Planks First, Then Platform?

I suppose this post is a follow-up to this one from January, about the Democratic National Committee’s survey of party members. In line with the DNC’s cautious approach to political change, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias writes:

A new Marist poll testing the popularity of a bunch of progressive ideas leads to a slightly tedious truth: Some are popular and some are not popular, and there’s not much of a pattern determining which are which.

The latest progressive activist fad on immigration policy, changing unauthorized entry from a criminal to a civil offense, for example, is badly underwater. But the old progressive standby of offering a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents of the United States polls very well. Massive investment in clean energy polls very well, but taxing dirty energy is much less popular. Free college is in between.

Yglesias’s summarizes his recommendation in the title of his article: “Democrats should run on the popular progressive ideas, but not the unpopular ones.”

I’m pretty small-minded, inasmuch as I regard this sort of inconsistency to be decidedly hobgoblinesque. Arguably my doctrinaire intolerance is an inconsistency on my part, since in many other regards I’m more swayed by the pattern of empirical findings than by logical coherence. Yglesias promotes a pragmatic, moderately progressive political strategy based on the popularity data:

There’s just a bunch of stuff, some of which is popular and some of which isn’t. And to the extent that issues matter at all in politics — a modest, but non-zero extent according to most accounts — the smart thing is just to pick the popular stuff.

Maybe so, but first it’s worth looking at the Marist numbers more closely. Take the “Medicare for all” policy — a national program that would cover all Americans, eliminating private health insurance. 41% of Americans think Medicare for all  is a good idea, while 54% regard it as a bad idea — an underwater policy that the Democrats would be smart to set aside, at least for now. However, breaking out results based on political orientation, 64% of Democrats think that Medicare for all is a good idea, while only 14% of Republicans think so. Republicans aren’t going to switch their presidential vote based on this one issue, since according to this same poll 90% of Republicans think that Trump is doing a good job and 89% will definitely vote for his re-election. What about unaffiliated voters, who might be swayed one way or the other based on policy? In the Marist poll, 55% of self-reported moderates regard Medicare-for-all as a good idea, while 40% think it’s a bad idea. So should the Democratic strategists court the 55% of moderates who support universal healthcare — a policy strongly endorsed — or should they scrap this popular progressive plank in hopes of wooing the 40% of moderates who dislike this policy? If you’re going with the numbers, it would make more pragmatic sense to lean into the policy that’s more popular with the moderate swing voters — Medicare for all.

On the other had, if you ask whether Medicare should be made available for all who want it, keeping open the choice of private health insurance, support from moderates goes up from 55% to 91% — empirical support for Yglesias’s more moderate pragmatism. But on this issue of Medicare choice the Republicans are about equally split. What’s to keep the Republicans from endorsing Medicare as an option? They’d retain their base partisan support but maybe tip more moderates their way, or at least neutralize the pragmatically progressive policy of the Democrats.

The same pattern holds up on nearly every progressive policy addressed in the survey: moderates are quite closely aligned with Democrats in supporting these policies. The progressive lean among moderates holds true for free public college tuition and carbon tax — policies that Yglesias flagged as possibly too progressive for the average American voter to get behind. Two notable exceptions are decriminalization of illegal border crossings and a guaranteed universal income of $1,000 per month, but even the average Democrat regards those two progressive policies as bad ideas. The only two policies on which moderates disagree with Democrats are the elimination of the death penalty and reparations for slavery: a majority of Democrats think those are good ideas, while most moderates disagree.

The empirical evidence supports the idea that most moderates are leaning Democratic for the next election. Moderates agree with most of the progressive policies. Only 31% of moderates think that Trump is doing a good job, which is much more closely aligned to the nearly unanimous Democratic renunciation of Trump than to the Republicans’ continued adulation. 89% of Republicans say they will definitely vote for Trump’s re-election; among moderates, 64% say they will definitely vote against Trump.

So if you’re the Democratic brain trust, why wouldn’t you lean strongly into the progressive agenda this time around? Converge on a reasonably appealing candidate and give it your best shot.

 

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Googling the Random Short Fictions

I’ve written only 3 posts here since April, so it’s not surprising that there haven’t been many visitors to Ficticities. Still, I do get a hit here and there,  now and then. Today for instance someone came to look at this post — one of a series of fourteen posts from almost exactly a year ago, in which I interacted textually with short stories I selected at random from online literary magazines.

These occasional Ficticities visitors got me to wondering about hit rates. If I were to google the author and the title of each of the 14 stories on which I wrote a post last year, how high in the stack of google results would my posts appear? And how does each of my posts about these stories stack up popularity-wise compared with the original story itself, or the author’s website referencing their story, or the litmag’s tweet announcing publication of the story, or others’ reviews or comments on the story?

Well, let’s find out, shall we? I’ll google the stories in chronological order, using this search format: author’s name “title of story”:

“Cockatoo Tears” by Daniella Levy — the Ficticities post is the first result listed; the story itself comes in fifth.

“Pity and Shame” by Ursula LeGuin — Ficticities post comes in third, following the story and an interview with the author.

“Breadcrumb 398” by Olivia Hardwig — Ficticities post first, story second.

“Nobody Knows How To Say Goodbye” by Richard Spilman — Ficticities post first, story second.

“Christmas Lights” by Demian Entrekin — story first, Ficticities post third.

“A Legend is Born” by Calvin Celebuski — Ficticities post first, story third.

“The Singing Tree” by Shawn Goldberg — Ficticities post first, story fifth.

“Rattle and Spin” by Jeannette Sheppard — story first, Ficticities post second.

“The Wallaby & the Python” by Alexis Kale — Ficticities post first, story second.

“A Deceptively Simple Word Problem” by Samuel Rafael Barber — story first, Ficticities post third.

“Pop” by Carlo Gallegos — Ficticities post first, story not at all.

“Death for Serafina” by Rayji de Guia — story first, Ficticities post second.

“Big G Little G” by Kelsie Donaldson — Ficticities post first, story third.

“Entry 038::After Ash Wednesday>>Moon Quincunx Pluto” by Sade Lanay — story first, Ficticities post second.

So, for this random sample of 14 cases, the Ficticities post is the top google result for 8 stories, while the story itself gets top position for the other 6. That might be exciting for me, if I didn’t know how few hits these posts have received during their year of online existence. Still, on average these 14 story-based intertextual pieces fared better than other Ficticities posts I wrote that were original content, untethered from other published texts — which I find a bit disheartening.

I might find it even more disheartening if I were the author of one of these short stories. Why, I’d ask, should some random guy’s blog post about my story generate more Internet traffic than my actual story? To be fair, the stories might well have been read by a lot of people like me who happened upon the story while looking through the latest issue of the litmag in which the story was published. But still…

So:

  1. People are more likely to search for my posts about other writers’ stories than for the stories themselves.
  2. People are more likely to search for my posts about other writers’ stories than for my independently inspired posts.

Gossip? Do people want to hear what other people are saying about other people, rather than finding out what they have to say on their own behalf?

My takeaway, in the context of this website’s larger agenda, is this: If you’re a literary magazine, try to get other people to write something — anything — about the stories you publish, in order to draw greater attention to the authors and their work. If your magazine happens to be the work of a writers’ syndicate, then get one or more of the other authors whose work has previously been published in the litmag to write something about each of the newly published stories.

I Think I Remember That Guy

My fiftieth high school reunion is coming up(!), which as you can probably imagine has stirred up some ambivalence. The website dedicated to the event includes a section where members of the class of ’69 can post a personal profile. I just put mine up:

I’ve explored alternate selves and alternate realities. With a few notable exceptions, things haven’t turned out the way I expected.

 

The Art Market

A 1986 sculpture by Jeff Koons just sold for $91.1 million. Why is art so expensive? “The short answer,” Gaby Del Valle writes, “is that most art isn’t.”

The high-end art market is “driven by a small group of wealthy collectors who pay astronomical prices for works made by an even smaller group of artists, who are in turn represented by a small number of high-profile galleries.” A few newcomers break through, but first they’ve got to find a gallery to represent their work. Gallerists shop for promising new talent at MFA programs.

As Roberto Ferdman observes, “only one out of every 10 art school graduates goes on to earn his or her living as an artist. So spending, say, $120,000 on an art education is often more of an extended luxury than an investment in an adolescent’s future.” Galleries sell mostly to the ultra-rich, for whom spending a few million on a painting signals their good taste in luxury goods while also providing them with a potentially lucrative investment if the market goes up for the artist whose work they’ve acquired.

 

 

I Re-Upped the Ficticities.com Domain Name

On the last day before expiry I walked it back from the brink by anteing up $18 to WordPress. I’m  not sure why — mostly it’s ambivalence about what to do next.

But also I’m outraged by the domain name reselling industry. If I let ficticities.com lapse, some reseller might have scooped it up for a buck or two, then offered to sell it back to me for a couple hundred. Most likely resellers rely mostly on sellers’ remorse — people like me who let their domain names lapse and who later, wishing they hadn’t, pay the ransom.

So I’ve gone ahead and re-rented the name, along with WordPress’s hosting service, for another year.

Small Plots Unfolding in the World

Passing under the pear tree on my morning walk I looked up at the branch that hangs over the chemistry grad students’ front door. Tightly clustered but quivering as it revs up for the day, the miniswarm is all that remains of the big swarm that showed up a week ago and assembled itself on the pear branch, a seething mass the size and shape of an American football.

Maybe a week earlier a persistent buzzing under the lawn chair had distracted me from the book I’d been reading. A bee swooped up past my face, then dove back under the chair. Yellow, but smaller and fuzzier than a yellow jacket — a honeybee? I’d not seen one yet this spring; for that matter I didn’t recall having seen any last summer. Then one afternoon the swarm showed up.

“Honeybees?” the office manager for our complex asked the next morning. I told her I didn’t know, that I wasn’t prepared to get close enough to verify. We’d googled it: it seems that only honeybees go in for this sort of swarming behavior. When the hive gets too big the queen sets out with half the workers and a team of scouts in search of a new home, leaving the old hive and the rest of the colony to her successor. It’s how honeybees expand their population. setting up shop temporarily in an exposed place, often a tree branch, until the scouts come to an agreement about the most suitable option for establishing a permanent hive. Beekeepers can be called in to capture a swarm, adding workers to the honey farm while diversifying the gene pool with the hardy resourcefulness manifested by a successful and expanding feral bee population. The office manager said she’d place the call.

That afternoon and evening it rained, hard. Next morning the swarm was still there in the tree, having shifted and rotated its position entirely to the underside of the branch. The previous day the office manager was supposed to have taken a photo and sent it to the beekeeper, confirming that the swarm was worth his while to come out and harvest, but what with the rain she hadn’t gotten out there to take the photo. I walked her to the tree. “Oh my God!” Bees, ten thousand or more, all piled on top of each other, the ones on the surface writhing and twitching, a few launching themselves into loose eccentric orbits around the living mass clustered on the branch. She took her photos and returned to the office. Later that afternoon when I went for a run I passed by the swarm: it seemed more energized, the bees on the surface flapping and seething and waggling. When I returned forty-five minutes later the swarm was gone. Had the beekeeper gathered them up? No: he’d come with his equipment, but by the time he showed up the bees had already gone. A hundred or so remained, a miniswarm: maybe they’d been out feeding and scouting while the coordinates for reaching the new location was being communicated through the swarm. By the time these outliers returned to the branch it was too late: they’d been left behind.

And there they are still, five days later, their numbers diminished a bit through the ordinary attrition of a short lifespan exacerbated by exposure to two more torrential storms. The tight cluster on the branch has reorganized itself a few times — once they formed an acrobatic chain, a few gripping the branch, some holding onto the backs of their anchored comrades, and so on and so on, until they’d contoured themselves into a dangling scaffold maybe twenty layers deep. Now they’re nestled in a notch underneath the branch, affording them at least some protection from the rain.

What will they do now? Their queen and their colony have gone away, leaving no forwarding address. Apparently they can’t return to the old hive from which the new colony splintered off — maybe they’d now be regarded as intruders, carrying the old queen’s pheromones into a population infused by the scent of a new queen. The worker bee’s usual lot is to find food, return to the hive, and regurgitate into the cells of the comb to feed the larvae. But the miniswarm has no princess queen it can nurture into maturity. There will be no eggs, no larvae, no need to feed them. What do worker bees do when they don’t have any work to do anymore? Do they lose their purpose, their will to live? There’s plenty of pine pollen in the air: do the hiveless bees continue to feed themselves even when no longer charged with feeding the next generation? I’d guess so — otherwise they’d likely have starved to death by now. Why don’t the scouts — there must be at least one scout left behind — find a more protected place for the retired workers to live out their lives of newfound leisure?

On my walk this morning I noticed, on the edge of the sidewalk about a quarter mile from here, a black mound roughly the same size and shape as the swarm had adopted when it was at full strength. More like half a swarm though, one hemisphere of a football, not seething but inert, a convex muddy dome rimmed with ragged edges. I nudged it with my toe: it wobbled, twice, before rocking back into its original position. I nudged it again: another rocking back and forth — was it a fraction slower this time? — then nothing. I walked on. Something about that wobble had seemed animated by more than mere mechanics. An inverted nest, fallen from a tree during the overnight storm, its hatchlings feebly pushing up from underneath trying to escape? Instead of following my usual course home I retraced my route, picking up a stick from the edge of the trail that I could use to probe the muddy mound. I passed back along the stretch of sidewalk: no sign of the black shape. I doubled back: nothing. Dropping the stick under a stand of trees I walked on

Reaching my front door I was buzzed by a solitary honeybee sweeping out from under the lawn chair. A scout from the miniswarm? But wait: wasn’t this bee already hanging around under the chair even before the swarm showed up?