foundation that must be repaired before the whole thing crumbles.

Jul 242016
 

Comic-Con is wrapping up in San Diego and, once again, I was not in attendance. Here are a few related news items that have my geek senses tingling:

  • CBS unveiled a teaser for its forthcoming Star Trek series, which is now titled Star Trek: Discovery (which is also the name of starship featured in the teaser). I dig the sleek look of the Discovery and the title seems to imply that the show will be exploring new territory in the Trek universe. Showrunner Bryan Fuller has confirmed that the show will be set in the original Trek universe rather than the rebooted universe of the recent movies, which appeals to the purist in me. I’m still unhappy about having to pay another fee to watch the series on CBS’ crappy subscription service, but I gotta have my fix.
  • Incidentally, I saw Star Trek Beyond over the weekend and really enjoyed it. After the grim rehash that was Into Darkness, Beyond provides plenty of screen time to all of the main characters while spinning an interesting and sometimes surprising story. I’m already looking forward to the next installment.
  • The next season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will air on Netflix. Hopefully, this means that we’ll get additional seasons of Jonah and the bots riffing on bad movies.
  • A Wonder Woman movie set during World War I? Yes, please.
Jul 162016
 

No, the Ghostsbusters reboot did not ruin my childhood. It’s been a disappointing summer movie season replete with misfires, but Ghostbusters is a funny and charming evening at the cinema. The entire cast has great chemistry, which helps sell even some of the weaker jokes. Kate McKinnon, in particular, delivers a delightfully weird performance that sometimes borders on the truly absurd. It lacks some of the original’s freshness, but how could it be otherwise? The 1984 blended comedy and spectacle in a way that hadn’t really been done before and today’s audiences are much more difficult to impress. The reboot doesn’t try to impress; it just wants to show you a good time, an skill that many blockbusters have forgotten.

Be sure to stay for the final scene after the credits roll. It offers a hint at a possible sequel that should excite fans of the original. I hope we get to see it.

Jul 142016
 

Jerika Bolen is 14 and, like me, has a fairly severe form of spinal muscular atrophy. She lives in Appleton, Wisconsin, not far from where I grew up. And later this summer, she will voluntarily have her ventilator removed because she wants to die. Jerika cites her intractable pain as her primary motivation for ending her life and the linked article describes the numerous surgeries that she’s endured in hopes that they would bring her some relief. Unfortunately, nothing seems to have worked.

If you’re expecting me to condemn or express outrage at Jerika’s decision, I’m going to disappoint you. I’ve long believed that teenagers have the right to make medical decisions for themselves, including the decision to withdraw treatment. She seems like a bright young woman who has spent a lot of time weighing her choice before concluding it was the necessary thing to do. But I’m saddened that pain is the prime factor behind her decision. This disability we share affects everyone differently and I know that many people struggle with chronic pain related to SMA. I’m fortunate to not be living in pain and I have a difficult time even imagining what that must be like. Medical science still seems to be groping in the dark when it comes to pain management.

Jerika is planning a prom to celebrate her life. I hope it’s a memorable party.

May 172016
 

I haven’t commented much on the state of the Democratic race, mostly because it hasn’t been terribly interesting. It’s been clear since mid-March that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee, even though Bernie Sanders’ populist message has resonated with millions of voters. But as the race winds down, I’m a little concerned with the behavior of some Sanders supporters who don’t seem prepared to acknowledge that their guy has lost. During last weekend’s Democratic state convention, a dispute between Sanders supporters and the party establishment regarding obscure delegate rules turned chaotic and security had to clear the room to prevent full-scale violence. According to news reports, neither side handled matters well, but Sanders supporters later sent death threats to the party chairwoman.

Rather than quickly and forthrightly condemning the people making these threats, Sanders issues a long-winded statement that seems more interested in picking another fight with the Nevada Democratic Party. That’s his prerogative,  but this episode only reinforces perceptions that a small but vocal minority of Sanders supporters are motivated by aggressive misogyny rather than a commitment to progressive politics.

This whole thing will likely be forgotten by the convention and most Democrats will coalesce around Clinton, but the party should consider ways to reach out to those who may be participating in Democratic politics for the first time and who may retreat to the margins if they feel excluded. The party should also make it clear that violence and misogyny will never be tolerated and it should pressure Sanders to do the same.

For the record, I’m not enthusiastic about either candidate. I’d much rather have a third Obama term after he systematically tears down Trump’s id-driven campaign, but the 22nd Amendment forces me to imagine what could have been.

May 072016
 

I’m saddened to hear that my local comics shop, Big Brain Comics, is closing next month. And I feel a little guilty about not patronizing it more in recent years. Ever since comics became widely available in digital format, my trips to Big Brain have become far less frequent. But back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon for me to drop close to $100 in a single visit. In fact, Big Brain played a huge role in helping me rediscover comics. I read a lot of comics during my frequent hospitalizations as a kid, but they were difficult to find in hometown of Green Bay. I stumbled across Big Brain soon after I bought my place in downtown Minneapolis and it soon became one of my favorite walking destinations. The owner, Michael Drivas, was always happy to help me find things or make recommendations. My spare bedroom is filled with stacks of comics purchased from Big Brain.

Today is Free Comic Book Day, so I think I’ll pay a visit to Big Brain and perhaps purchase a handsome collected volume as a final “thank you” to a place that encouraged me to let my geek flag fly.

Mar 162016
 

This election cycle keeps getting weirder. Conservative elites—still grappling with the rise of Trump—are now pointing their fingers at white working-class voters and blaming them for the current state of affairs. They aren’t mincing words, either. Here’s Kevin Williamson in the National Review:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy—which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog—you will come to an awful realization. … The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.

Now, most people won’t care about some diatribe in a conservative magazine. But a growing class rift could spell problems for the Republican Party. For decades, the GOP exploited the cultural and economic anxieties of “downscale” white voters in order to win elections. They promised that tax cuts and less government spending would create prosperity for all. They also promised to resurrect a traditional American culture that would keep women and assorted “others” marginalized.

Trump voters are no longer buying what the conservative establishment is trying to sell them, at least in terms of economics. And the demographics and culture of the nation continue to shift rapidly. If the establishment has alienated one of their core constituencies, does the GOP transform into a more overtly populist and nativist party? I’m not sure that’s a viable party for winning national elections. Or does it schism into a Trump party and a conservative party? If we see more attacks from conservative elites on working-class elites, a schism seems likely.

Mar 042016
 

As we watch the GOP immolate itself in a dumpster fire of spectacular proportions, I’ve been thinking about Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? In his book, Frank tries to understand why working-class people vote for Republican candidates who appeal to their cultural values but, once elected, do very little to address their economic interests. He argues that they have been duped into voting against their own interests in order to give cover to politicians who enact policies that solely benefit the wealthy and corporations. Frank wondered how long this could continue before those same voters realized they were being used and rose up in anger against the Republican establishment.

The rise of Trump may be the answer to that question. Trump, in his own crude but vigorous fashion,  freely expresses the economic and cultural anxieties of many conservatives. He makes them feel heard while the other Republican candidates have struggled to connect with voters. And he makes vague promises of swift solutions without delving into boring policy details. Trump isn’t terribly interested in slashing entitlements or banning abortion and neither are his supporters. They have found their champion in a super-rich New Yorker with a checkered business record and a bottomless appetite for self-promotion. The irony of all this would be singularly delicious if the implications for our country weren’t so dire.

The implosion of the Republican Party has given birth to a dangerously authoritarian and xenophobic movement which is likely to persist even if Trump is defeated in November. There may not be enough Trump sympathizers to secure the presidency, but they could further destabilize our brittle, flailing political system. We need to find ways to boost prosperity and security for all Americans before we teeter into a future that is truly dystopian. I just wish I could feel more confident that it’s not too late.

Dec 312015
 
  • Music: Two albums that kept me interested from beginning to end were Grimes’ Art Angels and Jamie xx’s In Colour. I liked Grimes’ last album, Visions, well enough, but I wasn’t prepared for the pop mastery she displays on her latest. Over several tracks that range from gauzy pop confection to spare piano ballads, Grimes paints a self-portrait of an artist in full command of her craft and who will not tolerate any bullshit. In Colour is a guided tour of electronic music of the past two decades, filtered through Jamie xx’s ear for melody and a good beat. The chorus in “Loud Places” is one of the best musical payoffs I heard this year.
  • Books: Two books that stayed with me this year both addressed the beauty and peril to be found in life’s randomness. Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life follows the multiple fates of a British woman who lives and dies repeatedly in the first half of the twentieth century, while Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel introduces us to a traveling theater troupe navigating a bleak postapocalyptic America. Each book beautifully illustrates how small events can ripple through time to shape the lives of people we will never meet.

I’d like wish my readers (all ten of you!) a happy and safe New Year. Perhaps we can create a few of our own ripples in 2016.

Dec 282015
 

You didn’t think I would let the year end without offering my annual and entirely unsolicited take on my favorite slices of pop culture from the past year, did you?

  • TV: Even I had a difficult time keeping up with the overwhelming quantity of scripted and unscripted television that networks and streaming outlets produced this year. It’s an embarrassment of riches, but I wonder how long this can go on before economic forces catch up with the ambitions of creators and executives. As in past years, shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead kept me thoroughly entertained, even if the writers made some questionable plotting decisions along the way. Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, a visually stunning adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel, is a grim look at life in an occupied America.  Netflix’s Jessica Jones took a minor character from the Marvel universe and delivered a gripping noir that addresses the lingering aftermath of sexual assault and challenges our traditional notions of villainy. And Stephen Colbert made The Late Show his own, demonstrating that his wit and intelligence could thrive beyond the confines of the character that he played for the past nine years.
  • Movies: I had a lot of fun at the opening day of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. While the script calls out the first movie in ways both obvious and subtle, this is definitely a Star Wars film for the 21st century. The younger cast members, particularly Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, are a pleasure to watch and I can’t wait to see what the next episode brings. But the movie that captivated me the most this year was Mad Max: Fury Road. The title is misleading because Max isn’t the movie’s focus; it’s the young women escaping a predatory tyrant and their champion, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). This is their story and Max is quite literally along for the ride. And it’s a ride that is brilliantly executed by director George Miller, a demented car chase through a Technicolor wasteland that features actual cars careening into each other. Also, a flame-throwing electric guitar.

Later this week: music and books!