Monday, April 25, 2016

I Will Never Lie to You About Having Sex With That Crook

“I am not a crook.” Richard Nixon.

That has always been one of my favorites. He was of course. But that was the least of it. He was also a paranoid bigot.

After Tricky Dick we had a bit of a backlash to presidential dishonesty and elected Jimmy Carter, who promised, “I will never lie to you.”

All that moral integrity turned out to be too wimpy for our taste, though, so we tossed the peanut farmer from Plains for a movie cowboy with barely credible black hair and a twinkle in his eyes who promised a new morning in America. If you weren’t poor. Or a woman (he killed the ERA). Also he didn’t fund the Contras in Nicaragua with secret illegal arms sales to Iran. Reagan’s defense when he came clean was that he didn’t know the details. At least that was credible. He never knew the details.

“Read my lips, no new taxes.” George H. W. Bush. Oh, except those new taxes. Had to do it. Wouldn’t be prudent not to.

“I did not have sex with that woman.” Well, not that kind of sex, at least not with that one, but close enough. (And, on that subject, let’s not even get started on Kennedy. Which one? Any of them.)

And the saddest, to me personally, uttered by my latest hero: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Oops, there it is, right there in the Syrian sand, a red line. Imagine that.

I’m not saying politicians are congenital liars. They’re just…well, politicians. Sometimes they just get carried away telling us what we want to hear. Othertimes they get caught at some Machiavellian skulduggery or taking a wide stance in the men’s bathroom stall. So they duck. Backpedal. Lie. Cover up.They’re like toddlers caught doing something they know they’re not supposed to. It’s kind of amusing, really.

Amusing! You’re shocked, you say, that I find humor is such grave breaches of public trust. It’s not that, honest. It’s just that I find humor in human nature. Look at your kids. Look at yourself. See what I mean? Really, is it reasonable to expect more from our elected officials? (Other than Jimmy Carter, who was so humorless we got bored with him.) They are only human, after all.

So if trust is not the proper yardstick, what is? The answer is simple: policies.

But if we can’t trust them, how do we know they will flow through with their policies?

Good question. We don’t, not entirely. But there is a momentum to policy. There are a Congress and a Cabinet. A lot of people get behind policies. The president is the leader, but he or she is leading a big herd. The herd is going to keep going, even if the president suddenly decides he or she wants to go the other way. Herds have momentum. And ultimately a collective mind of their own.

So who do you want to be your wrangler? That’s the question you have to ask yourself. Do you want the herd to go east or west? Who’s mapping the route to green pastures and who’s asking Siri for the location of the nearest slaughterhouse? Maybe the candidates want the job for the wrong reasons. Maybe they were thrown out of the last town they were in. Maybe they hit the bottle a little too hard. But whatever their honesty, or your impression of it, they aren’t going to get the herd where you want it to go if they set off in the wrong direction.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Good Taste and Terrorism

Raise your hand if you love “rose gold” (the newish color for Apple products). Me, not so much. I don’t know why. I just don’t. Maybe because it’s ugly.

But wait. I can’t say that. Not about an Apple color. Not me, one of their die-hard fan-boys. Besides, it sells like crazy. Could I be wrong?

Where I grew up, in the South, good taste was a matter of high snobbery, an ineffable mark of good breeding and class. It was like blue eyes or a great physique, except for people who had neither. “Yes, she has a certain animal appeal, but her clothes are so common.”

We used to call bad taste “tacky.” Too bright. Too showy. Of course, we were Puritan stock, so sartorial modesty was deep in our DNA. I remember the first time I went to an Indian wedding after I moved to LA. All those bright colors. I was new to learning about the world and it was at first hard to reconcile my “ bright is tacky” heritage with my affection for the father of the bride. A similar internal conflict arose within me when my grandmother returned from five years in Bangkok with a closet full of Thai dresses. I think we gave them all away when she died; no one in our Southern family wanted them. I was an idiot then. I admit it. I have purged most of those biases. All but rose gold.

Go with me now as I wander down a similar path to the Stanford Mall. I’m sitting at an outside table, eating a sandwich and working on a story, when a person-sized robot rolls by. It has cameras all around it and it emits an eerie Twilight-Zone music (presumably so you’ll know it’s there and not bump into it). Once in a while it announces that it is a security robot. 

Okay, a little creepy, but fine. As I sit there, though, it comes back by a half-dozen times. I begin to imagine that it is focusing on me. I wonder if I fit some security profile. I’m a white man out in the middle of the day. Out of work? Disaffected? I have a black backpack with me. I think about giving it the finger. I wonder what it would do if I put black tape over its cameras.

I do not like to be surveilled. I moved all the way from Nashville to Los Angeles specifically to get out of reach of my father’s surveillance network. Anonymity has always offered me a kind of private bliss. As I imagine religion might offer others.

That same day, I read about a PhD student at Berkeley who was escorted off a Southwest flight and questioned by the FBI for three hours because he was speaking to his uncle on the telephone in Arabic. “Inshallah,” he said at the end of the call. Big mistake. Everyone who has watched thrillers knows that’s what the bad-guys say right before the bomb goes off.

So what does that have to do with rose gold? That color (or choose one you don’t like) is the other. Those people (speakers of strange languages) are the other. We don’t like them. If prompted, we fear them. Enter the flight attendants who ask you to leave the plane. Enter the security robot at the mall.

I admit to internal turmoil. I want us all to be left alone, but not so much so that we kill one another. There’s an inherent conflict there. I know that.

All this got me wondering, again, why I don’t like rose gold. There’s the raised by Puritans explanation. I do favor black and white. But it’s more than not liking rose gold: I think its ugly. Why do I take that step? Wouldn’t it be sufficient to say (which I do, except in meditations like this), hey if you like it, great. But secretly, some part of me feels, hey, if you like it, there’s something wrong with you. Definitely not raised by Puritans.

I’m civilized enough not to say these things out loud. “Nice, phone dude,” is what I say. But why do I feel that tiny frisson of disgust? What part of evolution has brought that on?

It’s adaptive, I suppose. The other might kill you. Whether it’s the guys in the next cave or the mushroom you have never seen before. This is the root of taste as a matter of survival. That and middle school.

We want pluralistic societies. We want tolerance for differences. Indeed, we must have those things if we are to survive as a species as we wash up over one another in the rising tide of humanity. Eventually, with exposure, we get used to the differences among us. It seems to take a lot of exposure, though, and a lot of time. I hope we get there in something faster than the speed at which we learned to walk upright.

And maybe by then I will think rose gold is beautiful.