When I started this hybrid free/subscription email newsletter ten whole days ago, America was a very different place. Birds sang. Brooks babbled. Fawns gamboled through verdant meadows. And the 2020 presidential election didn’t loom quite so enormous.
To be candid: I started this newsletter, in no small part, to get away from writing about politics, which was really how I started out. I don’t want to be writing about politics so much anymore - maybe, at all. Why subject oneself to this shit, unbidden, all day every day? Why anger yourself, to no effective end, every day, over and over - the mental equivalent of locking yourself in a rock tumbler every morning and hoping to not get a headache this time?
No, I said. 2020 would be different. 2016 was as bad as it could possibly get, for its time; any feint into politics, no matter how gingerly done, was like stepping onto a python’s midsection. In 2020, 2016 would look like a mere pilot program, the way World War I tank battles were just a crude precursor of carnage to come. If you’re at all of the left, the twenty scumbags raining fire on each other and bashing poor sweet Bernie will be on your side of the aisle, not GOP cannon fodder to be pulverized by Trump in those hilarious Republican debates.
We’re getting into it now, and over a year and a half before the election, it’s already getting bad. And no matter how bad things truly are
Is it somehow okay for a candidate for president to viciously abuse and assault her young employees, fostering the kind of terror you only read about in workplace lawsuits? Or another to chuckle about prosecuting parents if their kids missed school, in between turning over teenagers to the American Gestapo? Or for another to invent out of whole-cloth an imaginary acquaintance, to stand as an ugly stereotype of a young black man in America today? Or, for fuck’s sake, needing to ask how to eat fried chicken, potentially with a knife and fork?
No thanks, I keep saying to myself. I’m opting out. Will I miss submerging my head in this particular toilet? More important: Will I be able to resist doing so? I can already feel the imperious urge growing within me; it will be hard to resist. With every freak incident of a Democratic candidate for president revealing themselves to be nothing less than a space alien who has no idea how any normal human being has ever behaved, ever - I will feel tempted to rise to anger.
But self-righteous anger is good for nothing, for the most part. Does it matter to any of these operators if people hate them, and see through their phony, debased shit - so long as they think they have a shot at real power? No. The record says, no.
I used to think, for the longest time, that there is some civic duty being fulfilled by this whole silly thing - staying “informed,” as if the machinations and pandering that we call an electoral process had some higher purpose.
As the great Rick Moranis said in a rare interview, on his escape from Hollywood:
“So I took a little bit of a break. And the little bit of a break turned into a longer break, and then I found that I really didn't miss it.”
Why not take a break with me?
The Chicago Way
A story from Chicago, my favorite city on Earth, in case my little screed against politics wasn’t enough. Alderman Ed Burke, a racist local powerbroker best known for greasing Trump’s entry into Chicago real estate, is finally facing justice for decades of corruption. Good news, right? Not to his fellow aldermen, upset as they were not by Burke’s lifetime of crooked deals and white supremacy, but by the revelation that a fellow crooked pol may have worn a wire against him:
“Aldermen responded with shock Wednesday to a newspaper report that veteran Ald. Daniel Solis has been cooperating with federal authorities, some directing anger at him…in a City Council that’s no stranger to federal investigations, it was nonetheless stunning for many of Solis’ colleagues to hear the powerful chairman of the Zoning Committee was possibly wearing a wire in the federal case against Ald. Edward Burke…One longtime colleague of Solis’ said she might cry about his wearing a wire because ‘you don’t do that.’ Another alderman said that in his Southwest Side ward, ‘if you wear a wire someone’s going to kick your ass.’”
I know Chicago is a favorite punching bag of far-right scumbags in this country, who gawk at the gun crime and dissemble stupidly about the all-Democratic leadership. But anyone who thinks this country’s political class, across both parties, isn’t rotten to the core, needs their head examined.
Intermission: A Moment of Phrase & Fable
A lighter turn: let’s take another crack at Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, my favorite reference book, and LEARN something for a change.
- Calves' Head Club. Instituted in ridicule of Charles I, and apparently first mentioned in a tract (given in the Harleian Miscellany) of 1703 by Benjamin Bridgwater, stating that it first met in 1693. It lasted till about 1735. The annual banquet was held on January 30th, and consisted of calves' heads dressed in sundry ways to represent Charles and his courtiers; a cod's head, to represent Charles, independent of his kingly office; a pike with little ones in its mouth, an emblem of tyranny; a boar's head with an apple in its mouth to represent the king preying on his subjects, etc. After the banquet, the Icon Basilike was burnt, and the parting cup "To those worthy patriots who killed the tyrant," was drunk.
Now. I will probably, at this point, never be a monarch (I’m thirty-one). But if I was, I’m not sure I would take all this as that insulting. I kind of like the idea of a bunch of beheaded animals getting gussied up to resemble me. As king, of course.
- To draw the longbow. To exaggerate. The longbow was the famous English weapon till gunpowder was introduced, and it is said that a good archer could hit between the fingers of a man's hand at a considerable distance, and could propel his arrow a mile. The tales told about longbow adventures, especially in the Robin Hood stories, fully justify the application of the phrase.
Ever find yourself talking to someone exaggerating those minute details of a story so as to make the anecdote just slightly more pat? It wasn’t just the biggest fish caught - it was the biggest fish caught in Florida history? That bore has more in common with Robin Hood than either of you likely knew.
- Eureka (u re' ka) (Gr., more correctly Heureka, I have found it). An exclamation of delight at having made a discovery; originally that of Archimedes, the Syracusan philosopher, when he discovered how to test the purity of Micro's crown. The tale is, that Hiero delivered a certain weight of gold to a smith to be made into a votive crown, but, suspecting that the gold had been alloyed with an inferior metal, asked Archimedes to test it. The philosopher did not know how to proceed, but in stepping into his bath, which was quite full, observed that some of the water ran over. It immediately struck him that a body must remove its own bulk of water when it is immersed; silver is lighter than gold, therefore a pound-weight of silver will be more bulky than a poundweight of gold, and would consequently remove more water. In this way he found that the crown was deficient in gold ; and Vitruvius says: When the idea flashed across his mind, the philosopher jumped out of the bath exclaiming, "Heureka! heureka'" and, without waiting to dress himself, ran home to try the experiment. "Eureka!" is the motto of California, in allusion to the gold discovered there.
Now, this is just a delightful story. Inspirational, really, and I don’t say that often. Imagine the sense of wonder old Archimedes must have felt slipping into the tub when he had this particular thunderclap, and realized he was the first human to think of precisely this solution (economical, sensible, intelligent) to a bedeviling problem.
There’s only one problem here: the elegance of Archimedes’s solution, and his exclamation of Eureka, really isn’t very similar to a Californian accidentally stumbling upon gold at Sutter’s Mill. In fact, it’s the opposite of the simple beauty of Archimedes: a dusty, shitkicking pioneer discovered a precious metal in the ground, which prompted about a million more hicks to rush to the same spot and try to find more of it. There were so many of them they got named for the year it happened.
Just a herd of bovines stampeding West. Hustling and conniving and killing each other on a land atop gold, and thinking they’d had a “Eureka” moment the instant some flakes caught the sunlight - is there any arrogance more American?
As the Oscars approach, I will be baffled, for years to come, by the question of how exactly I came to be blocked on Twitter by the official account of The Academy Awards.
It will haunt me until this week's subscriber-only post on Thursday, where I answer reader mail and unfurl another crime story!