Posted in Rants on December 31st, 2017 by Ed

(Editor's note: The Lieberman Award is given annually to the worst example of a human being over a twelve month period. Click the tag at the end of the post to review past winners.)

medalPicking the very worst person of 2017 is not unlike picking the worst aspect of flying on Spirit Airlines. It spoils us for choice and guarantees that whatever we decide will be deeply unsatisfying to large groups of people with very legitimate grievances. We are forced to play the game of "Who is the worst Nazi" both metaphorically and literally these days, and of course it inevitably ends with the tragicomic realization that the task itself is an exercise in futility.

So, one of my goals here was to avoid the bleedingly obvious and choose someone like Donald Trump (who, in an act bordering on prescience, I awarded the Lieberman back in 2015) or prominent right-wing / fascist media hacks. I came close to choosing Mike Cernovich after, among his many acts of idiocy as a wannabe white supremacist raconteur, he forged legal documents to make it look like one of Chuck Schumer's staffers accused him of sexual harassment. But this year was such a thrill ride down Fuck Everything Boulevard that such ephemera hardly register, lost almost immediately in the screaming miasma of awfulness.

Instead a late entrant to the competition – a Dark Horse of cliches and subconscious white supremacy – takes the coveted award for 2017: the mainstream media journalists who persist, more than a full year after the election, in doing Cletus Safaris. What is a Cletus Safari? It's one of those innumerable, insufferable, "Let's go to Rust Bucket, Ohio and interview the old racist white people who voted for Trump and see what they have to say now" pieces that every major news outlet feels obligated to churn out once per month. "Safari" is an appropriate term because it has every bit of the feel of a journalist venturing into the jungle looking for wild animals or naked Savages. The White Working Class (because editors insisted that some kind of tactful synonym for "Midwestern white trash" would make it sound professional and palatable) is fascinating to Beltway and NYC journalists in a sense that goes far beyond the political and lands firmly in the anthropological.

The allure of these pieces, I admit, is strong. They are click magnets. We all want to point and shout "Look!" when presented with the latest batch of stupid, racist quotes from people whose worldview is a sad amalgam of forwarded emails, Facebook comment sections, Fox News, Breitbart, and increasingly severe delirium tremens. We marvel and laugh – for what else do we have for joy these days except a good schadenfreude laugh? – at the rotund, mustachioed morons as they swear coal is coming back and assert that Trump works real hard while Obama spent all his time golfing and, most recently, think they're going to get a tax cut next year. We read these for the same reason that we watch shows about addiction, hoarding, or bed-bound 1000 pound people – because some part of all of us wants to gawk at freaks, and an even bigger part of us needs to remind itself "At least I'm not THAT fucked up!" when we're feeling down.

But the Cletus Safari is, if I can use an extremely polarizing but appropriate adjective, a deeply problematic piece of journalism. Scratch the surface and you see that while this certainly is an acceptable form of Nelson Muntzing dumb poor people (Since the subjects are inevitably white, white readers don't have to feel guilty for mocking them) it is also a severe distortion of reality that – surprise! – reinforces the perception that what is Real, what counts, and what is truly important is what White Country Folk think. They are, even to doubtlessly left-leaning journalists who write these pieces, the Real America.

The problems with that logic are almost too obvious. One is that almost nobody lives in rural areas anymore, and the kind of Rust Belt city ("city") that inevitably serves as the setting for a Cletus Safari – any fading pile of crap in upstate NY, central PA, Ohio, Michigan, or Wisconsin will do – is rapidly shrinking. And to the extent that the population of such places is stabilizing or even growing, it is because of the influx of largely Hispanic newcomers moving in. So not only are these old racist white people not representative of America as a whole, they're not even representative of, to take a recent Cletus Safari example, Johnstown, PA (which Hillary Clinton won).

The second problem is that it has long been widely recognized that these people are impervious to facts, and thus there are diminishing returns to pointing out that the things they say and believe are stupid and wrong. We get it.

Third, and most potentially damaging, is the way these pieces reinforce the idea that white opinion and white votes are more valuable. For every one old white asshole living in Janesville, WI waiting for Trump to give him a wall-building job, there are ten Hispanic immigrants from the last 30 years who gained US citizenship but doesn't regularly vote. There are x African-Americans disenfranchised from the political process by legal machinations or earned cynicism from years of Lip Service Only treatment from Democratic politicians. There are millions of young people who see a political process that has nothing to offer them but disappointment and thus they don't vote. The subconscious emphasis of the Cletus Safari – that white idiots must be Won Back somehow, no matter the cost – is the single biggest yoke around the neck of the American left. And we put it on ourselves.

Fourth and finally there is the obvious data-driven reality that Trump didn't win in mythical Trump Country – he won the election in the very white, generally well-off suburbs of major cities. Every Republican does well with the kind of Cletus we keep sticking in front of cameras and microphones if for no reason other than he is ordered to. The bubble in which he lives is carefully structured to produce the same outcome regardless of who has the R next to his name on the ballot. That person is gone, from the Democrats' perspective, and he is never coming back. More crucially – and this is the part they can't get through their heads – it is not worth it to try to get him back when there are so many eligible voters who do not vote because they see nothing for them in the centrist version of the Democratic Party.

A tangential but important point is the way these stories debase the idea of what journalism is ideally supposed to be. Rather than putting a microphone in front of the most well-informed person to be found, this is the culmination of LOL Reportage that looks for the dumbest person and gives him or her a platform. There is ample room for lolz and mockery in the world, and god knows I love it as much as anyone. But consider that what was once a staple of Jay Leno's laziest but consistently funniest on-the-street gag is now common practice for journalists at our most important mainstream media outlets. Not encouraging, is it?

If any piece of journalism purports to show "Real America" then it would show us a diverse array of viewpoints because Real America is diverse. Instead, journalists not only insist on going to places that no longer represent the mean or modal America – Shuttered Mill, WI or Superfund, PA or whatever – but on finding people who are not even "the average person" in those communities. No one denies that "Look at how stupid these old racist white Trumpers are" was funny the first time or two, but after two years of such anthropological studies enough is enough. At some point it stops being funny and begins to reinforce the idea that one kind of person is important, real, and valuable to the political process. That point was long ago reached, and that is why the writers and editors that continue to pump out Cletus Safaris are the very worst people for 2017.

Stop it. We get it. Now stop it. If you really cared about the voices of Real Americans, how about some who aren't white, almost always male, and running out the clock on their shit lives in the land that time forgot.



Posted in Quick Hits on December 30th, 2017 by Ed

Use the comments on this post to ask questions you'd like to have addressed in the upcoming podcast Mailbag / Ask Me Anything segment. It might be nice to give a name and location – "Bill from Texas" or whatever – but obviously providing personal information should be done with discretion and is not a prerequisite.

Alternatively, if for some reason you're really worried about anonymity you can ask a question through this plugin. Your question will be posted as a comment here and the author will be listed as "Someone."

[askmeanythingpeople placeholder="Anonymous does not mean private! Do not include personal information." avatar="retro"]


Posted in Rants on December 23rd, 2017 by Ed

In 1997, at the end of my first year of college, someone gave me a copy of Baffler #10, noted Matt Roth's still-outstanding article on the cult of Amway ("Dreams Incorporated") and said, "Read this."

I had previously read as a one-off – what male in the 1990s did not read it with So Cool glee – Steve Albini's "The Problem with Music" from Baffler #3. But the publication didn't register with me at the time. It was just a photocopied article by a guy who made it seem very appealing to be a dick. I was 14-15 or thereabouts. It wasn't a time where anything stuck.

But with that copy of Baffler #10, which I still have, I became an addict. I've been a subscriber (including their long hiatus period) since then, which it pains me to realize is 20 years. The day they re-emerged from hibernation in the wake of the financial crisis was one of the happiest of that time period for me. They're back! It's all gonna be ok!

I know a lot of people have strong and usually valid criticisms of the operation, especially in the Thomas Frank years. It is the journal of criticism without proposing solutions. It is, as a friend put it recently, the guy sitting in the corner pointing and laughing and feeling superior. It borders dangerously on Comic Book Guy territory on occasion. Some of you who have followed Gin and Tacos since 2002 or whatever might notice that these are the same criticisms one can (with justification) make about my writing. The influence on my approach to writing has not been subtle.

One thing that always kind of broke my heart, though, was that I could never get them to tell me I was good enough to be anything but a fanboy. I think the first time I submitted something was around 1999-2000. In the past year I've pitched 3 or 4 ideas they didn't take, some of which became very successful hits in other outlets. Part of me was never going to be satisfied until I got in there.

On Thursday, they published my piece on the long tradition of the Pentagon and White House trying to convince Americans that nuclear war really isn't so bad – it's survivable, we swear! – at times that coincide with American presidents who want to engage in belligerent, dick-waving foreign policy. Fallout shelters, for example, are a thing the White House only talks about when there's a president eager to ratchet up the arms race. The newest incarnation is missile defense – It's cool, we'll just shoot 'em down! – which explains why the piece is entitled, "It's a THAAD, THAAD, THAAD World", although that's a little inside baseball for most readers.

To anyone on the internet I know this is just another piece of Content, another thing flashing past on the social media feed that may or may not provide an interested reader with a few minutes of enjoyment. To me, though, this is a goal that I've had on simmer for two decades and I can't tell you what a great capstone to what turned out, ironically, to be a great year for me individually even though the country and the world are going solidly to shit.

I don't want to preempt my sappy end-of-year post too much, but I'm really thankful to all of you who have supported me whether for a day or a decade. It really would not be possible for me to achieve some of these writing-related goals without you. I'm a lucky sonofabitch.


Posted in Quick Hits on December 19th, 2017 by Ed

Two pieces went up at other places yesterday.

One is at The Nation where I look at the tax bill's social rather than economic goals. Basically it's a throwback to Gilded Age capitalism, without even any window-dressing to try to make it look like it's intended to help anyone who isn't already wealthy.

The second is at Rolling Stone and is a polished version of Monday's "Fizzle" post, looking at the risks for the Democratic Party moving into 2018. It has built up momentum and has maybe one more election cycle in which it can coast on anti-Trump hatred, but if they don't start working harder for the people who bust their asses to get Democrats elected they're going to have big problems thereafter.

I like this. I like what I'm doing. I have no idea how I'm going to avoid living outdoors given what writing pays, but. I like the way this feels.


Posted in Quick Hits on December 17th, 2017 by Ed

A piece at Rolling Stone went up late last week that required me to go through the Trump presidency day by day. The point was to demonstrate how many ridiculous things have happened that we've forgotten about because of all the OTHER ridiculous things that have happened. It was both kind of fun and kind of horrifying. It's not an experience many of us want to relive, but I tried to make sure the end result would be fun to read. What else can we do but laugh, right?


Posted in Rants on December 17th, 2017 by Ed

Political parties are not nearly as strong as many Americans, even some who are paid to observe the political process, realize. They cannot control the actions of every person who is elected to office under their banner. Hell, even party leadership in Congress can't really control their own caucus these days (certainly not like they used to). So as a preface to the following, realize that there is no centralized authority that can make this happen. It's a mindset that needs to be adopted, not a policy change that can be made.

There is little doubt that Democratic candidates are benefiting from the work of highly enthusiastic activists and supporters in the era of Trump. This is not entirely surprising; logically, if you can't get people fired up with the current status quo then you might as well throw in the towel and disband as a political party.

Unfortunately the Democratic Party has a long track record since 1980 of failing to deliver much of what its activist base wants. We get a lot of reaching across the aisle, bipartisan overtures, Triangulation, and incrementalism, but not much in the way of strong, forceful leadership on policy. And it's one of the major reasons it was so hard for Hillary Clinton, for example, to fire up turnout. Too many potential voters have picked up on the pattern of big promises and very minimal results. Obama half-delivered (the ACA is both a great political success and a half-assed attempt to cover everyone while still appeasing insurance companies) and it probably clinched his second term. Rightly (to her critics) or wrongly (to her supporters), Hillary Clinton was seen by too many people as the kind of New Democrat centrist who would get elected and not really push hard for anything progressive. Let's not argue whether or not that's true – at this point it doesn't matter. It's about the perception.

Some of it is unfair. The Democratic Party can indeed point to things it has done while in power. Some of it is fair, though. What do you expect LGBT people to think about your likelihood of fighting for them when it takes you 20 years in public life to come out and support gay marriage (once it is sufficiently popular)? What are black and hispanic voters going to think when the party speaks forcefully to them during elections and then…kinda tends to ignore things that they want thereafter? Misinformation doesn't help, but the perception is based at least somewhat on past experience. That is the first thing Democrats need to do a better job of: Stop making excuses (Russian bots! Fox News! Bernie Bros! Jill Stein!) even if those things really did hurt them in the past. Look at your own actions and ask sincerely, "How did WE fuck up? What can WE do better?"

This is a long way of saying that the wave of activism that pushed through recent Democratic successes is not likely to last long if the people elected revert to the old Let's Be Centrist ways. That's not someone coming from the outside and screwing the Democrats. That is a self-inflicted wound, pure and simple.

In Virginia, the newly-minted Democratic Governor gave a truly insane interview to the WaPo in which he claims that what voters really want is bipartisanship (at a time when the opposing party is not only totally uninterested in cooperating productively but is becoming a quasi-white nationalist movement pushing salted-Earth economic policies) and that he is worried about costs so he may not get behind Medicaid expansion. Medicaid expansion is, for the record, overwhelmingly popular in the general public and virtually unopposed among liberals.

You can excuse people who worked their asses off to push a very underwhelming Northam campaign over the finish line reading this and thinking, why did I bother? The obvious answer is that he's better than the Republican. This is undoubtedly true. But if Democrats haven't figured out yet that "This guy's an empty vessel, but the Republican is worse!" is not enough to fire up the people it needs to come out and vote for them, then they're never going to figure it out.

I don't mean to belabor the point or be unfair to Northam (who always was a moderate, so this isn't a turn for him) but just imagine how delusional you have to be as a politician to have lived through the last two years and think that the right response is to try harder to play nice with the right.

Doug Jones, for his part, started by stating that the sexual harassment claims against Donald Trump don't merit any more discussion. I get the whole "It's Alabama, he can't go full liberal on them" argument, and I understand it. But Donald Trump is as popular as the flu right now. Taking shots at Trump counts as kicking someone while they're down. Talk about a simple play – say "Yes, we need some answers on that" and you've committed to nothing but at least created the impression that you're serious about it – and Jones fumbled it. What is he trying to do? Signal that he's not interested in doing anything to irritate a deeply unpopular, failing demagogue of a president?

Parties are coalitions. Democrats rely very, very heavily on women, African-American and Hispanic voters, the young, and combinations thereof. And if you can't occasionally deliver for your key constituents – Republicans are flawless at this – then they are going to lose interest in working to get you elected. They won't turn on you and vote Republican necessarily; but they won't work their asses off for you when they expect that after the election you won't even pretend like you're serious about the things they care about.

The modern GOP, for all its awfulness, just understands governing and politics so much better than the Democratic Party that it's kind of embarrassing. Get elected, ram through some things that reward the people who got you elected, and then ask them to do it again next time by promising to deliver more. Try it sometime and you might be surprised how well it works, folks. Instead we get soft centrists telling us that if they act enough like Republicans they may win back some of the White Working Class. Oh boy!

It's too early to hit the panic button on any of the recently elected Democrats, but I know for absolute certain that "bipartisanship" is not what any voter wants. Voters want to win. They want to win elections and win something tangible in terms of policy as a result. Especially given the state of the contemporary GOP, nobody is going to be pleased by playing nice except David Brooks and Chuck Todd.

I don't advocate turning Democratic Primaries into purity tests, nor in intra-party squabbling throughout general elections. Objective one is absolutely: Get these bastards out. But that objective will be more difficult to accomplish the longer the party's office holders demur on taking off the gloves and showing a willingness to fight back. How can you expect the voters to fight hard for candidates who don't show a willingness to do the same?


Posted in Rants on December 13th, 2017 by Ed

The most significant failing of American foreign policy during the Cold War was the pervasive unwillingness to establish a limit to the value of anti-communism. There was no conception that the returns of anti-communist policy was, at some point, not worth the cost. That is why, to make a very long story short, the U.S. supported one vile dictatorship after another for four decades – choices that we are paying for in the most visceral terms to this day.

Among the worst regimes we supported (and suffice it to say the contenders for that title are many) was the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. It had it all – brutality, corruption, repression, and above all the cockiness to not even try to hide its crimes. If you were alive in 1983 you remember that Marcos had the opposition leader, Benigno Aquino, assassinated the moment he stepped off a plane at the country's major airport. Just walked up to him, shot him in the back of the head in the full view of anyone who cared to look, and walked away. That's ballsy. Your average dictator arrests him and does it in a dark jail cell. Only someone fully confident that nothing he does will ever have consequences would do it this way.

People were pretty horrified all around the world, and even the Pentagon started to get a little queasy about being associated with the regime. But – and I will never forget the first time I read this many years after it happened – Ronald Reagan made an admission in a press conference that was, if nothing else, startlingly and unusually honest. Referring to the two massive U.S. military facilities our country maintained with the blessing of Mr. Marcos – Subic Bay Naval Station and Clark Air Force Base, both cornerstones of the global reach of American military power into Asia – Reagan said, instead of defending Marcos's actions, "I can't think of anything more important than those bases."

And that was the problem. When literally nothing is more important than achieving your goal, you are inevitably going to do some pretty reprehensible things to achieve it. There has to be a line. A limit. Some point at which you say, OK, we are paying in prestige, dignity, and human decency more than the goal of presenting a strong military face to Global Communism is worth. Maybe we could put the bases somewhere else. Maybe we could stop backing this guy and find someone equally amenable but considerably less awful.

During the Cold War, that almost never happened. American policy under leaders of both parties and of different generations was, "No cost is too high if we can convince ourselves that it is fighting communism." And that is why it was, in so many ways, horrible policy. That is why we are embroiled in wars and conflicts that are, in direct and indirect ways, consequences of the repressive regimes we propped up.

I'm going somewhere with this. The history lesson is just a bonus.

It is trendy for people, myself certainly included, to feel hopeless about the future of American politics right now. It is equally trendy for commentators to predict "the beginning of the end" of the current group of people in power. Time will tell where that turning point truly is. But I believe that the decision made two weeks ago in the White House, in the Senate, and in the Republican National Committee to reverse course and endorse Roy Moore was a mistake that in the long run will turn out to be very significant for the right. By failing to make what was a very easy play – disown Moore and claim some sort of moral high ground – they signaled that literally nothing is more important to them than maintaining power. Nothing. There is no "bridge too far." And if you will support a pedophile if you think it will help you pass some legislation, then why should anyone believe that collaborating with a foreign power to influence an election is beyond possibility?

Why, for that matter, should anything be considered beyond possibility? Moore was insane and a borderline joke candidate even before the 14 year old girls stuff came out. He had a strong challenge in the primary. The national GOP was not happy about his candidacy. Rather than following through with what, in whatever they have that passes for a soul, they knew was the right thing to do, they instead convinced themselves that Triggering Libtards was a more important goal than basic human decency.

I'm not a huge fan of arguments based on moral authority. The argument that gay marriage is wrong because "it's immoral," for example, is sophomoric and unpersuasive. But if you have no line you're willing to draw based on morality, you will pay the price in the long run for the terrible decisions you make as a result. If you can't say what is beyond the pale for you or your party, it raises the very strong possibility that nothing is.

This should have been a slam dunk for the GOP. Disown the guy, throw him under the bus, and say "Look, one Senate seat that will be on the ballot again in 24 months is not worth embracing this piece of shit." Then boast about how you're willing to draw the line somewhere and bask in the rewards. Instead, they doubled down on a question that was already lingering from their decision to embrace Trump – what, if anything, won't these people do to get what they want?

History is littered with examples of what happens when the answer is "Nothing." Over time, none of them work out especially well.


Posted in Quick Hits on December 12th, 2017 by Ed

In many ways the Roy Moore phenomenon is a harsher indictment of all the things wrong with this society than Trump's victory 13 months ago. As many observers have said all along, Trump is only a symptom of what the GOP has done to embrace nationalist, racist, clannish right-wing populism and xenophobia since the 1980s (but accelerating sharply during the W years when "court the evangelicals at all cost" became party dogma).

Moore's campaign is also doing a lot to give the lie to the centrist mantra that there are Good People on all sides and we will overcome our differences with dialogue. As Charles Pierce (hi!) said after his attempt to take in Monday evening's Moore rally:

You grow exhausted from the effort it takes to keep mockery at bay long enough to explain that what Moore and Bannon are selling is a dangerous blend of religious extremism and McCarthyite bombast, Roy Cohn in Torquemada drag. You grow exhausted by the effort it takes, over and over again, to remind yourself that there are good people in the crowd cheering this river of sludge and nonsense.

Finally, you give up. Roy Moore is a vehicle for collecting suckers, for liberating them from their responsibility as citizens in a self-governing republic, and anybody who thinks this waterheaded theocrat belongs in the United States Senate is a dupe and a fool. Finally, you don’t care if the people behind Roy Moore, and the people in the crowd in front of him, believe you are a member of the coastal elite or an agent of Lucifer. Finally, you grow weary of the smug condescension of religious bigots. Finally, you decide to put down the twin burdens of excusing deliberate ignorance and respecting the opinions of people who want to light the world on fire to kill their imaginary enemies. And you give up and tell the truth.

These people deserve what they get.

tl;dr – At some point you have to recognize that these are adult human beings making a choice, not hapless Good People being "bamboozled" (that word is all the rage lately) into supporting a theocratic demagogue. It's exhausting and unnecessary. Eventually we have to call this what it is: a bunch of really shitty people getting exactly what they want.

In the long run, they will deserve every bit of what happens to them.


Posted in No Politics Friday on December 8th, 2017 by Ed

One of the 20th Century's most famous photos depicts Lyndon Johnson taking the Oath of Office on Air Force One after the assassination of JFK. The (now-former) First Lady is at his side, with blood on her clothes.

Most people don't notice that the person swearing him in is a woman. She remains the only woman to swear in a president. Her name is Sarah Hughes, and she was just the third woman ever appointed to the Federal courts when JFK appointed her in 1961. She began her career on the bench as a state district court judge in Texas in 1936 – 18 years before women were even allowed to sit on juries in Texas.

Also, note that anyone over 65 was alive at a time when some states didn't allow women on juries. Is America great again yet?


Posted in Quick Hits on December 5th, 2017 by Ed

In response to some big changes that will be taking place in the near future – more on those presently – I've yielded to the suggestions of "You should start a Patreon."

When I said I would podcast if I got 500 people to sign up I was 78% kidding. But it looks like the goal is…not exactly in sight, but plausible? I suppose that after many false starts and hesitation wounds, I may finally have to figure out how in the hell to make a podcast. But only under duress.