HOW TO HIDE AN EMPIRE

A new episode of Mass for Shut-ins is now available, featuring the very interesting Dr. Daniel Immerwahr talking about his new book, "How to Hide an Empire."

We talk about the many ways in which America has maintained (and still maintains) an empire through territorial occupation, a network of military bases fanned out across the globe, and domination of international standards. Tales of various Guano Islands Act (1856) possessions are told, and you don't want to miss them. Extended version of the interview available on Patreon.

Cocktail of the month: Suffering Bastard

Question Cathy returns with a special Patreon-only mailbag.

Please support Mass for Shut-ins, an independent and ad-free podcast, via Patreon.com/ginandtacos

Thanks: Dr. Immerwahr, all the bands that contribute music (Waxeater, IfIHadAHiFi, The Sump Pumps, Oscar Bait), Zachary Sielaff, Question Cathy, and all Patreon supporters, subscribers, and listeners.

IN THE AIR TONIGHT

On Sunday I attended a birthday party for a toddler. Don't panic; I was invited.

There are not many things a two-year old loves more than balloons, and the adults responsible for this event went hard in the balloon department. The child was thrilled, confronted with a veritable embarrassment of balloon options.

Some of the adults noticed, however, a trend that has been ramping up for a couple years – that helium balloons, once barely able to be restrained from breaking the surly bonds of gravity and rocketing skyward, are curiously lethargic these days. It's not just your memory making things from childhood more exciting. Buy a balloon in 2019 and there's an outstanding chance it has a watered-down mixture of helium with other non-buoyant gases because, as I quickly found myself addressing all of the adults who looked bored and alarmed at the childless man in their presence, the planet is running out of helium.

The global supply of helium is tight. All of the helium available in commercial quantities comes from one of three places – West Texas, one gas field in Qatar, and some reserves in Wyoming. For years the Texas supply was satisfying most of global demand. It is almost empty, though, and Qatar has been hit by some economic and political sanctions that have made its supply hard to get on the market as well. The result is that in the past two years the price of helium has gone – wait for it – sky high.

Helium can be manufactured, but it's expensive to do so. It can be extracted from natural gas, and Russia (which has natural gas aplenty, like the US) is proposing to start up production soon. All of this raises the interesting and not-obvious question of why anyone cares about helium.

True, much of it goes into balloons and is inhaled at parties for comedic effect. Those sort of novelty uses may disappear, though, because helium is also crucial to a lot of high-tech manufacturing. MRI machines are full of it and helium-filled assembly spaces are also crucial in the manufacture of semiconductors and other micro-electronics. It's certainly not the sexiest natural resource – and again, the fact that it can be manufactured probably eases some of the alarm – but it's one of many off-the-radar resources that are being strained these days.

It turns out that most of the cobalt on Earth is in the DR Congo, a politically unstable, corrupt, and poverty-stricken country. Smartphones require ready supplies of metals you haven't thought about since you learned the periodic table like tantalum (Rwanda, DRC) and praseodymium. China, Brazil, and Russia have 90% of global reserves of Rare Earth Metals, most of which are very difficult to mine and process without creating a lot of toxic byproducts. China is currently shitting up Inner Mongolia in its quest to mine and refine as many of these rare metals as possible.

We've become sort of numb to hearing alarming things about the planet and our natural resources. God knows there are enough really alarming things to worry about like running out of oil, potable water, and phosphorus (an essential agricultural additive we're on pace to exhaust by about 2070). There are 7 billion of us and counting, and in the distant future the story of the 21st Century is likely to be one of conflict stemming from increased competition for scarce resources.

TRUST US, WE'RE WARM BODIES

Credentialism is pretty gross. Then again, so is anointing anyone and everyone an expert – or even just a well-informed person with a valid opinion – simply because they're saying what you want to hear.

In the past couple weeks House Republicans have brought to testify before Congress, among others, Diamond & Silk, Gateway Pundit, and most recently, Candace Owens of Charlie Kirk's wet diaper of a pressure group TP USA. Owens achieved her greatest mainstream fame (which is to say, outside of right-wing social media circles) when she spent a minute defending Hitler on stage during a TPUSA event.

The most amusing thing about Kirk and Owens is that both are college dropouts. Kirk barely even went to college before quitting, while Owens couldn't handle the intense academic rigors of University of Rhode Island. Yet not only are they the right's great spokespeople for what's happening On Campus these days (hint: exactly what old white Fox News addicts suspect! Cultural Marxism! Silencing important conservative voices!) but here we have Owens literally testifying to Congress about important historical events.

The lack of credentials does not preclude one from having an important and useful intellectual contribution to make, nor does the presence of a credential – I have a goddamn Ph.D., to cite one useful example – mean that one is correct or has useful intellectual contributions to make. I could do 100,000 words on books and articles that are not just good, interesting reads but advance our understanding of the world in important ways, all written by people with no particular credentials. Useful knowledge about history can be and often is provided by people who aren't Official Historians with a degree and a job title to prove it.

The fundamental problem with people like Owens, and the right's infatuation with them, is not that they lack college degrees or other credentials; it is that Owens has absolutely no goddamn idea what she's talking about. At all. She gets the most basic facts wrong. Her arguments do not make logical sense even if considered in a vacuum. Her basic strategy is to define a concept incorrectly and then apply the incorrect definition to historical facts that are misrepresented. Like everything the right wing "Expert" machine churns out, everything she says and writes is utterly without redeeming value. It's entertainment for old white people. It is to informative non-fiction writing what Fox News is to journalism; being correct isn't even the point.

You might say, with some justification, "Who the hell is Candace Owens and who gives a shit." It is dangerous to underrate, though, just how important the redefinition of expertise is to modern conservatism. A "historian" is whoever is repeating the interpretation of history that you would prefer to believe is true. And they use the egalitarian impulse – Hey, does someone need a fancy-pants Ph.D. in order to be correct? – to great advantage. That is a very useful red herring, because of course the answer is No. No degree is needed to state facts correctly or offer a valid interpretation of history. But that rhetorical trick overlooks the fact that the speaker, Owens in this instance, is completely wrong about everything. She is not wrong because she didn't finish college – she is wrong because everything she says and believes is wrong.

"Credentialism is Elitism" is a useful defense for the right because 99.9% of us have no special expertise or credential to speak on any given topic. That's not wrong. It's also entirely beside the point. History can be written by the Person Off the Street, and it has been. But that's a far cry from saying that it can be written by anyone and everyone. Go find a goddamn library and write something that isn't completely incorrect and based on fallacious, bad-faith arguments and no one will even feel the need to ask if the author went to college.

SEPARATION ANXIETY

I've got about a month left of being a professor. Right now one of the major conferences in my field is taking place a few miles from my house and I'm not participating in it. And the really weird thing is that I feel fine about it.

That sounds like a person trying to convince himself, I bet. But it isn't. It took a long time to get here, trust me, but I feel as ready to walk away as I think I'm capable of being. Reflexively I've always described my professional problem as one of geography; I like what I do, but not where I have to do it. And that is still true. There are Ideal jobs out there that I would take in a heartbeat, were I remotely capable of getting them (I'm not, which I've always been clear with myself about).

But lately I look through academic job ads and it just…doesn't do anything for me. Because the hard truth is that the modal academic job is a really bad job. The pay sucks. The teaching is likely to be miserable – students who either don't care, lack high school-level skills, or both. The locations are often bad. It's hard to participate in the profession in any meaningful way from such positions, given the overwhelming emphasis in academia on institutional prestige. Simply put, I've gotten half-way through a couple of job applications and said, what the fuck am I doing this for? Why do I want this obviously shitty job?

The truth is that I don't. And for the past fifteen years I've never felt that way. I used to think, it's not perfect but at least it's an academic job, and even a bad academic job is better than most jobs. That kind of thinking gets most of us at some point. We devote a lot of our lives to pursuing and getting an academic job, so it's very difficult to walk away. But honestly, how much is it worth giving up in other areas of your life just to be able to call yourself Professor? That thrill wears off pretty quickly; if you're wasting your entire life in Turkey Bone, Arkansas just to have that title you're going to have a lot of regrets when you're 70.

In a lot of ways I'm remarkably fortunate; I don't have kids, I don't have a spouse depending on me for economic support, and I don't have any complications beyond my own indecision to deal with when making this choice. I'm lucky to even have the opportunity to walk away without anyone getting hurt.

I still find political science incredibly interesting. I'm not going to stop paying attention to it. But it has become abundantly clear to me that I'm not good enough at it to get a career in the field that I would be happy with. There are, fortunately, other things I am good at. Legitimately good. Including some things that even the most successful academics are not good at. So, I'm going to try to make a living doing those things instead. It might not work. If it doesn't, so be it. I'll be happier having tried compared to sticking with a job I don't particularly like just because it's safer and more stable. Things might get rough for a while, or forever. Who knows. Regardless, I can keep myself fed, clothed, and living indoors. I can achieve at least that much; maybe even slightly more.

But anyway. The finish line is finally in sight, and honestly I'm not as maudlin or terrified as I thought I would be. I feel a great deal of relief, and a genuine interest in seeing what comes next.

WORKIN' IT

The announcement that bland Ohioan Tim Ryan is going to throw his hat into the ring for the Democratic nomination are infuriating for reasons that have little to do with Ryan himself. Like 99.9% of people outside the area he represents in Congress, I don't have any reason to like or dislike him right now. But I'm leaning toward the latter based on some of the language he and the people reporting on his announcement are using to describe why such a non-entity thinks he can be competitive in this election.

Do a quick twitter search for "Tim Ryan working class" and you'll see how many headlines and reports (from actual journalists, not just random users) run with the talking point his campaign people obviously wanted to push: Tim Ryan is the guy who can win the Working Class in the Midwest.

In this kind of usage, "working class" is a euphemism for white. Otherwise it makes no sense, since the demographics of the "working class" in the United States is nothing like what it is across rural, deep-red Ohio and Indiana. I understand the dilemma here, since neither the media nor the candidate can straight-up say "Well I'm gonna run because I think I can appeal to more white people." On the surface I suppose that's not much different than other things candidates say out loud like, "I think ____ can appeal to Latino voters" or whatever. But the issue here is that "Working Class" as a euphemism for white is employing a phrase that has an actual meaning. "Working class" is a thing that, although competing definitions exist, has a definition. If you feel like a euphemism is needed, pick something that isn't already serving a purpose to describe a real demographic.

Also, with no malice in my heart I'm gonna go out on a limb and predict Congressman Ryan is the first candidate to quit. I just don't see the point of this beyond its redundant appeal to supporters of candidates like Beto, Klobuchar, Biden, and Gillibrand.

NPF: FULL CIRCLE

I've been meaning for quite a while to write about a strange experience I had in August of 2018. It will be kind of hard to explain, which is one of the reasons my heels have dragged.

I was raised by a Boomer dad whose father fought extensively in the European theater of WWII. Like most males of that generation, his childhood was a steady stream of WWII-related pop culture output and history. Accordingly, when I was very young in the early 1980s our house had among its bookshelves an ample supply of those kinds of "Jane's Fighting Aircraft of the World" and "Atlas of WWII Battlefields in Germany" type books that one always found lying on the Discount table at Crown Books / Waldenbooks / B. Dalton Bookseller / a bunch of other book retailers I've forgotten that used to be everywhere but since went bankrupt.

As a devoted enthusiast of G.I. Joe action figures (and of course the cartoon) by about age six, I spent many evenings thumbing the pages of those books. One thing that is hard to communicate is the sense of ~*~mystery~*~ that surrounded everything about the Eastern Bloc before 1989. Photos of Russian aircraft were always grainy and highly surreptitious in tone. Information was always qualified as "allegedly" or "reportedly." It was all very cloak-and-dagger and I fucking loved it. What, after all, was G.I. Joe vs COBRA but the Cold War in animated form for kids.

Of all the things that captured my attention, nothing amazed me quite as much as a little-known airfield in Yugoslavia (now in Bosnia) called Zeljava. One of these encyclopedia-style books wrote a short piece on it, in hushed tones of danger, including a single photo:

Zeljava Air Base was – imagine being six in 1985 and learning this fact – cut into the side of a mountain. The planes would wait safely under the bulk of an enormous mountain while the nuclear warheads fell and then emerge (from a PLANE-SHAPED HOLE IN THE MOUNTAIN) to do air battle with Tom Cruise in an F-16. That was the most James Bond, COBRA, Secret Agent Man thing I had ever heard. I asked my dad repeatedly to confirm that it was real, and not just a story. The picture looked real. It was real. Whenever I saw a book from this genre in a bookstore, the first thing I did was flip to the index to see if it contained any information about this mysterious spot. Many did, and included this, its most widely-circulated photo. Look at how grainy it is! Like it was taken IN SECRET by a real SPY.

I just could not get enough of it. It was, at that point in my life, the coolest thing in the world.

Fast forward several decades. Last summer, at age 39, Question Cathy and I were on vacation in the Czech Republic. After a few days of castles and beer and museums, I tentatively brought up the prospect of using our rental car to take a drive down unpaved, remote Bosnian roads to an unmarked and now abandoned Yugoslav Air Force Base. Since she is always indulgent of this type of thing on my part, she agreed. A few hours later, thanks in no small part to the miracle of Google Maps, I took this picture:

That's me, standing in front of the airplane-shaped hole in the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere in Bosnia.

Also present that day were a cop ("Remember the Dumb American routine I taught you, tell them we thought this was a mall and we got lost!") who was chatting with a friend, obviously looking for an out of the way place to stash himself so as to avoid working, and a pair of young men using the 2500m runway to do quarter-mile tests with their very obviously prized Skoda Fabia. Nobody appeared to care in the least that we were all at what, as of 1980, must have been one of the most secretive and restricted places on the continent.

It was, and is, difficult for me to explain what it felt like to close that loop. Think of the changes that have taken place to the world we live in between the time this was built (at an enormous cost its society probably could ill afford) until today, when the investment has been declared superfluous, abandoned by the MiG-21s of a country called Yugoslavia and left to young men racing their hatchbacks in a place called Bosnia.

It goes without saying that plenty changed for me between the ages of 5-7 and 39. I can't say I thought about the air base in the side of a mountain every day, obviously, but it was a thing I never quite forgot due to how completely it fascinated me when I was very young. There's no way 1985 Ed would have believed, looking at the grainy picture, that he'd be able to visit it someday, nor can Present (now 40) Ed fully appreciate that, for all the things he has failed badly at in life, he has also done some pretty cool shit that a vast majority of people will never get an opportunity to do.

Anyway. It was a good trip.

SOLIDARITY

On this date in 1981, 12 million Polish adults were at home rather than at their workplace at 8 AM. They stayed at home until the noon, when they returned to work. The 12 million represented nearly the entire Polish workforce outside of the military or the state party apparatus. It was, in essence, every adult in the country who was not directly part of the ruling clique.

English-language historians call this the Warning Strike – a short blast across the bow – while in Poland it's better known as the Bydgoszcz strike. It came in response to what was euphemistically called the "Bydgoszcz events" in which numerous prominent Solidarity labor union leaders were detained and brutally beaten by secret police. The state, as was customary in the Eastern Bloc, clumsily tried to explain away the incidents by claiming that the labor leaders had been in car accidents, had fallen down stairs, or had beaten one another up while drunk.

The state-sanctioned Polish United Workers Party (PZPR) agreed to meet with Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa in response to public unrest after the "events," and apparently the government concluded that Walesa and his informal union talked a good game but lacked the will or the ability to carry out any sort of large-scale labor action. Within two days – 48 hours – of that meeting, Walesa's group organized and carried out the nationwide four-hour stoppage.

Think about that. Imagine organizing something across the entirety of Poland – not a small piece of land – in 1981 with no mass communication at your disposal. No twitter. No radio stations. Unreliable East German phone service. More remarkable, imagine getting 12 million people to go on strike together. A British journalist in Poland called it, "the most impressive democratic mass mobilization of any modern European society in peacetime, against its rulers' wishes."

Imagine having that kind of solidarity. Imagine the state brutally beating a handful of your fellow citizens and, with hardly any prompting, every adult in the country sending a message by walking out of work together. Think about what they accomplished compared to the situation the U.S. (and Poland, for that matter) finds itself in today.

Instead of telling the government, "Enough, we're not gonna sit back and accept this," half of us cheer them on. We make excuses, blame the victims, and let the police know how eager we are to see more of our neighbors beaten for speaking out. The other half of us may be more sympathetic but we're too terrified of being fired, or even just missing a couple hours of wages, to dream of doing anything as daring as…taking a morning off.

It's really sad to think of how effective it is, and has been, for a population to be united and speak with one voice given how impossible it seems to do that today. We know it's effective; we can see how well it has worked in the past. We just can't do it. Imagine all the problems in this society we could address, if only.

TURNING POINT

I've written sparingly about the Russia stuff. As I expected – and this is not a novel thought, as many other smarter people were issuing the same warning – there was no Great Big Reveal in the Mueller Report.

I know why you're disappointed: you're disappointed because you wanted to have faith in The System and believe that The System would work. But the system doesn't work; it never has and it certainly isn't going to start now.

Over time the Russiagate crowd really started to rub me the wrong way, and my sniping at them got more caustic and frequent (as many of you noticed, sometimes approvingly and sometimes not). It's not that there's any part of me that believes Donald Trump's campaign didn't do anything wrong. It was the clear drift toward conspiracy theory thinking and language. I started calling it Liberal QAnon at one point and while that's an exaggeration – nobody is as insane as QAnon people – it's uncomfortably close even if the two are not identical.

Robert Mueller was latched onto as a savior by a lot of the same people who very deeply wanted to believe that Hillary Clinton didn't lose the 2016 election, because if that belief could be maintained then there is no need for any kind of self-reflection about what might have led to Hillary Clinton losing the 2016 election. You could see this kind of mental gymnastics on MSNBC most prominently, where every show that isn't Chris Hayes sort of veered into full-time Russia speculation.

"Hey, maybe we got fucked by the Electoral College, what can we do to prevent that in 2020?" or "I dunno, maybe the campaign did some things wrong, what were they so we don't do them again?" are two lines of thought that could have been productive but, if not entirely avoided, have certainly been sidetracked in favor of Russia conspiracy theories and other ways of casting blame for what happened on anyone BUT the candidate. It was Russia, or if not Russia it was Comey, or if not Comey it was Bernie Bros, or if not Bernie Bros it was blah blah blah.

This feels like a good turning point. The Democratic candidates in 2018 barely talked about Russia – and many of them did extremely well. The idea that anyone was going to be running on The Mueller Report in 2020 is a figment of the Sunday pundit imagination. But the pedestrian ending of the Mueller investigation – yes, it resulted in a lot of indictments and uncovered a lot of evidence of crimes, but the final report doesn't seem to have added to what we learned slowly over the past two years – is an excellent opportunity for a clean break. Stop thinking about Russia. Stop talking about Russia. Russia tried to fuck with our election. They will try again in 2020. Russia wants a destabilized U.S. because that suits its foreign policy and economic ambitions. None of this is new and nothing has changed.

But seizing upon Russia as the focus of what's going on in politics right now, and more importantly as a catch-all explanation for what happened in 2016, simply isn't productive. This went from an intriguing story to something of an obsession with a minority of liberals, and 2018 candidates were right to ignore them and focus on things that will help them win elections. Health care available to everyone. Increasing wages. Oversight of the Executive Branch. Weaning the country off fossil fuels in the long run.

These things are all popular. Let's rally around that instead of "Trump is a criminal." Talking about Don Jr.'s meetings with the Russians at Trump Tower is not of interest to anyone outside a narrow circle right now. If it isn't obvious yet that Trump is going to suffer no legal or political consequences at all from his wrongdoing and that neither life nor our system are fair, I don't know what it's going to take to convince you of that. If your reaction to the Mueller news is, "Well just wait til the SDNY prosecutors start going!" or "Russia must have compromised Mueller" or anything other than "OK, this fits the well established pattern of Republicans and Donald Trump doing whatever the fuck they want and getting away with it," you need to take a deep breath and reconsider.

As I've said from the beginning, the only thing short of the 2020 election that could bring down Donald Trump is the Republicans in Congress deciding that he was a threat to their survival and throwing him under the bus. They have instead decided that electorally it is to their benefit to cover for him. So be it. No amount of evidence can change that. And it's hard to imagine who in the voting public remains on the fence about this. By now you're either one of the 42% of people who love and support Trump no matter what, or you hate him. Nobody's really changing their mind three years into this.

It's disappointing to see behind the curtain and realize how goddamn unfair everything is, including and perhaps especially criminal justice. Yeah, rich white right-wing assholes can get away with pretty much anything. Nobody who supports Donald Trump gives half a shit if he committed a felony or a thousand felonies. He could behead their children and these people would cheer him for it. Nothing Robert Mueller said or could say was going to change those basic facts about our political landscape.

So my advice is to do what many of us did at some point throughout this lengthy process: stop thinking about it. Assume nothing is ever going to come of it, and be pleasantly surprised if anyone is ever held to account for their crimes. It would have been nice to have some big reveal at the end, Robert Mueller's unassailable conclusion (complete with video evidence) of Trump doing X, Y, and Z with the wrong people. But it wasn't realistic to expect that. To continue to hope for it in the future goes beyond unrealistic and tiptoes uncomfortably close to an obsession.

In short, everything sucks, nothing is fair, and rich, shady assholes get away with being rich, shady assholes. These things apply to Donald Trump because they apply broadly to our society. I don't like it, but at 40 I am used to it.

DEPLATFORMING

Beneath the layers of apologia from the tech bros in charge of these companies, not to mention the hand-wringing over a red herring version of Free Speech, remember that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media platforms managed to get rid of ISIS and most Islamic extremist groups very easily. They can get rid of white supremacists and far-right content, too. They just don't want to. I'll let you decide whether it's because they're sympathetic or because it would cut into their revenue too deeply.

Deplatforming works. It forces these people into the dark underbelly of the internet where people have to actively seek them out. And people will. White supremacists will go find the other white supremacists even if they're banned from Facebook. The point is to prevent them from being able to spread their messages to people who aren't already white supremacists. Normal kids using Twitter or watching YouTube videos or whatever.

If it doesn't work, why are these sites so militant about keeping al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups off the sites? If we need a "free exchange of all viewpoints" then let them back on YouTube. If not, then admit that we're picking and choosing because we don't perceive white supremacy as terrorism.

THE BIG LIE

The college admissions process will never be meritocratic. There's just too many variables, too many incentives for universities to do things for the wrong reason, and too much disagreement about what even constitutes "merit" or "fairness" for anything approaching either term to exist.

What's worse is that academia will respond to this bad publicity the only way it is capable of responding to anything: with more administration. The second I saw this news story I could picture the Associate Dean of Application Decision Review being hired at five times a faculty salary, the Merit Consultants whipping together a website and business cards, and the creaking sound of yet another layer of institutional bullshit being dropped atop the basic academic mission of a university (which seems to keep receding further into the background). Faculty committees to review applications. Faculty committees to review the committee reviewing the applications. More "metrics." More paperwork. More compliance officers. All of it.

That's what will happen, because trying to quantify and enforce a quantitative approach to "fair" enrollment decisions is like trying to hold a puddle of mercury. You just can't do it. Every student's family situation is different. Some of these kids went to high schools that are better than a lot of colleges; some went to high schools where they turn the lights off two days per week because they're so broke. Standardized testing is the most consistent measure available but it's easy to boost performance by throwing money at it – tutors, prep classes, practice tests, and the like. Then add in all the various goals universities are trying to accomplish – well-rounded students who participate in the community, in sports, in non-classroom intellectual activity, and most of all a diverse student body that isn't just a bunch of white kids from the suburbs – and it's just futile to adjudge "merit" like it's some objective thing.

A better solution might be to stop telling students constantly that academia, or life in general for that matter, is a meritocracy. Yes kids, having balls-rich parents or being exceptionally well connected are big advantages. People who have those advantages get things us normals will not get. The whole idea of anything in this fundamentally unequal society is a meritocracy is so silly that students should never be taught such a thing in the first place. Life isn't fair. College admissions are not, college is not, the job market after college is not, your future workplace will not be, the economy is not, and on and on.

I'm not saying it isn't worth it to strive toward fairness and equality, but given the systems in place in this country we are so ludicrously far from either that we're flat-out lying to kids by telling them anything is either fair or equal. There is nothing wrong with telling kids, yes, some kids get into Harvard because their parents went there. Or because they donated $2.5 million. Some day you will work for a boss who has her job because the company is owned by her dad. Some day you will apply for a job and not get it because you're not buddies with the hiring manager.

Basically, why not treat this the same as the criminal justice system and just do away with the pretense that any aspect of it is blind, fair, or meritocratic? Even in the unlikely event that the problems with inequality in these processes is fixed, it certainly won't be happening anytime soon. Aren't we getting tired of pretending?