American History, 2016

By Michelle Railey


Fake David. And Iowa Caucus Night.

February 2, 2016.

Not the real thing. This replica lives at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas. It’s massive. And sometimes censored on the inter webs.

This is not the actual masterpiece by Michelangelo (see image). Don’t be alarmed, internets. The real David still rests at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence (sculpted 1501-1504). Italy has not placed the real thing in a mall.

Las Vegas has placed a spiffing good reproduction in the midst of shops and slot machines. It’s what Vegas does best.

I have never known what to make of a world that will plaster Botticellis and van Goghs on coffee mugs; Caillebotte on umbrellas, and stick Michelangelo in the middle of a shopping mall/casino.

Yay, I can and do celebrate Starry Night in the brilliant, blurry-eyed, and “jesus, I’m running late” morning. (As long as there’s caffeine in the cup, I don’t much care what’s on it.) But on the other hand, what makes art meaningful and special is when, in fact, it is singular and special. Does the human audience for art lose its respect for it when it can fill vanGogh with coffee or vodka or whatever your morning beverage is? Does Michelangelo lose just a little gravitas when it’s surrounded by neon and metallic, electronic pings spitting themselves into paper receipts in 49-cent increments (Caesar’s thanks you for your twenties, enjoy the change, Sparky)? Do our cultural artifacts, our historical and intellectual treasures become diminished at all when they can be screen-printed on leggings?

I don’t know.

Fake David is pupil-less. And still he looks thoughtful. Great abs. A man, a boy. Massive. Unreal. My favorite part, not that you asked me, is the right arm: the wrist, the veins in the elbow, the thumbnail, the curve of the index finger. It’s a nice reproduction, really, but there’s something cheap about him being set in a glorified mall and cash-for-luck free-for-all, amidst neon lights. How to turn a masterpiece into Magic Mike in one easy step…

Michelangelo, I have to think, would be gratified that he was copied, but unhappy that it was possible and unhappier still that the copy isn’t the star of the show; that the chance of buying luxury goods or winning the money to buy luxury goods takes precedence over stone and skill and sweat.

Well, that’s the world we live in. Art is art, great for its own sake, but completely appropriate for a t-shirt, a pencil, a coffee mug, a paper poster. Art for Everyone and Everyone for Art. A photo of a potato is art. An image of the Blessed Virgin Mary decorated with chewing gum and elephant dung is art. Art is an utterance. Art is everything and everything is art.

And now the U.S. is in Election 2016. Life is Art and Art is Art. Celebrity is Politics and Spin is King.

Miraculously the Reality TV Star did not win. Eddie Haskell (aka Ted Cruz) did. One could ask why a reality tv star is running for president, an actual important real-job: not TV, like, real. Fake David can sit amongst neon and slot machines and it’s weird but okay. Fake Serious Person (Donald, Ted) belong in neon, in the middle of slot machines and stupid Coach stores. But they’re competing to sit amid world leaders, representing the oldest democracy in the world.

Fake David knows he is fake. But Cruz and Trump think they are as eternal as real David, failing to consider what is asked of one who is placed in the Galleria dell’Academia.

Florence is different than a mall/casino. Being the real David, carved with little more than passion and a chisel, is a different thing than a computer-patterned piece of poly-something. And being president is very different than running for it.

There is something about Cruz and about Trump that smacks of T-shirts and cheapness, suitable for pencil cases and coffee mugs. Not for eternity. Not for history. Not for Florence.

I don’t expect a great man to be president. I don’t expect President to be Savior or Super-Human. But I do want a president who has veins in his elbow, who lives and breathes, who is legitimately a human being, not an icon, not a slogan, not a t-shirt. Not art or Art or fake-art. I’ll take a flawed but authentic David for president. I don’t know how to accept a fake mall/casino version of a real thing, a Favid (fake David) as president.

And here we are, in 2016, and I’m not sure where the real David is. Will the real David please stand up? All I see so far is neon and malls and Coach purses, slushees, and slot machines.

Looking for substance (or a president). And Favid is all I see. I have yet to see the one I’m comfortable voting for. Perhaps the slot machine? The lights stay on with that. At least. And the house always wins.

It’s a young country. We didn’t even exist when Real David was carved in 1501-ish. The real David has seen countries and popes and leaders come and go; powers rise and powers fall. Life goes on no matter who is elected. Even if its Favid. (I hope its not Favid.)

As the Chinese curse/blessing goes, “May you live in interesting times.” Well, David, Favid, and Michelangelo all agree these are interesting times. I guess we’re blessed. I think I’ll celebrate by buying a t-shirt with Fine Art on it. Favid is the new black.


The Likable Enough Election

March 3, 2016

Back in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama turned to his competitor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he told her, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”

And it’s 2016 and we’re back to “likable enough.”

If one listens to NPR or various call-in shows, the millenials are losing their mind: they cannot vote for Hillary; sure, she’s capable but she’s a 70-something year old woman and she’s shrill and there was that server, and frankly, Bernie seems like a better choice. Or Elizabeth Warren, but she’s not running.

So we’ll stay home, thank you very much.

There’s been this talk, all along, about the enthusiasm gap: people believe Hillary is strong and pragmatic, but she is not inspirational, she’s not relatable, and there’s the whole server thing, and no one like that so much. (And, we don’t want to admit it, but she’s an older woman. Her laugh seems false, her cankles are unseemly, and, ohmigod, what is she wearing??? Is that one of Guinan’s castaways? She should not be dressed like Star Trek, Next Gen…she just shouldn’t, because that was TV!)

Well, mostly, it’s just that the Clintons carry drama. It’s inescapable. Clinton equals both scandal and dynasty and, honestly, the American people are just, so, tired.

So there’s Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side: strongly weighted on domestic issues, a stalwart and honest senator…and MIA on foreign policy.

And the Republican field has dropped to P.T. Barnum Donald Trump, a former pizza spokesperson and reality TV star who “owns” a couple golf courses and worn-out towel hotel-casinos. Plus the rather indigestible Ted Cruz and the slick, pore-free, and idea-light Marco Rubio. Sure, Ohio governor John Kasich is still in there, but he’s dead on arrival, in Michigan and in his home state of Ohio, if the polls are to be believed.

There is no one likeable left in the election. It’s the likeable-enough election. And the American public is having a difficult time deciding who is “enough.”

And, ultimately, is that enough to bring people to the polls? To inspire a country forward into the 21st century? To heal race divides, to conquer economic stagnation? Is it enough to manage climate change? To assist a middle and lower class that (a) resents being “classed” and (b) seriously just can’t make it?

As long as the question to the electorate is phrased as “is America currently great” or “can America be great again,” the essential problem of how to govern a 320 million group of Americans will fall by the wayside.

Who’s likeable enough to be president?

Hell if I know. But the American people need someone, someone substantial and capable and even likable. Not likeable enough.

There are some things that “good enough” is not good enough for. It might be that president is one.

And there’s no answer for that in the 2016 field.


The Uber Economy? Hang a Shingle. 

April 3, 2016

So, there’s that moment when somebody is splitting her screen time between Mechanical Turk, taking surveys, posting things on eBay, and building the online magazine when somebody realizes it’s colonial times all over again.

Hang a shingle: pianos repaired here. Homemade Taffy. Hand-dipped candles. Uber.

The economy might be all bangin’ 21st-century and globally integrated, but your kid’s first-grade teacher is working for insta-cart in her free time. Automated cars are about to displace every trucker you ever saw, knew, or met. And, when there are no raises, well, the Internets are rife with surveys and minuscule tasks; with grocery orders to be placed into Fiestas and Civics; with Fiverrs and Mechanical Turks, Instacarts, Übers, Lyfts, and Air BnBs. Oh my.

On one hand, there has maybe never been such a wealth of ways to make an extra thirty cents.

On the other hand, thirty cents in twenty minutes doesn’t feel so good, not even if one reminds oneself how pride goeth before a fall and not being too proud is a good thing.

Well, it starts to feel a little crazy: somewhere between Mechanical Turk and eBay and day job. And then between paid surveys on Swagbucks, iPoll, and InboxDollars. Eventually somebody asks: Just what the hell is this universe?

(Somebody will take a break: to decipher more zip codes on Mechanical Turk, to answer questions about her medical care and paper towel preferences via survey, to double-check the shipping code on a tutu or a dance skirt or a bit of this, a bit of that…it’s all for sale.)

It’s the twenty-first century. Star Trek (Next Gen) promised us food at the touch of a button and unitards for all. Sure, great things are possible— but in order to afford them, we’re all hanging shingles, trading treasures and time in tiny increments. I will gladly trade you a ride to the airport tomorrow for a hamburger today.

For those who have little security and have not had raises, there is so much promise in the Uber economy: a way to freedom, a way to pursue dreams, and in spare moments, raise the cash to survive. Drive a little, Mechanical Turk a little, is that item worth money on eBay a little.

There is hope and freedom in that. Even if one has to trade a bit of privacy and answer strange questions on surveys (40 cents per plus a spin on the Dollar Wheel on Inbox Dollars).

The somebody (maybe you, maybe me) is grateful. They think of gratitude (ruefully) when they open the Shopkick app as they stop for dinner at the grocery store (Hang a shingle. Collect some points. It will eventually turn into a gift card which will turn into cat litter and coffee and paper towels. For basically free, minus privacy and seconds into minutes into hours.)

Isn’t that the darndest?

The surveys, the penny jobs, the gig economy: it’s easy to love the freedom.

The surveys, the penny jobs, the gig economy: is hanging a shingle for pennies and freedom smart or is it the beginning of tech-age indentured servitude? Is freedom and untethered employment status worth the loss of security, of pensions or PTO, or benefits? How many hours of overtime at the day job can be substituted for work online at home, comfortably, for cents per minute?

Is this penny smart but pound foolish? Is this hopeful? Is this flexible? What is this Strange New World?

The news programs like American Public Media Marketplace say that it can’t be called the Gig Economy anymore, that it should just be called the Über economy.

If it were me, I would call it the conundrum economy or the Janus economy or the chimera economy.

Is the glass half-full? Half-empty? Is the glass just glass? Or is it digital, virtual, transcribed for pennies but transcribed in freedom?

Buckle up, kids. The next forty years promise to see a shaking-up of the working world that makes globalization look like a very minor change in management.

And with that, please excuse me, I have receipts to enter on Mechanical Turk. I’m almost up to 60 cents and I’d hate to lose out on that.



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