WHY DO WE LIVE LIKE THIS

Posted in Rants on February 14th, 2018 by Ed

Last year I put in a good amount of work on a book project, which I ended up tossing aside after trying in vain to get a literary agent to take me on. Yes, that's how good it was, I guess. A couple responded and told me, with kindness and regret, that books about politics have to come from Somebody, and I am a Nobody. I understand the logic, and it certainly explains why every sixth-tier cable news personality has his or her own terrible book on the shelves.

My goal was to trace out a unified theory of how we got here – a road map of how the United States progressed from a flawed but fairly normal nation to the open-air asylum we live in today. One of the major points was that we – and I use that term pointedly here, as I mean people like myself who are white, educated, and comparatively affluent – have been far too willing to be bought off and throw others under the bus in exchange for tangible economic benefits. We voted repeatedly for people who were and are obviously terrible because, well, just look at this tax cut. Look at that low interest rate. Look at how cheap these electronics are. We as a nation didn't make that choice consciously in most cases, but it was made nonetheless.

We convinced ourselves to ignore all the red flags that we were voting for people with a twisted, militaristic, might-makes-right worldview who, in addition to giving us cheap toys and tax cuts, intended to do some pretty horrible things to the more vulnerable in society. Among the many negative consequences has been the extreme NRA view of the 2nd Amendment codified in American life.

Large majorities of Americans support higher levels of "gun control" than are currently reflected by our laws. Because in exchange for some things we liked, we voted time and again for some people whose views on the 2nd Amendment were extreme at best and insane at worst. The issue just wasn't important. Guns were something "those people" shot each other with in places we no longer needed to go, having abandoned cities for suburbs in the 1970s. Gun violence was the stuff of crime statistics to be flashed on the local News at Nine round-up of how many young black and Hispanic people got gunned down each day.

Now the gun violence has come for the people who voted to let it happen but managed to avoid the consequences, at least for a while. Now the office shootings, random killing sprees, suburban school shoot-ups, and firearm suicide / accident rates have millions of normal, relatively prosperous Minivan Moms and Lawnmower Dads asking, "Gee why is this happening so often?" One of two reactions follows: Either they buy into the fallacy that guns will keep them safe and assemble a private arsenal, or they look at the practically nonexistent restrictions on gun ownership in some areas and struggle to grasp how elected officials could justify it. Can you REALLY get a gun before you're legally allowed to rent a car? Can non-citizens in some states buy a gun on the internet and pick it up 24 hours later, no questions asked?

Yes. They can, because for years the consequences of those policies happened somewhere else. Some cities turned into war zones, but we simply noted where the problems were worst and avoided those areas. Maybe we fell for "Three Strikes" and mandatory minimum sentencing tough-talk from pasty politicians desperate to look "tough on crime." But what we did not do, for the most part, was go about our daily lives wondering if we would get shot. That was a fate many Americans have had to live with for a long time, but it is only recently becoming the reality for the (politically crucial) white, suburban, fairly affluent voting bloc.

Eruptions of gun violence, especially in schools, are now like the backgrounds in old Hanna-Barbera cartoons – and endless loop of the same images that, watched long enough, cease to be noticed. You see them, but nothing registers. We let this happen because we didn't think it was important as long as it only affected others – others who, you know, kinda deserved it anyway because they were lazy and on welfare and on drugs and selling drugs and probably black or foreign or…you get the picture. It was the kind of people we felt safe seeing on the nightly Homicide Round-up. We felt safe because seeing the underclass of disposables gunned down was exactly what we expected to see. It wasn't shocking.

Now it is shocking and the victims are not Reagan's "Strapping Black Bucks" but elementary school kids and co-workers and concert-goers and all the kinds of people we don't expect to see gunned down on the regular. Yet here we are. We do not have to live this way; it is a direct result of choices we made. But the only thing that has changed recently is that now we are all players in a game that many of the neglected and ignored people in our society have been playing for a long time. The fundamental cause is no different now, simply because we get to experience up close what was once safely distant: we elected, and continued to elect, people with insane, willfully inaccurate, and morally bankrupt views on the 2nd Amendment. We are too easily bought off, and so long as we are willing to vote for these people "even though I don't like his position on guns" we will continue to live like this even though we do not have to.

NEW DISCOVERIES

Posted in Rants on February 12th, 2018 by Ed

There are bad narratives in the media, and then there's this:

That's the headline on Damian Paletta's Washington Post piece on Monday, and until I read how bad the piece is I was willing to cut him a little slack on the headline (which often is written by someone else). The amount of credulity it requires to write in 2018 about the "longtime Republican goal of eliminating (the) deficit" can scarcely be conceptualized. I know the writer probably thinks he took a nice dig at the GOP here – Look, they've flip-flopped on deficits! What hypocrites! – but it is flat out misleading even to play along with the narrative that they ever, at any point, gave a shit about the deficit. You don't even need to pay attention very closely to politics to understand that the deficit grows every single year and the GOP differentiates itself only by talking about how they want to reduce it.

They talk about it so much that some percentage of the public must believe that under GOP control the deficit goes down. Your Man in the Street can hardly be blamed for believing it, given how often he has heard it. Reporters for major media outlets certainly have to know better.

The deficit and debt are and have always been nothing but a stalking horse for eliminating things Republicans don't like from the budget. The budget and deficit grow every year like clockwork, even (and perhaps especially, given the cost of the 00s wars) under GOP control. If any meaningful difference between the parties exists on that point, it is that they prefer to spend money on slightly different things. One wants to spend a lot on the military and the other wants to spend a shit-lot on the military. Differences like that.

Deficit hawks are a mysterious bird, appearing only at certain times like when the president is black and then migrating to calmer islands when there's a Republican in the White House.

PERSISTENT FAITH IN THE EMPTY GESTURE

Posted in Rants on February 11th, 2018 by Ed

Last week we saw the apotheosis of everything that is wrong with the approach of the current incarnation of the Democratic Party. Greisa Martinez Rosas sums it up on CNN:

Nancy Pelosi spoke in Congress for eight hours straight about immigrant youth. She shared our stories and called for passage of the Dream Act.

Yet, while she was speaking, Democratic and Republican party leaders were writing a budget deal that would leave protections for immigrant youth out in exchange for dollars on other projects. Our lives — and the moral compass of this country — are in real danger and yet Congress is playing games with both. Speeches, empty promises and crocodile tears will not protect me or my sisters from deportation agents.

I recall in the middle of that spectacle – perhaps four hours into her speech – seeing all of the reliable outlets of the Democratic status quo at maximum fawn. What a powerful speech! And I thought, you know, this is gonna end up looking mighty silly unless it is the prelude to announcing a deal. Then the overwhelmingly cynical part of me that remembers everything Democratic leadership in Congress has done since 2000 crushed me like a piano falling on Wil E. Coyote: this speech is what we're getting instead of a deal.

It isn't a negotiating tool or a way to bring attention to an accomplishment that is about to become official. This is it. The gesture is the substance.

This is politics as an Aaron Sorkin fever dream, the misguided belief that if you give a pretty enough speech and if the Hashtag Resistance of older, better off, centrist Democrats gushes over it enough then maybe Hispanics won't realize that an issue that is very, very, very important to them was once again used as a bargaining chip by the Democratic leadership.

Admittedly, of course, the Democrats are not negotiating from a position of great strength here. But neither are they powerless. In an election year, the GOP has a very small majority in the Senate and is facing pressure on an anti-immigrant stance that is resoundingly unpopular outside of the rabid Trump base. The leadership has, for the past two decades, looks congenitally programmed to throw concessions at the GOP at a moment's notice.

As Will Stancil notes ("Democrats' 'Resistance' to Trump Is Eroding, and So Are Their Poll Numbers") the Democrats can point to some short-term, low visibility 'wins' like getting CHIP funded and avoiding a government shutdown. But in doing so they are bringing back to the surface their fundamental shortcoming: they are so obsessed with showing everyone how Reasonable they can be that they are now normalizing the most abnormal, divisive, and unpopular president in modern times. Rather than digging in their heels for once and saying, "No, fuck this fascist" they held out for maybe 9 months and now are right back to "Let's cut the best deal we can" mode.

It's the Vichy France mentality. There is no point at which they consider the long-term consequences or have a mentality that some things are simply too vile and corrosive to sit down and bargain with. Everything, under the congressional Democrats ancient, white leadership, becomes a matter of deciding that there's no way you can really win so why not just cut the best deal possible and declare anything short of the worst outcome a win.

Lately I've been seeing more clearly one of the underlying problems with the Left, Liberals, Progressives, Democrats, or whatever blanket term you prefer for people who are not conservatives: they are, to varying degrees, unbelievable quick to explain to you why something will not work. People who argue that this strategy of accommodation and deal-cutting is the best one are among the most likely to explain to people farther to the left why taking a firm, no-compromise stand on an ideologically left point is not going to work (Conversely, the farther left are just as quick to lecture the centrists on why deal-cutting is defeat in disguise).

And my question increasingly is, when was the last time anyone tried? How do you know it won't work? Maybe give it a try once and see what happens? I bet your precious poll numbers will benefit, if not your campaign donations. I can't think of the last time the Democrats really took one of the no-compromises, Fuck You stands that the contemporary GOP takes all the time to keep its base white-hot and ready to turn out in droves.

Why not try saying "Fuck the budget deal, if you're not ready to keep these immigrants in the U.S. there's nothing to discuss"? Instead, time and again, they throw the interests of some part of their base (usually people of color, shockingly) onto the table as a bargaining chip and then wonder why those same people are so unenthusiastic about showing up to vote when November rolls around. I'd argue that "Some things are too important to compromise, and the Dream Act is one of them" is a superior, or at least equally good, piece of campaign rhetoric to "We punted on the Dream Act but we got a budget deal, avoiding a government shutdown – AND Nancy Pelosi gave one hell of a speech for ya!"

Stop reverting immediately to "It won't work" and devote more time to asking yourself when was the last time anyone tried it. The beaten, defeatist mentality – the kind that has terrified the Democrats into submission, especially on taxes – always seeks to cut a deal rather than fight. Because fighting won't work, because The Opponent is too powerful, too scary, too obviously bound to win. Folding with concessions is so central to the way the Democrats operate in Congress now that the GOP takes things off the table that are not even relevant to the current debate just to watch them "negotiate" to get it back.

I'm tired of hearing that something that hasn't been tried for decades won't work. Especially given how poorly the alternative strategy employed time and time again – being the kind of Serious Reasonable People that win applause on Sunday TV shows and literally nowhere else – has proven so unsuccessful. It's not like the Party is on some hot streak that one should hesitate to interrupt. Just for shits and giggles, maybe try the thing you forever insist will not work, just once.

THE NARRATIVE FUTURE

Posted in Rants on February 8th, 2018 by Ed

You're reading a website with the subheading, "Dopamine's Only Natural Predator." So by choosing to be here you implicitly accept a certain level of bleakness. I'm conscious of the fact that people don't like to feel hopeless all the time, however, and I try to keep the content from becoming too dark accordingly. Fortunately there is always something to laugh about, even if it's the kind of laugh you make from stubbing your toe on the steps up the gallows.

Two stories that have simmered for the past year intersected yesterday, one of which is getting long-overdue mainstream media attention for the first time.

One is a thing I threw at you back in September – the emergence of this new editing technology that allows the creation, without expensive equipment or expertise, of very realistic looking fake videos. Examples abound on YouTube; Radiolab did an episode on this last summer; now the New York Times is noticing. Right now the tech is still imperfect. If you watch some of the examples available online they still look subtly "fake." It's hard to explain exactly why, but you'll be able to tell something isn't right. But give this, like any tech, five more years to improve and you're going to see videos all but indistinguishable from reality. Think, as an analogy, of the first fully-CGI characters in movies back in the 2000s compared to today. Once the gap between legit video and these edited concoctions is closed, it will be game over for any remaining hope of having one consensus reality. Any real video can be discredited as fake, and any fake video can be accepted as real.

The second item was this belated and shockingly casual admission that Russian hackers accessed voter rolls and voting systems in "a small number" of states in 2016. Now, before you go running for the deep end, it appears highly unlikely that the outcome of the election was affected in any way. That's not the problem. The problem is the final leg of legitimacy beneath our elections is being undermined on the record. As we all suspected, voting systems are not entirely secure (nothing is, obviously) and now the government has admitted that, yes, hackers have tunneled under the castle wall. I think we all kind of knew that. Now we know it.

This is a crucial step in all semi-authoritarian states – the delegitimization of election results. A good autocrat doesn't rig elections so much as he convinces the public that elections as a whole are not legitimate. Everyone's cheating! Who can say who really won?! Every election gets "disputed" and the outcome has to be determined by the state's unelected institutions – the courts, the bureaucracy, and, eventually, the military. As much as it seems like Trumpers would push back against a "Russia hacked the elections" story, this actually serves the long term goal very effectively. Undermine everything, then the power reverts to the status quo. Whoever is already in the driver's seat has a real advantage over everyone else who wants to get in it.

That's the agenda here, to undermine absolutely everything, even previously sacred cows like law enforcement. This is the strategy of denialists writ large. Climate change denialists, for example, don't want to convince anyone that climate change is fake; they want to convince people that no one really knows if climate change is real or fake. There's a "debate." A "controversy." Then the average person who doesn't know their ass from a mine shaft and who doesn't much care one way or the other can shrug and say "Well I guess nobody really knows." And once nobody can say for certain, everyone is free to choose whichever version of the narrative they prefer.

That is why the future is so dark right now – it's a future that looks eerily similar to Putin's Russia where reality is whatever you choose to think it is, nobody can really know anything for certain, and all information is subjective. Add in a burgeoning ability to generate fake images nearly indistinguishable from reality and it starts to look downright reasonable to conclude that we are well and truly fucked.

SIGNIFYING NOTHING

Posted in Rants on February 7th, 2018 by Ed

This week the website for a group calling itself "United States of Care" came seemingly from nowhere to the front and center of social media, at least for people in the "You're not a Trump fan" algorithm. Very Serious People are lining up to applaud its Very Serious Approach to "getting the politics out of healthcare" (what?) and solving this problem once and for all.

A couple things here.

First, the website is absolute word salad. If anyone can figure out what this group stands for you are either a genius or drawing unwarranted conclusions from this mess of boardroomese, buzzwords, Third Way talking points, and frenetic website layout. This may be a record for the most words ever used to say absolutely nothing.

Second, the fact that it didn't exist a week ago and now it's literally everywhere on the internet is a big red flag. There is some very substantial money behind this thing to afford that kind of saturation exposure that ensures that every single journalist, freelancer, blogger, and social media "I like politics" person sees it in 48 hours. That's a marketing budget in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Believe me: I've been pitched these "Get everyone important to see your site!" services and I have at least a general idea of what it costs.

Third, the first two points make perfect sense if you do ten seconds of research into who's behind this thing. If that isn't raising some red flags, you might want to do some googling. Bill Frist, former Republican Senate Majority leader and multimillionaire owner of a chain of hospitals across the South, might not be as interested in "taking the politics out of health care" as the pretty banner makes it seem. Jim Douglas is a fixture on the McCain-esque "Reasonable Republican" circuit. Steve Beshear is one of those conservative Democrats you get when you need to say you have A Democrat but Zell Miller is busy. Dave Durenberger is another retired Republican from the Senate.

If this doesn't turn out to be an Astroturf group for the insurance industry I'll eat my hat. It's brilliantly marketed, the exact kind of thing that looks and sounds GREAT as long as you don't think about it or do any research into what the group is. It's so vague that any viewer can project anything onto the group's mission and goals, and the whole "Let's be Serious, we're Very Serious People, let's meet in the middle" shtick plays extremely well with aging centrist types and people with very low information about politics.

It's hard to draw firm conclusions from anything this intentionally ambiguous, but I'm confident putting my money on the idea that Bill Frist is not genuinely concerned about the little guy's access to health care.

THE ENEMY OF MY FRIEND

Posted in Rants on February 4th, 2018 by Ed

Throwing the FBI under the bus – Amusingly, without any reference to the fact that during the election the FBI *twice* made public statements about investigating one campaign while granting the Senate Majority Leader's request to keep secret that the other campaign was also under investigation, and for something far worse – is nothing new for the American "conservative." While going after law enforcement may be a step further than they usually go (That subjective point is not worth trying to resolve, for what it's worth) it's just the latest in a trend that began decades ago when conservatism in the U.S. branched off from any meaningful historical definition of the term.

Watching the 1980 GOP convention with bemused horror, British conservative Henry Fairlie observed:

Just as Americans in general do not have the habits of deference, so the conservative in American does not have them either. Ultimately he does not defer even to the country's institutions. If one of these institutions, such as the Supreme Court, makes decisions he detests, he will defame that institution. He is as ready as is the common man to bypass the institutions he ought to defend (…)

Ungoverned and unfree and so in the end ungovernable; this is exactly what Ortega foretold in the coming of the common man; and it is what the conservative in America seems to have no resource to resist. No traditions to which to appeal; no habit of deference to authority; no patience with the bridle of institutions.

Europe shudders today, not so much at the three men who have merged this year as candidates, as at the political illiteracy of the popular voice which has chosen them, the American they most fear. The politicians will come and go, and do less good ad harm than is supposed, but what of the people who chose them?

The America which Europe fears is the America of the Reaganites. The America once of the Scopes trial; the America of prohibition; the America of ignorant isolationism. The America then of "better dead than red"; the America of McCarthyism; the America of the last fundamentalists of the 1950s. The America now of the new evangelicals; the America of the Moral Majority; the America of a now ignorant interventionism; the America which can see homosexuals as a conspiracy; feminists as a conspiracy; perhaps even women as a conspiracy. The America of fear. For it is fear that the ungoverned and the unfree are doomed to live. And there was this America in control at Detroit.

It is time that we reminded ourselves, and said aloud and more often, that it is from these people that nastiness comes. It is time that we pointed out to the neo-conservatives that democracy has never been subverted from the left but always from the right. No democracy has fallen to communism, without an army; many democracies have fallen to fascism, from within.

The whole intellectual tradition of conservatism is rooted in defending the institutions of society. Those institutions will be imperfect and will produce outcomes you are likely to find inconvenient, unpleasant, or misguided at times. Yet the consequences of sowing distrust in these institutions are far too great to contemplate and certainly dwarf the short-term pain of, say, losing an election or enduring an unfavorable Supreme Court decision. Compare, for example, the chaos caused by the belief that everything the media reports is a lie to the consequences of one incorrect news report, subsequently corrected.

At some point the people who call themselves conservatives in the United States decided that absorbing short-term losses of any kind was unacceptable and the better strategy moving forward was to set everything on fire and reconstruct reality to their own preferences. I think that point was the rise to power within the House of Newt Gingrich, but as Fairlie suggests the seed was already germinating long previously.

The strategy has, for the most part, worked. That is why the problems we face as a society today seem so insurmountable. There is no one and nothing that cannot be undermined and discredited for short-term gain: the media, the courts, elections, Congress, the White House, public opinion itself, and even law enforcement (to which right-wing obsequiousness is legendary) can readily be thrown under the bus and shit upon. And institutions are being redefined as "trustworthy, but only when We control them" leads nowhere good. It is a paradigm shift that is likely to define politics in this country for the foreseeable future, and cause for the most primal kind of pessimism.

I'm not saying "Don't try," but instead that the kinds of things many people seem to believe will solve our current problems – electing some Democrats to the House, defeating Trump in 2020, etc. – are more likely to be incremental benefits. They will help, but are only one small step toward undoing the damage done in the first two decades of this century. I fully expect that in 2050 we will still be working to fix this mess, and struggling to control the historical narrative surrounding it to a new generation of 20-somethings who will live in a half-nutty world that seems utterly normal to them.