The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Keep talking

Born in America, he’s a humble whiz kid with a penchant for physics and computers and a knack for whipping up miracles in a laboratory. His only crime this day was the apparent misfortune of being born brown-skinned. To be fair, all he wanted to do was pump gas. This was a nice gas station in a wealthy neighborhood. Mostly white, to be sure, but it was wealthy and educated. Hell, this damn town had spent decades wearing its pride on its sleeve about keeping itself independent from the city school districts that, as the expansion crept, came to surround them on all sides. There was a strong pride in love for knowledge here.

And all he wanted to do was pump gas.

The man in the truck in front of him had the apparent fortune of being born with white skin. That man got out of his truck. He was wearing that ballcap – the one whose simple imperative sentence implied simultaneously that the US was a failed state and that the only person who could fix it was the man who’d ordered these ballcaps from an immigrant-fueled factory near LA. The man in the ballcap approached him.

All he wanted to do was pump gas.

When the spit hit the hood, it shone a little in the chilly autumn air. It began to slide, runny eggs on a tilted plate. The smear of spittle cut an irregular channel in the dust on the paint. “Go back to your fucking country,” the white man in the imperative ballcap said equally imperatively to the brown-skinned American whiz-kid.

There was just one new gallon in the car. He paid and got the hell out of there.

It’s November 10th in America.

I woke to the sound of drums
The music played, the morning sun streamed in
I turned and I looked at you
And all but the bitter residue slipped away . . . slipped away
(Pink Floyd, “The Division Bell,” “A Great Day for Freedom”)

When I went to bed at 11pm on November 8th, there was no clear election outcome, but the probability of a Clinton win had slipped mightily. I dreamed of 269 against 269, some statistical miracle that put the Electoral College in a deadlock.In my heart, I knew that 269-269 was not realistic.

I dreamed of falling to my knees and weeping.

In my dreams, I sobbed mightily. It was not because I cared whether Democrats or Republicans controlled the government; both of them have proven inept over decades. It was because I don’t know what happens in a Republic like ours when a hate-mongering demagogic sexual-assaulting misogynist serial liar is put in control of the Executive Branch.

I wept because because I knew that the next day Facebook would be a cesspool of moping liberals, told-you-so libertarians, cheering racists/nationalists/jingoists, and friends at the throats of friends, family at the throat of family.

In my dreams, I cried for a long time.

Now I have seen the warnings, screaming from all sides
It’s easy to ignore them and G-d knows I’ve tried
All of this temptation, it turned my faith to lies
Until I couldn’t see the danger or hear the rising tide

(Pink Floyd, “The Division Bell”, “Take it Back”)

It’s not hard to understand.

A lot of Americans are unhappy. For some, it is because they lost their jobs, and the jobs that are left weren’t intended for them, or not attractive to them … or maybe there were just no jobs to be had in the first place. For others, it was because they could not stand to see a black man as President, and they were even less interested in watching a woman become President. For some, it was disgust with Hillary Clinton and the whole Clinton thing in general. For others, it was fear of terrorism. For some, it was fear of immigrants (like the ones making those ballcaps). For others, it was fear of Islam and the people who practice it. For some, it was hate of “the system,” though there was no one definition of that. For others, it was change, though there were equally vague notions of what that meant. For some, it was about voting out the Democrats. For others, it was about voting out the Republicans. For many, neither choice in any direction was interesting. Some people wanted to just vote the bums out… but couldn’t really define “bum”. For others, it was something else entirely.

A lot of Americans were just not interested in voting for President. About half of eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot for President. Of the remainder, the electorate in the popular vote was split nearly 50-50.

The outcome of this election is no surprise. Not really. It was bound to be close in a nation artificially divided between two major political parties, with half the electorate choosing not to vote in the first place.

But what surprises – nay, sickens – me is to watch liberals and centrists, Democrats, right-wingers, conservatives, the devout, Republicans, libertarians… friends and family… at each other’s throats, each blaming the other. It sickens me to watch families stand silently, backs turned, unable to even contemplate about voting for “the other person”. This has been horrifying. This is what makes me sick. This is why I can’t be on Facebook. I can’t watch people claw at other people while being completely unwilling to listen to one another. There is some valid point in most arguments, but people aren’t willing to engage on that. They are angry. They want someone to blame. They blame a friend. They blame a family member. Each American blames another.

I can’t watch the 47.7% of voters who wanted Clinton to be President calling every single of the 47.5% of voters who wanted Trump to be President every name in the book. I can’t watch the 47.5% of voters who wanted Trump to be President standing over the beaten 47.7% of voters who wanted Clinton to be President, their fists readied at their sides, a wicked smile flashing in the dark, ready to smack down the Clinton supporters with taunts of “told you so.” I can’t watch the Sanders supporters turn against the Clinton supporters and pretend that anyone could have predicted the outcome in a Sanders/Trump election.

There is so much noise. The problem with noise is that somewhere, buzzing about in the cacophony, is a real warning to all Americans, even to those who feel righteous in the outcome.

People are shouting so much, they cannot hear the rising tide of danger that this election presents to the Republic.

While you were hanging yourself on someone else’s words
Dying to believe in what you heard
I was staring straight into the shining sun.

Pink Floyd, “The Division Bell,” “Coming back to life”

The thing about an expert con-man is that they are very good at what they do. You don’t even know you’ve been conned until it’s too late. You leave with less than you had at the beginning. The only winner is the con-man.

Trump smiled at his crowd. He always knew what they wanted to hear. They were hungry. You feed the hungry. “We will drain the swamp in Washington, D.C., and replace it with a new government, of, and by, and for the people,” he said.

The crowd roared. They just wanted to hear what they wanted to hear. You know the quickest way to the heart of a human being? Tell them what they want to hear. It by-passes the brain. That is the art of the deal. That is the art of the con-man.

The buzzing sound started within 48 hours of the electron. “Trump’s transition team is staffed with long-time Washington experts and lobbyists from K Street, think tanks and political offices.” (CNN) “President-elect Donald J. Trump, who campaigned against the corrupt power of special interests, is filling his transition team with some of the very sort of people who he has complained have too much clout in Washington: corporate consultants and lobbyists.” (NY Times).

There is that buzzing, hiding under all the shouting. There is that warning.

The trick to being a con-man is to make the big lie and to own it. You lie to cover the lie. The numbers are clear. This con-man lies 75% of the time he makes an assertion. One big lie, made from a hundred little lies. So many lies. So sad.

At least 47.5% of those who voted were fed a steady diet of claims by a con-man. That the media is lying. That those women accusing him of the very things he bragged about doing are lying. That the politicians are lying (though when I become one of the Politicians, I won’t lie to you).

So why would anyone in the 47.5% listen now?

Do you hear that buzzing? That’s the sound of a hundred promises breaking nearly all at once.


Now life devalues day by day
As friends and neighbours turn away
And there’s a change that, even with regret, cannot be undone.

(Pink Floyd, “The Division Bell”,  “A Great Day for Freedom”)

My friend from grad school started burning bridges the morning after the election. He un-followed people. He left a trail of horrid word diarrhea all over my Facebook feed. I uninstalled Facebook from my phone. I wasn’t a direct victim of his shitting. But I had to smell it every time I reloaded the feed. When there is shit in the feed, you throw out the feed.

There is a change that, even with regret, cannot be undone.

They stopped talking about it months ago. She threatened to leave him. He stopped talking about it. She’s sad, and scared. In college, her roommate did something horrible in the bathroom to stop something else that was even more horrible, because no doctor would help her. It was awful. No one should have to do that to themselves because a doctor won’t help you. So when Roe v. Wade became the law of the land, there was some relief – a woman’s body became just a little bit more her own. But now the nation stands at 4 against 4 on the Supreme Court, and no one can say what will happen to Roe v. Wade in the next decade. It may be ripped down. A woman’s body will then certainly become much less her own, and more-so property of the State (but, hey, when you’re President they let you do anything, you know?). So they don’t talk about it anymore. He sits in silence and listens to right-wing talk radio. She sits in the dining room and listens to public radio. They don’t talk about it anymore. They can’t. They love each other too much to talk about the President-Elect.

There is a change that, even with regret, cannot be undone.

A police officer, working security as an off-duty job to help with the income, is swept off a bridge by a flash flood. The rain came down in the dark of night as a furious pour, the creek filled with runoff, and before anyone could believe it his car was upside-down in the water. He phoned for help. Help came. Help found the car fast, but it took days to find him. He had died… he’d been murdered. He wasn’t murdered by a Mexican. He wasn’t murdered by a terrorist. He was killed by Climate Change. Air’s a lot hotter than it used to be all over the globe. You learn in high school chemistry that hot air holds more water vapor. What goes up gotta come down. Water comes down as rain or snow. Global warming makes for worse rainfall and snowfall. May not seem right … may feel counter-intuitive … but it’s high school chemistry for Christ’s sake. Even someone with a GED ought to know this. This poor cop is drowned in a creek whose fury was fed (a metaphorical bullet in the chamber) by Climate Change. Climate Change might not have pulled the trigger, but it sure as hell put the bullet in the gun. Climate Change is killing a lot of people these days. Folks want to deny it, because the world is complicated and (I get it) people want easy explanations for difficult things. But it’s real. And blaming this poor cop’s death on just a freak rainstorm would be like blaming a poor soldier’s death in a warzone on “just a random shooting”. C’mon. Get real. Sure, maybe this was just a random shooting, but for Christ’s sake, it was against a soldier in a war zone. You don’t blame that death on an accident – you blame it on the war. Climate Change is the war. It makes soldiers of us all. And it’s coming for the whole damned species.

And Trump wants to expand the war zone. He wants to burn more coal, so that he can put jobs back for people that lost them in the first place not due to regulation but due to economic competition with natural gas. Wanting to burn more coal is another bullet in the chamber of a gun aimed squarely at the world. He wants to put more science deniers in charge of energy policy. That’s more bullets in the chamber, aimed squarely at the world. He fed his 47.5% the lie that Climate Change is a hoax cooked up by the Chinese. That’s not only an insult to the Chinese and to the American Climate Scientists who work tirelessly to understand the world, it’s also one more bullet in the chamber of a loaded gun aimed at the temple of the world.

We’re all soldiers now, fighting against a changing climate that we ourselves created. We made it. We can do something about it. It’s already killing people. Trump might be the change you thought you wanted, but he could also be the change that you cannot undo.

Because there is a change that, even with regret, cannot be undone.

Beyond the horizon of the place we lived when we were young
In a world of magnets and miracles
Our thoughts strayed constantly and without boundary
The ringing of the division bell had begun.

(Pink Floyd, “The Division Bell”, “The Division Bell”)

The big common room was mostly empty, except for a few undergraduates and graduate students setting up for a “Women In Science and Engineering” event. WISE. I love this organization. It brings young women from area grade schools into the University and exposes them to the reality of a beautiful and awesome world, a reality revealed by science. WISE encourages them to be fearless, unafraid of asking questions; it encourages them to try something out, something a little scary and a lot crazy, like hitting a hand sheltered only by a lead brick with a hammer; it encourages them to get their hands on the Universe to find out how it works. I’m pretty excited to have the chance to show them some cool physics demonstrations: freezing roses with liquid nitrogen, shocking people using electric charge built up by a Van de Graaf generator, and pounding with a hammer at a lead brick that is saving my hand with its own inertia.

I have a little slideshow to go with my demonstrations, showing famous women who were physicists and showing my own female mentors from graduate school and during my first post-doctoral job. I have some neat photos of lightning and ice to go along with my demonstrations.

All I want to do is to hook my iPad into the HDMI port of the big TV on the wall.

So I find the TV remote and turn on the big screen. I’m trying to change inputs when the TV warms up and shows a news station – the station it was left on when last turned off. I am not happy. This news station is showing a video montage of Donald J. Trump during the campaign. When the TV kicks on, the audio is not yet playing, but there is candidate Trump flailing his arms wildly at a rally, making a contorted face, and talking in a way that stereotypes a mental disability. He’s mocking a physically disabled reporter. Sad.

I quickly try to get the input switched to my iPad before the audio kicks in, but I’m not used to this remote. I can select the input, but I can’t get it to switch. The audio comes alive.

“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”

I know what’s coming next. I’ve heard this awful recording enough to know what comes next. Embarrassment grips me. I make the snap decision to try to mute the audio, but I’m fumbling now to find the button.

“And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”

I go for the power button. The TV cuts out.

In my brain, I am red rage. How can an American President-Elect exist who has said such HORRIBLE things about women?! How can 47.5% of people who voted for President bring this human garbage into such a distinguished office?! My stomach is cold. My heart is on fire. My throat is closing with shame that this was on the TV.

I look around. There are none of the young women participating in the WISE event yet in the room. I relax a little. Good, I think, they didn’t have to hear this piece of human waste say such cavalier things about sexually assaulting women. They don’t have to know what this man is like … yet. We can shield them one more day.

I’m not a sore loser. Hell, I would have been quite happy if a mostly rational, part-time science denier like Jill Stein or a social studies-challenged former Governor like Gary Johnson had beat Hillary Clinton. I would have been hugely relieved. But this SERIAL LIAR … this SEXUAL ASSAULTER… this CON-MAN was elected President instead.

One day, he will stand in front of smart and high-achieving young women at the White House during its annual science fair.

(Puffed with male bravado on Stern’s show, Trump talks about taking over the Miss Universe pageant. “They had a person that was extremely proud that a number of the women had become doctors, and I wasn’t interested.”)

He will pretend he cares about these young women’s ideas.

(On the video, Trump watches the 10-year-old girl go up the escalator. He turns to the camera and says: “I am going to be dating her in 10 years. Can you believe it?”)

But America will know what he is thinking, because he’s said it all on tape before. He doesn’t see brilliant young scientists, future leaders who will create new industries and new jobs. He sees dates. He sees sexual property. Maybe he just sees victims.

And for this man, we were divided.

But maybe there is hope.

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals.
Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination.
We learned to talk.
And we learned to listen.
Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings
to work together.
To build the impossible.
Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking.
And it’s greatest failures by NOT talking.
Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future.
With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded.
All we need to do is …
make sure …
we keep…
t a l k i n g .

— Stephen Hawking, originally in a voice-over for a British Telecom commercial, sampled into the Pink Floyd song, “Keep Talking” (“The Division Bell”)