You may threaten the future of civilization, but I can’t seem to live without you
In 2019 the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom was thinking about the things that might kill us.
In his vulnerable world hypothesis, Bostrom asks us to picture human creativity as the process of pulling marbles out of a giant urn. The white ones represent inventions or discoveries that enrich humanity. The grey ones are a mixed blessing; think nuclear fission which has given us nuclear power but also nuclear weapons.
Bostrom says at some point we will pull a black marble from the urn, “a technology that invariably or by default destroys the civilization that invents it.” Since we’re still here Bostrom believes this hasn’t happened yet, but I’m not so sure. We may have drawn one back at the dawn of the industrial revolution and are only now coming to terms with the implications of our invention.
For the first 150 or so years of its existence, this technological marvel was thought to be harmless. It became the lifeblood of our economies and energy systems. It heats our homes and fuels our way across land, air, and sea. Almost anything can be made from it.
Discoveries cannot be undiscovered, so once any marble comes out of the urn it cannot go back in. This marble is different, though. Even if we could put it back, we probably wouldn’t. It is too good to give up.
I. The Oil Defender’s Gambit
Oil is an amazing substance. This has never been in dispute, yet it seems to be a point of confusion when we talk about our dependency on it.
These conversations usually go something like this: I attend a rally against fossil fuels which, at the rate we are burning them, threaten to change our climate in the coming centuries in ways that imperil human civilization. I think this is bad. I would prefer civilization was not imperilled.
A friend, or perhaps one of my enemies, later sees a few of my pictures from the rally and helpfully points out that people do not attend rallies to protest substances they think are amazing. He notes that the car I drove there runs on fossil fuels; the lid on the coffee I picked up beforehand is made with oil derivatives; the supply chain that brought that coffee to my local coffee purveyor is powered by oil.
But why stop there? I might respond. That car I drove? You need oil to make the tires, the seats, and most of the vehicle itself before you put anything in the tank. The house I live in? The paint, the caulking, the shingles, the plumbing. Oil again. My clothes, the ones I wore to the rally probably, are woven from synthetics that wouldn’t exist without oil. My shoes, oil. The computer on which I’m typing this, the seat I’m sitting on, cold medicine, chewing gum, toothpaste, deodorant…
Exactly! My interlocutor says. It is hypocritical to ask that we stop using oil when you yourself rely on it every day.
Which, fair. Running water, computers, takeout coffee, shelter — all good things. If my convictions obligate me to give up not just the conveniences of modern life, but the clothes off my back and the roof over my head, I am a hypocrite.
But the fact that I can’t stop contributing to the problem shouldn’t be taken as an indication that it’s not really a problem. That’s why it’s a problem.
II. A Miracle of The Modern Age
Maybe the modern world didn’t have to be this way. In the early 1900s, electric cars were considered superior to gasoline-powered ones. They were faster, more maneuverable, and more reliable. And besides, “you can’t get people to sit over an explosion,” one high-profile investor predicted confidently in 1896.
Yet following the Second World War, when the U.S. factories manufacturing armaments went back to making civilian wares, a new exercise in nation building got underway. A few missteps by top electric car companies, cheap fuels, some clever marketing, and America’s burgeoning car culture became entirely gasoline powered. Strip malls, highways, suburbia, and huge swathes of modern infrastructure owe their existence to that culture. As one documentarian of the era noted, “Had this period of random technological mutation selected for the electric, the social history of America would be unrecognizable.”
Then there are plastics, a fossil fuel byproduct. Did we have to make everything out of plastic? Probably not, but in the 1960s this novel material was regarded as a miracle. I don’t mean this in the colloquial sense. I mean plastic could do things that the laws of nature seemed not to permit. It didn’t break like glass. It was cheap, reproducible, and could be molded into virtually anything that would last basically forever. “The hierarchy of substances is abolished,” Roland Barthes writes in one essay. “A single one replaces them all.”
Then there are oil’s applications for which there is no suitable substitute. There is no substance like jet fuel, nor will there be for the foreseeable future. The only way the average Canadian can experience the world outside of driving distance — Tokyo, Cape Town, Tangiers, Rome — is if we decide to keep running the vast machine that extracts the remains of primordial creatures from the earth and burns them.
It’s impossible to imagine life without oil. It has shaped everything from our daily lives to the world’s cultures and macro systems in ways that transcend any individual’s understanding or moral judgment. Is oil bad? That’s like asking if technology is bad. Or the sea. It's too big to fit in the question.
III. Oil’s Greatest Trick
There are new omens that now demand our attention, mostly because of how easy they are to ignore.
Plastics that won’t naturally degrade for centuries are swirling in ocean patches larger than the Maritimes. In a few decades, there’ll be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Nanoplastics are flowing through my blood stream and yours. We don’t know what that means for our health, exactly, but we know our bodies can’t process it. In your lifetime you’ll eat an estimated 44 pounds of the stuff. As Jeannette Cooperman darkly points out in one essay, you'd have an easier time digesting a seven-year-old.
After one cross-Atlantic flight, my personal greenhouse gas emissions from this singular event exceed the annual total of the average resident of 56 countries. These tend to be countries that are uniquely vulnerable to increased storm severity, drought, flooding, crop failures, political unrest, civil conflict, and a whole host of interrelated issues that are exacerbated by the airline industry, our energy systems, and basically every other oil-powered system on which civilized life depends.
You may think it’s an exaggeration to say climate change may lead to the collapse of civilization within the next few hundred years. Maybe it is. But consider: our dependence on oil is changing the climate faster than an extinction event in earth’s distant past that extinguished 95% of all animal life. That event might have taken as little as 100,000 years, the geological equivalent of the click of a camera shutter. And those are fucking rookie numbers compared to what we're doing now. A recent paper found that earth's wildlife populations have plunged nearly 70% on average in the last 50 years.
We feel insulated from these forces but we are not. The end of civilization will come long before the end of human life, and there are many degrees of hardship and unpleasantness between the two that not even our most pessimistic prophets can fathom. Civilization is not a robust construct. Push hard enough in the right places and things begin breaking faster than they can be fixed.
Yet, oil is so enchanting that it pushes these things to the mind’s peripheries. I want to find better ways to live without oil, but in the meantime, I have places to go and things to get done and I need oil to do almost all of them. There are dozens of factors that affect my choices, and concerns over the continued prosperity of civilization tend to get drowned out by the hum of the car engine or lost amid the excitement of a package just-arrived from a distant factory or disappear into the quiet anticipation at an airport gate.
IV. A World Remade
Could we have said no? Even if we could foresee our current predicament, could we forgo everything oil has made possible?
If we had, the connections between our cities would likely look something like they did in the 18th century. Comforts, conveniences, and technologies beyond the imagining of history’s richest royals and aristocrats, now democratized, gone. The wealth of entire nations, left in the ground. We can’t even say no now. Saying no at the dawn of the industrial revolution might have seemed as foolish as continuing the course we’re on today.
We often love things that are bad for us, but there are few vices that could be said to be essential. Maybe that's the honest appraisal we need to begin to remake the world without oil.
I don’t know what that new world will look like or how to get there, but I’m certain that if we look far enough into the future, a world where we fail won’t look anything like ours today.
Originally commissioned by BESIDE magazine, a which is great and visually stunning publication that you should read and support. Issue 13 is coming out soon.
The Biden presidency does not guarantee a brighter future
“I’m glad people are happy, and the pure stupid resplendence of their joy fills me with dread.” - Colin McGowan
Conspiracy theories used to be interesting. The moon landing and JFK assassination. Extraterrestrials and planes plucked out of the sky. They arose from gaping holes in our psyche. They were questions that demanded answers, or answers that raised deeper questions. They were products of obsessive puzzlement and fever dreams, like the first cavemen who invented god to explain the world. A lot of them were insane, some of them dangerous, almost all of them were wrong. But they were usually good stories. And in the quiet moments we needed good stories, even if the only answers they could give us were about ourselves.
Conspiracy theories today are boring. They’re boring because they are prompted less by big questions than by answers we don’t like. The only ones that seem to matter still orbit around the venal desires of a former president who cannot imagine nor care to imagine a world beyond his TV. They aren’t even stories, really, but a perpetual loop of blunt, self-soothing fictions. COVID is a hoax because my life would be much easier if it wasn’t real. Climate change isn’t happening because those pencil neck scientists and sanctimonious activists irritate me. Donald Trump won the election because everyone who said he would lose is a liar. Peel away the ornate layers of conspiracy theories today and you’ll almost always find something like this at the centre: the irrepressible contrarian spirit of some of the dumbest motherfuckers alive.(1)
Over 70 million people in the U.S. voted for Donald Trump. Many of them will never stop believing the election was stolen from him. They will retreat into their fictions, every half-baked “isn’t it convenient that…” and “don’t you think it’s strange that…” which disassemble our shared reality a little bit at a time.
I am happy that Joe Biden won the election. I wasn’t dancing in the streets or anything, but I believe he is sincere about not wanting to watch thousands more Americans die every day from a novel respiratory disease so that’s progress, I suppose.
I also have problems with Joe Biden. Beyond the hair sniffing and encroaching senility, my biggest problem is that he’s vanilla, a flavour the relevant parties bet would taste like sweet delight to everyone who had been eating shit for four years. As a political tactic, it worked…sort of. He won the election, but the margin wasn’t exactly comfortable. Trump was so obviously monstrous they thought they could deliver a decisive victory by offering little beyond “I’m not him.”
That this didn’t happen should surprise no-one, least of all the strategic wizards in the Democratic party. Which is irritating given how they’ve maligned the progressive wing of their party in the name of executing this grand middle-of-the-road vision. They accused progressives of being naïve for pushing agenda items like free healthcare and appropriate taxation for multi-billionaires, while the party brass remained steadfast in their commitment to “unity” with many of the morally rudderless goblins across the aisle.
Conventional wisdom in this poison racket suggests that helping ordinary Americans avoid bankruptcy which too often accompanies, say, a cancer diagnosis just isn’t politically feasible. Doing too much to prevent humanity’s plausible extinction will cost too many jobs right now. In fact doing too much of anything too soon to address these and similar problems—problems that overwhelming numbers of citizens want addressed, like, now—is still somehow seen as beyond the scope of their work. A better world isn’t possible according to the people charged with making our world better.
But maybe I am being too harsh. On his first day in office Biden signed several progressive executive actions, and has taken many similarly progressive actions since. Perhaps most significantly, he revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline which would transport oil through America’s heartland between Alberta and Texas, a move that prompted a mealy mouthed statement from our own Justin Trudeau. Several coronavirus actions were simple and relatively easy but also hugely consequential; things like “come up with a response plan.” Biden even appears open to the prospect of forgiving student debt, a priority for progressives. For this, and many other moves, he deserves credit.
But if you think all of this bodes well for the future, I’ll have to stop you right there. Because there is little evidence to suggest that Biden will keep this up if his progressive colleagues stop doing their job, which, at this point, seems to be throwing staplers at his head until he begins governing the way his base wants him to. One especially cynical take is that Biden will do for the progressive left what Donald Trump did for the evangelical right which is to neuter them as a political force. The “we’re on the same side” sentiment will force them to fall in line with a vision for the country they neither wanted nor accepted, the same way God fearing, hymnal signing southerners rallied behind a New Yorker who has a howling void in the part of the brain that might be said to house Christian values.
Joe Biden is no more like Bernie Sanders than Donald Trump is like Mike Pence. The people Biden has chosen to staff his administration are, as you might imagine, much more like him than they are like the quickly growing progressive proportion of the electorate to whom, historically, they’ve just been saying no.(2)
The problem with getting politicians to do their job is this: most of us subscribe to the belief that “politics” is a thing you do when you go vote. Real life is what you do before and after that. Trump invaded “real life” in such a way that even people who were not immediately affected by his policies couldn’t ignore him. But very few people felt they could do anything about it until the election.
Noam Chomsky, a contemporary intellectual and political thinker, believes this attitude is misguided. In the lead up to the election, Chomsky was asked approximately 8 million times(3) who he would be voting for and without any hesitation or reluctance whatsoever he said Joe Biden and you should too. Biden’s campaign positions were, according to Chomsky, more progressive than any president’s in American history by a country mile and that is not because, in his words, Biden had some personal conversion. It’s because he had been getting hammered by progressives.
“The left position has always been: You’re working all the time, and every once in a while there’s an event called an election,” he told Anand Giridharadas. “This should take you away from politics for 10 or 15 minutes.” After you vote it’s back to the real work of politics. Keep hammering.
Luke O’Neil, a very smart writer whose book you should buy, wrote about the phrase “history won’t look favourably on this.” He is not a fan. He says it’s a form of punting responsibility for current problems to the future when some hypothetical historian will arrive and offer a scathing appraisal of how badly we’ve screwed up. It’s also, he points out, not even true. History is written from the perspective of winners who have a way of conveniently omitting or positively reframing all the terrible things they’ve done.
The thing is though, people don't always use this phrase in the predictive sense. It's an appeal to vanity. It’s used to get people to think about their legacy, to raise the spectre of an unforgiving judge and jury in hopes they’ll stop doing the bad things that'll land them in the courtroom; even if they are very likely to escape conviction anyway.
We are lucky that Donald Trump was not only stupid but also frequently drawing attention to how stupid he was. If history is in fact unkind to him, this will be why. But here’s a little non-hypothetical: There absolutely will be leaders in the future riding the same waves that carried Donald Trump to the White House and some of them will be at least as charismatic and considerably less dumb. That’s going to be a problem. Trump’s presidency did not equip America to stop this from happening again. Just the opposite. It weakened many of the institutions that were meant to stop it in the first place.
Joe Biden has lulled many people into a false sense of security. People seem to think Trump is an aberration of the U.S. political system rather than a logical extension of it. For that reason, far too many people are being far too kind to Joe Biden. They say that now is not the time(4) to be critical of his administration because of the mess he inherited. Or they’ll say what an incredible achievement it is that Kamala Harris is the first female minority VP, which is true right up to the point it's used to sweep aside every whiff of criticism as misogynistic or racist. These people will stop paying attention because the good guys are in office without understanding that, all else being equal, the “good guys” aren't invested in changing the stuff that needs to change. They are, after all, creatures of this system.
Trump-era conspiracy theories now influence political decisions in a way traditional conspiracy theories never have. Most people who stormed the Capitol at the former president's behest may have been dumb, but they were not the garden variety conspiracy theorists of yore. They were “regular” Americans. They were people with things to lose if they got caught planting pipe bombs or attempting to take law makers hostage. In some ways, they embody certain American values more than other Americans. After all, is it not very American to carry an antipathy and distrust of government so deep that you would refuse to marshal even a basic level of critical thinking when a time travelling informant tells you Democrats are sacrificing babies, and your messiah is a gilded-hair reality TV show host who has failed at every venture in his privileged life? It’s basically apple pie.
And yet, and yet, the most dangerous thing about these conspiracies is not that a lot of people believe them, it's that they have now been insinuated into not-insane world views. Little pieces have wound their way into respectable conversation, not always explicitly, but you can see the fingerprints if you look closely. Smart and cynical people have recognized precisely how useful these fictions are. This includes politicians like Mitch McConnell who have allowed these fictions to flourish right up until the moment the rioters arrived very pissed off at their office doors. But it also includes people in your life. They’re the ones who’ll say “yeah obviously QAnon is outrageous” but who feel in their bones that it is not nearly as big a problem as the growing chorus of progressives demanding a better world from their governments.
They're the ones we’ll have to convince that “no, $7/hour hasn’t been a livable minimum wage for years” and “no, the people who ask for more are not actively trying to destroy American businesses.” We’ll have to convince them that the medical establishment is not, in fact, conspiring to “shut down the economy” as part of some elitist power grab, but because keeping people healthy is a prerequisite for getting back to business as usual. We’ll have to convince them that the political action demanded by more than 30 years of dire scientific warnings on climate change is not a grand scheme to destroy our way of life, but to preserve it.(5)
If you're looking for the seams where our shared reality is coming apart, this is it. We'll have to begin stitching it back together if we ever hope to eventually alleviate suffering that, right now, many of us refuse to see.
(1) I wish I wasn't the kind of person who said things like this. There are people in my life who take this stuff seriously who I want to believe are kind-hearted and smart. But the people driving this movement are dishonest and dumb, and if you buy what they’re selling, that’s a dumb decision on your part. Also, you’re making the rest of us dumber by forcing us to explain why it’s dumb. What I’m saying is, I’m running out of excuses to make for you.
(2) One of these appointments—Neera Tanden, whom Biden pegged to head up the largest office in his executive branch and someone who has gone to great lengths to discredit Bernie Sanders supporters as malicious political operatives because they said mean things to her online—might be read as an emphatic “fuck you” to progressives.
(3) Chomsky, who has the demeanour of a kindly and incredibly sharp garden gnome, personally responds to many of the thousands of emails he receives on a regular basis and does way more interviews than anyone should be expected to do at age 92.
(4) By which they mean “at no point ever in the future.”
(5) This is not to suggest that our scientific or medical authorities are beyond reproach. Both have made serious mistakes during the pandemic. Climate science measures complex planetary systems over huge timelines and deals in vast ranges of probability. It’s reasonable to be skeptical. But skepticism is not what these people want. They believe scrutiny is unnecessary because these whole fields of study are corrupt or based on nonsense. A “hoax” does not require deeper investigation except as a means to dismiss it.
An attempt to reverse engineer the world’s greatest boxer’s rise to the top of the world pound-for-pound rankings
First off, I should probably apologize for my headline. I don’t actually know what makes Vasyl Lomachenko, currently the best boxer in the world and one of the most fluid and graceful fighters to have ever lived, just that. In fact, I doubt anyone does. If they did, they would erect a boxing laboratory designed to manufacture more extraordinary champions like him.
But let’s say, hypothetically, we could do that. What would that lab look like? First off, the (mad) scientist would be someone like Anatoly Lomachenko, Vasyl’s father, who had plans to create a generational talent before his son was even conceived. He placed the first pair of boxing mitts over Vasyl’s tiny fists when he was just three days out of the womb. He oversaw Vasyl over the entirety of the winningest career in amateur boxing and remains intimately involved in his professional training. When Vasyl is sparring, he personally counts the punches in each round, relentlessly tracking it, looking for patterns. In one of those “inside the training camp” videos, Vasyl explains, in halting English, that he is like a video game and his father is the gamer. One of his nicknames is “The Matrix.”
So that’s your foundation, his reason, if you will. But knowing the designer doesn’t bring us much closer to understanding how one creates such an athlete—an athlete whose feats draw references to stunts that are impossible outside the confines of a simulation. We know the basics of his training—the marathon-length runs; the bag, ball, and pad work; the sparring—all of it executed with a single-mindedness that points to something embedded in his DNA. But even this doesn’t really explain what makes his performances different.
This warrants a brief interlude to explain what I mean by “different.” There are two aspects of Lomachenko’s game that are unparalleled, I would argue, in the history of the sport. The first and most obvious to a casual observer are his combinations. He assembles sequences of head movements and punches which make his opponent’s attacks appear choreographed to miss, and his own, in equal and opposite measure, entirely confounding in their precision. Simply put, whoever he is fighting has no idea where the punches are coming from, but from an observer’s perspective, they look like they’re coming from exactly where they need to. There’s an elegance to it, like puzzle pieces fitting together.
Norman Mailer once wrote that a knockout results from a failure of communication between mind and body. “A pugilist with an authentic desire to win cannot be knocked out if he sees the punch coming,” he writes. “In contrast a five-punch combination in which every shot lands is certain to stampede any opponent into unconsciousness.” Lomachencko does this better than any other fighter today. And, more importantly, when he isn’t able to “stampede” said opponent into a coma, his offence is often so overwhelming, so demoralizing that world-class boxers—some of them champions—have simply quit mid-match. Teddy Atlas, a former trainer to Mike Tyson and one of the most experienced voices in the sport, has an ominous way of describing this ability: “He takes men’s souls.”
The second part of Lomachenko’s game is, in large part, what makes the first possible and that is his footwork. It is balletic. Last December, Lomachenko fought Guillermo Rigondeaux, a matchup that was the stuff of boxing purists’ wet dreams. Rigondeaux is another one of history’s winningest amateurs and he had a near-perfect record over something like 500 fights before he was walloped by the Ukrainian. After the fight, writer Hamilton Nolan observed that Lomachenko "can be anywhere in a 270-degree radius of your face before you can move to meet him…(Standing in front of you) he slips punches with the ease of a grown man pretend-boxing with a toddler. You can’t find him, and if you do you can’t hit him, and the whole time he’s hitting you.”
To explain these more particular talents you’d have to investigate the unorthodox aspects of Lomachenko’s training. Anatoly did not allow Vasyl to begin training as a boxer until he took up traditional Ukrainian dance. One of his favourite training implements is the agility ladder, and he regularly wears out his shoes using it. On film, his warm-ups sometimes include these knuckle-to-palm handstand hops, which seem more like something an acrobat would do to open his circus act than what you’d see from a boxer. On his rest days he swims, juggles, and plays tennis (occasionally against himself). At the end of full training days, he does at least 30 minutes of mind flexibility exercises, brain teasers, and reflex drills, all part of a program crafted by a designated psychological trainer who is a permanent fixture in his camps. Then there are the breathing exercises, remarkable both in their simplicity (holding his breath for as long as he can) and sophistication (he uses computerized breathing apparatus to measure the force of his in/exhalations).
Sports psychologists, fight trainers, armchair critics, and awestruck magazine writers have twisted themselves into knots trying to connect the dots between his preparation and performance. How exactly does “x” allow him to do “y”? Maybe you’re only reading this because you were hoping to glean a few training tips, which, with enough sticktoitiveness might lead to a few flashes of athletic brilliance. If that’s the case, I’m sorry to tell you that much of what this boxer is able to do simply defies explanation. It could be, for anyone else, that spending hours doing brain teasers will do very little to improve one’s boxing IQ. It could be, for anyone else, that learning to juggle will do nothing to help you land a cleaner punch or avoid one. The consensus among the boxing cognoscenti is that what Lomachenko can do doesn’t totally make sense. The BBC’s Mike Costello described it as “almost sorcery.”
If one were forced to explain the formula to Lomachenko’s success, say in a contrived think piece, it would probably sound something like this: two generations of irrepressible devotion to the sport, an arsenal of physical and psychological gifts, and a healthy pinch of creativity. But the secret, I think, is his tacit recognition that there’s more to it than that. History always demands more.
Originally published by GLORY.
Considering a blossoming source of stupidity in our current cultural moment
One of my all-time favourite pieces of political magazine writing was Wells Tower’s 2012 profile of Mitt Romney. As some well-to-do magazines have sometimes done, GQ paid for the fiction writer and occasional correspondent to join the other political journalists on the campaign bus. The idea was to get a novelist’s eye on Romney.
Of course, anybody who had any interest in reading a piece like this probably already had a basic idea of what Romney was like: Your cookie cutter millionaire politician, famously boring, known as much for being out-of-touch with the average American as he was for his attempts to disguise how out-of-touch he was.
But it was precisely this fact—that Romney was almost the perfect cardboard cutout of a politician—that gave Tower an opening to write what turned out to be a revealing character examination. There was something to unveil, and it was right there in all his campaign blubbering.
“Mitt Romney once said that he cannot imagine anything worse than polygamy,” Tower wrote of Romney’s a-little-too-enthusiastic attempts to dispel concerns about his Mormon background. “This is a failure of the imagination. I can in a split second imagine many things worse than polyamory. One, two, three, go! The Holocaust, guzzling a bucket of pus, a baboon fucking a human baby.”
Granted, Tower did not have had to dig very deep to figure out what was going on beneath the surface but watching him scratch at it was fun, edifying even. He humanized Romney, overcoming near-heroic efforts on the politician’s part to avoid even trace amounts of humanity. He was able to write something interesting not in spite of the fact that Romney is boring, but because of it. This is what writers are supposed to do: To find the human inside the robot, or the monster inside the slick and steady operator.
But things have changed now. The monsters are no longer hiding.
Here are the most important things that future generations will need to know about Donald Trump.
Now, if you cannot accept these premises, by all means, go back to whatever activities otherwise occupy your time (throwing eggs at the town newspaper boy?). It wouldn’t be fair to ask you to care about the role of writers in our current cultural moment because if you still believe Donald Trump is a good president with all that we now know about him, you must believe it’s the writers—or the journalists, or the people with a functioning sense of decency—who have not been telling the truth. If you don’t trust them, there’s no reason to think you’ll trust me.
If you’re still here, here’s my thesis: Mr. Trump, and the broader phenomenon of which he is a part, has made us dumber. This is not because Mr. Trump is dumb (which he is) or because the people who elected him are stupid (which, I would bet, most of them are) but because he defies the ordinary conventions of trying to conceal one’s stupidity, self-interest, etc. The parts of our brain that evaluate the most powerful people in the world are atrophying because we no longer have to do the basic work of trying to figure out who these people are.
Consider our comedians. Most have said this president is very bad for comedy. Bad, they say, because it’s nearly impossible to match the absurdity of what’s happening in real life in a way that would register as a joke in the human brain.
Take Stephen Colbert. Colbert went from playing a very smart and funny caricature of a right-wing blowhard in the Bush years to something significantly less funny when he took over from Letterman. Granted it’s a totally different show, but it’s also the only kind he could do today. Now he just plays himself, matter-of-factly pointing out all the terrible or stupid things Trump has done day after day, barely even making jokes about it. Because, you see, the things Trump is doing are the jokes. A solid—I don’t know—93% of Colbert’s bits stop probably two sentences shy of outright saying “look how dumb this is.”
The success of any joke depends saying something interesting and not immediately obvious as a way of saying something true. Trump resists any effort to do that. The funniest bit I’ve seen Colbert do since he started doing the Late Show was one about the flame-out candidates in the 2016 democratic primaries and the only reason it was funny was because he had to do more work to make fun of these people. There was still room for him to say something more creatively absurd than what was going on in real life.
Point is, you got to do the work. Being well-informed (or funny) requires some degree of effort. It means caring about things that are not as bombastic or salacious as any one of the dozens of scandals that have happened under Mr. Trump’s tenure. Usually it requires patience and a degree of nuanced thought to wrap one’s head around. Mr. Trump, and by extension, our efforts to accurately portray him, are to nuanced thinking what a rancid fart is to a wine tasting—unpleasant, uninteresting, and masking what you should be paying attention to.
There are fucked up things that happen in every government. In fact you could probably even make a compelling case that many other governments were far more fucked up, if for no other reason than the fact that their actions were always handled and spun more effectively—chewed by a bureaucratic machine to be easier to swallow. That’s what politicians do. It is not an accident that so many people are willing to shrug off tens or even hundreds of thousands of deaths in every war because those people are not “our people.”
But those politicians and their policies invited scrutiny. Politicians invite scrutiny by virtue of existing, because existing as a politician means embodying two conflicting ideas: one, that you must accurately represent a group of complex, flawed and often very different people (i.e. you are one of them), and two, that you can be—at least implicitly—better than them. Then you have to convince them you can be both at the same time. I don’t believe you can do this with any level of sincerity, which is why sincerity is not something we associate with politicians. It is why we have a sort of duty as citizens to pay such close attention to them. It is why “norms” exist. They allow us to pare away distractions that might interfere with the activity of paying attention to things that matter. They are also what make politics boring.
Donald Trump blew all that up. Despite his many (many) lies, he is nothing if not sincere. Although it’s a kind of emotional sincerity, in which he’s sincere about being self-interested, greedy, etc. He embraced this role as the country’s id, and in doing so gave the people who endorsed him permission to do the same. Journalists, writers, and people otherwise trying to figure out the magnitude of this noxious plume of idiocy, can’t really, because they’re in it. How are you supposed to evaluate the moral implications of the leader of the free world dismissing predominantly black countries as “shitholes” when literally within a week, you find out he paid out $130,000 during his campaign to cover up an old affair with a pornstar, an affair that he knew could influence the outcome of the election, and did so in ways that we now know were not totally above-board?
I’m not here to write another story pointing out this stuff. God knows you’ve heard enough about it. What I’m more interested in is how he’s managed to rob us of the basic ability to even think about whether any of this stuff matters; whether it has legitimate bearing on his position, or the decisions he makes. Because the answer to that question is already both completely obvious and completely different depending on who you are. He invites ridicule or defensiveness, but makes more traditional kinds of scrutiny very difficult.
But, what would that even look like? He’s a piece of shit and also the president, so his piece-of-shitness is a near-daily assault on our senses. The guy is a walking billboard of every shameless excess and vice on which American stereotypes are built. And we still entertain ideas that maybe he is more complicated than that. Do you think Donald Trump has an inner life? Do you think Donald Trump believes anything? Do you think there are complex human forces of love or anything like it at work in Donald Trump’s life? No. There is nothing to Donald Trump except all that you already see on TV.
And yet the standard political conventions (read: “norms”) haven’t adjusted to a person like this, and so basically half of the political machine in the U.S.—politicians, pundits and others who inform far too many people in the country—end up spending full days thinking of why all the things you see on TV or read about him are wrong, or don’t matter. Trump is the best at it, of course, but him defending himself from the (*grand waving gesture indicating everyone who has ever said anything bad about him*) fake news, well, that comes from a different place, somewhere more primal, like an animal trying to stay alive. David Roth, the Thompson to Trump’s Nixon, called him “the president of blank sucking nullity.”
“The most significant thing to know about Donald Trump’s politics or process, his beliefs or his calculations, is that he is an asshole; the only salient factor in any decision he makes is that he absolutely does not care about the interests of the parties involved except as they reflect upon him. Start with this, and you already know a lot. Start with this, and you already know that there are no real answers to any of these questions.”
Which is I guess comforting, but also sad. Once you manage to get a clear-eyed look at things, I think you’ll realize there’s nothing to see. It’s just emptiness all the way down.
 You remember when Romney said his favourite meat was “hot dog” at a campaign dinner? “And, everyone says, oh, don’t you prefer steak? It’s like, I know steaks are great, but I like hot dog best, and I like hamburger next best,” said the man with a net worth of $250 million.
 Pus-guzzling jokes and all.
 I know this sort of talk opens me up to the familiar criticisms around elitism. I understand there are many people who love Donald Trump and give him (largely undeserved) credit for many things that have a far more direct and powerful impact on their lives than the latest scandal du jour. Say I’m a coal miner who still has a job and who hears Trump talking about saving my job all the time, I wouldn’t want to listen to some ivory tower egghead in some liberal cosmopolitan enclave (or whatever cartoonish idea I have about journalists) try to tell me why this guy who (I think) saved my job is actually bad because of some bad thing he’s done that doesn’t affect me, and then listen to these same people tell me I’m wrong not to care about it. I get that. The problem with this is that it a) assumes that there aren’t writers/journalists significantly closer to home (in both geography and attitude) who aren’t trying to uncover truths that do affect me, the coal miner; and b) suggests that the word of a single proven pathological liar is worth more than that of large professional groups whose very existence depends on delivering the truth accurately. If you don’t agree, consider the consequences for individual journalists and their organizations when they get something wrong vs. the consequences (read: lack thereof) for Donald Trump.
 Patton Oswalt actually has a joke about this in which Mr. Trump is a demented homeless man who shits on the street, and before the comedian is able to tell a joke about his shitting on the street, Mr. Trump is already wearing his own fecal matter as a sombrero.
Guns are scary, which is why I can't understand why so many people aren't scared of them
The atmosphere at a gun range is never not tense. If you’re a seasoned “operator,” to use the parlance of gun people, you are in all likelihood strictly intolerant of any nonsense of any kind because you respect these tools of death. If you’re a novice, you quickly learn why these people are this way. You don’t even have to shoot the gun. You just have to be near one when it goes off and you immediately understand why everyone’s balls are in their throat. And if you have any sense, yours are there too.
Recently, I went to a gun range north of Toronto, and there were a few things that surprised me. I remember, for example, that you could hear the sounds of the shots over the car engine as you drove down the street towards the range—something that might not be remarkable except this was an indoor range. The sound gets progressively sphincter-tightening as you get closer. The front shop is separated from the actual range by double soundproofed doors, at least one of which must remain closed at all times, otherwise the customers would be at constant risk of a burst eardrum. Ear gear on the range is a given, but the instructors also wear face masks, because the lead gets in the air and becomes poisonous after a while.
When you’re shooting the instructors stand right behind you. They load and ready the gun and offer stern reminders if the barrel begins to wander anywhere that is not the target. The shells that are ejected from gun with each shot are scorching hot and have been known, on occasion, to fall down a shirt or, horrifically, behind one’s eyeglasses.
They told us at the outset that whatever pain or injury this might cause, we are not to panic. The absolute last thing we should do is to forget about the gun in our hand.
Before we got to shooting we were all escorted into a classroom where they explained all this, and shared a few other unsettling facts. Like for example, on the pistols, the firing mechanism claps back towards the shooter at about 1,000 feet per second. This mechanism passes just centimetres above the pin meant to protect your hand, and if your hand is in the wrong place, it’s not pretty. The instructors demonstrated this on these polyurethane models which were sitting on these tables at the front of the room. Before the instructors arrived, none of us touched them. Except one guy.
This guy was, as I later overheard the instructors calling him, “a cowboy” but he might be better known to you or me as “an idiot.” He came in to the classroom and, in front of a room of total strangers, picked up the model gun and began pretend-firing it, like a kid who just saw Scarface. He—a grown man—did this totally unprompted. Once we actually got on the range, he quickly volunteered to shoot one of the pistols first, which he picked up, barely-aimed and shot like a video-game carjacker, and that was when the instructor decided his day at the range was over. He wasn’t allowed to touch another gun after that.
Anyways, the point of all this is that these things (the guns) were intimidating. There was never a moment when we felt truly comfortable, and we knew that anyone who did was doing something wrong. For me personally, it took all of my focus just to stop my hands from shaking as I squeezed the trigger. And I’ve fired guns before.
People talk about guns being “fun” which I understand but also think is kind of fucked up. Their value as a toy is in direct proportion to the facility with which they can end a life. A shotgun or a rifle is more fun to shoot than a pistol, but it’s not as much fun to shoot as a grenade launcher.
The ironic part is that the thing that makes it fun is also, typically, what makes us feel safe. You feel better when you have a bigger gun, even if it’s only as a deterrent for people with smaller guns.
You see how this works: Maybe you get into guns because they’re fun, but eventually you feel like you need that gun, and you’re willing to allow for the possibility that lots of other people who probably shouldn’t have guns will have guns so you can have yours. You see, so you can protect yourself from them. If you’re American (they’re usually American) you’ll defend your right to have that gun by clinging dogmatically to constitutional documents; documents written by people who lived in a time when men earnestly challenged their rivals to duels, and for whom the term “heavy ammunition” meant a cannonball. It doesn’t matter whether you and your guns, however big, could actually defend yourself from a government intent on harming you (as the people who wrote those documents intended). The point is you feel vulnerable without them. And those stats about how you’re far more likely to harm yourself with your own gun than anyone else, well, that’s not you, is it…
This is the problem with guns. It is also, as a way of thinking, so self-evidently misguided that I find it incredible it hasn’t occurred to every single person who has ever held a gun before. There are good reasons to have a gun, but keeping yourself safe is not one of them. Because guns are not safe.
My first time shooting was at a hunt camp about seven years ago, where my cousin was celebrating his 30th birthday. His father-in-law, Rocco, is a proficient hunter, and the protagonist of many entertaining stories. My personal favourite is the one about the porcupine who was eating his deck for weeks until one day, Rocco exacted terrible revenge in the bleary-eyed hours of the morning when, wearing nothing but boxer shorts and boots, he kicked open the front door and blew away the critter mid-meal.
That weekend we went skeet shooting, target shooting, and hunting, and while I wasn’t supposed to be shooting any animals I was buttering up Rocco most of the weekend so he would let me. I didn’t actually want to kill something, it was more like I felt like I had to, to understand what it was like. I am (and you are too, probably) indirectly responsible for the deaths of many, many animals on a fairly regular basis, and I felt that doing the deed myself was a kind of moral obligation.
Rocco told us about all the things that could go wrong with the gun before anyone shot anything. We were all appropriately on edge during the skeet shooting while some of us rookies tried to work the safety. At one point, Rocco told me about the older generation of Italian hunters who would walk using the gun as a bastone, the muzzle downward in the dirt like a walking stick, and how they didn’t seem particularly worried about the fact that a clogged muzzle increased the likelihood of blowing off the aiming part of your face. When we did finally go hunting, Rocco let me hold the gun as we walked, trusting I would be decisive and take the shot when something worth shooting came into view.
After failing to take said shot several times, I started to get antsy. Then someone in our group pointed out something rustling in the tree directly behind us. Following Rocco’s prompt, I wheeled around and fired the shotgun into the branches overhead, killing what I didn’t realize at the time, was a bird.
To say I “shot” the bird wouldn’t really be accurate. As my cousin pointed out, I was probably close enough to kill it using the gun as a club, plus the bird, whose body was probably slightly larger than a man’s fist, appeared to catch the bulk of the buckshot. I picked up the tail, which appeared to be the only part still intact. The other parts were scattered metres apart on the forest floor and camouflaged by the leaves and dirt sticking to the blood.
I remember feeling nauseous and guilty, but more importantly I felt kind of shocked. My expectations about what a gun can do didn’t match what I saw it do. We’ve all seen it in movies: The bang, the smoking barrel, the person dropped by the force of the shot. But that’s not real, and I don’t think there’s anything that can prepare you for what those pieces of lead exiting that muzzle can do to flesh. My experiences since haven’t convinced me I would have been any more prepared if my target happened to be bigger or farther away than that bird was.
That’s why killing something fucking devastated me. It was so easy, and the damage the gun inflicted was inversely related to how easy it was. Walking back to the camp, my mind ran through all the scenarios in all the darker universes of the things this gun could do to me or my compatriots with very little action from the person holding it. Killing that bird didn’t make me feel in powerful or in control or whatever. Instead it created this sense of dread—that, despite the safety precautions, we were always dangerously close to losing control.
Here is the way some doctors describe the effect that bullets have on the human body, as told to the New York Times after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida: “Bones are exploded, soft tissue is absolutely destroyed…bystanders are traumatized just seeing the victims”; “the exit wounds can be a foot wide…I’ve seen people with entire quadrants of their abdomens destroyed.” One talked about a victim who had a tiny entry wound in the front of her leg where the bullet had entered. When she turned on her side, the physician saw that the entire back of her thigh was gone.
Granted, these are descriptions of military-style rifles, whose bullets travel twice as fast as ordinary handguns, and whose shockwaves blow through the body leaving massive cavities in their wake. But the fact is most guns, with few exceptions, are designed to kill or maim whatever they are shot at. Bullets from handguns still pierce and rupture muscle, bone, and viscera. The difference between these and a military rifle is one of effectiveness, not of purpose.
But you and I, Mr. Gun Person, can probably agree on most of this. We don’t differ in our opinion about how devastating bullets are. And, unless shooting things has made you cold and dead inside, you’d probably even agree that you never really get used to inflicting that kind of damage on a living thing.
What we disagree on is how likely it is that you, as someone who frequently handles guns, will come into contact with a bullet. What we disagree on is whether these tools are inherently dangerous—that this danger exists apart from the person operating them. You respect the bullet, of course. No nonsense. But while you might be slightly nervous around gun rookies, and you might fear people with guns who mean you harm, you do not fear the machine itself. I think you should.