As I write this the power is out. I’m more prepared for this situation than most. I use a UPS backup battery to supply power to my modem and router, so I can have internet if my power goes out for up to about an hour. The UPS died about three hours ago. A cold front is moving down from Canada, and Denver, Colorado – about six hours drive north of us – experienced 100 degree temperatures just two days ago but is under a winter weather advisory for the rest of the week. This same cold front has brought sixty mile per hour winds to my city, resulting in local power outages caused by isolated line falls, meaning there isn’t just one problem to fix. Of course, any repair has to happen thirty feet up in these winds, so I’m not hopeful it will actually be back on by nightfall, as presently estimated.
Normally, we’d go out to eat somewhere that still has power. Of course it would have to be takeout because of the global pandemic. We’re going to stay in though, because apart from driving in these high winds it’s been kind of hard to breathe outside what with the thousands of wildfires burning from here to California. I’ve found myself wishing that my cloth Covid mask would also filter out the smoke. I guess what I really need is an N95 mask, but those are in short supply and I haven’t seen any around.
I think that covers pestilence, ecological devastation, climate upset, collapse of modern infrastructure, and scarcity of resources. I guess I should be really angry, but I can’t muster it. We’re basically living in a classic science fiction dystopia, and I don’t mean that in the “I like science fiction so this is neat!” sort of way, but in the “This is horrible, but we knew it was coming” way.
Mostly, I’m just tired. For decades now scientists have been saying that this kind of shit would start happening. More frequent wildfires, global pandemics (most recently this comically timed report from September 2019), climate upset, and a level of human suffering that we’ve not seen in modern times. Of course, we didn’t do anything about it. I guess we brought reusable bags to the grocery store. Maybe that helped?
Don’t get me wrong, my present off-the-grid state is not worthy of a claim of “human suffering.” My power will come back on, probably by dawn. The wildfires will burn themselves out or be put out (so far that second one has not been very successful). One day this pandemic disease will be contained (but I’m not optimistic about how soon that will be). The problem is that although these present difficulties will pass, there is no honest expectation that the overall trend will get any better. The present state of our planet is already worse than the “worst case” climate models, and many climate scientists are saying that we’ve crossed the point of stopping some level of substantial climate shift. It wasn’t a question of not listening. I think we listened, we just decided that we didn’t really care.
As I think about what the future will look like, I find myself picturing a trip to the grocery store while wearing a respirator to keep out the pollutants and viruses. I walk past white supremacists screaming that everything would be fine if we just didn’t let women be in charge of anything. It’s a future that I’m familiar with given a lifetime of reading science fiction. Lots of people misunderstand what speculative science fiction is about. People fixate on how science fiction never predicted the rise of computers, or the power of feminism. Science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, it’s about holding a fun house mirror to the society of today in order to call attention to some aspect of ourselves. Science fiction futures are about an extrapolation of today to the world of tomorrow. In that respect, decades ago when science fiction writers looked at pollution and uncontrolled population growth they knew what was up (see Make Room! Make Room! and Caves of Steel). They tried to warn us, and we definitely listened since those books have sold millions of copies, but we took the wrong message from the writing. Too many people took the entertainment and not the warning. Too many people read those books and thought “Wow, what a wacky future!” and not “Oh damn, that’s the path we’re on.”
The wind outside is blowing large detritus around. My son just said he’s scared. His mom told him that “You don’t have to be scared, you just have to be alert to what might happen.” She’s a smart lady, my wife. At this point I guess all we can do is be alert.
I suppose it was only natural, but we have witnessed the morphing of fame into celebrity, and the result is alarming. If you’ve never thought about the difference between the two then it might not be obvious what I mean. Fame pertains to a general recognition for outstanding achievement. There is nothing wrong with fame in and of itself. One can be famous within their profession, or more broadly famous as is the case with popular actors and comedians. Celebrity is the state of being celebrated, acclaimed, or widely known due to specific accomplishments. Not so long ago, well liked politicians were famous, now far too many are celebrities. Exactly how this came to be is beyond me, so I’m not going to address that here. What I want to talk about is an even more insidious practice than elevating people to the level of celebrity: when those people embrace that celebrity.
Don’t think that’s a problem? Consider that an appalling number of reporters and political pundits have been elevated to celebrity status in recent years. In our vapid shock-and-awe obsessed news landscape only those reporters that bow before the altar of celebrity can really get ahead. Jake Tapper is a prime example. Wikipedia lists him as a journalist, novelist, and cartoonist. He’s a cartoonist now. I mean, great. I’m sure his art skills were such that he could have succeeded without his already big name. Then again, maybe not.
I recently came across Cameo, a website/company that allows celebrities to offer short personalized video messages to fans for a fee. At first glance it seems innocuous enough. Upon closer inspection it’s horrible. You can watch videos that people have paid for as examples of what you get from each celebrity, and there is something remarkably skeezy about them. I think it’s the fact that the videos pose as sincere off-the-cuff greetings while we know exactly how much people paid for them. I guess what you’re really buying is the knowledge that you got a celebrity to acknowledge your existence, and the idea that that has literal value in and of itself is unfathomable to me. But my general problems with Cameo are moot compared to the following question. What happens when a political pundit embraces their celebrity and puts themselves on Cameo to make a few extra bucks?
Fox News commentator and Trump supporting millennial Tomi Lahren recently got a lesson in what happens when you let people tell you what to say. Comedian Ali Asghar-Abedi spent $85 on Cameo to get Lahren to thank all the Indian fans of Donald Trump and to say that “President Trump is wise like an ullu.” First off, why would Tomi Lahren have fans in India? I openly acknowledge that she has fans in America, but what would Indians care about what she has to say? More importantly, ullu is Hindi for “owl” but what matters here is the cultural context. In English, being associated with an owl is a sign of wisdom. In Hindi, being associated with an owl means that you’re a fool. So a comedian got Tomi Lahren to call Donald Trump a fool in Hindi. Childish? Yes. Funny? Kind of. But here’s the thing: in interviews Ali Asghar-Abedi said that he was trying to make a point, and I think he succeeded brilliantly. Lahren could have easily Googled ullu and discovered its associations with foolishness. Such due diligence is the least you would expect from someone whose entire career is built upon their voiced opinions of things. But no, she was happy to take $85 to voice an opinion exactly opposite to her own. Ali Asghar-Abedi is quick to point out that we shouldn’t jump on Lahren for this, as he firmly believes that many pundits wouldn’t check the meaning of what they are saying. He’s probably right.
If a pundit will take $85 to record a one minute video with little to no interest in understanding what they are saying, then how much integrity do you think that person will have when they accept tens of thousands of dollars to show up on random talk shows to offer their opinion? Why would anyone listen to such a person?
Well, because they’re a celebrity.
Ever since I moved into my first apartment I’ve always had a place at home to work. Sometimes it was a desk, but more often it was just a comfortable chair where I could use a laptop for hours on end, usually to write. My present employer had a liberal telework policy even before Covid-19, so I requested the opportunity to have a scheduled work-from-home day once every two weeks. I’ve been doing that level of teleworking for the last four years, and when I would mention it to coworkers they would remark that they couldn’t work from home. “There are just too many distractions,” they would tell me. As you might expect, those same coworkers have not been faring too well these last three months. Other coworkers had told me that they didn’t have a place to work at home. Though several of them have since made spaces, some have just committed to working at the kitchen table. Some haven’t had a choice, as the work-from-home pandemic has resulted in a shortage in office furniture as demand has skyrocketed, but also as raw materials (i.e. plastic) are diverted to PPE production.
The pandemic is nowhere near ending, so the white collar masses are unlikely to return to business spaces anytime soon. Some are arguing that maybe we shouldn’t – or won’t want to – return to the office in pre-pandemic numbers. Now that mass telework has been forced on employers, some are seeing benefit and opportunity, especially the massive social media companies that other corporations tend to watch. Facebook announced in July that within the next ten years they expect half of their employees to be on permanent telework. In May, Twitter said that many employees could work from home “forever.” Back in late July, one month after New York City officials gave the green light for employees to return to work, more than 90% of Manhattan office workers were choosing to continue to work from home.
I have a number of friends with jobs that saw them predominantly, or entirely, teleworking in the years leading up to the pandemic. That percentage of the work force had been growing steadily, but post-pandemic many are expecting that we will have jumped years ahead in the trend. This change has the potential to be transformative. I have a few coworkers that had never worked from home and quickly came to love it. My wife professes to enjoy seeing me more, and having complete control of my environment has helped lessen the frequency of my migraines.
If we don’t have to go to the office, how many of us will choose to? If, say, 20% of the white collar workers in rent-bloated cities choose full-time telework, why wouldn’t they move out of the city to get more space for less elsewhere? Since the majority of Democratic voters are concentrated in cities, what would a mass office exodus do to political demographics? Many of our housing decisions are based on where we work. If work will allow us to live hundreds of miles away, then how will we choose where to live? Some would undoubtedly still choose cities, but there is a difference between living in a city of half a million inhabitants and living in a metropolis with eight million other people.
Science fiction writer and editor Frederik Pohl is attributed with saying, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” The earliest written appearance of this concept seems to be a 1953 essay by Isaac Asimov where he said “It is easy to predict an automobile in 1880; it is very hard to predict a traffic problem. The former is really only an extrapolation of the railroad. The latter is something completely novel and unexpected.” (Yes, I can connect almost anything to Asimov. He wrote so much, and about so many things, that it’s not that hard.) Science fiction predicted the rise of computers, but famously underestimated their impact. Interestingly, Clifford Simak, my favorite science fiction writer, did predict the death of the city, not through telework but through another dystopian motivation. In the short story “City,” which constitutes the opening chapter of his likewise titled novel, the protagonist argues with the few remaining residents of his city:
"The city failed," he said, "and it is well it failed. Instead of sitting here in mourning above its broken body you should rise to your feet and shout your thanks it failed.
American cities may become deserted. Not because they are easy targets for nuclear weapons, but because they are easy targets for viruses. Some countries can’t afford to disperse; they need cities to house their populations. The United States has two and a half times the population of Japan, but twenty-four times the surface area. We could space out, lessen the spread of infectious diseases that are only going to get more prevalent, and fundamentally change the way we live and work as a society.
Then again, if Simak had one flaw it was his unwavering belief that the best life – maybe the only life worth living – was the country life. I don’t roll that way. I lived that life for a few years and didn’t care for it. Cities won’t die as Simak hoped, but they could definitely stand to be less densely packed. If you can choose to live in a megalopolis or a moderate sized city, why choose the megalopolis when rent is three and a half times as much, especially if you can make the same money?
Every few years the old “I don’t want my musicians to be political” rant crops up, almost always from conservatives. Songs are essentially poetry set to music, and like any form of writing, many of the best and most endearing songs have something to say. Of course, only in our modern polarized political climate would art with a social message be “political.” If the present Covid-19 crisis has taught Americans anything, it’s that “wearing a mask during a pandemic” is somehow political.
Songs with social messages go back at least as long as audio recordings opened the possibility of a message reaching a mass audience. Just like there wasn’t much use in writing essays critiquing social structure before the printing press allowed you to reach people outside your immediate social bubble, mass distribution of music made it possible for original art to spread to a broad audience. The 1960s and 1970s saw the creation of some of the most timeless songs of women’s empowerment, from Aretha Franklin’s Respect to Helen Reddy’s I am Woman. Songs of acceptance and love took many forms, from the simple beauty of Harry Belafonte’s Turn the World Around, to the more subversive Lola by The Kinks which got many in the 1970s to sing along to transgender acceptance. I personally can’t think of protest music without Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth popping into my head, and those lyrics have come to me a lot these days.
Unsurprisingly, the blues genre has a long history of speaking about black oppression in America. Billie Holiday’s song Strange Fruit, based on a poem by a Jewish civil rights activist, brought a lot of heat down from white audiences in the 1940s, and even from the US Federal Government. Holiday’s clean tones and passionate singing evoke a strong poetic image.
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
There is presently an explosion of social messaging across all music genres, which is undoubtedly a reflection of our times. Childish Gambino’s This is America, and the music video that goes along with it, is a masterpiece. Janelle Monáe’s albums contain a wealth of social messaging (one of the many reasons I love her work), and one of my favorites is Americans with this amazing stanza
I like my woman in the kitchen
I teach my children superstitions
I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand
A pretty young thang, she can wash my clothes
But she'll never ever wear my pants
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite modern artists who was taken from us at the height of his career by stomach cancer. Charles Bradley was heavily inspired by funk, in particular James Brown. In The World (Is Going Up in Flames) he desperately asks the listener who is to blame for all the world’s troubles. “Is it you? Or you?” before turning to himself and asking “Me?” then cries at the implication that it is his fault, representing the blame that a black man carries in America.
One could argue that we are living in the golden age of “dog whistle” racism. By using a dog whistle instead of an overt racist phrase, the speaker can (and in modern times does) claim complete ignorance. (“When I said law and order I meant that my political opponents are pro-chaos.” No US politician has ever been pro-chaos, though at this point I might entertain supporting one.) Pointing out a dog whistle as a dog whistle is a point of education, but it tends to piss off the people blowing all the whistles.
Case in point. The US Army is launching a diversity “conversation” initiative given everything going on in the country. (As an aside the US Army is actually very diverse. In 2016, whites constituted less than half of the women in the US Army, with black women serving in an almost one-to-one ratio with white women. White men formed a more dominant percentage, but still only around 70% of all men in the US Army. These numbers constitute a much higher percentage of minorities in the US Army than in the general population, but that’s a tale for another day.) Normally, this type of initiative is the kind of thing that wouldn’t get a lot of attention if it hadn’t been for an apparent accident. I’ll call it an accident for now, but I’ll pick that thread back up later.
On July 6, an official handout promoting the Army’s “listening tour” under Project Inclusion (everything needs a code name in the Army) was disseminated at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. The Army claims that the graphic, which listed forms of white supremacy in a pyramid structure, was pulled from a non-government website. At the top of the pyramid were things like racist jokes, blackface, and lynchings listed as “Overt White Supremacy (Socially Unacceptable).” Lower on the pyramid were other things labeled “Covert White Supremacy (Socially Acceptable).” These were things like “All Lives Matter,” racial profiling, denial of white privilege, and most importantly, “MAGA.” Yup, a US Army handout listed Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” as a covert white supremacy phrase. I’m not going to argue whether it is or not (it is), but rather bring up an interesting point in the response to this “accident.”
Once the inclusion of MAGA was brought to the Army’s attention they did what you would expect, recalling the pamphlets and claiming that those were still under review and they aren’t sure how they got printed and disseminated and they very much didn’t mean to put that in there.
Republican Alabama House Representative Mo Brooks sent a letter to the Secretary of the Army accusing the service of violation of the Hatch Act, which forbids civil servants from making political statements. (Unsurprisingly, sitting congresspeople and the president, who are by definition civilian employees of the government since they receive a salary, are not considered civil servants under the Hatch Act, which probably tells you all you need to know about politicians.) Brooks is pushing for prosecution of any Army employee who was in any way connected with the creation or dissemination of this pamphlet, arguing that claiming MAGA to be white supremacist is a political statement.
Here’s a hypothetical. Let’s say there was a sitting US President who was overtly racist. For the sake of this argument I’m claiming that Trump is not overtly, but covertly, racist. (It’s a stretch, I know, but work with me here.) What I mean is pretend there was a sitting president that stood in front of the media and openly said horrible things about black people. Or even simpler, he said “I don’t like black people. I do not represent them and I don’t want to help them. I don’t think they’re worth my time.” That’s very overt racism. Since the US Army has a lot of black people in its ranks, this would pose a problem for Army leadership. But what could they do? What if this president made campaign hats that said “Black People Are Bad”? Suddenly, saying “Black People Are Not Bad” is a political statement. The Secretary of the Army can’t say that because that’s (apparently) in violation of the Hatch Act. (On the flip side, Vice President Pence won’t utter the sequence of words “black lives matter” because he claims that those words represent a political statement that in some weird and confusing way he doesn’t agree with.)
We live in a world where cell phone videos of people waving Trump campaign signs and wearing MAGA hats shouting “white power” are easy to find. It’s as if dog whistles are too complicated these days. More likely, dog whistles just aren’t needed. When the sitting president retweets a video of a supporter shouting “white power” along with his comment of thanks to the “great people” shown in the video, what would you possibly need a dog whistle for? Of course, all the president’s men claim he didn’t hear the racist shout, which was arguably the point of the whole video. Then why did he share the video? It doesn’t make any sense to share one random video of supporters, especially one that he apparently hadn’t listened to. Of course he listened to the video and of course he heard his supporter say “white power.” He just knows he can get away with claiming he didn’t, because he has before and he did this time. There is no legal precedent for hate speech becoming political speech. If something is political speech then it gets a weird form of protection in civilian life, but a weird exclusion of acceptability for civil servants under the Hatch Act. My favorite line from the Army’s response to the uproar over the pamphlet was to say “The unapproved pages were in no way used as part of the 'Your Voice Matters' listening tour sessions.” The opinion that MAGA is white supremacist is not part of Your Voice. That is too ironic to handle, and that line sums up just how screwed we are.
We have somehow evolved into a political environment where dog whistles aren’t needed. You can shout “white power” in the most overt way then claim “Oops, my bad” and it seems there is nothing to be done. In a way, it’s kind of nice. I can’t see fit to claim any Trump supporter in the second half of 2020 isn’t a racist. If you vote in a democracy for a man who is overtly racist then you are clearly condoning that overt racism. If you condone overt racism how are you not in turn racist? We don’t often get such clear litmus tests that can be used to judge our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. So that’s handy.
Was the Army’s dissemination of the pamphlet an accident? In my opinion, yes and no. I worked as an Army civil servant for eight years at the US Army Research Laboratory. Though I was a civilian, ARL is incorporated as an Army unit. Among other things that means I had to take lots of training geared towards enlisted personnel as a work requirement. (Don’t get me started on Constitution Day training.) I sat through a lot of tone deaf training during those years. The bumbling nature of some of the training videos, and the haphazard way they were slapped together still boggles my mind. When accusations of rape in the military were on the rise, the Army decided that a suitable form of training was to make us watch a documentary featuring first person testimonials from raped service men and women. I had nightmares for a week. What sort of vetting process did that decision go through? I couldn’t have been a very rigorous one. So was the pamphlet an accident? I’m fairly certain nobody read it carefully. Most likely the people that made it didn’t even read it. I’m sure somebody gave it a quick look and approved the printing and dissemination. I was never a soldier but I did spend nearly a decade embedded in Army bureaucracy, and haphazard is how the Army does things. One thing the Army is good at is covering up its mistakes.
You can expect this one to be covered up as efficiently as a dog buries its own shit.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.