El Jefe, burning bright

This is the sort of thing that I read and then think: I need to get on the next plane to Tucson. See, there are a lot of grand American narratives in flux these days, and we’re constantly finding new places in our collective subconscious for ideas like “freedom,” “the environment,” “animals,” “power.” The story of America’s only known jaguar is where these threads converge.

El Jefe, an adult male jaguar who roams the Santa Rita mountain range in Arizona, may help block construction of Donald Trump’s proposed “Wall.” Because of El Jefe’s ties to a larger population in Mexico, building a physical barrier would guarantee jaguar extinction in the U.S. The Center for Biological Diversity has argued that climate change will inevitably force Central American and South American jaguar populations north, meaning that the conservation of the Santa Rita habitat — and its migratory ingress — is a critical environmental matter.

At the moment, Section 102 of the Real ID Act grants the Homeland Security Secretary the ability to waive environmental laws when building a border barrier. The Center’s attorneys are working on a case that would prove the unconstitutionality of placing such broad discretionary powers in the hands of an unelected official (like, say, John Kelly).

There are a lot of framing devices in play when we talk about the “Wall.” Knee-jerk xenophobia is pretty popular among the mentally unhinged. But the whole thing is a real distraction from actual long-term concerns for people and animals who live on Earth. I happen to think that jaguar cubs living in Mexico are much more important to our planetary evolution than the whims of a lunatic autocrat and his deranged base.

And those cubs? They don’t know that we’re up here debating the merits of a “Wall.” They can’t protest. What they’ll do instead, if we ignore the implications of our past and present, is fade into the imaginations of old, doddering men and women who faintly remember a time when animals roamed mountain ranges. A “jaguar” will be as silly as a jackalope to future generations.

That doesn’t have to happen, though.

The story of El Jefe doesn’t need to be a tearjerker. And he certainly shouldn’t be turned into a political placeholder — a football for various groups to use in advancing their own agenda or tearing down another’s. But the story of El Jefe might tell us a lot more about who we are than we think.


There’s something I’ve been thinking about with regard to the wave of protests that have been taking place across the country — and especially this week, in light of the DNC’s decision to stick with establishment party politics and turn its back on any real resistance to Donald Trump in 2018 and beyond.
In my day-to-day role, I think it’s incredibly important to observe and report on the dissent in this country right now. It’s the Other Big Story. And as a voter and an American, my hope is that the left grasps the concept of organizing before too long. I’m sensing pockets of this as we race toward May Day, and that’s heartening.
Jay Caspian Kang writes about the influence of social media and millennial thymos on the Standing Rock protests — two pillars that more often than not work *against* the concept of organizing, in my opinion.
I guess one question is: Is dissent scalable?
“What’s startling is that this process, which usually takes years, has already run its course. The speed of the reduction may have come, in large part, from how the greater public processes every Native American struggle through a filter of nostalgia, but it also seems to show just how quickly a movement can be co-opted in an era of replicating protest imagery. Every moment is now the property of anyone who can access it through their phone. Dissent can propagate quickly now, but it also means that every protest, however specific and physical in its conception, ultimately gets reduced down to a generic feeling. This is how a writer like Cobb can take Occupy, Standing Rock, and Black Lives Matter and stitch them all together into a prediction about the future of protest politics; it’s how phrases like #NoDAPL, Black Lives Matter, and ‘My body, my choice’ can be diluted down, so they mean the same thing. At that scale, all causes become interchangeable.”

The parable of the chalkboard cat

There was an old, shell-shocked substitute teacher who worked in Rocky River City Schools when I was growing up. His name was Mr. S, and he had a cat named Max. Every time he subbed, he drew Max on the chalkboard. (It was never very clear if Max actually existed.)

Now, Mr. S was a vehemently patriotic dude. He was subbing in for Ms. Lucas’ math class when we heard the PA announcement that a World Trade Center tower in New York City had been hit by an airplane. His eyes went vacant for a moment or two, and he turned on the television, a big hulk of late-20th-century technology strapped as it always was onto a roving metal cart. By the time we tuned in, another airplane had hit another tower. I was 12.

Inexplicably, some of us were ushered outside for a bus safety drill.

When Mr. S drew Max, he also drew a boxy television that had cable access. Max spent classes watching the Cat News Network (CNN), All ‘Bout Cats (ABC), Nothing But Cats (NBC), and so on. This was long before any of us had heard the term “fake news.” But that’s what I think “fake news” is — something concocted by a deranged substitute teacher, easily distracted by students’ questions about an imaginary cat and insistent on the idea of America being something “great.”

Scene was accused of being “fake news” by a prominent local mayor just last week!

I wrote recently on the memetic shields used by this new front of brand-focused conservatism. “Paid outside agitators,” etc. These things aren’t useful to Americans; they’re as helpful as a chalkboard drawing of a cat or a television, the shadows on Plato’s cave flickering into reality a world that was never actually real.

I don’t think Mr. S meant anything insidious, of course. It was, after all, just a thing he did during the course of his workday. He made the job his own, and, god bless ‘im, I know I haven’t forgotten about his imprint.

But, as I stretch my limbs and draw connections across time and life, there are people who do mean to cause harm with these words, these flickering fragments of ideas that divide us and inspire malice. The president is one of them. He should never be trusted, never be allowed to be seen as anything more than a cartoonish villain with his finger hovering just above the Big Red Button in the nuclear football. He screams — he calls “the media” “the enemy of the people” — and he screams some more, bellowing incessantly into the bowelish ears of anyone stupid enough to believe what he says.

That said, I hope Mr. S and Max are doing well these days. We have reason to worry about our veterans’ health and safety.

Paid protesters, voter fraud, fake news: The parade of conservative memetic shielding continues

It’s a real pip these days to try and cook up a coherent set of thoughts on the ripple effects of the Nov. 8, 2016, U.S. presidential election. The only salve is that, at the end, hitting “publish” is a certain kind of epistolary and political release, a temporary feeling of having put mental anguish on the page — for posterity, if nothing else.

Today, I’m reading that U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz is teeing up the “paid protester” nonsense in response to the opposition at his town hall in Salt Lake City this week. Video of the event is here.

“Absolutely. I know there were,” Chaffetz told the Deseret News, referring to the audience members being paid by the Democratic party, adding that it was “more of a paid attempt to bully and intimidate” than American dissent metastasizing before his eyes.

The notion that the opposition is so aloof and disorganized that some third party needs to dispense payment for dissent is bizarre. By all accounts, the presidential administration and its congressional lapdogs (more spineless than ever!) constitute an historic and chaotic misstep in the American democratic experiment. To think that taxpayers and voters need a wage to voice their concerns is alarmingly out of touch. (That said, WordPress and the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party have paid me $100 in Holiday Inn Express vouchers to write this article.)

It’s all just so silly, which is on some level refreshing to write about when compared to the rapidly hatched vultures of totalitarian government flying across the U.S. these days.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing, and you don’t need a paycheck to know that it’s an American duty to stand up against hate and greed.

Here’s Matt Lubchansky on the issue.




Mount Doom

My latest feature hit streets today: a hard look at the Arco Recycling facility in East Cleveland, the site of what some are calling “another Flint.”

One thing that can’t be ignored in all of this: Decades of poverty and segregation across the U.S. (the sort of thing that our president salivates over) have produced pockets of dilapidated neighborhoods, predominantly black or Latino neighborhoods in Cleveland’s case, where someone can open up a poisonous dump with the sole intent to profit off housing demolitions — and no one in power asks a single question for years.

More on that here, from the New York Times.

This didn’t have to happen

Between the DeVos vote, the bill to dismantle the EPA, the notion that Frederick Douglass is still alive, the Muslim travel ban, the Bannon NSC consolidation, the Dakota Access order, the Fifth Avenue secret service costs, the absolute insistence on lying and lying and lying — to say nothing of the president’s extremely long neckties — the only thing I’m left with most days is a seething rage at the people who chose not to vote last fall or who did cast a vote for hatred, a vote that guarantees pain and cruelty inflicted on millions of Americans for years to come.

Selling off our legacy of public education wholesale?

This didn’t have to happen.

The one redemption here is the incredible display of dissent and protest across the country. There have been some truly admirable moments in American history these past few weeks. Kleptocracies have plenty of weaknesses.

And your birds can sing

In the last decade, I’ve caught some truly cool moments at live shows. I think now of things like the return of Rage Against The Machine in New York City, the sweater-vest Aqueous Christmas show in 2012 in Cleveland, 3-11 Day in Las Vegas, Magnaball in Watkins Glen and, easily lost among the crowd, a chilled-out BBQ > 1999 > BBQ at the Beachland Ballroom on a spring night in 2013 — to say the least. These things are very important to me.

One thing that I really regret missing is the infamous “And Your Bird Can Sing” at Solid Sound in 2013. Why?

Jeff Tweedy knows his constituency, which is a rare and special thing in America these days. Wilco performed a set entirely comprising covers at their now-biennial music festival in western Massachusetts that included two renditions of the Revolver classic “And Your Bird Can Sing.”

Take 1

Take 2

I’m leafing through Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head as I write this. If you haven’t read it, well, don’t miss out any longer. It’s an incredible example of American rock criticism, which, I’d argue, is the greatest nighttime antidote to a president obsessed with both cable and network tripe.


Quick update: This reminds me now of the 6/25/16 “I Am The Walrus” that Phish slotted in their encore at Wrigley Field. I made the drive on a whim and I found true joy in that encore.