Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Wishful Thinking

It is always a relief to believe what is pleasant, but it is more important to believe what is true.

— Hilaire Belloc, The Silence of the Sea

It's your day by Glen

The Sound of Anticipation

I guess I anticipated that the private sector would have engaged and helped develop it for the clinical side.

Robert Redfield, director of the CDC Congressional testimony (March 12 2020)

I keep coming back to this statement delivered, with a straight face, by Doctor Redfield in response to a rather sympathetic congressional audience. I assume that the congressmen and women's eyebrows arched violently at this verbal eruption. My eyebrows certainly assumed McDonalds' golden arch proportions when I read that soundbite.

Most American politicians only throw softballs - the business about scrutiny and oversight of the executive is mostly a fiction, and even the lawyers among them barely cross examine at the best of times. Even if you wing it and come unprepared, you should be able to dodge their inquiries. And yet this is the answer that a friendly congressman's pitch elicited: "I guess I anticipated that the private sector would have engaged..."

Slightly related: The Ayn Rand Institute bootstrapped its way to a PPP Loan of at least $350K. The institute's leadership had clearly done a close reading of their eponymous subject's The Virtue of Selfishness

In the hearings, there was not much more urgency, the outlines of the botched US federal response were already clear six weeks into the coronavirus pandemic. The main outrage in early March 2020 was that CDC did not have the testing capacity, nor indeed did it look as if there was a plan to increase it. This, of course, in stark comparison to the war footing that China, Taiwan, Vietnam and other countries had taken. And so, for example, the Democratic congresswomen were complaining that passengers on cruise ships were not being notified that they might have been exposed to the fast spreading clumps of viral RNA even weeks after exposure and so might have been unwittingly contributing to superspreading events.

If the leader of the public health response was freely signalling his belief that it was all a matter for private sector engagment, we were clearly in troubled waters. This seemed to be a foundational sin: the United States's public health response to our covidious predicament was flawed at conception.

Robert Redfield I guess I anticipated that the private sector would have engaged

Then I read the delicious sentence in the Financial Times that "Dr Anthony Fauci – the infectious disease expert and now household name – is widely known to loathe Redfield, and vice versa." I am up to 25 stanzas imploring Dear Kindly Doctor Fauci to step in and sort things out, but perhaps he might have had reason for his assumed assessment of Dr Redfield. With hindsight, when you watch the footage of Fauci and Redfield testifying while seated next to each other, you note that Redfield calls Fauci, Tony, whereas it is always "Doctor Redfield" in the other direction. Not to digress further, but one wonders if sharp-elbowed bureaucratic infighting is part of the reason for the dysfunction we have witnessed. Reading that CDC testing guidelines were relaxed only when the good Doctor Fauci was in surgery is of a piece with this pattern of neglect.

Still, one shouldn't personalize things since I am using "Redfield" as a shorthand for a kind of evidence-free, faith-based ideological thinking. It's a marker for a blindspot of sorts, an Anglosphere take on magical realism. Others have followed this line of thinking

Here were two men wondering aloud why reality had failed to conform to their ideology. Where was the private sector, exactly, during these eight weeks? How odd that these companies, whose only responsibility is to their shareholders, had failed to make up for the incompetence of this administration.

Redfield seems to have been selected to run the CDC not only because he was a prominent virologist, which made him appear qualified for the job, but also because of his hard-line politics, which made him qualified to serve in this Republican administration. Even at the time of his appointment, a few experts tried to warn the administration that, as concerning as his dodgy politics were, his complete lack of experience in public health administration was even more disturbing. His politics, as it turns out, matter much more than his expertise when it comes to making a vital agency function.

The adherents of this kind wishful thinking will always observe in a crisis that "the private sector was too slow". They are forever singing the Dazz Band's chorus: "do I hear the sound of anticipation?" in advance of the second wave.

The next day, Congresswoman Katie Porter had had enough and brought out the whiteboard while questioning Robert Redfield and eventually got him to commit to free coronavirus testing. Her basic point was that the good doctor had ample authority in the context of a public health emergency to actually regulate the health care system. But it took relentless questioning, and she had to frame it like a game of The Price is Right to get him to admit that it might be a touch difficult for an uninsured American to pay the then-estimated $1,331 out-of-pocket cost of a coronavirus test, and that perhaps this might be an impediment to the WHO's injunction to "test, test, test" in light of a highly contagious disease to which humanity had no immunity.

Queen Portia

Note: that it would take until September 1st for the full implications of actually exercising that regulatory authority to start to show. All of a sudden, we heard that the CDC could impose a moratorium on evictions, that it was well within its capacity to do so. There was no explanation on why it had taken more than 6 months to make that determination, and, as for all those lives that had been upended in the interim, the families put on the street, those made unemployed or forced to return to work in unsafe Smithfield plants for fear of the bread line, oh well c'est la vie. A blind man could see the need for even these half measures, as the Godfather of soul sang. Or perhaps, we can turn to Upton Sinclair

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
John Kenneth Galbraith was less cynical but no less piercing in outlining the workings of wishful thinking when he cast his eye on The Great Crash of 1929:
By affirming solemnly that prosperity will continue, it is believed that one can help insure that prosperity will in fact continue. Especially among businessmen the faith in the efficiency of such incantation is very great.

As with public health so with the economy. I've previously pointed to the figure of Alan Greenspan whose lifelong herculean efforts to tilt the playing field in the economy towards the rich were shown up to be similarly catastrophic in fomenting a modern Depression. Even his mea culpa has proven to be ephemeral

"I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms"

Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Pardon my visceral reaction. GTFOHWTBS

It was a strategic retreat however, in light of the Great Recession and the housing bubble. Still, the rehabilitation campaign for this disastrous legacy was immediately launched and, more importantly, there was no restitution or move to address the fundamental inequality that Greenspan advocated and, indeed, enabled. The great cheerleader of unrestrained capitalism had set the system in place and the rigged game continues apace.

There is, of course, a difference between the theory and the practice of free markets. Charicatures of Adam Smith notwitstanding, Bagehot's caveats are always ignored as inconveniences. As I wrote at the outset of the pandemic:

We'll be hearing a lot about the "lend freely" aspect of Bagehot's premise in the coming bailouts. We'll conveniently hear less about the "at a high rate" or the "solvent merchants" qualifiers. But those are the rules for banks foremost, and for businesses writ large.

When it comes to bailouts for labor, moral hazard suddenly leaps to the front of the political arguments. The language is of handouts and welfare. Means testing inevitably raises its head. Social insurance has always needed better PR if not crises of power (Bismarck, FDR, Bevan)

A difficulty for the rest of us is determining whether the Redfield-Greenspan outlook was a sincere belief or a convenient cover story. It's a puzzle: are they in on the con or merely naive? Are they a mark or is it part of the long con? Should we consider them like the character played by Robert Redford in The Sting, actors in double and triple crosses? I do not mean to suggest Robert Redfield should be played by the Sundance Kid when the tales are told by Hollywood, but it's quite the ambiguous adventure.

Perhaps it doesn't matter, because the end result is the same grift, it's a shell game nonetheless, and one should protect oneself accordingly. We should fight the good fight against the soi-disant abstract magic of the market, even as one expresses one's outrage.

The pessimistic view is that we are dealing with gremlins, per Ezra Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberly

usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.

The optimistic viewpoint is more charitable albeit that it is is a matter of routine greed. We can turn again to John Kenneth Galbraith for insight

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.
Returning to Belloc's thought about wishful thinking, we can hear its rhyme with Francis Bacon's aphorism:
Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.

In any case, the die is cast, the pursuit of herd immunity was the chosen tactic and we are all paying the cost in flesh and blood. 'Tis quite the pity that, in this pandemic, wishful thinking has lead the public health intervention.

"I guess I anticipated that the private sector would have engaged and helped develop it for the [insert topic here]" should be the epitaph of the wishful thinkers.

don't mind your wife chop bar at the local market

Wishful Thinking

Wishful thinking has been revealed as the bottom line
Their font of magical realism in a covidious time
An age-old shell game full of mystical narratives
The rhetoric of pocket book common sense and tough love
Merely masked the underlying impunity and strife

Force majeure, they vouchsafed bailouts for finance
But look, all of a sudden, central bankers turn to doves
Then the quick turn, post-haste, to restore the balance
We started hearing of moral hazard and hard choices.

For businessmen with hard noses, it's called strategic default
For your ordinary Joe, it's eviction and the bread line
Rent is due, sucker, it's your fault, not mine
Public health can wait, let's have a grand reopening
Never mind The Mosquito Principle or social living

Individual choice will save us, communal thinking is in the tank
Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, there's always the food bank
Governments can socialize the losses, of course, for the bosses
Meanwhile you're on your own, the workers can pay the cost
There's the incantation of free enterprise almost to the point of rapture
When the abiding principle is really that of regulatory capture

Crush the unions, we worship at the altar of the free market
Still, the world is watching, the crisis is having a clarifying effect
It's proving hard to deny the phantom thread of greed
When our human infrastructure is shown to be in dire need
Everything must change, this is school of hard knocks
Essential workers and labor are shown to be in the dock
The spokesmen of capital momentarily in a state of shock
Revealingly, the operative phrase is "human capital stock".

by his grace

Soundtrack for this note

Let's have a soundtrack for this worldview. What to call it though? Regulatory Capture is argumentatative as well as being a mouthful. Free Markets doesn't get to my intent and Lightweight Regulation reeks of irony. It's not quite Social Darwinism and I already have a Manifest Destiny and a Shell Games playlist. Arggh let's go with Wishful Thinking. In the context of the US and UK responses to our covidious predicament, it clearly fits the bill.

Wishful Thinking, a playlist

The sounds of magical realism in the human marketplace. (spotify version)

Further Reading

Amitav Ghosh's excellent Ibis trilogy spends some time musing about the traders of the East India Company and the Opium Wars in River of Smoke and especially in Flood of Fire. Indeed it ought to continue further just for the sheer exuberance of the linguistic invention. Why stop at three novels?

The logical endpoint of free market thinking is the hypocrisy of empire.

I realised this was the inaugural moment in the wars of what you might call Free Trade Imperialism. These merchants were the first generation of people for whom Adam Smith’s ideas were like a religion. They really thought they were laws of nature

"The profit motive has always existed, nowhere more so than in China and India, but Adam Smith created the idea that the economy is separate from human society and driven by its own internal forces. For the merchants, the market was not subject to any ethical constraints. Nobody in America [today] would suggest that Colombia has a right to push drugs in their country. But this was exactly what the Free Trade Fundamentalists were saying back then." In this, opium was uniquely suited to Smith’s purposes. “The whole point about capitalism is to try to persuade people to buy things that they don’t need," Ghosh argues. "It necessarily began with addictive substances. Tobacco, rum, tea, opium."

And the band played on...

This note is part of a series: In a covidious time

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Monday, October 19, 2020

The Muse Wills What She Wants

The muse wills what she wants, I've found it pays to listen
Capricious as she is, she moves to her own tune
I daresay she's happiest dancing on stage by her lonesome
But I jump anytime she deigns to dalliance

Oh lucky man I am when her juices flow
Sweating, and nearly out of breath,
I'm consumed by the creative glow
Furiously scribbling the snatches she whispers
Fragments iridescent become scrolls of fanciful flight
Exhilaration at the fleeting steps in directions unexpected
The floor expands, the lights focus the mind
Pupils dilate and we continue gliding
Capillary action in these narrow spaces
Twirling in synchrony as if promised a return to Xanadu

There's only the dance, I move to draw closer
But it's not a tango, Spanish or Argentinian
There's a fundamental swagger and liquid consonance
The next movement, a dancehall from the islands
I can almost taste her essence, it's the nectar of the Gods
Her siren call is that of Mami Wata, a mid-Atlantic trance

The memory of the drought now firmly behind us
Butts shaking, you're released from writer's block
Ignore the panicked calls from the broker of your stocks
Market collapse be damned, you're with your Nubian Goldilocks
Her name, she says, doesn't really even matter
All the while you're hoping for a repeat encounter
We know that she remains a restless searcher
For now momentarily joined at the hip to this modern traveler

Enjoy the ride, give her a twirl,
Undrape the lace, and all those frilly sections
Dancing is expressing in the perpendicular your horizontal intentions
It's as if you've got no choice, you've got to move
The world can wait, don't disturb this groove

The muse wills what she wants, her intent cannot be missed
Before all this is over they'll be calling you afrofuturist
It's astonishing the directions she's taking you in
Leading you out of Babylon to God knows what section

Pushing you to explore all the boundaries
Of form, who knew that you had all these stories
Your folktales were written in the Ananse tradition
The Guvnor described them as crazed African magical realism

It's a matter of lineage and perhaps of ambitions
Allusions proliferate as you make intuitive connections
Glue layer people, conversation, your tribe's connective tissue

The muse wills what she wants, she's demanding compositions
At the back of your mind is Coleridge's interruption
Stay focused on the groove, release your inhibition
Her point of call is not that famed Atlantis
No, and not even the Gulf of Guinea
No, her essence can be found in the river Volta
Near Akosombo dam therein lies her still water
Sing the hymn of the big wheel or, rather, magic

The muse will what she wants, her intentions are stark
She loves being a girl, like the soul singer remarked
A Caribbean queen or Liberian girl
Friend, lover, sister, mother, wife
She's all of these, if only for one night
Sadly though, she ignores your plea to turn off the light
Still you're soul satisfied, that you cannot deny
Her shawl of shimmering lace and green kente simply out of sight

Mami Wata

The muse wills what she wants, you dare not question her.
She leads the way and takes you under
"Taste", she suggests a light repast
Smiling all the while with those subtle hints
You trust her in the moment, she knew how to give a kiss
Her raspberry beret and oh those lips
The prospect of a forbidden encounter
A fall from grace, you will not be denied
Between the sheets, a glimpse of paradise
Her concerns are earthy, romance be damned
If that's your girlfriend, she wasn't last night
The fallen idol who roams the land
Her moon is a harsh mistress
"Can I come up for air?"
Return to the land down under

The muse wills what she wants, every moment you should treasure
Her hands are invitations causing frantic gestures
She's only holding pieces of a man
You're in Eden, you'll never leave this place
Paradise lost, a trip on the Selective Amnesia Express
Parental guidance advised, this is adult business

The muse wills what she wants, she draws outside the lines
There's a craving for touch especially in these covidious times
Reach out for sensation denied by this baleful social distancing
Your strategy is empathy, and that old faithful, social living

Shall I compare thee to a Bukom beauty
All ebony curves jiggling yet toned with the strength of mahogany
Azumah Nelson's ring savvy, she strikes with fierce intent
And parries our opponent's jabs of adversity
Her fundament gives core strength to face blows to the body
Dodging the blows of providence at the ready
We trace the contours of her patterns but write our own stories

The muse wills what she wants, I too shall not want
You'll gladly be infected by her novel virus
The spring break party, Freaknik, without the hangover
Got your heart racing, what happens with her stays in her confidence
There's no walk of shame or frantic morning after
There's only the moment, capture it and share
Luxuriate in her coat of pink cashmere
Write divine folktales full of twists and turns
Reversals of fortunes, moments of disbelief
You see the shape of the narratives
Emerge fully formed, an instant conception
There's no labor or caesarean section
You may serve multiple masters
But there's only one muse and she demands action
She knows your name, the contours of your face, you feel stronger
After all, she billed you as the chief toli monger

The muse wills what she wants, you've become a dream weaver
Yours truly forever her partner in the dance
Her words loom large, "Leave nothing to chance"
The end of the affair or rather a brief encounter
Do not be presumptuous, there's only the dance
Her gifts, she bestowed freely and without concern
You've gained what you never had at conception
A taste of eternity, you belong to me.
If I ever lose this heaven, mercy, mercy me
The song begins to fade in the room.
You will the DJ to mix in another tune
Beat matched so she'll not skip a beat
Relax with pep, she's your lady mahogany

Mami Wata

The muse wills what she wants, you've inherited her chosen mantle
Draw closer, the last bars explain it all
The stories that will buoy you back to your kith and kin
The journey's reward is the real odyssey.
Her revelations the key to unlocking
Collapsing narratives or romans-a-clef
Like a highlife band that plays on all night
Eschewing slumber, such are her earthly delights

The muse wills what she wants, this is no swan song
Her pearls are not of received wisdom
Proverbial zingers and quintessential abstractions
Wist and nostalgia, grateful that you are tonight's selection
She leaves you like Tantalus,
Poised on the verge of getting it on
Her gateway drug was inspired direction
Your village moves and dancehall stylings bring forth a laugh
The book she wrote also includes forgetting
Was that a twerk? Now this is interesting.
Tonight it seems like there'll be no slim pickings.
But turns out it was really only a tease
There's no catching a social disease
Your muse is personal, your font of gratitude
For inspiration and her wild attitude

The muse wills what she wants, you accept her direction
Sign the liability waiver and accept any peril
However these early signs of a new dawn
Intimate the impending loss of your writing apparel
The ink is fading as you scribble in the margins
Still you daren't call it quits, the words are too few
Just be good to me. She turns to you.
Panicked, you fear the cold shoulder
Instead there's only one word: Darling.

The muse wills what she wants, enjoy this moment
You wonder if you'll ever get one more chance
To perhaps engage and build a romance
But you know your heart has been stolen
To be returned at a time of her choosing
Hold on to your soul, we've got a long way to go
'Twas an easy conversation and precious leisure
The long thief in the night, a hint of carnal pleasure.
The act of creation without the attendant fall from grace
A thought movement and taste of lyricism incarnate
The impending absence almost renders you disconsolate
But again, as if she senses your need
That word again gets a repeat: Darling. Indeed.

Mami Wata

The muse wills what she wants, and she's engaged your full attention
Intercourse by other means, your entire disposition
"I choose you", the chant comes from Paris
London's got soul, it's all in the function
Whimsical musings, like a bullet from a gun
Interstitials present themselves at all levels
Liminal spaces where she conducts modern travelers
Fellow immigrants and mid-Atlantic selves

Oh devil woman, like Mingus would have you be
Bewitching me with your sundry charms
Moving me to excess as you prance

I seek your embrace, bosoms worthy of Lake Bosomtwi
The ancestral heartland. The butt aesthetic
To revisit an earlier flirtation with google infamy
Like a tribe, my current quest is dedicated to the art of moving butts

This joint, social interplay and words that make you
Get off the wall and turn this mutha out
Wordsmithing my craft for your own entertainment
I know it's a shell game, with your sleight of hand
And deft footwork, but I have no shame.
I come to you unvarnished and matter of fact
My loin cloths made out of dutch wax
And the occasional Chinese counterfeit prints
The sleep cloth my grandma gave me soft against your skin

The muse wills what she wants, it's becoming a mantra
Tantric and irresistible percussion, she's got street cred
The Low End Theory's here, let's sample some bass from Ron Carter
Or back to basics some Fela: Original Sufferhead
Amoulanga's groove cannot be denied even with the Casio keys
I'll take out my white handkerchief and follow you in the circle
We'll dance bobobor even after the zoom funeral
You've got me writing my own Ballad of Dorothy Parker
A fever dream oh muse, this fateful encounter

Ayikoo oh muse you'll give me trouble
Having me up at all hours composing grace notes at the double
I'm writing in the dark, I dare not wake this sleeping beauty
By my side, yet the prose poem you've conceived is my duty
Visions of grace, but I'm no Absalom
Pride and vanity, caught by the branches of fate
No rebellion for me, to be discovered by King David's men
Your willing servant instead, or, rather, faithful friend

The muse wills what she wants, you've packed your bags already
Got your passport stamped for the reception with Her Majesty
The tale you wrote was Ghana must go versus Louis Vuitton
Then that reporter surfed in with her roving ambition
You documented the case of plaids bags and plagiarism
When confronted, The Telegraph's blame was shifted to "our researcher"
Who came across your intricate patterns and their sensuous textures
Those others can copy your words, they are a gift from the Gods anyway
They write articles, books, all manner of publications
There's hardly a month without a new missive, it's a hustler tradition
You've lost count of the copies, it's a fatal attraction
The careful few cite, but most don't, and some have mercenary ends
Chalk it down to the ecstasy of influence
The virtue of a link, telling your story is a soothing balm
"Throw it away", she sang, hearkening back to Abbey Lincoln

Mami Wata

The muse wills what she wants, trust her proverbial wisdom
Writ large and dispensed in Adinkra symbolism
The ancestral messages encode African electronics
Messages passed via Talking Drums and lush fabrics
We have a different approach to mathematics

Our discourse is of cultural universals and particulars
Quoth that famed cosmopolitan and august philosopher
But that comes from a society that hews to consensus-oriented politics
Not like the United States where symbolism detracts from comfort narratives
Shell games instead of reconciliation are the American dream
And so mercenary disgrace trumps regret or shame, it seems
Paper over the cracks in the cement of society with the hard sell
Buy something you consumer, go back to work in this earthly hell.

The muse wills what she wants, it's a sensuous whisper like that diva sang
Little Stevie Wonder couldn't resist that vision named Chaka Khan
He forsook even Syreeta in musical pursuit
Of conversation peace and golden voices
We were gifted with winsome rare groove
And considerable comfort food
You know the words of the song, sing along with me,

Tell me something good
Tell me, tell me, tell me

Tell me that you love me, oh muse tell me

Back in that hallowed garden, I tasted the fruit of knowledge
It's about retention, all those books, long have I read
Mate masie: knowledge - I have heard and I have kept it.
Us Akans are known for proverbial thinking
An awoof conception, it takes two to do the corruption tango
The rough beast lies next to me as I awake on the beach at Beit Lahiya

The muse wills what she wants, you're flirting with danger
What with this sleeping beauty stirring from her slumber
She took you to Agotime on a weeklong visit
You talked with the kente weavers, their wares exquisite

She got you in a dispute with your paternal crew
Your house is also Aburi, you descend from chiefs in Akim Swedru
Gyasiwah's descendants should rather claim that it's all about Bonwire
Either house has narratives placing them at the origin
Don't get involved in the invention of tradition

The muse will what she wants, a conundrum like a driver of a taxi
In the morning you hope to decipher the words scribbled on the pad
Or etched out in Android words courtesy of a Samsung Galaxy
You prefer paper with its tactile sensation
The forcing function of words written with intent
The transactional cost of crossing out idle thoughts
A Tobin tax on food for thought
Further, machine learning might cause dismay
You wrote an earlier trouble ticket
About this curious artifact of software modernity:
The occasional regret of auto-correct
Also: cultural sensitivity in technology

Mami Wata

The muse wills what she wants, she deserves all the credit
You shall not stray from the discovery
Her path and her wandering ways
The road to freedom, you cherish the day
Her caresses are those of night nurses in Crystal Palace
The mind escapes to Akim Swedru, you seek solace
The Asantehene considers us a friendly kingdom
The names of our Queen Mothers
Gyasiwah, Kumiwah, Ansaa, Abia
The names you pass on to your spawn
Unbroken chains that help you breathe
Even in the anomic land of red, white and blue
Rather you revel in the red, black and green
Your black gold of the sun, the treasure was found just off Cape Coast

"You're going through a prolific phase right now,
You might want to hold something back"
Thanks, you're well meaning, but that's what the gatekeepers,
Those who use the word "content", say
To keep you on their human capital track
The muse wills what she wants, she's no Buzzfeed content
She's no Vox optima explanation factory farm
Your views are yours alone, goes your employer's disclaimer
Their search engine optimization games reek of meat rendering
Render / Rendition, you coined the word erustication
There's joy in small things, never forget your mission

The muse wills what she wants, there's joy in repetition
Find the lost stories taken by that Pied Piper of RNA
As for global narrative collapse, the toli monger's antidote
For life in a covidious time, is written deep in your DNA
Africa's contribution to the pandemic
Is to add value, you can compose prose epics
It's the great game to them, they'll soon be assigning blame
When elephants fight, at ground level it's all the same
Voices inside, like Chinua Achebe wrote
Not background scenery, we're beyond the heart of darkness
Be like the prose king of Zanzibar, deftly transplanted to Sussex
Just because a lizard nods its head doesn't mean it's happy
And so, as you ponder your narratives, don't be idle
The tomes you write for the world weary
Herd Immunity and The Mosquito Principle
And make sure to complete The Chicken Bone Theory

The muse wills what she want, she drives me to excess
No Anglosaxon brevity for me, I put it all on the line
Our town criers are unconcerned with mere notions of time
The journey as you know is the urban griot's reward
So I disdain the constraints of your meter
Those measuring sticks cannot comprehend
The fluid dynamics of African material science
Our oxidation layer covers our inner steel
This second skin is our ultimate disguise
Our mystic brew confounds the bitter roots of our confection
Your bioprospecting aims to plunder our herbal ways
Tonic and bitters, the risk factors, and medicine for my pain

Mami Wata

The muse wills what she wants, she mentioned Chamoiseau
That word scratcher, the griot of Texaco
Well your slums are in Nima, the soul of Ayawaso
Your library books bestowed in honor of that lost librarian
Now expecting a child, it's hard to be living mediated by a Canadian
Or the ways of the porcupine, turn to Mabanckou
Tails of the blue bird, weaving through an open city
The art of omission, you too can embark on the normalcy project
The perils and power of your tribes, vibes and scribes
Incognito, you move as modal minorities
Some of us have long been exiled souls, unmoored as we write
Men and women of no country, oft branded with faint praise,
The labels neo-soul, afropolitan, as if we were rootless cosmopolitans
No, we remain firmly grounded in Nyame, Nyankopon plays our siren song

The muse wills what she wants and I shall not falter
No identity crisis is at the heart of the matter
Our roots go back further than flowers of May
The pot of wisdom collected mankind's stories
And so we dispense toli and sing your glories
Like the Gyrlz, talk about a love story
You find yourself writing love poems for your queen of sanity
Why you wanna, play these games on me?
Or would you have me perform the remake, return of the mack
We can sing ghetto anthems of the young, gifted and black
But no, you say, I think I can detect
The gray hairs looming and middle age spread

The muse wills what she wants and it's a jook joint party
Risqué double entendres, indeed you'll risk everything
Wager your black soul for the promise of her bliss
Frisson de folksonomie, let's be discreet about our affair
Liaisons dangereuses, revealing of one's character

The muse wills what she wants, she put you in a trance
Transported to Haiti by the stone that the builder refused
Toussaint L'Ouverture, there's grit in the maquis
Man in the hills, our borderlands we roam freely
Internally displaced, we feel deeply this modernity
Refugee hearts betrayed by capitalist uncertainty
You'll write the toli manifesto, a monger's article of faith

The muse wills what she wants, I hope you've enjoyed this play
Like your sister-in-law sang on that happy day
Remember your marital vows, as you dance come what may
Odo nyera fie kwan, as the elders say
Love always finds its way home, even after the last dance
When the party's over, there is no shame, it was no mistake
What is the tenor of a man that he leaves love in his wake

Mami Wata

Mami Wata, a playlist

If you see Mami Wata, never run away (spotify version)

The Muse Wills What She Wants, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note, musical font of inspiration, call it an annotated prose poem. I give you six hours of comfort soul food, the foregoing thirty-odd stanzas deserve no less. (spotify version)

A Note

This note was written, as if in a fever trance, in six hours on the evening of June 6, 2020. My various computers were out of commision and my trusted moleskine notebook had disappeared. The laptop that The 7 year old normally uses was going through a Windows update, and the spyware that The Wife's university's IT department installs on hers was also being updated, hence I'd had to give up my normal writing implements to him after I wrote the first line. Instead I wrote that night on whatever loose sheet of paper I could find; envelopes, receipts, and mortgage bills played a part, although eventually I located a yellow pad. There were pauses for dinner, to put the children to bed, and to argue with The Wife. If I remember correctly, it was an argument I lost, and I was on probation that night, so I couldn't exactly leave the bedroom to continue writing as I wanted. Luckily, I noticed that The 9 year old had been doing some drawing in our room and a few more sheets of paper lay by my bedside - the back of her artworks would do. Once the beauty fell asleep, pen continued to meet paper, although, I admit, it was hard to scribble my words in a straight line without any light. I had caused enough marital trouble to risk the bedside light. I rather feared that I wouldn't be able to decipher this stream of thought when I awoke.

I was pleasantly surprised in the morning with the paper scraps and the pad that I assembled. I sat on what you have read above ever since, and just got around to transcribing and adding in the links - I'm a hypertext thinker. The visuals of Mami Wata are of Wangechi Mutu's Water Woman, a work we came across walking through The Contemporary in Austin, a few years back. I would normally edit ferociously for length and content - one could probably mine the many strands of the outpouring outlined here, and dole them out over time in bite-sized chunks. But, given the title and subject matter, I decided to simply publish the entire conception. I am minded of an encounter with Abbey Lincoln and her injunction to just do your own thing, write your own material, and simply get the work out. "Throw it away", like she sang, "for you can never lose a thing if it belongs to you".

That afternoon, I had reread two essays from my favorite book of essays, Hilaire Belloc's On Nothing and Kindred Subjects. The first was the opener, On The Pleasure Of Taking Up One's Pen, which provides simply luminous insight into the creative process - I aspire to one day reach those heights of lucidity. The other was On The Illness Of My Muse, which ends with what I still consider the greatest hatchet job on Rudyard Kipling, I recommend the whole book to you. A few hours later, the muse called and gave me the first and the last line. As for everything in between, I had to dance with her.

Postscript the second

There was a repeat encounter just days later. That time I was ready with the necessary notebook and computer. I published our conversation immediately; she called it Herd Immunity.

What is the tenor of a man that he leaves love in his wake
odo nyera fie kwan

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Monday, October 12, 2020

The Justice and The Secretary

While the good books say that the sins of the fathers
Shouldn't always be visited upon the sons,
They are silent, however, and take no stance
On the disposition of the sleaze of the fathers.

I'm thinking, of course, of Thatcher, mère et fils,
And now, curiously, as I read my morning paper -
A news item that provided head-scratching fodder,
Of Justices and Secretaries, that is, Scalia, père et fils.

It is no calumny to note the phantom thread of greed
That ran through the members of the earlier generation,
But one hadn't counted on the sense of aristocratic entitlement,
Let alone the behavior of the younger outlined here: rule aversion

The brash prickliness and manifest destiny
That the latter are displaying freely suggests
That everything in their world boils down to access
Thus the apple never falls far from the tree of iniquity.
The claim was that he "broke with normal department practice
In seeking a settlement and abused his authority"

As I read the article, it was full of uneasy phrases, and a minor miracle:
The scion's "intervention in a pay discrimination case against Oracle".
My ears perked at the mention of my erstwhile employer
There's "a lot at stake in the case, which originated in the Obama
Administration". Well, well, well. Say it ain't so.
I recalled that it takes two to do the corruption tango.

"Nothing irregular or improper"
"Declines to comment on personnel matters"
"Does not comment on ongoing litigation
Or improperly disclosed settlement negotiations"

No one wants such formality, hell,
In a pandemic, we are all disheveled
"Surprised that she would involve herself
On such a granular level"

We're talking billions here, it's no small amount
"The Labor Department had no comment on that account"
"Sought to reassign [her]... to a job.. that does not involve litigation...
A few weeks after she raised renewed concerns about his intervention"

"It was not unusual for lawyers
To send her drafts of briefs in important cases
But that she would have commented only on the overall arguments,
Not word choice and grammar."

Oracle Cloud strikes Iron Man

My former employers were seen dancing in a rather unseemly fashion
The corruption tango starts, as peacocks do, by preening for attention
I would have thought they would leave the messy work to their minions
Keep clean hands, social distancing, as it were, from the rotten action

Maintain tradecraft, and observe well-worn business protocols
But it seems that there was rather haste to grab the loot at hand
Firm believers in the hard sell, there were many late night phone calls
They were clearly going for the short con, it was hard to understand

'Twas a puzzle, Catz can hardly be viewed as an ingénue
And Ellison is beyond what you would call Croesus rich
In the matter of malfeasance that seemed to ensue
One would rather have expected The Secretary to be the naïf

The surprising thing is that, by and large, in this kind of show
No one would really begrudge a little pork, even when the whistle blows
We mostly care about how the sausage tastes, not how it's made
Ask Boss Tweed, of vintage memory, how long he managed to get paid

That the long con is the most profitable
Type of shell game is the obvious lesson
Ask the red-nosed Murdoch of the fable
About the joys of generational succession

Useful idiots open doors for the real power brokers
But these factotums of capital can be easily discarded
The symbolic few made to fall on diamond-encrusted swords
When Pentagon and monopoly contracts are the real reward

Fandangos seen as uncouth are made to pay the price
I'm minded that Prince sang of Victor's Sacrifice
Like moths who came too close to the gilded candle
This comes with the territory of Fallen Angels

After all, there are only minor fines they can easily afford
Or, typically, a tsk-tsk from an Inspector General's report
It's unlikely any prosecution will have any sharp teeth
When one can pay off gambling debts to buy some supreme seats

In extremis, like Martha, a few months of white collar jail
Stewards of the craft know there's nothing beyond the pale
Yet some are recidivists, they simply can't help the grift
Remember Jack Abramoff broke the law that was custom written for him

But when they said all the gloves would come off
They really meant it was open season
Pigs could freely feed at the federal trough
They're not even trying to hide their dealings

As statues of problematic rogues were falling, or painted blood red
The word was "Send in Federal troops, our monuments need to be protected"
The President also suggested a new garden of American heroes
Including, what do you know, a statue of Antonin El Supremo

The anointed doctrine was coined originalism
A wonderful excuse for self-centered exceptionalism
Everything frozen in place, even foundational sin
Survival of the "fittest", call it Social Darwinism
No need to reconcile the fiction of partial personhood
The Justice's take on Dred Scott clarified where he stood
No, the burden of chattel was rather on the owners,
They were the ones, Jim, who needed compensation
Fig leaves that crowed in the age of Reconstruction
It was taboo to mention the concept of a living constitution
Let alone the American third rail, the matter of reparation

We hold the levers of power
We'll never give them up
Sure, you can now come to the front of the bus
A minor concession to your courage
But we'll continue the customary wheeling and dealing
Feel free to watch us through the glass ceiling

Poll taxes to the left of us, dividends to the right
Literacy tests and the carceral state is our birthright
This year, pardon she, marks 100 years of the Nineteenth
While the glare of protests also highlighted Juneteenth
And so it took a good further half century, if I recall
To actually achieve the dream of universal suffrage
So enslaved were they to the demands of capital,
Even amended, it took good trouble, and many bloody marches

It all goes back to "a suit filed by several financial industry
Groups which were represented by" the scion before he was Secretary
That "the rule's history is a bit tangled" is understating the case.
Said suit "succeeded in dislodging the rule before it was ever put in place"

The nexus is quite clear of rather unbounded corruption
"Now at the labor department", the Labor Secretary is no fool
He "is moving rapidly to change the rules and to impose new regulations
That would be weaker than those intended by the original fiduciary rule".

There's a certain logic and, well, brazen candor
To install a servant of capital as Secretary of Labor
Par for the course for iron men in the American shell game
It merely underlines the conqueror's supreme disdain.

Still, righteous indignation is their bread and butter,
Irony, as in African life, is their key register
As is a belief that regulations were only written by the winners
The strict application of the law is reserved for losers and suckers

And so I watched the parade of Silicon Valley buccaneers
Flirt with presidential, but amateur, physicians
Citing quack cures and dubious prescriptions
The tick tock of corruption is the sum of all fears

The laws that the Justice claimed to uphold were written in sand
The Secretary of Labor's charmed life off the fat of the land
A tribe with herd immunity to the matter of moral disgrace
The belief is that a chosen few are alpha rats in this here rat race

Black Star Square

A parable of rank nepotism:
The Minister and the Mercenary
A folktale of nether capitalism:
The Justice and the Secretary

Her legacy is of public division,
private selfishness and a cult of greed,
which together shackle far more of the human spirit
than they ever set free

Margaret Thatcher: the lady and the land she leaves behind

Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat.

— William Sloane Coffin Jnr as quoted in Class Act by Lewis Lapham (Harpers, July 2006)

Of Justices and Secretaries, a playlist

As is my custom, a soundtrack to this note, a little heavy on reggae this time since that is a music much concerned with labor, and matters of supreme justice. (spotify version)

A closing thought

A woman who wants a child doesn't sleep in her clothes

Angolan proverb

Previously in a similar vein: He of The Little Green Book

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Thursday, October 08, 2020

The Professor, Azumah Nelson

It is safe to say that Azumah Nelson and a couple of sprinters were the only proud faces of Ghana during the 1980s. Certainly The Professor was my preferred image of Ghana.

talking drums 1985-10-14 Azumah's World Crown at stake

To the rest of the world, we were either refugees or objects of pity (or both) what with our Ghana must go bags at the ready, and our tedious talk of curfews, scarcity and such. And starving too, just drop a can of sardines or corned beef and watch the Ghanaians fight.

Ah, those halcyon days on the playground, when my Liberian, Sierra Leonean and Zimbabwean friends would chuckle and tease us mercilessly. I laughed too, mind you, it was no good going on about glass windows or a neighbor's house of fire. Our brand was in the toilet.

It was one thing for the Nigerians to josh us, the Ghana-Nigeria competition is nothing new. In the 1980s, their country might have been a mess, but they still had oil money, and millions of our compatriots were desperate to get inside their borders. We knew who had the edge of the rivalry back then. But when Sierra Leoneans, or say my good friends from the Central African Republic would start to wind you up (they who, in their weaker moments, could mention their family members disappeared by that cannibal Bokassa's regime), when they could start in on you, you knew you had an identity crisis. I am often accused of unerring confidence and self belief, but I can tell you that I was very circumspect in the eighties.

Of course, we all know about cautionary tales, and the changing fates of some of those same countries. Liberia and Sierra Leone were branded as the coming anarchy in their lost decades. In much the same way as Ghanaians flocked to Nigeria in the 1980s, Zimbabweans over the past 30 years have sought out South Africa as their Babylon - pace Mugabe. The 20-plus percent of Ghanaians forced into the diaspora were exiled souls plain and simple; most of those that remained were internally displaced, if only psychically.

In any case, you go to the playground with the country you have. How for do? When you have lemons, you make lemonade. When you have lost decades, you make your peace with it.

When your leaders are laughingstocks, you tend to either affect bravado or keep a low profile. Ghanaians mostly kept a low profile. Americans, who aren't the most self reflective of people, are going through much of this same cringing these days. Self regard runs deep though in the American case, and an aversion to shame helps them get through things and to seek to brazen out their very visible troubles. Ghanaians didn't have that luxury back then, but we had Azumah.

Oh we were proud. So so proud of Azumah. If you think Ghanaians go on about their Black Stars, our football warriors, you can't imagine the attention we gave to our ring professor, our sole ray of light.

Our cultural life was stifled, we had no politics, we were in the grip of revolution. We would fight to be church treasurer or assistant secretary of the football supporter's club since those were the cultural organizations that passed muster. Political parties, and anything that could spell dissent, were banned. Many have pointed to the resurgence of Ghana's new Christianity as a result of this stifling of political and cultural life. The curfew, especially, and the armed men roaming the streets, decimated market and street culture. It's taken decades for nightlife and the arts to reassert themselves.

Kofi Annan was a mid-level UN employee back then, we had no sexy secretary general to name drop, we had no captain of industry or larger-than-life robber baron - oh we had plenty of robbers for sure, but no barons. There was no swaggering actor or winsome actress or model to fixate on.

We would be looking to our eastern neigbors, Benin, to find that Cardinal Gantin had been suggested as a pope in the making early on, but that was obviously fool's gold. No Ghanaian bishop was in the running.

talking drums 1984-04-30 New Naira notes - Cardinal Gantin - the military problem

We tracked Azumah's every achievment and would get a frisson of delight when "the WBC named him Boxer of the Month of February for having successfully defended his world featherweight title against Mexican Marcos Villasana". A bonus would be Abedi Pele making waves in the same month. Oh joy.

talking drums 1986-03-17 page 26 azumah nelson abedi pele

And just as well, because at the same time as we would celebrate his victory in the back pages, we were bemoaning "why the killings go on". We were reflecting on the mysterious death of Catholic Father Charles Kukah.

talking drums 1986-02-17 ghana mystery death of a catholic priest - nigeria the press rules ok

The middle pages of what magazines that were available to us were full of explanations on "the modus operandi of official hit-squads in Ghana today". We would list

Various places have been identified as locations for executions.
  • Airforce station
  • Taunegup Range - behind Burma Camp
  • The vast area between the Airforce Station and Arakan Barracks.
  • Labadi and Black Star Square beaches
  • Michel Camp
along with reports suggesting that secret killings also take place in the in the Castle, Osu. Very often those who are killed are taken to be buried in prison cemeteries.

"The sad part of this whole affair is that there are families in Ghana today who do not know where their relations are, believing that once they do not see them, they have fled the country"

talking drums 1986-03-17 page 09 ghana why the killings go on

The Catholic church that had been challenging the excesses of the regime got the message loud and clear. We stopped hearing much from the bishops. And so we turned to the sports pages for relief. Anything to turn away from the grimness of 'The Ethiopian Way' that Rawlings and Tsikata were dealing us. As we reaped the wages of Thermidor, Azumah was our comfort suite.

And so we sublimated our aspirations onto Azumah Nelson and Abedi Pele. We latched on to all of them, to any sign of nobility and indeed success. We knew all their names, the sprinters and athletes: John Myles-Mills, Ernest Obeng, Charles Moses, Emmanuel Tuffour, Mercy Addy (continuing a long line of sporting and academic excellence by Addys), Grace Armah, Mary Mensah, Cynthia Quartey and more.

Without irony, we celebrated the vision of Ghanaian manhood as "the two-minute wonder"

talking drums 1985-10-21 Azumah The two minute wonder

To this day, Ghanaian newspapers and media sites know that you can periodically boost traffic with any clickbait article about Azumah's life. Mind you, this doesn't bother me any. You can have your royal family, your Kardasian units, or whatever is your cultural tabloid fodder. For Ghanaians, Azumah fills that cultural void.

I proudly clicked and forwarded the news of Azumah Nelson Crowned WBC Super Featherweight Greatest of All Time a few years back. I would do so again.

There's a notion of sports as a leading indicator with identity and allegiances on the line. You could talk about how tribal identities are forged when you watch sports. Sports bind the US more even than religion since there is that separation of Church and State business. Perhaps the only thing that will make Americans serious about the coronavirus pandemic is the potential or actual closure of organized sports. The athletes have more power than they think in this respect.

Now Azumah Nelson isn't the most reflective of men, he often let his fists do the talking, and continues to do so as his biographies attest. If you watched his fights, you were treated to the sight of one of the most cerebral of boxers. The defensive abilities and superb ring craftsmanship are what earned him the Ring Professor moniker.

He appeared to take what looked like a lot of punishment, yet it was all with the resilience of a Bukom bomber. It wasn't quite rope a dope, it was his own formula, and he excelled at it and would respond with vicious blows whose accumulated weight would overwhelm his opponent. The way he knocked out Wilfredo Gómez in round 11 to win the WBC featherweight championship stands in the pantheon, but all his bouts in his prime are well worth watching - and we watched them all, over and over again. We'd program our Panasonic or JVC VHS recorders and stay up in the wee hours of the morning to watch the bouts in Las Vegas, Mexico or New South Wales. And he would dispatch them all: Gutierrez, Martínez and so forth. It was also especially delicious to see him deal imperiously with representatives of the erstwhile colonizers, Pat Cowdell and Jim McDonnell. And his pronouncements in victory were legendary.

But Azumah took on allcomers and didn't shirk rigorous competition. I still think he had the edge over Pernell Whitaker, but even when the Caesar's Palace judges sided with the smart money, we knew all about arbitrary decision making and, like the proud warrior that he was, he and we, took the blows of adversity in stride and came back the next day to prevail for the next fight.

These days there are many other faces of Ghana to embrace, and we have settled enough into normalcy that perhaps we don't need the iconography of these living symbols of excellence to survive. Our self image is confident enough that we know our place in the world.

I cannot understate what Azumah Nelson continues to mean to our nation even beyond what he stood for in that historical moment. He deftly navigated the social interplay and stands in our cultural iconography. Simply put he's a national treasure. And so in closing, a fond head nod of appreciation to The Professor, Azumah Nelson. Long may he teach.

The Professor (Azumah Nelson) a playlist

A soundtrack for this note (spotify version)

A sampling of some of the young Ghanaian artists who have taken to invoking Azumah's spirit. Like most of Ghana, they were likely came of age or were born in the 1990s, after the worst years the country endured. There is an optimism in their flow and it is invigorating to listen to. We end the playlist with another Azuma, Christy that is, with the micraculous sounds of Naam.

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Thursday, October 01, 2020

Uneasy Phrases

"Human capital stock" is such an uneasy phrase
It comes out of the mouth of wolves rather than that of babes
Ananse cast a jaundiced eye and careful gaze
At their White Houses and gleaming palaces

Nuts and Bolts

"Excess mortality" is another such uneasy phrase
The death toll above normalcy is the faintest of praise
A well worn way to hide cold bodies lost through neglect or dereliction
A fond strategy in the strange architecture of misdirection

There is a thin line between proffering words intended to obscure
And speakers fumbling in their attempt to communicate with clarity
The latter struggle with genuine conflict, for comprehension is poor
The former combine inspired coinages into phrases that mangle reality

"Constructive engagement" was Reagan and Thatcher's favored bromide
Some consultant suggested that message in light of their strong support for apartheid
Sanctions were a bridge too far for them, 'twas ancient history or an allergic reaction
Being forever branded on the wrong side of history was, I believe, a just compensation

Structural adjustment stands in the pantheon of uneasy phrases
It was itself eventually adjusted to end "with a human face"
The authors had no initial compunction at the inflicted miseries
Nor indeed did the authoritarians that carried out said policies

Collateral damage, in this business, holds pride of place
It's a time tested fallback for bloodthirsty mistakes
Buy them from us, use our weapon systems, there'll be no near misses
Our Predator drones and double tap attacks can erase any witnesses

Resorting to turns like "plausible deniability" really ought to be beneath us
The phrase is long favored by CIA trainers at The School of the Americas
I'm minded of the torture, and all the blood that their graduates spilled
It doesn't matter how smart the weasel words sound when victims are maimed or killed

The patron saint of uneasy phrases was named Eugene Ionesco
I know some claim Beckett, but I go with He of The Bald Soprano
That translation is itself contested, and subject of academic fodder
The purists of absurdity seem to prefer The Bald Prima Donna

"Stress position" betrays its roots as post-facto justification
Of agency authorization for routine, but bureaucratic, suffocation
We'll no doubt be hearing about how rarely these tactics are deployed
Pinned down on the ground, it doesn't matter if your name is Floyd

"Coercive interrogation techniques" is quite the linguistic distortion
Like extraordinary rendition, it mutilates truth in favor of fiction
Three letter agencies are empowered to shift the blame
America's real herd immunity is to shame

Identification haircut was a Ghanaian paramilitary innovation
Later to be eclipsed in infamy by Liberian and Sierra Leonean
Small Boy Units, what with their notorious, summary amputations
Bloodlust went to their head, their condition was all too human
Years later, they're still trying to brand it as revolutionary fervor
Even as we all know they were simply reaping The Wages of Thermidor

That American favorite, "extreme prejudice", is no exaggeration
For murder, no matter how couched, is about blood and sin
The words, by necessity, an attempt at damage mitigation
A preemptive laundering of conscience and reputation scrubbing


I once envisioned a society where outrage was banned,
And bootleg outrage was traded on the black market
A entire world, built on the possibility of illicit outrage
Notebook pages filled out, depicting people wearing masks of contentment.

It was a stark scenario,
The reflection of a cracked mirror
Of a strange kind of life
Lived in the shadows of deceit
Not unlike modern America
By way of Orwell, Atwood, or
[Insert your favourite dystopia]
The paradox is that our current world is not too dissimilar
We have Happy Valleys served by sundry tribes of essential workers
Those migrant souls who work for Tyson in meat packing plants
In daytime shifts and compete to snatch a few labored hours
At distribution warehouses or post-industrial farms
They take public transportation to sleep akimbo atop bunk beds
Dodging bed bugs in slum housing in Elysium's favelas
It is what lies beneath that matters, it is said,
And only occasionally the subject of a fugitive glimpse
The cement of society is thus oft ignored
But is eventually revealed, in its absence, as core infrastructure

In a covidious time
We have ample reason to ponder the new normalcy
Everything must change
Their wishful thinking cannot deny viral realities
It starts with words and phrases
That should be immediately contested
Language matters, no matter the actor
And we are often faced with none-too-subtle misdirection
So I've now become a student of platitudes and prevarications
And their close companions, daily distortions and dissimulations

Who was it, at length, I wondered,
In my notional land that would have the courage
To stand up and be counted,
In the face of oppression and societal damage,
Most would rather like, or tweet often
The comforting tools of the age
For many, sadly, have forgotten
The necessity of permanent outrage

Further Reading

It seems uneasy phrases are a longtime topic in my writing. See previously:

tag cloud: bush

tag cloud: USA

I nominate this note for The Things Fall Apart series under the banner of the Rough Beast which simply asks: who is writing the script?

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Writing log: Concept: August 20, 2020