NOTHING TO NEGOTIATE

It is vanishingly rare in public life for a male and female figure to behave similarly and the man receives more criticism than the woman. The opposite is almost universally true. But in terms of the current bare majority in the Senate, Joe Manchin has been everyone's favorite whipping boy (deservedly so! he's terrible!) even though Krysten Sinema is arguably worse and at the very least as culpable as Manchin for preventing desperately needed structural reforms.

The recent in-depth interview with Sinema in which she reveals (tellingly) that her office in Tucson is unoccupied sheds a lot of light on one of the most confounding aspects of the obstructionist legacy she and Manchin are building. Any read, even a favorable one, of this interview makes it perfectly clear that this person could not give a shit about anyone or anything but her own career. Being a Senator is meaningless except inasmuch as it might give her a the right springboard into whatever lobbying job she's dying to get. This is a line on a resume. There's no signature policy she wants to enact, no legacy she wants to leave behind – this is the Millennial politics of the near future. Sincerity doesn't even need to be faked and the question "What's in this for me?" does not refer to one's odds of reelection.

This is the fundamental issue with Manchin, and apparently with Sinema as well: it is impossible to figure out what it is they want. If they wanted something then some kind of political deal would be possible. Recall some of their predecessors: Robert Byrd using his Senate seat as a cudgel for beating West Virginia pork out of his colleagues, or Carl Hayden openly boasting about trading his vote on Civil Rights legislation for Federally-funded Arizona water projects. With this current pair, it's unclear that handing them a blank check would accomplish anything. What do they want? What's their strategy? What are they hoping to gain from being the reluctant members of a bare-majority coalition?

The answer is nothing, and that is a big reason that they are so nearly impossible to deal with. They don't want anything except to play this character that they believe will pay off for them, personally, down the road. When Manchin is Governor or a mouthpiece of the coal industry and Sinema has taken her exhausting narcissism to the Chamber of Commerce or whatever, they'll look back on what they did as a success. The politics of Congress is predicated on the assumption that each individual member wants something that either benefits their constituents directly or increases the member's odds of reelection. In Manchin's case the latter is argued, although not entirely convincingly (would West Virginians really be furious if the minimum wage went up? Seems unlikely!) whereas Sinema doesn't even seem to care about getting re-elected. If they don't want anything, how can you negotiate with them?

Imagine a soccer team where two members aren't interested in scoring goals or winning the game; they're just hoping to get noticed to get lucrative jobs in something ancillary – broadcasting, modeling, coaching, acting, whatever. Not gonna win many games that way, are you? If you can't move them with "Hey, we can't win unless you do something" because winning isn't of interest to them, finding an alternative basis for negotiations is going to take some imagination.

SPOILED FOR CHOICE

The time draws near for the annual Lieberman Award winner, the world's foremost award for being the absolute worst human being in a calendar year. And while I could (and do) plausibly say this every year, looking at the past 12 months leaves me wondering where even to begin.

No, seriously. How do I even start to sort through all the bad things that happened this year and the people responsible for them.

It is too easy and too trite to simply do Trump every year. I am of the school of thought that Trump is a symptom of all that's wrong with our politics and our society, not a unique or aberrant manifestation of something that had to be forced on (at the very least) a large minority of Americans. To focus exclusively on Trump is to suggest – wrongly – that ridding ourselves of Trump solves the fundamental problem. It does not, and I think the actions of a lot of people over the past four years (and especially recently) demonstrate how much bigger than him our problem is.

Similarly, it seems a major stretch to give the award to anyone in opposition, no matter what mistakes or misjudgments they're responsible for. To say "Well the Democrats didn't do a very effective job of fighting Trump"…it may be true, but the structure of the sentence alone is enough to show where the real problem lies. Yeah, they need to get their heads out of their asses quickly and figure out how to prevent Trump or something worse than him from returning to power in 2024. But truly the worst people? Not in the running.

There's also a temptation to start casting around the media, since the elite end of that industry did such a comprehensively terrible job in 2020. It's as if they set out to prove how little they learned from 2016. However, a substantial part of the media was committed to providing accurate information about the pandemic; as low of a bar as that is, the non-right wing media certainly could have made things worse by indulging the kind of both-sidesism they bring to their political reporting. As for right-wing outlets like OANN or Fox, what's the point. They did nothing more or less than what they always do and what anyone could have expected them to do.

The strongest temptation is to point the finger at millions of Americans who refused to take the pandemic seriously for their own ignorant or selfish reasons, but I found myself pulling up at the last second. Yes, people are idiots. But there are people in this country whose job it is to keep this ship afloat notwithstanding how dumb people are. I believe that people were as dumb as they were permitted to be; you can't have state and local governments (to say nothing of the national) telling people "Be safe" while issuing mask "recommendations" and reopening bars and restaurants because nobody wanted to pony up to provide financial support to businesses or individuals. When basic public health precautions are "recommendations," you have left the door open for people to be idiots. When you permit bars and hotels and vacation resorts to be open and eventually full of idiots, the idiots did nothing more than what idiots could be expected to do. The more important question than "Why are these people so dumb?" is why we made it so incredibly easy for people to do the dumbest possible things throughout all of this. To call the signals governments sent during the pandemic "mixed" is an understatement.

So, ultimately that is where I ended up focusing, where my gaze kept falling over and over: on state and local elected officials, the people most directly responsible for the rules that dictated what would and would not take place, what individuals could and could not do. For better or worse, neither the president nor Congress has the power simply to order everyone to stay home, to open or close the schools, to let people go to bars, to require certain public health precautions. They blew it. You can point to examples of people who did a better job than most, or even a few who did legitimately well. But as a group, they failed miserably, torn between the desire to "be safe" and also to reopen everything as fast as humanly possible. They did what universities did – for financial reasons they brought undergraduates to campus under ridiculous – like, patently ridiculous – plans to prevent contagion and then when the plans that obviously were never going to work did not work they wagged their fingers and said "Gosh, you students blew it." No, the decision-makers who came up with such an abysmal plan that it relied on tens of thousands of 19 year olds behaving completely responsibly at all times blew it. Blaming individuals is easy and often makes people feel good. But it's misguided. The people who define the choices and the options available to people, they are where we should focus.

GOODBYE BROADSHEETS

Bob Woodward's decision to withhold audio tapes of Trump admitting he was lying about COVID was unethical, the latest example of a now-common practice used to sell books. People like John Bolton and Michael Cohen have to save some "surprise revelations" to keep people interested enough to pay for the book when the release date arrives. In that sense, the publishing industry as well as the individual authors bear some responsibility here.

An overlooked factor, though, is how little newspaper reporting of the style that was widespread during Woodward's (and Bernstein's) rise to fame during Watergate. The fact is that books are not now and never have been the appropriate venue for Breaking News. The publishing cycle, even for cynically churned-out crap like the Cohen/Bolton books, simply takes too long. Any information you collect is coming out in six to eight months at best, more likely a year-plus.

Woodward certainly is a person who has access to newspapers; WaPo or the Times or literally any newspaper that isn't a far-right tabloid would have taken this story at the time he learned about it. The problem runs deeper than Woodward and these tapes, though (which given what we have experienced with Trump for four years, may not have made the enormous difference you think). There simply isn't much investigative journalism happening anymore, the kind that kept people glued to newspapers Back in the Day. We are now similarly glued to the internet, but it is a substitute and not a replacement. The economic model of news delivery online provides very little space for stories that take a long time to develop and break. Investigative journalism hasn't disappeared entirely. There is, however, a lot less of it than there used to be. And less of it than we need.

THE TENSION

For research purposes I've been digging into a couple books about US labor in the 1970s. One thing that leaps out is how much of the disquiet – the grievances, the complaints, whatever you want to call it – among workers had to do with the incredible monotony and boredom of factory work. They had great deals, and seemed to know it, but the great victories of the labor movement in the 1950s created that "golden handcuff" dynamic where you hate the job but you really can't bring yourself to quit because it's just too lucrative. "Where else could I get paid nearly this well?" is a hard question to ignore.

There's a real tension, recognizing that the jobs are terrible but also that the deals (many) union workers had were sweet. That is highlighted all the more dramatically by the fact that the majority of those jobs are now gone, and I'm pretty sure every person who complained about the tedium of factory work would kill to have those jobs back now…or at least their kids and grandkids would kill to have jobs like that now, at compensation rates equivalent to what your average UAW assembly line person was getting back then.

God knows how much cultural product from the Seventies explores that theme – the man working the soulless factory job, dying on the inside, crushing his spirit. Movies, songs, books, you name it. Looking back on it I'm not sure how to feel. Having a job you dislike just seems like…having a job. As Carlin used to say, there's a club for people who hate their job; it's called everyone, and it meets daily at the bar.

I feel for their sense of how limiting, constricting, and repetitive their work was. I also get the sense that it never entered into the realm of possibility to many of them that such jobs could simply disappear. But, that's capitalism for you. People a generation later end up pining for the jobs the previous generation hated. Didn't we used to brag that each successive generation did better?

IT'S 2020 AND NONE OF THIS IS OK

By (actual, not pretend) popular demand on the Facebook group, I'm doing another run of the timely "None of this is OK" shirts. The front design remains unchanged (as pictured here) but the reverse text has been replaced with small sleeve text (ooh stylish!) for Mass for Shut-ins, the podcast to which I have devoted much energy and would like to better spread the word about.

Other details that remain unchanged: Navy blue Canvas (or BellaCanvas for Women's) shirts, Unisex/Men's in crewneck and Women's in V-neck. Canvas sizing chart available here. Sizes S – XXL in either Unisex or Women's. Contact me if you need 3XL – sometimes they are available, but often they aren't. Shoot me a message and I'll do my best. Be aware based on past feedback that Bella/Canvas Women's sizing runs small.

This is a pre-order and you will receive your shirts in early to mid July, depending on how busy the printer is. $20 (slight upcharge for XXL, sorry) plus $4 s/h in the USA, $14 s/h for all other countries. I'm sorry about that, but package shipping overseas (incl. Canada) has gotten incredibly expensive lately.

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WORLD OF LUCK

One of my key sources of ephemera, anecdotes, and useless information was my treasured subscription to the 1980s Time-Life book series, "Library of Curious and Unusual Facts." One slim volume of the series was called World of Luck, and contained nothing but stories about incredible coincidences – the kind of thing where someone finds a rusting pair of dog tags on a beach, tracks down the original owner, and discovers that they worked in the same office or whatever. There was plenty of Unsolved Mysteries / Ripley's Believe It or Not type stuff circulating during that era, but I really loved these books because the stories were true (and not in the "three witnesses confirmed the anal probing by aliens" sense).

I just witnessed a World of Luck moment up close.

A man in Oklahoma City bought a used copy of The Grapes of Wrath. He saw a name on the inside cover that matches Question Cathy's name (a last name neither super common nor entirely uncommon). It turns out that she gave the book away to Goodwill in Texas, it somehow ended up in Oklahoma, and it was purchased by one of her work acquaintances…who also happens to live two doors down from her (Question Cathy's) brother.

He contacted her via social media and was like, QC, I don't know how to say this without sounding crazy but I think I somehow have your high school copy of The Grapes of Wrath. It sounded like some kind of weird come-on and then…well, he did. He really did.

The world is really kind of strange sometimes.

BLOCKED

(Programming Note: new podcast episode available today, featuring an extremely interesting take on government responses to the current pandemic by an expert in emergency management)

Shelter-in-Place has coincided with my need to crank out a couple of sample chapters, ideally one introductory and one substantive, for the book I'm working on. The other people involved are suitably convinced that the idea is solid, and moving forward will require sampling the product, so to speak. With all this time and opportunity I'd love to report that I am making great progress, but.

There are two major obstacles I've come to understand with writing a nonfiction book, presuming one takes the first step of coming up with an appropriate topic. The first is research. There is always more research you could be doing. There is always one more book to read, one more article to find, one more archive to burrow into. Some people may find research difficult to do, but I find it more difficult to stop doing. There are too many Takes, too many ideas, too many directions in which a narrative or argument could go. Before you know it, the book that exists in your head is 2000 pages long and so thorough, so complicated that maybe five living people will have an interest in reading it.

I just described all academic books, for the record.

The second problem is anticipating criticism. I think I'm pretty good at looking at arguments and finding the flaws in them. But this includes my own arguments, and over time it is adding up to a kind of rhetorical paralysis. Not only does it make it hard to construct an argument without immediately backtracking to disassemble it, but it makes the entire task end up feeling kind of pointless. Everybody (whatever number of people that may be) is just going to rip the shit out of this anyway, so what's the point.

In the end, I try to focus on that last point and convince myself to plow through that inevitability if I can get paid to do it. Some days it works better than others. Today it wasn't very helpful.

MOVING SALE

I'm moving. In an effort to move the fewest boxes possible, I invite you to purchase my remaining inventory of Gin and Tacos flag/tacos t-shirts at a reduced price and with the added bonus of $1 shipping. I'd rather you enjoy them than to pack them up and drive them across the country.

These are six color crew-necks (unisex/men's as well as women's) from Canvas (Bella/Canvas women's). As many of you have noted, the women's Bella/Canvas run small so order up a size if you're unsure. Women's L is roughly the size of Men's M so it's not your imagination, they really are running small. Limited sizes available (see pull-down menu below).

Domestic/US only due to the $1 shipping. Given international shipping rates I'd be paying you to take these otherwise!


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THE SUM OF ALL HUMAN KNOWLEDGE

Writing a book has been slow going for me for a variety of reasons, but none is more prominent than the lack of access to a university library at the moment.

You think – we think – Google Books has digitized a vast amount of written material. And certainly they have. I'm sure the stats on what they have done would be staggering. When you need access to books that are outside of the most obvious 1% of written work, though, it goes dry very quickly. Academic work, older mainstream press books, less successful nonfiction books, books published in non-US publishing houses…it all becomes nearly impossible to find without having access to someone who can hand you a hard copy of it.

It mirrors most of the other functions of the internet in the way that it does an incredible job of providing the most commonly sought-after stuff for 99% of the population very well. You know, if you want the current top 40 songs every streaming service will gladly be like, ok here they are, but with ads. If you're looking for some album from 1951 though, or the latest non-mainstream releases, you're going to walk away frustrated.

Don't give up on libraries and hard copies just yet, folks.