Two-Book Deal with Angry Robot

I’ve known this was happening since we received the offer at the end of May, but I’M GETTING PUBLISHED! I’m so happy to be working with Angry Robot – these guys are the best.

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Relationships in American vs. Israeli Music

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day about the differences between the way American music treats relationships and the way Israeli music does. My basic thesis is that Israeli music and culture are comfortable with the messiness and imperfection of relationships, whereas American music that deals with love lurches between euphoria and depression (with the occasional song of rage thrown into the mix). My references are a bit dated, but I think this thesis holds true for newer music too.

Let’s start with breakup songs. When I think about American breakup songs they seem to fall into two basic types: the Now I’m Devastated song (a.k.a. the Blues) and the I’ll Get Over You song (which includes the I’m Breaking Up With You song). There’s a lot of struggle in these breakup songs, and a lot of justification. You’ll find some nuance here and there, but you have to really look for it. Now let me introduce you to one of my favorite Israeli breakup songs, Zmanim Ktanim (the translation’s got some errors in it, but nothing major). This song treats the breakup as an opportunity for reminiscence, because you know, we had some good times. No struggle is evident – these things just happen sometimes, and nobody is being blamed. If you can think of any American songs anything like it, let me know. I’m not sure they exist.

Another of my Israeli favorites is Milim Yafot Me’eleh, a song about lovers’ quarrels that, again, refuses to catastrophize the drama of its subjects. When I think of such quarrels in American music, my mind immediately goes to oldies Return to Sender and Red Roses for a Blue Lady (I know, I know, because I work in a nursing home). The former is about a girlfriend ghosting on Elvis (in an adorable old-fashioned way) after an argument. No nuance, just a cute song. The latter is pretty outrageous, a dude buying flowers for his girlfriend after an argument and expecting that if they succeed in making her happy, it will inevitably lead to her agreeing to marry him. Talk about borderline personality! Either she’ll be mad forever, or everything will suddenly be perfect. I figured I should find some more contemporary music about fights within a relationship, so I googled it, and you know what popped up first? This. A song by P!nk about being tired of all this fighting, let’s get a divorce.

One place where the thesis falls apart a little is in songs about loving someone despite all sorts of imperfections (not just the perfect ones). American music has plenty of these. Just to name a couple that we sang in my college a cappella group, there’s Rilo Kiley’s Portions for Foxes and Joan Osborne’s Crazy Baby. (Israel has You’re No Good For Me But I Love You Anyway songs too.) But there’s still such an amazing amount of What Makes You Beautiful and All Of Me out there (the John Legend song, not the 1931 classic) that it’s frankly absurd. And I can’t think of any Israeli analogs.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Israel Does Love Better or anything silly like that. I’m just saying that Israeli music seems to have a lower-stakes attitude about relationship issues, in a good way.

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N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available for pre-order at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s coming out in June, and it’s really good. You should buy it.

“Voting Against Self-Interest” is BS.

I make no bones about being on Team Liberal. I’m in favor of a high estate tax, robust social welfare programs, vigorous anti-trust actions, carbon taxes and all the rest of it, not to mention a whole slew of left-wing social issues. But there’s one liberal notion that I absolutely have to call bullshit on, and that’s the idea that Republican voters are being gulled into voting “against their self-interest.”

The “against self-interest” argument is deeply patronizing. The basic premise is that Fox News / the GOP / the American plutocracy have fooled or brainwashed an enormous portion of the electorate into voting for things that are objectively bad for them. It’s an argument that allows liberals to feel enlightened and superior to heartland rubes while ignoring the ways in which liberal arguments can be legitimately unpersuasive to people.

Let’s get one thing straight: there is absolutely nothing wrong with voting against your self-interest, economic or otherwise. Voting against your own interests is also known as “voting on principle.” You wouldn’t call rich Democrats fools for supporting higher taxes on the wealthy, you’d say they were voting for the common good above their self-interest. You wouldn’t look down on childless people for wanting to improve the education system. And part of the big liberal complaint on climate change is that both voters and politicians have been voting for their economic self-interest instead of trying to prevent catastrophe.

So let’s say you have a voter who truly believes that personhood (and not just life) begins at conception. Are you telling me that this person ought to prioritize economic issues above the murder of children? It’s easy for those of us who don’t think a zygote is more of a person than, say, my arm is, to see this voter as obsessive, as fanatical, as an agent of patriarchal oppression. But if you start from their premise that a zygote is a person, their stance is the only moral one. Given the choice between saving innocent lives and saving money, how many of us would choose money?

And it’s not just single-issue voters we need to consider. Voters are constantly being asked to prioritize some issues over others. I for one think it’s massively important to prevent government agencies from spying on American citizens without probable cause. But the only candidate whose political identity is inextricably tied to curtailing these abuses is Rand Paul. I am not a Rand Paul voter, because this one massively important issue still isn’t at the very top of my list, and I hate practically everything else Paul stands for.

I’m not denying that there’s a terrifying amount of misinformation on the conservative end of the political spectrum. Yeah, lots of people are voting for Republicans for really silly reasons. But lots of people vote for Democrats for silly reasons too. And due to partisan tribalism, people on both sides often spout talking points that they haven’t fully considered just because it’s the argument they’ve heard their side make. On our side, the economic self-interest thing is one of the dumbest talking points I’ve ever heard.

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N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available for pre-order at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s coming out in June, and it’s really good. You should buy it.

Politics Is Like Sports, Except Better

I follow politics with the enthusiasm of a sports fanatic. At President Obama’s first State of the Union I was able to name every member of his cabinet who passed before the camera, getting excited at the sight of people like Steven Chu and Arne Duncan. So it’s naturally baffling to me when people are all into sports but don’t tune into politics until the next presidential election is practically upon them.

Non-politics-watchers have a tendency to loudly assert that all politicians are the same and that nothing ever changes in Washington. This is like saying that all baseball or football players are equivalent, and that these sports are boring because they’re always played on the same basic field. Naturally, if you don’t pay attention, you’re not going to see the beauty of the sport. If you’re not a baseball fan, it looks like everyone’s just standing around. If you’re not a football fan, it’s just a bunch of dudes mindlessly crashing into each other (sometimes football is like that even if you are a fan). Politics is pretty much the same. Ignore it, and it’s boring. Watch it, and you’ll see things so riveting that you won’t mind reading twenty barely-different takes on the same event.

Oh wait, no, politics isn’t like sports. Because sports never actually matter.

I’ll give you an example. A couple of years ago, Jacoby Ellsbury was the star center fielder for the Boston Red Sox. He was great. He stole home this one time. Everybody loved him. Then, after helping his team win the world series, he became a free agent and signed with the Yankees. The local press screamed Betrayal! Greed! What kind of jerk would leave his beloved team, the one whose farm system he had risen through, the one that had developed his skills with the best coaches in the league etc. etc. etc., and sign with the Evil Empire?

Then neither team won the series and nobody cared.

Now let me tell you about Arlen Specter. Specter was a Republican senator from Pennsylvania from 1980 until 2009. He was pretty much a party-line guy, but he was more self-interested than ideological (in fact, he’d been a Democrat until 1965, when he lost a nomination for Philly DA and switched teams so he could still run – the guy who lost to him called him “Benedict Arlen”). As a result, nobody liked him. A more conservative Republican ran against him in the primary in 2004, and Specter barely squeaked through to retake his seat. Then in 2009, it became clear that Republican primary voters were going to pick the other guy this time.

So Arlen Specter switched sides again.

President Obama and the rest of the Democratic establishment welcomed Specter with open arms, promising to clear the Democratic field for him if they could. In return, Specter became a sudden party-line Democrat.

Hey, remember how the Affordable Care Act passed in the senate on a party line vote, getting exactly the 60 Democratic votes it needed to break a filibuster? One of those Democrats was Arlen Specter.

So because Arlen Specter switched sides (mostly for his career, just like Jacoby Ellsbury), over 10 million people who wouldn’t have had health insurance have it now. Millions upon millions of American women are able to get their chosen method of birth control for free. People aren’t forced to stay in jobs they hate just for the health coverage.

Now, you don’t have to like this result in order to agree with me (and Joe Biden) that this was a Big Fucking Deal.

So politics is relevant. But how about the contention that all politicians are the same? That statement is so obviously false that it’s hard to know where to begin. So I’ll stick with the sports analogy. Are all football players the same? Um, no. Some are private people; some won’t stop talking. Some play honorably; some are cheaters. Some are lovey-dovey with their spouses all over the internet; some punch their spouses in the face. Some are animal lovers; some torture them for sport. And if you watch football with any regularity, you’ll notice that they even play the game differently! Politics is the same way, people.

Except, of course, for the whole “mattering” thing.

#MuppetGameOfThrones

So a few weeks ago, I spent an evening giggling to myself (and thereby creeping my wife out) with the notion of casting Muppet Game of Thrones. Then this Tuesday our friend Lydia visited us, and we spent WAY too much time discussing casting choices. And on Wednesday I learned that Sesame Street is (sadly) moving to HBO for a few years, and suddenly my favorite thought experiment was topical! So I’ve been posting casting choices on Twitter using the hashtag #MuppetGameOfThrones, in case anyone feels like joining me in this game.

Here are the rules:

-Cast based primarily on personality, secondarily on physicality

-Any Jim Henson creation is allowed. Muppet Show, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, whatever.

-Select humans are also allowed! Muppet movies always have a human cast too.

-Explain your choices. Describe scenes that make you laugh.

That’s it! I hope this game makes you laugh as much as I did.

Why I’m Not For Bernie

I have enough friends who are into Bernie Sanders that I feel I should explain why my preference remains for Hillary (and, in fact, actually against Bernie) despite agreeing with virtually everything Sanders is for.

Bernie has spent his entire career fighting almost exclusively against economic injustice. This is a positive thing, of course, and has made him a great senator. It does not mean he would be a great president. The presidency is not a good job for single-minded people, because it’s a job that requires one to address somehow or other practically every facet of the country’s existence. To put it more starkly:

A senator doesn’t have to care about foreign policy. A president does.

A senator doesn’t have to care about the military. A president does.

A senator doesn’t have to care about espionage. A president does.

A senator doesn’t have to care about immigration. A president does.

A senator doesn’t have to care about gun control. A president does.

The last of these issues, gun control, is one of my reasons for not supporting Bernie. His record on this issue is spotty, to put it kindly. He voted to protect gun manufacturers from lawsuits, to protect gun sellers from lawsuits, to allow guns on Amtrak trains… I’m not a fan.

Yes, he is from Vermont, which has a hunting culture, but so what? That gives him an excuse? The NRA gave him an F rating despite his spotty record – I doubt he would have lost his seat over a refusal to let gun manufacturers off the hook for the inevitable consequences of the use of their products. I’m not saying he’s Yosemite Sam — he’s voted for some gun control bills too. His record here doesn’t show me that Bernie is against gun control. It shows me that he doesn’t care.

This is also what Bernie’s encounters with the BLM movement have been about.* Their problem with him isn’t that they think he’s wrong about Wall Street or labor laws or income inequality. It’s that those issues are all he seems to really care about. It’s that until they started confronting him, his answers to racism were universal Pre-K and debt-free college.

Look for a moment at Bernie’s “Issues” page on his website. Six out of eight are purely economic, and a seventh, “Racial Justice,” is brand new. “Real Family Values” talks about paid family and sick leave, and says nothing about, say, women’s health or LGBTQ discrimination. Does Bernie have an opinion about immigration? If he does, he hasn’t told his website.

The main criticism of Hillary Clinton seems to be that she’s a regular politician, with all the usual pollsters and rich donors and so on. But you know what regular politicians do? Build and represent coalitions. Hillary has done the real work of reaching out to every Democratic constituency. She’s met with BLM activists. She’s hired immigration reform activists. She’s addressed college tuition and early childhood education. She’s been to Obama’s left on health care since before the presidency was even in his sights. Many of the Bernie fans I know are way too cynical about Hillary’s intentions, about whether she’ll follow up on all this once she’s president. Guys, she is putting forward liberal policy proposals because she’s liberal. Always has been.

Is she also doing it because she wants to win? Um, yes. You think the Democratic candidate shouldn’t be trying to win? I had no idea you read such low-profile blogs, Jeb.

A lot of Bernie fans have objections to Hillary over her personality or her trustworthiness. But as this article skillfully argued, the president should be seen not as a person but as a thing. And before you can implement your agenda, you have to win. As another Jewish friend of mine sadly put it, anyone who thinks a socialist Jew with a thick New York accent has a realistic shot at the presidency in 2016 is living in a dream world.

Whatever he may say, Bernie is an issue candidate. He’s running to push the economic conversation leftward, and good for him! But he’s not prepared to be president. Not even close. Let’s not pretend he is.

*For what it’s worth, I think the BLM activists in Seattle went WAY too far in disrupting Bernie’s speech there. The point where you shut someone down and refuse to let them answer you or be heard by the thousands of people who took time out of their day to hear that person’s speech, is the point at which you are doing a disservice to democracy. There’s making your point, and then there’s shutting down a huge event put on by people who mostly agree with you. I support the Black Lives Matter movement, and was proud of them for being heard at Netroots Nation, but it sure seems like these particular activists were just being dicks.

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N.S. Dolkart is the author of Silent Hall, available for pre-order at any bookstore in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. It’s coming out in June, and it’s really good. You should buy it.