Category Archives: Politics

Ten Years Old

Ten years ago today, I registered the domain name tomhop.com for the first time. This Web site remains as infrequently visited now as it has been since before Al Gore was chosen as President by a majority of the American electorate.

I’ve been renewing the domain once a year ever since; I’ve never renewed for more than a year, because in a way, I’m always astounded that the Web as we know it, as we experience it, continues to exist. It’s already a difficult-for-a-layperson-to-fully-grasp quadrillion-tentacled octopus. But I keep expecting it to be, say, colonized by zombie-clouds run by the Swedish mob, or poached by a consortium of Romanian aspirin-by-mail dealers, or purchased outright by a shadow holding company of cryogenically frozen pharmaceutical-industry billionaire gangster-tycoons.

In the past week, I’ve been digging through a few years of infrequent posts—I can’t imagine what it’s like to dig through old posts when you write a blog more frequently than once or twice a month—and one thing I’ve been reminded of is that links become dead rather quickly. Over the years, they also go dead rather thoroughly. Also—and this is not unrelated—the written posts with what feels like the longest shelf life are the ones that are meant to stand alone. Not writing meant to point elsewhere, or comment on something that someone else wrote, published somewhere else—just short things, nothing but what they are, sent out into the void.

Whatever the lesson is there, it applies to everything, I think.

I’m with Senator Coco

Senator CocoAugust 2009, in an alternate universe: Ted Kennedy dies; Conan O’Brien has been hosting The Tonight Show for just shy of three months, but it is already clear to NBC executives that, to them, the new guy is just not working out; at the same time, Jay Leno has decided that he doesn’t really want to do The Jay Leno Show at all, so plans for the new show are scrapped, and Leno returns to his old job; Conan O’Brien, more devastated at the news of the death of the great legislator than he is at the loss of his relatively new hosting gig, and casting about for his next career move, makes a brisk, ambitious, and inspired decision: he moves back to his hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts with his family, establishes residency, and announces his campaign for senate, all during the month of September; Coco wins the primary in December handily, and in January 2010, defeats Republican Scott Brown in a landslide.

In this alternate universe that is entirely identical to our universe except for these two wrongs made into one right, the logic of O’Brien succeeding Kennedy is clear to everyone: after the candidacy, victory, and eventual seating of fellow Saturday Night Live veteran Al Franken, the idea of a comedian senator is not just not unusual, but even desirable to Democrats, who find themselves constantly on the verge of tears these days; the commonality between the two men of strong Irish Catholic family backgrounds (Kennedy the youngest of nine children, O’Brien the third of six) is poignant and meaningful for many Massachusetts voters, who take the responsibility of choosing their next senator quite seriously; the Harvard connection means something as well; the state is joyous—ecstatic, even—in welcoming home a local boy made good.

O’Brien brings his entire staff with him to Boston, all of whom transition quite easily, it is reported, from entertainment to politics; the campaign is generally regarded by the public and the media as the funniest in the nation’s history. Scott Brown, on election day in January 2010, is caught on camera chuckling to himself as he leaves the voting booth. He tells reporters that he couldn’t help it—he, like nearly everyone in the state, voted for O’Brien. His opponent’s last campaign speech had been just too hilarious. Coco, the former Cosmo centerfold tells the cameras, deserves to be the next senator from Massachusetts.

Jay Leno, in the meantime, after only a few months of being back as host of The Tonight Show, decides that the franchise itself has been cursed. Its ratings, and viewers, had never quite returned to the levels where they’d once been. The thrill, he realizes, is gone as well; over the summer of 2009, he’d developed a taste for not being on television every night, and for spending more quality time with his vast automobile collection. In January 2010, Leno abruptly quits. (NBC executives, in what is described in a press release as a bold, audacious, and outside-the-box move, hire Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin away from their jobs at the Fox News Channel as the new Johnny and Ed; the show, and its co-hosts, subsequently wither away into obscurity.) Leno, inspired by O’Brien’s career shift to a life of service, moves back to his hometown of Andover, Massachusetts, bringing with him all of his many cars. Having announced that he, too, is retiring from the entertainment business for good, he begins work as a part-time guidance counselor and shop instructor at Andover High.

(N.B.: Image borrowed from Mike Mitchell.)

A Completely Different State Solution

I can remember driving with my late father through western Pennsylvania. He was struck by the amount of land without a human figure in it. So much space! After a long silence, in a traveler’s trance resembling the chessboard trance, he said, ‘Ah, how many Jews might have been settled here! Room enough for everybody.’

—Saul Bellow, The Bellarosa Connection (p. 79 in the 1989 Penguin paperback ed.) (Thanks, Ted!)

Two Thoughts

1) Isn’t the whole thing a bit like having sex for the first time? Certainly not everybody’s experience of sex for the first time. (And perhaps this analogy only applies to the experience of voting with these trusty-yet-antiquated AVM Lever Machines that we still have here in New York.) But there’s this enormous, years-long build up; there are many emotions involved, and appeals to the emotions; there are grand promises of great things; there are ominous warnings of grave dangers; there are arguments, supplications, woo pitches. And then what it comes down to is nothing really quite like any of those things: it comes down to this somewhat awkward, somewhat private moment, in a private space with the curtains drawn, where you’re nervous, and feeling a bit unprepared in spite of whatever preparations you might have made, and you’re facing a foreign landscape, with perhaps not exactly the lighting you’d hoped for, and you’re wondering exactly which lever is the right one for you to tug at.

And then, when it’s all over, there’s this completely irrational anxiety: maybe you didn’t actually tug the right lever after all?

2) All this new technology. This Internet thing, Web thing, Web two-point-oh thing. All the constant conversation in all media about the import and the impact of the new media. Blogs! Television commercials! Streaming video! Blogs streaming video of television commercials over your social-network thing! Rumors wrapped inside a homemade subconscious fear packed inside a hate mail! My comment-box orgy! My viral thingy book! My credit-card two-point-oh tube!

And then, at the end of it all—again, maybe only in New York, maybe only with these AVM machines—it’s like walking out of the early twenty-first century and into a down-on-its-luck soda fountain in the Midwest, one run by, say, Miss Havisham, and being asked to crank the handle of a Victrola, and then to carefully drop the needle down on your favorite 78.

Clintonian Rhapsody

I’ve been thinking recently about a short story I wrote while I was at NYU, in a workshop with Breyten Breytenbach in the fall of 2003. The story, like this post, is titled “Clintonian Rhapsody.” I’ve been thinking about this paragraph in particular:

Bill Clinton lay his head on his desk. He was tired. He was tired more and more these days, he thought. Tired and sad, possessed by an ennui he’d never known before. Certainly not while he’d been President. He wondered if he needed a coffee. He wondered if he needed prescription meds, if that would help ease the pain. He wondered if he should start keeping a diary, a record of his melancholy, if that would help him, or help others, others who felt this ennui too. He could even start a weblog, like the kids all seemed to do these days. He liked keeping tabs on what the kids were up to. But surely his life already was his diary? The record of his accomplishments? Didn’t men such as he leave the record of their days in the history books, in the betterment of the lives of others? In the records written by others? Sure, he had things to do now, he had a very busy schedule, but it just never felt nearly as good, nearly as significant, and he had these small windows, windows of fifteen minutes here and there, alone at his desk, looking out at the Harlem skyline, in which to brood, and sometimes weep. Maybe he should run for President again, if Hillary did not. Would the people want him back? Maybe, he realized, he was just avoiding his own deadlines. Maybe he should just buck up and get to it on the book he had a contract to write. Maybe that was his diary. Maybe that would be his solace.

Clinton explains, later in the story, while talking to a kid who’s been blogging from the top of a Ponderosa pine in the Nebraska National Forest: “‘My understanding is that the two-term limit only applies to contiguous terms.'” This is, of course, not true. But if Wikipedia is to be believed (and the link from the relevant footnote citation is no longer good, so take this with the usual Wikipedian grain of salt), Clinton has said that he is in favor of tweaking the twenty-second amendment to make a third non-consecutive term possible. Who knew?

The story is really quite nuts—its cast also includes the Delphic Oracle, George W. Bush, the Monkey King, God, and the Supreme Court, among many others—too nuts to ever submit anywhere. (Which somewhat allays the vaguely navel-gazey feeling of quoting myself in this space; also, I’d like to think my writing has gotten better in the past four years.) But the reason I’ve been thinking about it—and the thing that executes this idea in a much more incisive fashion—is The Onion’s hilarious “Bill Clinton: ‘Screw It, I’m Running For President,’” from two weeks ago:

Although some have pointed out that it is unconstitutional for Clinton to run for a third term in office, he has silenced most critics by urging voters ‘not to worry about the Constitution for now’ and assuring them he will address those legal issues immediately after regaining control of the White House.

‘All I am asking of the American people is four more years,’ Clinton said at a fundraiser Tuesday where tens of thousands of South Carolinians gathered to stare in gape-jawed wonderment at the former president. ‘Well, maybe eight. Actually, you know what, definitely eight. Eight more years.’

Anyway, I’m voting for Obama on Tuesday.

The Best of All Possible Democracies

Because I just moved last week, when I went to the polling site for my new precinct yesterday, I had to fill out a paper ballot. The ballot itself was straightforward, although the note that said that my entire vote would be voided should I fill in one standardized test-like oval incorrectly was a little intimidating, and the light was rather dim sitting at a folding table in the foyer of the borough’s municipal building with my ballot shielded for privacy by a rough-hewn scrap of corrugated cardboard, folded in thirds like a fire screen. I didn’t need to show any identification to vote; I just had to put the ballot in an envelope, seal it, write my name on the outside along with my old and new addresses—but then what? The precinct staffers said I needed to stuff the envelope in the ballot box. Which was where? On the folding table, sitting next to the cardboard privacy shield—it wasn’t obvious that the thing was for ballots, though, what with the bottom flaps being only loosely folded together, not taped up; also, the hole on top, also roughly carved, was hidden by a police officer’s hat and ticket book, making it seem like this was not a popular method for the precinct (although reportedly the preferred technique elsewhere).

Walking away from the jury-rigged little box, I wondered, is that poor wee vote in there really going to be counted?

But then I thought, on the other hand, I knew where to go to vote; no one tried to keep me from getting there, either through lies or threats or other thuggery; I didn’t have to wait in line; I didn’t have to use a poorly—or maliciously—designed machine; and the poll workers, although disorganized in a let’s-put-on-a-show-in-the-barn kind of way, were likewise well-intentioned.

But then I thought, in the world’s oldest living democracy, is it so crazy to hope for just a slightly better baseline?

Rumors on the Internets

From The Book of Lists #2, in section 21, “Loose Ends,” item #6 (“The Wired Nation”) in the list “6 Outrageous Plans that Didn’t Happen” (on p. 483 of the Bantam Books paperback, which came out in 1980, and which I was completely obsessed with for years):

In his book The Shadow Presidents, author Michael Medved relates the extreme disappointment of H. R. Haldeman over his failure to implement his plan to link up all the homes in America by coaxial cable. In Haldeman’s words, “There would be two-way communication. Through computer, you could use your television set to order up whatever you wanted. The morning paper, entertainment services, shopping services, coverage of sporting events and public events.… Just as Eisenhower linked up the nation’s cities by highways so that you could get there, the Nixon legacy would have linked them by cable communications so you wouldn’t have to go there.” One can almost see the dreamy eyes of Nixon and Haldeman as they sat around discussing a plan that would eliminate the need for newspapers, seemingly oblivious to its Big Brother aspects. Fortunately, the Watergate scandal intervened, and Nixon was forced to resign before “the Wired Nation” could be hooked up.

This paragraph has been reproduced elsewhere on the Internet at least twice that I’ve been able to find (on two different weblogs; first in a post from October 12, 2004, here, and also in a post from October 28, 2004, here).

When I first reread this quote myself, my reaction was something along the lines of: How funny that Haldeman would seek to bring about something not too dissimilar from the home-computer-and-cable-modem-and-World-Wide-Web future as it actually evolved from (what my rusty mental history of technology in America tells me would have been the then-discrete) ARPANET and the cable television industry of the early ’70s; and how funny that David Wallechinsky (one of the editors of the book, and the co-author who wrote that particular list) would, in the late ’70s, conclude that such a system would naturally be totalitarian, when the reality has proven, rather, to be successfully anarchic!

More recently, though, it’s occurred to me that maybe Wallechinsky was onto something.

Red-County Tourism

On a day trip to Buffalo, at one of the stores we visited—I can’t remember exactly which one, it might have been the glass shop—the proprietress asked us where we were from. Brooklyn, we said. She visibly shuddered, either an enormous unconscious tic of revulsion, or a conscious and theatrical desire to communicate her disgust. She had her eyes turned down, looking at the counter, wrapping something, I think, when I swear I heard her mutter under her breath: “All those people.” Which is not a polite reaction anywhere, but you’d think that someone in a town with a big tourist economy—where every store on the main drag, regardless of its stated purpose (hardware, cigars, knitting, etc.), has some kind of cowboy tchotchke or other for sale up front—would keep it to herself.

It reminded me of this old, hare-brained idea I had for red county tourism. Remember the amazing maps that a Princeton engineering professor made of the county-by-county breakdown of the 2004 election results (“Purple America“)? And how one of the interpretations of those maps (fuck if I can find where I read this originally, though) was essentially that at places where people interact with people who are not like themselves, such as big cities, ports, rivers, borders, tourist towns—i.e., heterogeneous intersections of human commerce—the citizenry tended to vote Democratic, whereas in isolated counties, remote towns, places that are insulated from the outside world, buffered by other counties—homogeneous places that no one visits much—people tended to vote Republican?

Thus, red county tourism. What if the French, say, bypassed New York City and chose to explore the wonders of Garfield County, Montana, instead? Perhaps they could check out the Hell Creek Fossil Area. What if the Dutch vacationed in Sioux County, Iowa? If Luxembourgians and Belgians made a faddish destination of the U.S. Sheep Experimental Station of Clark County, Idaho? What if New Yorkers, for that matter, all decided that the latest thing was camping out on the banks of the Draw River in Glasscock County, Texas, or Stinking Water Creek in Hays County, Nebraska?

As a New Yorker, I like to think that all the world would be a better place if people could just meet, and buy lots of crap from, people different from themselves. I’d like to think that the minds of the shuddering glass shop ladies of the world might be opened. I suppose the only way to know for sure, though, is to put my money where my mouth is. Utah Field House of Natural History State Park, here I come!

Talk about Rain

This past Saturday night, at about 6:55pm, I was walking home from a bike shop in my neighborhood. I cut down South 5th Place, a short connecting street by the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, bordering tiny Continental Army Plaza. Parked at the corner with South 5th Street, right at the entrance to the pedestrian walkway, I saw a television news van with its transmitter up. A TV news reporter and a cameraman stood next to the van, facing each other. The reporter held a microphone in his hand, but he was not lit. Both appeared to be just standing there silently, in the dark, in the rain, waiting.

Not such a strange sight, of course, but it made me curious as to what had happened in the neighborhood that merited a story on the local news. So five minutes later, back at home, I turned on the television, and there again was the reporter, lit now and talking: this was the lead. I was even more curious. The story? It was raining. A lot. The reporter pointed at the cars climbing onto the bridge behind him; although it was raining a lot, he said, as we could see, the traffic was not slowing down. The segment cut to interviews earlier in the day with regular citizens in the street. One said she did not mind the rain. Another said she actually kind of liked it. New Yorkers were shown tip-toeing through puddles. A tree had fallen somewhere in the greater metropolitan area, and somewhere else, people were without power. But for the most part, the reporter concluded, this rain was not a problem for New York. (He didn’t mention that people were dying in southwestern New Hampshire.)

We are all meteorologists now.

So shouldn’t we all be also talking about this?

And even doing something about it?

(Mike Davis article, originally on TomDispatch.com, here, also republished on The Nation‘s Web site, here.)

Help

(Not that the three of you who check in here on a regular basis don’t already know this stuff, but here goes.)

In addition the the Red Cross, NPR has a list of other places to make cash donations here. BoingBoing has a gazillion useful posts. Terry Teachout and Our Girl in Chicago have compiled a huge list of hugely helpful links here, everything from news to craigslist NOLA to this thing.

Addendum: This thing has been extended for the whole weekend. Laren is lending her support to Second Harvest. A NOLA friend also pointed out just how incredibly important Habitat for Humanity is going to be in the coming year, or years.

Finally, Maud has another post of helpful links; go here, scroll down.