The Paw Patrol Is a Threat to Democracy

No gripe is too big, no take is too small.

There is no reason to think about the Paw Patrol if you are over six years old. Maybe eight at the outside. Paw Patrol is a cartoon about a boy who leads a team of technologically advanced talking dogs on various rescue missions around Adventure Bay, an extremely clean town filled with and led by hapless idiots. It is not for you. But if you’re a parent of a toddler, especially a boy with a stereotypical obsession with vehicles of any kind, no matter how improbably designed, it might as well be the soundtrack to your life.

Adults dissecting children’s TV series always feels like a little bit of a cheat, like a value-neutral version of when blogs re-examine old pop-culture phenomena in search of the un-woke: Something would be wrong if you didn’t find something wrong. But the mind cries out for a means of coping with the ubiquity of these things anyway. If you don’t say something, even if only facetiously, the shows are the only ones talking. So, in the words of the only lyrics to the Paw Patrol theme I have allowed myself to memorize, let’s go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go!

The Paw Patrol is led by Ryder, a 10-year-old boy whose styling-waxed hair sweeps up off his head in the same shape as a bishop’s mitre but with several peaks in it, like looking at a particularly holy alpine hill. Every episode, he says “no job is too big, no pup is too small,” or some variation. He is awful, and I hate him. His haircut looks like anime, and the only thing I wish for him is to be whisked off to Neo-Tokyo to swell and spasm and eventually explode into a new hybridized biomass.  

When Ryder is notified of a crisis, he springs into action by summoning the Paw Patrol, which includes: 

  • Chase, a German Shepherd cop who drives a cop car;

  • Marshall, a dalmatian firefighter/paramedic who drives a transforming fire truck/ambulance;

  • Skye, a cockapoo who flies a helicopter;

  • Zuma, a labrador who pilots a hovercraft that can become a submarine, as they do in the wild; 

  • Rubble, an English bulldog that drives a bulldozer; 

  • Rocky, a mutt that drives a recycling truck that recycles itself into a tugboat as needed; 

  • and Everest, a Siberian husky who rides a snowmobile, lives on a mountain and is called upon during ski mishaps, which is the furthest she was integrated into the plot after critics objected to the presence of only one female dog on patrol.

Once called, the pups report to The Lookout, which is a cross between a lighthouse and Seattle’s space needle, ringed with spiral slides. Ryder briefs the dogs on the emergency and designates relevant first responders, who then slide down the outside of The Lookout into their vehicles, to the dulcet tones of go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go! go!—which feels every time like an exhortation from a new Brazilian club music based on aerobics and fascism. Other dogs are called if the crises deepen, which is always. It has never occurred to Ryder to assign all the dogs every time.

These observations may not be scientific. I've tried not to learn more. I have told myself that, if I could get through five seasons of Breaking Bad Sundays on Twitter by refusing to write any of the myriad spoilers I saw to longterm memory and eventually marathon the show with virgin eyes, I could get through all 130+ episodes of Paw Patrol, multiple times, without further reflection. It is a horrible lie. I have seen this show 400 times. I have thought about it trying to sleep. 

If the pups of the Paw Patrol all duplicate essential services already provided by the state or the municipality or county of Adventure Bay, then what are they there for? The short, real-world answers—i.e. the unhelpful ones—are these:

  • They are there to distract your child.

  • They are there to teach your child the value of teamwork.

  • They are there to get your child who loves stuffed animals to buy a vehicle.

  • They are there to get your child who loves vehicles to buy a stuffed animal.

I tried to get more answers when I saw Paw Patrol Live. Ordinarily, this is something I would never pay for—because I'm too cheap and dislike musical theater, but also because I heard they suck live—but a friend of mine who left college with a perfectly good poli-sci degree and ran away to join the circus was managing the show. Personally, I felt it was a far cry from his vaunted status as a Ringling Brothers fixer who lived in his own railcar and got to strong-arm hospital administrators when they couldn't understand the insurance paperwork for Brazilian acrobats with six names each, but I decided to reserve my comments on his manifold failures until after we'd collected the free tickets.

I learned nothing of course. I was instructed not to yell questions at the stage and instead was forced to take pictures of my son expressing curiosity and joy, which was not what I was there for. I did, however, reconfirm that there is a Musical Theater Body Posture and Hand Gesture Factory somewhere, churning out the same fists on hips and rainbow waves from stage left to stage right; all of these prominently appeared on the young man who played Ryder and bore a tomato-begging likeness to conservative bonsai twerp Ben Shapiro.

But if the pups and the live show were no help, the rest of Aventure Bay somehow provides less. This is a town where restaurant posters that show how to perform the Heimlich maneuver might as well hang a few feet to the right of posters showing how to chew and swallow.

This collective cultural inaptitude finds its champion and its apotheosis in Mayor Goodway, a woman of color whose voice inexplicably trills up and down a soprano range like a miniskirt-wearing Margaret Dumont accidentally sitting on an ice-cube Groucho Marx left on her chair. Vocally, if Mayor Goodway were a character in Amadeus, she’d only be able to talk for 30 seconds before Mozart imagined her as a giant pigeon beefing over a discarded park hot dog. Mentally, there is no other way to say this, but Mayor Goodway is a goddamn dumbass.

If there is a river, Mayor Goodway will fall in it. If there is a riptide, she will be carried out by it. She is the person who carries a plate-glass window across the street of Police Chase Boulevard every day. It is astounding that she ever leaves the house, consumed as she must be by telling every telemarketer her mother’s maiden name and the first street she lived on. Summarizing all the ways that Mayor Goodway can screw up tasks as complex as nosepicking would require summarizing nearly the whole series, but if you had to pick any one thing to focus on, it would be this: chicken ownership.

Why is Mayor Goodway hanging off a cliff by a camera strap? Probably because of her chicken. Why is she careening around town on an out-of-control rolling ball? It’s her damn chicken, Chickaletta, again. Well, more precisely, it’s because Mayor Goodway brings Chickaletta with her everywhere in her bag—like Paris Hilton with a stunted dog or Ben Shapiro’s handlers taking him backpacking—and yet seems to have zero familiarity with what chickens are like and how they behave. It’s a fucking chicken; if you turn your back to polish your great-great-great-great-grandfather’s statue in the town square for two solid minutes, it’s gonna wander off. There’s a four-year-old in my house yelling at the screen who can see this coming. I hope to Christ the Adventure Bay charter calls for a strong city council.

It’s tempting to say the fish rots from the head, but someone’s always losing an elephant, or driving a food truck onto the ice, or losing a monkey or a ferris wheel, or falling into a cave full of lava. Or Cap’n Turbot, a man who spends his entire life on water, is always getting foiled by his one nemesis—liquid—apart from the time that octopus sank his boat, which was, to be fair, 100 percent on the octopus.

But it’s also clear that Adventure Bay is not the only polity living in a fog of trilling wraparound-grin incompetence and runaway book trucks and inadvisable wild-bear recreation. Mayor Goodway’s nemesis, Mayor Humdinger, is equally useless, which makes them a perfect match and a terrible premise for antagonism. Watching him try to one-up Goodway is like watching Mr. Bean from the villain’s perspective, except Mr. Bean is somehow the smartest person in his universe. Most of Mayor Humdinger’s plans aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, have goals that weren’t worth a first thought, and always seem to be kicked off by a grandiose entrance whose speech amounts to, “Lo, it has been many days since you last saw me shoot myself in the ass, but I, like MacArthur, have returned to shoot myself in the ass.”

But this is the problem with looking at children’s cartoons with adult eyes. The little picture is always so absurd to grownups that it’s easy to miss the big picture. The eyes immediately focus on the fact that a dog is flying a helicopter or piloting a submarine without a permit, and they glaze past the fact that Paw Patrol is clearly a trojan horse intended to acclimate children to placing their trust and safety in the hands of the neoliberal security state.

Now, maybe this line of thinking comes from the same place as my watching my son rapturously cheering for Chase and wanting to hiss at him “please—stop—worshipping—the cop,” but consider: Who pays for the Paw Patrol? What contractor engineered dog-capable submarines, and did they come in under budget? What Adventure Bay legislation created the Paw Patrol and why? Why is rescuing someone from a pit or stopping a large melon beyond the abilities of normal municipal services? Why is it that Mayor Goodway—who should nominally be in charge of the Paw Patrol and the ultimate authority as to its deployment—must always ask if the Paw Patrol is available to help find her goddamn chicken instead of ordering them to? If she hasn’t already dispatched them to aid in another emergency, shouldn’t they be dragging their asses across the floor of The Lookout? Shouldn’t Ryder just be on his knees with a bottle of Resolve and a washcloth trying to rub stains out of the carpet, waiting for the phone to ring?

There are no answers to these questions, short of, “That’s how we’ve been doing it, and that’s how we’ve got to continue doing it,” which are identical to the only answers the contractor-riddled Deep State accords the American electorate when called upon to justify the billions in largesse it absorbs for incompetently and/or maliciously murdering a bunch of extra Iraqis. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe the answers are the same, because the system is too. I submit to you that a leader of color acting like a bumbling ignoramus blind to existential threats while in pursuit of a pet synonymous with cowardice represents a cynical animated allegorical attack on the foreign policy of Barack Obama, on behalf of a mercenary security state.

Yes, Ryder might vaguely resemble cartoon Ben Shapiro, but he’s collectible Erik Prince of Dog Blackwater—a privileged child given a limitless public budget to run a personal mechanized security force commanding the land, air and sea and answerable to no one, because the public has been cowed by the need to cut twice and measure once in the face of emergency. Zuma’s sub might as well be christened The Shock Dogtrine.

The Paw Patrol is privatized power and profit and socialized funding, unaccountable to public oversight, ungoverned by elected officials and acting only when it consents to let its interests coincide with panicked public needs. They must be brought to heel. We must know what happens to all the gold they keep finding, pirate or otherwise. The Paw Patrol should be audited, and Ryder should be subpoenaed to testify before the Adventure Bay city council. If they refuse, collar them immediately and lock them up.

The imperialist Paw Patrol plots to loot the natural resources of another conquered city-state. Photo by the author.

The To Be Continued at the End of This Book

Living and dying for the hell of it on the Mueller report.

This is the week for dunking on people who thought the Mueller investigation would become a salvific rite that cast out the nation’s evil and bound up its wounds. Partly, this comes from exasperation or existential disgust with those for whom the response to Trumpism has always been theatrical and not political, but partly it’s just fronting. The only way to take pleasure in news that blows is to prove you knew it was coming the longest. 

I slept for the first couple days after the Mueller Report was delivered to Attorney General William Barr. It was difficult to breathe, and I didn’t want to move. It would be funnier to say that I was depressed, but two alumni buddies barged into my house over the weekend, declared that they were “occupying” it and got expensively drunk before one of them stumbled and knocked me into some furniture, bruising some ribs. It could wait. 

Catching up only required a few recaps of Barr’s memo, Democratic objections and Donald Trump, Jr. taking one of the world’s great third-quarter victory laps. For something that felt more like a reasonable explication of potentially pending good news, the pushback against the Trump triumphalism and #RussiaGate goose-egg takes started early and well with Ryan Cooper's throat-clearing at The Week, and other commentators have added to the list as the week’s worn on. 

Their now hold on just a damn minute approach feels right, and not just because it feels better than the alternative. Hyperventilating #Resistance skeptics of the memo shouldn’t be so categorically embarrassing to be associated with that taking a criminal-pardoning suckup like William Barr at his word seems like the sober alternative. It is entirely fair to assume that the Mueller investigation, with respect to its ostensible greatest purpose, came up short, but it’s fine to wait to hear that from anyone other than a guy whose public job application to Donald Trump was, effectively, “It is my lawthought assertation that you are courtfully invisible to crimes and undetectable by crimeography.”

Dismissing the impulse to doubt the Barr memo seems like the grownup thing to do, in a lot of ways that performative DC credulity seems like the grownup thing to do, and second-glancing at shadows has earned a deservedly poor reputation via the last few years of Republican congressional investigation. “The full text will vindicate us!” sounds identical to the conspiratorial cry of people who’ve spent the last three years certain that Hillary Clinton was about to confess to ordering the Benghazi wetwork if her hearings had lasted 13 instead of 12 hours. It feels desperate and emotionally immature, a child’s longing for an adult to materialize and boss the chaos into wishes. There is no shortage of ways to feel yourself above simple desires like this.

But it seems a little dishonest. There most definitely are people emotionally whipsawed by the whims of the #Resistance, but the degree to which even they thought Mueller could do anything other than lay the groundwork for a slam-dunk impeachment seems overblown for leftist/conservative comic effect. (Even to the most neophyte eye, Republicans in the legislature weren’t going to vote on removing themselves.) The supposedly cruel dupes of the resistance are also largely creatures of the internet, where finding much dumber versions of things from real life is both normal and not terribly representative. 

(It’s enough to wonder how representative they are at all. Maybe it’s the fact that Donald Trump, Jr. followed me during the 2016 election—he says hi, btw, we’re firing depleted-uranium rounds into “America’s buffest elk” right now—and over a few months my number of fake Twitter followers leapt by thousands. It’s something I keep in mind almost every time I see a Maddow Clone in the digital wild, since, like their rabidly right-wing counterparts, they often bear profiles with nearly identical follow/follower counts and use hashtags with an intensity that nobody sees outside of automated humans, or people who were accidentally taught by automated humans to tweet like them—like ducklings digitally imprinting on a pair of wellies that say #BENGHAZI on the sides.)

Even at their most histrionic, people for whom clicktivism is politics aren’t going fuck up a protest because they’re never going to go outside, and when you do meet MSNBC dittoheads who’ve bothered to commit to actions and events, the non-newbies understand that one code of rhetoric works online, and the most important part of real-world action is just showing up. And it’s not as if their core online passion is something inscrutable or esoteric in the first place. Even conceding that a Trump ouster changed nothing about this sclerotic and corrupt democracy, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy seeing everyone in Trumpworld become severely legally unhappy.

If there is a name animating this irritability with recreational resistance groupthink, it’s probably Rachel Maddow’s, and it’s not wrong. The velocity with which her 9 o’clock hour started to resemble a live-action version of Foucault’s Pendulum—sometimes elaborating on a mythology seemingly for the sake of the exercise—threatened some of the speed records set by a wistful pre-creatine Alex Jones. Eoin Higgins detailed the show's fixation on Russia early in 2017; by early 2019, it had come for the power grid. By Monday, you had Matt Taibbi’s overall condemnation of mainstream media’s stewardship of #RussiaGate as worse than its coverage of WMD's, which would have been remiss for not naming her.

Anecdata is bullshit of course, but I always thought getting lost was to a certain extent the point of Maddow. Nobody builds something that fundamentally elliptical by accident. Going on a James Burkean Connections jag between a regional bridge failure and a Trump construction project in Azerbaijan is a gimmick. Besides, I have it on good authority that it’s thoroughly satisfying to become unreasonably high and fall into what feels like an MSNBC fog of mostly redundant elaborations and jokes that laugh at themselves, then surface in a Talking Heads song and wonder, my God, how did I get here, before looking down and realizing that you’ve blown through 23 minutes of some of the most precious airtime in cable news to reach a point that is sometimes excellent and oftentimes:

There will be a court ruling tomorrow, and it may go one way, and it may go another way. It may include a bunch of utterly fucked brain trash we could never imagine, or it may include items we added to the speculation. We don’t know. Watch this space.

This long walk for a short question happens often enough that an understanding of its structure seeps down to people who follow the news like college basketball fans who are minted only in March. A woman I know who is almost totally news allergic once confessed in that “I assume not reading 100 current affairs magazines per week makes me the asshole” way that she rarely watched TV news but always tuned in Maddow on momentous occasions because there was a kind of whimsical thrill to seeing how long it took before the points connected, and ever since then I’ve been convinced that there are also normal people who bet on this.

Roughly 3 million people watch the show every night, of course, which may or may not be a problem. Three million people per day sounds like a lot of people, but it’s also 1/33 the number who didn’t even vote in 2016 and a million short of a decent Hallmark movie premiere audience. People also put the news on because they don’t have to look at the screen when they’re cooking or eating dinner or picking up around the house at the end of the night. It’s acceptable filler, because nobody on the screen is about to say, “Looks like the Unsub wears the victims’ asses on his face. He’s calling himself The Assface Killer.” It’s a soundtrack that gives you a sense of civic engagement and personal improvement while demanding next to nothing; if you subscribe to a newspaper, you know 90 percent of what you see on TV will appear in it in the next morning, with more detail, and take a third of the time. 

If anything, the Maddow experience under Trump feels like the professional, televisual version of the true crime podcast: people riffing over Wikipedia—up curious detours and down dead ends—and if the research were the point, you’d have read Wikipedia already. Or gone to sleep to wait for the paper tomorrow. The destination doesn’t matter as much as plugging into the flow of a narrative that takes control for a while. On its own, it won’t lead to great politics, either known or practiced, but it’s a natural attraction in a media climate where 34 bewildering things happen every day, and they all pertain to 118 things you’ve forgotten about, and every one is sickening. 

The danger here, as Taibbi points out on his blog, is the tendency to find complementary errors on either side of the equation and zero them out—one of “ours” for one of “yours.” Republicans make it easy. Rachel Maddow reaches 3 million people, but 25 million people get their news from local sources, roughly 40 percent of which are owned by the mendacious, right-wing Sinclair Broadcasting. The other non-insane cable news channel features a Cuomo child frowning at a paid panelist who is probably a former Trump spokesman who has also only accidentally quoted Julius Streicher twice and is currently saying, “Yes, the president committed crimes, but he didn’t do anything illegal.” The urge toward forgiveness is almost instant.

But the show should be a lot better. It should challenge and correct itself more rigorously, and do things like introduce James Clapper as someone who lied to Congress and then as the former Director of the CIA and then, after that, include, “(A job where everyone lies to Congress).” It should clip some of the speculative dilation for a guaranteed space for labor and social justice reporting. It should also suffuse the clear cold night air with the last scent of a drying honeysuckle, but whatever.

Discursive center-left toe-dips in McCarthyism don’t get any less shameful because almost everything else on TV news involves veteran wordsmiths of the Iraq War bleating the word “honor” repeatedly in front of a picture of John McCain with stigmata, and as fun as it is to see a tight 60 seconds of material on George F. Kennan in Moscow, that digression still sucks when it adds up to wondering whether Michael Cohen could have been in a room with a list of Russians that sounds like a hockey roster in a video game that couldn’t afford the licensing rights for real player names.

But, still. A lot of people aren’t watching Maddow or cleaving to a potential #RussiaGate vindication because they don’t know any better. They’re watching because they suspect it doesn’t get any better, in a country that punted on punishing the bad guys since they can remember, and in a TV news climate that sucks almost the whole ass. Wanting to indulge the notion that one person can take you on a journey that explains an entire saga you can’t possibly chronologize, and at the end of it the worst president and one of the worst human beings in living memory might be threatened with jail, makes sense. It’s the most normal thing in the world. 

Image via WikiMedia Commons.

Filibuster Vigilantly

Fast-talking with Kirsten Gillibrand

It took me two nights to watch Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) town hall on MSNBC. This isn’t Kirsten Gillibrand’s fault. Parts of it were excellent, parts were superficially uncomfortable, and parts of it were suitably vague. The first night I simply made the mistake of trying to watch it while staggeringly high, which is, again, not her fault.

(Strictly speaking, that last part’s the Trump campaign and presidency’s fault. A calming and amiable drug that temporarily induces stretches of buzzing anxiety and sheer terror seemed a friendlier and more socially attuned party response to the Spectacle of Trump than the self-centered rage-melancholy of drink, and anyway I’d cut that back to the occasional neighbor’s barbecue for heath reasons. It’s not without its downsides, frequently stoked by MSNBC—like the inability to hear Brian Williams’s martially drumming theme song without thinking that the rolling beats are saying, “Trooooo-ooooops tra-tra-tra troops / Trooooo-ooooops tra-tra-ta troops,” and then remembering the time that Trump hit Syria with 59 cruise missiles, and Williams quoted Leonard Cohen while stripping him of meaning, saying, “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons,” and then realizing that if MSNBC ever makes a hosts calendar, Brian Williams will get June, for D-Day, and he will be naked and coiled like a serpent around the barrel of a 5”/54 caliber Mark 45 gun on an Arleigh-Burke class destroyer, and every social media timeline for the week after its release will be blog after blog with names like The Brunch running headlines like, “Brian Williams Is Ready To Shoot,” and there’ll be a Slate Gabfest about it that concludes it is okay to objectify him. I’m not high right now.)

That first night, Gillibrand’s energy triggered a primal discomfort stoked by years of judging Dramatic Interpretation at high school forensics tournaments. She came out of the gate fast and amped, and it made me feel the contact-anxiety of sitting six feet from tremulously voiced high school sophomores about to vibrate out of their blue Men’s Wearhouse blazers from riding the adrenal high between mastery and terror. A phantom twitch in my right arm made me want to start writing “slow down!” on my ballot. I changed the TV to something gently insipid, but I should have stuck with it. Like a lot of performers I judged, including many very naturally gifted ones, Gillibrand’s surge subsided after a few minutes. She’d settled somewhere much closer to mastery than its opposite—at an admittedly robust clip—and those early shakes were gone. The glands are at fault, and they will not maintain that velocity.

But here’s the thing: As long as we’re going to start out superficial for the impaired television viewer’s set of needs, let’s stay superficial. Because half of what you read in the Post or the Times or see on cable for the next 19 months will be tortured and polysyllabic ways of saying but what about the optics?, and because I was that Drama/Debate judge who neurotically filled out the entire ballot with comments, let me put on my “gets paid $250/year writing columns for a large east coast publication and pockets another $200k speaking to the Center for Houthi Genocide about What The App Store Can Teach Us About Unlocking Potential” blazer and write a gimmick column scoring this round:

It’s been, like, 18 years, I don’t remember what the weird scoring system was, so forget about that.

Also, I can’t rank the round, since not everyone has had a town hall, let alone the same questions or format, but just for the sake of fun I started to in my head, and suddenly I understood how the columnist I mentioned above winds up writing his quarterly insane election scenario column. You know the one. It’s like an old pro-wrestling dirt-sheet fantasy-booking piece that always seemed to boil down to, “Okay, so first [career charisma-allergic Canadian of average build] wins the Royal Rumble via gimmick ending to set up a title match at WrestleMania with [giant meathead who everyone but the person writing this column knows is never going to lose].” This person is still writing some variation on the here’s how Donald Trump can become more presidential column, and a residual electric tremor in his right hand still will be even after the bullet exits the other side of his head and the squad moves onto the next cubicle.

This format was a bad idea. Anyway:

“Excellent posture!”

“SLOW DOWN!” There’s nothing wrong with speaking fast. As my mom once said in grade school to a drawling teacher who told her she talked too fast: no, you just listen too slow. But—while I suspect there is a great silent majority who may not understand everything their politicians say but would much rather they said them at a pace faster than one for panning the book around the preschool circle so aaallllll the kids can see the pictures after every line—the trouble with starting fast and keeping fast as your baseline is that you can’t ever go faster. If you start running out of time, you’re already near peak speed. When you need something to be rapid and insistent, there isn’t really a higher gear. It’s like judging figure skating: If you give the first skater a 10, what happens when the next one’s better? Speed badly exposes those moments when the brain or tongue locks up and the ideas and words suddenly won’t come, or they stumble and trip coming out of the chamber. And you can’t go big without going loud, and then what happens if the next question demands you go even bigger than that? Pace is a tool. It has more uses the more settings you use on it.

“EMOTION! GOOD!” Gillibrand’s voice got a little quavery on two different occasions, and that groaning you hear like the sound of the planks of an old wooden ship twisting in a pre-storm current is your brain anticipating a primary full of policing of women’s emotions by the standards of macho behavior. It’s going to suck, for two reasons. One, who cares? Everyone in Washington has seen John Boehner cry more than any other public figure they know, and Marco Rubio very clearly sits in the dark watching ASMR videos of women in high heels stepping on EPA reports and whispering “liberty” and loses so many cumulative fluids that they have to plug him into an IV or he’ll fuse with into a leather armchair. Two, telling women candidates to modulate their emotional displays to appeal to voters who might be alienated by it runs along the same spectrum of cowardice as preferring white candidates over candidates of color because racists exist: It reverses the order of where the problems come from.

When Obama sang “Amazing Grace” after the Charleston mass shooting, my eyes brimmed over. It was probably planned, and it felt cornball in its own way, but America is a fucking cornball nation, and if we’re gonna have cornball, I want it to be that instead of Lee Greenwood or truck nuts with the Gadsden Flag on them. If Kirsten Gillibrand is fine quavering and pausing for composure because she’s thinking about undocumented immigrants as people, good. If Marco Rubio can wind up on the cover of Time as The Republican Savior for parroting the Heritage Foundation while digging his foot onto a thumbtack and thinking about when his dog died so his eyes moisten on the word “Constitution,” a verbally fluttery Gillibrand can be pre-anointed as God Empress of the Two Americas.

And, sure, becoming emotional presents a potential liability in the sense that every interest group or wedge issue that doesn’t elicit discomposure appears less significant to a candidate (the “Where Are the White Working Class Tears?” National Review piece writes itself), but that’s just concern-trolling about equal aggrievement representation, and it would be applied to a soaring-rhetoric candidate who chose not to soar on the subject of, say, ex-felon enfranchisement.

But that’s the superficial stuff, and those aren’t Gillibrand’s problems.

Early in the town hall—after Gillibrand speed-spoke like a policy debater trying to spread a 12-minute case into an 8-minute window—MSNBC's Chris Hayes asked, “What effect do your donors have on you? … What does someone purchase when they max out to Kirsten Gillibrand?” She replied that people and groups donate to her because they believe in her and her message. Hayes replied, “If that’s the case, then why is it so important to get publicly funded elections, if there’s no input-to-output correlation, then what’s corrupt about the system?”

Her answer, which began with the NRA, moved onto the insurance lobby and ended with the opioid crisis, was an effective and ample flurry of evasion. She didn’t even try to make the tired case that money buys influence only with other candidates, with weaker, more ignoble hearts; she merely outlasted the window Hayes and MSNBC had for this topic before needing to move on. But working in the moment does not equate to actually working.

When the NRA donates to Republicans, it does so because they believe in Republicans’ message that firearms manufacture and sales should not be regulated. When the health insurance lobby donates to candidates on both sides of the aisle, they do so because they believe in those candidates’ message that America should not have a nationalized public health system. That their donations frequently create the candidate opinions that they believe in doesn’t matter. How the “socialized medicine is bad” message gets made doesn’t change the fact that—whether purchased or engendered or nudged or coerced—once it’s there, the health insurance industry sends checks with the same faith and sincerity that you do. Gillibrand’s was an incompetent and unsatisfactory answer for someone on whose behalf a senior Pfizer executive will host a fundraiser that costs between $1,000 and $2,700 to attend. If you’re not prepared to square that detail, or if your preparation led to the conclusion that you should keep talking until the next question, you’re leading by example on the matter of failing to take your candidacy seriously.

Which brings us to the filibuster, which was not a focus of the town hall, but should be the “where the fuck is Wallace?” question flung at every Democratic candidate until they answer correctly or they make a Looney Tunes exit from the race so fast that the only thing left behind the podium is a puff of smoke shaped like them.

Gillibrand has been non-committal on ending the filibuster, saying she wants to “weigh the pros and cons,” which, from a campaign perspective, is at best a way of saying that you’re stupid and at worst a way of saying that she is. The difference is that, as a voter, you have the luxury of being a little dumb on the issues at the start of the primary season; it’s an educational process that lets you winnow bad ideas from good before settling on the party’s nominee. The people who are supposed to be educating you have less excuse to learn on the fly.

The pros are that it will almost certainly be the only way to pass the transformative legislation that the Democratic candidates are calling for and that, if you live in a low-lying area near water or have a serious medical condition, may be a matter of life and death for you. The cons are that, if moving messages and aspirational feelings budged the Senate, then Barack Obama would have left office with a single judicial vacancy at most.

The Republican Party has demonstrated its all-out commitment to destroying norms and procedures that impede their goal of preserving anti-majoritarian rule for as long as possible. It is an asymmetric war only because the Democrats let it be. Any candidate who announces his or her intention to fight it by preemptively shedding weaponry is wasting lives, wasting money and wasting your time, and Gillibrand is not alone in this regard.

But it’s a long primary, and while the candidates must ultimately lock themselves into certain messages from which there is no escape without losing their identity, the voters do not. They have plenty of time to learn, and at least for now there is someone like Pete Buttigieg or Jay Inslee willing to teach them. Unless Gillibrand decides to take a different course, there won’t be a campaign left worth crying in, or over, but a Senate gridlocked by design at least presents an empty vessel into which anyone can pour tens of thousands of words, as fast and as long as they want.

Image via personaldemocracy.

You're Not Meant to Remember Everything

A new shooting victim will replace this one.

About 18 months ago, I was chatting with my friend Marin Cogan about a podcast episode we were going to do. Marin is the sort of journalist who gets to write one story per month that appears at the top of the page, and at the sort of length that says that readers who otherwise supposedly can’t endure 1,000 words at a time will commit to 3,000 if she's doing it. She's also just a supremely nice person. Between the two, I was ready to accede to any list of demands.

She only asked for one thing. The October 1 shooting in Las Vegas that killed 59 and wounded 422 had happened 17 days before, and she could already feel it slipping away. She wanted to talk about it. She didn't want it to be another horror that news at the Speed of Trump could erase in just a few weeks. We agreed that it was important.

We didn't talk about it.

I have no idea what we talked about. The Speed of Trump rendered week-in-review riffing as mostly futile. It's obsolete the second the last syllable ends. (This is how I defend doing Hallmark podcasts: We could wake up in six years, turn on the TV and see Trump ordering the Global Imperium to construct low-G brothels on the moon, and a movie about cowboy James Brolin becoming a Balkan monarch is exactly as silly as it always was.) I recall laughing a lot; maybe we were too frivolous. I suspect at the time I still wanted to believe that this administration's slapstick incompetence would vastly exceed its cruelty, and the cruelty itself would remain somewhat proportional to the hum of it that we let fade into the background when its perpetrators appear civilized and share our tribal allegiance. Whatever the reason, we ran out of time.

I remembered her concern this weekend, after Brenton Tarrant (and here one writes allegedly) murdered 50 people and injured 40 more at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. I remembered that I had already gone through the clinical Stages of Writing about mass shootings long ago: Historical/Policy Argument, Anger, Despair, Numbness, and Thinking About My Child. When I wrote that last one, I noted that honoring one victim of Las Vegas per day, starting on October 2, 2017, would take you until January of this year. But mostly I remembered that I forgot. That's what everybody does.

Forgetting doesn't make you a bad person, it just makes you normal. Unless you have lost someone in a mass shooting or work in a field related to the phenomenon, remembering every mass shooting would drive you crazy or border on proof that you already were. Remembering every victim is impossible.

Failing to honor or memorialize the dead is normal. Dick Dale died yesterday. He had nearly a dozen albums and 20 singles, and even people who like him might not know or listen to more than one song, and Dick Dale will only get deader and quieter. Writers die all the time, and people feel sorry that they're dead but not sorry enough to commit to reading an entire book. The older guy at the butcher's counter at the grocery store—the one with the nicest smile—got sick, and someone who walks in for the first time tomorrow won't ever know what's missing. Someone's favorite teacher died today, and no one will tell them.

Longform-slingin', Bourbon Bastard craftsman types love to say that every life is story, and that a gifted enough writer can take the forgotten workaday and muscle that prose into a compelling narrative. Despite the tens of thousands of journalists laid off this century with sudden free time and the limitless print space of the internet, we don't do this. The idea of every life as innately worth remembrance is too beautiful to disprove by taking it literally. You can't remember Las Vegas for 481 consecutive days, and everyone knows that's what anniversaries are for.

After so many mass shootings, the thing I think I've settled on as their most depressing feature is the certainty that the NRA, the Republican Party and their donors know the limits of our exhaustion for opposing gun violence as well as we do. Somewhere, in some form or another, there exists a set of actuarial tables, and it shows how much total gun death can be endured and how frequently: that black people can make up 24 percent of those killed by police per year, despite being only 13 percent of the US population, and it won't lead to critical levels of unrest; that 10 slain children equals one week of news cycle, but after a point our capacity for sorrow plateaus; that children accidentally executing their friends or siblings or parents can become a cliché; that we have not yet invented a barbarism that can't be waited out until it seems embarrassing to continue to harp on it.

Perhaps that's recency bias at work—in the same way that a tragedy yesterday is worth more in print than a tragedy from three days ago, and anyone decrying either one two weeks later starts to catch themselves at the thought of being the only one still talking about this. Maybe the sense of impotence at being out-waited by powerful interests only feels this sharply bleak because every sensation that can be mined from Policy Argument, Anger, Despair, Numbness and Protectiveness has already been refined and its waste strewn around the emotional landscape like slag.

We forgot Las Vegas, coded it in memory with another metonym ("the bump stock one"), and the knowledge that another will come and be brushed aside in malice and bad faith and cowardly policy—and another—tempers the next outrage before it's even felt. The internet, Fox News, the Republican party and conservative racists around the globe enamored Brenton Tarrant of Islamophobia and nurtured his hatred until it blossomed into mass murder, and even that sudden horror could be made old and disposable by our sundowning racist president echoing him the very next day and paving the low road for the next one.

As Tarrant (allegedly) sprayed the inside of a Christchurch mosque with bullets, a three-year-old named Mucad Ibrahim appeared to mistake what he was doing for the video games he'd seen his brothers play and ran toward him. He's dead. You can try to fix him in your mind—overlay the laughter you've heard from children his age or picture a toothily off-kilter grin on his face as he breaks into a wobbly run—but no matter how tightly you hold onto this image, it will dim and bleed into another, and there will be another. He will depart from memory more gradually than he departed from life, but this much of him will be lost too, and the same people that engineered the circumstances that took him from the world are counting on that.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

I am a fighter for you and for things

Are you with me?

It is March of 2019, and already one quarter of all emails sent within the United States are from Kamala Harris asking you to let her be honest. There are some variations to this appeal. On March 11, the subject line from her campaign declared, “I will be honest.” The next day, it added, “FWD: I will be honest.” The next day, a more conversational “Hey - I am going to be honest with you” appeared. A foot extends off the bed, holding a shoe aloft by its tongue, dangling it on the end of a big toe and waiting for the moment these emails attain their final form and “Re: FWD: I will be honest” drops.

This measurement may not be scientific. I seem to remember more from weeks back, but I take delight in snapping a finger down on the delete button and dispatching spam emails before my brain has a chance to process any information past the minimum amount needed to determine that—thank God—I do not need to pay attention to this. Surely other appeals to honesty have been lost. The emails sent from “Kamala’s husband (Doug)” went unheeded. Doug, I am not sorry.

You can probably spot the downside to this framing. Maybe you remember a pre-teen day when a parent brought you up short after an “I’ll be honest...” preface by interrupting to ask, “Does this mean that you weren’t before?” It was a caution that stuck with you, and naturally Kamala Harris’s announcement that she is being truthful this time passively suggests something negative about the rest. 

Or at least it does rhetorically, in the same sense that an email subject ending with a dangling preposition makes you think of a debatable grammar rule but doesn’t make you think that the sender is an idiot. That Harris selectively invokes the importance of honesty doesn’t make her dishonest in any other respect, and reasonable adults understand this. The only people for whom this constitutes a “gotcha” are people who don’t already need one to discount or oppose Harris’s candidacy but like having receipts for stuff this cheap, or they're the sorts of Cillizzards who feed off grub-like gotcha content.

(It still sounds weird. Harris repeatedly asking to be honest echoes a tremendously physically talented and verbally constipated Canadian wrestler named Lance Storm who would come to the ring, glowering in a way that faintly resembled Henry Rollins, then grab the mic and begin, “If I could be serious for a moment...” The attempt to lean into his absence of charisma merely reinforced the dullness of his promos, and rather than driving the crowd into a frenzy of dislike, it signaled when everyone could rest up for a moment. Deliberately bringing the house down for a few minutes only works if someone whipped it up first, and dullness is a poor counterpoint to the absence of energy. Whether this is a lesson is up to you and probably depends on how seriously you take events within the squared circle. Either way, he disappeared from the WWE a few years later.)

Other subject lines ding off the ear. Through 2016, Democratic Party candidates continued to send out fundraising emails with subject lines that included terms like, “FINAL NOTICE.” What they effectively meant was that potential donors had just hours left to send a check in before a certain fundraising deadline. What they looked like, however, were emails from a collection agency, which is sadistic if you’re ostensibly from the party of and for poor people. If you’re a moderately unsuccessful journalist or just used to being paid like one and live in dread that every email from your bank is going to tell you that you've dipped below the minimum deposit for your account, subject lines like February 28's “A bit behind” make you break out in cold sweats. 

What these emails never do, but what would be nice to see them do, is explain how they wound up in your inbox in the first place. Sure, you know how it happened, at least implicitly. You made those donations to the ACLU during the Bush years and to Médicins Sans Frontières during Operation Cast Lead, and ever since then you've gotten a reliable weekly supply of what your family lovingly refers to as “your commie mail.” (Maybe I’m projecting.) Maybe you signed a petition. Donated through ActBlue. It happens.

There’s an opportunity, here, to turn the intrusiveness into instruction, at least for a party that has strong incentives to expand discussion about data privacy and consent—from the shortsighted dream of a genie-like Robert Mueller determining that Facebook elected Donald Trump, to the more fundamental long-term problem of targeted manipulation via hate speech, propaganda and conspiracy theory. A greeting that begins by explaining how your email was legally obtained and the important differences between that and illegal or unethical use of your personal information has the virtue of minimizing the intrusiveness, telling you something you don’t already know and giving you some sense of what can and should be done as a matter of policy. It takes a structure that sucks and that we’ve learned to live with and uses it as the starting point for describing a better way of doing things. It tells you that the candidate knows that he or she is operating a machine on you, and that neither of you enjoys it.

The downside is that centering the discussion on how you should have more ability to control who gains access to your information would also require putting optional “Unsubscribe” boxes up at the top of the email the same sort of big candy-red buttons that usually say “CHIP IN $50 NOW,” which defeats the purpose of mass mailers like this. They exist via the premise that you are too lazy to immediately unsubscribe, or that you feel a tinge of guilt at foreclosing another avenue to learn about a candidate and are likely to let them keep coming for a while. Ideally, somewhere between the first mailer and the last, you will sign another petition that will put you on another list, or you will opt to go to a rally in person, or you’ll kick in $25 for the hell of it. 

Giving you an easy out—even a button that unsubscribes you from all but one weekly update, or a countdown of emails that promises to cease if you don’t indicate further interest—only advances the idea that escaping this process should be easier, if not the default. The benefit and risk of stripping off the facade and explaining how these mailers work is that they make the candidate and his or her transactions with you more human when the only metric they’re actually worth is more money. If you’re begging for that and not for forgiveness, the last thing you want to do is ask for permission.

So it felt like something of a reprieve this morning to get an email from Kamala Harris titled, simply, "Beto O’Rourke," regarding his announcement that he is running for president. There was no dance with honesty or with a petition to continue in a frame on honesty or with a performative frankness about a mercenary interaction that stopped short of acknowledging what it actually is.

It didn't pop as much as the February 27 email with the preview text of “Team, Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet,” but it sang in its own way. Yes, it immediately began talking about “[looking] forward to engaging in substantive debates,” asking for money and mentioning a deep love of this country, but on the substance of Beto O’Rourke and what must be done for America, it remained silent. Which seems fair, since he did as much himself:

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