Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Category: Politics

Don’t Forget: The House Actually Works

Watching my Google Reader queue fill up today is the universe’s way of saying, “You know, Brian, you can spend all weekend buying video games, drinking and playing football, thus leaving you tired and cranky as of Monday, but nobody else cares.” That’s how bad it is: the universe spelled my name wrong.

There’s a lot of talk about the Obama budget today, but I submit you have to be a wonk of the highest order to enjoy parsing it, line-by-line. In fact, I’d submit that you’d almost certainly have to be from the minority party and be looking for easy targets, of which there would be too many to count. I’m sure Sean Hannity will talk about them on his show tonight.

The big news, if you can call it that, is that White House Robert Gibbs has called for a Question Time session with Senate Republicans. It won’t happen, so I’m not sure how important it actually is. I do kind of agree with Matt Yglesias (with whom I seem to agree pretty often; political blogging is fun!) when he says that John Boehner has a good point when he effectively rejects bipartisanship vis-a-vis the House. The House works just fine as a legislative institution that is representative of the wishes of the country at the ballot box; with no filibuster in play, the wishes of the people, as represented by the body of the House, are always going to be met in an important way. It’s the Senate that’s broken beyond any easy repair (save nuking the filibuster), and where bipartisanship is the only way to get things done. You can dislike members of the House, but at least it works.


Greenwald Is Wrong On Alito

I can’t help but think that Glenn Greenwald has Alitogate totally backward. He writes, referring first to the “You Lie” outburst:

Wilson and Obama are both political actors, it occurred in the middle of a political speech about a highly political dispute, and while the outburst was indecorous and impolite, Obama is not entitled to be treated as royalty.  That was all much ado about nothing.  By contrast, the behavior of Justice Alito at last night’s State of the Union address — visibly shaking his head and mouthing the words “not true” when Obama warned of the dangers of the Court’s Citizens United ruling — was a serious and substantive breach of protocol that reflects very poorly on Alito and only further undermines the credibility of the Court.

Somehow this gets me thinking both to the end of the Sopranos*—where there was rampant talk of how fiction “makes its own rules”—and of the end-the-filibuster movement, which stresses that the filibuster is a creation of the same group it undermines. Wilson’s outburst was worse than Alito’s non-outburst because for the exact reason Greenwald cites: Obama and Wilson are both political actors, and Wilson effectively broke character. He signed up to play by those rules and he deliberately and unmistakably broke protocol.

Alito, on the other hand, didn’t say anything. Greenwald writes:

Justice Alito’s flamboyantly insinuating himself into a pure political event, in a highly politicized manner, will only hasten that decline.  […] Alito is now a political (rather than judicial) hero to Republicans and a political enemy of Democrats, which is exactly the role a Supreme Court Justice should not occupy.

First, to say that Alito acted “flamboyantly” is so disingenuous that it’s absurd: He mouthed some words. Unlike Joe Wilson, whose job it is, at least partially, to maintain composure in this hyper-public setting, more than 99 percent of Alito’s job has nothing to do with maintaining some sort of stony composure in public. His job is to be the best Supreme Court Justice he can be. Is he partisan? Probably, but this doesn’t make him any more or less of a Republican hero than he was before. Republicans love the decision, and Obama didn’t like it. It’s not like Alito told us anything we didn’t know about where he stands on the issue, nor was he technically wrong. Nor should he have mouthed those words. It was, if not a startling breach of protocol, certainly bad form.

But Joe Wilson’s outburst was much worse. He flagrantly and obviously violated the terms of the arrangement for which he specifically signed up. I don’t want Sam Alito on the court any more than you do, but I don’t give a crap about this. Mouthed words or not, we know what side he’s on.

* To draw out the Sopranos analogy, many people, including myself, initially made “Tony is Dead” arguments based clues we erroneously believed were inserted into previous episodes. Something on the order of “Once it’s over, it’s just black,” or something. I don’t remember exactly what we thought was said, but it wasn’t. Without that clue, any argument other than “it’s ambiguous” fell apart completely. The only justification for truly “proving” he was dead was built upon any rules that this particular fiction had created for itself.

My stray SOTU thoughts

Here are the SOTU thoughts I’ve recovered from my cortices:

The Tone. At first, the tone threw me. When Obama super-casually asked why the Republicans weren’t applauding an applause line directed at them, it was the first time I had seen him break Super Orator character. I think the shift in tone worked: It got away from Obama as speechmaker and moved him into Obama as problem solver. This is the Chicago Obama, not the Harvard one, and this is the one better equipped to be President.

The GOP. Man, they don’t stand for much, do they? They seem so petulant. As I’ve written before, and said before, I have no problem with conservative values, but the party is a joke, especially when it acts like a bunch of spoiled kids who realize that banding together under their High School Republicans platform makes them look tough. They didn’t applaud when Obama said he would knock $1 trillion off the deficit. What on Earth were they thinking?

The Juggler. This is related the the first point. I don’t think we had gotten the image of Obama as President until last night. Those who criticized him for doing too much were making the implicit criticism that Obama couldn’t do all these things at once and successfully divide his attention. Last night he came across as the one guy who had his eye on all the balls in the air, and that Republicans challenge his competence at their own risk. He certainly knows why he’s doing what he’s doing, and I think the sense that he’s gasping for air has been extinguished completely.

• The Response. The “Mini State of the Union” was a nice set-up for the Republican response. Many are criticizing the demographic choices of the people directly behind Bob McDonnell, in that the ribben of people from different races didn’t accurately represent the GOP. That’s politics, the same way Obama’s spending freeze is designed to earn him points with swing voters, only he can’t say as much. FWIW, I think he did a terrible job of explaining that last night, as I think it’s impossible for him to honestly explain, especially in the face of near-unanimous criticism. I don’t support it as much as I think I know why he did it, but we’re going to have to wait for his memoir to know for sure. He’s just getting blistered on it now.

• The Supreme Court. Great moment with the Court, seated directly in front of the President, getting called out by him as most of the chamber stood to applaud. It was something right out of the WWE. Obama vs. Roberts at the Royal Rumble. Or something.

• The Length. Dear God, it was long. I have no problem with Obama waiting 32 minutes to get to health care. Everyone knew it was coming, and no one was tuning out before it came up. Not that he really said much that hadn’t been said, or that his words will have that much of an effect. The die has basically been cast, and now it’s time to pass the thing. Obama’s fortunes are already tied to this bill even if it’s largely out of his hands, like the quarterback who leads his team near victory and needs his defense to seal the deal: Whatever happens, it will ultimately be heaped on his shoulders. For all that we remember about Bush, it really comes down to Iraq and Katrina—while there were many, many other things for Obama to walk back, those are shorthand for his Presidency. Health care is it for Obama. It needs to pass or the narrative of him as ineffective will pick up steam and lead wherever it leads. Republicans would be wise to try to kill it altogether in the short term, but in the long term they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Democrats need to make it happen to forcefully overturn the Republican majority/minority, if only once.

• Sorry again about the post. This was supposed to wrap up nicely, but I’m trying to recover it from memory. Imagine some really clever line to take you out of here. I know you can do it.

Snap Take on SOTU

Sorry, I just wrote a long post that WordPress just ate. I don’t think I have it in me to reproduce it right now. I have an issue for work due tomorrow and the thought of retyping 1,000 words just isn’t appealing. The snap-take aspect is gone.

You can see how happy I am about this.

“Pass the f*cking thing”

I don’t have a lot of time today, but I’m with Nate as cited above and Matt Yglesias indicates that it’s one step closer to happening. Of course if Evan Bayh digs his heels in and tries to convince enough centrist Senators to oppose reconciliation that would scuttle the plan, and it wouldn’t even be the first time than Indiana zapped dark-blue America this week.

Remember how good we have it

From James Fallows’ How America Can Rise Again, in the January/February issue of The Atlantic:

Here is the sort of thing you notice anew after being in India or China, the two rising powers of the day: there is still so much nature, and so much space, available for each person on American soil. Room on the streets and sidewalks, big lawns around the houses, trees to walk under, wildflowers at the edge of town—yes, despite the sprawl and overbuilding. A few days after moving from our apartment in Beijing, I awoke to find a mother deer and two fawns in the front yard of our house in Washington, barely three miles from the White House. I know that deer are a modern pest, but the contrast with blighted urban China, in which even pigeons are scarce, was difficult to ignore.

And the people! The typical American I see in an office building or shopping mall, stout or slim, gives off countless unconscious signs—hair, skin, teeth, height—of having grown up in a society of taken-for-granted sanitation, vaccination, ample protein, and overall public health. I have learned not to bore people with my expressions of amazement at the array of food in ordinary grocery stores, the size and newness of cars on the street, the splendor of the physical plant for universities, museums, sports stadiums. And honestly, by now I’ve almost stopped noticing. But if this is “decline,” it is from a level that most of the world still envies.

He goes on to paint a rather bleak picture of the political future while stressing the points above (“America the society is in fine shape! America the polity is most certainly not.”), but it’s worth remembering that the world would yearn for what we have.

The Spending Freeze: Overdramatized? The Hoover Comparison: Invalid? (AQUA TEEN UPDATE)

In July, Harper’s Magazine published an article called “Barack Hoover Obama: The best and the brightest blow it again” that’s probably wise to revisit in light of the recently-announced spending freeze. Kevin Baker wrote:

Hoover’s every decision in fighting the Great Depression mirrored the sentiments of 1920s “business progressivism,” even if he understood intellectually that something more was required. Farsighted as he was compared with almost everyone else in public life, believing as much as he did in activist government, he still could not convince himself to take the next step and accept that the basic economic tenets he had believed in all his life were discredited; that something new was required.[…]

FDR was by no means the rigorous thinker that Hoover was, and many observers then and since have accused him of having no fixed principles whatsoever. And yet it was Roosevelt, the Great Improviser, who was able to patch and borrow and fudge his way to solutions not only to the Depression but also to sustained prosperity and democracy. […]

Much like Herbert Hoover, Barack Obama is a man attempting to realize a stirring new vision of his society without cutting himself free from the dogmas of the past — without accepting the inevitable conflict. Like Hoover, he is bound to fail.

I thought that comparison was unfair then, a mere six months into the Presidency, and I think it’s unfair now, even as more people start to adopt it. For their similarities, let’s not forget that Obama came one absurd special election away from passing the most comprehensive Health Care Reform bill in… what, ever? All in the same time he was negotating the bank and auto bailouts, and two inherited wars, etc. Yes, every President has battles to fight and yes, Obama’s intellectual bent with fairly traditional solutions looks like Hooverism, even from up close. But let’s be fair. There are a lot of balls in the air right now, and this is actually not that big of a practical measure. The Wall Street Journal’s coverage begins by pointing out how small it actually is compared with the waves it’s making politically, calling it “a move meant to quell rising concern over the deficit but whose practical impact will be muted.”

Even among the more thoughtful elements of the left, anger and confusion reign. Rachel Maddow laughed one of Joe Biden’s economic advisors off her show, and Nate Silver called this The White House’s Brain Freeze… while admitting that practically, it wasn’t that big of a deal.



This sh!t has got to stop. If you don’t think this is a good decision, it doesn’t mean it’s the worst decision Barack Obama has ever made. It’s certainly going to give him some cache with independents who remember it come 2012, and to Nate’s suggestion that this gives ammo to Republicans to attack him should he renege on any part of it—do you really think the truth matters to them come election time? The assault is going to be giant, unmistakable, and disingenuous. If Obama can keep this promise, I think that the pundiocracy has lost sight of what it might mean to an average voter than the President is *not* a Democratic stereotype.

But even if you disagree, this is really not all that big of a deal. To suggest otherwise is ignorance, at best. This is the matter of governing when you miss out on Health Care by one vote in a completely absurd situation. Governing isn’t easy, but you can’t always let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This has actual benefits for Obama if he can stick to it. The only thing that bothers me is that he clearly lied to Diane Sawyer when he said that he’d rather be a good one-term President than a mediocre two-termer. This is a long-haul decision with low downside and low upside, but the upside is there. Even if it does affect the economy (with many on the left suggesting deficit spending as the key to end the recession), there’s no way Republicans are going to win independent votes by bragging that Obama lost the economy by following their platform. If anything, this move shows how irresponsible the GOP’s economic plan is, not Obama’s. We call this governing.

There’s ample room to disagree here, but I would like people to keep a level head about this.

UPDATE: Ben has a theory, and it sounds plausible.

David Kairys’ Embarrassingly Wasteful Take on Citizens United, and Why It Might Ulimately Be Right

As of this writing the top-emailed article on is David Kairys’ “Money Isn’t Speech and Corporations Aren’t People,” a anti-Supreme Court invective that, while passionate, falls somewhere on the unhappy end of the “Sloppy Reasoning Or Intellectual Dishonesty?” scale. Look: I wanted to believe Citizens United vs. FEC is unconstitutional, and I have my own theory as to why it might be, which I’ll get to after I sort through Kairys’ baffling analysis. Kairys believes the Supreme Court made the wrong decision, and he peppers the article with slightly-altered versions of his thesis, which is based more on how he feels about the law than the law itself, and offers nothing in the terms of an actual remedy. To begin:

The court has also employed theories not uniformly but, rather, as constitutional cover for dominance of the electoral system by corporations and by the wealthy.[…]

Increasing the constitutional rights of corporations beyond their business purposes is really about increasing the rights and power of corporate managers.[…]

At its core, this line of cases is about dominance of the political and electoral system by wealthy people and corporations and about legitimizing a political and electoral system that is unrepresentative, money-driven, corrupt, outmoded, and dysfunctional.

First of all, criticizing the Court for using a “constitutional cover” on its decision is like criticizing the David Ortiz for using a bat to hit home runs. Second, at no point does he say why the Court of the United States has a vested interest in seeing wealthy people dominate the electoral process. This is an important oversight, to put it mildly. Maybe for him it’s so blindingly obvious that, since the decision fell along the Court’s Democratic/Republican fault line, the Justices who were appointed by Republicans are so beholden to the party that they’d undermine the Constitution to please it, and that this is so obvious that all his readers will just pick it up on a whim. Maybe his coffee guy told him. I don’t know, because he never explains it. There’s nothing like, “The Justices would obviously favor that the wealthy control the electoral process because…” anywhere. I wish Slate’s editors had noticed this pesky little lack of an argument. It’s a shame, because I’m genuinely curious as to why the Justices want to strip the Five Dollar Footlong crowd of its electoral power.

Unfortunately, we’re just getting started with the inanity. Kairys attempts to draw parallels to other free speech cases and demonstrate inconsistency in the Court’s decisions, especially related to the concept of “money as speech,” and pretty plainly fails, if you’re paying attention. The opening line to the article is:

Go back almost a century, to the time when the modern corporation was created, and you’ll find laws that prohibit or limit the use of corporate money in elections.

That’s great, but as you’re about to spend the next 1,000+ words telling me why a law was wrong, you should probably tell me why the previous ones were right. Not planning on it? That’s interesting, because it almost sounds as if you’re saying that if laws are in place they must be right. That would be strange because, as a law professor, you obviously believe that the law can and should be refined. If you expect me to take that sentence as a jumping-off point for what follows, every court case would be done before it ever started. It would go something like:

ATTORNEY: “Your honor, there used to be laws against this, but there aren’t anymore.”

JUDGE: “Oh, there used to be laws against it? That ends that. Let’s play nine.”

Things get sloppier still (really) when he draws a parallel to another “money-as-speech” Court decision that, in his words, “limited the First Amendment rights of Hare Krishna leafleters soliciting donations in airports.” The Court ruled that the soliciting was “disruptive” and an “inconvenience,” leading Kairys to conclude, “some people’s money is speech; others’ money is annoying. And the conservative justices have raised no objection to other limits on the quantity of speech, such as limits of the number of picketers.” And later on:

We limit speech—when it has nothing to do with wealthy people spending money—in many ways. (It wasn’t protected at all until the mid-1930s.) You famously can’t shout fire in a theater. You not-so-famously can’t break the theater’s rules, including rules about speaking, because you don’t really have any First Amendment rights in a privately owned theater or at work.

Where to begin? As Moacir wrote to me, “The story here is that Justices are inconsistent. Duh. But ‘some speech is prohibited, so we can prohibit more’ is a bad angle.” You think? If the Court had ruled the opposite way, there would still be major inconsistencies… but as a reader, they’re only supposed to  bother you into buying Kairys’ thesis that the Court wants the wealthy to control elections. Just know that if the tables had been turned, a conservative law professor would have used the exact same argument, and that’ll tell you how much it’s worth. Would it be too much to ask for an argument that has to do with what we’re specifically talking about?

Apparently yes, because next we tackle the Hare Krishna case. The one about the people soliciting money for their cause. Wait—soliciting money? I thought Citizens United was eventually expanded to control how money was donated. No one was prevented from giving money to the Hare Krishnas. This doesn’t add up. The details of the cases are very obviously inverted, but there’s no mention of it. To me, it’s sloppy and likely erroneous legal reasoning (that is, if he’s as careless in selecting cases as he is at making an argument, I see no reason to trust that he’s choosing the best test case here). I see no connection, but he sees an obvious one. I’m the reader; this is his fault, no matter how obvious it looks to him. Then again, a lot of things seem obvious enough to him to avoid explanation. To wit (emphasis mine):

Corporations needed some rights usually reserved for people to function as legal entities, so that they could, for instance, make enforceable contracts and sue or be sued. But despite the common cultural personification of corporations—we can easily say “GM was embarrassed today”—they obviously don’t and shouldn’t have all the rights of people. For example, they don’t have the right to vote.[…]

Wealthy people and corporate managers shouldn’t dominate politics or have more and better speech rights than the rest of us. That seems like an obvious truth. And yet the Supreme Court’s recent decisions move us away from it.

Let’s take these “obvious” observations one by one. One, if corporations “obviously” shouldn’t have all the rights of people, there would be no need for this article. The Supreme Court doesn’t think this is “obvious,” which is kind of what we’re talking about. Two, the “obvious truth” that wealthy people and corporate managers shouldn’t have outsized influence doesn’t directly tackle the constitutionality of the decision. The wealth of the individuals and corporate managers is circumstantial, not pre-conditionary. Kairys shoud know that it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to the Court if a corporation was planning to donate $1 or $1 million to an election campaign; it’s the free speech principle that matters to the Court, and yet he paints it terms of the imbalance that’s created. I’m not any happier about it than he is, but while the imbalance is obvious to him, it’s just as obvious that the Court doesn’t give a crap. But while Kairys may be shortsighted, it doesn’t mean he’s ultimately wrong. This decision feels wrong to so many liberals, and for good reason: There may be angles yet to challenge it, even if Kairys doesn’t come close to approaching them here. Maybe he’s planning to write a book for the thousands of Slate readers that have forwarded his article along, unaware that they’re passing along a rice cake.

Let me reiterate: I’m not a law scholar, and I wouldn’t propose a counter-claim to the Supreme Court if I hadn’t just read one that insulted my intelligence. But I did, and I will. Corporations are necessary made up of people. As Kairys said, corporations cannot vote, but people can. People can also donate money. By giving corporations some of the rights of people, you are adding members to the body politic without it actually being expanded. Forget the amount of money that’s being funneled through corporations for a second, and consider the principle: If every corporation can donate money, and corporations are made of people, you are effectively multiplying a given person’s role in the process. You turn a democratic system into something resembling the Chicago system: Not necessarily vote early, vote often, but participate early and often, and beyond your singular capacity as an individual. Some people end up making an impression on the process far beyond what would otherwise be possible and some will have the force simply of their vote, turning democracy into something of a fractal for those with resources. Their influence will keep growing, and growing, and growing. It’s not that the system is unfair that makes it wrong; it’s that the system is established in such a way that fairness is not possible the moment the first corporation submits a dollar.

That is the opposite of what Kairys argues here. He effetictively says that the Court’s intent is to create an electoral system that favors the wealthy, rather than that being the effect of its decision, and that’s why its wrong. To presume the intent of the justices without any evidence is presumptuous, wasteful, and frankly just a sad commentary from someone who appears to want lefty attention more to craft something resembling a solution. Nothing in this article would pass muster in court, and both Kairys and Slate’s editors should be embarrassed for wasting our time. If the problem is as bad as he says it is, we’ve got no time to waste in getting down to business.

Understanding the Citizens United Decision (UPDATE)

So I’ve done quite a bit of reading on the Supreme Court decision to lift the ban on corporate donations to campaigns, and I have an honest question: What’s the enormous fuss about? Keith Olbermann asked on the show tonight if it was the end of American democracy. I think that is, to put it mildly, an overstatement of whatever point he’s trying to make. Elections are already bought and sold to an absurd extent, and for this to push the situation far over the line, to me, seriously underestimates how bad it is now. How much worse can it get? How good were the rules that were stopping corporations from making donations in the past?

I’m not asking to antagonize; I honestly want to know.

What I do know is that to suggest that the Supreme Court decision rooted in First Amendment principles and suggest that it signals the end of American democracy is to almost certainly obscure the point with rhetoric. The Supreme Court is not perfect, and I’m not claiming it is. I just don’t see how the future is going to look that markedly different from the past. The Times says it’ll go like this:

If you vote wrong, a lobbyist can now tell any elected official that my company, labor union or interest group will spend unlimited sums explicitly advertising against your re-election.

“We have got a million we can spend advertising for you or against you — whichever one you want,’ ” a lobbyist can tell lawmakers.

What in God’s name do you think lobbyists were doing before?

The central concern of Democrats seems to be that Republicans are on the side of big corporations, so this favors them. That may be true, but that’s not ever going to change. The solution isn’t to attempt to cap the Republican institutions, but to build up those favorable to Democratic ones. Do you think the Republicans give a flying f*ck that the Unions model has crumbled? No! It’s not a even fight, but the Constitution doesn’t guarantee an even fight, it guarantees a fair one. For a group that’s spent the last year complaining (correctly) that the GOP politicizes everything, the Democrats seemed to have wasted no time politicizing this.

Now, do I think that Congress should fight against this, as President Obama has urged? Sure, but I see it as a band-aid, not a permanent fix. Democrats emboldened by the righteousness of their cause have to remember that no one gives a sh!t about their cause, and that America always has, and always will, run on money. You want to fight the GOP? Get your institutions to work. You have the right institutions to make this happen. The GOP is the military party, the party of big oil and the health care companies. The first is unlikely to change, just as the Democrats will likely forever remain the party of the intellectual aristocracy (and never, ever underestimate the higher education infrastructure we have in this country). The health care thing we’re working on. Big oil? Big oil is a dinosaur. It’s going away, if not tomorrow or next year, in the next 10 years, and Democrats are on the right side. Own green technology and restructure unions to make them an attractive option—and do it before the Republicans try—and you own the future.

All this is easier said than done, I know, but please don’t tell me that the Supreme Court decision is unfair because it favors one side. That falls directly into the narrative of “Who won today?” versus “What happened today?” that our President spoke against at Walter Cronkite’s funeral. I don’t want to know why the GOP won or lost; I want to know how I won or lost. As of now, I don’t see what I lost. The system is the system, and whether you think it’s ridiculous, great, or abhorrent, it’ll now be any or all of those things and transparent. I want to know what’s happening in my country so I can make better choices. I don’t mind a free-for-all if I get to see it unfold.

That’s my instinct, at least. Am I wrong?

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald wrote basically the exact same thing — with more words, and far more detail — in his post today. Also: Moacir, who told me about it.

Borders (not the bookstore kind)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a running dialogue today about a NYT trend story that basically says non-blacks are taking over Harlem. He disagrees, but more to the point is indifferent about what—even if true—it even means when there are like, real problems for black people. Something like: Gentrification isn’t new, and the root problem is bigger than any one instance of it happening.

But the better question is whether it’s happening or not. He asks in this post:

Still, thinking more on the geography the Times calls “Harlem” raises some questions for me:

“But the neighborhood is in the midst of a profound and accelerating shift. In greater Harlem, which runs river to river, and from East 96th Street and West 106th Street to West 155th Street, blacks are no longer a majority of the population — a shift that actually occurred a decade ago, but was largely overlooked.”

By my estimate this basically places Morningside Heights (amongst other things) inside of Harlem. I imagine that might have been true at some point. But those borders sound really permissive to me. Am I off?

What I thought (and wrote a comment to this effect that is basically reproduced here) is that it’s no different than a phenomenon I was writing about earlier in Queens, where most black neighborhoods are referred to as “Jamaica” on the nightly news, et al., because it’s expedient. If the Times is including Morningside Heights in its map of “Harlem,” maybe they’re going by an old map that places it “inside” a greater Harlem, but I agree with (Run) T-NC that that seems a little off. Which gets us to the idea of how a place is defined. If Harlem did once swallow Morningside Heights whole, why doesn’t it now? And to where does it extend? Most importantly, why do we consider it to extend to wherever it extends?

A friend told me a long time ago that I was into the idea of “place,” and I’m really starting to feel that. I’m about 200 pages into William Vollman’s Imperial, which is already the most exhaustive account of the idea of “place” I’ve ever read—and I have 800 pages to go. It’s all about Imperial County, California and its sister region on the Mexican side and treats the area (wisely, I believe) as a single entity, with this crushing vivisection that makes it almost impossible to view as a unit. But for most of history it was a unit, and at some point it very well may be again. On top of all this, I was in Imperial County last week, spending 48 hours of Christmas break in Palm Springs with pops and bro. I wanted to see the Salton Sea—a reeking, festering, dead body of water around which a good portion of Vollman’s Ouija-like narrative revolves—but was talked out of it, or rather basically forbidden (as family time was short) by my stepmom, who said she had investigated it for kayaking purposes and found it “disgusting.” I didn’t have the heart to say well yeah…

But it all gets to the idea of defining a place. I’ve tried to do this before with MV and think I did a bad job [note: I just re-read it and it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but I feel like I was grasping for something I didn’t quite reach] but I’m trying with Queens now and I think I’m getting some good stuff down. Definitely helps to not be from there and not be there; while there’s something to be said for writing things down as they happen*, there’s also a value in using what you remember—it’s our memories that make places what they are, to us, and it’s important to be true to that.

* Of course, I did write everything down already, but that’s not the point.