GAME THEORIES

Posted in Quick Hits on November 15th, 2017 by Ed

I have some bad news. There are about a half-dozen ways the Roy Moore situation can play out, and most of them are wins for the GOP. As unbelievable as that is – that nominating a pedophile could end up benefiting the party – don't act like you're entirely shocked. This is 2017 after all.

Here are some outcomes.

1. Moore stays on the ballot and loses to Doug Jones. Democrats get a brief win out of this, since Jones would run and presumably lose in 2020.

2. Moore wins, the GOP and its slim majority expel him from the Senate, and Alabama's Republican governor appoints a replacement. This is the most likely outcome, I believe, and is a huge GOP win. This enables them to present themselves as heroes and do lots of phony moralizing about how they just cannot condone this man, and then he gets replaced by some totally generic Republican who doesn't cause anyone any trouble. Democrats would have to go along with the vote to expel him – how could they not?

3. Moore withdraws and is replaced by another Republican who wins. Same as #2 but without the added "We gallantly saved you from this man" talking points.

4. Moore withdraws and is replaced by someone who doesn't end up appearing on the ballot, leading Moore and Other Republican to split votes and hand Jones a victory. See #1.

5. Someone like Jeff Sessions is pushed as a write-in or Independent candidate at the last minute. This would be a power play by the GOP leadership in the Senate to sink Moore's chances of winning. A write-in most likely would not do well enough to win, but would certainly tip the balance in a close Jones-Moore contest.

6. Moore wins and then a couple of GOPers in the Senate balk on expelling him for whatever nonsensical reason they whip up on the spot. The party holds the seat but exposes itself to an endless barrage of "They welcomed a child molester into their club; worse, they lied about it" attacks.

7. America disbands after realizing that the mere fact that we're having a conversation about a pedophile who has a 50-50 shot to be elected to the Senate means that we're entering the decadent Late Roman Empire stage of our decline and at this point we're just killing time until the Goths sack DC.

I think plenty of Alabamians have time to talk themselves into believing that a bland Democrat is actually worse than a kid-diddler, but I also think the Senate GOP is sincere about expelling him. So, I'd bet on #2 if forced to choose. #7 sounds pretty good too, honestly.

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

Posted in Rants on November 12th, 2017 by Ed

As the folks at Deadspin said, the last thing the world needs is another Cletus Safari. We get it. America's crappiest crapholes are full of terrible, sad, terrible, angry, terrible people who are very stupid and will reliably say very stupid things and they absolutely love Donald Trump like I love elastic waistbands. Every journalist capable of sharing some kind of useful insight in this format has already done so, and everyone doing it now is either flogging a dead horse or short on original ideas.

Of course, they said this in the context of linking to a Cletus Safari on Politico and highlighting elements of it that are enlightening.

I agree with the premise that this is a piece the world needs no more of. I've read it a sufficient number of times from different authors in different outlets in different Rust Belt shit-pits. But like Deadspin, the explicit racism aspect of this Safari piece had some real resonance for me, personally.

Gonna warn sensitive types about some language in the following paragraph. If you're white it's probably going to sound very familiar to you though.

I grew up around what in hindsight really was a staggering, pervasive amount of racism, almost all of it directed at black people. It is not much of a stretch to say that race was a lens through which the entire world was viewed. Michael Jackson wasn't Michael Jackson, he was "that n*gger music." The Cosby Show was "that n*gger show." Any negative characteristic about any human being anywhere was contextualized with "like a n*gger." The sole, almost exclusive goal in life for many of the people in my community, who ranged from lower to upper middle class, was to get as far away from "Them" as possible. The greatest shame in life was to have to live with them, or anywhere near them, or to even have to see them. You knew you had done well if you lived in a shitty house but a shitty house on a street where everyone was white.

I've shared these experiences as an adult with some other (white) people and while some are surprised, many recognize it down to the last detail. The talking points, the stereotypes, the obsessive focus (in hindsight it's REALLY weird that people who appeared to have no contact with black people whatsoever spent so much of their time thinking and talking about black people), the pseudoscience; it's a complete package and people who recognize part of it from their own experience generally recognize the whole.

Until I was about 18, I used racial slurs pretty freely. Why wouldn't I? Everyone did, constantly. People thought it was funny. People nodded in approval when they heard it. Congratulations, you're one of us.

Vignette: My friend told me she said the n-word when she was 3 and the whole family thought it was the funniest, cutest story ever, repeated at every get-together. Her dad wanted to recount it in the toast at her wedding.

Then I moved, and I grew up (a little). I'm not embarrassed to admit that weaning from this stuff is a long process. They say that for recovering addicts, every day is a struggle to stay clean. I'm 39 and 20+ years gone from that way of seeing the world and I *still* fight it. Maybe you're looking at me in horror right now because you've never had a racist thought in your life and this seems like little more than rationalizing a neanderthal mindset. Congratulations. But when you expose people to this stuff the moment they're old enough to understand language, it becomes close to hard-wired.

Another vignette: a guy I once worked with regaled us with the nursery rhyme he liked to sing his daughter at night: "N*ggers and Jews, N*ggers and Jews, we'll never lose to N*ggers and Jews." This was 2003.

The thing about being white is that other white people think nothing of saying this kind of stuff in front of you because they assume that everyone else thinks exactly the same way they do. That is one of the foundations of their worldview; all black people hate all white people, all white people hate all black people, etc. It's tribalism. White people who don't think the same way are either n*gger-loving liberal pussies, or they agree but won't say it out loud.

When I saw the following quote in the Politico story, a lot of things came rushing back to me. It was so familiar that I could list off a dozen people I've known at some point in my life who have said the same thing, almost verbatim, in other contexts:

“Everybody I talk to,” he said, “realizes it’s not Trump who’s dragging his feet. Trump’s probably the most diligent, hardest-working president we’ve ever had in our lifetimes. It’s not like he sleeps in till noon and goes golfing every weekend, like the last president did.”

I stopped him, informing him that, yes, Barack Obama liked to golf, but Trump in fact does golf a lot, too — more, in fact.

Del Signore was surprised to hear this.

“Does he?” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

Unless you are immersed in the worldview of people like this guy, this might seem either unexceptional or an example that largely serves to illustrate how stupid he is. Ha ha! He doesn't know basic facts! He just repeats everything he sees on Fox News!

While that is undoubtedly true, it overlooks the larger point. To people who structure the world this way, "lazy" isn't about who spends more time sleeping and golfing. Lazy isn't even a "code word" for black. Lazy and black mean exactly the same thing. By saying "Barack Obama slept til noon and golfed a lot" and "Trump is the hardest working president ever," he is, in his own way, simply making two statements of fact. Donald Trump is white; Barack Obama is a (redacted).

"Hard working" is a synonym for white the way "corporal punishment" is a synonym for spanking. The former is merely a more socially acceptable way of saying the latter. "Lazy" and "Hard Working" are both totally independent of any characteristic about Obama and Trump other than their race. Trump is white. Therefore all positive descriptors apply to him. Obama is black. Any bad characteristic a person can have applies to him. He is irrelevant as an individual, because regardless of what he is or does he is, above all else, one of them.

I've sat through enough "hard working vs. lazy" arguments in my life to recognize what Cletus is saying here. I did not enjoy reading this piece, not because it has any inherent flaws but because it reminded me of a lot of things I don't like to remember.

If anything good comes out of the Trump Experience it will be a broader recognition that the centrist discourse fetish is a fruitless strategy. You don't "reach out" to people like this. You can't communicate with them because their mental universe is based on rules that don't apply to reality. All that is to be done is to out-vote them. They, like the places they live, are dying out. To the extent that I have any hope for the future, it is based on the idea that the politics of today are the last hurrah of people who cannot, or perhaps will not, see the world in any way other than as a simple racial dichotomy. White = good. Black = bad. All events and information are shaped around that basic worldview.

HOLD YOUR HORSES

Posted in Rants on November 8th, 2017 by Ed

If you’re to the political left of, say, Mussolini, enjoy celebrating the overall good results Democratic candidates had in Tuesday’s elections. The much-hyped Virginia gubernatorial race was over almost the moment the polls closed, depriving the evening of drama. That’s OK; after more than a year of non-stop bad news, liberals will gladly take the win.

Now, the bad news: special and off-year elections receive far more attention than any scattered batch of state-level races deserves, and the urge to over-interpret the results is irresistible for the media and political class. Whether you were pleased or upset on Tuesday evening, take a deep breath and remember that if not for the odd timing of these races – in an off-off-year – they would barely have been noticed.

The media likes elections. Elections are more interesting to news consumers than the standard non-electoral political fare, and content providers have the ratings and clicks to prove it. If the 24-hour cable networks can find an election to cover, they will give it saturation coverage.

Sometimes the only elections available are oddly timed special elections – last month’s Alabama Senate primary was a good example – or a few state-level races. They end up filling a vacuum in the ability of political news outlets to provide election coverage. Talking about 2016 gives most of us a migraine at this point, and it’s too early to go H.A.M. on the 2018 election stories yet.

So, elections that are important but not Earth-shattering end up receiving the kind of grand, breathless coverage and punditry that blow what is happening out of all reasonable proportion.
These races deserve coverage. They are important. But they’re not nearly as important as the Hot Take industry is going to claim over the next few days. There is something to be learned from these races, but maintaining perspective is important.

For Democrats, who seem destined to struggle to control the narrative of elections, Tuesday night was a no-win situation for the 2018 storyline. Had Democrat Ralph Northam lost in Virginia, the “No matter what the liberal fake media says, REAL ‘Mericans support Trump and his agenda!” storyline would have carried the day. This would reinforce the idea that no matter how bad things seem to go for the Republicans, Democrats will screw it up.

Now that Northam won – and it is worth noting that Hillary Clinton won Virginia handily in 2016, so Northam would have had to be spectacularly inept to lose – jubilant Democrats took to the internet immediately to proclaim, as journalist and political analyst Dave Wasserman did, that Tuesday’s results lead to the conclusion that Democrats are likely to take the House in 2018.
He concludes, “You can't really look at tonight's results and conclude that Democrats are anything other than the current favorites to pick up the U.S. House in 2018.” With due respect to a good journalist, that is truly spectacular overreach. A year ahead of the 2016 election, nobody could have predicted Trump’s victory. Much can happen in a year. We have no idea where we will be one year from today. Given the way Trump is operating, we may not even be alive (or having elections) in a year. Chill. Virginians picking a governor is not, as some pundits are excited to say, a nationwide referendum on Donald Trump.

This serves no positive function for Democrats. Idle chatter about one party being the favorite can lead only to complacency – marginal voters failing to show up because they’ve heard for a year that the candidate they support is going to win – or unhelpfully high expectations. Bold assertions that they will overcome a forty-five seat GOP majority in the House will feed the eventual narrative of Democrats doing well…but “not as well as we expected.”

The media and the professional readers of political tea leaves have no incentive to follow Tuesday’s results with careful conclusions that invoke context and the dangers of overstating limited evidence. They prefer to grab your attention with bold, unqualified statements that this. is. HUGE. But that does not make it true. Give it a month and there is a good chance that Tuesday’s elections will be largely forgotten.

The valid, sober interpretation of these races is simple: Democrats won some races they very much should have won, and they can feel good about getting their base to show up and follow through. You can’t win the hard races if you’re unable to pick up the ones that should be slam-dunks. So, Tuesday was a good night for a party and a group of supporters that needed badly to have a win to boost morale.

For the GOP, they will shrug the races off as unimportant but behind the scenes a lot of people who have to run in 2018 will learn from Ed Gillespie’s mistakes in Virginia. He engaged in a shameless campaign of Trump-style race baiting and immigrant bashing and it accomplished little except to bolster pro-Democratic Latino/a voters. Rather than rushing to embrace the preferred strategy of a President who is currently about as popular as genital herpes, Republicans should ask if pandering to the worst aspects of the GOP base has run its course. Trump is loud and monotonous. Voters may just be tired of the act. Why imitate it?

In the end, what we learned on Tuesday evening consists largely of things we already knew. If Democrats can get their base out, they can win. Pandering to white populist sympathies is only a useful strategy for Republicans in solidly red states. And the President is a delusional, gutless sack of lame excuses and Taco Bell Mild Sauce.

What we didn’t learn is who will win a year from today. We didn’t learn what Americans think. We didn’t learn any universal truths about politics. These races are not unimportant, but the urge to draw large conclusions from a small sample is dangerous.

DO ME THE HONOR

Posted in Rants on November 6th, 2017 by Ed

It is impossible to see the diametrically opposed reactions to the terrorist incident in New York (8 killed, perpetrator from Uzbekistan) and the one in Texas on Sunday (26 killed, good ol' Angry White Guy perpetrator) as anything other than thinly veiled blood-and-soil nationalism. There is no other way to interpret being outraged at the idea of an Other killing Americans but willing to shrug off Americans killing other Americans.

One idea that always fascinated me – and almost led me to grad school for psychology, until I realized modern psychology is all weird fMRI shit that is inadvertently feeding the next wave of invasive universal surveillance (just wait until the TSA is scanning for Anger in 20 years once the technology improves) – is the lack of logic behind fears. I've always been terrified of two things: spiders and bridges. Even as a kid I was able to recognize how little sense it made to be afraid of those things.

My odds of having my life negatively impacted by a spider are so small that they can't even be measured (especially in the Midwest). Fewer people have been killed or injured by a bridge than by lightning strikes. The old cartoon scenario of a piano falling from the sky and landing on me is vastly more likely than either scenario.

But we all know from personal experience that logic is a poor tool against someone's fears. You can explain how statistically safe air travel is to a person who is afraid of flying and it is highly unlikely to make a dent in their irrational fear. Most fear is at least somewhat irrational, because we base it on our perceptions more than our experience. We recoil from things that are threatening, but how do we learn what is a threat? We combine anecdotal evidence with second-hand information of dubious reliability.

If you're afraid of being killed by a random act of violence in the modern United States – which, of course, you should not be, since it is low on the list of things that are going to Get You – it is difficult to wrap my mind around any kind of logic that would justify subdividing it into Foreign and Not Foreign for the purposes of determining the appropriate reaction to it. Right now there are millions of people walking around this country afraid that a brown non-citizen named Mohammed is going to drive a truck over them but relatively unconcerned that a white guy named Chad is going to shoot them with guns that are ridiculously easy for him to acquire.

Worse, people justify this with the fantasy that while there is no way to stop Mohammed other than to adopt Festung America border policies, Chad can be stopped if we all pack heat and shoot back. We hear this message explicitly from people in positions of authority. Don't worry about Chad – just shoot back.

Don't worry about the neighbor or the co-worker with 75 guns. That is not a threat. That can never hurt you. Focus on the real threat, which is immigrants and Strapping Black Bucks and Thugs and MS-13 and basically anyone with a darker complexion than Mike Pence or a Funny Accent or a different church.

Isn't it better to die at the hand of Our Kind than to die at the hand of the Infidel? Damn right it is. Don't fear death. Death isn't scary. Living to see the pollution of our blood and sacred soil…now THAT'S nightmare fuel.

NPF: ROYAL SAMPLER

Posted in No Politics Friday on November 3rd, 2017 by Ed

Three new pieces of writing up in the past week or so. I humbly submit them for your Friday afternoon reads.

First, a longer piece at Jacobin on the Anti-Rent War of 1840. This is the kind of stuff I really love doing: bringing attention to a relatively obscure part of history and making it relevant to today. I know the audience for this kind of stuff is always going to be limited – long reads and historical arcana being niche markets – but I'm glad there are outlets that still do it.

On Thursday, Rolling Stone ran a look at the new tax proposal that considers the unfathomable possibility that the Republican Party may be in such disarray that it can't pass tax cuts. Tax cuts are supposed to be the one thing they all agree on, an absolute slam-dunk of an issue for them. And yet…

Today The Week ran a piece aimed at bringing attention to an important new piece of political science research that studies what people mean when they express support for fake news and baseless rumors. Do people who say "I agree" to the statement, "Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim" believe it is literally true, or does expressing agreement simply reflect that they do not like Obama? Well, let's just say the results are not encouraging.

Enjoy.

OPERATION FEELGOOD

Posted in Rants on November 1st, 2017 by Ed

Lately I've been aging myself a lot. Or perhaps I just feel it more acutely because the odometer made another turn on Monday. But with classes full of students born between 1995-1999 it's amazing the things I find myself having to explain lately, like what "cable TV" means as opposed to traditional network TV. Give it another decade and the kids raised on streaming and on-demand won't even know the basics of how TV delivers content. Sunrise, sunset.

It has really increased my interest, though, in taking advantage of more opportunities coming my way to write about things that the current under-30 generation remembers only hazily or not at all. Since I was all of four or five when it happened, there is a huge swath of Americans out there who have never heard of the latest thing I'm trying to pitch: the 1983 invasion of Grenada.

Yes, the time that the United States invaded a pitifully small country explicitly to cheer itself up. Because our fee-fees were hurting from Vietnam. And since Reagan was president and "Woo! U-S-A #1!" passed for a policy white paper in those days, we didn't even try especially hard to make up a cover story for doing so. We settled on "They have a runway Soviet bombers could use" without mentioning that Canada and Britain built it for them, not Russia, and "There are some American students at a medical school campus there" without mentioning that they were in no danger whatsoever and, like the State Department routinely has to do, they could have simply been loaded onto a plane and evacuated if necessary.

Let's just say it wasn't a good cover story and leave it at that. The real reason was to give couch potato America something to cheer about. It was a sad spectacle. You have to squint pretty hard to look at the invasion and overthrow of a tiny island with a population the size of Joliet, IL and see a great military accomplishment. It was the equivalent of LeBron James playing one-on-one with a six year-old. But that didn't stop the Reagan administration for whooping a high-fiving like it was V-J Day or something. Nineteen Americans and around 100 Grenadian and Cuban personnel died. One military commander famously said American troops were at far greater risk of being shot by one another than by the opposition.

In hindsight it reads a bit like a preview of Trumpism. Politically the comparisons are thin; compared to the current mess, Reagan's administration looks like Churchill's war cabinet. But the core part of the electorate that so loved Reagan – the suburbanites and "Reagan Democrats" were that decade's version of "White Working Class" trope today – is the same part of our society that is responding so well to Trump. They were and are exactly the kind of people who would think starting a war to show everyone (read: mostly themselves) that America still kicks ass is a good idea. It's the kind of person to whom it would never occur that people dying (not to mention millions upon millions being spent) to provide what is essentially a national pep rally for impotent middle-aged white men who associate military power with self-esteem and virility may not be worth it. That beating up a country that didn't have an air force so that people butthurt about Vietnam could feel big and strong again was, well, pretty goddamned pathetic.

At the time it was kind of a blip. It was over almost as soon as it began. Looking back, it looks like a preview of everything that would prove to be a nightmare about 21st century American politics.