Fat is the Head that Wears the Crown

I was noodling around on Wikipedia recently and began reading a page about the difference between a “head of state” and a “head of government,” and I had a moment of insight.

According to this Wikipedia entry, a head of state (or chief of state) is the public persona who officially embodies a state. This is not to be confused with the head of government.

It occurred to me that Donald Trump, in running for president of the United States, wanted to be the head of state. He wanted all of the adulation and ornamentation that accrues to heads of state–monarchs, essentially. He wanted to be the persona of America (or his version of America) and emulate strongmen “leaders” and arbitrary sovereigns. He wanted the thrill of the large crowds cheering for him.

But he definitely did not want to be bothered with mundane things such as laws and regulations.

Trump’s insistence on on posing with a Bible in front of church for photographers on June 1, 2020–and forcibly removing racial justice protestors in the process–is a prime example of what a head of state would do, but likely not a head of government.

Just as importantly, his MAGA-hatted, Trump-flag-waving followers wanted a head of state too. This was demonstrated by the fervent devotion exhibited at all of his campaign rallies and most notably by the mob of rioters on January 6 who, in the name of keeping him as the “leader” of the United States, attacked and vandalized out of zealous loyalty to one man the very seat of our democratic republic.

I recognize that prior to America’s experiment in democracy, the identity of a nation was tied to “king and country.” This is what motivated people–Europeans mostly–to create colonies and subjugate other people.

But the creation of the United States and our written constitution was intended to do away with that, or at least the worst parts of it.

Interestingly, while in America we have a head of state who also is the head of government, there are several different ways of handling this, according to Wikipedia. These range form some power shearing to cases where the head of state has almost nothing to do with running the apparatus that implements the laws under which citizens live their lives.

Trump’s presidency–and the forces that put him into office–emphasize that our system perhaps is due for a makeover. The American setup is not the only way to do this, and it is a useful exercise to consider how we could modify our Constitution to make things a bit more reflective of the modern realities of our multicultural nation. To be blunt, if people want to elect a head of state, and that head of state has no interest in governing, then there’s a way to do that which is safe and quite possibly effective.

But we’d have to amend the Constitution and the odds of that aren’t great as long as we live under this pervasive political opinion that “They” are trying to get “Us” and that we are unable to function as a “We” as in “We the People.”

I for one would welcome some changes to how our country is run. All I have to do is pause and reflect on the fact that nearly 250 years ago, we fought a war and people gave their lives precisely so that we would NOT have a king in America. I think that was a noble cause, and these current generations would do well to uphold it.

Founding father and original patriot John Adams once said:

Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws.

Speaking Up

I am an introvert.

There a number of ways in which introverts and extroverts differ, some of which are fairly obvious day to day and others that are more subtle. One of the ones that shows up rather frequently is that introverts think about what they are going to say, and extroverts talk so that they know what they think. Each can be annoying to the other but being self aware about which camp you are in helps when navigating social situations.

So, for myself, my tendency is to not speak until I have something to say. This carries over to social media (something that I’ve discussed previously here).

But in the new year, I’m resolving to make a change: to speak up more often when it is necessary.

And necessary it is in 2021. Because we have learned that there are real-world consequences to giving free reign on social media to extroverts, those who lack impulse control or self-awareness, and people for whom belief is more important than thinking critically.

I know a lot of extroverts (who doesn’t? They are a dominant force in culture). Many of them are lovely people, warm and friendly, kind and loving.

But the danger comes when many act before they think–which as I said before is part of their nature. And on social media it is SO easy to act before thinking. You click the like button or shoot off a nasty reply before you even process what you’ve seen or read. (The person who coined the phrase that it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission was an extrovert.)

This is how things “go viral” (a term I hate, by the way). But it is also how things become a shit storm. People pile on, one thing leads to another, and before you can say “Facebook” you have a flame war on your hands.

Voices of reason–badly needed right now–are drowned out, buried, lost in the flood. Calm dialog is shouted down. Mob mentality prevails.

So I don’t truly believe that my effort will make any difference, at least not right away. But I do need to defy my nature and speak up when warranted. And not be upset by the inevitable nasty responses. Or apologetic without reason.

If civility is actually what we want in this country (doubtful, but it’s a worthy goal), then somebody has to get the ball rolling, Might as well be me, and maybe you too.

The Road Trip

We were somewhere near the Tennessee-Virginia border in early April. Night was falling, and I was at the wheel of our minivan. We’d been driving for most of the day, having left Arkansas a little before noon.

My son Julian was in the passenger seat, queuing up music on his phone to play this new Canadian artist he’d recently discovered. I was trying not to lose sight of the other car in our caravan, the black Chevrolet with my other son and his girlfriend. The interstate was hilly here and with their taillights not working properly, it was easy to lose track of them.

Julian had driven until we switched drivers somewhere near Knoxville. We’d run through a variety of conversation topics, and the scenery rushing by outside had kept our attention. But with dusk and a change of drivers came a change in mood, as we continued to roll into the night.

The coronavirus pandemic had only recently become a reality, and it had been three weeks since I’d begun working from home every day.

As the music played, I asked him how community college was going, now that they’d moved classes online.

“I’m not going to class anymore,” he said. “And I don’t think I’m going to enroll in the fall.”

“Oh?” I said.

“Being online isn’t working for me,” he said. “And I think this coronavirus thing is only going to get worse.”

We listened to the music for a minute.

“You’ve been staying in your room a lot,” I said. “Some days I hardly see you.”

“I need my space,” he said.

It was hard to be optimistic about the coming months. Anything I could think to say would sound hollow. I nodded in agreement, but realized he couldn’t see that in the fading light.

“What’s your plan, then?” I said, throwing the topic back to him.

“I don’t have one,” he said. “What’s the use anyway? It feels like the whole world is a shit show right now. Everything I expected for this year isn’t going to happen.”

I glanced over at him. His dimly-lit face gazed out at the highway ahead while he got quiet again as the music played. He leaned forward to turn up the volume.

That night, I had no way of seeing just how bad it would get, both in the world and in Julian’s life. The weeks and months to come would be filled with awful news, the shutting down of normal life, the cancelling of so much, and Julian being fired from his job, retreating further from his mother and me, leaving the house to go smoking, getting drunk alone in his room late at night.

But we had a long way to go still until we could get home to relative comfort and some sleep.

Take This Job and Find a Better Way

About 15 years ago, I was in Reno on a business trip with a colleague. While we were waiting to meet with a client, we ate lunch in a hotel restaurant and had a brief conversation about the nature and value of work.

As we ate, a thin woman who may have been in her late 50s wandered through the dining area and repeatedly announced “Keno” in a high-pitched voice. She was wearing a uniform of some sort that identified her has an employee of the establishment. She gave off a vibe of tedium, which seems understandable if all she did for eight hours a day was solicit wagers on the Keno games inside a windowless hotel casino. (In case you’ve never been to Nevada, pretty much all hotels are casinos.)

Photo: John Sanphillippo

My colleague and I watched her come and go. After a while, my colleague looked at me and said, “Is that the kind of job that makes someone grateful to be employed?”

“No,” I said with a sad chuckle. “She actually seems rather pathetic.”

Employed, but pathetic.

Up until recently, our current president was very proud of the number of people employed in the United States. Whether these statistics portray an accurate picture or not, there was a lot of verve in the economy before the coronavirus brought things to a screeching halt.

Since March, a lot of people have lost their jobs. Some of those job losses will be temporary, but many will likely be permanent. And it is worth asking whether those were jobs really worth having to start with. Perhaps there is something more than the job/no job binary.

There are many in this country who have a point of view that goes something like this:

  • any employment is better than no employment
  • having no job is “bad,” as in “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”
  • all jobs are of equal quality when viewed in the employment/no employment dichotomy
  • any job will be a step up the ladder of progress.

This is a very simplistic perspective that ignores many realities of human interaction. Among them are the fact that employers take illegal (and sometimes immoral) advantage of their employees all the time, day in and day out. One has only to look at the number of lawsuits that employees or former employees have filed against companies to get a sense of the magnitude of the situation.

This also ignores the plight of the working poor, who are employed and yet still unable to afford basic necessities such as decent housing, food, and health care, and have no guarantee that things will improve. Also, freelancers, contract workers, and those stuck in the so-called gig economy have little reason to feel that they’re being paid fair compensation for their efforts.

The job vs. no job view of employment paints a flat picture. It disregards the idea that employment–serving a valued role in society–can be key to one’s sense of self-worth. Once, all employment, with the possible exception of royalty, served a purpose. Today, there are far too many “bullshit jobs.” Perhaps we will actually be better off if many of these just go away, to be replaced by truer, more worthwhile vocations.

This may sound unsympathetic, but I would question how much people really enjoy selling shit on Ebay day in and day out, or taking money from drivers while sitting all day in toll booths, or calling out the next round of Keno betting in a forgettable lunch cafe in Reno. I think there is a better way, and I think we can take some time during this moment in our history allow ourselves to consider the possibilities.

There is a perhaps unsolvable tension between the economic need of having the means to fulfill one’s basic needs and the psychological need for fulfillment and understanding. We’ve created a society where the two are often mutually exclusive. Perhaps we could do better.

Don’t Like the News? Kill the Messenger

I’m not a journalist but I have worked with and around journalists for over two decades, something I have talked about before here and here.

Which is why I found it disheartening to read the story of the demise of LAWeekly as I knew it. While it is true that newspapers and other journalism outlets have struggled over the past decade or so in the face of economic hardship brought on by the internet (and to some extent, themselves), to learn that an established news outlet has been deliberately targeted for destruction is chilling.

Years ago, I read the LAWeekly and its sister publication the East Bay Express rather frequently when I was a college student in California. These “alternative” weeklies could always be relied on to provide thoughtful stories about local issues not covered in much depth by the bigger news organizations. (Washington, D.C.’s alternative weekly, the Washington City Paper, is still chugging away, but it’s sister paper, the Baltimore City Paper, folded in 2017.)

The story I read about how the LAWeekly has been gutted may contain some hyperbole–journalists are not perfect, and often they have an overblown sense of self and of the importance of their work, in my view.

But I have no doubt that the institution of journalism with its modern emphasis on fairness and accuracy is essential to the effectiveness of democracy and the protection of civil rights. To disparage legitimate journalism as so-called fake news–as President Trump does almost daily–creates a situation where fewer and fewer people trust facts, such as they are.

(It’s important to remember that the freedom of the press was important enough to the Founding Fathers that it is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution–alongside the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice and ahead of the right to bear arms.)

According to this version of events from the editorial staff at The LAnd Magazine, the LAWeekly was bought by a “cabal of Republican donors and Trump supporters from Orange County” who are “devoted to defeating progressive ideas by indoctrinating young conservatives and infiltrating what they considered to be liberal institutions.” If true, this is another example of the hypocrisy of conservatives these days.

Conservatives themselves claim with alarming frequency that liberals are somehow “indoctrinating” or “brainwashing” people (if you want examples, leave a comment–I don’t want to unnecessarily drive traffic to people promoting falsehoods). The argument is illogical, however.

The conventional concept of brainwashing requires that someone is led by the intentional actions of others to believe something they would not have and could not have believed if left to their own thought processes. If a journalistic organization publishes verifiable fact, without attempting to manipulate its audience, and someone reads it and draws a conclusion, I can’t see how that, in any way, is brainwashing. (Note that conservative “news” manipulates its audience intentionally every day by distorting the facts and not questioning unsupported claims.)

Conservatives give lip service to individual liberty. However, conservatives are all too eager to oppose that exercise of personal liberty when individuals make up their own minds about their own lives and the lives of those around them in a way that does not conform to an established conservative point of view.

Conservatism, almost be definition, is threatened by new ideas and the reconsideration of how we as a society view the world. It is thus not in favor of personal liberty at all, but rather the adherence to a strict set of codes of (mostly old fashioned) behavior. If a news outlet such as LAWeekly questions those conservative “values,” it is seen as a threat to the conservative ideal.

A threat that, unfortunately, is sometimes targeted for elimination. So who is the larger threat?

Maybe this is an isolated incident and perhaps I’m over-generalizing (overreacting?). And maybe the ideal of having news that’s free of bias is a pipe dream. But the possibility that reasonable people cannot agree on some basic structures of society, such that we now have flavored news that meets our preferred tastes, is frightening.

“Participatory democracy depends on a broadly shared view of reality, and therefore on trusted institutions of journalism and mass media.” – Kevin Platt, University of Pennsylvania