Words Matter

I’ve written about this image before, and the subtle brilliance of the slogan.  The difficulty of revolution, at least for the revolutionaries, is that it ends, and then they must govern.  “Hasta La Victoria Siempre” literally means “Always Towards Victory.” In other words, perpetual revolution, with the finish line receding as you approach it.  That allows someone like Castro to rule a country for his entire life. A well designed slogan is extremely powerful.

Labels are also powerful, but in a different way.  Where “Hasta La Victoria Siempre” is open ended and inclusive, labels are reductive and restricting. They distil an idea, a group, or a person down to one simple idea or a small set of criteria. Sometimes they even do away with ideas and criteria, describing without describing, manipulating by calling up visceral emotions created in the listener at some point in their only vaguely remembered past.

It is especially important to take care when labeling oneself. One of the first questions asked when people meet is “What do you do?”. Most introductions include some kind of label.  “This is my friend Dave, he is a writer.” The introduction or the answer to that question give you a framework from which to begin communication with the person you are meeting. By eliminating outliers and nuance, a label enables one to enter some sort of relationship with the person one is meeting.

If you answer the question “What do you do?” with a long complicated speech about your entire life and how you got here, most people’s eyes will glaze over. If they listened, they might have a fuller picture of the person you are, but most people won’t. So you choose something reductive and simple. “I am a writer,” or “I was a painter, then a photographer, and now I’m writing a novel,” which is similar to what I often say. 

I don’t say “I am a Democrat,” or “I am a Progressive,” unless the conversation is about politics. When I do self label in such a way, a myriad of assumptions are made by the other person regarding everything from my stance on issues to my moral character. Many of those assumptions will be correct, but many others will not, because, unlike a label, a person is nuanced.

Bernie Sanders would be president now if he had not labeled himself as a “Democratic Socialist.” I don’t know why he chose the label.  I can understand it, based on the policies and philosophies he espouses along with my own knowledge of world political history and economic theory. Bernie’s problem is that the word “Socialist” is misunderstood by most people, including his own supporters. Socialism is not Communism. Making our country more Socialist will not turn it into Cuba or Venezuela. It also won’t make us a Swedish paradise.  We already have a lot of Socialism built into our political and economic structure. All these arguments were made in support and explanation of Bernie in both 2016 and 2020. It didn’t matter.

As soon as Bernie, or AOC for that matter, embraced that label, they handed their opponents a cudgel and knelt down to be beaten over the figurative head with it. It is one thing when the Right hurls the label of “Socialism” at every program they don’t like. In doing that, they dilute the word, just as the Left neuters the power of “Fascism” when they use it at every turn to describe the Right. Imagine, though, if Mitch McConnell came out and said “I am a Republican Fascist.”

Keep imagining that.

Now do you understand why Bernie lost?



The End Is Near

In 2010, I went to Jordan. I was in the town of Jerash on election day. There were posters wheatpasted all over the place. Most had been defaced or ripped down like these. This post isn’t about Jordan, however. Today is our election day. I’ve already voted, as have close to 2/3 of the likely electorate. Republicans are flailing about trying to subvert their imminent defeat.  There is a very small chance that they will succeed. Whether they do or not, there is a percentage of the country that is misinformed, angry, and armed. They are likely to perpetrate some heinous acts. Fortunately, many of them are, like our president, cowards. They will make a lot of noise and then skulk away into the shadows from whence he dragged them in 2016. They will not be gone.  Just less visible.

There is much dissatisfaction with our political system. I want to briefly address a few remedies that I often hear proposed.

1 Eliminate the Electoral College

Sure, it is a racist holdover designed to protect states whose population was reduced by the designation of slaves as only 3/5 of a person. The Senate is equally flawed for the same reason. 

This isn’t going to happen.  Changing the constitution requires 3/4 of the states to sign on.  That would include many of the states who benefit from the electoral college. So, this is a non-starter.

However, there is an avenue which could make it more in line with the way the country votes. Increase the size of Congress.

This hasn’t been done in over 100 years, and the number of people each member of Congress represents is astronomical. As noted in the article linked to above, this exacerbates the problem of money in politics, and weakens the connection between representative and constituent. 

Increasing the number of congressional districts would also increase the number of electors, making them more representative of the population.

2 – Term Limits

NO. NO. NO. This is a really bad idea. Term limits are a restriction of your right to vote for the person of your choice.  They are not a restriction of the politicians or parties.

Imagine we had single term limits on every elected office.  Our country would be run by inexperienced amateurs who we barely know.  They would have no record and there would be no reason for them to ever keep a promise to the voters since they couldn’t run again.  This is a recipe for the ultimate kleptocracy.

I was in Guatemala in 2015, during their presidential election.


Guatemala, like many Latin American countries, has very restrictive term limits. The president can only serve one term. So what happens? An election is held.  Many promises are made, especially to the indigenous Maya, who make up the majority of the electorate. After the election, the entire government from top to bottom is overturned. The makeup of their Congress flips, with many members simply joining the winning party to retain some power. No party has ever won the presidency twice.  New parties are formed every election, although many of their members are familiar. The president appoints the governors of all the states. You have to get all the way down to the office of mayor to find a politician independent of the president.

All public works projects started by the former administration are halted and abandoned.  Cronies of the new president are given lucrative contracts to pursue his agenda.  By and large they skim so much off the top that nothing is finished.  

There is no accountability, because there is a single term limit, and even the party will disappear in the net election.

3 – Get rid of the two party system

Look, I understand the frustration.  No party truly represents every one of your beliefs. The thing is, we purport to be a democracy, which implies majority rule. If there were even three major parties, we would consistently be ruled by a minority, unless we make other changes.

The most obvious solution is a parliamentary system such as many European countries have. Everyone gets to vote for their idealistic splinter party and then after the election, those parties get together and form coalitions, compromising away all of your ideals.

In the US, the compromising is done before the election, in the primary process. The Bernie Sanders and the Tulsi Gabbards are ruled out in favor of the middle.  At least you know what you are voting for in the US.  In Britain you don’t know what you’re going to get until you’ve already voted.

4 – Ranked Choice Voting

This actually makes a lot of sense to me. It allows a voter to choose an idealistic candidate with no realistic chance of winning without throwing their vote away. When you vote, you make your choices in order of preference.  If someone wins a majority, that’s it, the election is over.  If nobody does, then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and their supporters are reapportioned according to their second choice. Lather, rinse, repeat until someone has a majority. That way, for example, you could have voted for Jill Stein in 2016 with Hillary as your second choice, and since nobody got 50%, your vote would have gone to Hillary, and we would now be living in a very different country.

I hope everyone voted this year and made sure their friends and family did too.


These Uncertain Times

I traveled to Myanmar (Burma) in 2013, during the brief, hopeful time following Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and installation as leader of the country. Much of the country was still under military control, in the form of army bases, but politically, it appeared that the generals were resigned to the shift of power and were spending their efforts converting the money they had looted from the country into tourist hotels, resorts, and other legitimate money-making infrastructure. The horrific genocide of the Rohingya in northeastern Myanmar had yet to begin, but I was told to avoid the region because it “wasn’t safe.” I was going to go anyway, to visit a significant historic site, but time constraints didn’t allow for the long boat trip up the river and back, so I didn’t. I did visit Bagan, a broad plain dotted with hundreds of temples, and from there took the road to Mandalay, otherwise known as the Ayerawaddy river. The photo above was taken in Mandalay.  The four young men are wielding heavy homemade sledgehammers to pound gold into gold leaf. There is a “musical” video of them here: 

I’m not sure exactly how much they were being paid, but the minimum wage at the time was about $2.50 a day. That is what they were paid to pound gold into paper thin sheets which devout Buddhists would buy and apply to statues of the Buddha at their favorite temple.  Some of the most popular Buddhas were so thickly encrusted with these offerings as to be unrecognizable. In the next room, women and girls packaged the gold leaf for sale to locals and tourists.  I bought two small packets for my grandkids. It is likely the women were paid even less than the men.



My ignorant western misconceptions about Buddhism were tested on that trip.  They have since been shattered by the massacre of Muslim Rohingya villagers with the tacit acceptance of Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize winning leader.

The foundations of most religions are about humans living together in peace, love, and harmony. Some people are drawn to them with those goals.  In my experience, however, most people are drawn to religion by a need to belong to a community. The problem with this, as Peter Gabriel noted in his 1980 song “Not One Of Us”, is “how can we be in if there is no outside?” Hence the rationale used by Burmese monks to kill Muslims without conscience, by Muslims to justify beheading Christians, or by American “Christians” to support the bombing of Muslim civilians and the taking of migrant children from their asylum-seeking parents. If one “belongs” to a community, then by definition anyone outside that community doesn’t belong. The dogma of your group can then be twisted to provide the justification for excluding, abusing, or even killing those who are not part of it.

I don’t think I need to draw the parallels to the political landscape of 2020.


Collage 09: It’s Complicated


I looked for a good name for this one, but they all seemed too corny. The Taxidermist And the Topiary Haberdasher, for example.

I’m not trying to say anything with these collages.  My visual art has never really been about messaging. That’s what words are for. These are more like dreams, a rearranging of the past without rhyme or reason.

Constructed from images collected in Mexico, Guatemala, Maine, and Arizona.