Sometimes the Internet Works For Us

Yesterday, I visited YouTube to see what the algorithms had for me and saw this video:

Brian Wilson – Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (Demo Vocal Tracks)”

It’s 2 1/2 minutes of Brian and I guess some of the other Beach Boys performing background vocals for a beautiful song on the Pet Sounds album, my all-time favorite (and #2 in the recent Rolling Stone Top 500 — “Who’s gonna hear this shit?” Beach Boys singer Mike Love asked. . . ).

This morning, the video popped up again. While I was listening, I noticed a link to a song by Fleet Foxes, one of my favorite groups:

Fleet Foxes – Shore (Full Album) 2020 

Fleet Foxes has a new album out? I didn’t know. So I played the first track:

“Wading In Waist-High Water”

It’s beautiful. Fleet Foxes often remind me of the Beach Boys. I wondered how the new album, released in September, was being received. A search for “Fleet Foxes Shore” turned up a review from Pitchfork magazine.

On his fourth album, singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold refines and hones Fleet Foxes’ crisp folk-rock sound, crafting another musically adventurous album that is warm and newly full of grace. 

They gave the album an 8.3, which sounds high.  

As I was looking at the review, I saw this:

Elsewhere, there are explicit nods to contemporary classical music, as on “Jara,” which features hocketing by Meara O’Reilly, and “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman,” which pairs O’Reilly with a snippet of Brian Wilson counting to resemble Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, and, in its sampling, also recalls the early work of Steve Reich. 

A snippet of Brian Wilson counting? Well, I had to click on that.

Surprise, surprise! It turned out to be:

Brian Wilson – Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (Demo Vocal Tracks)”

Yes, YouTube had twice recommended one of the thousands of Beach Boys/Brian Wilson videos they offer, of which I’ve watched many, and that took me to somebody else’s album, which uses part of that particular Pet Sounds session, which is in a YouTube video that’s probably getting attention because Robin Pecknold borrowed Brian Wilson counting “one-two-three-four” for his new Fleet Foxes album, Shore.

In the old days, only ten years ago, I might have quickly ordered the new Fleet Foxes CD. The internet would have succeeded in selling me something. But since CD technology is fast disappearing and I almost never play one except in our 16-year old car, there’s no rush. I can play the whole thing on Spotify and see if I want a copy for the car. 

Was I manipulated? Sure. Were a few more bytes of my data stored away in Google’s innards, only to be mined for heaven knows what purposes? Yeah. But sometimes it’s nice to be a tiny cog in a vast machine, even something to be a little bit thankful for.

Enough Is Enough, or A Sixty-Day Vacation

I have various reasons for doing this blog. I enjoy writing. I like to express my opinions. Writing helps clarify what I think. And there’s always a chance that my words may interest or benefit somebody who reads them (it can happen).

Saving the world is definitely a long shot, but the world needs all the help it can get. The post from earlier this month with the email addresses for the Postal Service’s Board of Governors was viewed more than 3,000 times (I hope they got some emails). That puts it in second place between Apple Core! Baltimore! (4,500 views) and The Fendertones Take Us Back To 1965 (1,700) (there’s a message here).

I mention all this because I’m wondering how to continue. Not whether to continue, but how.

We have an election in two months. It’s hard to believe it will be close. Millions of voters who gave the maniac the benefit of the doubt four years ago or couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a woman don’t have the same excuse this time. This is a president who has never had a positive approval rating. The reasons not to give him four more years are overwhelming. But Republicans don’t need a majority to win. They have the Electoral College on their side.

What this means is that some observers are warning Democrats not to be too optimistic. They’re writing articles with headlines like these:

Txxxx’s convention was repulsive and dishonest. I fear it was also effective.

To everyone who thinks Txxxx is a goner: He’s just getting started.

Liberals are quick to dismiss Txxxx. They do so at their peril.

Could It Be Bush v. Gore All Over Again?

Biden’s Loose Lips Could Sink His Chances.

In some cases, the people expressing these opinions want to come across as hard-headed realists. If, god forbid and against all reason, the maniac wins, they can say they got it right. Nobody will remember if they got it wrong.

Thus, Michael Moore, who warned us what would happen in 2016, is back:

Michael Moore warns that Dxxxx Txxxx is on course to repeat 2016 win. Film-maker says enthusiasm for president in swing states is ‘off the charts’.

Although the same publication has this as well:

Txxxx must win the Midwest. But out here his breezy reelection gambit falls flat.

I don’t think I can handle this for another two months: the “watch out, it’s gonna be bad” stories, even when they’re counter-balanced by a few “good times ahead”.

Something else I don’t want to take until November is all the lying.

Fortunately, I’m not one of those people whose job requires them to pay attention to the maniac’s pronouncements or those of other Republican politicians. Being exposed to one ridiculous lie after another is stressful. I imagine a White House reporter dreaming of grabbing Txxxx’s press secretary by the throat, screaming at her to just shut her damn lying mouth. Consider the poor (but highly-paid) reporters who had to keep the sound on during every minute of the Republican convention.

From Margaret Sullivan:

Daniel Dale met President Txxxx’s convention speech with a tirade of truth Thursday night — a tour de force of fact-checking that left CNN anchor Anderson Cooper looking slightly stunned.

The cable network’s resident fact-checker motored through at least 21 falsehoods and misstatements he had found in Txxxx’s 70-minute speech, breathlessly debunking them at such a pace that when he finished, Cooper, looking bemused, paused for a moment and then deadpanned, “Oh, that’s it?”

So, so much was simply wrong. Claims about the border wall, about drug prices, about unemployment, about his response to the pandemic, about rival Joe Biden’s supposed desire to defund the police (which Biden has said he opposes).

Believe it or not, Republicans lie more than Democrats. One big reason is that they have an unpopular agenda. They want to cut taxes as much as possible for the rich, so they have to say they’re doing it for the middle class. They want to stop Democrats from voting, so they say they’re doing it to fight voter fraud. They’re in court trying to kill the Affordable Care Act’s protection for people with pre-existing medical conditions, while claiming to be the ones who will protect us from the insurance companies. The president has no interest in providing health insurance to the uninsured, but keeps promising to announce a wonderful healthcare plan two weeks from now. It’s always two weeks from now. Republicans want to privatize Social Security and Medicare, but claim to be those programs’ biggest supporters. The list goes on.

In fact, way back in 2003, Al Franken published a book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The next edition will come as a five-volume set. (That’s a lie, but not a bad one.)

Being lied to is stressful. It’s even worse when you can’t confront the liar. I want to avoid some of that stress for the next two months.

These two considerations, the pessimistic warnings and the constant lies, have convinced me to take a news vacation. I want to back away from the daily news cycle. Since politics has been this blog’s biggest topic, that will probably mean fewer posts or less pressing subject matter. But breaking the internet news addiction until after the election is worth a try. I already know who to vote for. So should you. Besides, the world will still be here to save after November 3rd.

Understanding Them (24 Days)

You probably heard that a well-known musician visited the monster in the White House this week and spoke to the viewers of cable TV for 10 minutes. I don’t know what he said, but Charlie Warzel of Buzz Feed News explains why it all made perfect sense (in a nonsensical kind of way):

How’d this happen? Is this real? Do we even care? West’s embrace of the MAGA life is, at this point, unsurprising. But his journey — from a politically disinterested nonvoter in 2016 to the giver of a prolonged pro-Trump speech onstage at Saturday Night Live a couple weeks ago — is crucial to understanding the enduring appeal of Trumpism and the MAGA movement.

Trump’s MAGA hat–wearing, “lock her up”–chanting crowd is often described as his political base, but even that doesn’t quite do justice to the intensity of devotion the Trump coalition feels for the president. #MAGA is the 20–30% who’ll never leave, regardless of the political effects a Trump presidency might have on them personally. It doesn’t matter if Trump’s tax cuts never really trickle down or if the administration’s tariffs put a hurt on the agricultural communities that show up to his rallies in dizzying numbers, clad in the red hats. Because, for many who show up, MAGA is about a sense of community over all else.

Whether it’s a Trump rally or the toxic /r/The_Donald subreddit, MAGA communities coalesce around the idea of being proud to be an outsider. It’s why Hillary Clinton’s “deplorable” remark became a rallying cry during the election. It’s a movement that relishes turning criticism from ideological opponents into a badge of honor. Similarly, those who inhabit the MAGA world simply view confrontation and people taking offense to their actions as a byproduct of being right. It’s like driving 90 mph the wrong way down a one-way street and interpreting the honking and flailing arms of the other drivers as proof that they’re all just jealous you found the best route. This mindset allows for a particular brand of freedom: freedom from introspection, from ever having to say you’re wrong, and from ever admitting defeat.

It’s not surprising, then, that West, a lifelong contrarian, provocateur, and relentless self-promoter, found acceptance in this world. Despite being one of the most famous, sought-after people on the planet for the better part of two decades, West has always positioned himself as an outsider — for being unafraid to flaunt his ego or to call himself “the nucleus” of culture. Though Kanye has been at the center of modern popular culture, he’s frequently bemoaned a lack of acceptance — an inferiority complex that has strong Trumpian echoes…. 

Trump and the MAGA lifestyle also seem to offer a safe haven to some who’re reflexively distrustful of establishment politics. Infowars creator Alex Jones, for example, dedicated his career to a conspiratorial, nonpartisan distrust of every president from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama. It wasn’t until Donald Trump that Jones endorsed a mainstream presidential candidate — similarly, no mainstream presidential candidate until Trump gave Jones or the Infowars audience the time of day. Kanye, while no Alex Jones, has been similarly outspoken and has publicly expressed his displeasure with commanders in chief during his infamous post-Katrina telethon speech and through a long-simmering feud with Obama. As with Jones, the always available Trump gave Kanye what he truly desired when he posed with him at Trump Tower as president-elect in 2016.

So it makes perfect sense that a person, who was once compelled to pen the line “They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation” would not just feel comfortable among “the deplorables,” but at home. Because as with Trump, the MAGA appeal for West appears to really be about identifying with and revering an unapologetic outsider.

A movement organized around building a community of contrarians — those who feel aggrieved and disenfranchised, and who prioritize conflict and winning over all else — is quite literally tailor-made for the internet….[His] transformation helps explain why the internet has been such a powerful force for Trumpism. Kanye is, among other things, a creature of the modern internet. His penchant for sensationalism and reactionary commentary suggests he instinctively understands how algorithms and virality work; he’s a genius at igniting and sustaining news cycles. In other words, he’s an excellent troll with respect for others like him — and he has a mindset primed for tumbling down a rabbit hole of reactionary thought.

It’s unsurprising … that West would be more concerned with the “intellectual dark web–esque” culture war elements of Trumpism than Trump’s policies. West has suggested he doesn’t agree with the administration on everything, and some reports suggest there’s plenty he doesn’t know: A May piece from the Atlantic recalls an anecdote from the rapper T.I., who “was stunned to find that West, despite his endorsement of Trump, had never heard of the travel ban.”

But while Kanye’s political blind spots might be glaring, the notion that policy comes second to the culture war is shared by a number of people in the pro-Trump media. “It gets tiresome,” one popular pro-Trump media personality texted me after watching the mainstream media’s reaction to West’s Oval Office visit today. “What are MY POLITICS? I don’t have any! There’s a large side of MAGA like that. It’s more a cultural thing. The media treats MAGA as angry and missed the real story. MAGA is fun.”

For some pro-Trump pundits, the “fun” isn’t in building the wall or tariffs or tax cuts but in Trump’s positioning of the mainstream media as the opposition and fake news. For others, it’s Trump’s ability to anger both establishment conservatives and liberals. And for many in the fever swamps, the fun is in belonging to something, no matter how toxic or anonymous it might be. At a recent conference, a researcher told me the story of a polite confrontation she had had with a member of the alt-right. He had just heard her talk and wanted to clarify a point she’d made about 4chan trolls, and why they came out in force for Trump during the 2016 election. The man said he wasn’t a particular fan of Trump or his politics, but was drawn to posting memes extolling Trump as “God Emperor” because the notion that they “could meme a president into office” felt exciting, empowering, and something akin to belonging.

Connecting people and providing that belonging — whether it’s on Facebook or 4chan — is what the internet does best. And few movements have harnessed it quite like the MAGA crowd. Trumpism aligns with the internet because it shares the same mechanics as all the algorithms and recommendation engines: It favors the sensational over the factual, the emotional over the rational. It finds out what you want, no matter how bad it ultimately makes you feel, and it serves it to you again and again and again. The red-pilling process isn’t meant to be subtle, but thrilling. Again: “MAGA is fun.”

Sitting there in the Oval Office, Kanye rattled off ideas on everything from criminal justice reform to an Apple-designed hydrogen plane that should replace Air Force One. The president, who might be looking for new opportunities for ratings gold, gave Kanye what he truly desired, 10 minutes of unfettered attention and validation. For that, Trump got a news cycle devoid of stories about his taxes, murdered journalists, or Supreme Court Justice [and noted liar Bart O’Kavanaugh]. It was a perfectly symbiotic attention grab and not unlike two reactionary YouTubers agreeing to appear on each other’s channels to discuss toxic groupthink or trigger warnings going too far. Like any good YouTube shock jock, they knew we couldn’t help but click. And further down the rabbit hole we go.

Of course, not all of us clicked. And there are plenty of the monster’s supporters who love his dangerous, idiotic policies and proclivities, not the feeling of being in a gang. But understanding what motivates some of his supporters is a good thing. The knowledge may help the rest of us deal with the monster and his deplorable supporters.

Speaking of dealing with his supporters, some of whom are in Congress and statehouse, it’s encouraging to see all the interest on our side this year. I’ve never seen such interest in a midterm election. I hope that translates into excellent turnout, even better than the polls predict. We owe it to each other and the rest of the world.

Eyes on the Street

I used to work near the big Family Court building in Brooklyn. One afternoon, as I was walking by, I saw a woman punch a little boy in the stomach. Presumably, it was her son and he’d made her angry. Maybe she had to go to court and was stressed out. I can’t remember if I said something, but I probably did, because I remember walking away and wondering if I’d made the little boy’s situation even worse by embarrassing his mother. Would she be even harder on him when they got home? Should I have done more or less?

Something that happened online this week made me remember that moment in Brooklyn. Somebody made a comment on a discussion board, claiming that supporting same-sex marriage means you probably aren’t a Christian. The comment wasn’t directed at me, but I thought I should respond and set the record straight. So I found a recent poll that says same-sex marriage is supported by most Catholics and white mainline Protestants. It’s evangelical Christians and black Protestants who are mostly opposed.

So I left my comment and hoped (but doubted) that would be the end of it. When I visited the site again later that night, it wasn’t a big surprise to see that the person I’d responded to had apparently responded to me. I don’t know for sure, since I didn’t read what he or she had to say. I didn’t want to get involved in one of those unpleasant “discussions”.

The next day, the whole thread was gone. Apparently, things had gotten ugly and the moderator had deleted my post and everyone else’s. Which was fine with me. I figured I’d done my bit and it was just as well the moderator had stepped in.

Online forums are like city streets. The moderators (the police) sometimes intervene when things get bad. But the rest of us (the people in the neighborhood or passersby) have a responsibility to keep an eye on things and sometimes get actively involved. It’s an idea called “eyes on the street”. Jane Jacobs wrote about it in her great book The Life and Death of American Cities:

… there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers, to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind…. the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.

Eyes on the street discourage bad behavior and sometimes lead people to speak up (or call the authorities). It’s the same on a discussion board, except for two differences. Nobody on a discussion board is in immediate danger of being robbed or physically assaulted. And the sole purpose of discussion boards, unlike city streets, is to allow people, even strangers, to speak up.

My tendency is to say something when I see a significant factual error. For example, claiming that support for same-sex marriage means a person isn’t a Christian. Of course, not every error (like being mistaken about when a TV show went on the air) needs to be corrected, but some deserve to be, even at the risk of getting into an argument. Preferring to avoid online warfare, I avoid getting personal in my response. I’ll say “X is Y”, but avoid “You are Z” (the third person is less personal than the second person).

And then I’ll usually go away. That means I may miss out on some fruitful discussion, or be corrected myself (unthinkable as that might be!), but reading further responses often leads to more of the same. It seems sufficient to make my point and then disappear, even though this allows someone else to get in the all-important Last Word! Will my silence suggest that I’ve given up? It probably will to some people, but you can’t have everything. And maybe the cops will show up.