The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Brilliant, vivid, indispensable. This book is destined for the shelf which The Souls Of Black Folk has so long had to itself.

by Martha Wells

The narrator, a synthetic cyborg developed to provide security for planetary explorers, thinks of himself as a murderbot. He exists to protect people, but he has no high opinion of people and he heartily disliked them. Really, he’d much rather be left alone to watch videos than have to risk his life for these unpleasant creatures. Still, he’s not happy about a job that requires him to kill so often, even if it’s necessary to save his clients.

by Steven J. Zipperstein

One day in April 1903, a bunch of school kids in the small city of Kishinev started throwing rocks and slogans at some houses where Jews lived. That wasn’t unusual. But things got out of hand this time: three nights of rioting follower, 49 Jews were killed, hundreds were raped, and the whole world was watching. Correspondents poured into Kishinev from London and Dublin and New York. Hayyim Nahman Bialik composed an epic poem, In The City of Slaughter, that would become a staple of Hebrew studies for generations. At the same time, a far-right newspaper editor in Kishinev concocted an imaginative libel, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that captured a lot of attention as well. Zipperstein captures the time and place with care and intelligence.

by Jeremy Dauber

Everything you need to know — and more — about the history of Jewish humor, with a special emphasis on the 20th century US. When you were in the writers’s room, the whole world was Jewish.

by Kathleen Kent

From my position in the hallway — on my ass, head pressed against the door frame, legs drawn up with my gun held two-handed against my sternum — I try to recall the layout of the room: three sets of bunk beds, four corpses sprawled across bloodied sheets, my partner, shot three times, lying motionless next to the nearest bunk, and, somewhere in there, one lunatic, a screaming infant in one hand and a semiautomatic pivot in the other. The last time I sneaked a look around the open doorway, he fired at me, the bullet knocking a crater in the wall opposite. He followed up by threatening to shoot the baby and then himself.

I’ve been a cop for five months, one week, and nine and a half hours.

Sure is a fine way to kick off a police procedural.

At ICIDS, Sarah Baylus gave a fascinating keynote about her writing team’s work on Divinity: Original Sin 2. This is a new D&D-descended adventure which features more than a million words of complex, branching dialogue with myriad characters you might encounter in the game world. You meet a character, ask questions, and various quests or puzzles may fall out in consequence.

The characters she described — and characters familiar from similar games — tend to be vivid and singular. They present themselves with one or two singular oddities — deformities, really — that cannot be mistaken and that stick in the mind. This addresses several basic design forces:

  • Most of the characters will only be encountered once; we must keep description tight and we must avoid blurring all the encounters into a muddy mixture.
  • Vivid encounters encourage retelling, which sells games.
  • People don’t buy video games to read walls of text.

This recalls, in my mind, Bruegel’s peasants and Hogarth’s street scenes — and perhaps a bit of Bosch, too. We don’t want the little people to fade too far into the landscape, so we give each one their own absurdity.

Game Writing and the Picaresque

One of Baylus’s examples, for example, deals with an encounter with a shepherd whose flock has been pilfered. She warns you:

If you’ve go a favorite sheep, best to fry’er up now ’fore she gets thieved in the night like my dear plump Hoggett — the finest in my herd!
1. Tell me about yourself.
2. Where’s your herd?
3. About your stolen sheep…
4. I’ll take my leave.

I’m not entirely wild about frying up one’s favorite sheep. Unless plump Hoggett was actually as lamb, I’d expect a slow braise would be more to the point, which a few bits saved for roasting. I’m also doubtful that this shepherd, who takes the time to assign a gender to her dear Hoggett, would have called her a sheep and not a ewe. The people we meet speak dialect, but we ourselves don’t. Who takes their leave, outside Jane Austen?

The underlying problem here, I think, is that we have too big a cast and too little to do with any character who isn’t The Boss. It’s one thing to write a Parsifal where we come to town, blow stuff up, and then ride on: you don’t need to retain state because you’ll be gone in the morning, but everyone has to be very different or all the towns will be alike.

A second problem, of course, is that Baylus’s studio had to develop its own hypertext system to represent the branching dialogue, and that tool seems to have been invented without reference to anything we’ve done in the research community. There’s nothing specifically targeting the problem, but of course all the sculptural hypertext work is relevant, all the chatbot work might be relevant, and you could surely find some good ideas in the Façade/Prom Week lineage, too. I’d have liked to have seen more detail what they did create, and hear more about how it worked.

The Human Cost of Canvassing

Canvassing — knocking on the doors of likely supporters — is the way Democrats win campaigns. This is Gospel: every field organizer I’ve ever worked with believes it, and they will all tell you that everything depends on it. Almost the entire curriculum of Swing Left Academy involved some aspect of canvassing. It’s a subtle art: Massachusetts super-volunteer Kate Donahue distilled her tips for canvassing into 51 invaluable tips.

Canvassing is understood to be the flip side of fundraising and advertising. Money and ads are the province of professional consultants: canvassing is assigned to volunteers and entry-level field directors. Ads do what they can do; canvassing can swing a few percentage points of turnout, which makes the difference in many, many races. Importantly for the campaign, canvassing seems to be almost free: a little bit of rent for temporary field headquarters — often using dead retail or unrentable office space, a few pizzas, and some clipboards.

We need think this through.

Canvassing And Canvassers

Consider my 2018 Last Weekend in Minnesota. I pulled 9 3-hour shifts from Friday night through Tuesday evening, divided between one office in MN-01 (where Dan Feehan narrowly lost) and two offices in MN-02 (where Abby Craig won). I also did several shifts of email support, a good deal of social media writing, and an article in my downtime, but none of that counts: everything is about knocking doors.

The problem is: this simply isn’t true. Take my final shift, late Election Day, in Hastings Minnesota. It had been drizzling all weekend; now it began to snow. It was windy. It was cold. And it was dark: fortunately, I remembered to ask the field organizer for a flashlight. (They had an entire bag of flashlights on hand, but how was I to know?)

In three hours of walking up and down streets, searching out our supporters to remind them to vote, I spoke with one person who had not voted and who might like to. We chatted at the door of her home while she balanced an infant on her hip, tried to keep toddler 1 from running out the door, failed to prevent the dog from getting outside, and coped with shy toddler 2 who wanted to know what was going on but also to be invisible. So, sure, she hoped to get to the polls, but she was juggling a lot of stuff and it might be tricky.

Everyone else had already voted. My turf that night was three suburban streets in a high-turnout precinct in one of the highest-turnout Congressional districts in the entire country. Some of my doors were literally across the street from the polling place, which had no lines and tons of parking.

We could have avoided all this with poll watching, but we didn’t do poll watching at all.

Was this the very best use of my time?

Canvassers Have Changed

In the formative age of the modern Democratic Party, our volunteers were farmhands and longshoremen. Doctors, lawyers, professors, writers — they were Republican. We shaped our tasks to our people: what we could do was talk to people like us, and so we did. We couldn’t talk policy or run numbers or write, but we were OK at what Vachel Lindsay called “all the funny circus silks of politics.” So that’s what we did.

But that’s not today’s Democratic volunteer. Joe The Plumber isn’t coming through that door. We don’t have the stevedores and the gandy dancers: those jobs are gone, mostly, and the remaining handful are mostly Trumpists. Our volunteers have changed, but we’re still doing the same thing.

Canvassers Are Old

Our canvassers in Minnesota were a great range of ages. Swing Left’s college fellows were outstanding and capable, so the colleges were a great resource. Our national emergency brought out lots of middle-aged volunteers. Even so, the typical Democratic volunteer is ancient. I had volunteers on my team in their 90s. In Massachusetts, volunteers skew even older.

We’re asking a lot of old people to spend a lot of time walking up and down stairs in the wintry rain and snow.

Canvassers Are Valuable

If we ask people to do many hours of unrewarding work — especially in unhealthy and uncomfortable conditions — they may not come back for more. My own parents worked hard for Adlai (and Abner Mikva), somewhat less hard for JFK, and after that they called it a day. I expect we lose many of our younger volunteers after each election — and by “younger,” I mean merely “not elderly.”

We tell volunteers that canvassing is all-important. Yet, I’ve never worked on a campaign that had anything like sufficient collateral for canvassers. We spend millions on ads, but for the supremely-important canvassing operation we almost never have enough buttons, t shirts, lawn signs, or brochures.

Voters Without Doors

In the past decade, I have never been canvassed. I’m a conspicuous D voter in a precinct with lots of canvass activity, but you can’t knock my door because, when you do, I’m almost certainly at work.

It’s not just me. If you aren’t sitting around your house in the early weekday evening or on weekend afternoons, canvassing is going to miss you. If your job requires long hours, if the 40-hour week isn’t your life, canvassing won’t find you. If you’re a medical resident or an intern, you’re going to be invisible. If you live in an apartment, you’re going to be hard to canvass. A dormitory? Good luck!

Regular Folk

One of the ideas behind canvassing is that people might be inclined to listen to folk like them. In our increasingly-fragmented political world, that might be an illusion. In Minnesota, I was asked to knock on a ton of doors that prominently displayed crucifixes, Evangelical slogans, and the like; for the first time in my experience, I had real doubts that these were people I could possibly approach.

Conversely, the only voter who I know I actually flipped in the entire nine shifts was an elderly black medical retiree, a charming woman, for whom I was also not the ideal canvasser. She’d been fed a lie about Medicare by a Trump supporter and it had shaken her support for Angie Craig; fortunately, it was an easy lie to refute and that was that.

Connections, Not Doors

We need to understand that connecting with voters is more than knocking on the doors of old ladies who don’t go out. Contact matters: the medium matters less. Thoughtful personal letters (and why must our letters be anonymous?) make sense to me. Text messages. Web outreach.

Ads reach millions. Canvassing and phone banks reaches a handful. There’s a huge intermediate range of writing and performance that can reach hundreds or thousands of readers, speaking to them in places where they already are reading and writing.

We need to think that through before 2020.

Dec 18 8 2018

Stories Villainy

The slides and the paper from my talk (co-authored with Dr. Clare Hooper) delivered today at Trinity College, Dublin.

A reminder of the power of stories: slides 2-4.

The man in the moon must lead a queer life with no one to talk to — not even a wife. No friends to console him, no children to kiss, no chance of attending a conference like this. (?Trad?)
Once upon a time there was a poor little boy who had no father and mother; everything was dead … And since there was no-one left on earth he decided to go up to heaven where the moon shone down so kind. But when he got to the moon it was a lump of rotten wood. (Georg Buchner, Woyzeck sc 21.)
Say, its only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea.
But it wouldn't be make-believe
If you believed in me. (Harold Arlen)
Arts and Sciences

Arrived very early, zoomed through the airport, and arrived at the pub where I’m staying far, far too early. So I left my bags and spent the day walking through streets and museums, more streets and more museums, working to acclimate and ignore the time difference.

I’d not visited the National Gallery before. It’s got a very interesting collection, and really good gallery guides. There’s a national portrait competition that has some really interesting work. Here’s Miseon Lee’s “Me In The Mirror” (2018):

Arts and Sciences

And this oil of Mary-Kate Lanigan by Nicholas Benedict Robinson is a painting I’d like to study.

Arts and Sciences

What I want to say is that, reading the program for this conference, there's clearly a lot of interest in the tension between narrative and “science”, by which people sometimes mean “analysis” and sometimes mean “clinical observation.” I’m entirely on the side of science, broadly construed. Even in the arts, we can reason carefully and without interest from close observation of actual phenomena, and among those phenomena might well be our own response to the work.

Yet, looking over the program, I am also struck by an unmistakable sense of alienation: the problems this discipline studies simply aren’t the problems I confront when I sit down to write interactive stories. I've put together a tiny twenty-page chapbook about these problems:

Thoughts On Writing Interactive Stories

On the left of each page spread, I sketch a very short story about a post-doc who solves a tremendous problem. He’s done what everyone in the university dreams about. He’s benefited mankind. He’s famous. He’s going to be tenured. He’s going to have plenty of money.

He’s the loneliest man in the world.

On the right hand of each spread, I talk about technical choices I made in writing this tiny story. They include:

  • Framing stories
  • Tense and point of view
  • Abstraction
  • Plot
  • Exposition vs. Narrative
  • Morality
  • Diegetic links and their discontents
  • Multivalence, allusion, intertextuality, immersion, and reflection

Now, at ICIDS, a technical choice is often a choice about algorithm or implementation, and the aren’t necessarily that kind of choice, but surely they are choice about technique. I could tell the story from the point of view of poor Prometheus. Or I could tell it from the point of view of his research advisor. I could tell it from the point of view of his girlfriend, who was having doubts before her boyfriend had a publicist and a security detail. I could make it a club story. I could shift points of view: we think of that as avant-garde, but Robert Louis Stevenson did it in Treasure Island simply because he wrote himself into a corner and suddenly switching narrators for one chapter was the way out.

Arts and Sciences

I’m off to the International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling at Trinity College, Dublin, where I’m giving a paper (with Dr. Clare Hooper) titled “A Villain’s Guide To Social Media and Interactive Storytelling.”

This is adapted from our Hypertext ’18 paper on villainy and social media, but digital storytelling is even more vulnerable to villainy than the Web. Almost all the villainies that apply to Twitter and Facebook — trolling, de-anonymizing, recruitment of villains, stealing candy from babies — inhere just as much in multiplayer games, Facebook entertainments, and interactive fictions. In addition, we also have the tons of research exquisitely attuned to the cultivation of victims who suffer from mild mental derangement that leave them vulnerable to spending vast amounts of money on Candy Crush and to following charismatic crackpots.

Plato saw the problem with fiction as lies and fake news, and he was not wrong. But we also see the perils of projection and transference. Gamification in social media is the political repurposing of transference: if Milo can hand you rewards or quatloos or followers, Milo loves you and you (of course) love Milo. It doesn't matter that you know the object of desire isn't real, that she’s a computational construct in an imaginary world:

She was a tree elf named Riyah. He was a water elf, Tildor. They came from different realms, but for the past three nights they’d qwested, traded, and killed together. They had hunted basilisks, slain dragons, and retrieved two diamonds, which Riyah carried in the bag hanging at her waist. She was an amazing marksman and beautiful, even for an Elf, her eyes huge, her body supple. Her breasts swayed as she ran, her quiver bouncing behind her. — The Chalk Artist, p.24

Of course, Riyah isn’t precisely real: she’s an actor, employed to please game fanatics like Tildor. But she is also real, and the boy who is Tildor meets her in a stairwell at a conference. He’ll do anything for her. Of course he will.

We’re really quite good at finding weakness and depravity through new media, and at recruiting an audience vulnerable and eager to be deceived. The religious right and the extremist right have spent a decade reading our research and then deploying it to give us Trump and Brexit, the death penalty for seeking an abortion, Golden Dawn, UKIP, and Jobbik. If you know of any papers that help us find and retain an audience of the wise and virtuous, I’d like to know about them.

The dangers of fiction have always been tempered by the fact that the storyteller had to take the audience as she found it. In the market of ideas, anyone might wander by, and anyone can heckle. New media lets us tune the story to each reader, which means that new media, in villainous hands, can tune the story to each reader’s weakness while taking care that readers who are not weak (or who are Democrats) don’t even know there’s a story until it’s far, far too late.

Dec 18 1 2018

The Subtle Knife

by Phillip Pullman

I still think that this is stronger than the first book — itself a remarkable achievement, since middle books have intrinsic problems that I have always thought intractable. I'm even less surethat the usual consensus, holding this to be stronger than The Amber Spyglass, is correct; if we didn't know the marvels that were coming, would this book be quite so fine? In the end, it’s only the end of The Amber Spyglass that justifies this book.

The sly, slow disclosure that life here is not entirely fun and adventure is literally wonderful.

by Philip Pullman

I’ve been reading Pullman’s new collection of essays, and that led me to revisit this magnificent trilogy. The first volume of His Dark Materials, barely hints at the wonders to come and yet is itself a delightful story of childhood adventure.

Nov 18 20 2018

Life Itself

by Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was a great film critic and a newspaperman at the end of one of the great City Rooms. In his later years, cancer surgery deprived him of the ability either to eat or to talk. Ebert turned to blogging and became the greatest voice of the weblog era. This autobiography is his authentic Web voice.

From Mike Royko’s hat stand (a relic of the old Wacker Street Daily News newsroom) to John Wayne’s boat, Robert Mitchum’s wrong turn, or the meeting of Ingmar Bergman and David Lean, Royko has the story. The central chapters on drinking and not drinking are unmatched, the pinnacle of the confessional weblog, written with immediacy and yet avoiding convention and sermonizing.

Electronic Literature Review asked me to suggest five books that would interest electronic writers.

Campaigning With Tinderox

During my year of Minnesota political work, I relied on Tinderbox every day. Some notes on what I did, and how it worked, might be useful to others embarking on projects like this one.

  • I kept my use of Tinderbox very simple. Everyone says this; the Tinderbox forum is filled with disclaimers that begin, “I only use a tiny fraction of Tinderbox.” But I mean it. What I wanted was a list of volunteers, and I tried hard to resist spending any time at all on automation unless I was certain that automation would save time soon.
  • Having a list of volunteers helps a lot. One day, you have six people and you’re pretty sure that using a computer is silly. Tomorrow, you have twelve and it’s less silly. Next week, you have three volunteers named Madison and you can’t keep anything straight.
  • I kept the notes simple. Name goes into the note name. Email goes into $Email, and cell phone number goes into $Telephone. I used $Text to record email discussions — especially places where volunteers described their strongest abilities.
  • Campaign volunteers bring lots of talent; we need to do a better job at using it.
  • I started with a document that was one big list for MN-02. When my responsibility grew to encompass the other Minnesota districts, I made a second document with containers for the other districts. This was a mistake. I was constantly opening both documents, and I frequently found myself in the wrong one.
  • Even in a tiny database that’s this simple, representation is a problem. How do you handle people who want to work in several districts? (Answer: I made two notes. Aliases would have been good, but MN-02 was a different document.)
  • I didn’t use links enough. One good use of links, though, was to connect spouses and other people who volunteer as a team.
  • I should have used the map more to build internal teams with complementary skills and interests. There’s never enough time.
  • I used key words in the text to assign people to teams and task forces. For example, “chef” assigned you to Team Food. Agents then gathered the team members together for reference and for easy mailing. I should have used $Tags for this. I have no idea why I didn’t.
  • I used agents and HTML export to compile mailing lists and dossiers for district leaders and team leads. This worked well; everyone wanted different data and different formats, but that was easy to arrange.
  • I took a familiarization trip to Minnesota for the primary week and used a special container to keep track of all the meetings and events I arranged, both for myself and for my boss. This began as a list of People To Contact, evolved into a correspondence list, and then eventually mutated into a day-by-day schedule. I covered 1200 miles, met lots of volunteers, and somehow managed to get to all the meetings. This is not a task I’m accustomed to, so managing it competently was a big deal.
  • I had a container of Tasks To Do. Because I seldom got them done, I couldn’t bear to open it.
  • My boss wanted detailed weekly reports. That, too, worked nicely in Tinderbox. I made those reports as single notes, adding an entry for each new action or decision. Adding a new note would have been better practice, but this worked fine.
  • All in all, I had 595 notes and about 50,000 words on Election Day. I don’t think that’s enough — I was a lazy notetaker — but it’s 1.63 notes/day.
The Morning Will Come When The World Is Mine

We are headed for trouble.

Minnesota Nice was originally written for a British site’s pre-election feature. That didn’t work out, despite lots of effort from some very capable people, including the only Republican with whom I’m still on speaking terms. I’m grateful for their work. That failure is one tiny illustration, I think, of why simply being nice isn’t going to solve our problem.

My editor warned me that his readers might know as much about Minnesota as I know about Shropshire. I know that there are lads in Shropshire — or there used to be at least one lad — but that’s about it. In the article, did my best to explain Minnesota, and editors did a lot of work to explain even more.

Resurgent racism and anti-Semitism — such as the Baraboo, Wisconsin prom boys pictured above — were central to the election of 2018. I wrote:

That age-old question of whether Jews and persons of colour are fully people has once again been placed on the American political agenda. At the University of Minnesota last March, posters asked “Why Are Jews After Our Guns?’ Pro-gun flyers were illustrated with caricatures of scheming, long-nosed Jews. One student at a St. Paul, MN university recently awoke to find “Nigger Go Home!” scrawled on his dormitory door. Presidential tweets and speeches frequently allude to immigrant-driven crime waves that do not, in fact, exist.

The editors felt, I expect, that this was too long and too elliptical. They preferred:

Even arguments that we thought long-settled are being fought again. One of America's great achievements in the 20th Century was establishing that religious and ethnic minorities were first-class citizens with the same rights and opportunities as the descendants of those who founded this country. Since Trump's rise, antisemitic flyers have appeared on university campuses across the country, and Presidential tweets and speeches frequently allude to immigrant-driven crime waves that do not, in fact, exist. Religious and ethnic minorities get the message: you are an “other”, you're not welcome here.

This does appear to be what reasonable American conservatives now believe. I have one word for it, and that word is: shameful.

The great achievement of 18th Century America was religious and ethnic tolerance, the resolution that all men were created equal. It’s not a 20th-century novelty in the United States (though it is in Britain, where Jewish emancipation waited for 1867 and was not complete until 1890). The American Right has forgotten who we are: unum e pluribus. From 1787, we have held that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

Those “descendants of those who founded this country” include African-Americans — unless you are writing Crispus Attacks , Peter Salem and so many more out of our history. (That’s their plan.) Mordechai Sheftall was Jewish, and he was Deputy Commissary General for George Washington’s army. Richard Lushington’s “Jew Company,” recruited from Charleston SC, had a company cantor. If I recall correctly, the 8th Maryland Regiment, organized in 1776, spoke Deutsch.

The first successful revolt against colonial control in the future US was, of course, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Much of the Iroquois Confederacy supplied troops and supplies to the US Army.

The crazed Republican right holds that the US was founded as a white and christian nation, and that it generously welcomed minorities to share “the same rights and opportunities.” This is untrue, but even if it were historically defensible, it would be un-American. We have not always lived up to our ideals, but these have always been our ideals. None of us are other, and who are these preachers and pundits who choose to welcome us? We have always been here. The people trying to erase us are the people teaching little boys to salute their aryan nation before the prom, the people building concentration camps for toddlers.

The editor also wanted to clarify the underlying tensions of modern American politics, writing:

Democrats and Republicans once differed in degree but not so much in kind. Conservatives wanted less government intervention in the economy and in transforming our social relations while progressives wanted more.

This might be the view of progressives held by Ronald Reagan’s ghost, but it is completely unmoored from reality.

In the 1950s, nascent movement conservatism struggled to preserve segregation against a growing wave of revulsion. It argued that integration was unfair government interference with the South’s customs: if the South wanted lynchings and lunch counters, it said, that was up to them.

Movement conservatism struggled unceasingly against birth control and against women’s sexual autonomy. Since 2003, Republicans have railed against Lawrence v. Texas, the decision that decriminalized gay sex. Today, if you find a bathroom bill, it will be sponsored by Republicans. If you find a crazed wingnut eager to discriminate against gay couples, that wingnut will almost surely be Republican.

Framing Republicans as wanting less government intervention in our social relations is coded but clear: in plain language, it is a call for a the government to return to open discrimination against Blacks, Asians, gay people, Jews, and unmarried couples. It is in an attempt to shore up what movement conservatives and their theocrat allies consider old-fashioned values. This is not “less government intervention in transforming social relations;” it is seeking a new Confederacy, the restoration of as much of the Jim Crow South as can be salvaged.

Multiple editors saw these changes, and thought them innocuous.

This is not normal.

There is not much room for compromise: a nation half Nazi should not long endure. A nation where all the little boys shout “Heil!” (except one who makes a white power sign and one who just stands there and smiles): that’s the nation “conservatives” want us to be.

Even their best, most thoughtful voices seem so bent on retaining power forever that they cannot see the ends to which that power is already being used. They dream of a new morning in America. We have heard that song before, and we know what comes next: The morning will come when the world is mine/The world belongs to me.

It’s an old song.

It’s an old tale from way back when.

It’s an old song.

And we’re gonna sing it again.

Nov 18 12 2018

Minnesota Nice

Minnesota Nice

This summer, on a porch in a small town in Minnesota, I was ringing another doorbell for the Congressional candidate for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party, Angie Craig. It seemed that no one was home and I was ready to give up, when a startled, elderly woman struggled up from the recliner in which she had been enjoying a late-afternoon nap.

I wasn't there to talk to her: my walk sheet told me to speak to her husband, and only to her husband. That meant, I knew, that she was a confirmed Republican, though the campaign considered her husband to be persuadable. My instructions were to ask for her husband and, barring that, to move on.

Having disturbed her rest, I couldn't just walk away, so I introduced myself and started my pitch about our candidate, centered on health care and the Trump administration’s gradual demolition of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. I expected the door to slam; instead, I received a stern lecture on the horrors of Trump’s healthcare regime and her enthusiastic support for the DFL candidate. Her husband — the man I’d been sent to canvass — had recently died, and his surviving wife was convinced his death had been hastened by insurance prevarications and delays that the Trump administration was worsening. Republican health care had killed her husband; not only was she supporting our candidate, she doubted she could ever return to the Republican party.

Minnesotans are famously nice: cheerful, sympathetic and kind. Minnesota is the home of Prairie Home Companion, the place where all children are above average. The big Midwestern state has strongly progressive roots — many of its early settlers were refugees from Scandinavian famine — but Minnesotans are often conservative by nature, inclined to cooperation and compromise and averse to conflict. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is, in part, an allegory of Midwestern politics: the very name of the DFL commemorates the old Progressive alliance between farmers (who only need a brain) and labour unions (staunch and good with axes but sometimes heartless).

Increasingly, however, the issues that divide Minnesota cannot be bargained, and this fact underlies the intensity of US politics today, a polarization that recalls the decade preceding the American Civil War. That war came because, in the end, no compromise was possible: either people could be property, or they could not. The elderly lady I canvassed was not amenable to compromise, either: her husband had died when he might have been saved, and after that there’s nothing much to left to say.

A significant portion of Republican voters believe that abortion is murder, that homosexuality is perverse, and that ready availability of birth control has led to widespread moral degeneracy. These beliefs do not admit compromise or delay. The recent appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, notwithstanding allegations of sexual assault and dishonest testimony, suggests that delay may soon end.

Opponents of this view, however, argue that the underlying question is whether women are fully human. Scientific progress has made is possible for women to control their bodies; shall they be forbidden to do so? If women are to enjoy their own sexuality, they must have access to birth control and, in case of failure, to abortion. The intensity of this controversy has led American Catholics into political alliance with evangelical Protestants, but their opposition rests on different and irreconcilable theological grounds — grounds which many other Americans bitterly dispute, and which American tradition considers unsuitable for discussion outside one’s intimate circle. Sizable protests for and against Planned Parenthood, a foundation that offers women’s health services including abortion, have been frequent in Minnesota’s capitol since the 2016 election.

Similarly, the question of whether gay marriage is a blessing or a travesty is not suited to negotiation: either one loves whom one chooses, or yours may be a love that cannot (or should not) speak its name. Angie Craig, the Minnesota candidate for whom I was canvassing, has a wife and four sons. Her Republican opponent was a Republican talk-show host who once lamented it was no longer fashionable to describe certain women as “sluts.”

In Minnesota’s north, up against Lake Superior and the Canadian border, another bitter Congressional race was dominated by the issue of mining. Conventionally, Democrats favor conservation while Republicans promise jobs, and voters may choose one now and the other next year. Here, though, the issue was understood to involve a permanent choice between different jobs, between extensive mining of sulfide ores or the preservation of the Boundary Waters wilderness. Miners fear their jobs will vanish forever; foresters and wilderness outfitters fear the permanent loss of their livelihood. Once gone, either the mining infrastructure or the wilderness will be lost forever.In principle, questions of global warming and climate change might lend themselves to discussion, but Republican adherence to denial again takes compromise off the table.

That age-old question of whether Jews and persons of colour are fully people has once again been placed on the American political agenda. At the University of Minnesota last March, posters asked “Why Are Jews After Our Guns?” Pro-gun flyers were illustrated with caricatures of scheming, long-nosed Jews. One student at a St. Paul, MN university recently awoke to find “Nigger Go Home!” scrawled on his dormitory door. Presidential tweets and speeches frequently allude to immigrant-driven crime waves and that do not, in fact, exist.

The political divisions of a former generation were suited to compromise. One might favor higher taxes but be willing to try lowering them, just as one might favor pulling troops out of Afghanistan or Vietnam but be willing to contemplate one final effort. In the wake of the 1954 desegregation of public schools and the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act, a racially-segregated America could still dither for years over how much integration it wanted and how soon that integration was required. Americans today cannot find such intermediate points; they no longer exist.

When insiders urge greater understanding and civility, they mistake the situation. Just as America could not forever endure half-slave and half-free, those who believe that health care is a right will no longer abide deaths caused by unregulated insurers and uncaring bureaucracies. Those who kneel because Black Lives Matter cannot bargain away the memories of their lost children or the lives of children yet to fall to police bullets. The old ladies who knitted pussy hats for the first Women’s March were marching for their granddaughters’ right to love whom they would: they will not sacrifice their granddaughters for someone else’s religious sensibilities.

November’s midterms won’t end the fight, and calls for civility are pointless and pernicious. These differences cannot be adjusted by half measures, and the old vineyard where they grow the grapes of wrath is not far off.

Nov 18 7 2018

Tangletown, MN

There’s got to be a morning after.

We won what was winnable: the House. We did what we set out to do.

In Minnesota, we won MN-02 and MN-03 — both pickups from particularly invidious Republicans. We lost MN-08 up North. We still don't know about MN-01: this morning, Democrat Dan Feehan is down by 1400 votes but we’ll see. (I told our volunteers this might be the closest race in the country, and I was pretty close. That busload of volunteers on Saturday, many from UMN and Macalester and St. Olaf, looks pretty good right now.)

Trump remains strong. The forces of darkness retain terrible power. One of our two political parties is insane.

This is not the beginning of the end. Yet still…

- - -

Drainage matters in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul, so every suburban house is on its own little hill. That’s a lot of uphill driveways to walk.

It snows in Minnesota. Who knew? Rain, wind and snow make canvassing less fun.

It’s not much fun anyway.

They do breakfast well here. I had the “If You Must,” which has a thick slice of house-cured bacon from the restaurant’s own farm, eggs, cornbread — but can she make corn muffins?! — and really superb potatoes.

Democrats need to think about new media. We’ve left it to the Republicans. We took back a share this time because we had dollars and no broadcast slots to buy. I think it matters.

Democrats need to think about the human cost of our dependence on canvassing.

I did not see a Republican canvasser — not one — on any of my shifts. I did not see a Republican door-hanger — not one — on any of my doors. Yet we won MN-02 by 4% and lost MN-01 (though not by much — we think by less than 0.5%.)

Tangletown, MN
Nov 18 6 2018

Hastings, MN

The polls have closed in Minnesota.

I'm sore all over. I’m thoroughly chilled: who knew that it would snow in Minnesota? I have no idea what will happen next.

Here's the town hall near the staging location out of which I've been working.

Hastings, MN

A somewhat better campaign day, insofar as no cars from Texas have decided to use me for slalom practice.

Here’s one of the driveways I walked this morning. Some of the suburban parts of MN-02 are not especially urban. And there’s lots of soybeans and cornfields in the district, too.

A lot of Minnesotans do not want to talk about the election. I had one old lady whose address was so inscrutable that I asked a nice fellow tending his garden how to find it. He didn’t know, though his address was only a few numbers from hers! I mentioned that it was Mrs. D____ that I wanted to see, and he said, “Oh, of course. Just go down the dirt road, 4th house on the left.” So my problems were over — except I couldn't find the dirt road! I asked a nearby crew that was cutting down some trees where this dirt road might be — it had to be right there! They shrugged and said maybe it was on the other side of the tracks, and then they saw it not twenty yards from where they'd been working all morning.

Success! So Mrs. D____ opens the door, takes one look at the campaign card in my hand, looks at me with unabashed disgust and loathing, and slams the door.

Mrs. D______ is in the books as one of our supporters.

The email help desk, on the other hand, is a delight. Real questions that matter, and for which you can provide solutions — often in seconds. Good insights, too. I think this could scale into an institution of real value.

Cottage Grove Mississippi River, MN