Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Sanders, Clinton, and the Agonizing Process of Deciding Which One to Vote For

In 2008, I voted for Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in the New York primary. It was a decision I couldn't help second guessing in subsequent years, as Obama floundered amidst Republican opposition. My mother had been right; he didn't have the experience for the job.

I wondered if Clinton would have done better, and hoped that she would run in the future so I could find out. Now that has happened, and yet I find I'm strongly drawn to Bernie Sanders in much the way I was to Obama. I have to wonder; if I follow my heart, am I going to regret it a second time?


Clinton seemed terrific when she was first lady, smart and progressive, but as my senator she was suspect, displaying a mushy moderation that suggested she was more into positioning herself than changing the world. Then she voted in favor of a preemptive war in Iraq, which meant, I thought, that she was either too stupid to recognize the Bush administration's bullshit (detailed in the run-up to the war by the progressive press) or was simply taking a spineless, politically advantageous position.

Obama had been against that war. He also promised that his universal health plan wouldn't include a requirement that people buy health insurance; as someone who couldn't afford insurance, I was worried about facing fines. He spoke beautifully and offered a vision of a better, more hopeful world.

Unlike his most ardent fans, I never expected Obama to turn the U.S. into a progressive paradise. He was, after all, a politician, and bound to break the hearts of true believers. But I was still hugely disappointed by his meekness; he seemed the sort who would bring Roberts Rules of Order to a knife fight.


So here we are again. A man full of fire and fury, promising great things that might be impossible, versus a far more experienced woman who voted for a terrible war and offers less ambitious but far more concrete plans.

For a lot of people, it's an easy decision. Either Sanders is an impassioned visionary who will lead a modern revolution and Clinton is a corrupt hack with no principles who will hand the country over to the billionaire class, or Clinton is a brainy progressive feminist with deep experience whose realpolitik approach will move us forward while Sanders is an unelectable, impractical gadfly whose nomination is a Republican wet dream.

What I see are two smart, progressive, and imperfect candidates, either of which would be a million times preferable to even the least crazy Republican. Philosophically, Bernie is almost a perfect match for me, a fellow progressive who looks at enlightened Scandinavian countries and asks, why can't we do that? But as annoying as practical considerations are, they cannot be avoided. I have to ask, which candidate is more likely to win the election, and which candidate, if elected, is more likely to accomplish good things? Also, which candidate is more likely to royally screw up?


Electability is a big consideration when choosing a nominee, and in a normal political environment, electability would be Clinton's best friend. She is better known than Sanders, with more political experience. Sanders is an elderly agnostic Democratic Socialist; which normally would make him the most unelectable candidate in the world.

But let's face it, this is a weird year. Voters are sick of a political system that doesn't work and seems custom made for a wealthy elite. The Republican nominee is likely to be Donald Trump, a no-nothing blowhard with a frightening ability to sucker people in with his big daddy authoritarian promises and his constant lies and policy shifts.

Against Trump, Hillary is certainly the adult in the room, and in a sane country where voters want the reasonable, thoughtful candidate over the ticking time bomb, she could easily beat him. But in a year where people are obsessed with "authenticity," and shooting from the hip, Clinton's carefully triangulated positions and coziness with Wall Street  are more damaging than in a typical year. And her history of Republican-manufactured scandals has given her low trustworthy ratings with voters (I'm not saying that's fair, since all the problems I have with her are not the problems the Republicans have created, but it's still a consideration).

Sanders seems better positioned to beat Trump at his own game, out-shouting him, mocking his stupidity, while also being blindingly smarter than him. If people really want big changes, Sanders versus Trump offers a clear-cut choice. Sanders could win over Trump-ites, although the be fair, the reverse may be true as well; a lot of voters seem to just want to disrupt the system but aren't that picky about how it's done.

While Clinton's downside is that she has been softened up by years of molehills turned into mountains by the right, Sanders' downside is he hasn't experienced any real attacks at all. The Democrats' primary campaign has been pretty civilized. While the candidates are increasingly snippy, there is no real mud-slinging - no questioning of citizenship, no spousal slams, no mocking of physical attributes. I don't think he's even been attacked all that hard for saying up front he's going to raise taxes (claiming this will be balanced out by health insurance savings) which he would get slaughtered with in a general election.

What happens when Sanders gets into a savage knife fight with someone like Trump or Cruz? Does Sanders have any terrible skeletons in his closet? I doubt it. Can the Republicans create one? Sure. These are the people who used John Kerry's military heroism against him. Can Sanders withstand the tremendous heat? We don't know. We know Hillary can; she's been living on the sun for years.

Of course, the increased polarization of the electorate means the candidates might barely matter at all, because almost all the Democrats and Republicans will vote for their party, even if they hate the candidate. This gives the final decision to those freakishly unpredictable independents. In this case, enthusiasm and getting out the base is really important, and Sanders seems to have the edge there.

It is also possible that either candidate will win in a landslide due to a third-party candidacy for the conservatives if Trump is the nominee or a third-party run (or just a lot of sniping) from Trump if he isn't. Although things could get patched up with a Cruz-Trump ticket, which would be ... interesting.


Then there's the question of who can get more done.

Think of it this way. You have a stone quarry in the middle of a swamp, and you would like the stones mined, carried to a faraway hill, and built into a mansion. One contractor tells you it's impossible, but she can get enough stones to the edge of the swamp to build a decent, reasonably dry home, and maybe you can build a better house later. She has detailed  blueprints.

The other contractor says he will build that mansion on a hill, guaranteed. He will move heaven and earth to make it happen. He has a bunch of notes on post-its.

If she's right then voting for him will get you a bunch of stones littered along the path to the hill. But if she's wrong, you're living by the side of the swamp when you could have one hell of a view.

Who do you hire?

The pro-Clinton argument is simply that she knows how to work the levers of power. She knows how to deal, how to compromise, knows when to hold them and knows when to fold them.

She will build on what's here. She will tweak Obamacare, trying to get it closer to what it should be. She will try and push through a few more financial regulations. She will navigate the treacherous path. She will be sensible

But she'll never even try for the mansion on the hill. She doesn't believe in it.

Neither did Obama. He always started with a reasonable position, something centrist and practical that deserved wide support, and then was slapped down by Republicans who painted his most modest proposals as the works of a wild-eyed, America-hating Muslim anarchist.

Obama tried to be reasonable, and that failed because the other side was unreasonable. Sanders would not make that mistake. He would make huge progressive proposals. And while he might not get free college or a single-payer system, not starting at the center could be a powerful negotiating tactic.

What worries me about Sanders is that when asked how he will bring these miracles to pass, he says we need people to rise up, we need a revolution. But how does that happen? Politicians casually ignore what the majority want (better gun control laws, for example) in favor of what donors and lobbyists want. Even if Sanders could get people to demand the same things he demands (and this country is so polarized that this is unlikely), politicians entirely concerned with their own little gerrymandered districts are not going to join the Sanders revolution. This is a big, unwieldy country; it can only turn so sharply.

Still, Ronald Reagan created a pretty major shift in this country, and if Sanders can't turn the U.S. into Denmark, he could still, in theory, push it as far left as Reagan pushed it right.

Sanders is worrisomely vague about how he's going to pay for everything. He claims that his policies will lower health costs and improve the economy, and if that's true then we might be able to afford Sanders' big dreams. But what is the difference between Sanders' claims and those of Republicans who say if they cut taxes on the rich the economy will improve so much that the government will have more money than ever?

Once again though, the point may be trivial; if Republicans keep control of congress, neither Sanders nor Clinton is going to get anything done. The Republicans are perfectly happy to obstruct the government forever if need be. The stones will never be mined, the house never built. The contractor won't matter.

On the other hand, if Democrats get control of both the house and the senate, Sanders' big dreams could make a better country than Clinton's little ones.


Presidents can do a lot of damage. George W. Bush managed to tank the economy, plunge us into war and destabilize the mid-east. Bill Clinton pushed through laws that vastly increased the racial disparity in prison populations. 

I'm on the fence in terms of Clinton's electability and her efficacy, but I am far more worried about her capacity to screw things up. Because while Clinton's supporters offer her vast foreign policy experience as a positive, it is what worries me most.

First off, she voted for the Iraq war. At the time, I saw that as pure politically expediency, but it could also represent her general inclination to muck around in other countries and hope for the best. After all, she lobbied for regime change in Libya, which just further messed up the midle east.

I strongly believe in Obama's foreign policy tenet: don't do stupid shit. The history of U.S. foreign policy is the history of screwing up other countries, breaking their governments and alienating their citizens. Clinton, alas, has the interventionist mindset that leads to doing stupid shit, sometimes for very noble reasons. Obama gets a lot of grief because he realizes that America cannot remake the world; Clinton doesn't seem to get that.

I don't think Sanders wants to recreate the world in America's image. I don't think he's interesting in nation building. My feeling about Sanders lack of foreign policy experience is best summed up by the satirical op-ed, Sorry Bernie Bros, Your Candidate Just Doesn’t Have The Foreign Policy Experience Necessary To Prop Up A Pro-Western Dictatorship.  

The danger of Sanders is the danger of  unintended consequences. The more powerful the pill, the bigger the side effects. The more radical the change, the greater the unpredictable ripple effects. Sanders' sweeping proposals are tricky. A $15 minimum wage in Los Angeles is likely to affect the local economy differently than in Podunk, Idaho. Sanders could find himself spending an entire term trying to make one change work the way he expected it to. It's a sizable risk.


Sanders versus Clinton is not an exact repeat of Obama versus Clinton. Sanders has more experience in government than Obama had in 2008 and he's a far more progressive candidate. But once again I find myself torn between a candidate whose positions are appealing but whose practicality is suspect and a shifting compromiser who has a plan for getting things done but may not want to do the things I want her to. 

Maybe I was wrong to vote for Obama in 2008, but maybe I wasn't. Could Hillary really have done any better against the anarchists of the Republican party? We'll find out if she becomes president, and then I might be able to decide whether my Obama vote was a mistake. But I'll probably never know for sure whether Bernie or Hillary was the right candidate for 2016. All I know for certain is, whatever happens, I'll always wonder about the path not taken.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bernie, Hillary, Sexism, Authenticity, and Elizabeth Warren

It is undeniable that, as a woman, Hillary Clinton faces a sexism that makes campaigning tricky. Pundits will obsess over stupid things like her hair and dress, they will scrutinize her actions as a wife in a way male politicians are never scrutinized for their marital conduct, they will look for signs of "womanly weakness" at every turn.

That being said, Clinton is not struggling to beat Bernie Sanders because, as Catherine Rampbell suggested in the Washington Post, Sanders' maleness allows him a freedom to seem authentic that Clinton doesn't have. Sanders, windblown and loud, can express passion; Clinton, constantly under watch by a sexist media, must be meticulous.

But its' not Sanders Brooklyn accent and mussed hair that make him seem authentic, nor are they the key to his popularity. And to see that, all one has to do is look at Elizabeth Warren.

With all due respect to Bernie, he was not most progressives first choice for president. Warren was the one every ultra-liberal democrat pictured taking the White House. Because Warren, with her kempt hair, midwest accent and pricey blazers, exudes exactly the passion and authenticity that Rampbell says sexism prevents Clinton from attaining.

One pundit suggested that Clinton's problem is we have cast her in the role of a grandmother, and when she raises her voice we feel we're being scolded. But Warren raises her voice all the time. She admonishes her foes with great force.

The difference is who is being admonished. If Warren is a grandmother, she is one who will see kids teasing another kid and run outside and chase them away with a broom. When she admonishes, she admonishes for you.

Hillary is something different. Like Warren, she can get angry, but often she's angry with all of us. She's angry because we keep throwing her vote for the Iran war back at her, angry because we asked for an explanation for her private email server, angry that people keep choosing dreamers like Obama and Sanders over a practical, sensible woman like herself. Hillary is the grandmother who tells you that you're a bad child if you don't eat your broccoli.

Hillary's authenticity problems are not because she can't be seen with messy hair. Her authenticity problems are because she's inauthentic. She answers questions with an evasive lawyerliness. She makes unsupportable claims, as when she said that being a woman makes her a true establishment outsider when her resume is remarkably insider-ish. She seems inauthentic because she switches positions and then says, oh no, I never really said I supported that, I just said I was open to it.

Authenticity isn't a male/female thing. Romney seemed inauthentic. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, comes across as passionate and authentic, even when she's being crazy and incoherent.

I'm not saying we should choose our political representatives based on that indefinable thing called authenticity. There are slick, talking-point-driven politicians like Nancy Pelosi who seem phony but still do a terrific job, and it's possible in the end that Clinton's experience, wonkiness, and nuts-and-bolts practicality would make her a better president than Sanders - I'm having difficulty making up my mind who to vote for.

What I'm saying is, if Elizabeth Warren were the candidate instead of Bernie, she would have the same fans, receive the same big crowds, and be attacked in the mainstream press for many of the same reasons. But no one would say she was doing so well because of sexism.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

On Trigger Warnings and Toughening Up

When I first heard about trigger warnings, my reaction was not positive. To me, it seemed as though weak people were demanding to be catered to. People go through terrible things, but so many terrible things happen that the world can't be expected to grind to a halt for every traumatized soul. Trigger warnings struck me as the height of a coddling culture devoted to preventing discomfort. The world is a hard place, and people need to just fucking toughen up and deal with it.

I've been thinking this way for some time now, not really questioning my underlying visceral response. And then today an old remark happened to pop into my head; a simple question, asked years ago, that made me reconsider the whole idea of over sensitivity.


In the first grade, I had just moved to a new neighborhood, and was very unhappy about it. On the first day of school, while the class waited outside for the teacher, who was late, some kids started to tease me. I don't know what they said, but I started crying.

Tears are to children what blood is to sharks, and there was a verbal pile on. I panicked and started screaming, "STOP IT,"  which to keep going with the shark analogy, was like when the leg gets bitten off and the blood gushes out, pulling in more sharks until there is a huge feeding frenzy.

With that, my fate was sealed. I was the kid who screamed, and my peers all wanted to try that out for themselves. I was famous for it; people who had never met me would say, "hey, are you that kid that screams?", even when I no longer did.

Of course, some children go through far, far worse, but it still sucked. I avoided people as much as possible, hiding out in the library. I rarely had friends, and some of the few I had eventually turned on me, teasing me to gain traction with the other kids. From my perspective, the truest movie ever made about childhood is Welcome to the Dollhouse, the only movie I ever saw where I wasn't annoyed that the movie's "loser" character had a better childhood than I had.

I worked very hard to not cry and scream. It was a lot of work, it took many years, but by high school I was doing pretty well. Emotions were the enemy and the source of all my troubles, and it felt like a victory every time I managed to feel less and react less.


Decades later, I was talking to someone. I was talking about how fucking oversensitive people are, for example, people I dated. They would get upset about stupid little things. I could make some mild comment and they would just freak out. They needed to toughen up.

And the guy said, "you mean the way you had to toughen up when you were a kid?"

That was a "woah" moment. I was being asked, did I feel other people should tamp down on their emotions, curtail their feelings, so I could be insensitive? And the answer was no.

But it's easy to fall into old mental habits, which is why my first reaction to trigger warnings was still, toughen up, you big babies.


When I was perhaps ten years old, or whatever age it is when parents finally feel they can let their kids wander about on their own (an age that seems to have shifted since I was young), my parents gave me the lordly sum of $5 to spend at the state fair while they went off and did their own thing. I imagined going on a lot of rides, but I was distracted by a ring toss game. I bought three rings for a quarter, and missed three times. The guy running the booth said, don't give up, I'll give you four rings for another quarter. Then 5 rings, then 8, then 12, until I had spent the entire $5. There would be no midway rides for me.

Ashamed and heartbroken, I told my parents what had happened. They could have let that stand as a valuable lesson in the dangers of life, in the need to watch out for people, in the irrevocable nature of our mistakes, but they didn't. Instead, my dad hunted down the guy who managed the arcade and complained. He said it was wrong to take advantage of the naivety of a young child, and the ring toss guy had to give me my money back.

So I didn't learn that people will screw you, life is unfair and you have to accept it. I learned that people don't have the right to screw you, and that if they try, you should make a stink about it.


Toughening is a natural part of life. If you walk barefoot on gravel, your soles will toughen over time. If you don't like shoes, then that toughening is a good thing. It protects you from pain. It allows you to function. That's what toughening up is about; making adjustments that allow you to function.

For many of us, toughening up means growing a thicker skin. It means, in the words of Marge Simpson, that you, "Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down past your knees, until you're almost walking on them."

There's a problem with that sort of toughening, beyond the discomfort of walking on your own feelings. If it is necessary to toughen up because the world sucks, then by toughening up, you are agreeing to the world sucking.

So you toughen up, and when people are mean to you, you laugh it off. If your boss mistreats you, you cioe. Everyone's got problems, there's nothing you can do except to grin and bear it.

When we insist that asking for trigger warnings is a result of being weak and coddled, we are demanding that traumatized people (and very few of us aren't, to some degree, traumatized) be tough.

But perhaps the demand for trigger warnings is simply a different variety of toughness. Perhaps being tough is demanding that people show sensitivity to your needs. Perhaps you are tough if you refuse to let people make you swallow your feelings.

Some poeple argue that it's a cold, cruel world, and if we cater to college students now, they'll be in for a shock when they enter an adult life of asshole bosses and vindictive neighbors. What will these coddled kids do in the real world, when they can no longer run to daddy or teacher?

But maybe we have things backward. Perhaps this toughening up is why we are so quick to accept abuse. Perhaps demanding trigger warnings could lead to demanding fair treatment at work and home. Perhaps the assholes of the world rely on all these people who use their toughness to power through all the shit heaped upon them. Perhaps toughened people accept abuse that sheltered people would rebel against. Perhaps encouraging people to toughen up is making the world a safer for assholes.


In the classic Shel Silverstein song, "A Boy Named Sue," famously recorded by Johnny Cash, a father names his son Sue before leaving his family. Sue faces a lot of ridicule and fights back, becoming tough and quick-witted. As an adult, he meets his father, and tries to kill him, at which point dad says the name was to make him tough and he was pleased to see it worked.

The moral Sue took away? Don't fucking give your son a girl's name. Being tough enough to almost kill your dad isn't worth all the pain it takes to get you there.

Toughening up didn't make me a better or happier person. What has made me a better, happier person has been years spent stripping those protective emotional layers away, allowing myself to soften just a little. Still, I always wipe my tears away when I cry at movie; letting people see you will always feel dangerous.

How would my life have been different if I'd been more coddled? If teachers hadn't watched me being tortured and thought, that's just kids being kids?  If school administrators had tried to stop the bullying instead of writing me off as that kid who screamed because he wanted attention? If a psychiatrist had, instead of putting me on Ritalin (which had no effect because I was sensitive, not fucking hyperactive), admitted that bullying cannot be remedied by medicating the victims of it.

We'll never know, but I'm in favor of coddling a generation and seeing how it turns out.

I'll never be so soft as to need trigger warnings, and I'll probably always feel a visceral dislike of them. Trigger warnings are stupid and the people who insist on them are big fucking babies. And I say to all you big fucking babies; be tough enough to refuse to toughen up. See if it makes a better world.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Tin GOP

The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz was once (as you know if you read the book) a real man. He lost his body parts one by one to a cursed axe, until he was all tin, and thus, no longer human.

I suspect the moment other people thought of him as a tin man was earlier than when he thought of himself that way. There was probably a time when he was still thinking of himself as a human with a lot of tin when everyone else was thinking of him as tin with a few flesh parts. It always takes some time to acknowledge a new reality.


I've been fascinated by the panic of mainstream Republicans over the state of their party. Donald Trump, a racist loud-mouthed populist with no clear political philosophy beyond yellow at minorities, stands a good chance of being the Republican nominee for president of the United States. If he doesn't win, it will probably be Ted Cruz, a right-wing extremist hated by his colleagues whose only goal seems to be to cause the gears of government to grind to a halt.

Right wing pundits are wringing their hands and crying out, "THIS IS NOT OUR PARTY." They insist they are the party of small, sensible government and free-market ideals, not the party of racism and demagoguery and intolerance.

But of course, they are that party. Racism, intolerance, and rabid hatred of seemingly most of the country have been, for a long time, as much a part of the GOP as helping the rich at the expense of the poor.

Republicans once actually did believe in government as a tool to make things better. For all his flaws, it was Richard M. Nixon who started the EPA. But the party has moved much further to the right since then. The modern Republican party began with Reagan, an arch conservative who by today's standards is still too liberal for the GOP.

The GOP's cursed axe was the Tea Party. The Tea Party was fueled not by a consistent political philosophy (they would protest against government entitlements while demanding the government not cut any entitlements they enjoyed), but by rage at gun laws and the dewhitening of America, and a general sense that they were getting screwed by "them."

The Republicans saw the Tea Party as a large voter block that they could use to gain and hold onto political power. They embraced the Tea Party, they supported Tea Party Candidates, the chose Sarah Freaking Palin as a vice presidential candidate, all to get those Tea Party voters to come out and help them crush the Democrats. They raised their voices, questioned Obama's citizenship, swift-boated John Kerry, and allowed stupidity and craziness to take a place of honor in the party.

And without them realizing it, everything they saw as classic conservatism was being chopped away.

Right now the leading GOP presidential candidates, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, are all Tea Partiers. The are all extremely right wing. And the percentage of Republicans who support them make up a strong majority of the party. Republicans fed the Tea Party like that plant in Little Shop of Horrors, and my, how it has grown.

Now that the last vestige of human flesh is gone, the heart is absent, and the GOP is 100% tin, conservative pundits are screaming that something has to be done before the Republican party is destroyed.

But there is no more Republican party now, there is only the Tea Party. Eventually, the few remaining Republicans will have to accept that.

Friday, December 19, 2014

the mind of a seat snatcher revealed, accidentally

I've always been both fascinated and disgusted by people who take up extra seats on a crowded subway. The people who feel their shopping bag needs a seat more than their fellow passengers. What kind of a person is that?

I mean, there are those weird people who put a bag on a seat and stand next to it, and while that's a waste of a seat, at least with them you can say that they just don't understand the appeal of sitting. They're happy to stand so it may just not occur to them that others like to sit.

But those people who sit next to their bag (or, as sometimes happens, between two bags) know the importance of sitting down, because they're doing it. They know that when you're on the train, it's better to sit. they just don't care that they're preventing someone else from sitting.

It drives me crazy. Inspired by "Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train," I've even considered creating a Tumblr called "Bags That Need a Seat More Than You Do," but that's a project for a later time.

Sometimes I just want to ask these people, what the fuck? What sort of entitled person thinks that their own comfort is all that matters?

One seat snatcher has answered that question in an article in Salon meant to be about racist white people that turned out instead to be about the writer's own narcissistic selfishness.,

The article, '“Listen when I talk to you!”: How white entitlement marred my trip to a Ferguson teach-in.', by Brittney Cooper, begins thusly:

On Friday, I was on the train to New York to do a teach-in on Ferguson at NYU. Beats headphones on, lost in thought, peering out the window, I suddenly saw a white hand shoving my work carry-on toward me. Startled, I looked up to see the hand belonged to a white guy, who was haphazardly handling my open bag, with my laptop perched just inside to make space for himself on the seat next to me.
So, a woman sits down on a train, puts her bag next to her, puts on headphones and stares out the window.

In an empty train, I will put a bag on the seat next to me, but if I do that, I constantly monitor the train to make sure it's not getting full. If the train starts to fill up, I put my bag on the floor, or my lap, because I don't want to be an asshole. If I'm wearing my bulky winter coat, I pull it close around me so it doesn't block the other seats. I have bad feet, I have bad knees; I know how important a seat is.

Cooper acknowledges that the train was full, and says she understands why someone would want to sit. But she objects to someone picking up her bag after failing to get her attention. She says he should have tried harder to get that attention, although if she thought moving her bag was a sign of white male privilege, it's hard to believe that a tap on the shoulder or a white hand waved between her eyes and the window would have not have set her off as well.

What she never acknowledges in the article is that she had no right to take up an extra seat. No, "yes, I was in the wrong to take an extra seat on a crowded train, but it is inexcusable to grab someone's bag." Because it really is an asshole move to grab someone's bag; in spite of my bad feet I would never do that.

Cooper seems very angry that a white man did this, but it's hard to believe she would have been that much happier if a black man had grabbed her bag, or a pregnant white lady, or an elderly Korean. And that could have happened; I think we all know that pushy intrusiveness is not limited to any one race.

That's the fascinating thing about assholes; they will unselfconsciously tell you what assholes they are because they feel completely justified in all their asshole behavior. I'm sure that white guy would be willing to sit down and write an article about how he had to grab some stranger's bag and move it with the some obliviousness to his breach of social norms. Rather than being an article about white entitlement, this is simply an article about two entitled assholes facing off.

Most people in the comments section reacted as I have, taking her to task for her own bad behavior. But there is the occasional comment that says, "white people just don't get it." This is a pretty common statement when discussing racism, and a true one. White people don't know what it's like to live in a society where they are considered the other, the ones to be mistrusted and watched out for. We didn't grow up in a society where a "flesh-colored" band-aid is off-white, where the white guy is the television detective and the black guy is the street-wise junkie, where a preponderance of black faces in a neighborhood makes it "bad." We totally don't understand the black experience.

But what does that have to do with being a jerk? Does it mean black people get a pass for being assholes? Is that part of reparations?

An asshole is an asshole. It is condescending to say we are not going to hold Brittney Cooper to account because she's black and upset about Ferguson. It is patronizing to say, "well, she's black,
she has a right to be an ass," and unfair to all the polite people of all races who show consideration for their fellow humans.

When that guy grabbed her bag she had a choice. She could think about how her inconsiderate behavior created a situation, or she could decide that the real problem was racism. She chose the latter, and that tells me a lot about the sort of person who lets you stand so their bag can sit.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Trankey Do Transformation: How Hard Could It Be to Redub a Two-Minute Dance Video?

This is a long and detailed explanation of the process by which I re-dubbed and extended the Spirit Moves Trankey Do video. As with the video itself, it is possible that this is interesting to no one except me. The video can be viewed here.

Context: An Overview of Spirit Moves

In the 1930s, a German Immigrant dancer named Mura Dehn discovered the Savoy Ballroom, inspiring her to spend decades documenting Jazz Dance. The result is the five-hour documentary Spirit Moves.

If you watch the chunks of Spirit Moves on youtube, you'll notice that the music never quite matches the movement. Recording sound and video was not as simple as it is now, and it appears Dehn simply recorded the dance and dubbed the music in later.

One of the things Dehn captured was the Trankey Do (referred to as the "Trunky Doo" in a Spirit Moves title card, one of many alternate spellings; Wikipedia says it's Tranky Doo, for what that's worth.)

The Beginnings: Learning a Dance from Videos, and a Bright Idea

A few weeks ago, I decided I would teach myself the Trankey Do. There are a number of youtube videos where the steps are broken down and other videos that show it performed. The steps themselves are listed on Wikipedia and LindyWiki.

Everyone seems to do the routine a little differently, so I figured I'd go to the earliest recorded version in Spirit Moves, featuring Al Minns, Leon James, and Pepsi Bethel. (Pepsi is generally described as the routine's choreographer, although Frankie Manning's long-time girlfriend Judy Pritchett - who spells it Trankey Do - says it was Frankie's creation.)

Unfortunately, I couldn't dance along to the Pepsi video because the song dubbed in - The Dipsy Doodle - was one beat off. The first move, Fall off the log, traditionally starts on 8, but it was dubbed to start on 1. It felt wrong when I tried to dance along.

I decided to redub the sound to match the dance. I figured it would be easy.

A Simple Tweak: The Right Music on the Right Beat

Because of the Spirit Moves video, dancers nowadays usually do the routine to the Dipsy Doodle, but according to wikipedia and other sources it was originally danced to Erskine Hawkins' Tuxedo Junction. I figured as long as I was changing the soundtrack, I might as well be authentic.

Hawkin's version of Tuxedo Junction on youtube was too slow for the  video, so I edited them together with Vegas Pro 12, which allowed me to speed up the music. I got the speed so it matched the first few eights fairly perfectly and got the opening kick on the 8 where it belonged. I called it a success and uploaded it to youtube.

There was something strange though. While the first part of the video was close to other versions, I found that there were places where the dancers were not doing what was done in the instructional videos; for example, they were doing the knee slap on 7 instead of 8. I assumed that over the years the routine had been altered somewhat, but eventually I realized what the real issue was.

Getting Ambitious: Completing the Routine

The Spirit Moves video does not show the complete Trankey Do, fading out around the Paddles. I found a couple more old Trankey Do videos on youtube. One has only the first third of the routine, but the other, which was danced over the end credits of some old TV show, has Al Minns and Leon James doing the whole thing very fast. The quality is terrible and a big chunk shows Al and Leon in the distance behind the band, but the part missing from the Spirit Moves video is clearly filmed in spite of the credit text. I took that video and slowed it down to match the music. Then I synced it up so the Droop Boogies matched between the two videos and I dissolved there from one to the other.

When I danced along, I realized there was a bit missing from the end - there were only two shouts, instead of four, so I repeated the first shout a couple of times to fill out that section. Then I put it up on youtube, and since you can't replace youtube videos with new versions, I put a link in the first video pointing to this "better" one.

The Realization: This Isn't Right. At All.

I could now dance along to an authentic old school video of the entire Trankey Do routine. But as I did, I found there were some places where the second half seemed out of sync. I edited it again. I felt like there might be a difference between the Spirit Moves and TV Credits versions regarding where the Boogie Drops fell, and put them a couple of beats apart. I uploaded that version, then realized that if I compared the TV credits version with what I'd done, Al and Leon were on different beats entirely. I needed to start again.

At this point I decided to make a basic assumption; regardless of how the routine might have changed over the years, Al Minns and Leon James would be doing the same routine on TV that they did for Mura Dehn. Therefore, both routines should have the Eagle Slide happen on the same count in the same place in the music, and my goal was to make that happen in my video.

But while Al and Leon kicked on 8 on TV, Pepsi was kicking on 2, even though he synced up beautifully in the beginning of the video. So I began to look very carefully at where things went off.

First, there's a cutaway during the second of the Apple Jacks, and I realized that when the video goes back to a long shot, things are no longer in sync. I cut the video there and slid it forward a few tenths of a second until it matched, then stretched the cutaway, which doesn't really sync up well anyway, so it looked fairly seamless.

But that wasn't enough. It seemed as though the dancers were no longer dancing at the same speed. Did the cutaway represent a transition between two different takes?

I tried changing the speed of the dancers, and it got better, but it was still off.

The Realization: I Have Embarked on a Fool's Errand

Then I began to think about the music, and I realized I had been making the foolish assumption that Erskine and the dancers were both keeping the beat with machine-like accuracy.

Was this likely? What were the dancers listening to anyway? A 78 record? A friend with a harmonica?

I got a metronome and checked its beat against Hawkins' song, and sure enough, there is no steady beat that will consistently match that song. It speeds up and slows down, varying by as much as 10 bpm. I found the same thing when comparing the soundless Spirit Moves video against that metronome.

I started watching the Spirit Moves without sound, just counting the steps, and going by the number of steps while ignoring the music, the Eagle Slide appeared to happen on 8. But it wasn't working with the music. For some reason, the dancers rush right before that Eagle Slide, as though that guy with a harmonica sped up or skipped a note and the dancers just kept with him.

At this point I decided to do something extreme. If I counted the dance (as I was editing, I was counting everything outloud), the Crazy Legs after the jump starts on 1. There was no way to make that happen with minor speed shifts. I made a cut in the middle of the jump and slid the whole thing over around half a second, leaving a moment of blank video in its place. Now everything was where it should be - more or less.

I needed to get the TV credits part in better shape. At least here I had the original music as a guide to when they did what step, but once again, beats weren't accurate, and I had to fiddle with some chunks to get things synced up. Not perfectly synced , but enough so that I could dance along without getting totally thrown off.

While I had previously been uploading a new version to youtube every time I completed one, this time I decided to spend some time dancing along with this one to make sure that I finally had what I wanted. This was good, because I kept thinking of further tweaks.

First off, I realized I shouldn't leave Pepsi hanging in the air for 4 beats. I put the jump back together and took a clip of the landing and stretched it out so that Pepsi is simply crouched and waiting for a while. Later I decided it would be better to slow down the section before the jump a little so I didn't have to pad the pause as long, although this created an obvious slow motion quality to the jump.

The jump into the Crazy Legs was still an issue, because I couldn't jump that slow. Studying the video some more, I concluded that it would make sense if he jumped so that he landed on 5 (without the padding he would land on 3 in my edit), then jumped into the squat on 7. I moved thing around until he was making a very slow jump turn on 3 and 4. It was still unrealistic, and it seemed more likely he would start the jump after the 3.  I stretched the first three beats so that instead of putting his foot down on 2 before the jump it doesn't come down until 3. That seemed to make sense, looked more-or-less right, and I could dance along.

And That's It ... I Hope

At this point the Spirit Moves video was as close as I thought I could get it. Oh, I could get it closer if I were to break the video into tiny pieces and stretch and contract each of them to perfectly match the music, and every time I see something that's a little off I'm tempted to move it into place, but I've already sunk hours and hours into this "simple" project and I just can't take much more. It also occurred to me that it might have made more sense - since my focus was on the dance - to edit the music to fit the dance rather than vice versa, but I'll leave that experiment to someone else.

Was it worth it? Perhaps. Breaking the dance down so finely, and doing the steps on the right beat and on the wrong beat (I still think the knee slaps on 7 works really well) means I have an unusually strong sense of how Trankey Do is constructed. But if I knew it was going to take the five or six hours I spent on video editing rather than expected half hour, this video would not exist.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

explaining the explicable: why white people shouldn't wear blackface

On facebook, a friend posted an amusing flowchart called Should I Wear Blackface on Halloween? This flowchart is a response to yet another year of pictures of people wearing blackface at parties.

Another friend, one who is smart and generally well informed, wrote to say, what’s the big deal with blackface? Suprisingly, he was not familiar with the history of minstrel shows, and seemingly unfamiliar with the controversy in general. And while yet another facebook friend’s reply was basically to say, “don’t do it, just don’t, because you shouldn’t,” that didn’t seem to completely satisfy him.

For a lot of people, the rule that white people shouldn’t wear blackface is self-evident, but actually, very little in life is self-evident. Self-evident is when an alien came from a distant galaxy and you told him something people do and he says, oh, that makes total sense. And I don’t think an alien would instantly grasp the blackface issue, because it’s contextual and historical.

So I wanted to try and answer the question. In fact, I’m going to give three answers: the answer that’s generally given, a consideration of what blackface implies, and finally a personal, why-I-wouldn’t-do-it-answer. I was originally just going to post an answer in the facebook thread, but then another friend posted his contention that it’s okay to use makeup to match skin tone for the sake of veracity, and since my middle answer is concerned with that, I figured I’d put this on my blog and tag them both.

My Three Answers to Why Shouldn't White People Wear Blackface

Most of the objection to blackface are contextual, of course. It started out in the minstrel shows, and in early Hollywood, blacks (and Asians, and Native Americans) were generally played (and defamed) by whites. Even some black stars were required to darken themselves, like Lena Horne, whose fair skin was considered too confusing for white audiences who wanted their blacks black and their whites white.

But I feel there’s a further issue with blackface. Consider, for a moment, the reverse; black people in whiteface. It’s not especially common, and I have a theory as to why. It’s because black people aren’t defining characters entirely according to their skin tone. If a black person dresses as Superman, are they going to put on white make-up, thus making an explicit statement that Superman is a white guy and black people can’t be Super Men? I doubt it. I think most black people think nothing of dressing as a leprechaun or a Viking or a Pilgrim without whitening their skin. Darkening your skin to reflect a character’s skin is, ultimately, a way of saying that race is a defining characteristic of who we are. Even that it's the defining characteristic.

So the question becomes, is it really necessary to have dark skin to make the costume right? If I want to be, say, Martin Luther King, should I wear blackface?

Well, no, both because that would be the ultimate slap in the face for African Americans and because even with blackface, no one would know who I was. White guy in a suit or black guy in a suit, I’m still going to have to explain my costume to everyone, which to my mind makes it a kind of crappy costume. On the other hand, if I go as Flava Flav, do I need dark skin? If I wear a giant freaking clock around my neck, is anyone not going to know who I am if I’ve got white skin?

Would I look more like Flava with darkened skin? First, no, because we look nothing alike, and second, who cares, because I’m not an actor playing him in a movie. It’s a freaking Halloween costume. It’s supposed to be fun and clever and entertain other people; it’s not supposed to allow me to walk into his house and have his wife say, “Honey, so glad you’re home.”

And yes, it does seem like a double standard that no one would make a big deal out of if someone wore whiteface. But the reason no one would make a big deal out of it is white people don’t care. There’s no history of us being denigrated by whiteface. We would all just go, hey, cool makeup.

I wrote a while back about the oddity of murder jokes being far more acceptable in modern society than rape jokes. I don’t make rape jokes, and I don’t wear blackface, because right now, these are both open wounds in our society, and why would I want to pick at an open wound? Blackface pisses off a lot of black people. I’m not black, so I’m not going to say, dude, get over it, grow a sense of humor.

I’m not saying you should never offend people. Lenny Bruce used offending people to great effect. I’m saying offending people shouldn’t be done cavalierly. If you’re a satirist who has a statement to make involving blackface, I could see that. If you’re a drunk guy at a costume party dressed like Little Black Sambo, you’re just an asshole.