Babylon Ain’t Falling

Anyone else tense this week? Some random thoughts on the eve of an election:

  • I’m going to stick my neck out here and predict that there won’t be a civil war anytime soon here in the Heart of Babylon. We might have some isolated incidents over the next few days that the press will amplify. But most folks on all sides of the political spectrum are too busy just coping with the effects of a pandemic and the demands of family and work to storm the Bastille. I could be wrong. We’ll see how well this post ages.
  • Doomscrolling twitter and looking at the news too much isn’t healthy. It leads to paranoia and the feeling that a civil war in the Heart of Babylon is imminent.
  • Whatever happens in the next week it’s not time to make brunch reservations. In this election we face a choice between a kind of incompetent proto-fascism (real fascists would organize the buses better at their rallies) and neoliberalism. Proto-fascism is worse but neoliberalism sows the seeds of fascism by worsening conditions for working class and middle class people. In short, neoliberal austerity, international trade deals and anti-labor measures create an opportunity for right wing populists. To be clear I think we need to first evict the fascists and then take on the neoliberals. It’s a long game–they’ll be no brunch for the rest of my life.
  • My LA neighborhood is a liberal bubble. There are no Trump signs. But there are plenty of signs screaming “VOTE.” I find this message irritating and condescending, especially when directed at young people. My response is “VOTE for what?” Give me something to vote for not empty platitudes like “Decency.” What does that even mean? How about Medicare for All? Access to higher education? How about not sending poor kids off to wars?
  • Don’t forget local politics. Everyone is distracted by the soap opera in Washington. Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, our local politicians, almost all Democrats, are engaged in old-school corruption: suitcases full of cash, partying with developers at casinos and cavorting with sex workers.
  • Speaking of LA I have a message to the folks in the rest of this country: you don’t want our mayor Eric Garcetti in a cabinet position even though I’d love to see him be someone else’s problem. He’s another neolib who wants Uber to run everything.
  • Politics should not be about personal expression. It’s about working with other people towards a common goal. This has been an especially hard lesson for me. I think we’re all raised in a culture of self expression and social media only exacerbates this.
  • Political discussions are difficult when you base your identity on them. I have an only child’s sense of being Always Right™. I’ve done a lot of phone and text banking and knocking on doors for campaigns in the last 11 months. The lessons learned are: spend most of your time listening to what other people are saying. Ask open ended questions. Never tell someone that they are WRONG™. Pivot gracefully to what your opinions are. Don’t argue with people. This is all easier said than done and harder when you have political conversations with friends and family.
  • When you make calls for a campaign you quickly learn that you are a political nerd who spends too much time looking at Twitter. Most people are busy taking care of a crying baby, working the night shift on a job they hate and/or just trying to cope with life.

I’m going to leave the last word to Bertolt Brecht:

It takes a lot things to change the world:
Anger and tenacity. Science and indignation,
The quick initiative, the long reflection,
The cold patience and the infinite perseverance,
The understanding of the particular case and the understanding of the ensemble:
Only the lessons of reality can teach us to transform reality.

Garage Philosophy

The Central Meridian (aka The Garage) by Michael C. McMillen, 1981.

In his entertaining survey, High Weirdness : Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies Erik Davis uses the phrase “garage philosopher” to describe the self-made DIY thoughtstylists of the 70s counterculture. Considering the epistemological mess we’re in right now, it would be to our benefit to re-embrace garage philosophy, to democratize and make practical the observations of the greats of the discipline. Unfortunately, my public school education, almost all the way through grad school, never exposed me to even a cursory survey of philosophy.

This might be by design. In the years of cold war paranoia I grew up in, I suspect the powers that be didn’t want people thinking too deeply about the status quo. Or maybe it’s just that our overly literal culture dismisses the liberal arts as lacking utility.

Despite my garage philosopher’s sub-undergrad understanding of $50 concepts like epistemology and ontology, for today’s blog post I want to take on a concept I’m triggered by and take it to the philosophical garage for some quick tinkering and repair.

The problem in question is in an article I wasted my time reading in Scientific American floating the perennial “are we living in a simulation” argument. First let me crankily note that when you have a plumbing problem you call a plumber. When you have a philosophy problem you call a philosopher. Please, please, please, my dear journalists, take the ever annoying Neil deGrasse Tyson out of your phone’s contacts. At the very least, only call him when you want to know things like the size of the rings of Saturn. He shouldn’t be allowed near anything that involves meaning or ambiguity.

Speaking of plumbers, let’s get back to the are-we-living-in-a-simulation problem. I suspect most plumbers don’t have this epistemological conundrum since they spend their hours in confrontation with a world that doesn’t generally bend in our interests so easily. Let me also guess that emergency room nurses, welders and gardeners also don’t have the are-we-living-in-a-simulation problem. No, the question bedevils people who spend way too many hours in front of computers and (un)smart phones. I’m looking at you Elon Musk. Put down the phone and let’s head to the philosophy garage.

How to be a garage philosopher

  • Work your way though Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy. I recommend this over the more popular survey by Bertrand Russell. Russell has a bias against the Medieval philosophers and that’s a shame IMHO.
  • Form a reading group. It’s more fun to read this stuff with other people and you can do it over Zoom. I formed one to work through a particularly notorious philosophical tome. A mix of genders in your reading group is good. Too many dudes talkin’ philosophy can get insufferable. I should know. Definitely serve drinks.

Binge on Opera for Free

Das Reingold

Early in the pandemic, Kelly had to leave town for an extended period to look after a relative. This left me alone in the house under lockdown with plenty of chores do during the day, such as install a floor and ceiling in her office shed, but not much to do at night. The first thing I did was to fill those evening hours with an intemperate binge viewing of Tiger King that left me confused and depressed. Then friend of the blog Lee tipped me off to the Metropolitan Opera’s free nightly streams. I thought that instead of binge watching Netflix shows I’d watch opera, even operas I’m not thrilled with, if just to see what pre-20th century folks binge viewed.

The way the Met’s free streams work is that they release a new one to watch at 3pm each day. You have 23 hours to watch before it goes away and a new one appears. Each opera streams from 7:30 p.m. EDT until 6:30 p.m. the following day. The streams are available through the Met Opera on Demand apps for Apple, Amazon, and Roku devices and Samsung Smart TV. To access them, without being a paid subscriber, you click “Browse and Preview” in the apps for connected TV, and “Explore the App” on tablets and mobile devices.

Speaking of binge viewing, this week the Met is streaming all (count ’em!) seventeen hours of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle along with Tristan und Isolda, Parsifal and few other Wagner’s hits. Does the story of a magical ring that holds terrible powers and needs to be returned to nature sound like a familiar plot?

Parsifal

Wagner’s Parsifal streams on Sunday the 11th in a striking production the Met did in 2013. Towards the end of the first act is my favorite part, the ringing of the eerie bells of the grail castle, a sound effect for which Wagner constructed a special instrument. And the music that accompanies the appearance of the grail is some of the most beautiful ever written.

If Wagner isn’t to your taste there’s plenty more opera to watch in the Met’s future streaming schedule. Let me just note that this week you may want to catch Götterdämmerung as it’s, shall we say, timely.

Yes on 15! Vote for Nithya Raman for CD 4!

For our own mental health Kelly and I went on a bit of a news fast for the past week only to have that break rudely interrupted by a text late last night alerting us to a certain ‘rona infection going around a big white house on the east coast.

While Kelly was on a hard absolutely-no-news-in-the-interest-of-recovering-from-open-heart-surgery fast, I was on a lighter avoidance of the day to day news while (pretentiously, I admit) allowing myself to read the hard copies of the Jacobin and the Baffller that I subscribe to. I’ve found both of these sources to be thoughtful, nuanced and interesting.

But while the drama goes on with Dear Leader in that far distant city, I want to alert a few of our California readers to some important issues right here at home.

Prop 15
This week I phone banked in support of Proposition 15, which would close a loophole that allows large companies and land owners to avoid their fare share of property taxes. This loophole is a kind of the Trojan horse hidden in Prop 13, passed in the 1970s, that left us with a situation in which wealthy land owners are paying taxes based on outdated values. For instance, Walt Disney Studios in Burbank pays taxes on an assessed value from 1975 allowing them to dodge around $3.5 million in taxes every year.

Prop 13 was sold as a way to keep older people on fixed income from being taxed out of their houses. This is partly true, but the real impulse behind Prop 13 was to shift the tax burden away from the wealthy. I was in junior high in a public school when Prop 13 passed and watched my education get flushed down the toilet along with a lot of other public services.

Prop 15 would raise upwards of 12 billion dollars a year to pay for schools, parks and make a dent in the terrible mental health and homeless crisis we have here in this state. It would be a game changer.

The deep pocketed real estate interests opposing 15 have spread a lot of outright lies. Prop 15 does not apply to any residential property either the house you live in or any rental property. It does not apply to farms. It only taxes commercial real estate over $3 million in value.

Don’t believe the lies. Vote yes on 15 for better schools, parks and public services. The commons has been stolen away from us by large corporations. Let’s get it back.

Nithya Raman for Council District 4
The Los Angeles City Council is a cesspool of corruption and incompetence. We have a historic opportunity to elect someone who will make a difference. I’ve met Nithya Raman and she’s the perfect person to begin the long work of making our city more functional and bring real democracy to our city. For the love of God vote for her! If you know anyone who lives in sprawling District 4, which encompasses Koreatown, Los Feliz, the Hollywood Hills, Sherman Oaks and parts of North Hollywood, cajole them into voting for Nithya. David Ryu, the incumbent she’s running against ran as an outsider four years ago and has since decided to take campaign contributions from just about any large corporation that will dole them out. Ryu has also shamelessly stolen most of Nithya’s platform. Don’t fall for it. If he’s reelected he will fall back into his previous pattern of incompetence and corruption. He also was accused though not convicted of attempted rape of an unconscious person back in 2002. We need to show Ryu, and the rest of his colleagues, the way to the opulent exit door at city hall.

Those confusing initiatives:
Here’s my recommendations based on the suggestions of the local chapter of the DSA that I belong to:

Prop 14 NO
Prop 15 YES
Prop 16 YES
Prop 17 YES
Prop 18 YES
Prop 19 NO
Prop 20 NO
Prop 21 YES
Prop 22 NO
Prop 23 YES
Prop 24 No recommendation
Prop 25 NO

Staying sane under lockdown in the midst of the most unstable period of US history during my lifetime has been difficult. Phone and text banking for causes that I believe in, from the comfort of our home, has given me some sense that I’m helping, at least a little bit. So if you get a text for some cause that might just be me behind it. And, yes you can reply to those texts and have a conversation.

For other offices and local initiatives see DSA-LA’s handy voter’s guide. And join me in the DSA and let’s make this world a better place for future generations!

In Praise of Beaters

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: all cars are the same. The same handful of people design them. They’re made in the same factory. They have the same engines. All that’s different is the ads and, maybe, the plastic on the glove compartment.

You see, years ago, I discovered the secret car companies don’t want you to know. 2020 BMW 8 series? No better than a 2002 Pontiac Aztek. 2020 Land Rover? No different than any Kia. They’re all just a hunk of plastic and metal with an inside full of rubber tubes, greasy metal parts and other thingies that I don’t know what they do. Zero to 60 in 6.8 seconds? Who cares. There’s so many other idiots driving around in hunks of metal and plastic that you can’t go fast anyways, especially in trashy old Los Angeles.

The difference is just in the surface details. How do I know this? I’ve been lucky enough to be a passenger in a few fancy pants cars over the years. I’ve mooched rides in Teslas, BMWs, and even a few Mercedes. I discovered that these “luxury” cars are to real luxury what the flooring and wall treatments of the breakfast bar at the Marriott Suites are to the Palace of Versailles. It’s all just plastic.

Here’s the other big secret: since all cars are the same so you might as well own a crappy beater. Allow me to break down the economics of this. Buy and drive a beater until its last gasp and you can take the savings, walk it to the bank and by the time you’re 60 the interest alone will be about a bazillion dollars. Take just the issue of unnecessary body work. With a beater you want dents. You should, in fact, drive your beater in circles at a Whole Foods to purposefully acquire dents. The more dents you have the less you care. This is what’s called “beater detailing.” With a lifetime of money not spent on auto body work you’ll be soon be kicking back on a beater yacht in the Cayman Islands.

There’s another benefit to driving a beater especially in this town. LA’s the kind of place where a lot of people measure status with the brand and upkeep of your car. These are exactly the sort of people you don’t want to hang out with. Your beater will act as a kind of filter for vain idiots.

I gained all this secret knowledge during my years as the proud owner of a 1994 Nissan Senta E. How I obtained this car is worth reviewing. A coworker told me about a little secret in the new car business. I don’t know if this loophole still exists, but car dealerships used to advertise a low price for a specific car in newspaper ads. When you went in to the dealership you’d have to ask for the car mentioned in the ad (there was a reference number in the fine print). What you’d find out when you asked for this car is that it had no features at all and I mean so few features that it didn’t seem street legal. My Sentra had no radio, no air conditioning, not even a right side view mirror. One of Kelly’s relatives, a former used car salesman, told me that in the biz they refer to such cars as a “heater and keys.”

What you’ll also discover is that the dealership really does not want you to buy this car. You will spend hours while they attempt to up-sell you on features and/or switch you over to a different car. I even had to fend off multiple sales people who came to outright resent my cheap-ass presence in the dealership as the afternoon dragged on. When I insisted on paying cash they really poured on the hate. But I outlasted them and walked out of the dealership with my brand new $4,000 Nissan Sentra E. There was one problem. It had a manual transmission and I didn’t really know how to drive stick. Somehow I got the car to an empty parking lot and practiced shifting in the dark until I lurched it into 5th and hobbled on to the freeway for the long drive home.

I drove this car for years and the Sentra earned the ultimate beater status when the ceiling upholstery came lose from the roof and developed what Kelly calls an “upholstery udder.” That and years worth of fart smells in the seats meant that a ride in this car was a trip to cherish. I even had an unlicensed mechanic who rode around on a bicycle with a sticker that said, “question internal combustion,” a clever pun if you think about the context.

I still remember the sad day she just stopped working and I had to coast off the freeway into the lot of a storage facility on San Fernando Road. I fantasize about finding another 1994 Nissan Sentra as a sort of 1990s time travel machine to recall the days before pandemics and Instagram influencers. I imagine getting behind the wheel, spraying myself down with CK1, downing a Zima and shoving a Pearl Jam cassette in the car stereo. Except, of course, there’s no car stereo. Just your cheap, existential little self and the sound of the not at all empty road.

But why buy just one 1994 Nissan Sentra E retro time machine? They’re so cheap you might as well get ten, park them around town and have your own personal car share service. Why get on the bus when there’s a 1994 Nissan Sentra E waiting for you a few blocks over?

Of course there’s the car free option. I’ve spent exactly two years of my life since coming of driving age (which, in Southern California, is 9 years old–they start you out young here). During those two years I had no desire to own a car again. It was like being deprogrammed from a religious cult. I’d laugh at traffic reports, insurance bills, and repair problems. But, at the end of these two years someone would offer me another beater (sometimes they come for free) and I’d be back slouching towards Bethlehem in a dented sedan.

To contradict myself a bit there really is one car that is different: the Morgan 3 Wheeler. But that car has a bit too much of a cosplay vibe to me. No, the next car might just be a Camry. I’ll leave you with the best used car ad ever written:

Image: Wikimedia.