The Freshmen: A Slideshow about Pain, Triumph, Loss, and Lots of Suffering, Awful People

The Freshmen: A Slideshow about Pain, Triumph, Loss, and Lots of Suffering, Awful People

Previously posted on The Daily Kos. I really had not intended for this slideshow to be quite so bleak. Once I came up with the idea of using The Verve’s Pipe’s “The Freshmen,” a powerfully moving song apparently written about the suicide of lead singer Brian Vander Ark’s girlfriend, as a way of addressing the political and emotional fallout from the election, it to some degree took on a life of its own, almost in spite of my conscious intentions. Frankly, it’s probably the bleakest thing I’ve done since “UKnowYourReichs,” a slideshow about Holocaust denial set to Kurt Cobain’s last song, a song which (to me anyway) seemed to look forward fairly obviously to his own suicide about a month after Nirvana recorded it. That slideshow was in part inspired by Night Will Fall, Andre Singer’s 2014 documentary about the liberation of the Concentration Camps at the end of WWII. Although I was by no means completely unfamiliar with the material, the film made a deep impression on me when I first saw it about three months ago, so deep that the documentary seemed more like a prophecy of things to come than a a record of events safely compartmentalized in the past.

Like Bitter Salt, this slideshow began as an attempt to find common ground in the shared experience of pain, with idea of moving beyond it to mutual cooperation if not necessarily shared understanding.  Tea partiers and progressives may listen to different media outlets, have different circles of friends, have completely different concepts of the historical and  philosophical bases for American society, and radically opposed concepts for what goals we hope America might become; nevertheless, as human beings we all suffer, and all those other diametrically divergent attitudes are—at least in part—our attempts to deal with our individual experience of pain, trauma, and isolation. Even our “fearless leader” (apologies to fans of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but I just can’t bring myself to say Hair Furor’s actual title), strikes me as a deeply damaged human being, a damage at least in part the product of his family life, education, experiences, as well as of his own bad choices and their often destructive consequences.

Certainly one of the ideas behind The Verve Pipe song is that we make bad choices, often self-destructive or destructive of those around us,  because we don’t necessarily have the wisdom or the life experience to make good choices. To make explicit an implicit conceit of the song, at some point we are all “freshmen,” doing ignorant and even stupid things in stupid ways because we don’t know any better, and because we are too wrapped up in our own pain to acknowledge that of others, at least until it is too late. The repeated and increasingly unconvincing refrain, “I can’t be held responsible,” paradoxically communicates the deep and overwhelming sense of responsibility the singer feels, as well as his understandable and all-too-common desire to blame the other party (after all, like an abused spouse, she’s responsible too because “She fell in love in the first place”).

I am certain that in compiling this slideshow I was playing with the not wholly accurate media portrayal of the Tea Party movement and the “average” Trump voter as—to some extent—political neophytes easily manipulated by a corporate media and political demagogues who cynically exploited these people’s pain for their own ends, ends that were often destructive of the very people that they purported to represent and to help, as well as targeting a host of relatively powerless “others” who could be identified by their darker skin, problematic citizenship, differing sexual orientation, or divergent religious and philosophical beliefs, all of whom merited by their very existence at the very least exclusion and—if Tea Partiers were truly being honest about it—their systematic destruction.

Certainly one thing that struck me in gathering the photos for this slideshow is how fervent the devotion of many Trump supporters were to their leader. While it is difficult if not impossible to truly divine what people are thinking from their facial expressions and body language, with a remarkable number, it looks an awful (and I do mean awful) lot like love, which itself raises questions about how such a beneficent emotion could have such toxic results? I suspect, as the opening  slides try to suggest, such tensions are deeply embedded in our human nature, and are certainly evident in the dark (and largely officially suppressed) side of American history. Similarly, I chose the last verse and chorus of the Ben Folds Five “Brick” (a song about the songwriter’s trip to an abortion clinic with his high school girlfriend over Christmas break), because it is one of the saddest songs I think I have ever heard, perfectly expressing the isolation, grief, and overwhelming pain caused by the experience which (to tie it back to The Verve Pipe song) the couple in question were simply not emotionally ready for, being “freshmen” in their own way. Although it isn’t directly stated in the song, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the relationship didn’t survive the trauma of that fateful day over the Christmas holidays.

The two brief film clips—only the second time I’ve tried to include them in a slide show (the first was (“UKnowYourReichs”)—also seem even more significant than they did when I first thought to include them. The first portrays the suicide of a gay German Jew, Albrecht Stein, the lover of the tortured hero of Before the Fall, while the second—from the 2008 horror movie Quarantine—shows the professional woman lead character Angela (a TV reporter) being dragged off into the terrifying darkness by rabid, zombie-like people who really don’t seem much like people at all anymore. The images of the two falling or being pulled into nothingness are both similar, horrifying, and haunting. The point about the dangers of being in a marginal group are almost too obvious to belabor, although one has the sense that being part of the powerful “in” group—whether being a Nazi or an uninfected male—offers no more than a brief reprieve in our collective, ever-accelerating plunge into the abyss.

It seems silly to say I hope you like slideshow, which takes two songs about deeply individual feelings of guilt and transform them into a means of exploring our collective guilt (at least I’ve given you fair warning about what’s coming), but I hope you are moved by it, and that some of that emotional rearrangement might result in positive action.

Slave to the Algo(Rhythm): A Grace Jones inspired Slideshow on Math, Alienation, Inequality, and Oppression

Slave to the Algo(Rhythm): A Grace Jones inspired Slideshow on Math, Alienation, Inequality, and Oppression

Previously published (in slightly different form) on The Daily Kos. I had the rather unpleasant experience of being in prison lately. It wasn’t a surprise, in that it was a result of an arrest back in January that itself was the result of my own stupidity and despair. In essence, I turned myself into the court (as required) on Thursday morning at the end of June, went on the bus down to the County Jail around Thursday noon, and was in fact released by about one o’clock Friday afternoon. As the Torah I had brought to read was confiscated (I had been incorrectly told that you could bring a religious book—in fact you can’t bring anything from the outside at all without having it taken away at some point). Also taken (as I expected) were my self-phone, medication, a small amount of cash, and shoe laces, all of which were taken away at the local court where I was first processed, and then the rest of my clothes were exchanged for not totally unattractive prison blues and slippers when I arrived at County.  I never actually got assigned a bed, but—having identified myself as a member of a “special” population—was kept in a holding cell all night with other members of my “group.” Some seemed like nice people, some not so nice, and some simply disturbed; but the same could be said about the guards, deputies, and prison staff in more or less equal proportions.

Physically, the most unpleasant part was how cold it got, especially towards the end of the night, as it was impossible to get blankets or sheets, I suppose on the rationale that a prisoner’s death from hypothermia or exposure was easier to explain than suicide by bedsheet or blanket (although—if you were really determined to kill yourself and didn’t mind your corpse being partially unclothed—I’m pretty sure your prison-issued trousers would work just as well).  Psychologically, the worst part was the sense that you didn’t exist, as it quickly became apparent how practiced prison employees were at ignoring the inmates in this holding cell. You could actually see them turn to avert their eyes as they approached the long glass window that faced the prison corridor which basically everyone had to walk down in order to complete their processing and get assigned a bed and—I imagine—privileges like being able to get a book from the prison library.  When they reached the end of the long glass window, their heads would snap back, so they could see us (at most) out of the corner of their eye. Although decals on the windows told us in emphatic terms to contact the guards if someone tried to commit suicide, there seemed to be no way to do this, even if they were only a few feet away on the other side of the glass. Presumably, if you splashed enough blood on the windows, one of the more compassionate and observant guards would eventually notice. Please go below the fold for more, and a cool video I made.

My attorney had e-mailed me that I would be reporting for my 96 hour sentence with two days credit for time served. So I was surprised to discover on Thursday morning that the court had no record of my two days credit (my lawyer was not present) A number of people told me I might be released early, but it was unclear was who made the decision about early release, as it didn’t seem to be the bailiff or the judge I appeared before (it wasn’t really a hearing or a trial, just an appearance).  One of the sheriffs at the local jail explained that it was all based on how crowded the jail was and what category of prisoner you were. That’s when I understood: the decision would be made not be any human being, but by a computer that had been programed by human beings based on algorithms that they had designed at the behest of their employers. While I was certainly aware of algorithms, especially in terms of how they are used in Search Engines, the experience really brought home how much they have come to dominate virtually every aspect of modern life: not only search engines but the legal system, the financial sector, advertising, and even–increasingly—the arts.

As with firearms, there is nothing inherently bad about algorithms, but they can easily used for biased, unethical, or just plain evil purposes by human beings. As the old saying goes, numbers don’t lie, but people lie with numbers.  They inevitably reflect the biases and petty concerns of the people who design them and—too a much greater degree—the people who hire those programmers to design them. Anyway, I came up with the idea for this slideshow last Friday night around midnight, after I had gotten tired of playing find the shape in the stain (oh look, this one resembles a dinosaur; here’s one that looks like a turd, oh no, wait—I think it is . . . I think I’ll move further away). I actually had a copy of the eponymous Grace Jones album that “Slave to the Rhythm” was released on back in the eighties (a slightly different mix than the one I use for the slideshow), although I haven’t seen or listened to it in years.  By the way, I am not saying we should get rid of all algorithms, which is probably impossible as they are essentially hard wired into us, but merely that we should stop and think about what we are doing so that the algorithms we make will actually promote equity, fairness, and even connection to our fellow, suffering human brothers and sisters. It almost comes across as a joke when you state it like that, which is itself kind of sad. Anyway, here is the slideshow: