Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Employer Culture

I recently applied for a job in Wyoming. It was an entry-level reporting position in a small town, and it was advertised via an unusual posting that seemed to encourage a unique cover letter from me. I delivered that, received a response that may or may not have been a form letter, and, on its request, replied with a confirmation of my sincere interest in the position.

The original ad put more emphasis on the setting of the job than on the job itself, and the response really drove that home, emphasizing that the remote location was “not a romantic getaway by any means,” which “might not suit everyone.” My cover letter clearly outlined how I had always hoped to live and work in a remote location after graduating from college in the big city, and that the job seemed perfect for me. In my confirmation of interest, I disputed the notion that it wasn't a romantic getaway, and made it clear that in any event it was a place I could see residing happily, especially if I had a career to build upon there.

The editor sent a form letter to all still-interested applicants to the effect that she would have more time to go over the applications after a specific date. A week after that date she wrote to me directly to confirm that I was not to be interviewed, and in that brief message, she emphasized yet again the apparent insecurities of her entire organization regarding its setting, and explained that she had found someone who she thought would bring a lot to the paper while also enjoying the surroundings.

When I actually hear back from no-longer-prospective employers these days, I am no longer shy about pushing them to the limits of their patience in pursuit of explanations, and in this case I was really confused. I wrote to ask her if I had somehow given the impression that I wouldn't have been able to tolerate living in the sort of remote region that I had just used two sincere letters to explain that I specifically wanted to live in. She kindly pointed to a specific line in my second message. This was the comment that sunk my application:

Speaking more generally, I'm not so concerned with what the job or its surroundings can bring to me, as with what I can bring to them.

Am I crazy for being nonplussed by her reaction? That line came after two solid paragraphs of explaining why the job and its surroundings appealed to me, which followed upon an entire prior letter of the same, and yet all of that was apparently wiped from this editor's short-term memory by my decision to make the point that my values make me more interested in doing a perfect job than having a job I consider perfect.

I can't interpret this in any other way than that I was refused an interview for yet another job that I would have done fantastically well because I was insufficiently selfish. The briefly-prospective employer has given me the distinct impression that the job went to somebody whose application placed more emphasis on how much he wanted someone to give him that job, and less on how well he would perform its duties.

It's another example of the seemingly backwards hiring practices that have been dogging me for six goddamn years, and I took the opportunity to press this person on it, writing back:

I've gotten a certain impression many times over from people responsible for hiring. In your capacity as such a person, which goal would you rank ahead of the other, if you had to choose between them? 1) Finding someone who will do the best job. 2) Finding someone who is least likely to leave the job.

I give her a lot of credit for having been so communicative with me overall, but her response to this question was pathetic:

It depends. I try to find a good balance between the two.

Did I not make myself clear? I know she tries to find a good balance between the two. What I asked was which one was more important, and she simply dodged the question, avoiding any acknowledgment that there is a fragile value system at play in hiring practices. And though I can't wrest a confirmation of this from anyone in a position to give it, I consistently get the impression that human resource departments and hiring managers are interested in finding people just good enough for the open position that the company won't have to do anything to keep that employee on board, because they'll probably never get a better offer.

Other people that I've known have been crippled in their job searches by this employer culture, as well. Acquiring more qualifications often seems to harm job seekers more than it helps – such as teaching at the college level when one is looking for a career in early childhood education. It's evidently not worth taking the risk on hiring a good educator, a good writer, a good anything, if there's a good chance that their ambitions extend beyond the position one is looking to fill.

Obviously no one has admitted to this outright, but this most recent editor rather distinctly suggested it. Her rejection of my application was phrased so as to directly contradict the line that sunk my application, the one in which I said it was most important to me that I bring value to the organization that hires me. She wrote, “The job and its surroundings are to me much more important.”

Much more important than what? Than the person you hire being a good worker, a talented writer, a committed journalist, a person of decent character? All of that takes a backseat to believing that the job and its surroundings are exactly what the applicant wants and that nothing will tempt him away from whatever you're to offer him?

Anecdotal evidence doesn't count for much – you can always find some example that supports what you believe about the world – but at the same time that I and others I have known seem to absorb the damaging effects of these employer practices, I know of one person who appeared to be decidedly on the good side of them.

My ex-girlfriend never graduated high school, having gotten a GED instead. When I met her she had not been working for a longer period of time than I. During the time that I knew her, she routinely quit jobs without notice. I later found she took the same approach to relationships – find something better, sever ties immediately. Despite the fact that her resume didn't suggest impressive qualifications and the fact that she probably didn't have great references from prior employers, she had little problem walking out of one job and into another.

Why on Earth was she capable of being hired immediately, whereas if I applied for the same jobs my resume would be rejected without so much as a phone interview? The only logical conclusion I can come to is the same observation about employer culture. I can easily imagine hiring managers looking at her past history and deciding, “this girl doesn't have a lot of prospects in front of her; we'd be offering something that she should be truly grateful for.” They may have been wrong on both points, as to her graditude and her future outlook, but her mediocre resume gave them good reason to believe that hiring her wasn't a gamble.

With every job I've had, my managers have regarded me as having a work ethic that exceeds that of my coworkers. My performance and responsiveness to training have been roundly praised. The one time in my life that I got to work in an office, I received a year-end bonus that exceeded that of the person who had been promoted out of my position, even though I had only been there for six months. Despite all of this, actually finding a job is damn near impossible for me. I don't have a bit of doubt that I would perform the responsibilities of any job that I applied for with more competence and conviction than just about anyone competing with me for it. But I'm nearly as confident that that's not primarily what employers are looking for.

Of course, it could be that I'm taking too positive a view of myself. It could be that I'm just a terrible applicant. But I'm not about to assume that explanation in absence of evidence for it, and I'm certainly not getting any from the sorts of employers from whom I'm seeking jobs.

Previous to applying for this job in Wyoming, I was rejected without interview for another one that I was even better qualified for, and which was also out of my area. When I asked why, the editor did see fit to get back to me, but her response was utterly meaningless on point of qualifications. She said only that the person she hired "had what she needed." But she also pointed out that he had grown up in the area of the job, so I rephrased my question and asked whether, if I'd had the same qualifications I do now but had grown up in that region, I would have been at least interviewed.

Her response still makes me angry, and I expect that it will for as long as I struggle to have a legitimate career before the end of my twenties. She wrote back with one line: “Ed, I'm sorry. I'm not going to break it down.”

I had asked a straightforward yes-or-no question. I was looking for some indication, even if perfectly vague, as to whether my inability to secure a simple interview was attributable to being underqualified, overqualified, or simply having qualifications different from those that match the sorts of jobs I apply for. I didn't ask her to answer to any of that, though. All she had to do was say “yes,” “no,” or even “maybe.” To do so would have taken less effort than it took to type what she did.

To date, I can't conceive of any reason why she would respond that way, other than to be deliberately rude. This is my entire life we're talking about, and all that a person like her needs to do to give me a little more insight into why it remains so far off the rails is to say either “yes” or “no,” and she couldn't even do that.

I guess in light of that I should feel very pleased with the Wyoming editor for putting forth the effort to dodge my question in a way that at least seemed like an answer. Maybe that counts as progress.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Towards the Shrinking of Education

Last week’s issue of the New Yorker included an article by Andrew Marantz in “The Talk of the Town” that I found unusually inspirational.  That article also included reference to a fact that I think is deplorably neglected and under-explored: “… the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that in the past few years ‘the percentage of graduate-degree holders who receive food stamps or some other aid more than doubled.’”  People who are relatively familiar with my views on institutional education will recognize this as fodder for my ire over the socially endemic assumptions about the economic value of college education.

(If you want to get acquainted with those views, please read this, and this, and this, and this.)

Marantz went on to connect this situation to what he says has been called the crisis in the academy, defined by the very situation that I have been watching develop for years, in which the academic labor market is so glutted with highly educated people that terrific scholars are sometimes shouldered out of any sort of employment.  Actually, Marantz – I think just by way of a slightly clumsy transition – identifies the two issues with each other, as if a need for public assistance and the absence of a high-profile academic post are equivalent.  There is a middle ground that is being needlessly excluded, there.

Still, both issues desperately need to be addressed in their own right, and Marantz highlights two individuals who have taken steps to combat the lesser crisis among would-be academics.  Ajay Singh Chaudhary and Abby Kluchin recognized a demand for education among people who could not afford either the time or the money to take the relevant courses at universities, and they responded by teaching their disciplines in caf├ęs over the course of several weeks, at a cost of a few hundred dollars.

Marantz calls their business venture, the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, “a locavore pedagogy shop,” and I think that’s as good a term as any for what I expect is part of a trend in education which will increasingly challenge the large, money-driven institutions that so many students are finding deliver little in the way of outcomes aside from a crushing debt load.

I can still recall how excited I was years ago, when my disdain for institutional education was still in its childhood – not its infancy, mind you; that disdain actually predates my NYU enrollment – when I heard a story on the news about private genetic engineering labs that people were running in their basements.  After my graduation, I began to advocate with particular verve for the outright rejection of the formal institutions.  I wanted, and still want, people who legitimately care about education, to show that commitment in their private lives by educating themselves and one another and exploring in private settings those new ideas which might be suppressed in the academy, in favor of the status quo.

At the time that seemed like an easy thing to accomplish with the social sciences and humanities, but the idea of moving physical sciences out of the institution and into more intimate settings seemed quite challenging.  Seeing evidence that not only were people up to the challenge but that they were actually doing it thrilled me and gave me great hope for the future of smaller scale scholarly structures.

It’s been a long time, but Marantz’s article finally gives me hope that the trend is continuing, and that it’s embracing not only private experimentation and scholarship, but small-scale education.  With formal tertiary education demanding more and more financial investments from students and delivering lesser and lesser financial rewards, as well as questionable educational outcomes, I expect people to gravitate in growing numbers towards alternative forms of both teaching and learning.

There are others in addition to the Brooklyn Institute, of course.  The internet provides curious individuals with many opportunities to absorb lectures for free and in their own time through uploads of actual college courses, video channels designed for broad-based education, TED Talks, and so on.  At least one company that I know of sells entire college courses on DVD for students to acquire at a fraction of the cost of tuition.

I fully expect more competitors to join in this trend, and so I expect that education in the future will look much different than it looks under the formal structures of today.  Unless the costs or the benefits of colleges and universities dramatically shift gears, the schooling of the future will in large part be much more local and much more collaborative.  The alternatives that provide that character have about as much knowledge to offer as the status quo, given the volume of unemployed scholars.  The only thing that they decidedly lack is accreditation.  But if degrees from accredited schools continue to deliver such dubious prospects for employment and financial security, what value will accreditation really have?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Aging in Buffalo: A Personal Invective

I turned twenty-seven on Friday.  I know that most everyone has the experience of reaching an age at which birthdays cease to be causes for celebration, but I don’t think so many people find them to be the cruel reminder of lost time that they have been for me roughly since I became a full-fledged adult.  That is, if I could ever be called that in the first place.  I’m sure that by some people’s standards, I never grew up.  I’m inclined to agree; I’m just not inclined to blame myself.  That’s why birthdays are so awful.  They remind me of the speed with which time is marching on even as I remain stuck firmly in my place.

It’s interesting to be a resounding failure starting in your very early twenties, and an educated, ambitious one, who simply never had the chance to even screw up an opportunity.  It’s interesting to see the evidence of that failure every time you look out your front door on a hateful city that you never thought you’d have to return to, but then were never able to leave.  The Buffalo that I see every day is a place where no one seems capable of living with purpose, achieving social mobility, or bettering their personal character.

It’s actually terrifying to be aging here, because everywhere I look I see reminders of all the different people I don’t want to become.  Yet in absence of evidence of any alternatives, it seems increasingly likely that I will become just like some of them if this environment continues to hold me so close to its rust-pockmarked bosom.

I used to have more fire in me.  Twenty-seven shouldn’t be associated with this kind of tiredness.  Often, I feel numb enough to tolerate the intolerable.  Honestly, there was a time not long, and yet too long ago when I came close to vowing to kill myself if I wasn’t out of this town by a certain date.  The trouble now is that I can’t for the life of me remember when that date would have been.  Was it the start of this summer?  Next January?  The previous January?  My twenty-seventh birthday?  I can’t remember.  It doesn’t seem to matter anymore.  I am exceptionally well-distracted with the ceaseless struggle to find each day’s work and survive the week, and I am exceptionally well-deluded into thinking that therein, somewhere, lies a future change of life.

But then when I venture out of my home office, I see the change of life that comes over time, in absence of a transformative moment, a firm knock of opportunity, a breaking point.  Who shall I become, among these?  Perhaps by the time I’m in my mid-forties, my home business will be truly legitimate, and I can be like the shop owner around the corner, working irregular, overly demanding hours for a success so modest that in the fullness of middle age he is still living without health insurance.

Or maybe I need not look so far into the future, and instead I can aspire to be like my close peer and lifelong resident of the Blackrock neighborhood, who is consistently and profoundly more successful than I, which means at present that he’s been tasked with managing and fundamentally reorganizing a nearby gas station for eight dollars an hour.  Perhaps I can aspire to that without waiting to decay with age, though I doubt it.  Given my past history, it seems that even to be willfully exploited is too much for me to ask of prospective employers.

If, however, I could by some chance succeed in letting myself be exploited, then I can look forward to being like my brother, seven years my senior, slaving at management of a kitchen in exchange for a salary far short of the absolute minimum threshold for middle class, and too beat-down and molded into complacency to seriously seek a better way of life, while middle age looms.  Then, if I succeed in emulating that image, I can look forward to also becoming like my parents, both lonely people whose lives have apparently lacked any efforts at positive change for years on end.

I have to get away from these people, and I’m losing the capability to even imagine how that would happen, which is in turn inching me closer to the terrible outcome I want to flee from.  But it’s not family that I most fear becoming.  It’s all the little bearers of shattered lives or simple minds that shuffle about me day after day.  The few who possess the means for a decent life still seem either desperately adrift or else aloof and arrogant behind the bitterly ideological walls they’ve had to build for themselves to keep the tragic reality of this rust belt hellscape out of their emptily contented little lives.

The rest are a tragedy unto themselves.  Yesterday, I heard shouting outside my home and went out to make sure nobody was being hurt.  At the end of my street, a young woman was ranting and throwing things at who I presume to be her boyfriend.  I walked in that direction to make sure everything was all right, my phone in hand, ready to call the police.  For all I could tell, the woman was just throwing a tantrum, and the man was not returning the physicality, so I didn’t really know at what point to intervene.  In my uncertainty, I just ended up sitting nearby, next to a man who shook his head at the fighting couple and started talking to me as soon as I arrived.

If I spend time outside, I can generally count on finding half a dozen people in the course of an afternoon whose social status is wildly indeterminate.  I still remember my first encounter with the deplorable Eric Starchild, who wanders the streets of Buffalo selling single plastic beads on black strings for exorbitant prices.  When first he spoke to me, I thought for sure he was homeless and that that was his way of getting by and making the most of the hand he had been dealt.  Years later, I found out that he comes from an upper-middle class background, and after putting up with his attempts to advise me on how I could easily fix my life and have a career, I now have to restrain myself from punching him in the back of the head every time I see him walking somewhere ahead of me.

The fellow I encountered yesterday was of a similar sort.  He specifically described himself as coming from a wealthy family, but also as not being rich anymore.  That still left some doubt in my mind, as he sat there with his grocery cart and half-empty forty ounce bottle of beer, as to whether he was homeless, poor like me, or just another pretender who has still holds the financial means to do something with his life, but chooses not to.

I had a pleasant enough conversation with the fellow, though I could tell from the start that he was just slightly crazy.  It took about thirty seconds of conversation for him to reference mechanisms of government control, and another minute to get to his pronouncements about chemtrails.  He was perfectly coherent by and large, even relatable, but he’d filled the gaps in his worldview with self-assured paranoia.  He quite reminded me of a fellow I met on a Greyhound bus once, who talked to me with great clarity about many things, but occasionally told stories about how the FBI had been sending agents to monitor him in the guise of such people as his ex-wife’s new boyfriend.  I quite like talking to these people.  It’s intriguing to see how a person creates a consistent mythology to explain the tragedies of their lives, and how in the best of cases, this can seemingly avoid seriously impairing the person’s perception of reality in other areas.

I am especially interested to talk to these people now, because a spent a solid couple of years cresting toward the edge of insanity, and communicating with people who have inched past the barrier is the only thing that suggests the possibility that I am not irreversibly headed towards the hideous outcomes that have been realized in so many of the people that surround me.  On the other hand, most of the people I’ve spoken to who have embraced such paranoia have been roughly twice my age.  How many times did they near the edge and draw back while they were still young?  How much longer do my inexplicable and inexpressibly crushing failures have to persist before I manufacture conspiracy theories to make sense of them?

I may have already been suffering under the weight of those failures for six years, but conceivably there could be decades still to come.  Nothing, after all, exists to give me confidence that it will ever change, unless I can count the fact that I’m feeling pretty stable in my advanced age.  But as it happens, it was actually the instability that served to make me feel like I had it in me to fight an intolerable situation, to literally run away from this town with thirty dollars tucked into my shoe if the future here began to look bleak enough.

I fear the sort of person I will become if I remain as invisible as I am for much longer.  I fear it all the more because I no longer have the same confidence in my resistance, yet I still see every bit as much to resist, everywhere I look.  In five horrendous years in Buffalo, I don’t think I’ve met a single person I genuinely respect.  Those older than I are chilling images of the things that this town does to a person.  They are vessels for the display of various unique admixtures of hopelessness, paranoia, ignorance, unjustified arrogance, complacency, prejudice, and greed.

To date, the only person I have seen with any regularity whom I can say does not make me intensely sad is, oddly enough, a toothless old woman who sits smoking near the bus stop by the old Showplace Theater.  She has been as vividly damaged by her own life as all the rest of them, but somehow she is wonderfully pleasant to everyone who passes by, and it is a pleasance unpolluted by the relentless ego that motivates so many other local people to reach out to one another.

This woman, alone among all the others, seems to have found a way to inhabit this place with a character of quiet dignity, and I applaud her for it.  But still it is not good enough for me.  If, God forbid, I reside here when I am near to her age, I would never want my own dignity to be quiet.  I want it to rage against the systematic theft of lives.  I pray that this silence in me now is just a passing phase, and that age is not taking the fire from my blood.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Carl Paladino is a Goddamn Sociopath

When Buffalo-area businessman Carl Paladino ran for the New York State governorship in 2010, his supporters put up campaign signs that explained the motivation for their choice of candidate with the slogan “I’m mad as hell too, Carl!”  After hearing the man speak a few times, and seeing the constant evidence of passionate, irredeemable instability in his eyes whenever he appeared on television, I considered printing off a series of satirical reproductions of those signs, which adopted the same color scheme and design but changed the slogan to the more straightforward “I’m crazy as hell too, Carl!”

Last April, for no apparent reason, I began receiving mass e-mails from the former gubernatorial candidate and perennial conservative activist.  I have no idea how I got onto his list of contacts.  I’ve never communicated with the man, and I never expressed interest in his campaign.  I can only assume that my e-mail address was passed to him by a third party, and despite my distaste for Paladino’s politics and personal behavior, I wasn’t about to protest that connection, however casual and tenuous.  The man is certainly a financially and socially powerful presence in my region, and it’s good to both have access to such a person and be able to basically keep tabs on his activities.

In keeping tabs on Paladino by reading the e-mails that he’s directing to fellow Republics, sometimes en masse and sometimes individually while copying to his entire contact list, I’ve had ample opportunity to confirm previous suspicions beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Carl Paladino is a goddamn sociopath.  His formal communications paint the picture of a man who is utterly incapable of seeing another person’s point of view, incapable of empathy, having no impulse control and no sense of self-restraint.  The tone of every one of his letters is so cocksure and combative as to suggest no genuine motivation other than a personal display of red-faced plumage.

In a recent letter to New York State Senator Tom Libous, Paladino starts out:

“I heard you are angry with the grassroots/tea party taxpayers and I over our comments about your alleged criminal and otherwise pathetic behavior as a Senator.  Tom, we don’t care.”

He then demands that the Senator resign unless he comes over to Paladino’s way of thinking.  Evidently, Paladino’s means of trying to convince the senator to accept his demands include describing Libous as “an incorrigible, arrogant, greedy and deceitful person comfortably in bed with the unions and other special interests.”  Later he refers to Libous as “Tommy boy” before calling him “a little conniving sneak.”

By way of reiterating his self-important demands, Paladino later says “You're a grown man. You should acknowledge and apologize for your bad actions. That's what men do. They don't cry and whine.”

To date the densest example of Paladino’s unrestrained aggression is a message that he directed at long-ago US Senator Alfonse D’Amato.  The message announces that it was sent via Paladino’s iPhone, which leads me to wonder whether some momentary spark set him off as he went about his daily business, compelling him to deliver this colorful vituperation in sight of absolutely everyone he knows:

“Al, keep your nose out of WNY politics or I will expose your underbelly. You are a spineless fraud and you're going down with Skelos. Did you have fun at Andrews $50k party?  You are such a low life parasite.  It's all about money and you could care less about the people and republican principals.  What are you going to do when I tell the people that you were the prime mover of Andrew's gay marriage bill so he could pound his chest as the most powerful governor the state has ever known and you could have access as a lobby for the big buck clients you extort.”

This sort of language and the completely shameless way in which Paladino uses it makes me wonder about people like him, who have consolidated wealth and power over the course of a long career in business.  Is tact a skill that Paladino has never had to utilize in his life?  Is he actually used to getting his own way simply by forcefully demanding it and trash-talking his opposition?  Is that the way goals are achieved in the world of business development, or is it just true of Paladino’s own private world?

In government, even a person identified as a political firebrand doesn’t approach a fraction of the divisiveness or resistance to compromise showcased in Paladino’s writings.  And this is true even in the current political climate where divisiveness and non-compromise is the order of the day, especially among Republicans.  To Paladino, anyone on his side of the aisle who strays in the least measure from his vision for the party is a target for being branded, in his terminology, a RINO (Republican In Name Only).  And woe unto he who is marked by Paladino’s scarlet letters, for Carl Paladino speaks for the “grassroots/tea party” base of the Republican Party, and without them, as he threatens to Senator Libous, “your career as an elected official will end this year.”

Indeed, Paladino’s messages are full of intimations of a kind of political insight that extends far beyond the observational and into the prophetic.  “The Albany establishment is on its way out,” he writes without a trace of uncertainty.  “In a few years it will be gone.”  The man is so blindly assured of his viewpoints on everything that he has apparently convinced himself that he can tell the future.

But in view of the rest of his remarks in a number of letters, I’d say that that’s not just an outgrowth of his unquestioning convictions.  Rather, it’s part and parcel of a severe messianic complex.  His letters are permeated with unrestrained anger, but they are also paradoxically peppered with slightly religious language.  Apart from painting himself as the sole arbiter of judgment as to one’s true allegiance to the Republican Party, which, incidentally, he formally joined only seven years ago, he also takes up the mantle of a priestly dispenser of political absolution.

What is it that Paladino says men do instead of “crying and whining?”  “They atone and ask for forgiveness.”  Only then will the angry prophet, in his power as private representative of an entire constituency, allow a Republican’s political career to proceed.  Helpfully, the savior of true Republicanism tells Senator Libous exactly what he needs to do for penance:

“…you must tell the grassroots/tea party taxpayers in writing that you have had an epiphany, ask them to forgive your past transgressions and promise that you will advocate for and defend Conservative Republican interests…”

Notice that to accept Paladino’s demands is not to capitulate, nor to agree, but rather to have an epiphany.  Such language suggests that there are never two ways of looking at an issue, never legitimate alternatives in the service of the public.  It suggests access on Paladino’s part to some absolute political Truth, which the “RINOs” that dominate state government are sinfully resisting.

There is a frightfully evangelizing quality to all of this, a “recant or be damned” mentality, which is fascinating to me as someone with a background in religious studies.  The impulse to drive a wedge between Republicans deemed either orthodox or imposters appears not unlike the evangelical assertion that Catholics, for instance, are false Christians.  Similarly, his appeal to the true-Republican imperative as an explanation for everything that is wrong with New York State reminds me of the tendency of certain evangelicals to assert the nation’s rejection of traditional Christian values as an explanation of everything from 9/11 to the Aurora theater shooting.

The picture that Paladino paints is one in which the state of New York is headed towards nothing less than a localized apocalypse.  And it is entirely the fault of those who fail to adopt the very specific messianic message of the Paladino-party line.  “If the brainpower and time wasted on theatrics, illusion and game-playing were invested in real responsible government,” he writes to Libous, “New York would still be a great place to live and raise a family.”  As it stands, the state is not such a place.  And it’s not enough for Carl Paladino to suggest that he would do things differently in order to promote better outcomes.  No, no; in absence of the embrace of his guiding wisdom, the entire state, as he writes in the first sentence of an open letter accompanying the one addressed to Libous, “continues down a slippery slope into the abyss.”

Now, lest I be accused of quoting him out of context, Paladino does not explicitly say that that abyss looms because of the rejection of his governorship.  In fact, in response to an e-mail from Albany County Republican Committee Chairman Donald A. Clarey, requesting removal from Paladino’s mailing list after his “pathetic screed” against Libous, Paladino tells the Chairman, “I have no ego to fulfill, sir.”  Of course, I find that laughable, and I don’t think it unfair to conclude that Paladino truly perceives himself as the sole salvation of the New York State Republican Party and the state itself.  Though he never says such a thing outright, he does invest himself with the power to set an unquestionable agenda for the entire conservative wing of New York politics.

The final ultimatum and source of absolution that he presents to Senator Libous is this:

“Endorse our slate of Republican primary candidates for the Senate, Assembly and US Senate and House of Representatives and withdraw any prior endorsements of their opponents.”

Taking all of this together, I’d say I’m actually impressed with Paladino’s ability to delicately blend, in his political activism, the typically-American culture of evangelical Christianity and aspects of his Italian Catholic background.  After all, at the same time that he cries doom for the forsaken state of New York lest it repent of its evil ways and be born again, he also demands strict adherence to a hierarchy with himself in the role of pope.

Again, I’m not asserting these things baselessly.  I’m extrapolating from his own sociopathic commentary.  By presuming to speak for the entire grassroots base of the New York conservative movement, separating tea partiers and RINOs like sheep and goats, and making unilateral demands of duly elected officials, it seems clear that he is aiming to position himself as a solitary guiding force behind the entire Republican state government, even in the wake of a sound electoral defeat.  He even makes this fairly chilling remark in his message to Chairman Clarey: “Running for office was only the beginning statement for me.”

On the other hand, I’m not sure whether Paladino is jostling for the position of Republican pontiff or conservative Christ.  The messianic language that he relies on is pretty strong.  Still addressing Clarey, he says, “If I had tried to do something, the likes of you wouldn’t stop me.”  Unless Carl Paladino actually has been sent by God to save the Republican Party from itself, in light of comments like that I worry that the non-fulfillment of his goals is the only thing dividing Paladino the property developer from Paladino the super-villain.

Is my analysis here overly rhetorical?  Doesn’t it take a pretty seriously unstable person to say, essentially, “I am a greater force than so puny an individual as you can reckon with”?  Even if I’m just half-right about that, it isn’t the craziest ranting one finds in a Carl Paladino letter.  The really unsettling stuff is the goddamn conspiracy theories.

To hear Paladino tell it, nothing that is done against him, or even just against his preferences, is done individually or on the basis of innocent motives.  Everything is a coordinated attack.  When Clarey wrote back to basically say, “you’re an irrelevant loon; stop e-mailing me,” Paladino’s verbose reply included the paranoid statement, “If the best that Libous can do is to send a washed up politician like you after me it illustrates just how weakened and insecure he is.”

To his credit, if Paladino believes that every private e-mail communication of Republican officials is directed from on high, it goes a long way toward explaining why he believes that there’s a position of puppet master for which he is a viable candidate.

If such a position existed and Paladino occupied it, he would evidently deliver the New York State Republican government from a culture in which absolutely everything is done for reasons other than those stated.  He likes to go on in pretty much all of his messages about oil drilling in the Marcellus Shale, a process which very well might threaten the drinking water of residents of Western New York and Pennsylvania.  His readers are tacitly encouraged to take it for granted that Paladino’s advocacy comes sans any ulterior motives whatsoever, while simultaneously rejecting every public claim on the part of his opponents.  In his open letter regarding Tom Libous he says of the state Senator:

“He has the power to bring 25,000 – $75,000/year jobs to his area of the state by permitting the drilling of the Marcellus Shale but instead he argues environmental concerns to mask the good old boy two-step where the defer decision until the drillers figure out how to bring Mr. Green to the tables of Al D’Amato and the other parasitic lobbyists so they can line the campaign bank accounts of the establishment boys and play their gay marriage chips.”

Leave aside for the moment the weird inclusion of gay marriage in this narrative.  (We’ll come back to it in a moment.)  That aside, you see the situation?  The prospect of methane spewing from people’s home taps is just a distraction, and the ongoing citizen protests against extracting natural gas through hydraulic fracturing are, I suppose, a smokescreen masterminded by lifelong Republican Alfonse D’Amato who has personal control of environmental impact studies and can reverse their results once the proper sum of money is delivered to his office.  Or something like that.  I don’t know, I’m confused.

But what’s important is that Carl Paladino knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are no environmental threats connected to the Marcellus Shale drilling proposals, and if he was in charge and impact studies showed clean projections, those claims would be trustworthy.  After all, no lobbying organizations or political operatives stand to benefit financially from the drilling going forward.  Right?

 If that’s the kind of high profile conspiracy that operates among those on Carl Paladino’s side of the aisle (though in name only, mind you), then you can imagine what kind of political sorcery is operating among Democrats and liberals.  Labor unions are especially guilty, and especially capable of the most elaborate public misrepresentations of their beliefs, attitudes, motivations, and activities.  Going back to the letter addressed to Tom Libous, we find Paladino saying:

“The pension reform and union contract deals were toothless sellouts to the unions, who play-acted for a week afterward that they were so outraged with Andrew Cuomo…”

Get it?  Even if it looks like a political agreement was a compromise that was actually disadvantageous to the progressive faction, it was really exactly what the progressives wanted.  How do we know?  Well, because it wasn’t the way Carl Paladino would have done it, I guess.  Carl Paladino knows how to get everything that the Republican base wants out of every situation.  Carl Paladino knows how compromise works.  According to his reply to Donald Clarey, “As long as the Republicans control 1/3 of the vote in Albany they can veto anything.  That’s where the bargaining comes in, Tit for tat.”

That’s where bargaining comes in.  You know, in not bargaining, even when you’re in the minority.  Or is that called “stonewalling the democratic process”?  I can never remember these things when I’ve been sucked down the rabbit hole of Carl Paladino’s furious insanity.  The man represents the absolute worst of today’s Republican praise for tribalist non-cooperation, if only because his allegiance to it is inflated by a conspiracy-theory mindset that regards any compromise whatsoever as a deliberate and complete giveaway to the opposing side of the issue.

Oh, and just wait until you see how endemic that RINO betrayal is, according to Paladino.  To date, the fucking craziest thing that he has sent me is a message bearing the subject line “FW: Al D’Amato, the predator.”  It’s such an exquisite work of paranoia and self-indulgence that I can only do it justice by copying most of it directly, with interspersed paraphrases and commentary.  The mini-essay starts as an explanation of the context for the tirade against D’Amato that was quoted near the beginning of this post.  He writes:

“Al D’Amato, in concert with his surrogates Dean Skelos and George Maziarz were approached last year by Andrew Cuomo and his minions to make a deal.  Cuomo wanted to show everyone in the State that he could do anything with the complicit New York State Republican led Senate… including getting legislative approval for the extreme left issue of gay marriage.  Getting that law passed would allow Cuomo to… payback the gay community for their 2010 unwarranted but effective bashing of my candidacy.”

Right off the bat, Paladino takes the ambitious step of making the conspiracy equally about him as an individual and the issues that he thinks no ordinary person could support, since he doesn’t support them.  Could it be that Paladino’s political opponents just have different opinions about what’s best for the state?  Not a chance!  They are evil masterminds who wish to instill chaos upon the state of New York because they have the power to do so, and Carl Paladino has not yet saved us.

I must say, though, if you identify gay marriage as an “extreme left issue,” it’s pretty bold to describe gay opposition to your candidacy as unwarranted.  For those who don’t remember, one of the things that helped to sink Paladino’s gubernatorial campaign was his having delivered a speech in which he chastised Andrew Cuomo for having marched in a gay pride parade, and described teaching acceptance of homosexuality as “brainwashing.”

But now that Paladino can identify homosexuals as a convenient scapegoat for his loss of the election, it has made it easy for him to place them in a diagram of the elaborate behind-the-scenes power structures controlling state politics.  Think I’m being hyperbolic?  Keep reading.

“In return D’Amato, the prime mover of the effort, would get access to Cuomo on initiatives that he needed for his lobbying clients who pay big bucks.”

I hope you’ll agree that this is already getting a little convoluted.  Now it wasn’t just the gay community attacking the Paladino campaign out of sheer ill-will (Paladino never entertains the notion that it had to do with policy in the first place).  Rather, the gay community acted at the masterminding behest of Alfonse D’Amato for some unspecified reason.

And here we leap to the Marcellus shale issue again:

“Anyone who thinks that the holdup of the Marcellus shale drilling permit has anything to do with the merits being argued in public is a fool drinking cool-aid.  It’s all about Mr. Green showing up at the doors of the likes of D’Amato the lobbyist.”

It cannot be stressed enough:  Policy differences never have anything to do with policy.  In Carl Paladino’s mind, there is only one legitimate opinion on any topic, and every alternative is invented to make money.  Christ, obviously I feel that the influence of money in politics needs to be vastly diminished, but I also believe that lobbyists contribute money because they actually want certain policies, not, as Paladino seems to imply, because they simply wish to toss a monkey wrench into the workings of democracy and trade cash in the process.  Lobbyists or no lobbyists, the workings of democracy consist of multiple opinions, and that appears to be something that Carl Paladino cannot accept.

“Knowing that Skelos and Maziarz… were spineless and could not vote for the bill, the cabal picked 4 republican senators… and promised  they would each get $500,000 in contributions from the gay community and future favors from the cabal including campaign support.”

I really like Paladino’s choice of the word “cabal.”  It truly emphasizes the paranoia.  I also like how he impugns the integrity of Skelos and Maziarz for fucking agreeing with Paladino’s position on the gay marriage issue.  It implies that Carl Paladino lives in a one hundred percent trust-free world in which no one on Earth ever acts according to their personal principles or stated motives.  Also, I didn’t realize that the entire gay community was a lobbying organization.  No wonder they were able to single-handedly sink Paladino’s campaign for governor.  It’s a good thing they had Alfonse D’Amato to direct their actions for them.

“Freshman Senator Grisanti from Buffalo intended to do the right for his constituents when he got in office.   Cuomo, Maziarz, Skelos and D’Amato brought heavy pressure on him to sell out and at the last minute he threw his integrity under the bus, broke his promises to the people who donated to his campaign and voted for the law.”

I hope readers will recall Grisanti’s surprise vote in favor of gay marriage, which saved gay marriage from defeat in New York State.  Well, now, thanks to Carl Paladino, those same readers know what the real reason for his change of heart was.  It wasn’t for his stated reasons, that he could find no legal reason to deny other people rights that he himself had.  Nor does it have anything to do with the capability of human beings to change their opinions sometimes.  Carl Paladino wouldn’t know anything about that.  He’s probably never changed an opinion in his life, even when he changed political parties.  Hell, he seems not to understand that other opinions exist.

To hear Paladino tell it, Grisanti’s vote was actually the result of a nefarious plot by Governor Cuomo and an aging lobbyist to do pass an initiative that they didn’t believe in, for no other reason than because they thought it would go against the public will, with the help of a series of bribes bankrolled by a sprawling, well-organized secret society of fabulously wealthy homosexuals. Oh, and they only got away with it because they all first conspired to keep Carl Paladino out of office, which had nothing to do with Paladino being vehemently anti-gay, as well as a goddamn sociopath.

Paladino concludes:

“I believe that if Mark came out and told the truth about what happened to him and revealed the hypocrisy of the cabal’s complicity the people of his district would be forgiving, but that will not happen because the cabal continues to stroke and intimidate him with false hope.”

Wait.  Grisanti hasn’t come out and told the truth about this?  Then how the hell do you know the truth about it, Carl?  Is it because you have a prophetic access to all truth at all times, or is it perhaps because you’re just making shit up with your diseased mind?

Little doubt he believes the former, which sort of explains the religious overtones of his final comments.  You see, Senator Grisanti, salvation awaits you.  If you repent you will be forgiven, and you must repent, for the promises of those who reject the Republican messiah are empty promises, and the hope they offer is false hope.  There is only one political Truth in New York State, and it is yelling “fuck you” at its opponents as loudly as it can.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Humans Made Better With Technology

It is often interesting to watch the future unfold in real time.  In many areas of human development, the small changes accumulate casually, soundlessly, but add up to one grand spectacle when one take the time to observe it and realize they’re looking at something that just a little time ago would have appeared to be the exclusive domain of science fiction.  The recognition of that progress can be a subtle personal breaking point.  It can be either a negative breaking point – jarring one with the realization that the world is morphing by a series of huge steps into something virtually unrecognizable; or it can be a positive one – welcoming a sense of exhilaration as one comes to gain a clear perspective on the lovely places his world seems destined to go.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am prone to be threatened by changed, including and especially technological change.  I am terrified of the myriad ways in which we seem not only willing but eager to throw our humanity away in an endless quest for convenience, and easy security, and ephemeral connections to an increasingly impersonal, electronic world.  But several recent events have given me a sense of the other side of that coin, the exciting promises that come of our eager, whole-body embrace of new technology.

As much as technology swaddles us with petty conveniences and frivolous distractions, the multiplication of those things goes hand in hand with the growth of technologies that demonstrate potential to really transform not just human experience, but human beings themselves.  While the trends have certainly been building for some time, with the rapid development of prosthetics, and of personal electronic devices, and the social acceptance of a constant technological presence in individual lives, it rather seems to me that in the blink of an eye we were on the verge of the widespread technological enhancement of human beings.

That trend is realized in ways that may lie anywhere on the spectrum from subtle to unmistakable.  On the side nearer to familiarity there is the 2008 Olympics.  While the nation and the world were busy watching Michael Phelps make history by scoring eight gold medals at the Beijing games, they may have missed the fact that it wasn’t just Phelps, but also several of his competitors who were systematically shattering former world records in each event.

This wasn’t just a result of that year’s competitors having been a particularly exceptional crop of swimmers.  Advancements in swimwear technology, led by Speedo, effectively made times before and after 2008 incomparable by quite literally reshaping the actual competitors into something more hydrodynamic, squeezed tight in all the right places to make them glide through the water with reduced drag.

It might be hard to conceptualize mere garments as high technology, but however you look at it, the gear that modern industries have produced for their athletes have served to dramatically increase performance and raise the bar for “personal best.”  Technology doesn’t just aid natural abilities; it enhances them.  This is true in other events, as well.  Running shoes have steadily collapsed the ratio of strength to lightness, with Adidas having developed a shoe that redirects power into the turn for long distance track and field competitors.  In that same category, the design of javelins has both increased outcomes and decreased risk of injury by premiering innovative design materials to limit the wobble of the pole upon release without transferring that force into the thrower’s shoulder.  In every one of these instances, if the competitor is capable of performing at a higher level in a high tech outfit than he could do naked, or if different individuals can perform differently based on the design of the object they’re holding, then we’re effectively enhancing the natural capabilities of a human being, even without drugs.  In a way, we’ve been doing this for decades, but it has gotten far more dramatic very quickly, especially in light of the outcomes of the 2008 Olympic Games.

The current Olympic Games showcase something rather more interesting, albeit something that requires a little more speculation to see how it supports my thesis.  South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius has qualified and been permitted to run in the men’s 4 x 400 meter relay.  Pistorius is a double-amputee who will be running on two prosthetic legs against able-bodied opponents, and he purportedly has a real chance of taking a medal.

This probably comes across to many observers as a nice human interest story, but to my mind this is a terrific portend of things to come.  The significance of the story is arguably more social and technological than it is personal.  The Olympics are the ultimate testing ground for the quality of prosthetics.  If false legs are now capable of holding their own in direct competition with the real limbs of athletes in their prime, there can be little doubt that we’ve designed technology capable of replicating the fullest capabilities of the human body.  If we’ve managed that so early in the twenty-first century, how long can it really be before we have prosthetics that actually exceed human abilities?

Unless Pistorius’ prosthetics fail catastrophically, there is simply no way that he will stand alone for long as an example of a formerly-disabled world-class athlete.  Again, with this development, technology has plainly shown itself to be capable of dramatically enhancing the abilities of un-equipped human beings.  Granted, in the present case, it may only be serving to bring a disabled man’s abilities back up to the baseline, but that in itself is truly remarkable, and it leaves it easy to imagine that the technology of the near future can amplify the performance of already able-bodied individuals in similar measure.

All right, let’s not mince words; there’s no more sane way to say this.  I’m talking about cyborgs.  We’re close to having cyborgs among us.  Depending on how you define the term, we may already have them.  I feel downright silly typing that, as the concept still seems far-fetched to me, but I have to reconcile that with the fact that I read a week or two ago about the human cyborg Steve Mann, who has apparently been experimenting with wearable technology since the early 1980s.

Mann made headlines in mid-July after he was assaulted by employees of a Paris McDonalds for wearing his EyeTap Digital Glass camera, which is permanently attached to his head and cannot be removed without special tools, leading the website io9 to brand the attack as the “world’s first cybernetic hate crime.”  Overstated or not, that puts the immediacy of such seemingly futuristic technology into sharp focus.  Technologically-enhancement of human beings is a definite reality, and not just as one-off experiments in distant government labs.  There is at least one individual who is living with such enhancements on a daily basis, blended in with mainstream society.

Taking all of these indicators together, I can’t help but wonder what the future holds and when it will show it to us denizens of the present.  Perhaps it will still be a generation or more.  Then again, Steve Mann’s developments went on in society’s background for thirty years and when I came aware of them I felt they had snuck up on me.  And while I knew how well prosthetic technology was developing, I never anticipated seeing an amputee run in the Olympics.  That too, snuck up on me.  The pace of change is stunning.  If you’re not paying close attention to the patterns, it’s easy to underestimate what the future holds and how soon the future comes.