Alive and American in 2016

Clinton, Trump pick up big wins

I took to politics to at least as early as junior high. That’s when I started rummaging around YouTube, getting laughs out of George W. Bush gaffes and then stumbling down the rabbit hole of how many indiscretions and innocent lives lost his administration was responsible for. In 2008, I was a sophomore in high school but I remember waking up, checking my Yahoo! email account and feeling my heart beat quicker as news of a financial crisis I couldn’t even understand at the time still convinced me of its pressing importance and need for an immediate solution.

I remember a conversation I had on the beach for a school event, laughing my ass off as one of my best friends described the follies of the Federal Reserve and the military industrial complex. I remember paradoxically supporting both Ron Paul and Barack Obama in 2008 even though I couldn’t vote and turned a blind eye to how diametrically opposed so many elements of their philosophies were. I remember arguing for Obama with my Christian conservative friends and against him with my liberal ones, sometimes taking both sides in a single conversation. It was all so fascinating to me, the ways people differ, and it still is to this day.

But now, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my past, budding political perspectives or even the dire future ahead of us. Instead, I’m painfully stuck in this oppressive and horrifying present. On the one hand, it reminds me of my experience of the financial crisis. Each day a new anxiety forming and a new question in need of asking. It felt like the apocalypse then and it does again now.

Perhaps the most important difference between then and now, though, is that the America I saw melting down was still profoundly itself. It was fallible and divisive but still understandable and dedicated to its most cherished, enduring virtues and principles. The house was burning down but we all knew we had to throw water on the fire. This election year, it seems like everyone’s traded out the water for kerosene.

For me, Hillary Clinton looks like Mother Teresa compared to Donald Trump. My initial distaste for her hypocrisies, hanging questions and missteps remains in full force but it’s come to be supplemented with admiration of her resilience in the face of sexism amplified to eleven and the ugliest mudslinging campaign I’ve seen in the world of politics, reality television or even my personal life. When I heard Trump invited Bill Clinton’s rape accusers to a debate, I teared up and went to the back room at work to compose myself. In such a scenario, every woman involved was being exploited and it disgusted me on a more visceral level than most things can.

My parents disagree that she’s the better candidate and so do so many others. For them, Hillary Clinton isn’t just a liar but a murderer hellbent on destroying the foundations of American democracy, the things that make this country great. The email scandal may end up deciding this election and it drives me totally out of my mind. My research into the right’s favorite accusations to hurl at Clinton, “Benghazi” and “emails”, led me nowhere. I don’t think she’s guilty of those men’s deaths, I don’t think the emails signify anything treasonous or disqualifying beyond a certain degree of technological incompetence and I don’t see any meaningful reason to disparage her as a disparager of her husband’s accusers.

When it comes to Clinton, her corporatism, her hawkish foreign policy, her Diet Neoconservativism is what bothers me. For my conservative friends, I’ll give them this: the Clinton Foundation stuff seems really fishy to me and I’m still totally open to any more dirt that shows up on her. If this is taken as a defense of her, so be it. She is a deeply flawed and troubling candidate.

When push came to shove, I couldn’t vote for her (or Trump, no need to worry) because living in this state allows me to selfishly allow my fellow Californians do the dirty work of electing her while I can ostensibly wash my hands of her inevitable sins. I tried to mock the whole enterprise of this election by writing in “Hugh Jass”. I already regret this deeply. Not the pun, I’m still a fan of the stupid pun. But, though this election remains awfully absurd to me, this was a chance to stand against someone I consider such a horrendous and disturbing affront to modern democratic society that I can hardly categorize him even after all this time. I’ll regret till the day I die that I didn’t take that stand.

I’ve laughed at Donald Trump a lot this election. My main jokey observation about conspiracy theorists on either side has always been that they think *Insert Politican Here* is both the textbook definition of an evil mastermind while also being so hopelessly stupid and inept that they embarrass themselves repeatedly. For me, Donald Trump is the first person who really makes me wonder which end of the scale better suits him. Ultimately, he’s a buffoon. Unfortunately, he’s a buffoon with incredibly toxic ideas who may occupy the most powerful office in the nation in just a few days.

I’ve seen good, decent people at their wit’s end trying to justify him. This is as Sisyphean a task as they come. My dad always jokingly references his favorite conservative talk radio host, Mark Levin’s, quip: “Trump is the leader of the Never Trump movement.” I can only hope he leads this movement well enough to influence the outcome on election day.

A lot of ink has been spent describing how Trump has reactivated our ugliest elements as a nation. Racism, misogyny, nationalism-and-xenophobia-at-the-price-of-the-individual, narcissism, disregard for the rule of law, internal contradiction and an overall attitude of an abuse. These impulses exist to some degree in everyone but the voices are quieter for some of us.

What’s just as frightening to me, though, is there are as many tacit, reluctant Trump supporters as there are diehard devotees. I’ve yet to meet an outspoken white nationalist, neo-Nazi, woman-hating Trump supporter. The ones I know are disgusted by the man, by his lack of etiquette and ethical fortitude, but all this warrants from them is a quick burying of their face in their hands, a hint of regret and a guaranteed vote for him come November 8th.

I think this is the most disturbing thing to me about this election: that, no matter what choice is made, it’s an immoral one hopefully made moral by the extenuating circumstances. In the name of pragmatism, this election has made all of us sacrifice an element of our integrity and sanity. To pick the lesser of two evils, we are forced to take part in an act that is, as a result, evil in itself. This election has turned us all into desperate utilitarians.

There are, of course, the church-burning racist scourges of society and the wealthy, corrupt lying career politicians but this is not most of us. Most of us, maybe even all of us, are the ones who go along with aspects of their agenda and then disavow them as ideological allies. To even consider that we’d check the same box as an unscrupulous Wall Street executive, a regressive racist, a foreign leader without the nation’s best interest at heart, a disgraced adulterer or rapist, or any given negative archetype is too much for most of us to think of as more than a thought experiment. Sadly, it’s a reality. They are the ones whose interests are being directly served this year and we’re all just along for the ride.

The thing I’m most angry about this election is how because of the corrupt collusion of the DNC and the double-mindedness of most Democrats, because of the GOP’s crowded primary and legacy of implicitly saying the things Trump says so explicitly, because of the way the right and left wings have both written their narratives with plentiful holes up to now, because misinformation agreeing with you has a higher price value than information contradicting you, because so many people are unwilling to educate themselves in politics, civility and virtue, because of negligence or nefarious purpose, we have all been made to make one of the toughest moral decisions of our lives and no way of making it is “right.” It’s just, to each of us, “less terrible” than the alternative.

But a vote for Trump is a vote for our basest impulses and our most desperate, fruitless attempts at making sense of the world. A vote for Clinton is a vote for the same genteel but deranged brand of politics that’s held sway over this country for much too long. A vote for a third party candidate is a vote wasted for the right reasons and a vote like mine, a vote thrown away as some misguided, absurdist protest, is a vote wasted for the wrong ones.

I’m most angry that I regret the way I handled this election and so will, to at least some extent, most everyone I know. I’m most angry that, in 2016, nearly all of us, in some way, were made to regret being alive and American.


So Long, Lou

Velvet Underground

I can still remember the first time I heard “Sunday Morning” off of The Velvet Underground & Nico and knew it wasn’t going to be the same from here on out. Lou Reed is associated with my freshman year in high school when I discovered Tom Waits, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. I’d known the power of music before them all but never in such a centralized, lyrical and innovative way.

Reed once told New York Rock Magazine that “My God is rock’n’roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life. The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” It’s safe to say he lived in almost perfect relation to his self-defined religious outlook. His was a life from cradle to grave spent in adoration and service to the furthest limits of leather-jacket clad and urbane rock and roll music.

His barely-in-key bass vocals were often more spoken than sung. As early as The Velvet Underground & Nico, Reed seemed more preoccupied with documentation than celebration. In a sea of sixties songs about lovey-dovey peace and understanding, Reed observed a culture entrenched in confused sexuality and self-destructive drug abuse. For their time and even for today, songs like “Venus in Furs” and “Heroin” were startling for their accurate and unrelenting depictions of darkness.

Lou Reed

“Heroin” in particular is almost psalmic in its appeal to the dangerous drug for release and healing. There’s never any doubt the drug is more bad than it is good, that it’ll be the death of the song’s narrator, but Reed gave listeners the poetry needed to understand why such a killer opiate would be taken in the first place.

“Because when the smack begins to flow / I really don’t care anymore / About all the Jim-Jim’s in this town /And all the politicians makin’ crazy sounds / And everybody puttin’ everybody else down / And all the dead bodies piled up in mounds.”

The song is a great litmus test for what made Reed such a respectable and unique lyricist throughout his tenure with The Velvet Underground as well as his illustrious solo career. He scribbled on topics the more conservative among us would hope to ignore and deny. If you lend him an ear though, it becomes apparent he’s not in the glamorization business. Does he spend a lot of time discussing sex, drugs and rock & roll? Certainly. But unlike a lot of his contemporaries, he calls a spade a spade. That unholy trifecta offered false comfort, would destroy his and many lives, but the same could be said of the more traditional forms of coddling offered by society. He was a poet of painful realities and the things people hurt and deceived themselves with to try and escape their presence.

Lou Reed 3

This sort of darkened, gritty realism made up a significant amount of Reed’s songwriting. But by no means was it all there was. Take a song like “Perfect Day” off his second solo release, Transformer, wherein the lyrics double as a literal explication of a day spent with a romantic interest and his own struggle with substance abuse. “Satellite of Love” is a sad-eyed, simple ballad about watching a satellite in space on TV while reflecting on an unfaithful girlfriend. The more easygoing rock music subjects were in him too but always in a different way than was common.

It’s dangerous to claim anyone for a particular viewpoint when there hasn’t been an explicit statement of belief on their part. Reed was Jewish by descent and the closest he got to religious statement in his more mature years was to admit “I think that everything happens for a reason, everything happens when it’s going to happen.” Nonetheless, Reed was no doubt a humanist. His songs were penned about the people he saw and the life he experienced, both so far from ideal and both so rife with potential and desire. Redemption always looms on the horizon in even his darkest moments because he never loses the pulse of his or anyone’s heartbeat.

Lou Reed 2

His rock bottom sagas propelled him to turn to drugs, love and the occasional bout with faith to save him. On “Heroin,” he sings “When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son / And I guess I just don’t know / And I guess that I just don’t know.” In the wake of the iconic musician’s death, one wonders if this lack of knowledge in the presence of suffering and artful inquiry is the same which led him to sing, “Jesus / Help me find my proper place / Help me in my weakness / Cause I’m falling out of grace / Jesus, Jesus.”

His beautiful words and innovative music gave me the wake-up call of a prophet and the helping hand of an honest friend. If the beauty of “Pale Blue Eyes” didn’t make you bleary-eyed before, it really should now. We may never know if Reed ended up feeling he found his proper place but he can happily lay claim to a life which helped many of us in our weakness.

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