Sunday, December 2, 2018

How ‘Bout Them Dawgs!

Jake Fromm on the field after yesterday's loss to Alabama.
It is an uncommon tragedy in college football for a team to be beaten by the same team twice in a year.  Yet, that is what happened to my Georgia Bulldogs in 2018.  I didn’t have the voice back in January to blog about our National Championship defeat to the storied Alabama Crimson Tide, the best team in college football over the past decade or so.  I couldn’t find the right words for Jake Fromm’s terrific freshman season, or for the running attack of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, both now NFL running backs.

Yesterday, the Dawgs faced the Tide again in the SEC Championship.  It was #4 in the nation versus #1 respectively, definitely a National Champion caliber game even if it was only for winning the best conference in college football.  The Dawgs soared as high as #2 earlier in the season, but they played poorly on the road against the LSU Tigers and fell to #8 or so.  To their credit, however, Georgia got their mojo back and finished the season strong as other teams lost, allowing the Dawgs to claw their way back to fourth.

This season the mojo once again came from a maturing Jake Fromm, a superb game manager and surgical passer, backed up by great Bulldog special teams, a defense that was young but mostly effective, and two great sophomore running backs in D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield.  The defending SEC Champions handily won the SEC East Division for the second year in a row, setting up the big game against West Division winner Alabama.

Bama came into the championship game 12-0, the Dawgs 11-1, clearly two elite teams facing each other.  The Tide had not trailed any team in any game all season but for one 70-second period earlier against Ole Miss.  Otherwise, they practically obliterated everyone in their path behind Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.  Yesterday the Dawgs scored first on a 20-yard touchdown strike from Fromm to one of his favorite targets, tight end Isaac Nauta, capping a 60-yard drive.  Bama answered with their own 75-yard drive for a TD before Georgia’s Swift scored two TD’s, one from the air and one on a powerful 9-yard run.

At 21-7 things were looking good for Georgia.  It was the first time Alabama had trailed at this point in a football game all season.  But Bama running back Josh Jacobs cut loose for a 59-yard run to get into the red zone and then moments later remarkably recovered his own fumble in the in-zone for a touchdown; a huge break for the Tide because if Georgia had recovered that fumble it wouldn’t have been 21-14 at the half.

Woulda coulda shoulda.  That’s Georgia against Alabama in spades in 2018.  Fromm threw another perfect TD early in the third quarter and the Dawgs were up 28-14.  But here is where the game yesterday and the National Championship game started to bizarrely resemble one another.  Georgia was winning both games through three quarters.  Bama drove down the field again, but Tagovailoa threw a rare interception (the Dawgs defense also sacked the Bama QB three times while pressuring him relentlessly all game).  The Bama defense then proceeded to stop the Dawgs.  On the next drive Tagovailoa hit Jaylen Waddle for 51-yard touchdown pass and suddenly Bama had the momentum but still trailed 28-21.

Back in January the Dawgs also led the Tide throughout most of the game, shutting them out 13-0 at halftime.  That is when famed Alabama coach Nick Saban brought out the freshman Tagovailoa to replace starting quarterback Jalen Hurts.  The freshman went on to engineer several critical offensive drives, tying Georgia to force the first overtime in College Football National Championship history.  Eventually, the Tide beat the Dawgs 26-23 on a second down and 26 TD throw by Tagovailoa.  The freshman quarterback had saved the game, and another championship for Bama.

Something similar happened yesterday.  Poetically enough, perhaps, it was the reverse situation with Bama’s quarterbacks.  On a freak play, an Alabama offensive lineman stepped on Tagovailoa’s ankle and the star quarterback had to come out of the game.  That was at the beginning of what turned out to be a long touchdown drive for the Tide.  Hurts came into the game and proceeded run and pass his way down the field, capping the 16-play, 80-yard drive with a 10-yard TD pass on 3rd down and goal.  

28-28 with five minutes left in the game.  A missed chip-shot field goal by the Dawgs in the 3rd quarter loomed big over the score now.  The Dawgs offense, firing on all cylinders for the first three quarters, became a dud in the 4th quarter.  They punted on their first two drives and were stopped on the next one at the 50 yard line.  On 4th and 11, Coach Kirby Smart decided to gamble with a fake punt, but Georgia back-up quarterback and #1 high school recruit in the nation, Justin Fields, only managed to run 2 yards.  

Hurts got the ball in great field position (Coach Smart may have out-smarted himself with that fake punt call).  It took him only five plays to drive 52-yards and end the drive with a 15-yard TD run by himself to put Bama up 35-28 with only 1:04 left in the game.  Though Georgia managed to put together a 25-yard drive of their own, time ran out before they got close enough to score.

Obviously, the big plays for Bama were the two TD’s engineered by Hurts replacing the starting quarterback – just as the starting quarterback replaced Hurts after halftime back in January.  Poetic justice for Hurts.  But it is easy to forget a play that happened earlier.  One which, I feel out of several other key plays (Bama recovering their own fumble for a TD, for example), cost Georgia the ballgame.  

It happened earlier in fourth quarter, 10:33 remaining in the game.  Hurts had just replaced Tagovailoa.  On third and 12 Hurts (a better rushing QB than a passer) dropped back to pass, came under pressure by the Georgia defensive rush, was forced out of the pocket and managed the throw a 13-yard completion to Irv Smith Jr. for a Bama first down.  We almost had him sacked but he scrambled away and connected to an open receiver when, just as easily, the Dawgs could have sacked Hurts or guarded that receiver more closely and forced a punt.  Who knows what might have happened next, but that critical completion meant the Tide would roll on to a game-winning touchdown.

As I said, being beaten by the same team twice in the same year in college football doesn't happen very often.  The first time Bama beat us was in January, on the final game of last season.  Yesterday, it happened again and they did it, for the second time this year, by switching quarterbacks (this time out of injury rather than strategy) against the young Dawg defense.  Georgia will now fall from the national playoff picture and play 15th ranked Texas in the Sugar Bowl New Year's Day.  Alabama will go on to compete for the National Championship again.

I am a life-long Georgia Bulldogs football fan.  As I have blogged before, I was a student at UGA when we won the National Championship.  I know how fantastic that feels.  I remember so many magnificent games broadcast by Larry Munson.  We are so fortunate to have Kirby Smart as our head coach.  He has not built a National Champion yet, but his energy, recruiting ability, and game preparation makes me think he will keep us contending for many seasons to come and that “them Dawgs” will remain an elite college football team.  I love Georgia’s youth.  We have achieved so much with such a young, talented team.  It’s exciting to experience as a fan.   And yesterday we gave Alabama all they could handle.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Yuval Noah Harari has written a thought-provoking and insightful book about the postmodern, post-truth human condition and the considerations we must make as a species if we are to survive and even thrive in the coming decades.  21 Lessons for the 21st Century is filled with erudite, innovative thinking that, to me, seems essential if we are to prepare ourselves for what is coming next.

First of all, let’s be clear about the “lessons.”  Harari, a distinguished history professor, does not fill this work with self-help (actually more like global-help) how-to suggestions, although he does offer a few along the way.  The lessons, rather, are like lectures, each chapter simply discussing the aspects and ramifications of humanity’s more pressing challenges along with our fantastic potential.  The result is an accessible, rational, realistic appraisal of where we are going and what we need to be doing to avoid near-future hazards and maximize human possibility.

Each chapter is a lesson on a specific one-word topic, with a subtitle that is the closest the book comes to offering what we normally think of as lessons (teachings).  It begins with “Disillusionment” which reads as if Nietzsche might have written it, although Harari does not mention the philosopher at all through the course of his work.  As he writes, offering one of his choice morsels of advice: “We are in the nihilist moment of disillusionment and anger, after people have lost faith in the old stories but before they have embraced a new one.  So what next?  The first step is to tone down prophecies of doom and switch from panic mode to bewilderment.  Panic is a form of hubris.  It comes from the smug feeling that one knows exactly where the world is headed: down.  Bewilderment is more humble and therefore more clear-sighted.  Do you feel like running down the street crying ‘The apocalypse is upon us’?  Try telling yourself, ‘No, it’s not that.  Truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.’” (page 17)

Acceptance of humanity's lack of comprehension about the world’s contemporary complexities means we can move forward with a clearer assessment and acceptance of issues. This subtle shift can allow us to discover new approaches that make sense of things and replaces the "old stories" offered by business, politics and religion with something of genuine relevancy to our situation.  What is our situation?  In the chapter on “Work” we discover that in the next few decades (Harari uses the year 2050 for the sake of discussion) there will be no jobs for unskilled laborers.  All of those will be taken over by robots running on Artificial Intelligence (AI).  There is a serious danger that a large “useless class” will emerge.

Even skilled professions such as a simple check-up or diagnosis by the family doctor will be replaced by machines better equipped to analyze medical data, apply tested and proven algorithms, and provide a more accurate diagnosis and treatment.  But, overall, Harari sees a new demand for skilled human professions to maintain the AI and there is tremendous potential for a new working class of “human-computer centaur teams.”  This will require humans to be more highly-trained on average than most people are today.

Before you dismiss this as science fiction, consider the emergence of AI all around us already.  Harari provides one example on something that happened on December 17, 2017 (the book is filled with highly current examples supporting everything Harari contends).  Ever since the 1990’s computer chess programs have routinely beaten human grandmasters at chess.  This dominance has evolved into the world computer chess championship, where computer programs play each other.

The 2016 champion was a program called Stockfish 8.  Google created the AlphaZero program to compete in 2017.  Almost all chess programs before AlphaZero worked on creating massive databases with millions of historic chess games that the program could access and apply to a given situation with fantastic sorting and analysis algorithms. AlphaZero was different.  It was designed to use machine learning principles and basically taught itself how to play chess, without a database of historical chess moves at all.  AlphaZero became the 2017 world computer chess champion with only minimal human input and it defeated Stockfish in 28 out of 100 games without losing once, the rest being draws.  Because AlphaZero taught itself how to play it made many novel moves that human grandmasters would have likely not considered.  This example of machine learning reveals that we are currently in the infancy of building machines that will outperform humans in unconventional ways in the near future.  

Harari contends we are not prepared for this.  Not only will humanity have to upgrade its skill set overall to avoid becoming “irrelevant” but we will have to constantly revise ourselves to keep pace the accelerated change heralded by AI, robotics, and 3D printers.  A productive human being will have to “upgrade” themselves many times during their lifetime.  The “old story” of going to college, getting a degree, and then applying yourself based upon that for the rest of your life is essentially ending.

“Liberty” is a chapter that discusses how Big Data is only beginning to apply algorithms to the mass of humanity.  “For we are now at the confluence of two immense revolutions.  Biologists are deciphering the mysteries of the human body, and in particular of the human brain and human feelings.  At the same time computer scientists are giving unprecedented data-processing power.  When the biotech revolution merges with the infotech revolution, it will produce Big Data algorithms that can monitor and understand my feelings much better than I can, and then authority will probably shift from humans to computers.  My illusion of free will is likely to disintegrate as I daily encounter institutions, corporations, and government agencies that understand and manipulate what was until now my inaccessible inner realm.” (page 49)

In a nutshell, AI will “learn” to make better decisions about us than we can for ourselves.  The concept of free will, a contentious issue at the moment within cognitive science and philosophical circles, will shift from whether or not humans have a free will to how computer-assisted decisions will redefine what freedom means.  Are we freer when better decisions and fewer mistakes are made about our life choices in everything from what to eat tonight to what career path to pursue? “As authority shifts from humans to algorithms, we may no longer view the world as a playground of autonomous individuals struggling to make the right choices.  Instead, we might perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms, and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system – and then merge into it,” (page 56)  Are you ready for that?

One aspect of this dramatic paradigm shift in human liberty is whether or not this AI will take over the world ala The Matrix.  The author has no concern about this.  His answer is a definitive “no.” This is because AI intelligence should not be equated with human consciousness.  “Intelligence is the ability to solve problems.  Consciousness is the ability to feel things such as pain, joy, love, and anger.  We tend to confuse the two because in humans and other mammals intelligence goes hand in hand with consciousness.  Mammals solve most problems by feeling things.  Computers, however, solve problems in a very different way.” (page 69)  It is an interesting and important distinction.  And I think it is a necessary one to relevantly posture ourselves for the near future.

In general, the book frames the future as grounded completely in what is happening in technology and biology today and how these very real and definable trends are likely to merge with our very humanity going forward. Harari defines three specific problems facing humanity right now: climate change, nuclear weapons, and the coming biotech/AI revolution.  He then proceeds to deconstruct how our traditional (and even our progressive) forms of community, civilization, nationalism, and religion are all ill-equipped to help us address these concerns.  

With respect to nationalism, for example, Harari points out that the formation of nations was once a great and essential advance in human civilization.  He uses the example of the Nile River Valley a couple of millennia ago.  Before a nation was formed the banks of the Nile were controlled by hundreds of tribes.  Generally speaking, the larger the tribe the greater the length of the river it controlled.  But no tribe controlled enough to deal with a season when the Nile flooded or the dry seasons when there wasn’t enough water for the crops.  Some tribes developed a canal system to control both of these situations.  But it only worked if all the tribes joined into a mega-tribe (nation) and did canal work in cooperation.  

This “old story” is still somewhat applicable because today we face global warming, a problem beyond the ability to any nation to solve.  This problem will only be solved by a “mega-nation” (global) cooperation similar to that which made Egypt one of the world’s first great powers.  But that is not Harari’s point.  Instead the “lesson” here is that nations are not longer relevant to the greatest threats to our existence.

Essentially, almost all “old stories” no longer apply today.  They are, more or less, the residual institutions of humanity’s tribal culture.  Tribal thinking, whether it be religious or national, is inadequate to address global problems.  The three critical issues before us transcend all individuals and states and corporations and institutions of worship. 

“Religions still have a lot of political power, inasmuch as they can cement national identities and even ignite World War Three.  But when it comes to solving rather than stoking the global problems of the twenty-first century, they don’t seem to offer much.  Though many traditional religions espouse universal values and claim cosmic validity, at present they are used mainly as the handmaiden of modern nationalism, whether in North Korea, Russia, Iran, or Israel.  They therefore make it even harder to transcend national differences and find a global solution to the threats of nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption.” (page 138)

The chapter on “Humility” is a detailed argument that morality and ethics are not limited by the purview of religion.  Rather, they have existed for thousands of years as just a part of our basic humanity.  “None of the religions or nations of today existed when humans colonized the world, domesticated plants and animals, built the first cities, or invented writing and money.  Morality, art, spirituality, and creativity are universal human abilities embedded in our DNA.  Their genesis was in Stone Age Africa.  It is therefore crass egotism to ascribe to them a more recent place and time, be it China in the age of the Yellow Emperor, Greece in the age of Plato, or Arabia in the age of Muhammad.” (page 185)

Likewise, the “God” chapter argues traditional notions of God’s authority are actually a reflection of larger, natural cultural forces at work in the human past.  “Yet we do not really need such complex, long-term theories to find a natural basis for universal compassion….On a much more immediate level, hurting others always hurts me too.  Every violent act in the world begins with a violent desire in somebody’s mind, which disturbs that person’s own peace and happiness before it disturbs the peace and happiness of anyone else.” (page 205) 

It isn't surprising that Harari advocates the virtues of secularism.  Given the fact that traditional religion and politics are irrelevant to the critical problems facing our future, secularism is much more open to the possibilities for finding solutions.  It allows a more “scientific” approach to our the challenges of our lives.  Because morality and compassion are basic, universal human experiences, it is silly to think that just because a person is secular they lose their connection with morality and compassion.

Instead, the “freedom to think, investigate, and experiment” is a more useful tool than belief or policy.  The “freedom to doubt” paradoxically demands we take more “responsibility” for our lives.  Since there is no higher power to help us out, we must accept our duty to take global challenges into our own hands.  “Every religion, ideology, and creed has its shadow and no matter which creed you follow you should acknowledge your shadow and avoid the na├»ve reassurance that ‘it cannot happen to us.’ Secular science has at least one big advantage over most traditional religions – namely, that it is not inherently terrified of its own shadow, and it is in principle willing to admit its mistakes and blind spots.  If you believe in an absolute truth revealed by a transcendent power, you cannot allow yourself to admit any error, for that would nullify your whole story.  But if you believe in the quest for truth by fallible humans, admitting blunders is part of the game.” (pp. 217-218)

Harari then examines what he means by “truth” in the “quest for truth.”  In doing so he equates “fake news” not as a trendy expression but, boldly, as something that has always been a part of our humanity in the form of religion.  “I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly my point.  When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news.  When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it ‘fake news’ in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath).  Note, however, I am not denying the effectiveness and potential benevolence of religion.  Just the opposite.  For better or worse, fiction is among the most effective tools in humanity’s tool kit.  By bringing people together, religious creeds make large-scale human cooperation possible.  They inspire people to build hospitals, schools, and bridges in addition to armies and prisons.” (page 239)

He argues that we are all responsible “to invest time and effort” to get better at ascertaining fact from fiction and learn to think more critically not just about the information we receive but the sources of that information as well.  Further, while science is not perfect, it is constantly seeking to revise itself.  Reading scientific literature on a given subject will broaden your understanding of it as well as reveal how to test and consider pieces of information.  This, Harari states, is fundamental to adapting to humanity’s very pressing global problems.

Harari has a fascinating take on the genre of science fiction as a useful fictional tool to open our mind for exploring possibilities for the future.  As our creative potential is thus inspired, education will fill our minds with knowledge and with learning the paths of knowledge.  Education is the first step toward “Resilience”, the book’s final section where the author offers a way for human beings to Be in the face of the death of all the “old stories” without any new ones yet generated to fill their place.

But "Education", too, has a shadow.  “As biotechnology and machine learning improve, it will become easier to manipulate people’s deepest emotions and desires, and it will become more dangerous than ever to just follow your heart.  When Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu, or the government knows how to pull the strings of your heart and press the buttons of your brain, will you still be able to tell the difference between your self and their marketing experts?

"To succeed at such a daunting task, you will need to work very hard at getting to know your operating system better – to know what you are and what you want from life.  This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself.” (pp. 271-272) It is critical for us to look deeply into ourselves if we don’t want the algorithms to take over our decision-making for us.  

For Harari our education must be founded upon “Meaning”.  But, like most everything else, this fundamentally must come from some source other than the “old stories” we have been telling ourselves religiously, culturally, and politically.  In fact, the key here is that meaning is not a story at all.  Meaning, rather, is what I assign to my life.  This is our “cosmic vocation.”  This points toward an inward journey each of us must take, if we are not going to let governments and corporations and religions dictate our essence for us in the AI/biotech near-future, where Earth is much hotter than it is now and our nuclear arsenals are more potent than ever.

Harari points inward but he does not prescribe a universal manner of inward reflection, he merely offers, as an example, his own experience with “Meditation” in the final chapter of the book.  He meditates two hours every day and, for one or two months every year, he goes on meditation retreats.  He ends the book with an ominous tone.  “Self-observation has never been easy, but it might get harder with time.  As history unfolded, humans created more and more complex stories about themselves, which made it increasingly difficult to know who we really are….In the near future, algorithms might bring this process to completion, making it well-nigh impossible for people to observe the reality about themselves.  It will be the algorithms that will decide for us who we are and what we should know about ourselves.  For a few more years of decades, we still have a choice.  If we make the effort, we can still investigate who we really are.  But if we want to make use of this opportunity, we had better do it now.” (page 323)

For Harari, we must learn to observe ourselves.  Meditation is a way to do that but he acknowledges that it is his way and there are probably others.  The important part is not the technique but the end result: just observe.  As simple as this may sound, it is the most fundamental "lesson" in the book.  The relevant resilience required for us to literally discover who we are and redefine ourselves in the face of global challenges to our survival as a species is a transcendental problem.

The disillusionment we feel can be legitimately dealt with only through the resilience that comes from the habits of learning, introspection, and general observation.  Our education, even based in science, will fail to assist us with the issues of the next 30 years if we do not use this time to learn who we are as a species and as individuals and to be aware of the potential pitfalls of AI/biotechnology and global ecological disaster.  We are not the algorithms.  Robots are not consciousness.  We are altering the Earth itself.  We could obliterate everything in a nuclear holocaust.  Harari simply says, do not despair, but learn how to be more attentive people.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Thoughts on the Post-midterm Election Narrative

As I blogged earlier, my take on the 2018 election is that the Democrats did not have the ‘blue wave” they hoped for, Trump remains undiminished, and the Dems need to moderate their narrative if they hope to beat Trump in 2020.  Of course, that is by no means the common narrative as we now look back on the events of November 6.  In this blog post I will look at six articles that represent various perspectives on the mid-term election.  My primary sources here are The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Review, Vox and FiveThirtyEight. 

First let’s look at two op-ed pieces with differing views from The Washington Post.  The first article is entitled “The midterms prove it: Progressive ideas are now mainstream.”  Clearly, this is not my perspective but there are some interesting facts presented here.  “65 percent of the incoming House freshman class embraced some version of Medicare-for-all or expanding Social Security benefits. Almost 80 percent embraced lowering prescription drug costs by challenging Big Pharma. And 82 percent favored challenging corporate power in our political system by rejecting corporate PAC money, passing a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United or passing campaign finance reform such as public financing of elections.”

Those are some impressive numbers and I certainly am happy to see the will to overturn Citizens United, a political disaster for the country that effectively grants corporations freedom of speech privileges that should, in my opinion, be reserved for individual citizens.  It is funny how the op-ed piece confuses political positions for what mainstream voters support.  There is no indication anywhere in the piece that voters chose these candidates based upon the issues presented in the quote above.  In fact, there is reason to suspect it was for other reasons entirely.

A second Washington Post op-ed piece is entitled “Don’t let progressives fool you.  Moderate democrats can win.”  In also contains some impressive insights that seem to contradict the conclusions of the previous article.

“The moderate New Democratic caucus in the U.S. House endorsed 37 candidates in primary races, and 32 earned the nomination — an 86 percent win rate. By contrast, Our Revolution, the grass-roots organization founded and run by Bernie Sanders’s backers, had a win rate under 40 percent in the primaries. Once the general election rolled around, 23 New Democrat-backed candidates flipped House seats to help gain the majority, while not a single Our Revolution-endorsed candidate captured a red seat. Zero.”

That doesn’t sound like progressives are mainstream at all.  While moderate Dems probably support Medicare and Social Security, they do not do so in the Bernie Sanders style of things.  More prescient is this quote: “Support for the magnificent range of diverse candidates who have been inspired to run simply does not equal a demand for democratic socialism. These midterms will usher in a new generation of Democrats that is more representative of the full panoply of voters than any class in history. In the 116th Congress, close to 40 percent of the Democratic caucus in the House will be women, nearly half the caucus may be nonwhite, and the LGBTQ community could boast as many as eight representatives — all a record. That is a welcome and overdue change for the party. But don’t assume people of color, women and LGBTQ candidates are all populists or far-left progressives. They run the ideological gamut inside the party.”

I don’t like the word ‘progressive’ because it is actually too vague, intentionally so because it is basically a word liberals chose to use when the word ‘liberal’ became a ‘dirty’ word.  The fact that liberals have to call themselves ‘progressive’ is inherently indicative of why progressives are NOT mainstream.  The rebranding of liberals is an admission of their loss of national relevancy.

An op-ed piece in The New York Times would argue against what I just said, however. Its point is captured in the title: “Do the Math.  Moderate Democrats will not Win in 2020.”  It portends to offer the ‘right lessons’ about what happened November 6.  This article goes into some depth about the unexpected success of Stacey Abrams’ and Andrew Gillum’s gubernatorial campaigns in Georgia and Florida respectively.  According the Times piece, these candidates fared better than expected by following the Barack Obama playbook concluding that:

“Democrats can go the old route that has consistently failed to come close to winning and demoralized supporters down the line, or they can do the math and follow the example of Ms. Abrams and Mr. Gillum and Mr. Obama before them. Invest in the infrastructure and staffing to engage and mobilize voters. Stand as tall, strongly and proudly for the nation’s multiracial rainbow as Mr. Trump stands against it. And mobilize and call forth a new American majority in a country that gets browner by the hour and will be even more diverse by November 2020.”

This vision of a “new American majority” only has one small problem.  While both of these candidates forced heated recounts since their races were so close, they both lost.

"...or they can do the math and follow the example of Ms. Abrams and Mr. Gillum and Mr. Obama before them."  And lose Georgia and Florida, again?  It is a great thing that these races were so close, as was Cruz and O'Rourke in Texas. It means that voters for Democrats are starting to show up at the polls in these states.  That puts all three of the states potentially in-play for 2020.  At a minimum, this will force Trump to spend time and resources in those southern states that would otherwise be directed at Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  

But that is all wishful thinking at the moment.  The reality is the math works against liberals trying to mobilize their base in the south.  A more moderate approach might actually accomplish a lot of what the liberals want.  The Times op-ed piece is a great example of how stupid liberal idealism can be.  And the stupider that looks, the more appealing moderate positions become. 

As of this writing, the Democrats have flipped 40 seats in the House of Representatives.  That is far more than the 24-25 it seemed they might get election night.  So, it seems like this actually more of a ‘blue wave’ than a ripple as I immediately thought.  Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight offers a chat that produces a rather mixed review of the outcome in “Yes, It Was A Blue Wave.  No It Doesn’t Matter for 2020.”

In that chat, Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst, states: “It was, by any historical standard, a blue wave. Democrats look like they’re going to pick up around 38 House seats, which would be the third-biggest gain by any party in 40 years (after Republicans in 2010 and 1994).”  Nate Silver argues that the reason for the confusion about whether the results constituted a ‘wave’ or not came about for a couple of reasons: “I think they’re arguing it’s not a wave because (1) the “split decision” narrative is very attractive if you’re of a both-sides mentality, (2) it takes a little bit of work to figure out why Democrats didn’t win the Senate (i.e., you have to look at the fact that the contests were all held in really red states), (3) Democratic gains are larger than they looked like they’d be at say 10:30 p.m. on election night, when these narratives were established.”

The chat comes to the conclusion that it was a wave for the Democrats but not a mandate since the Republicans maintained, and even netted a gain, in the Senate.  A mixed result.  The group in the chat more or less agreed that whether this translates into a Democratic win in 2020 depends on who the Dems nominate for president, which is kind of like saying nothing at all, except for the fact that it does caution everyone that the 2018 results and Trumps low approval rating do not in any way constitute a Trump defeat two years from now.  I, for one, already knew that.

Vox, traditionally a left-leaning outlet, presented an article just prior to the election entitled: “Democrats are running to the middle to win the midterms: The Left is fired up but Democrats are still relying on centrists in the 2018 campaign.” The Vox article offers some insights that might contradict some of the information offered above.  Looking at the House races, it states: “In the 69 most competitive House districts, only 15 Democratic candidates have endorsed Medicare-for-all, the policy pillar of the left’s enthusiasm, according to an analysis by Forbes-Tate, a DC-based lobbying firm.”

There is a strong argument to be made that the success Democrats found in the House was due to the adoption of more moderate positions.  Meanwhile the Republicans continue to move hard Right.  “Democrats are trading ideological purity for electoral viability in many campaigns — much more so than the Republican Party, which seems to be sliding further and further to the right. A plurality of Republican voters now describe themselves as ‘very’ conservative.”

My guess is that the story of 2018 is not so much that progressive have become mainstream as it is that conservatives are leaving the mainstream.   That is not the same thing as liberals are coming back into favor.  It is more like most candidates are moving out of favor with most Americans.  Given the harsh, uncompromising rhetoric of Trump and his ilk, the Democrats seem moderate by comparison.  If that trend continues then we could see a new president elected in 2020.

National Review, a right-leaning magazine that I happen to respect, offers perhaps the most balanced view of the midterms with its article entitled: “2018: Normalcy’s Revenge”.  National Review has always been lukewarm toward Trump and is the voice of what I would call traditional, Eisenhower Republicans.  Its basic contention is that were wasn’t much really decided in 2018 and there was certainly no mandate for either party.  Instead, quite simply, rural areas of the country became more entrenched for the Republicans while urban area became more Democratic.

I don't necessarily agree all of the specifics but the article divides the outcome into two camps, appropriately enough.  The losers and the winners.  The losers include: Red-state Senator Democrats, Reluctant Trump House Republicans, Uber-Supportive Trump Republicans, Bold and Charismatic Progressives, and Midwestern Republicans.  So losers on both sides.  The winners include: Incumbent Governors, Reluctant Trump Republican Governors, Republican Women, Political Machine Democrats, and Major Democratic Presidential Contenders.  In summary:

“On the whole, despite our unusual president, the supercharged atmosphere of political acrimony, and the sky-high turnout they drove, the story of 2018 was that in many ways we returned to the normal ways of American politics. Presidential parties typically lose a little over two dozen seats in the House in a first midterm; Republicans will lose a bit more than that, but nothing on the order of the Democratic wipeouts of 2010 (63 seats) or 1994 (54 seats), undoubtedly owing in good part to a booming economy and the absence of an obvious foreign crisis. Republicans lost a bunch of governorships, but mostly ones they had held for two terms in states that were not naturally deep-red. Senators and representatives out of step with their constituents lost; so did candidates who were garishly abnormal or ideologically overambitious, and members of Congress who weren’t on board with their party’s leader. Rural red areas got redder, and urban blue areas got bluer. Democrats won more than they lost, and Republicans won or held more than many expected. Both sides got just enough taste of victory and defeat to leave them hungering for more in 2020.”

So this is more of a mixed bag than a 'blue wave.'  Nevertheless, a few things are clear.  Trumpism received an unexpected (from its own arrogant perspective) check.  Trump is despondent about the outcome.  If turnout is high, the urban areas will defeat the rural areas.  That favors the Democrats over the Republicans.  On a percentage basis, moderate candidates won more races than liberals or conservatives.  Trump Republicans and liberal Democrats mostly lost to centrists.

While the country is highly polarized, the voters as a whole do not want more polarity.  They voted away from the extremes of the political perspective.  Contentions that moderate candidates cannot win the presidency are ill-founded.  I stand by what I posted earlier.  Do you want to be right or do you want to win?  Vote for vote, the typical American is not as radical as the candidates so loudly promoted on the extremes of either party.  Whoever can come to terms with that has the best chance of winning in 2020.  My guess is Trump is less equipped to moderate himself than any president in history.  There should be a lesson there.

Special Note: By happy coincidence this piece appeared in the National Review today written by George Will.  It is an excellent and insightful piece.  John Delaney is precisely the type of Democrat that needs to run against Trump.  I share Will's concern that the Democratic Party won't see it this way.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Fall of Gondolin, The End of Tolkien

The three 'Great Tales' of J.R.R. Tolkien, conceived early in his life, are now the final word on his fantasy world of Middle-earth. 
As I have mentioned previously, I have been a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings since I was in high school.  I have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy several times throughout my life.  Tolkien was, hands down, the most important fictional writer of the first half of my life.  I bought a first edition of The Silmarillion (1977) at the University of Georgia bookstore when I was a freshman.  I grabbed a first edition of Unfinished Tales in 1980.  The depth and breadth of his work astonished me and, as is my way with most things of interest, I absorbed everything I could about his stories of Middle-earth.

By the time The Book of Lost Tales came out (in two volumes, 1983-1984), I was starting to think that Tolkien’s family, and his eldest son, Christopher, in particular, were trying to milk more money out fans and readers with a bunch of incomplete story ideas and discarded drafts of tales that I had already read.  After Lost Tales, Christopher carried on with his History of Middle-earth project and I became disinterested in his work, which was basically the publication, over multiple volumes, of different versions of the stories his father revised and discarded while working on his trilogy and the tales of the Silmarils.  It all just seemed too greedy and commercial to me, at the time.

Years later, I saw what Christopher was doing in a different light.  It finally occurred to me that his father had struggled with his massive fantasy world and the myriad of characters and stories that took place there over a period of time beyond reckoning, from the creation of Middle-earth through three ages of history.  J.R.R. Tolkien, as with many writers, went through many iterations of his story ideas.  Names changed, events were altered, ideas were refined and/or completely discarded.  Christopher simply wanted to bring this great mass of creative content to life for those of us who were so enamored with Arda and Middle-earth.

In my 40’s I began purchasing some of these additional edited works.  The Lays of Beleriand is Volume 3 of the History, The Shaping of Middle-earth is Volume 4, and The Lost Road and Other Writings (Volume 5) were added to my collection.  I was not particularly interested in previous drafts of The Lord of the Rings (featured in three volumes in the History series), but the variations of the central tales involving The Silmarillion captured my attention.  Later, I purchased Morgoth’s Ring (Volume 10) because it offered special insights about how Tolkien viewed the nature of evil in Middle-earth (and, by analogy, in our modern world as well).

Then, in 2007, The Children of Hurin was published.  I was excited to read this one because, unlike most of the History Series, there was enough finished material here from his father for Christopher to piece together an authentic and complete new story of particular significance about Middle-earth prior to Tolkien’s famous trilogy.  My favorite chapter in that work is the story of the Battle of Numbered Tears (Nirnaeth Arnoediad in the elvish language Tolkien invented), which had great implications for Middle-earth.  It was here that Morgoth defeated the combined armies of elves, dwarves, and men and began a long, dark period of evil’s reign.

Hurin was part of what J.R.R. Tolkien considered three great ‘unfinished’ and critically fundamental tales regarding Middle-earth, from what he termed "the Elder Days".  After the Battle of Unnumbered Tears the great warrior Hurin is captured and imprisoned by Morgoth, who also puts a curse on Hurin and his family so that evil will befall them all their lives.  His son, Turin, is sent to the hidden elvish Kingdom of Doriath for protection in those dark times.  Meanwhile, Hurin’s wife gives birth to a daughter, Neinor.  Ultimately, the dragon Glaurung enchants Neinor and causes her to forget who she is.

The narrative proceeds through several misadventures befalling Turin, which leave him basically an outcast.  Years later, he meets Neinor.  The two fall in love and marry, ignorant of the incestuous nature of their attraction. She becomes pregnant, but before the child is born Turin does battle with Glaurung and terminally wounds the beast with his sword.  Blood from the dragon is spewed upon Turin during the melee and he faints under the combination of toxicity, fatigue and pain.

Much as in Romeo and Juliet, Neinor finds Turin seemingly dead.  Glaurung recovers enough to sow the dragon’s final malice before it dies.  It tells Neinor the truth about her incest with her brother and the child she is carrying.  Upon which Nienor commits suicide.  Turin then awakens (of course) and, learning of the death of his lover and that she was, in fact, his sister, he falls on his sword.  Later, Hurin is released by Morgoth and arrives at the graves of his children, suffering further when his wife, Morwen, ends up dying in his arms.

This is a dark, ultra-tragic tale, which is reflective of Tolkien’s fundamental disenchantment with World War One and with the beginnings of modernity.  The grim bleakness that affected Tolkien is reflected throughout all of his works, less so in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings than in The Silmarillion and his unfinished works, of which The Children of Hurin is the most complete.

Last year came another tale of heroism and misfortune, Beren and Luthien, probably Tolkien’s greatest story of all.  Unlike Hurin, however, Beren and Luthien, while offered as a complete story in The Silmarillion under the chapter “Of Beren and Luthien," is featured in its various incomplete fragments as a story in development that had several iterations and was only arranged in a completed fashion later by Christopher Tolkien.  The completely pieced together story is NOT part of the Beren and Luthien, however.  The 2017 book, like much of The History of Middle-earth, is offered as a study of Tolkien’s struggle with various aspects of the narrative.

The seed of this epic story was sown as The Tale of Tinuviel, written in 1917, one of Tolkien’s earliest forays into Middle-earth, unfinished, of course.  Beren and Luthien contains large passages from The Lay of Luthien (part of the History’s Volume 3).  So there is an equitable mix of prose and poetry.  While not as finished as Hurin, Beren and Luthien is probably the most important of the many stories conceived by Tolkien, including The Lord of the Rings itself.  Tolkien took a special interest in this narrative and related to it very personally, going so far as to see Luthien in his wife and to have her headstone engraved with “Luthien” at the time of her death.

This is a story of profound love, obviously. It is also another tale of forbidden love.  The human warrior, Beren, ended up as an outcast after The Battle of Sudden Flame.  He happens upon the elf princess Luthien, daughter of the king of Doriath, and they fall in love.  Beren asks the king for Luthien’s hand and the King, knowing his daughter’s desire to be with Beren, agrees to their marriage under the extraordinary condition that Beren bring the king a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown, something considered impossible given the Dark Lord’s immense power.

Nevertheless, so great is his love, Beren starts out on a long quest to steal the sacred jewel.  Luthien ultimately follows.  Together, through much adventure and hardship, the task is accomplished.  Two of the many things that happen along the way are that Luthien becomes pregnant with Beren’s child, and Beren is mortally wounded.  Luthien sings a song of such despair that Mandos, one of the mighty Valar, grants Luthien the wish that Beren will be returned from the dead at the price of her forsaking her immortality and be subject to mortal death like a human.  Beren and Luthien, live out the rest of their lives together uneventfully in a secret place, raising their son, Dior.

It is a classic love story, filled with emotional depth and high adventure, threading the central story of the Silmarils (more important to Tolkien than the more famous Ring of Power) through the end of the First Age and into legend by the time of The Lord of the Rings, set at the end of the Third Age.  Among all of Tolkien’s many regrets, the fact that he was never able to get this story into finished form and published (his publisher had little interest in The Silmarillion), was the most heartrending.  Despite writing the most popular work of fiction in the 20th century, Tolkien felt that his primary vision was a complete failure.  It was only after his death that his son Christopher brought it to light.  It is another of the three ‘central’ tales of Middle-earth before the Third Age, slightly alluded to in the Ring trilogy.

In his introduction to Beren and Luthien, Christopher Tolkien wrote: “In my ninety-third year this is (presumptively) my last book in the long series of editions of my father’s writings, very largely previously unpublished…”  But it was not to be so.  This year he published The Fall of Gondolin.  In this introduction, he quotes the sentence above and adds: “I used the word ‘presumptively’ because at the time I thought hazily of treating in the same way as Beren and Luthien the third of my father’s ‘Great Tales’, The Fall of Gondolin.  But I thought it improbable…The presumption proved wrong, however, and I must now say that ‘in my ninety-fourth year The Fall of Gondolin is (indubitably) the last’.”

The Fall of Gondolin is one of Tolkien’s earliest stories.  The writing began in 1916 while serving as soldier in World War One.  Unlike so many of Tolkien’s other efforts, the original narrative is a complete story. Though he would toy with expanding it later, as Tolkien did with virtually everything he wrote, those efforts would not push the story to any particular conclusion.  Tolkien abandoned the work in the early 1950’s.  The version of this story presented in The Silmarillion goes beyond the original story with the added adventures of Tuor discovering Gondolin.  

But, to me, the original story is complete, if brief.  That version of The Fall of Gondolin has fleshed-out characters and lengthy details of an incredible battle when Morgoth attacks the fortified elvish city.  The great drama of the battle as told in the earlier work (what Christopher calls “the old story”) is reduced to a rather bland, factual account in The Silmarillion

So this new Tolkien book is a kind of a return to his roots, where he began his quest to interpret Middle-earth.  The book gives us “the old story” of The Fall of Gondolin exactly as it was first published in 1984 by Christopher as a chapter in The Book of Lost Tales: Part Two.  All the dramatic details of the battle are present.  The new book also contains several other fragments and versions of the story along with a lot of interesting insight on the development of the tale in Christopher’s excellent commentary.  

The great issue in Christopher’s mind is why his father put so much effort into expanding the story only to leave it unfinished.  Written around 1951, "Of Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin," the title of “the last version”, is a long narrative of how Tuor searches for and ultimately discovers Gondolin but strangely ends just as Tuor reaches the hidden city before the great battle is fought.  Only “the old story” tells of the battle for the city.

The Fall of Gondolin was central to Tolkien’s vision of the Elder Days of Middle-earth. So why did Tolkien abandon “the last version”?  According to Christopher, it was because Tolkien’s publisher refused to consider The Silmarillion for publication after The Lord of the Rings was completed.  Tolkien sank into depression that his grandest stories would never see the light of day after he had toiled so long to write a trilogy he was induced to produce but nevertheless always considered a minor effort compared with his more expansive narrative. Simply put, Tolkien would have rather written a fully fleshed out Gondolin, Beren and Luthien and Hurin but instead The Lord of the Rings consumed him not out of personal drive but, rather, at the insistence of his publisher.  Tolkien became disheartened at what seemed to him to be forced labor as prospects for the larger stories were squashed.  All work on Gondolin and most of the rest of The Silmarillion ceased.

The highlight of the whole narrative, for me, is the battle for the city written in 1916 - 1917.  Here we find the great struggle between Morgoth’s (known as Melko in this version) vast army of Orcs, dragons, and Balrogs commanded by Gothmog, the Lord of the Balrogs.  The battle is full of back and forth action, obviously inspired by what Tolkien witnessed in the trenches of the First World War.  Tuor is heroic in the city’s defense, but less so than Ecthelion, the King of Gondolin.  Incredibly, Ecthelion slays three Balrogs including Gothmog, at the cost of his own life.  Even these great feats of heroism are not enough to save the city, however.

With this 2018 publication, the long matter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings, taking up many volumes, is ‘indubitably’ complete.  Christopher Tolkien has done the literary world a great service in bringing to light his father’s unfinished works and multiple variations of stories over roughly a 35 year creative period.  Far from being a mere enterprise of cashing in on the Tolkien name, The Silmarillion and all its many unpublished pieces and forms is a fascinating look at how the author struggled with this sprawling epic only to become famous for something he never really intended to write, while his primary narrative project ended in his utter despair.

It is simultaneously wonderful and sad that, as a lifelong Tolkien fan, I have now read the final pieces of Tolkien’s literary puzzle; that the stories I loved in high school (and still do to this day) are juxtaposed against a much vaster, almost limitless, canvas.  The foundation for this fantastic infrastructure resides with the three great, tragic pillars of the Elder Days mentioned in this post.

This nostalgic and melancholy appreciation for Tolkien’s work in the context of my life as a reader is very similar to how the elves themselves feel on Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age, the time of The Lord of the Rings.  Their days are over and they are fading into the west toward Valinor.  The rule of Man has arrived and the Fourth Age is about to begin.  The elves accept their fate but experience their time on Middle-earth as a distant glory, a fragmented greatness, a loss and faintness of precious things that have vanished for a people who are immortal and must bear the weight of the past forever.

The Fall of Gondolin is the end of Tolkien.  All we can do is marvel at his rich and entertaining fantasy realm, most of which was published incomplete long after his death.  But it is similar with any classic author.  The literature is still touching and enjoyable to readers, like the past deeds of long-dead elves, like the glory of their immortality as they walked Middle-earth, did battle against evil, and sought to live in creative harmony in Tolkien’s multi-cultural, multi-racial realm.  

It is worth emphasizing that all three of these Great Tales are essentially tragic.  Virtually all of Tolkien's close friends died in World War One.  The post-war malaise that affected all of Europe weighed especially on Tolkien's heart.  So it is understandable that while The Lord of the Rings is laced with tragedy, the stories Tolkien held most dear are far more tragic.  He poured his innermost self into The Children of Hurin, Beren and Luthien, and The Fall of Gondolin as he did with most of the major themes of The SilmarillionFor Tolkien, a devote Catholic, the Christian concept of the "Fall of Man" was not an event in the past so much as a continuing misfortune.  Humankind continued to fall and to fail.  This is the central tragedy of his life experience and his epic fantasy stories.

Fortunately, these unfinished tales and fragments of stories found life after Tolkien's death, and the literary world is richer for it today.  I understand how Tolkien experienced and expressed tragedy as an underlying theme throughout Middle-earth. Tragedy is a classic aspect of western literature.  Tolkien viewed world "progress" as more of a diminishment than an advance.  I can't say that I agree with him on this account, though certainly in these dark days of American democracy it seems like he wasn't far from the mark.  But as I assess the fullness of Tolkien's published and, more importantly, his previously unpublished works, it isn't the tragic nature of it all that affects me so much as the simple sadness that this long journey is over.  It has passed as the elves passed into the West, as all things pass through the mechanics of evolution and change. 

I feel fortunate to be here at the journey’s end, knowing these books will go ever on even as I remember the first time I read the trilogy in my youth, happily ignorant of the extent of Tolkien’s vision and discontent.  I have enjoyed a front row seat to what has been revealed during my lifetime in The Silmarillion and all the other volumes.  They are all "old stories" now.  Yet some of them are "new" in a way.  The Fall of Gondolin was never rendered in such a complete and satisfying manner as in 2018.  Its fragments are fresh even if the text is over 100 years old.  To read some of this for the first time, along with the rest of the world's Tolkien fans, is a cheerful experience despite the sadness of arriving at the end of the road.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Election 2018: Do You Want To Win in 2020?

Frustration with the Trump presidency was rabid among my Democratic friends before yesterday's mid-term election.  Early last evening, they were hit with existential despair as it gradually became obvious there would be no “Blue Wave.”  The Democrats took control of the House of Representatives.  That was expected, though they may fall short of gaining 30+ seats some progressives hoped for.  The Senate remained Republican with the conservatives even taking a couple of seats away from the Dems.  Among high-profile races Ted Cruz defeated Beto O’Rourke in the Texas senate race.  A clear win for the Trump brand.  

It was better news for the Democrats at the level of governor races. Here is probably where they performed their best in 2018.  They managed to flip seven states from red to blue, and won a total of 15 states, surely the strongest showing for what I would call the Blue Ripple.  Still, the Neocons managed outpace them, winning 19 states, with usually liberal Massachusetts and the critical swing-state of Ohio among them.  No mandate there for either side.  Georgia is currently ‘too close to call’ but it is not seriously so in my opinion.  If the Democrats hope to beat Trump in 2020 they need to put Georgia in play.  Perhaps Stacey Abrams’ loss to Brian Kemp by less than a percentage point might mean a competitive race from Trump in the next election.  A faint reason for hope there.

Trump went out of his way to make this mid-term a referendum about him.  He realizes that his personality is greater than the overall Republican party itself.  To that extent, what we have is a muddled message and clearly not anything remotely close to a repudiation of President Trump.  The right-wing gravitational pull remains intact.  This country is nowhere close to being receptive to the “progressive” message. 

The fact that liberals (let's call a spade a spade) have had to rebrand themselves under another banner is indicative enough of how out of touch they are with the main stream.  Medicare for allFree college education.  These and several other left-wing pipe dreams are not only outside the mainstream (and therefore untenable on a national level for the 2020 election) they are BAD policy suggestions.

Simply put, to address a perceived social issue in a vacuum is juvenile politics.  We may have health access issues for some Americans.  Our college students may be swimming in debt. But giving these things away as entitlements is not the answer and the majority of the American people know it.  Neither approach addresses the core problem.  Healthcare and higher education cost too much in this country – for everybody.  THAT is the fundamental issue.  While the rise in healthcare costs has been somewhat addressed, no one is addressing the costs of college, or of much of anything else in this country.

The Republicans want to have their cake and eat it too.  They want lower taxes and a lower debt.  It ain’t going to happen.  Likewise, the Democrats want to give stuff away when the fact of the matter is, if nothing is done to address costs you are just throwing new sources of money into the void of bureaucracy, which will just gobble it all and beg for more.  And the cost to the American taxpayer, the size of the national debt, will continue to grow at a rate threatening future generations.  That is totally irresponsible on the part of both parties.

But the debt was not an issue this year.  For whatever fickle reason, it didn’t matter that this country is now over $21 trillion, over twice as much as when I blogged about it in 2009.  This will catch up to us one day in the not too distant future.

The time for giving shit away to every mediocre citizen of this nation is gone, if it were really ever here at all.  There is no new New Deal.  That is old history.  The problem Democrats face going forward is that their liberal wing is contributing at least as much to the polarization of American politics as the right-wingnuts out there.  Anyway, with Trump in control of the Senate he will continue to control the judiciary and it will continue to digress into a conservative cesspool of outmoded, backwards thinking legal and ethical standards.  A win for the Trump brand.  

Meanwhile, the Democrats can use their control of the House to pester the Trump administration with budgets and with investigations against our narcissistic demagogue of a president.  My fear is that if they push too hard against Trump without a mandate (there was no mandate for either side in this election) it will backfire on them just as all this liberal "give shit away" crap will backfire.  Press too hard on Trump’s alleged crimes and misdemeanors and you will end up creating broader voter sympathy for the asshole.

And so it goes.  This midterm was actually the beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign.  The results are mixed, just as they were in 2016.  The House rests on popular vote, which the Dems won.  But the Senate is more of a State/Electoral College institution – and it sides with Trump.  Apparently, nothing has changed but for the Dems meager control of the House which, at best, can create gridlock and minimize the damage Trump can do outside of judicial matters.

My liberal friends don’t like it when I say the ‘progressive’ message doesn’t fit in 2018.  Some of them proclaimed that they were not being "radical" at all, they were simply returning to their roots of the Roosevelt presidential era.  That doesn’t change my response at all.  Even if you are going back to your roots, you are still out of touch with what the message needs to be.  It is not a simple Left versus Right.  It is far more nuanced than that and requires and mix of liberal (on civil rights, for example) and conservative (on fiscal restraint) initiatives. 

To all you liberals out there, I have two pieces of advice.  Stop calling yourself ‘progressives.’  That rebranding makes you look even more stupid than some of your policy suggestions actually are.  Secondly, you can either be "idealistically right" or you can get elected.  You can’t be both.  Some soul-searching compromises are in order to be competitive nationally.  Do you want to win in 2020?  Then, quite obviously, carrying forward with your messaging in 2018 will only get Trump reelected.  That’s the fundamental takeaway from this midterm business.   

Do want to be right or do you want to win?

Note: I followed the election on fivethirtyeight.com and on this excellent live map offered by Axios.