I got a letter last week. Its tone was awkward and amusing to me, so I posted a picture of it with a little jokey, Twitter-shaped observation:
I think the Democrats just threatened me: pic.twitter.com/wGvYInosk5
— Jonathan Coulton (@jonathancoulton) October 30, 2014
At first I got a couple replies from my immediate followers and the people I know, most of whom seemed to understand and share my take on it: that the letter was a little weird, ham fisted, and kind of dumb. It had the tone of a mobster threat (“Nice house. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”) , but it was almost charmingly nonspecific, such that it didn’t really threaten anything at all (“…we will be interested to hear why not.”).
Within about 24 hours it had been retweeted enough times (currently 1800 retweets and 1000 favorites) that it found its way outside my most immediate circle of friends and followers, at which point things got weird. It started bouncing around a few right wing echo chambers, and it got picked up by some right wing blogs. It found its way into the feeds of people who had no idea who I am, what my politics are, or what my sense of humor is. And as it lost context, it started to take on all sorts of meanings depending on who was reading it. Some people took me literally and assumed that I actually felt threatened. Some of those people agreed that it was a real threat, while others thought I was being thin-skinned. Some people thought I was wrong or lying about it having come from the Democrats, and a few found it suspicious that I cropped the photo the way I did. Some people thought it was a Republican ploy. Some thought it sounded like classic union thuggery, others thought it sounded just like something Karl Rove would do.
I found it fascinating, and I have some thoughts on it. But first let me set the record straight on a couple of points. Here’s the whole letter:
I framed the original photo the way I did because I didn’t want to include my home address. I took the picture with my phone and didn’t feel like trying to figure out how to blur or cover a portion of it, so I just framed the important part. But you can see “Paid for by the New York State Democratic Committee” on the bottom. Also, (and this is part of what makes it kind of creepy) it is not on any letterhead, and it isn’t signed by anyone in particular.
Some facts about me: I usually vote for Democrats, because their politics usually align with mine. I’m not that political a person, but I do have some strong opinions, mostly about social issues, and usually I find myself agreeing with Democrats on those issues. I voted for Obama twice. I don’t consider myself to be particularly well-informed about all aspects of every political race, but I do my best to pay attention, to read and think, and to vote based on my understanding of issues and not an “us vs. them” mentality. I don’t fully understand economics or geopolitics, and I’m suspicious of anyone who claims that they do. I try to stay on top of local politics, but I have a hard time finding it interesting enough to do so, and as a result, I don’t always vote in local elections. I feel guilty about that. But sometimes I feel so uninformed that it feels wrong to vote based on a gut feeling based on how a candidate’s name looks to me when I see it for the first time in the voting booth.
I thought this letter was charmingly inept, which is why I tweeted about it. I didn’t actually feel threatened. I have since learned that this letter is likely based on some research that shows this kind of “vote shaming” is an effective way to get people to vote. The NY Times says this research was done by the creepily named Analyst Institute, an organization founded by “A.F.L.-C.I.O. officials and liberal allies.” It seems that both sides are trying it out in various ways.
So, wow. First, it seems clear to me that the reason this tweet of mine traveled so far so fast is that it’s pretty easy to fit it into whatever narrative you have in your head. We like evidence that seems to support what we already believe, and we like to retweet that evidence so everyone can see that we’ve been right all along. See, the Democrats/Republicans are sneaky/inept! This is what depresses me about politics and about social media – it’s very hard to have any kind of real discussion about this stuff. We’ve all carefully constructed our own customized echo chambers. We think what we think.
Second, context is everything, especially when you’re talking about 140 characters of mostly irony and sarcasm. And on Twitter, context is not something you can control. This tweet made total sense when it was in my echo chamber. Once it got outside that circle, it got re-interpreted in all sorts of ways. Since this began, there’s been a little tickle in the back of my skull reminding me that I will never be able to correct the many misunderstandings of my politics, my sense of humor, my threshold for feeling threatened, the spelling of my name, etc. After all, I can only reliably reach the people inside my immediate circle of followers, I can’t make anything go this wide on purpose. It’s not like this post is going to go viral. My tweet became a kind of a zombie broadcast, and I’ll never catch up to it now. Ultimately, and in this particular case, who cares, but I shudder to think about how I might feel right now if this had been something important.
Third, oh my gosh, there are some people out there who are really different from me. I think we forget this is true a lot of the time, because it’s so easy to build a mirrored sphere of people and ideas around ourselves – you look around and everyone you listen to seems to agree with you, so you must be right. I got this dizzy feeling of cognitive dissonance when someone would talk about how hopefully someday we’d “round up” all the progressives, or how this was typical “Democratic thuggery,” or the idea that this wasn’t the worst of it because the Democrats are rigging the voting machines, and anyway they only win elections because they lie and cheat. I think all that stuff about Republicans! Well not really, but the temptation is there to buy into those ideas, and those are definitely the kinds of narratives that are bouncing around in my own personal chamber. And just to be clear, I’m pretty solidly against the idea of “rounding up” anyone, regardless of their politics. (Although maybe those people were joking and I didn’t get it. I sure hope so.)
Even though I’m a little weirded out by this tweet having become a bit of a talking point for the right, I do think it’s a strange and creepy way to go about getting the vote out. And it is an actual letter I got, so there’s that. It’s a real thing that exists in the world, so sorry NY State Democrats, but this one’s on you. It didn’t become a talking point because I tweeted it, it became a talking point because it makes you look tone deaf, and it’s a little embarrassing. I get the intent behind it, and yes of course we should all vote, but I certainly think they could have been a little more artful about it, you know, with the words and stuff. Then again, who knows, maybe this will get the right people to the polls, and maybe this will be a net gain for the Democrats. I will never know.
That said, I’m not going to vote against the Democrats just because of this letter, as surprisingly many have suggested. My politics aren’t going to change just because some people in some office made a bad decision and then hit print. I happen to believe that both sides have the capacity to be pretty shady when it comes to winning elections. Indeed, I’m not all that surprised to hear that one side or the other is trying to get certain people to vote or not to vote, because I know the tiniest bit about how campaigns work. And I truly don’t think it’s that big a deal – if you’ve been paying attention at all, you can probably think of five worse examples of corruption in politics than this letter.
So I’m still going to make my voting decisions based on my evaluation of which issues matter, and which candidates are best, which is what we should all be doing. Revenge voting doesn’t make any kind of sense. Neither does falling for these narratives, these mythologies that turn the messy/beautiful democratic process into a story of good guys and bad guys. It’s just that kind of group think that makes us check out of the very difficult but essential process of thinking critically about what candidates say and do, and about how our government behaves. We all have to work hard at looking past the comfortably familiar images in that mirrored sphere, and make our own decisions about what’s right and true. And this goes for both the idiot right wing nut jobs AND the spineless nanny state liberal elites.
You should pay attention. You should vote. Most of all, you should think for yourself.
I CANNOT WAIT for the comment thread on this one…
I’ve been working on many things behind the scenes lately, and one of them is this new album called JoCo Live. It’s a collection of songs that we performed on tour in December of 2012. Yeah, wow, that WAS a long time ago wasn’t it?
But listen, JoCo Live. We recorded all the shows on that tour and picked the best performances from multiple venues. So the album isn’t a single concert, though it is programmed to feel kind of like one. And then I went into the studio with Christian Cassan (who you might know from his drumming and frequent shirt changes during shows) to edit and mix and generally make them sound good. I myself am not always a huge fan of the way live performances sound: WHY DON’T THEY DO IT LIKE THE RECORD. But in this case I must say we got to a pretty rocking place with these tracks. It sounds GREAT.
One of my favorite things about playing with a band, which weirdly still sort of feels like a new thing for me, is the rediscovery of older songs. I’ve always written a mix of sad slow stuff and rock band stuff, and it’s really a wonderful feeling to open up something like Big Bad World One and let it fly. So there are plenty of old favorites on JoCo Live, and they feel reinvigorated to me because we were having a ton of fun playing them loud and fast. There are also a bunch of Artificial Heart tracks, which I will always think of more as having been born in the context of a band. And of course everything gets elevated when you’re in front of an audience that’s enjoying themselves, screaming and yelling, pogoing up and down. This album reminds me that I miss playing for all of you. I’ll be back to that as soon as I can, promise.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this one. I’m doing a pre-order of the physical CD right now over at JoCoLive.com, but you can get the digital version right away. There’s also a free download of Code Monkey today, and you can stream a bunch more tracks there and check it out first. The pre-order will end October 17th, at which point I’ll crank up the release engine and put it out in all the regular places, iTunes, Amazon, etc. But if you want a CD (or a signed CD) by Christmas, pre-order now, because I can never tell how long that release process is going to take.
More things are happening! Some I can’t talk about yet, and maybe will ultimately not interest you. But I am working on new stuff, and someday will have an album of that stuff to offer you.
If you only follow me here on this blog, you might not yet have heard me screaming about this on Twitter. But there’s this show called Going Deep with David Rees, starring my friend David Rees, and created by, among others, my wife Christine Connor. It’s really good. It airs Monday nights on Nat Geo, but some episodes are now on Hulu if you don’t have that network where you are. It’s a science show, but also more than that, and perhaps even the “best show since Cosmos”, which is not too shabby.
Anyway, I wrote the theme song. Originally it was longer and had words, but that’s very out of style on TV these days, so they used a shorter and mostly instrumental version. Because we have the internet however, I can distribute the full-on, old-timey style, heavily lyric’d version for you to enjoy. Look, here it is!
Very proud of the song, but even more proud of all the friends and wives who made this great show. You should watch it, and report back to me.
UPDATE: The JoCo Spring Cleaning store will be CLOSING permanently for business on Friday, June 20th (the last day of Spring). So please please your orders soon!!
Hey everyone, during my recent Spring Cleaning I found a bunch of t-shirts from old tours sitting in my basement! I’m hoping that they will be loved and enjoyed by my true fans, instead of sitting around collecting dust next to my washer and drier and those old Christmas decorations.
My “Spring Cleaning” Webstore (http://bit.ly/RCReYI) will only be open for a limited time, and there is *very* limited stock available for most of these items, so please purchase anything you like before it’s gone forever.