Category Archives: A Few Things

A Few Things

Summer Blogging Update     Several posts ago, I announced my summer blogging plans; I then dutifully followed up with a three-part series on memory, history, and forgetting in fairly quick succession. And then … well, nothing for two weeks. That’s largely due to the fact that my next series of posts, which will be a deep dive into postmodernism—what it is, what it was, what it isn’t, and why most of the people using the word in the media these days have no idea what they’re talking about—has been taking somewhat longer to write than I’d planned. Actually, that isn’t entirely true: the second and third installments are all but completed, and I’ve gotten a healthy start on the third and fourth, but the introductory post is taking longer (and is getting longer). I am optimistic that I will have it done by the end of the weekend, however, so hopefully Phase Two of My Ambitious Posts No One Will Read will soon commence.

What I’ve Watched     A few weeks ago I binged the series Rutherford Falls on Amazon Prime. I’d read some positive reviews of it and heard good things via NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast (always a reliable guide); the show is also co-created by Michael Schur, a showrunner who, in my opinion, has been batting 1.000 for years: The Office, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place. But what’s particularly notable about Rutherford Falls is that the premise of the show is rooted in the relationship in the titular town between its indigenous and non-indigenous townsfolk. The series was co-created by Sierra Teller Ornelas, a Navajo screenwriter and filmmaker. The writers’ room is also well represented with Native American writers, and the cast is remarkable.

Ed Helms and Jana Schmieding.

Ed Helms plays Nathan Rutherford, a scion of the family that gives the town its name, and who is about the most Ed Helms character I’ve yet seen—a painfully earnest and well-meaning but frequently clueless fellow whose entire sense of self is bound up in his family’s history and that of the town. He runs a museum-ish space in his ancestral home. His best friend is Reagan (Jana Schmieding), a member of the (fictional) Minishonka Nation who is more or less persona non grata in her Native community because she left her fiancée at the altar a number of years before and instead went and did her masters degree at Northwestern. She runs—or attempts to run—a “cultural center” inside the local casino, which is owned by Terry Thomas (Michael Greyeyes), the de facto leader of the Minishonka community.

The show is hilarious, but is also quite comfortable in its own skin (so to speak)—it engages with difficult issues of Native history, white entitlement and appropriation of Native culture, the memorialization of settler culture (the precipitating crisis is when the town’s African-American mayor seeks to remove a statue of the town’s founding Rutherford in the town square, not because it’s a symbol of colonialism, but because cars keep crashing into it), and the fraught navigation by Terry Thomas of American capitalism as a means of accruing power and influence for his people—all without ever losing its humour or coming across as pedantic. A key moment comes in the fourth episode, when an NPR podcaster, having sniffed out that there might be a story in this sleepy town, interviews Terry. He asks him how he reconciles the contradiction of running a casino—the epitome of capitalistic graft—with his own Native identity. Terry, who had been answering the podcaster’s questions with a politician’s practiced smoothness, reaches out and pauses the recorder—and then proceeds, in a stern but not-angry voice, to school the well-meaning NPR hipster on precisely how the casino is consonant with Native values because it is not about the accrual of wealth for wealth’s sake, but for the benefit of a community that has long been marginalized. He then hits play again, and resumes his breezy tone for the rest of the interview.

It is a bravura performance; indeed, Michael Greyeyes is the series’ great revelation. A Canadian-born actor of the Cree Nation, he has long been a staple in Canadian and American indigenous film, or film and television featuring indigenous characters, and has (at least in most of the stuff I’ve seen him in) tended to play stern, brooding, or dangerous characters. So it is a joy to see him show off his comedic talents. His best line? When arguing with Nathan Rutherford over the historical accuracy of a costume he wants him to wear in his planned historical theme park, he says in exasperation, “Our market research shows that the average American’s understanding of history can be boiled down to seven concepts: George Washington, the flag, Independence Day, Independence Day the movie, MLK, Forrest Gump, and butter churns.”

What I’m Currently Watching     Well, we just watched the season four finale of The Handmaid’s Tale last night, and I’m going to need a while to process that. And we watched the series premier of Loki, which looks promising—largely on the basis of the fact that a Tom Hiddleston / Owen Wilson buddy comedy is unlikely to disappoint no matter what is done to it.

F. Murray Abraham, Danny Pudi, David Hornsby, Rob McElhenney, and Charlotte Nicdao

But the show we’re loving right now beyond what is strictly rational is the second season of Mythic Quest on AppleTV. For the unfamiliar: it’s the creation of Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Megan Ganz, the folks who brought you It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia; the series is a workplace comedy set in the offices of a video game called Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, an MMORPG along the lines of World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls. McElhenney plays the game’s creator and mastermind Ian (pronounced “Ion”) Grimm, a self-styled visionary who is sort of a cross between Steve Jobs and a lifestyle guru. Charlotte Nicdao plays Poppy, the perennially anxious and high-strung lead engineer who is responsible for turning Ian’s (again, pronounced “Ion”) ideas into workable code. Danny Pudi, who most famously played Abed in Community, is Brad, the “head of monetization,” and is delightfully cast here as a kind of anti-Abed who knows little and cares less about pop culture and video gaming and is only concerned about how he can wring every last cent out of the game’s devoted players. And F. Murray Abraham—yes, Salieri himself—plays the game’s head writer, washed-up SF author C.W. Longbottom, a lascivious alcoholic whose sole claim to fame (to which he clings like a barnacle) is having won a Nebula award in the early 1970s.

That combination of characters alone is a selling point—but the show is also incredibly smart, and also—just when you least expect it—deeply emotional.

What I’m Reading     At this point in the early summer as I scramble to use my time to complete at least one article before September, as well as move my summer blogging project forward (to say nothing of starting on course prep for the Fall), the question feels a little more like what am I not reading.

But that’s all business. My pleasure reading of the moment is a trilogy by M.R. Carey. Carey wrote the brilliant zombie apocalypse novel The Girl With all the Gifts—which was made into a quite good film starring Glenn Close and Gemma Arterton—and its companion novel set in the same world The Boy on the Bridge. One of my grad students this past semester alerted me to the fact that Carey had recently published a series set in another post-apocalyptic scenario. The “Ramparts Trilogy”—comprised of the novels The Book of Koli, The Trials of Koli, and The Fall of Koli—isn’t really a trilogy per se. The novels were all released within several months of each other, suggesting that “Ramparts” was really more of 1000+ page novel that the publisher chose to release in serial form rather than all at once.

Like the other Carey novels I’ve read, the Koli books are post-apocalyptic, set in an England some three to four centuries after humanity more or less obliterated itself in “the Unfinished War.” It is a word in which humanity has been reduced to a mere handful of its former numbers, and everything in nature now seems to be intent on killing the remaining survivors. Human manipulation of trees and vegetation to make them grow faster as part of an effort of reverse climate change has resulted in hostile forests: only on cold or overcast days can anyone walk among the trees without them snaring them with their tendrils. Any wood cut has to be “cured” in saline vats to kill it before it can be used as lumber. And the animal life that has evolved to live in such an environment is equally dangerous.

Koli is, at the start of the novels, an earnest if slightly dim fifteen-year old living in the village of Mythen Rood in the Calder Valley in the northwest of what was once England. His family are woodsmiths; Mythen Rood is protects by the Ramparts, villagers who can use the tech of the old world—a flamethrower, a guided bolt-gun, a “cutter,” which emits an invisible cutting beam, and a database that offers up helpful but cryptic knowledge and information from the old world.

There is much tech left over from the old world, but most of it is useless. Koli’s story essentially begins when he becomes obsessed with “waking” a piece of tech and joining the ranks of the Ramparts.

And that’s all I’ll tell you of the story: suffice to say, with one-third of the last novel to go, I am captivated by both the story Carey tells and the potential future he envisions.

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A Few Things

I haven’t blogged in a while, which is partially to do with the fact that I’d more or less forgotten the whole reason I started these “A Few Things” posts to start with—namely, that at any given time I have a handful of unfinished posts on a variety of topics, but which don’t see the light of day because I have difficulty finishing them to my satisfaction. So I’ve had to remind myself that not every one of my blogworthy thoughts needs two or three thousand words; a quick(ish) precis will often serve.

With that being said, here are a few things that were in the hopper …

Vaccine Envy and the Spectacular Vindication of Max Brooks     Way back when, shortly after the earth cooled (or so it feels), Canadians could and did feel somewhat smug about our response to the pandemic in comparison to the U.S. … generally speaking, Canadians did not fight the quarantine restrictions, and we watched as the Trump Administration flailed about getting everything exactly wrong, and we took pride in our system of free health care and our much lower infection rates. This was a time when even the much-loathed Doug Ford seemed to step up to the challenge, garnering grudging nods of respect from people like me for his no-nonsense response to COVID (more on this below).

Well, as they say, that was then … it’s not as though the U.S. is any less politically polarized, but the Biden Administration seems determined to remind the world what America can do when competent leadership directing competent experts puts the system into overdrive and expends massive resources to solve a problem. Back in those early days of Canadian smugness, author Max Brooks was much in demand on podcasts; Brooks, who happens to be the son of Mel Brooks, is most famous for his novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which has become one of the classics of the zombie apocalypse genre. Though the novel is global in its scope—chronicling how a zombie plague would play out worldwide—the narrative spine deals with the American response. The TL;DR is that the U.S. is caught on its heels through a combination of cynical politics, a complacent and apathetic populace, and self-interested capitalists, but that once the people come to understand the enormity and gravity of the threat, they come together and rediscover the value of sacrifice, hard work, and community, and ultimately stage the most effective response in the world.

The novel is a quite explicit love letter to the Greatest Generation and the New Deal era. Max Brooks is himself quite clear on this point in interviews, talking about how his parents were both survivors of the Great Depression, and were schooled by the Second World War (Mel Brooks was in the Army Engineer Corps and was responsible for disarming land mines). In those interviews he gave in the early days of the pandemic, he talked about how many of the nations that had responded well, such as South Korea and Taiwan, did so because they lived under fairly constant threat, and so were the most primed to respond quickly. The U.S., he said, takes time to (a) become cognizant of a threat, (b) get its shit together, but (c) always makes up for early stumbles and becomes a world leader. Many of those interviewing him, in those early days of the Trump pandemic fecklessness, voiced skepticism.

But, well, it looks as though Brooks’ perspective has been borne out, especially considering that acute vaccine envy I seem to experience daily when my American friends post their vax selfies.

The Limits of Bullying     To return to the topic of Doug Ford …

About a year ago I started writing a blog post about how, though there is little more I loathe in this world than a bully, sometimes in the right context a bully is what you need. I was writing this, as might be obvious, apropos of the grudging respect being given Doug Ford in Ontario and the outsized adulation lavished on Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York. Sometimes in moments of crisis, I mused, having someone you might otherwise dislike for their braggadocio lay down the law offered a strange form of comfort.

It should go without saying that I am now extremely happy I did not write that post.

Though to be fair, it proved to be something of a non-starter. I had written maybe two paragraphs when the obvious counter-argument made me trail off—that is, that though Ford and Cuomo seemed to be doing an effective job in those early days, they were hugely outnumbered by leaders who did not need bellicosity to get the job done (not uncoincidentally, many of these leaders, like Angela Merkel and Jancinda Ardhern, are women).

It has now been over a year since the coronavirus upended the world, and there are few examples of early effective responses that have not met reversals—though few more spectacular than Cuomo and Ford. Cuomo’s example is a good object lesson in the fact that being a bully and an asshole is only effective if you can deliver the goods; as we have learned in the past weeks, he wasn’t delivering the goods so much as obscuring his failures, and once the double-whammy of his COVID missteps and the critical mass of women he has harassed became clear, there weren’t many people left who had his back. Turns out, if you spend your career being an asshole, you accrue a lot of people who are more than willing to stick the knife in once your fortunes change.

Doug Ford, on the other hand, is a very different case. Whatever else you might say about Andrew Cuomo, he’s not an utter moron. Ford’s problem isn’t so much that he’s an asshole and a bully, it’s that he’s a monstrously stupid asshole and bully. He’s so obviously in over his head that I’d feel sorry for him if he weren’t so contemptible. His appeal has always been the same species as Trump’s, which is that a segment of the population who feel victimized by “elites,” by the mandarins of the Liberal Party and the CBC, and by increasingly diverse and vocal Ontarians, elected him specifically to be their bully … which is not a task that requires much in the way of tactical shrewdness or intellectual depth, just the ability to infuriate the Left and deliver arrogant verbal smackdowns in press conferences.

There’s an irony in the fact that Ford’s appeal lies at least in part in the truism that the most satisfying way to deal with a bully is to sic a bigger and badder bully on them—but COVID-19 is also a bully, and doesn’t discriminate.

Biden Departs Afghanistan     I may return to this in a longer post at a later date, as it’s something I’ve been thinking a great deal about. After twenty years, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will be brought home. The announcement evoked the predictable storm in media and social media, with some celebrating Biden’s decision, some expressing ambivalence, and many calling it disastrous.

Biden responded with an eminently sensible question of his own: if not now, when? Unless the U.S. is going to commit to a permanent presence in Afghanistan as the necessary price of stabilizing the country, there’s no other withdrawal timeline that makes sense. What’s somewhat galling about the castigations of Biden’s announced withdrawal is how likely it is that a good number of his critics almost certainly do tacitly endorse a permanent occupation … but of course won’t say as much because such an admission would be politically toxic. The American presence in Afghanistan has always been a little like the weird existential state of being a smoker—with only one or two notable exceptions, every single smoker I have ever known in my life indulged in the habit on the assumption that they were going to quit, of course … someday. The American presence in Afghanistan was always predicated on it eventually ending. There were, of course, end-conditions: destroying Al-Qaeda in the country, building of a self-sufficient, competent Afghan defense force, and solidifying a non-corrupt democratic government, for example. Check that first box, but the other two are as unlikely today as they have been for twenty years.

One thing the announcement of the withdrawal has done is make me mentally revisit those early years of the Bush Administration—the shock and trauma of 9/11, the quasi-hopeful aftermath when the world rallied behind the U.S., the prospect that the targeted, multilateral incursion into Afghanistan would eliminate Al-Qaeda and bin Laden, and that would be that.

It was a nice thought. But no: Bush’s neoconservative brain trust declared the War on Terror, rolled back civil rights with the Patriot Act, and instead of finishing off bin Laden at Tora Bora in December 2001, let him escape as they turned their focus to Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

There are two things that stick in my mind as I read the various excoriations of Biden for leaving Afghanistan. One is that a war that dragged on for an attenuated twenty years originally had an extremely limited scope, and was meant to end upon achieving the specific goal of killing or capturing bin Laden. The other was that the precipitating event that started the war was the result of an avoidable intelligence failure that occurred in part because the Bush team were dismissive of the warnings the Clinton Administration left for them, as well as breakdowns between warring fiefdoms in the C.I.A. and F.B.I. (a breakdown meticulously chronicled in Lawrence Wright’s excellent book The Looming Tower)

Even with these issues within the intelligence community, there were numerous red flags that were raised, to the point where CIA director George Tenet, interviewed by Bob Woodward, recalled musing immediately after the attacks, “I wonder if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.” And let us not forget the notorious memo George W. Bush was given titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike In U.S.

The point here is that 9/11—the entire reason for the war in Afghanistan—had been preventable. An emboldened Taliban and reconstituted Al-Qaeda potentially pose the same threat as they did in the late 1990s, which puts the onus on the intelligence community to fix the problems it developed back then.

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A Few Things

What I’m Reading     I first heard of Heather McGhee two or three years ago when she was interviewed on one of the political podcasts I listen to. She was then the president of Demos, a progressive think-tank focused on race and economics and strategies to strengthen American democracy; I was immediately impressed by how clearly and articulately she broke down the inextricability of race and economic policy, and the ways in which Republicans have successfully sold the idea to white voters of government spending as a zero-sum game in which every dollar that goes to help Black people and minorities is a dollar taken from them—and that government programs that help non-wealthy whites  are somehow stealing from them to benefit inner-city Blacks. And hence, non-wealthy whites have become reliable Republican voters who vote against the own interests in election after election.

To be clear, this is not a new insight. President Lyndon B. Johnson himself, who signed the Civil Rights Act into being in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year, knew that he was alienating a significant portion of his own party. “Well, we’ve lost the South,” he is reported to have said on signing the civil rights legislation; he also famously acknowledged the principle on which Richard Nixon would successfully court southern white Democrats: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

What impressed me about McGhee was how clearly she laid out the historical narrative, as well as how convincingly she argued her central premise: that systemic racism hurts everyone, white people included. I don’t remember which podcast it was on which I originally heard her, but that’s become something of a moot point as since then she’s been on all the podcasts—especially lately since her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together came out. Since that first podcast I heard, she resigned as Demos’ president and traveled the U.S., speaking to hundreds of experts, activists, historians, and ordinary people. The Sum of Us is the result, and it makes her original argument in an exhaustively detailed and forceful manner. It is an eminently readable book: personal without being subjective, wonky without losing itself in the weeds, and both rigorously historical while still relating straightforward stories that persuasively bring home the societal costs of systemic racism. The one example she shares in her interviews functions as the book’s central metaphor: starting in the 1920s, the U.S. invested heavily in public projects and infrastructure, one thing being the construction of public pools. During the Depression, Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) continued this trend, using such community investment to generate jobs. By the 1950s, towns and cities across the country boasted ever-larger and more lavish public pools, which became a point of pride for communities—pools large enough, in some cases, to admit thousands of swimmers.

But such pools were, of course, whites-only. With the advent of desegregation in the mid-late 50s, courts decreed that these public pools were legally obliged to admit Blacks. Town and city councils responded swiftly, voting to drain the pools and fill them in with dirt and seed them over with grass (in Georgia, the Parks and Recreation Department was simply eliminated, and was not resurrected for ten years). Affluent whites did not suffer: there was a concomitant boom in the construction of backyard pools and the establishment of private swimming clubs, which could effect de facto segregation by leaving membership decisions to the discretion of a governing board. But non-wealthy whites were suddenly left without a key option for summer recreation, all because their communities could not countenance sharing a publicly-funded pool with their Black citizens. In what is one of the pernicious elements of systemic racism, McGhee observes, many of the non-wealthy whites who could no longer bring their children to swim in one of these magnificent pools for free probably thought that this was a fair deal—better to go without than be obliged to share with people you’d been brought up to consider beneath you.

I am at present about halfway through The Sum of Us; look for a longer blog post when I’ve finished it. Meanwhile, I would suggest that this book should be required reading for our present moment.

What I’m Watching     I wrote in my last post about how much I’m enjoying rewatching Battlestar Galactica, but as Stephanie and I took a hiatus from that show to binge The Mandalorian, so again we’re taking a hiatus to watch The Stand­—the recent mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth 1978 novel in which 99.9% of the world is wiped out by a weaponized superflu nicknamed “Captain Trips,” and the remaining people of the U.S. gather in two opposing communities. On one side are the forces of good, who have been drawn to Boulder, Colorado by dreams of a 108 year old Black woman named Mother Abigail. On the other are those drawn by promises of power, licentiousness, and revenge by the evil Randall Flagg, a denim-clad and cowboy-boot shod demon in human form, who establishes his new society in (of course) Las Vegas.

As I’ve discussed a few times on this blog, last term I taught a fourth year class on pandemic fiction; I did not include The Stand, in spite of the fact that it’s one of the few actual pandemic novels written prior to the 21st century, mainly because it is way too long (almost 1500 pages) to shoehorn into a semester-long course. Given its significance to the topic, however, I did record a short lecture in which I ran down the key themes and plot points (which you can watch here if you’re so inclined). But one of the things I found interesting in retrospect—I first read The Stand in high school, and then read it again when King published the unexpurgated version in 1990—after doing all the preparatory reading for my course, was how King transformed a story about a biological catastrophe into a Manichaean light v. dark, G v. E, cosmic battle royale with Mother Abigail as God’s surrogate and Randall Flagg as Satan’s proxy. While the novel meditated at length on the nature of civilization and how one pragmatically goes about rebuilding after the apocalypse—with 1500 pages, how could it not?—it is obvious that it’s the metaphysical war that most interested King.

We’re slightly more than halfway through the new adaptation, and quite enjoying it. It was quite badly reviewed; and while I can agree with some of the complaints, it has been on the whole well-adapted to the screen, and (mostly) well-cast. Alexander Skarsgard is at his menacing best as Randall Flagg, James Marsden is all wry southern charm as Texan Stu Redman, Greg Kinnear plays the professorial Glen Bateman with the right balance of pomposity and insight; Whoopi Goldberg basically plays Mother Abigail as a devoutly Christian Guinan with a head of white dreadlocks; my favourite however is Brad William Henke, who plays the mentally disabled Tom Cullen with a guileless, earnest simplicity that avoids stereotypes (those who watch Justified will recognize Henke from season two as Coover Bennett, a similarly mentally delayed character whose disability manifests instead in sociopathic violence).

There is much that is left out, and much that could have been done better, but on the whole it is a pretty satisfying adaptation of an intriguing but flawed novel (“intriguing but flawed” is how I’d characterize most of King’s oeuvre, but I suppose that is to be expected when you churn out an average of two brick-sized novels a year). If you like The Stand, or are just amenable to Stephen King more generally, I’d recommend this series.

What I’m Writing     I recently dusted off an article-in-progress that had been mouldering for a year or two, on zombie apocalypse and celebrity; in a fit of energy I finished it and submitted it to a journal. I now have another that I’m looking to finish, on Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and nostalgia. Given that I’ll be doing that novel in both of my classes over the next two weeks, it seems an ideal time to return to it. Given that it is also about apocalypse, though of the non-zombie variety—and indeed about a civilization-ending pandemic—I’ve been trying to rewrite my introduction to put it in the context of the past year. It’s been slow going, not least because finding the right balance between the personal and the objective can be tricky when your aim is to submit it to a scholarly journal. But the overarching argument—that Mandel’s post-apocalyptic world in which the main characters are actors and musicians travelling between settlements to perform Shakespeare and classical music comprises a nostalgic desire to return to a pre-postmodern humanism—is, I think, a strong one. I just have to fill out a core section in which I discuss humanism in a more granular way.

(This process will also be useful, as it will give me a lot of lecture material).

On a related subject, I’ve also been working on a new essay on Terry Pratchett and Discworld. I have an article on Pratchett and his campaign for assisted dying coming out soon in a new collection; I’m trying to carry that momentum forward on a handful of Sir Terry essays, but the one I’ve been focusing on is a reading the Discworld novels in the context of the philosophy of American Pragmatism and what I’ve been calling the “magical humanism” exhibited in a lot of contemporary fantasy.

As much as I love Sir Terry’s writing, I find it difficult to write about it in a scholarly manner, for the basic reason that I find it difficult to find a focus and not end up running off madly in all directions. The essay I wrote for the collection, which came in way past deadline, needed to be cut from nine thousand words to six thousand (one of the essay’s blind reviewers said something to the effect of “this is obviously a piece of work gesturing to a much larger theory of Pratchett’s fiction,” which was at once both gratifying and true). Part of the problem is the iterative nature of the Discworld’s world-building: each  of the forty-one novels is a standalone narrative, and with each new installment, Sir Terry modified and refined aspects of that world, but also returned to the same themes and preoccupations in such a way that it is close to impossible to discuss the political and philosophical preoccupations of a given novel without being obliged to reference a dozen others.

This isn’t the most conducive thing for my intellectual temperament, which at the best of times is digressive and inclined to run down whatever rabbit holes I find, until I realize that, several paragraphs of writing on, I’ve found myself discussing an entirely different topic. (Presumably, devoted readers of this blog will have noticed this). That being said, however, it is a pleasure to lose myself in this topic … not least because I increasingly see Sir Terry’s humanism as a necessary antidote to our present toxic political moment.

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A Few Things

The Phantasm of Bipartisanship     I really hope that, going forward, President Biden and the Democrats point out the fact that “unity” is not something to be solely accomplished in the well of Congress. I just finished reading Obama’s memoir, and the sections where he details his administration’s attempts to get Republicans—any Republicans—to sign onto any of his early pieces of legislation should be required reading for every congressional Democrat, everyone in Biden’s administration, and, most importantly, every single centrist pundit currently warning Biden not to abandon bipartisanship so soon into his tenure. Obama acknowledges in hindsight that he was naïve, not grasping the depths of bad faith of the Republicans and their willingness to let a nation suffer in the name of political expediency. I’m cautiously optimistic—and so far, my optimism looks like it might be borne out—that Biden will make good-faith gestures toward bipartisanship, but isn’t about to be played like he and his former boss were twelve years ago.

Every time the Republicans, and their media mouthpieces, wail that Biden’s rhetoric of unity was a lie, Democrats should point out that the majority of the nation is on board with the Biden platform—that a plurality of Republican voters want more stimulus rather than less, want larger checks and not smaller, want a bolder roll-out of vaccinations—which can only happen with a significant federal investment—and want a $15 minimum wage. Democrats should also point out that, while the might resort to budget reconciliation to pass the $1.9T bill to sidestep a filibuster, there’s nothing stopping a handful of Republican senators from voting for it. And they should also point to the fact that a significant number of Republican governors and mayors want the relief funds.

They should say: We’re being bipartisan. We’re doing what the country wants. The fact that you, Senate Republicans, don’t want it, is an issue you should perhaps take up with your constituents.

That Whole Gamestop Thing     Trump may be out of office, sulking at Mar-a-Lago while he plots to retain his grip on the Republican party, but we’ll be dealing with Trumpism and the aftershocks of his reign for a long time to come. And I’m not even talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene (though I would be surprised not to see a blog post dedicated to her in the future). No, I mean the tendency during the past four years to have certain things one might have considered law shown to be mere convention, or things we would have assumed to be illegal to be common practice.

I was as schadenfreudistically delighted as anyone to hear and read the laments of hedge fund billionaires about the army of Redditors hoisting their stock-shorting arses by their own petard. At first, the saga had the quality of a virtual storming of the Bastille: humble citizen traders, in numbers large enough to inflict damage, playing the tricks of the ancien regime against them. As Jon Stewart tweeted, “The Redditors aren’t cheating, they’re joining a party Wall Street insiders have been enjoying for years.”

But as Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, “Waging war against Big Finance by becoming a day trader is like waging war against the casino industry by becoming a gambling addict.” Sure, there’s the chance you might win big betting on double zero at roulette, but you’re still playing by house rules—and the house always wins. Thompson adds, “trying to punish the rich by buying and selling stocks all day doesn’t make any sense. We’ve seen over and over and over that most day traders lose money; they routinely get smoked by bigger players.” Indeed, “while some Redditors made millions recently, the largest holders of GameStop stock, like the giant asset manager BlackRock, made billions.”

More to my point, Stephanie remarked a day after Gamestop became big news, “I’ve learned more about how the stock market works in the last twenty-four hours than in my entire life until now.” I concurred, and I added my incredulous observation that all of this—the shorting of stocks, the revolt of the Redditors—was perfectly legal. To again cite Obama’s memoir (which, not to belabour a point, is an excellent read), he commented on how much grief he and his justice department received in the aftermath of the financial meltdown when none of the major Wall Street players responsible for it were arrested and tried. Though it was a politically unpalatable answer, Obama dryly acknowledged, the sad fact of the matter is no one went to jail because none of what had caused the meltdown was technically illegal.

This is where I’m at with this whole Gamestop thing. While I’m happy to stick it to billionaires in the short term, the problem is the financial system itself writ large. The strategy of shorting stocks, as well as the dozens of other perfectly legal games traders play of which I am currently ignorant, is reflective of a morally bankrupt system. It makes me think of the moment towards the end of the film The Big Short—in which a handful of small players predict the 2008 collapse and make enormous amounts of money off it—when Brad Pitt’s character rebukes his fellows for being exultant. This is people’s lives, he remonstrates. Their homes. Their savings. Their retirements. You might be able to justify gaming a corrupt system, but corrupt systems impact real people.

The End of The Expanse     Well, not the end. Not yet—there will be one more season before it rides into the sunset, but today the final episode of season five airs. I haven’t yet watched it, as I’m saving it for this evening; but I look forward to it with the combination of anticipation and sadness that always accompanies the final instalment of something you’ve been enjoying.

The Expanse is a show that has gotten steadily better with each season—because with its growing viewership, it has garnered bigger effects budgets, because the writers have settled into a groove, and because the actors have made the characters come into their own.

I will likely have something more expansive to write about it (see what I did there?) at some point in the future—possibly when I have binge-watched the entire season over again—but for now I will be content to note that this season has been the best so far … a remarkable fact considering that the four core characters, the crew of the Rocinante, who have grown from a crew of mutually suspicious misfits into a genuine family, spent this season separated, each of their storylines having taken them on distant and perilous tracks. Some viewers voiced concern early in the season—how could The Expanse pack the emotional punch of previous seasons when Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex were scattered across the solar system?

I was not overly concerned (not least because I’ve read and enjoyed the novel Nemesis Games, on which this season was based), but still quite impressed at how well this cast, whose chemistry has been the basis of the show thus far, still shine in their separate (but linked) narratives.

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A Few Things

The Hill They Climb     Like almost everyone who wasn’t hate-watching Biden’s inauguration with the expectation that he and everyone on the dais was about to be arrested and possibly executed (see below), I was amazed and awestruck by the performance of Amanda Gorman, the twenty-two year old Youth Poet Laureate.

There are many reasons to be concerned and even cynical about the immediate future, but I have to say that most of the cynicism I’ve seen has been coming from the older generations. Millennials and Gen Z have more reason than I do to be cynical—the world they’re inheriting from us, after all, is more polarized than at almost any time in the past, the climate crisis is upon us and will affect them most acutely, and the twenty-first century has bequeathed to them a set of circumstances in which it is structurally almost impossible for them to do better than their parents.

There’s a lot of scornful talk in media and think pieces about the fecklessness of today’s youth, but I don’t see any of that. In my job I am in constant contact with people in their early 20s, and they humble me. They humble me with their energy and their earnestness, which makes me think of the louche irony of Generation X with something approaching shame. They see what they’ve inherited, but aren’t fatalistic. Theirs is the world of the Parkland shooting survivors, of Greta Thunberg, of Malala Yousafzai, of my niece Morgan and nephew Zachary. And of Amanda Gorman.

Gorman’s entire poem was mesmerizing, but one line has become stuck in my head: “America’s not the pride we inherit / It’s the past we step into / And try to repair it.” When I first watched her speak, I heard “prize” instead of “pride,” and was struck by that sentiment—that an American citizenship is a prize, a winning ticket in the global lottery. Then, when I read the transcript, I realized I’d gotten it wrong, and that her phrasing was superior—subtler, though not entirely dissimilar. Inaugurations are invariably forward-looking: setting the stage for the next act, heralding the promise of the future, often in contrast to the troubles of the recent past. But Gorman’s poem reminds us of a sentiment articulated by William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If seeing the confederate battle flag paraded through the Capitol building precisely two weeks before Gorman performed her poem isn’t the most horrifying articulation of this point, I’m at a loss to suggest what is.

And Amanda Gorman, with a deft turn of phrase that is all the more impressive coming from a twenty-something, throws down the gauntlet to the incoming Biden administration: if you ignore the past, you’re abdicating your responsibility.

Qonfusion     Like cult members awaiting the end of the world, QAnon adherents had what effectively comprised a thousands-strong virtual viewing party on inauguration day. As a quick recap: the QAnon conspiracy theory asserts that high-ranking Democrats, Hollywood elites, and liberal-leaning billionaires (i.e. George Soros) are all part of a secret cabal of Satanist, pedophile, child-slave-traffickers, and that Donald Trump has been working this entire time to thwart them and eventually expose them for the malefactors that they are. There have been various times in the past two years when QAnon’s adherents believed their moment of victory—i.e. when Trump would expose the cabal and arrest, and quite possibly execute, them—but like all good doomsday cults, there was always the rationale for kicking the can down the road. BUT. The actual inauguration of Joe Biden as president did seem like a make-or-break moment, and the QBelievers were convinced the inauguration would be the moment when Trump finally played his, ahem, trump card.

Except … not so much.

There was, not unpredictably, a great deal of confused incredulity and outrage, as well as the more astute among the cult wondering if in fact they’d been played this entire time (spoiler alert: DUH).  

I can’t help but feel that QAnon is going to be a bellwether going forward. Some of its adherents have cried bullshit, but there has already been a regrouping. And let’s not forget that QAnon has at least one representative in Congress, in the person of Marjorie Taylor Greene, as well as a handful of others who, while not quite as committed to the conspiracy theory, are certainly Q-curious. But like all cults that promise a moment of cumulative apotheosis—whether that be the aliens coming to take the true believers away, Armageddon, or the mass arrests of blood-quaffing Satanists—excuses are needed to account for why the apocalyptic thing didn’t happen. Apparently, the new line for QAnon is that Trump is still in command, and the entire inauguration was faked (either with doubles standing in for the key players, or the real Biden et al playing their parts under threat of death) so as not to expose the U.S. to attack from an opportunistic foreign power.

Yeah, it makes no sense to me either. Not that any of the other stuff did.

How long will QAnon continue to have traction? I think that will be the measure of whether Trumpism continues to be a significant power in the U.S., or whether it dwindles and fades.

Cats in the Morning, Cats at Night     Last night after I finished writing the previous section, I did what I frequently do after turning off the computer before going to bed—I turn in my chair, lean back, and put my feet up for five or ten minutes and just lose myself in my thoughts. I love that little interregnum between writing and sleeping; I love the darkness and the silence, and the clarity it lends to my thoughts. And I especially love the fact that my cat Catesby almost always senses my meditative state, and comes warbling into my office to climb into my lap, purring loudly.

Moments of quiet contemplation are always made better by the presence of a cat, especially one keen to have her ears and neck skritched.

If the moments just before I go to bed are for Catesby, the moments just after waking are for my cat Gloucester. When I first brought him home as a kitten, I woke the next morning with him curled in the crook of my arm. That was my usual morning, until I started using a CPAP for my sleep apnea. Gloucester didn’t care for the wheezing face mask, but the moment every morning I turn the machine off and remove the mask, I hear a trill and there he is, standing on my chest and snurfling my cheek with his nose. Then he settles in, purring, for however long I lay in bed after waking, and I often think of that first morning when I woke up with a tiny black kitten in the crook of my elbow.

Catesby and Gloucester.

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A Few Things (About the Attack on the Capitol)

Welcome to a special edition of “A Few Things.” I’m currently working through my thoughts in a (much) longer piece that I hope to post in a day or two, but along the way I’ve digressed into a few rabbit holes that don’t quite merit full-length posts. Or possibly they do, but I also need to prep my courses for next week and try to get some non-blog writing done. So this will have to do.

It Was Way Worse Than We Originally Thought   Which is saying a lot, because my first impression was that it was really bad. But there was also in many of the initial images of the attack the sense of a frat party gotten out of hand—the proverbial dog catching the car. This seemed especially apparent in the footage of the rioters milling aimlessly around the Senate chamber, as if confused about what to do now.

But in the days since, we’ve learned a lot of deeply disturbing details, not least among them the accounts of the D.C. and Capitol police who stood their ground … as well as those who, it now seems, aided and abetted the attackers. Indeed, the presence in the MAGA crowd of off-duty law enforcement, as well as both active service military and veterans is frightening (though sadly unsurprising). And for all of the rioters who weren’t actually expecting to successfully breach the Capitol, there were significant segments of the mob who were well-armed and -equipped, and coordinated in their movements, communicating on a walkie-talkie app on their phones. They brought guns, tasers, bear spray, gas masks, and flex-cuffs—this last item presumably for the purpose of taking hostages. They were determined to kidnap and kill members of Congress, especially Nancy Pelosi. They chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” for the VP’s unforgivable sin of not attempting the impossible task of single-handedly overturning Biden’s victory. Hence the gallows constructed outside weren’t just a racist symbol of Jim Crow era America, but apparently purpose-driven.

It was, it turns out, a matter of mere minutes and the quick thinking of a Capitol cop that allowed the senators and representatives to escape to an undisclosed safe location. If they had not, the death toll might have been much worse.

Strange Bedfellows   I’ve quipped a few times these past few years that I’ll know things will have gotten back to normal and Trump is finally out of office and the public eye when I can go back to hating David Frum. Frum, a Canadian expat who was a speechwriter for George W. Bush and went on to work as a high-profile conservative pundit, reliably wrote stuff that made me spit in anger—not least of which was his reliable cheerleading for the Iraq War. But since the rise of Trump, Frum has become one of the more eloquent never-Trumpers. It has been a measure of the unreality of the past five years that I’ve agreed with 95% of what he has written.

By the same token, while Twitter’s lifetime ban on Trump made me veritably drunk with schadenfreude, it makes me uncomfortable to be on the same page as Jack Dorsey. Ditto for Mark Zuckerberg also banning Trump, for Amazon’s effective silencing of the right-wing app Parler, and further for Twitter’s removal of some 75K accounts linked to QAnon. On one hand, the conservative howls of rage claiming that their First Amendment rights are being infringed upon makes me chortle—either because they’re misunderstanding how the First Amendment works, or are being deliberately obtuse. The right to free speech extends to not being silenced by the government. As private companies, Twitter et al can ban whomever they please, for whatever reason. Trump’s behaviour, and the behaviour of his followers, has suddenly become toxic for these companies—almost certainly because, with the Democratic capture of the Senate, they’re now running scared about regulation and want to make a high-profile break from Trump—and according to the logic of the market, they’re making changes. The same goes for the coterie of corporations that have cut off donations to all the Republicans who voted to overturn the electoral votes.

And yet. The issue of free speech and expression has become fraught in the age of social media, not least because the juggernauts of Twitter and Facebook and Amazon—and all of their subsidiaries—have become something akin to public utilities. I certainly don’t disagree with Trump’s ban—according to Twitter’s terms of service, it should have happened years ago—but the quasi-godlike power of massive corporations to arbitrarily silence citizens—even citizens whose vile opinions should disqualify them from public discourse—is deeply disturbing.

Remember That Time Pete Davidson Said Something Stupid About Dan Crenshaw?   Remember, he made a joke about Crenshaw’s eyepatch, which was tasteless and idiotic because Crenshaw lost his eye to an IED on his third tour in Afghanistan? And then by way of apology and conciliation, Davidson apologized to Crenshaw in person on SNL’s Weekend Update? And then in good fun, Crenshaw proceeded to roast Davidson, and much was made about unity and Americans all being Americans?

Well, Representative Crenshaw (R-TX) is all about unity again. Along with many of his fellow Republicans in the aftermath of an attack on Capitol hill explicitly fomented by the President, Crenshaw tweeted “We can’t ignore the President’s behavior leading up to the violence in the Capitol last week. He bears enormous responsibility for it. But impeachment is not the answer. We all need to deescalate, lower the temperature, and move forward together as a country.” A nice sentiment, if it wasn’t so full of shit. Never mind that Crenshaw has been one of Trump’s many enablers in Congress … for someone now so interested in “lowering temperatures,” he was quite happy to bring things to a boil in mid-December when he released the following ad in support of David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler.

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A Few Things

What I’m Reading  Aside from my reading for the term and for research, I’m about three-quarters of the way through Barack Obama’s memoir A Promised Land. It is a very long book (700+ pages) that doesn’t even get to the end of his first term; it is reflective, often pausing in its narration of events so Obama can ponder the vagaries of decisions he made or didn’t make, and ruminate on the broader significance of this or that detail in the broader context of American history; he also frequently digresses into little potted lectures on history and political philosophy to better frame the stories he’s telling.

Or to put it another way: I’m loving it. There are many reasons why I have such vast respect for this man, and why I think history will ultimately rank him as one of the best presidents; his humanity, intelligence, and passion are among those reasons, and they come through on every page, along with a professorial and nerdy wonkishness that I aspire to. After four years of Trump, this book is a salve to my soul.

What I’m Watching  Really, my life these days in measured out in week-long increments of impatience between each new episode of The Expanse. I latched onto the novels by James S.A. Corey (the pseudonym of Daniel Abrahamson and Ty Franck) soon after the first one (Leviathan Wakes) was published, and have read them obsessively since (we’re now eight novels along, and I’m waiting for the ninth and final installment rather impatiently). So when I saw they were adapting the novels to TV, I experienced the usual excitement and trepidation one often does when beloved books are being adapted to the screen. Will it be good (Good Omens, Game of Thrones) or bitterly disappointing (American Gods) or just … meh (The Magicians)?

The Expanse not only did not disappoint, it has gotten steadily better every season as the writers have found their groove and the special effects budgets have grown. This season—the fifth—is the best so far. It benefits in part from the narrative build of the previous seasons, in which otherwise seemingly insignificant plot points and elements of world-building have culminated in some pretty virtuosic storytelling, matched by amazing acting and visuals that now rank The Expanse among the best SF/F that has been brought to TV.

I don’t want to get into detail, because spoilers, but I will almost certainly write a much longer and spoiler-filled post once this season is done.

The Pleasures of Zoom-Teaching  To be certain, I miss being in the classroom with the intensity of a nova—teaching and interacting with my students is easily my favourite part of my job, and the classroom has always been a quasi-sacred space to me. Talking to the Brady Bunch arrangement of squares on my laptop screen is nowhere near the same thing … but there are aspects of it I like. Not the least of which is I can conduct classes wearing pyjamas. Also, they don’t know what’s in my mug, heh …

There is also Zoom’s chat function. As class discussion progresses, sometimes students will carry on a parallel conversation in text. It’s as if they’re passing notes in class, but I get to read them.

But by far my favourite aspect is the presence of pets. My cat Gloucester is a frequent visitor, jumping up onto my lap and staring at the faces on my screen with his golden eyes. And there is a petting zoo worth of dogs and cats—and in the case of today’s class, a bunny!—perched on my students’ laps or occasionally pushing their snouts close in to the webcams.

Oh, Yeah—Classes Started Today  Memorial delayed the start of term for a few days to give students a slightly longer break (something I was grateful for, too), so today was day one of the winter term. My first class was my graduate seminar “The Spectre of Catastrophe,” and if today was any indication, this is going to be a good term. There was a wonderful energy to the class, and everyone was enthused and engaged.

Tomorrow I start with my fourth-year seminar “Utopias and Dystopias,” a class that was designed by a former colleague of mine, now retired. It was always a student favourite when he taught it, and I’ve been requesting it since he retired several years ago. My teaching dance card was always too full to slot it in previously, so I’m delighted to finally get to teach it.

Last semester I taught a course on pandemic fiction; this term, it’s utopias and dystopias and post-apocalyptic narratives of the 21st century. Sense a theme? It feels a little bit, after 2020, like I’m steering into the skid.

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A Few Things

So I’m trying something new on my blog. I often go long stretches between posts. Sometimes this is because I’m otherwise occupied, or unstruck by inspiration, or just plain lazy. Often, however, it is because an idea I have for a post doesn’t pan out … I’ll sit and write and write, but whatever observation I’d intended to make doesn’t quite warrant my standard verbiage.

Partially for my own mental health—and for the fact that I do enjoy writing blog posts—I’m trying to correct my tendency to think that, if something isn’t worth writing 2000+ words on, it isn’t worth pursuing. To that end, I’m trying “A Few Things”: a recurring post in which I will write short and (hopefully) sweet blurbs on the random thoughts that excite my brain.

Wish me luck.

The Stupid Coup. I’m still digesting the events of this past Wednesday. I might have something more thoughtful to say about it at greater length later, but for now all I have is this: people are clowns and buffoons until they’re not. Even as we watched, aghast, as a mob of neo-confederates, white supremacists, neo-nazis, QAnon devotees, wannabe droogs and paramilitary cosplayers, and Trump cultists (that Venn diagram has a LOT of fucking overlap), our social media newsfeeds were also filled with images that would be risible if they weren’t so unthinkable. The bare-chested MAGA Viking. The grinning dude in the Trump toque high-stepping out of the Capitol with the Speaker’s podium. The gypsy in the palace on the Senate dais with a raised fist. The people who, having stormed into the seat of American government, milled around aimlessly, no longer sure what they were about. The people who, having overrun the barricades and broken windows, kept within the velvet ropes in the statuary room.

In many ways, it was the Trumpiest way to end Trump’s term—ignorant clowns and buffoons storming a symbolic building whose symbolism is irrelevant to them, in the name of the clown-in-chief whose entire tenure has been marked by profound ignorance of and indifference to the history of his nation and his office.

But as we know, clowns can be terrifying. Trump went from being a punchline to the guy with the nuclear football. It was fortunate that he proved to be more like Krusty (“I’m a lazy, lazy man”) than Pennywise.

Designated Survivors. I first learned about the U.S. practice of keeping a cabinet secretary in a safe location during the State of the Union address from the West Wing first season episode “He Shall, from Time to Time …” The reason this is done is so someone in the presidential line of succession can assume the presidency in the event of a catastrophic attack in the Capitol that would wipe out the entire government. As noted by Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) in the episode, they usually select someone without much of a public profile, as they want the rock stars of the Cabinet visible in people’s TV screens—in this case, the Secretary of Agriculture (whom Buffy fans will recognized as actor Harry Groening, who played the cheerfully villainous Mayor Wilkins).

Several years ago, this practice became the premise for the TV series Designated Survivor, starring Kiefer Sutherland, whose similarly low-profile role as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development was tapped to sit out the SOTU, which—you guessed it—was bombed, and hence the erstwhile Jack Bauer became President.

Before Designated Survivor, however, there was the remake of Battlestar Galactica—in which the multi-planet human civilization apparently operated similarly to the U.S. republic. When the Cylons nuke most of humanity, reducing us to a handful of spaceships fleeing their androidial malice, the presidency falls to the Secretary of Education (Mary McDonnell), the only member of government in the line of succession to survive the attack. More recently—by which I mean, this past Wednesday—The Expanse replicated this logic. Former U.N. Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala (Shoreh Aghdashloo), exiled to the moon by her successor, is approached by the Secretary of Transportation after an attack on Earth wipes out most of the government. The Secretary is now the Secretary General, and asks Avasarala to join his cabinet.

Granted, it’s only two SF television series, but isn’t it a bit weird that the U.S. system is what becomes the default in the speculative future? (It gets weirder when you think about Battlestar Galactica’s ending revelation, but I’d rather not be spoilery on that front).

The Crown, season four. Stephanie and I had not watched the three preceding seasons. Born in South Africa, she has a rather bitter antipathy to the British monarchy (she’s still rotted that, when she became a Canadian citizen, she had to swear allegiance to the Queen). But we’re both massive fans of Olivia Coleman, and even massiver fans of Gillian Anderson. In both cases, this led to some rather conflicted feelings, as neither of us wanted to feel sympathy for the Queen, and were even less inclined to be sympathetic to Margaret Thatcher … but both actors were brilliant, and in my opinion Coleman did a better job as QEII than Helen Mirren in The Queen, and Anderson outshone Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady.

I found the final episode oddly apposite to the current moment: it depicts Thatcher’s downfall at the hands of her caucus, and her resentment and bitterness as their betrayal. “These pathetic … men,” she grouses to the Queen about the mealy-mouthed ministers taking advantage of her unpopularity to oust her. It was, I thought, a particularly shrewd moment of television: whatever sympathy we might otherwise be inclined to have with a woman meeting her Waterloo at the hands of a group of mediocre men is entirely obviated by Thatcher’s own internalized sexism—having opined at length about women’s general weakness, and frequently shown determinedly playing the role of the housewife not just to her husband, but insisting on cooking dinner for cabinet ministers meeting at Downing Street.

I’ve been thinking of the opportunism of Thatcher’s ministers in her last days as PM as I watch Donald Trump’s erstwhile enablers head for the lifeboats. For eleven years, British Tories were happy to let Thatcher lay waste to British civil society, hating her behind her back while she won elections, never offering objections to her most egregious and cruel policies, finally only declaring a mutiny when they were safe from her barbs. If Twitter enacts a lifetime ban on Trump, and if Trump is suddenly embroiled in numerous criminal court cases, expect Republicans to pretend they’d always wanted him gone.

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