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1998/2018: Whatever 20/20, Day Six: Presidents

So, let’s review the presidents we’ve had since 1998: A sexually harassing policy wonk, a genial imbecile, a malevolent imbecile, and Barack Obama.

I don’t think we do presidents well.

This assessment is bolstered by looking at the other five presidents who have been in office in my lifetime (in order, a crook, a placeholder, an ineffectual overthinker, an Alzheimer’s sufferer and George HW Bush, who was not my brand of politics but otherwise was perfectly middlin’, as far as presidents go). We could blame a lot of things for our generally less-than-excellent presidents, including the electoral college, low voter turnout relative to other countries, billionaires funding our political system, and the fact that we in general default to “when in doubt, vote for the guy you’d have a beer with” as a legitimate voting tactic. But after a while you have to suspect that the reason we don’t have great leaders is that we, or at least a large percentage of us, just plain don’t want them.

Mind you, if you had asked me in 1998, I would have been just fine with Bill Clinton, and even now I’m perfectly willing to grant he was a generally effective president whose political inclinations were (and are) largely in step with mine. He was very smart, very knowledgeable about politics, and was savvy enough that when the Republicans came for him with impeachment charges, he came out of the process with higher approval rating than when the process started. It’s not for nothing he was called “Teflon Bill.”

But hey, you know what? He almost certainly was a sexual harasser! And he did have sex with Monica Lewinsky, thank you very much, and was entirely wrong as president to have gotten that blow job from a friggin’ intern. Here in the #MeToo era we can call him for what he was, and not make excuses for him. I don’t have any issue with whatever arrangement he and Hillary Clinton may have had (if they had one) for his extracurricular activities, and I don’t care what he did with other consenting adults he consorted with. But the man crossed enough lines prior to his presidency, and as president, shouldn’t have been doing anything with the interns other than remembering their names correctly and taking a picture with them when it was time for them to leave. This is not rocket science.

I’d like to believe Bill Clinton is a different person now than he was 20 years ago on this matter; I know I am. But I also know that, failed attempt to remove him from office that did him no lasting political damage to the side, he didn’t suffer any particular consequences for his actions. Maybe he’s just happy to have been president when he was.

As for GWB and Trump, well. Most Americans who voted in 2000 and 2016 picked someone else, as well they should have, because TweedleDubya and TweedleTrump are two of the worst presidents since the Civil War. Trump is easily the worst president since Buchanan, and GWB I’d slot in probably at number three (rounding out the top five: Harding, Nixon and A. Johnson). We got GWB and Trump because of white people, specifically white dudes, which strongly suggests that if we are going to go around making it difficult for anyone to vote (which, to be clear, we shouldn’t), we should probably focus on them, since when in doubt, white dudes in particular go for the stupidest, least qualified person possible for president. This isn’t opinion; this is their actual fucking track record.

Dubya shouldn’t have been president; Trump shouldn’t have gotten out of New Hampshire. And yet here we are, dealing with the residue of one and the staggeringly awful reality of the other. If you want to do the United States a solid, the next time there’s a presidential election, find out who the general mass of white dudes say they are voting for, and then vote for the other one. Even if you’re a white dude. Especially if you’re a white dude. History tells you that you probably can’t go wrong, voting against the favorite candidate of the average white dude.

(“Oh, like Gore or Hillary Clinton would have been better presidents!” Why, yes, they absolutely would have been, and the fact that you might think otherwise appalls me. Gore would not have been the greatest president our nation has ever had, but he would have been fine. Hillary Clinton could have been the second worst president in the post-Civil War history of our nation and she still would be better than the cloddish gallstone in human form currently infesting the White House. If Gore had been president we possibly wouldn’t have had the global collapse of the economy in 2008 (posssssibly); if Hillary Clinton were president now the worst thing that would be happening would be the 300th day of investigations into her fucking emails, which would have gone like every other investigation into her, i.e., nowhere.)

Let’s talk about Obama. Obama is, objectively, the best president of my lifetime — he managed to keep the economy from crashing after GWB’s lax policies nearly instigated Depression 2: The Depressioning, he managed to pass the ACA and aside from these and other policies I generally approve of, he was decent, kind, smart and scandal-free in a way that no other modern president has managed. Was he perfect? No — there are legitimate criticisms of him from both the left and the right, and for my money he stepped too lightly at times where he should have been stomping hard. Now, I understand why he did that — because the racist chucklefucks who comprise the GOP primary pool, already in high testeria about the idea that a black man had somehow become President, would possibly have shot up the entire nation — but I think he was overcautious. Be that as it may, when he came into office, we were on the precipice of global collapse. When he left, we were… emphatically not. Obama wasn’t perfect. But he was pretty darn good.

I’d like to think that Trump is an aberration, but let’s be honest with ourselves. The time where we could rely on the GOP to nominate and run competent people for president, for the time being at least, is in the rear view mirror. Barring removal from office — which would be fine with me but let’s be realistic — Trump will run again in 2020 (even if he is removed from office I could see him running again, which should scare the shit out of the GOP, as he currently has 90% approval with Republicans), and then after that who do they have? Ryan? Rubio? That shambling carpet of squamous cells known as Ted Cruz? Fucking Mike Pence, the human personification of an actual stick up one’s ass? John Kasich is out there but he’s as exciting to the GOP primary voters as a stick of unsalted butter. The host of GOP primary voters don’t want sensible; they don’t even want insensible if it comes in a pretending-to-be-sensible package. They want racism, women forced to give birth against their will, and to shove gay people back into the closet as deep as they can go, and they want it at full screaming volume. Trump isn’t an aberration; again, 90% approval rating. He is what the GOP is now.

(It is not what every Republican or conservative person is. Let’s be clear about that. But, news for non-horrible GOPers and conservatives: You’re so very outnumbered now, guys. And maybe that’s on you a bit. Please work on fixing that. The rest of us will thank you for it.)

I can’t say I wished we picked better presidents, since as a nation of individual voters, we did. I can say that I wish our system didn’t allow such terrible presidents to have gotten in. In the last twenty years, we’ve had a sexually harassing policy wonk, a genial imbecile, a malevolent imbecile, and Barack Obama. We could have potentially had a sexually harassing policy wonk, a colorless technocrat, a humorless policy wonk, and Barack Obama. How much better we all would have been if we had.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Jaine Fenn

Autho Jaine Fenn starts this Big Idea piece with an admission — and then explains how she got around it for her new novel, Hidden Sun.


Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a fraud. Most writers have bouts of imposter syndrome, but when it comes to writing scientifically rigorous fiction, I live in special fear of being found out. The gaps in my science education mean I have been known to, shall we say, err on the side of vagueness in my science fiction. Or invoke Clarke’s Third Law. Or ask a grown-up for help.

However, Hidden Sun isn’t science fiction. It’s science fantasy. In my teens, while my teachers were telling me that nice girls don’t do science – early 80s rural England, what can I say? – my reading was moving from fantasy to science fiction, via writers like Anne McCaffrey, Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin. I still liked the feel of classic fantasy – being able to retreat to Middle Earth got me through some difficult times ­– but found myself looking for something more in a story, some shadow of logic and learning, an underpinning of esoteric knowledge of a slightly different flavour to that usually labelled ‘magic’.

Then I went to college (or ‘uni’ as we Brits call it). I did an arts course – like a nice girl – but when I found the ‘astronomy for arts students’ additional module, I was right in there. The course delivered: heaps of cosmology, minimal maths. And it turned out my lecturer was a geek; he’d actually devised the astrophysics Brian Aldiss used in the Helliconia trilogy. My mind was duly blown.

This positive early experience left me with a yen to one day write a book whose protagonist driven to discover how the universe works without the tools or support of a scientific establishment. That half buried desire resurfaced a few years ago and the result is the Shadowlands duology, of which Hidden Sun is the first book.

Rhia is a natural enquirer, part of a diffuse and informal network of proto-scientists living at a renaissance level of technology in isolated pockets of shade – the shadowlands – dotted across a bright, hot, alien world, known as the skyland. The skyland beyond her land’s borders interests Rhia, but the sky overhead fascinates her. She just wants to spend her time observing the stars and coming up with cosmological theories. Unfortunately she has to contend with the politics of a squabbling nobility, the assumption that women don’t have enquiring minds and, most recently, the shocking disappearance of her feckless younger brother.

I loved it when elements of Hidden Sun – the court intrigue, the murder mystery, the skyland with its alien/human symbiotes – came together in a logical yet organic way, accreting like a solar system round a star. And at the heart of the Shadowlands duology is that unconscious desire, building for years, to spend time with a character far smarter than me but without the mentor I had, who is fired up with the desire to unlock the secrets of the universe. And for her to succeed.

I’ve no idea if my old astronomy lecturer will read this post. But I remain indebted to him for the grounding he gave me in the most cosmic of the sciences, which is why it seemed only fitting to dedicate Hidden Sun to him.


Hidden Sun: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


The Whatever Digest, 9/6/18

An overcast morning here, and apparently it’s going to rain for (checks weather forecast) the next four days. Whee! Here’s what I’m thinking about today.


That New York Times anonymous op-ed: Oh, you know the one, in which an unnamed senior official at the White House says they are part of the resistance inside the government, keeping Trump from doing something really crazy? As opposed to all the batshit things he’s actually already managed?

Yeah, not a fan of it. I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone that Trump is unhinged, incompetent and unfit for the role of president, but inasmuch as that’s the case, the solution is boot his ass out of the Oval Office, not attempt to route around him. That said, no one in this administration or the GOP in Congress, which it controls, has the moral courage to either invoke the 25th Amendment, or begin hearings followed by impeachment followed by booting Trump out on his ass, so I guess senior staffers furtively running about hiding papers from the President is all we have between us and armageddon, at least until next January at the earliest.

Not that that will work anymore, either. Now Trump is aware he’s being handled and thinks there’s a traitor in the White House, besides him I mean, and his anger and oppositional behavior will now come out to play even more. This anonymous op-ed isn’t going to make it any easier to handle the President and his irrational impulses. So, thanks, anonymous senior staffer! You’ve done a bang-up job here.

Folks are already making the point that whoever this anonymous staffer is — and we’ll know who they are soon enough, one way or another — is among other things positioning themselves as a Voice of Reason for the post-Trump era, i.e., on our side, rather than in fact entirely complicit. Aaaaand, meh? No. If you want to come clean, fine, do that, and bring all the files with you. Short of that, nah. You’re still complicit.

Honestly this presidency is just so exhausting. Please vote in November, okay?


And, no, I’m not particularly interested in who the anonymous op-ed writer is. I joked yesterday on Twitter it was Ivanka, but that’s pretty much the only one in the White House I’m sure it wouldn’t be, to be honest. Well, her and Stephen Miller, albeit for entirely different reasons, since the reason Miller wouldn’t have written it is that he’s a pustulant little shit who will never work again outside of this White House, so there’s no percentage in him stabbing Trump in the kidneys.

As for the rest of them — well, who cares who wrote it? All of them are moral cowards at this point, and thus conversely (and perversely) I can imagine any of them writing the op-ed, trying to make themselves the hero of the story rather than the fellow traveler. In that sense, it doesn’t matter which of them wrote it. It could be any of them, and it would still be crap.


Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, some good news: India has decriminalized gay sex. Congratulations to all the Indians who can now legally love who they love.


Audi has apparently given up trying to sell manual transmissions in the US, because they’re unpopular and no one likes them, save for a few weirdos. As one of those weirdos myself (I specifically ordered my Mini Countryman as a manual), I’m not terribly surprised, and while I enjoy manually shifting, I’ve already resigned myself to the fact that my next car will not be manual. And actually “resigned” is not exactly the right word, since I fully intend my next car to be a hybrid of some sort or another, probably one where the electric motor drives the engines and there’s a gas generator as a backup (example: the Chevy Volt), and there’s no need for a manual transmission because electric engines don’t actually have gears.

(And no, I don’t want to go full electric yet. I live out in the boonies, folks. The electric infrastructure isn’t anywhere close to built-out enough for me. Hell, I barely get Internet. Catch me in 2030 and we’ll see where we are on that.)

There’s the joke that my Mini is theft-proof because it’s a manual, and while I’m okay with this theory never being tested, as the years go by it gets truer. My next car, on the other hand, whatever it is, will not have the same “protection.” Of course, I’m not in any rush to get that next car. I’m cheap, and my Mini is paid off. I’ll be manually shifting for a while yet.


In other personal news, I’m giving thought to getting a smartwatch, mostly for the purposes of tracking health stuff, although I wouldn’t mind looking down at my wrist to check messages and such. A couple years ago I got a Fitbit-branded wearable and it worked fine, but I lost it, and then when I found it again I lost the little dongle that charges the thing, and then I lost them both, so here we are.

My problem is not that there aren’t smartwatches to get — there are many, several good, that connect into the Google/Android ecosystem that I’m embedded into — but that all the tech sites I’m looking at for research are sort of waving people off from getting smartwatches right now. Apparently in the next few weeks new watches are coming out, with new faster processors and abilities and possibly shootable lasers or whatever. Which, one, okay, but two, having decided that I want to get a smartwatch, I want to get one now. I’m just not very patient when I decide I want technology.

But I guess I’ll wait. For now. Hrumph. In the meantime, maybe I’ll walk a little more anyway. And take my phone. It has Google Fit on it and will track my steps. I just can’t wear my phone on my wrist. Or shouldn’t, anyway.


To finish up today, here’s Sarah Harmer’s song “Lodestar,” since the word “lodestar” is on people’s minds today thanks to that anonymous op-ed. This is a much better use of the word, if you ask me. It’s one of my favorite songs of hers.

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