Category Archives: A Few Things

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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