poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

August 6, 2009

diary of a political ninja.

Contents: No, actually, this is what democracy looks like ; In which I chat with Putin’s media strategist after a game of Wii bowling ; The scale of cool ; Oops! Someone forgets their shirt again.

Act I. Managing Democracy.

I devoted my entire weekend to learning how to run a political campaign (political ninja school) and getting tipsy with the future leaders of America. I now have all the mad skillz to run a winning grassroots candidate in … uh, Oregon. Or somewhere else there is grass. Maybe. Chicago? No one has yet figured out how to run a winning grassroots candidate in an area where we don’t have things like multiple parties, meaningful general elections or finance laws. Or grass. For that I think I would need to attend a United Russia political ninja school. But I am glad I now know what I know, and I believe every American should know it too. Because there are still many otherwise intelligent folks out there who are under the impression that democracy is just a noble principle or ideology. Like honesty, generosity and responsibility. They tell you in Sunday school to be it, you are it, you go to heaven. Period. People don’t seem to realize that democracy is in fact a micro-managed process which may or may not be noble and, unfortunately, is possibly more effective the less noble it is. This is why Republicans win. This is also why people who have never seen a voter file, walked a precinct or quite conceivably have never even seen the inside of a polling place on election day will eagerly get on tv to tell you there is no democracy in Russia. I, however, hear stories of voter intimidation, ballot purges and dirty campaigns and eagerly tell you there is democracy in Russia. Because if there were not, they would not need to do this shit, people. It’s like physics: you can’t see the gravity, only the rotten apple that falls from the tree. If you are purging your challengers from the ballot, it means 1) there are citizens willing to challenge you, 2) there is a process by which they can attempt that and 3) there are people who will vote for them.

I was not taught how to axe people off ballots last weekend. Chicagoans already know how to do that. Just ask Barack. Still, I bet a United Russia or Nashi ninja school would have classes like, “Advanced ballot purging,” or “What to do when your opponent runs an organized crime syndicate,” which would be more applicable to my local situation. They also had a “love oasis” at the Nashi camp, which would have been useful last weekend. Ooof. There is nothing more depressing than a pack of politicos with no social lives at a bar on a Saturday night. “We’ve been talking politics all day. The only thing left to talk about is sex and religion.” And we’re not religious. So we behave like 14 yr. old boys. On booze.

Anyway. I bet UR trainings aren’t terribly different from ours. I bet we all use the same mind-numbing, numbers-crunching spreadsheets and math calculations, the only difference being that in the “vote goal” column, UR figures for 72% instead of 52%. Hard to argue with their “aim for the moon” mentality. US Democrats are taught to have low expectations for persuadable voters. Round down. Remember that these people voted for Bush. Knock another 401 registered voters off that column. It’s all about the numbers. I bet most campaigns are lost because of bad math. You know who is really good at math? [Insert dramatic pause…] The Russians! This is my new counter-argument for the racists who assert that Russia is “genetically predisposed” toward political dictatorship. It’s in their DNA, they say. Well you know what else appears to be in the their DNA? Serious math skills, that’s what. Between that and their “genetic predisposition” for being absolute propaganda fiends and their “inherited” willingness to subject themselves to just about anything, regardless how insane, Russia would seem to be “genetically predisposed” to be the model nation for democracy! Putin should technically never have to steal or fake an election with this repertoire. Assuming he is managing his campaigns the same way we manage ours…

And I do. Because both Russia and my little progressive grassroots organization hired the same political strategist.

Act II. Foreign Agent Man.

So I pick myself up off the floor of the bar, climb back onto my stool and empty my glass of vodka. Actually, that’s isn’t really what happened at all. Except for the vodka part. I wasn’t surprised at all, to tell you the truth. To tell you the truth, I knew it before he told me. I don’t have ESP. Well, that’s not entirely true, but a diary for another day… I simply knew 1) Putin’s people had once hired an American PR firm and 2) I’d hire this fellow. What? You think I can’t get inside the mind of Putin? The CIA spends money looking for people like me. (Just so long as they are not spending money looking for me.) Anyway. The moment he entered the Media & Messaging session earlier that day, I thought, “Finally! This is why I am here. Math is boring. Screw math. I wanna be the next Toby Ziegler and Vladislav Surkov all rolled into one rock star genius. Like this guy in the cowboy boots.” Then he opened with a quote from the West Wing and slapped a mumbling coda onto his bio about working on high profile campaigns in foreign countries. That’s why I didn’t fall off the bar stool when he told me about Putin. I mean, it’s really not rocket science.

Later that night, after a few courage-building cocktails, I asked him to elaborate on these high profile campaigns in foreign countries. I had to sit through countless exciting tales about armed coups in Africa and armed thugs in Brazil and a whole life story that read like the The Constant Gardener. “Uh huh. Where else?” I kept probing, and when he said, “Oh and I did some work in Russia, and the Ukr…” “For whom in Russia, exactly?” Suddenly he is not so outgoing and squirms about on his stool, chuckling nervously and looking at the floor. “What? Kasparov?” “No, actually for the guys running the country.” I didn’t fall over but I did clap like a silly little girl, and proceeded to explain to him, “My fantasy is–” Silence. Everyone leans over. “What?” “We want to hear your fantasy!” “Well, ok, my fantasy is to work on a United Russia campaign.” Visibly disappointed, the rest of the bar returns to their drinks and their own fantasies while my new friend gives me a lecture on international law and Vladimir Putin. “You have to register with the American government as a FOREIGN AGENT or else they will find you and THROW YOU IN PRISON FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE! For treason!” he tells me. Repeatedly.

So THAT’s good to know. Especially since my brilliant facebook friends informed me otherwise. I’m instituting a ban of facebook advice and replacing it with advice from strange men in crummy bars. I think I will stick to writing a bunch of nonsense for a silly blog for the time being.

“I have met the man. He is a bayd-ayss,” he declares in an increasingly contagious southern twang. “Of course,” I nod in agreement. He leans close and looks me right in the eyes: “New, nawt a Bayd-Ayss Hero, just a Bayd-Ayss. Understand?” I do, I assure him, still a bit terrified about the whole life in prison thing. Nevertheless I won’t waste an opportunity to go into my spiel about Putin and Russia and blah blah blah… I’ve already given this lecture so many times, I can now think about other things while I do it. And I am thinking, “Damn. This is like the psycho right’s wet dream: grassroots Democrats and Vladimir Putin hire the same media guy. How did we afford him? Is he working pro-bono right now? Maybe he owes Bridget some kind of favor. Huh. … Yay! I am officially not the only person who would ever consider working for both Howard Dean and VVP! See? I’m not crazy after all! Whew! Wait… This guy is a little crazy. And also very married. Shit.”

I could recount the rest of our conversation in its entirety. Compare & contrast to Hitler’s Germany. “The economic situation might be analogous, but Russia doesn’t have any Nazi aims.” “Except for the imperial ones.” “Russia hasn’t invaded anyone.” “No. Not yet…” <– Note. Brilliant media guy can spot propaganda when he sees it and does not mention Georgia. Musings about Ukrainian sovereignty. "Yulia's ready to hand the whole joint over to Moscow and Yushchenko thinks the Orange Revolution is still going on. He just doesn't get it, man." "Because people like Biden go over there and encourage him." There was talk of children, families, business trips. You've been there. You could write it all down for me. It is all beside the point. The point is this: I don't know if it is a dreary world we live in, Nikolai. But it most certainly is a bloody small one.

Act III. You think that’s cool?

Theories of cool

Cool as social distinction:

According to this theory, cool is a zero sum game, in which cool exists only in comparison with things considered less cool. Illustrated in the book The Rebel Sell, cool is created out of a need for status and distinction. This creates a situation analogous to an arms race, in which cool is perpetuated by a collective action problem in society.

Sean wrote, “I’m waaay cooler than you. Columbia University Press sent me my copy of Cohen’s book bezplatna. And they approached me about it. I can even present the email as proof.” What-Evah, Guillory. While I wait for that e-mail, allow me to make a correction. Free books from academic publishers won’t make you cool. It just makes you a nerd. And a cheap one too. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I myself am a cheap nerd. And jealous too, if that is what you need to hear. Sean is, in fact, waaay cooler than I am, because he has been published in the eXile, which is bitchin’ camaro cool in my book. I would never dare aspire to that level of coolness. I give up right now.

But before anyone’s ego gets too inflated, I believe some perspective is in order. Just because you are waaay cooler than I doesn’t mean that you are empirically cool. 99.9% of the population is cooler than I am. I’m a librarian. I go to political fundraisers for the socializing. I am not the standard by which you should be judging these matters. Foreign agent man is the standard. I mean, if cool is what you are going for, make an effort. Embrace the challenge. Maybe being kidnapped by men with uzis and dropped off in the middle of the Congo is not in your immediate future. But surely you can do the cowboy boots thing. My boyfriend wears cowboy boots. It drives me crazy. Anthony Bourdain wears cowboy boots. So Sean can keep his precious e-mail and send me, in its place, a photo of him in a pair of cowboy boots.

That should settle this little misunderstanding. 🙂


Speaking of political ninjas, diaries, cowboys and Vladimir Putin:

Get your new topless vacation fotos on, baby.

[Update] Ooh, there are more where those came from! (Hat tip to Andy.)

Ok, thanks for reading & have a lovely weekend!


  1. Please clarify: does the discovery that Democrats and Putin use the same fiendishly clever political advisor translate into melting away a certain overidealism … or clarify a bit of hard-bitten realism in you?

    Or is it just the cowboy boots?

    Comment by EdgewaterJoe — August 6, 2009 @ 11:32 AM | Reply

    • Is there and option for “All of the above?” Idealism because he is doing something I could only dream of. Realism because at the end of the day it’s just a job. I would never go so far to suggest that progressive Democrats and Putin’s people have the same, how shall we say?, platform. But I do not draw quite as much of a distinction between us & them. Moreover, I find endless similarities between Chicago/IL politics and Russian politics, and Chicago/IL is, like it or not, run by Democrats. So I haven’t experienced and crisis of faith over it or anything. I think in the end, it is just a small world.

      Comment by poemless — August 6, 2009 @ 11:45 AM | Reply

      • That’s cool — oh, wait …

        Comment by EdgewaterJoe — August 6, 2009 @ 11:54 AM | Reply

  2. No grass in Oregon either… the record breaking heat burnt it all into dust.

    This is a great essay poemless. Your writing reminds me of a spy thriller meets political intrigue. It still leaves me a bit in a cloud though, scratching my head. You write nonfiction like it is fiction. It’s wonderful. Maybe expand this into a novel – librarian turned foreign agent.

    Just remember to register.

    Comment by Magnifico — August 6, 2009 @ 11:46 AM | Reply

  3. It just makes you a nerd.

    One of these days Alice . . . One of these days . . .

    Sadly, I can’t deny my nerdom citizenry being a avid comic book reader. Even my wife refers to my weekly trips to the comic shop as going to “Geekistan” So I seriously doubt cowboy boots will make any difference. I would just look like a nerd in cowboy boots.

    That said, I’m sure your political seminars are far better than UR’s because the Dems and Repubs have successfully convinced people of the purity of American democracy. I doubt you could ever find a Russian that naive about their own system. I for one will never fully understand Americans’ willingness to eagerly participate in their own subjugation. And people say the concept of false consciousness is dead . . .

    But it is good to know that UR is learning from the best.

    Comment by Sean — August 6, 2009 @ 12:00 PM | Reply

    • I don’t know if you are correct about UR learning from the best. But I have been reading “Boss” by Mike Royko, and I wouldn’t be terribly shocked to learn it was being used as their handbook. One man’s machine is another’s managed democracy…

      Comment by poemless — August 7, 2009 @ 10:23 AM | Reply

  4. There is nothing more depressing than a pack of politicos with no social lives at a bar on a Saturday night. “We’ve been talking politics all day. The only thing left to talk about is sex and religion.” And we’re not religious. So we behave like 14 yr. old boys. On booze.

    A Netroots Nation preview. lol. (ooh, stop making me laugh when I’m sick and laughing brings on a coughing fit …)

    Congratulations on the new blog. Hope to make some coherent comments sometime in the future when I resemble myself more than I do now.

    Comment by maryb — August 6, 2009 @ 6:35 PM | Reply

    • Thank you. I hope you feel better soon!

      Comment by poemless — August 7, 2009 @ 10:23 AM | Reply

  5. @ poemless / Alice?,

    Would adding you to my blogroll rub some of yours & Sean’s nerd cool off on me?

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — August 7, 2009 @ 4:30 AM | Reply

    • 1. “One of these days Alice” – it’s from the old TV show “The Honeymooners.” It’s what the husband says to his wife before threatenning to deck her, I think.

      2. That is an excellent question! Adding me to your blogroll is guaranteed to make you cooler. And that is true for anyone who is debating whether or not to add me to their blogroll!

      Comment by poemless — August 7, 2009 @ 9:18 AM | Reply

      • Ralph and Alice Kramden are the husband and wife from THE HONEYMOONERS. And “One of these days …” (often followed by, “BANG! ZOOM! TO THE MOON!!”) would usually be uttered by poor Ralph after Alice said something that punctured one his well-meaning but hair-brained schemes.

        That is, pretty much any and every random HONEYMOONERS episode.

        Come on, didn’t any of you have WGN on your cable package growing up?!

        Anyway, glad to drag an othewise erudite discussion down into pop-cultural muck!

        Comment by EdgewaterJoe — August 7, 2009 @ 10:01 AM | Reply

        • Wait, isn’t that what I said?

          You have to give Anatoly (of Sublime Oblivion) a pass. He’s from Russia. He lives in the US now but spends all of his waking hours using mathematics to model world history or something cerebral like that.

          Comment by poemless — August 7, 2009 @ 10:15 AM | Reply

          • I think Anatoly would learn much about world history and class in America by watching THE HONEYMOONERS. And get some laughs besides!

            Comment by EdgewaterJoe — August 7, 2009 @ 10:27 AM | Reply

          • Also, apologies if my comment came off as snotty. It wasn’t my intent, just a reminder of my mortality that not everyone alive remembers shows that were around while I was growing up …

            Comment by EdgewaterJoe — August 7, 2009 @ 10:32 AM | Reply

          • but spends all of his waking hours using mathematics to model world history

            WTF?? Oh yeah, my About Me page. I’m too busy with other shit for that now, I just said it’s something I would probably like to do if given time / subsistence.

            Comment by Sublime Oblivion — August 8, 2009 @ 4:37 AM | Reply

            • Actually, I was thinking of something you’d once linked to, some totally insane thing about using math to predict when an empire will fail, or something…

              Comment by poemless — August 12, 2009 @ 1:41 PM | Reply

      • Careful what you wish for…

        Comment by redstar — August 7, 2009 @ 3:14 PM | Reply

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