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Kefka’s Million Deaths is a Statistic

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Dancing Mad: How a Video Game Character Came to be the Standard by Which I Measure All Villains (The Mary Sue)

SPOILER WARNING: This blog gives away major plot elements of the video games Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the gaming world will be forever divided into two camps: Those who believe Final Fantasy VII is the greatest video game of all time, and those who are wrong. Okay, that’s more than a little hyperbolic, and I don’t really mean it, but I think it’s safe to say that Final Fantasy VII, as arguable as the quality of its strengths and innovations may be, remains one of the most divisive video games ever made, inspiring spirited debates about elements both within the game and compared to other games (both inside and outside the Final Fantasy series) that are still going on over seventeen years since the game’s first Japanese and American release. There hasn’t been another Final Fantasy title that has inspired the sheer volume of debate over its merits.

When comparing Final Fantasy VII to other titles in the series, Final Fantasy VI is the title that invariably gets brought up. Not only were the two titles released relatively close to one another, but they were the two console RPGs that turned the genre into something truly mature, with characters and storylines that began approaching those found in literature. The games also share enough themes in common that they kind of invite comparison. As much as I try to adopt a “live and let live” attitude towards these kinds of debates, though, there’s still a part of me that gets drawn into arguments about Final Fantasy VII, particularly those that try to argue Final Fantasy VI is better in some way. It’s the same part of me that gives my students a handout of “some really, really good music” at the start of every semester because I’m still a bit of a music snob; it’s not a part of myself that I’m proud of, but at least I can admit that it’s there and it shouldn’t be.

To be clear, I think Final Fantasy VI is one of the best video games ever made. In my opinion, though, it was more evolutionary than revolutionary, and ultimately I’d even rank Final Fantasy IV (even with its myriad flaws) above Final Fantasy VI when it comes to the Super NES/Super Famicom games. A full discussion of the merits of Final Fantasy VII over Final Fantasy VI would probably end up being close to book-length, and even I don’t have the enthusiasm for a project like that, so for the purpose of brevity let’s just focus on the merits of Final Fantasy VI’s main villain Kefka, as written about by Sara Goodwin in the article above, versus those of Final Fantasy VII’s Sephiroth.

Kefka has always enjoyed a sizable fanbase because of his character design and psychotic, unpredictable behaviour; I’m not sure there’s been a good parallel to Kefka in broader pop culture except for Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, which came well over a decade later. Whereas Ledger’s Joker character had well-planned comic moments, though, Kefka’s comedy comes mostly from the kinds of lines that we were getting, albeit inadvertently, in previous Final Fantasy titles due to translation issues. (Final Fantasy IV’s “You spoony bard!” may be the most transcendent bad line in video game history.) Between that and Kefka’s evil behaviour before his gradual descent into insanity, Kefka ultimately comes across as one-dimensional, just an evil guy who gets more and more crazy as the game goes on. Contrast that with Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII learning during his time in SOLDIER that he’s the result of a bizarre medical experiment by Shinra Corporation, which ties into the game’s themes of man versus nature in a way that ultimately, even given all the horrible things Sephiroth does later, makes him something of a sympathetic character. Even by the standards of the time, Kefka was just too generic of a “pure evil” character, especially when put side-by-side with Sephiroth.

Looking at Kefka’s character arc more closely, the fact that Goodwin uses the phrase “Whedon-worthy” as a compliment almost makes me want to dismiss her arguments off-hand. She talks about the reveal of Kefka being the actual villain of the game instead of Emperor Gestahl as if it were an unprecedented twist, even though Square had done the same thing in Final Fantasy IV years earlier with Zemus and Golbez. Plot twists can be wonderful when they’re used sparingly and to good effect, but Kefka’s actions, apart from being a couple of degrees darker than what had been seen in previous Final Fantasy games, weren’t really that remarkable. The killing of General Leo, in particular, lacked any emotional impact because they literally introduced his character about four minutes before killing him off. (As for that being somehow unprecedented, has no one heard of Miami Vice? Seriously, the way some Whedon fanatics talk, you’d think the man singlehandedly invented surprise, when all he did was overuse plot twists and fourth wall-breaking so self-consciously that his shows descended almost immediately into sad self-parody, and not the funny kind of self-parody, either. By the time I finally forced myself to watch his “brown” series, I was not only able to predict all the plot twists before they happened, but about half the dialogue as well.) Compare that to Final Fantasy VII, where the first half of the game is spent building up Aeris as a central character to the narrative so that when Sephiroth kills her, we care (oh do we care) to the point where not only is Aeris’ death unquestionably one of the most iconic scenes in video game history, but it’s often talked about as the first video game scene that made players cry. Even after all these years, that scene still hasn’t lost its emotional impact.

One of the thing that sets Kefka apart from other Final Fantasy villains, and one which Goodwin spends a great deal of space talking about, is the fact that Kefka is ultimately successful, halfway through the game, of largely destroying the world, leaving only a handful of survivors. As a plot device this was unprecedented (in video games), yes, but again, the potential emotional impact of this is lost by the fact that the pre-apocalypse world wasn’t really developed that well to start with, and most of the characters you know who die in the game do so before the apocalypse. It creates stark visuals, but little else; players aren’t going to get emotionally invested in “that NPC near the flowers who talked about wanting to travel the world but isn’t there now.” The old line about a single death being a tragedy but a million deaths being a statistic is true; there’s just no reason for players to really care about Kefka’s apocalypse, whereas Aeris’ death in Final Fantasy VII invests not only the protagonist Cloud, but players as well, with a desire to see Sephiroth pay for what he’s done. It doesn’t help that the second half of Final Fantasy VI has very little in the way of narrative structure, in order to give players options in terms of which party members they seek out after the apocalypse to defeat Kefka; what that mechanic gains in open-ended storytelling, it more than loses in its inability to further develop Kefka, whereas Sephiroth continues to develop after killing Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, all the way up to the game’s final battle.

The epilogue after the game’s final battle also shows the danger of having a villain succeed in his apocalyptic vision. Final Fantasy VI doesn’t even have that much of an ending (again, a tradeoff the game developers made when they wanted to let players decide which party members to bring back for the quest to defeat Kefka, since it was basically impossible to write developed endings for all possible party setups), but in the end it feels hollow. There’s no ability to travel back in time and undo all the damage and killing Kefka has done; the world is still a shell of its former self, just a shell that no longer has the big villain to deal with any longer. Contrast that with Final Fantasy VII’s ending, where even after Sephiroth’s death the players still have to watch Meteor rapidly approaching the planet, and players are left with a couple of deliberately ambiguous scenes that allowed them to wonder whether or not the world was saved, and if so, how (possibly even by the dead Aeris). That possibility that the world wasn’t ultimately destroyed by Sephiroth’s actions gave players a sense of really accomplishing something, whereas Final Fantasy VI just ended without a palpable sense of fulfillment.

All of this is just my subjective opinion, of course, and I try not to get involved in these kinds of debates because I do get more involved in them than I should, for reasons I still don’t understand completely. I don’t mean to tick off fans of Final Fantasy VI, and I don’t know what compelled me to respond to Goodwin’s article like this. Maybe I just needed a break from talking about politics for a bit. Still, I had to say something, so there you go.

A Thousand Racist Words

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‘Beyond Outraged’ Family Of Michael Brown & Their Attorneys Release Statement (Huffington Post)

One of the few times President Obama has been out-and-out defeated in his presidency came earlier this March, when he nominated lawyer Debo Adegbile to oversee the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Republicans, as with nearly every action Obama has undertaken during his presidency, mounted a vigorous opposition to Adegbile’s nomination, seizing on the fact that he had once been part of a defence team that had successfully worked to commute the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been convicted in 1981 of the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Setting aside the controversy over whether or not Abu-Jamal actually committed the murder, it has always been common practice, when considering a lawyer’s ability to serve in higher office, the quality of performance in the court, not whom the lawyer represents. For example, Chief Justice John Roberts, before he became a justice, did pro bono work for welfare recipients and GLBT activists, but no one opposed his nomination to the Supreme Court on those grounds. Heck, John Adams, our second president and a conservative lion, defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. Still, the right-wing media pulled out all the stops to oppose Adegbile, and in the end convinced enough conservative Democrats to break away from President Obama to outright defeat Adegbile’s nomination in the Senate, despite the dangerous precedent this will set in terms of how aspiring lawyers choose which clients to represent.

Fox News, in particular, waged a month-long campaign against Adegbile’s nomination, running several segments attacking him throughout his confirmation process. As many pointed out after his nomination was defeated, though, there was a very telling thing about those segments. If you watched the Fox News segments but didn’t hear the audio, most of the time you were just watching this African-American prisoner, often walking around in chains. When you watched with the sound on, though, the word you heard most often was Adegbile’s, not Abu-Jamal’s. It was an obvious, facile attempt to link Adegbile to the dominant conservative stereotype about African-American men, so that when people in the right-wing media bubble heard his name they didn’t think of a mixed-race lawyer, but instead thought big scary black man who’s gonna rape and murder our womenfolk. Say what you will about it, but it worked, and the taint of this character assassination is probably going to follow Adegbile for the rest of his professional life, and possibly his personal life as well.

When the initial news of Michael Brown’s death came out last weekend, I wish I could say that the details — how he wasn’t armed, how he had his hands up in a gesture of surrender when he was gunned down by a policeman — shocked me that much. There was certainly a good deal of anger; I was a fan of rap music in the 1980s, and so I saw things like the Rodney King beating and the 2 Live Crew obscenity arrests through that prism. (The latter was what not only got me involved in identity politics, but politics as a whole.) It isn’t just what African-Americans have suffered at the hands of the police and the justice system, either, because I had the same reaction when Columbus police went after my friends at Antioch when they protested John Kasich’s proposed student aid cuts, and what Cecily McMillan of Occupy Wall Street went through at the hands of the NYPD. Still, the deep problems African-Americans have with the American justice system deserve special attention, but we’ve reached a point where they are now so commonplace that sometimes it’s hard to get angry unless it happens to one of your friends, or it happens in your own town.

As the days following Brown’s death passed, though, the scenes from Ferguson just got grimmer and grimmer. Police officers in military camouflage and body armor, pointing sniper rifles at peaceful protesters, choking whole neighbourhoods with tear gas, acting with seeming impunity, broadcast to the whole world some of the worst of what America is. You’ve probably heard all the statistics about how African-Americans make up two-thirds of Ferguson’s population but less than a tenth of its police force, but to me the most damning facts to come out of the police escalation were from former American soldiers who pointed out that Ferguson police had more body armor than some of the first troops who invaded Iraq a decade ago, and that they weren’t allowed to point their weapons at protesting Iraqis. That says a lot about how many (certainly not all) police treat African-Americans.

The Ferguson police’s reaction to the protesters also adds to a very troubling pattern of police response to liberal and conservative protests over the past year. The most obvious example that came to mind during the Ferguson police response was the reaction to the standoff at Cliven Bundy’s ranch this past spring, where anti-government protesters pointed assault weapons at federal agents who were confiscating the property of a rancher who had repeatedly broken the law over several years by not paying grazing fees when he let his cattle graze on federal lands. Instead of bringing in tanks and other military items in the face of this armed far-right resistance, like Ferguson police did with the peaceful protesters there, the feds backed down and allowed Bundy to continue to graze his cattle for free on federal lands. More recently, anti-immigration protesters were allowed to prevent a bus full of Central American refugee children from going to a processing station in California without police interference, but when liberal protesters in Detroit used similar tactics to try to stop water trucks from shutting off service to needy Detroiters, they were arrested. If police at a Tea Party rally had pointed their guns at protesters, does anyone doubt that the police would have been blamed for the shootout that would have inevitably followed?

The situation in Ferguson got better on Thursday when the Missouri State Highway Patrol took over policing duties in the city and allowed the protesters full legal exercise of their First Amendment rights. Things were looking up that day, but then Friday the Ferguson police dropped a bombshell on everyone by releasing video allegedly showing Michael Brown stealing cigars from a convenience store and intimidating one of the employees. Putting the racial dynamic aside for a moment, the tactic here is as old as the judicial system itself: The police wanted to put Brown on trial in the court of public opinion, thus deflecting attention away from what their own police officer did. Regardless of what Brown did, nothing justifies shooting an unarmed person, with their hands up in a gesture of surrender, and the fact that the police continue to withhold so much information about the shooting just raises more and more questions about whether or not they’re trying to hide something. All of this would be true, as many have pointed out, regardless of the colour of Michael Brown’s skin.

Once the video was released, though, it was instantly in a near-constant loop in all of right-wing media, because it gave them the angle they needed to satiate their viewers’ most base instincts. From Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to the birtherism crowd, conservatives have been preying on white conservatives’ fears with only the slightest gossamer of deniability draped over their efforts. We saw this most recently with Trayvon Martin, when right-wing media went into overdrive to try to pick out any small problems in Trayvon’s past to hold up as alleged examples of how evil he was, then plastered video screens with the most sinister-looking pictures of Trayvon they could find. The video of Brown allegedly intimidating a store clerk and stealing cigars, even if it doesn’t directly exculpate the police officer who killed him, will be enough justification for many right-wingers because even if Brown didn’t deserve to die at that moment then he was going to deserve it soon anyway because he was obviously going to turn into a gang member, a drug dealer, another violent n***** who was going to rape and murder their wives and daughters, “just like the rest of them.”

I almost spelled the n-word out there because I’m getting tired of softening the ugliness of this kind of racism. I’m sick of all this talk about the “soft racism” of conservatives, as if something as horrible as racism can even be softened. Yes, southerners may no longer be rapturously smiling to cameras in front of lynched African-Americans, but you know what? African-Americans are still being murdered. Michael Brown is dead, Trayvon Martin is dead, and as long as we allow this so-called “soft racism” to persist without a vocal and sustained response, it’s just going to mean more African-American parents burying their teenage kids, murdered by people who have been led to believe by right-wing media that they’re doing the country a service. The n-word may not be on their lips, but it’s damn sure on their minds.

I don’t condone looting or other acts of stealing or violence in response to what the Ferguson police have done this past week, but if you don’t understand why Ferguson residents, and people across America, are coming out in such large numbers and protesting what happened to Michael Brown so loudly, then you don’t understand the problem at all. If we don’t raise our voices then the next young African-American man to get gunned down in an American street could be one of our friends, or someone in our own family. Staying silent is no longer an option.

Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid (or the Water)

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Erie algae crisis a long time growing (Journal Gazette)
Toxic algae crisis isn’t over for Lake Erie or the nation (Globe Newswire via Yahoo! Finance)

For all that this past weekend’s water emergency in the Toledo area made international news, for all that a couple of our local television stations spent most of the weekend in live non-stop news coverage, this “crisis” didn’t wind up being much more than a very big, very widespread inconvenience while it was going on. There haven’t been any reports of major illness stemming from the problems with the water system, and there weren’t any significant criminal problems either. There will be a significant financial hit from a lost weekend for many businesses, of course, but that’s the kind of thing we can start sorting out now that we’ve got drinkable water again. It was significant, yes, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

That said, it shouldn’t have happened at all, and now that a reasonable period of time has passed since we got the all-clear to drink the water again, I have a lot to get off of my chest. I don’t often write about environmental issues here, but they are of deep concern to me, not just as a nature photographer and a hippie but as a resident of this planet who has kind of a vested interest in seeing the planet, you know, survive.

Let me start with a couple of local gripes. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Marcy Kaptur, but she was spot-on during the crisis when she said that the city needed to release the testing results for the mitocystin toxin. All we were told at first was that the water had tested at 2.1 parts per billion of microcystin (and that 1 ppb is the limit for safe drinking water), and then we never got more numbers, even as we were told that the numbers were “improving” in later tests. This is information that should be, if it already isn’t, readily accessible to the public (especially water customers like us, and let me point out that the city forced my neighbourhood to switch from well water to city water several years ago, despite the flooding problems we’ve had since), and the need for that information has not diminished now that we’re “out of the woods.” The city should be testing for microcystin for as long as this algae bloom lasts, and publishing the results online each and every day, so those of us who have to use the water system know just what we’re putting into our bodies.

Secondly, I’ve yet to hear a good reason why EAS wasn’t activated during the water crisis. I’ve lost count of the number of times my cable box has cut away from something I’m trying to watch, and my cell phone has screeched at me, just to let me know an AMBER Alert has been issued all the way across the state, but that’s an inconvenience I’m more than willing to accept provided that the system is activated and works properly during a crisis like this. Yes, we live in a constantly-connected world of social media and such these days, but if the city had sent out an EAS bulletin when the do-not-drink order was first issued then I wouldn’t have brushed my teeth with the contaminated water about an hour later. The only reason I found out about the alert that night was because I got out of bed to pee right when my housemate read a story about it online. About forty-eight hours later, as another press conference kept getting pushed further and further back into the night, I had to keep insipid celebrity gossip shows on my television while I waited to hear if we were going to get the all-clear before sunrise. I can’t think of a good reason to explain why EAS never broadcast a single bulletin during the crisis.

Now for the larger concerns. Here’s an informative video report about the Lake Erie algae problem from Al-Jazeera America:

If anything in this video captures your attention (which I hope it does), consider this: That video was filmed last year. The algae problem was already that bad a year ago, and the irony is that this year’s algae bloom is actually smaller than last year’s; we just had the lousy luck of other environmental conditions causing more algae to go through the intake valve of one of the region’s biggest water treatment plants. In fact, last year’s algae bloom caused Carroll Township here in Ohio to institute a similar drinking water ban. What happened this past weekend happened here in this state less than a year ago, albeit on a smaller scale. These blooms have been happening every summer for a decade now, and all those images from space of neon green swirls in Lake Erie are nothing new.

I own up to not paying enough attention to local environmental news lately, but there have certainly been enough environmental disasters so far this year to keep me occupied. In January a chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River left about 300,000 residents without potable water for over a week. The following month North Carolina’s Dan River was polluted with toxic coal ash that remained in the water until cleanup efforts ended just a few weeks ago. In April several train cars containing crude oil derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia and caught fire; this happened after a similar incident in North Dakota on New Year’s Eve last year, and a much more tragic oil train explosion in Quebec that killed forty-seven people earlier that year. This doesn’t even get into any ongoing issues caused by fracking or GMO farming, among other environmental issues.

The decreased visibility of the environmental movement over the past fifteen years can be attributed to a number of factors, but one of the most pernicious is the ridiculous conservative stereotype of environmentalists as “tree huggers” overly concerned with saving Brazilian rain forests or endangered species half a world away, advancing the notion — certainly proven false by the water emergency and all the crises mentioned above — that environmental problems are not American problems. This stereotype persists to the point where even when environmentalists are proven right, such as the many who predicted that the overuse of chemical fertilizers would cause the excessive nitrogen runoff into Lake Erie that feeds the algae blooms, they’re still marginalized at best, and usually completely ignored except for the same conservative lampooning that they’ve endured since before I was born.

When conservatives aren’t trying to ludicrously game the system — insisting on 50/50 debates about the reality of man-made climate change despite the wealth of evidence against them, all the while demanding that the suppositions underpinning their core beliefs (tax cuts for the rich benefit everyone, life begins at conception) never be challenged — they’re trying to pretend that so many of these problems affecting America don’t even exist. Republicans in Washington, and in states coast to coast, continue to slash funding for environmental studies in order to make it harder to even study the short- and long-term harm caused by all these environmental problems. After all, it isn’t really a problem if no one can name it as a problem, right?

This doesn’t even touch on the right-wing media bubble so many Americans live in, where these stories never get talked about except in wildly distorted versions to provide a break between the “Hillary Clinton laughed as Americans died in Benghazi” and “liberals want to put Christians in concentration camps” stories. Denialism has been elevated to a whole new level in the lands of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Rupert Murdoch, where anything that doesn’t fit in with these archconservatives’ predetermined conclusions — whether we’re talking about President Obama’s birth certificate or dead Sandy Hook Elementary School students — is dismissed as unreal and evidence of a “left-wing conspiracy” against the “real” Americans. I am honestly surprised that I haven’t been able to find some online community somewhere claiming that the algae in Lake Erie is some kind of liberal trickery, that our drinking water was just fine and that this weekend’s crisis was really a secret plot to brainwash Americans. Then again, given how much money right-wingers are making from all these conspiracy theories (gold investments, survival food, stockpiling weapons), it’s probably only a matter of time before the “algae truthers” start making the talk radio circuit.

Speaking of money, I’m guessing it won’t be long before local media is inundated with advertisements for home microcystin testing kits, most of which will probably be the 21st century equivalent of snake oil. The worst part is that this is completely emblematic of one of the largest problems with modern conservative ideology: If you can make money off a problem, it’s not really a problem at all. Any discussion of regulating farming practices to stop the overuse of chemical fertilizers, which would starve these algae blooms of the nitrogen they need to grow as big as they have, will be killed by Congressional Republicans in a heartbeat because they’ll claim that no matter what harm these blooms cause the general public, we can’t possibly impinge on the “freedom” of these big corporate farms to make as much money as possible. If the same companies feeding off conservative fearmongering can make some extra bucks by selling home microcystin testing kits to Toledoans, well, that’s just more proof that “the system is working.”

I don’t think living with your head continuously buried in the sand is any way to go about life, but that’s just my opinion. What these conservatives are trying to do, though, is force all of us to bury our heads in the sand with them, and I’m completely fed up with it. What happened here in Toledo last weekend could have been avoided, and now it’s going to take years, at best, to get the algae problem back under control. There will surely be more do-not-drink advisories coming in the years ahead, if not later this summer, and now we all have to stock up on bottled water and paper plates. Just like oil train crashes, just like increased seismic activity and flammable tap water in fracking zones, we are all being expected to accept this as “the new normal,” and I categorically refuse to do that.

If Republicans are going to keep destroying the environment despite the very real and immediate damage they’re causing, and if Democrats are too timid to go after conservatives on this issue (among others), then it is up to the rest of us to organize and educate and do everything else in our legal power to prevent more of America from going through what Toledo went through this past weekend, or worse. No matter how much money conservatives pump into their media bubble, we have to be louder than they are. Too much is at stake to do anything less.

Spinning My Wheels

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There have been times when I’ve had to rush just to get a blog up so I don’t go a whole calendar month without blogging, but I’ve never had to do it under this level of sleep deprivation. My life has gotten incredibly hectic in the past few months, and even though I’m on break from teaching for the next two and a half weeks, I’ve got so many other things I need to get to while I’m on “vacation” that I’m not getting much of a chance to really focus on anything here at all. The worst part is that I’ve had stuff I’ve wanted to blog about (the absurd situation with Detroit’s water, the inhumane conservative response to the Central American refugee crisis), but I haven’t had time, and now that I have the time right now, I just don’t have the focus to write about those things because I’m so sleep-deprived. All I can really do right now is ramble about my life for a bit, stick it up on the .org, and hope that I feel ready to write about more in-depth topics soon.

It hasn’t helped that this has been the worst summer I can ever remember having in terms of my seasonal allergies. This part of the country was in the news a lot this past winter for how cold it got, but we’ve had a much cooler summer than usual as well, and I think that’s led to me having more problems with pollen and such than I’m used to having. I can only afford the short-term remedies of over-the counter allergy medications, and even they don’t seem to be doing as much good as they normally do. Between that and the sleep-deprivation today, it feels like I have my own personal fog cloud enveloping my head, going with me wherever I go. It’s not a fun feeling, needless to say.

I’m also coming off of one of the most difficult semesters of teaching I’ve ever had. This past semester was the first time I had to teach a class made up exclusively of students in one particular programme at the college, and that created more challenges than I’d thought it would. I normally like challenges when I teach — if it came easily to me, I’d know I wasn’t doing it right — but I got overwhelmed there, to the point where I was more relieved than sad to see the term end, which has never happened before. The good news is that it’s yielded a lot of material for me to write about in my professional writing, but the bad news is that it took a lot out of me, and I haven’t been able to recharge my batteries on my break so far. With the new term less than three weeks away — and me needing to come up with new material for a course I’ve never taught before — I feel like I could be in some real trouble.

Speaking of writing, there have been some setbacks with The Prostitutes of Lake Wobegon that I need to write about on my Patreon soon, but that will have to wait for another day. In the meantime I’ve been trying to work on other projects that will be easier for me to self-publish, but I think I started too many of those, and then I wasn’t able to work on any of them for awhile as I dug myself out of this last semester. Now I can’t seem to pick up the thread on any of them, and I’ve got so much work to do to get ready for this next semester that I’m not sure if I’ll even be able to get back to that many of them before the fall semester begins.

In site news, you may have noticed the lack of Amazon banners in recent posts. Amazon wound up canceling my Associates account for lack of activity, so now all those links I’ve posted here since the dawn of the .org will no longer yield me any money. I need to look into another affiliate programme to use here to help me pay the bills for the .org, but that isn’t exactly a huge priority for me with everything else I’ve got on my plate at the present moment.

I think “discouragement” has been a huge word in my life for these past few months. I’ve had to deal with a good number of setbacks, I haven’t been happy with how well I’ve handled a number of important tasks, and there’s certainly been a lot of bad stuff going on in the world to make it hard to be optimistic about much of anything. It hasn’t helped that I’ve basically gone into hermit mode again, not meeting up with any of my friends for longer than I care to remember. I know that I need to work at turning things around because I can’t count on them turning around on their own, but that’s hard to do when your brain is muddled from lack of sleep, your eyes are puffy from pollen and even writing a half-assed blog like this is a struggle.

At least I got it written, though, so I can cross that off of my to-do list. That’s something, anyway. More blogs to come soon, I hope.

Time to Occupy Government

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Conservative lobby group behind push to lower minimum wage, report says (The Guardian)
In 33 U.S. Cities, It’s Illegal to Do the One Thing That Helps the Homeless Most (mic.com)

Just because you don’t hear that many news stories about the Occupy movement these days doesn’t mean that they’re not still active. Although the television-friendly encampments of a few years ago may be gone, the people and energy of Occupy have moved towards grassroots movements to better people’s conditions. These might not make for what television news producers think will get them ratings — they only want to cover the guy who punches a little old lady in the face, not the one who helps her across the street — but it’s still important work, even if few people (outside of those it directly helps) ever hear about it.

There are a couple of very good reasons for liberals to engage in these on-the-ground efforts: First of all, there’s no getting around the fact that the United States right now is, among developed countries, very conservative, and electoral change is a slow process. Even in an absolute pipe dream scenario for liberals, the Green Party could not gain control of both the executive and legislative branches until 2017 at the earliest (which would assume winning literally every Senate race they run both this year and in 2016), and then they’d still have to deal with a very unfriendly Supreme Court even if some of its conservatives stepped down. Given the entrenched positions both the Republican and Democratic parties hold in this country, for the Green Party to win even one seat in Washington in that time would be considered nothing short of a miracle. Electoral success, when and if it does come for liberals, will likely be slow.

That problem dovetails into the other main reason to seek ways to achieve liberal outcomes outside of the government: Too many Americans, and too many people worldwide, are suffering too much at this very moment for liberals not to try to alleviate their suffering by the quickest possible means. For all the talk of rising stock markets and shrinking budget deficits and lower unemployment rates, those numbers obscure the very real pain so many Americans are under right now, to say nothing of what the spread of American corporatism is doing to citizens of other countries. As much as I enjoy the “what-if” mental games of projecting the next two elections (and we’re being positively inundated with it right now thanks to Hillary Clinton’s book tour), every minute spent talking about the 2016 presidential election, or even this year’s midterms, is a minute spent not talking about the very current and very real problems Americans are facing because their unemployment insurance has been cut off, or they can only get part-time work and can’t afford to make their mortgage payments, or they can’t work full time because federal support for their kids’ after-school programme has been cut and they need to go home to supervise their children. There are far too many of these problems, and they are too pressing to leave for 2015 or 2017, so that makes it even more important for conscientious Americans of all political stripes to do what they can, privately, to help those in need.

Unfortunately, conservatives aren’t happy with just cutting off government support to those who need help. A new wave of legislation is now preventing even private Americans from helping each other out, and it’s looking more and more like it will necessitate liberals, despite the odds, getting involved directly in politics at all levels just so they can continue to provide private help to needy Americans.

I may strongly disagree with the conservative notion that public monies shouldn’t be used to provide a basic safety net to our least fortunate citizens (or at least that the net shouldn’t be very big), but I think that point of view does come from a legitimate philosophical concern over the proper role of government. It’s important to have intelligent voices debating these issues in a democracy, so voters have good points of view to consider when they go to the polls. Unfortunately, for too many conservatives the idea of shrinking the safety net is not based in some deep philosophical belief about the size of government, but is merely a convenient excuse to explain their rank selfishness. It doesn’t help that right-wing media actively markets that kind of excuse-making to their listeners.

It’s one thing for conservative lawmakers to use their elected power to chip away at the safety net, even in the face of strong evidence that the safety net needs to be enlarged and not shrunken. (There is a place to argue about the legitimacy of certain election outcomes and the like, but that doesn’t get to the main point of the present debate.) When these lawmakers then go the extra step to curtail how private citizens can help those in need, however, it is not only an incredibly inhumane act to take, but it is a direct impediment to the freedom of citizens of a democracy to act in the way they best see fit. The irony that this new wave of legislation would come from a Republican party that makes so much of “freedom” in their rhetoric, but openly legislates against citizens’ freedoms much of the time, is all too familiar of a refrain. That these restrictions to charity are coming from a Republican party that pathologically wraps itself in the mantle of “Christianity”  is similarly familiar, but still deeply shameful.

The effort to “disappear” homeless people by Republicans — never mind that their own policies are responsible for creating so many homeless people — is yet another example of magickal thinking on their part, that they can avoid a problem simply by making the evidence of that problem disappear. This is one of the greatest strengths of the right-wing media bubble, since it leads to many conservatives simply not knowing of the deleterious effects of conservative policies (and thus ensuring an ever-loyal bloc of voters who can be counted to turn out at every election), but it creates one of the biggest dangers to society at large because it promotes to all citizens the false idea that problems go away if you don’t look at them or think about them, and that can be very dangerous thinking regardless of what ideologies you subscribe to.

Although the effort to stop cities from raising their minimum wage differs somewhat in its form, it comes from the same basic idea.  It should be no surprise that in the wake of the greatest Republican assault on voting rights in a generation, conservative governors are taking away the rights of individual cities, whether by local government action or even popular referendum, to raise the minimum amount of money a resident has the right to earn for their hard work. The $10.10 per hour minimum wage being proposed by President Obama, while certainly an improvement over what we have now, would still result in hundreds of thousands of Americans who work full-time jobs being in poverty. Even raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, as some cities have been courageous enough to do, would still leave too many working Americans unable to provide adequately for themselves. Still, in an increasing number of states, their residents are losing the power to provide even this benefit to the workers in their city because conservatives would rather trod on their freedoms than have people keep and use the ability to improve their lot by raising the local minimum wage.

Because so many conservatives are locked into this idea that it is better to keep a permanent underclass of society to hold up as an example of why the government shouldn’t help the needy, despite the economic harm it causes everyone by lowering the number of consumers in the market and increasing crime and incarceration rates (to say nothing of other harms), the movement to legislate against private charity shouldn’t be all that surprising, especially given how shameless so many conservatives have become about their misanthropy. Still, this marks a new epoch in conservatives’ war against the least fortunate Americans, and there’s no reason to believe that they will stop with just attacks on low-wage workers and the homeless.

I briefly toyed with the idea of running for Congress this year before abandoning it. Part of the reason for that was because Ohio Republicans gerrymandered the heck out of the state after the 2010 midterms, and there’s really no chance of anyone unseating the incumbent Republican. (When he sponsored the most anti-net neutrality bill in Congress earlier this year, though, I had second thoughts about that decision.) More to the point, American politics is a cesspool (and that may be putting it mildly), and while we can argue about how much worse it’s gotten in that regard in my lifetime, I don’t think there’s any question that it has gotten worse. Even with the low profile I’d have as a third-party candidate, I would still have to endure such a high volume of crap during my hypothetical run for office that, at the time, I considered that too big of a drawback when I weighed it against all the potential benefits that might come out of my candidacy, and I decided it was better for me to continue to focus my efforts in the private sphere. This is likely the same thought process that has led many other liberals to shun the nasty world of politics and instead focus on non-political ways of achieving their goals.

If conservatives continue to attack the ability of ordinary Americans to help our least fortunate through private means, though, it may mean that some of us will have no choice but to enter the political arena, despite its fetid stench and the personal hardships we’re likely to endure, just to keep those private avenues open for all Americans. The good news is that this will not mean trying to win a large number of executive positions or majorities in city councils or state houses; we only need to win enough seats to stymie this latest round of Republican attacks. The bad news is that it’s still a very uphill fight, particularly given the deep American groupthink that prevents other parties from challenging the Republican/Democratic duopoly.

Changing electoral politics from within is a dirty, dirty job. In order to protect the most unfortunate Americans from having even private means of support cut off from them, though, it’s looking more and more like someone’s going to have to do it, and that someone is us.