I Just… I Can’t With This Shit

Trump Putin

Yesterday, President Trump besmirched America. He was weak. He took Russia’s side instead of the side of our vaunted intelligence agencies. It was unprecented, remarkable, a day which will live in infamy. It was.. I dunno, someone toss me a Churchill quote. Yeah, it was that. Definitely a big deal.

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which the media and political establishment’s language towards Russia has changed over the last year and a half. Vladimir Putin has been de facto leader of Russia for the majority of my lifetime, but only in the last couple of years has everyone decided at once that he is an urgent threat, an Enemy Who Must Be Dealt With. It’s so interesting to me how quickly the worm can turn, how much our military and intelligence agencies are still able to create and drive a narrative, and how quickly someone can become a supervillain once we decide that they should be judged as such.

Let me ask you this: to the extent that Russia (a land mass) can behave in certain ways, what exactly has changed about that behavior in recent years? Vladmir Putin has been been an asshole for as long as he’s been in charge of Russia. I actually pay attention to this shit, and I happen to remember the devastation that they unleashed on Chechnya in the early 2000s. I happen to remember when they invaded Georgia in 2008 and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.  Back then, we treated these events like we treat any global atrocity – we wagged our finger, told them to knock it off, and then went to bed.

Has Russia’s behavior changed over the last few years? Is their aggression in Crimea and Ukraine vastly different than the carnage they unleashed on Chechnya and Georgia? Does their involvement in Syria and their disregard for civilian casualties differ that much from our own? Maybe. But I can’t see the degree to which the change justifies our change in posture, our change in language. Because in the last year, we have adopted the language of war. The language of treason and sedition. The language of good vs. evil. And it’s genuinely frightening to me how quickly the American people accept these new narratives, which have the real potential to drive our politics for the foreseeable future at the expense of everything else, at the expense of things that actually matter.

What’s really missing from all of this is a sense of scale. Of all of the myriad of scandals of the Trump Administration, of all of their disgusting misdeeds, this is the only thing that our political culture is capable of funneling our energy towards. People in Flint still don’t have clean water. More than 2,500 migrant parents have still not been reunited with their children, and possibly never will be. Hundreds of thousands of people could die from starvation and disease in Yemen because of a war that our military is actively boosting. Republicans are ushering in a 20+ year Supreme Court reign that will likely overturn Roe Vs. Wade and successfully squash out any legislation that is remotely progressive, even if our sclerotic legislature could actually pass anything in that vein. In the midst of an economic recovery, real wages are literally declining. Health insurance “markets” are crumbling, as they are rapidly regressing to the pre-Obamacare norm, which is to say that more and more people are suffering at the hands of a machine that is literally designed to profit off of that suffering.

Despite all of that, nothing tickles the pickle of the American imagination like a foreign espionage scandal. The tone of media coverage over the past few days has been straight-up manic – like little kids on Christmas morning. It’s a sick conglomeration of our comic-book addled minds and our for-profit media landscape. So many people want to be part of something larger than themselves, a battle between good and evil, the decisive conflict of our times. And since the war on terror has run its course (Did we win? Does anyone give a fuck?), America wants for nothing more than a foreign menace stalking us at all times, hiding under our beds, hacking our very democracy.

Nothing good will come of this. And I don’t just say that as a devoted peacenik, which I proudly am. I mean, how can anyone have experienced the run-up to the Iraq War and not see the similarities here? Like, we’re just gonna anoint a new enemy and everyone’s gonna be cool with it? We’re all going to accept that as our new reality? We’re just going to repeat the words “Russian interference in our election” until we experience another war aneurysm? Do we really have to fucking do this?

Russia is a country that we will never defeat militarily. We will never occupy them. We will never force them into a more democratic government. We will never deliver the smackdown of Vladimir Putin that will cause him to retreat into a pool of his own tears and resign as Russian Premier. What we WILL do is…. well, everything we’ve always done since the end of the Second World War – those things that we do best when we are dealing with foreign menaces:  We’ll engage in aerial bombardment of supposed client states, killing countless numbers of civilians and sending their civilian infrastructure back into the stone age. We’ll overthrow governments. Literally hundreds of thousands of people will die. Oh, and at the tail end of the probability curve, there’s always the possibility of a nuclear fucking holocaust.

And if you think that the Trump Administration won’t sign up for this shit when push comes to shove, boy howdy you’ve got some surprises coming your way.

There’s Politics in Everything

This came up on my Facebook feed recently, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot:

InkedFiscal Reform_LI.jpg

The think tank that my Facebook friend quotes above is called “The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.” If you peruse their webpage, you’ll find reams of policy papers about the necessity of cutting Social Security benefits, but nary a word about the regressive nature of the taxes which fund those benefits, which fall disproportionately on low and middle-income people. Not coincidentally, you’ll also find out that their board is made up almost entirely of former congresspeople who are now working in the banking and finance industry, no doubt pulling in millions of dollars a year. For these people, the most clear and present danger in American society is the possibility that the government may someday decide to actually meet its obligations by raising their taxes to ensure that everyone else has the basic standard of living that our country can clearly afford to provide them.

That stuff is all par for the course, I suppose. But here’s what really gets to me: He claims here that Social Security and Medicare are not  “partisan issues.” Millions of people depend on these programs every day for their literal survival, but this person’s advice – and the advice of the think tank who he’s quoting –  is that these programs need removed from the realm of politics. People need to put aside their petty needs like “putting food on the table” and “paying for cancer treatment” and trust that people in Washington know what’s best for them. It’s not about politics, they say. It’s about making tough choices and voting against your own interests. It’s about doing what’s best for the country. It’s about trusting your betters.

Social Security and Medicare are the most popular social programs ever instituted in this country’s history, full stop. Cutting benefits to these programs is vastly unpopular, which is why they have managed to survive for so long in their current form. The only people who support these kinds of draconian cuts are those who have no stake in the outcome – those who can rest assured that their Social Security check will only be a small percentage of their post-retirement income. These people make up a very small percentage of the American public and have vastly different interests than everyone else, so of COURSE they will tell you that cutting your benefits is not a partisan issue. Of COURSE they’ll tell you that these reforms are “common sense.” Because if they admit that people’s very lives and well-being are in the realm of politics, they’d have to admit that they are on the wrong side and are destined to lose.

In 2012, as part of my graduate program, I went to Washington DC with a group of classmates to learn about the process of making public policy. We visited the Brookings Institute, we met with Democratic and Republican representatives from Oregon, and went to a couple of different lobbying firms. To a person, they ALL talked about the necessity of cutting these social programs – the consensus was bipartisan and overwhelming. These policy discussions have been meticulously channeled into a limited number of possible actions by think tanks who are funded by the very people who benefit from keeping the parameters of that discussion the same. And that manages to filter down to professional-minded people who are interested in being Very Serious, who furrow their brow and talk about the necessity of being balanced, who think that the extreme right and the extreme left are somehow the same thing, who think that the most important thing you can do in politics is to avoid upsetting anyone. And up until this point these people have had a pretty clear hold on the politics of the Democratic party. You can judge the results for yourselves.

Here’s the deal – if you believe that the role of elected officials is to somehow make decisions that are deeply unpopular amongst the vast majority of Americans, but have been deemed “the right thing to do” by a small number of people who have been secluded in the literally delusional centers of power of DC politics for the majority of their lives – than you’re not a progressive. You’re not even a centrist. You’re a monarchist. It is fundamentally conservative to think that people need to put aside their personal wants and needs when they vote and take the word of the people who are already at the top. It is fundamentally antidemocratic to believe that people don’t know what’s best for them when every poll ever conducted on these programs shows that people don’t want their benefits to be cut and actually support raising taxes on the wealthy. It’s fundamentally elitist to believe that everyone needs to follow the advice of the people who are already in power.

On the other hand, if you believe that the role of government is to improve people’s lives, than it should be obvious to you that there is politics in everything. If you believe that the purpose of politics is to advance the interests of the people who do the voting, than you understand that “common sense” dictates that the government should be working to advance the interests of those very people. You have to be able to see that these interests are diametrically opposed to those of the people who are already at the top.

We are in the midst of a class war, and politics is literally the only weapon we have at our disposal. The primary goal of the 1% has been to convince the rest of us to lay that weapon down. They want us to believe that they have our interests in mind, that the budget deficit is somehow more important than putting food on the table or your ability to access health care when you need it. These people are actively work to dismantle every possible guarantee we have of a basic standard of living, and have been doing so for the duration of my lifetime. And they’ve made obscene amounts of money while all of this has been happening.

They are not to be trusted.

They are not listening to you.

They are not on your side.

You have to start advocating for your own interests. You have to start voting for people who do the same.

Smoke and Ruin

Oddly enough, I feel it in my stomach first. It’s the feeling that I’ve swallowed mouthfuls of ash, and those mouthfuls have collected into a giant clump of black tar in my digestive system. Eventually, my eyes burn and it hurts to breathe. Outside, the light is pale, subdued, tinted yellow. Even noises are muffled – the sound of your own footsteps might struggle to make it to your ears. Everything is dim, contained. At night, the moon turns blood red, and you could be forgiven for thinking that it feels like the end of the world.

When I was a kid, I used to hear stories about the Yellowstone Park fires of 1988. I have vague memories of being able to see the smoke in Billings, but it’s hard for me to know if those memories are real or not. What I do know is that people talked about that fire as if it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Smoke making it all the way to Billings was rare, and in the 15 years that ensued, I never once experienced the feeling of having forest fire smoke invade the place that I live.

In 2004, things started to change. By that time, I was living in Missoula, and for much of that summer the valley was shrouded in smoke, and it hurt my lungs to run. At the time it seemed like a unique event, but every summer after that seemed to involve a similar event – at least one fire whose smoke hung over the valley for a week or so. Before I knew it summer smoke became a feature, not a bug – and during that time the same became true of my hometown of Billings.  

In late 2008, I moved to Portland, and summers went back to normal. I never experienced summertime smoke from forest fires for my first six years living here. The first time it showed up – three summers ago – it was treated as a unique event. Of course, it’s happened every summer since, to the extent that we’ve become accustomed to it. And today – as we are watching some of our most iconic landmarks get engulfed in flames – it feels even more stark. It feels unique.  Will we grow accustomed to this as well?

I’m now able to track many of the important changes in my life to the fires that were raging and the smoke that I was breathing in when they happened. After almost six years of working at the Albertson’s at Eastgate Plaza in Missoula,  I spent the majority of my final night shift in the loading area behind the store, sitting by the river. It was July 10th, 2008, and Mount Sentinel was literally burning across the river from me. Watching the fire creep up the mountain was completely mesmerizing. So it was that my shift from difficult low-wage labor to some vestige of an easier, more “educated” lifestyle was marked by fire. 

Last summer, Laura and I spent the last days of our honeymoon north of Fairbanks, and we were awakened on our last morning by the intense smell of smoke and an unsettling uncertainty as to where the fire that was causing it was coming from. So it was that our transition into married life was marked by fire.

This morning was Simon’s first day of daycare – and after we brushed all of the ash off of the car, we drove him east, towards the fire, leaving a wake of gray dust behind us.  And when we dropped him off and headed back west, I was keenly aware that we were leaving him closer to the fire than we were.  And though the fire posed no risk to structures within city limits, I couldn’t help but feel that we were putting him in harm’s way.  It was deeply irrational but unsettling nonetheless.  This will be another indelible memory that is added to the collection – a series of events in my life that have been punctuated by the destruction of the world around me. It’s shocking, disheartening, oppressive. So it was that our transition into parenthood has been marked by fire.

One of my inaugural acts as an adult in my early 20s was driving to Portland from Missoula for the first time.  When we pulled over in Cascade Locks, I was overwhelmed by how green everything was – it felt like I was in a tropical rainforest. I still feel that every time I go there. My favorite trail runs since I moved here have been on Eagle Creek trail and the trails that wind behind Multnomah Falls towards Larch Mountain. My best hiking memories with my closest friends are all in that area. It’s all burning now. Will we mourn it, or will we just get used to it?

It’s all starting to blend together. It’s all starting to become commonplace. The debate in Portland over the next couple of weeks will be over the appropriate use of fireworks by individial actors, because we are absolutely incapable of grasping the larger global event that we are witness to. You can see already that the outrage generated by this fire will be misdirected.  The actions of these individual kids will be scrutinized endlessly, the location of their parents at the time of their actions will be speculated upon by an anxious public looking for a place to direct their outrage. “Kids these days,” people will say, ignoring the objective reality that it’s the “adults these days” who have allowed this global catastrophe to take place in front of our eyes.

There’s a reason that our ire will be directed at the actions of these individual kids. Our broken political and economic system is collapsing and we have two political parties who are fundamentally committed to maintaining the status quo. And while we are in desperate need of a radical change of direction, there is absolutely no collective will to make that change happen. That’s why the only collective action that we’ll likely be able to muster out of this tragedy will be the institution of a harsher carcereal punishment for future kids who do stupid things. Our focus on them will allow us to continue to ignore the rot that exist at the very core of our system. It will allow us to continue to ignore our own complicity in allowing this broken system to continue.

None of the solutions that are coming down the pike will do anything to address the central problem that caused these fires. There will be genuine outrage, but it will be funneled into the only acceptable practice that our system allows- punching down instead of up. Bashing “kids these days” instead of the political and economic system that is allowing climate change to happen. Slamming the actions of these 15-year old peons while our leaders and the 1% that they serve continue to feed their insatiable lust for wealth accumulation on the backs of the people whose labor they are stealing, at the expense of the planet they are destroying.

The fire is coming our way, and it’s moving much faster than we think. Yet here we are, dropping our children off in its path. We’re driving away from the fire and leaving them behind. No matter what anyone tells you, WE are responsible for what happens to them.  Not some dumb kids with fireworks.  Not some thoughtless parents whose location we can’t determine.  It’s us.

This Doesn’t End Well

President Obama, for all of his many failings, was good at one thing:  he regularly refused to get caught up in the politics of the moment.  Whether it was the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the multiple mass shootings that happened under his watch, or the continually deteriorating events in Syria, he always resisted the immediate calls for him to do something.  This remained true at the end of his presidency, when liberals were demanding that he do something about alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, and were ultimately furious when he demurred.  This was a key element of his leadership style, as he said in a 2016 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg:

“I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.”

So now we’re six months into the Trump administration.  Gone is the Democratic party leader who urged caution as the Breaking News chyrons urged the opposite.  Gone is the veneer of a Democratic Party that is grounded in reality – the “big kids in the room” who care about policy outcomes and rely on charts, graphs, and experts to advance a vision of a technocratic utopia.  Instead, what we are left with is a party succumbs to the politics of the moment at every twist in the news cycle.  Instead we are left with a party that refuses to accept a shred of responsibility for the outcome of the last election, placing blame solely on a foreign government.  Instead we are left with a party that, when faced with overwhelming evidence that they need to make wholesale changes, has steadfastly refused to do so.  We are left with a party suffering from mass delusions.

The big story of the last six months has been Russian “meddling” in our election.  From all appearances, this meddling amounted to a propaganda campaign, using information that was stolen from the DNC.  There’s no indication that vote tallies were changed or that the propaganda campaign had any discernible affect on the outcome of the election.  Still, with each piece of breaking news related to this story, the hysteria is palpable.  It’s now the norm for all of us to hear the reaction to breaking news before we bother to understand what the news actually is, coloring how we perceive that news.  Everyone is convinced that there is something huge underneath all of it, but no one can tell you exactly what that thing is.  It’s exactly the “hype-fest” that President Obama referred to – we are being driven by an urgent need to respond to crises before we even know what those crises are.

So how are Democrats responding to this new landscape? Well, exactly as you’d expect:

Former DNC Chair: Russian Election Hacking An ‘Act of War’

Democrats step up calls that Russian hack was act of war

Cory Booker: ‘The Russians Are Attacking our Democracy and they will come again’

Tim Kaine: Trump Jr. may have committed treason

Begala:  We Should ‘Debate Whether We Should Blow Up’ Russia

So after all of the failures of 2016, the Democrats – our supposed left-wing party – have settled on a new party platform:  Cold War 2.0.  And it’s not as if this doesn’t have any short term political value – it clearly does.  By painting the current president as illegitimate, they help ensure that he can’t accomplish much in the short term.  And there’s good news on that front:  This president and congress are deeply unpopular, as are literally every policy that they’ve proposed.  Their poll numbers are dropping and the prospect of a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in 2018 has become very real.

In the long term, however, Democrats clearly have a messaging problem.  We already have a party that plays the “America First” card to great success.  We already have a party that wraps itself in the flag and accuses the other side of being in league with the enemy.  We already have a party that is, by and large, interested in renewing Cold War-level hostilities with the Russians (See McCain, John).  And the thing about Republicans is that they’re good at that shit.  It works for them.  When Democrats do it – think Dukakis riding a tank or John Kerry “reporting for duty” in 2004 – it looks stupid.  And for a party that struggled in 2016 to tell the American people why the fuck anyone should vote for them, you’d think that they’d be interested in finding ways to differentiate themselves from their opponents.  Instead, they’ve chosen to embrace the language of the national security state.  Instead, they’ve chosen a pernicious form of flag-waving nationalism as a sort of placeholder for any actual policy that could effect positive change in the lives of Americans.  Instead, they’ve decided to double down on their 2016 message of “you’re doing just fine, and we’ve got the charts and graphs to prove it” with the important caveat that a vote against them is a vote for Vladimir Putin.

By embracing the language of the national security state, Democrats are making a choice.  And where do you think that takes us?  Which direction do you think the consequences of this choice will fall?  Has there been a single instance in our short history where the language of treason and sedition have been used to advance an agenda of positive social change?  Has there been a single instance where these politics have not been eventually been used to punch left?  By putting faith in our military and security apparatus, Democrats are sending a clear message:  they don’t have a vision.  They don’t care about your future.  They spent the entirety of the 2016 campaign studiously avoiding taking positions on anything, and they’re hoping to continue that strategy for the next three and a half years because it worked so well for them. When you’ve convinced yourself that  your past failures are all the fault of a foreign entity, why change things up?  What could possibly go wrong?

The last six months have made it crystal clear that very little has changed in the Democratic Party since 2003, when they voted en masses to invade Iraq. They are still a party that is defined by a distinct lack of courage in everything they do. They are still slaves to the hysteria of the moment, terrified to look weak on defense or earn the ire of the military-industrial complex. And here’s the problem with that:  Conflicts between nation-states don’t always happen because countries actually, you know, want them to.  Often times, major conflicts happen because actors on both sides back  themselves into positions that they can’t back down from, and an unforeseen crisis brings both parties to the brink of open conflict.  With the American and Russian military increasingly engaged in close proximity in a widening proxy war, the odds of one of those unforeseen crises rises every day.

So my question is this:  If push comes to shove, who’s going to put on the brakes when the calls come for our leaders to do something?  Who will be working for peace when the overwhelming consensus coalesces behind war?  Who will be able to see past the hysteria of the moment?

I really hope we don’t have to find out any time soon.

Self Interest Is Not a Virtue

Obama

In this week’s dose of depressing/demoralizing/disheartening news, we came to learn that Barack Obama is accepting $400,000 from a Wall Street firm to give a speech at a health care conference.  People have been rehearsing the arguments around this type of behavior for a while now thanks to Hillary Clinton’s failed run for the Presidency.  In fact, we spent so long debating this behavior it would be remarkably easy to assume it’s normal (it’s not).  During the election, I often found myself arguing that it doesn’t have to be this way.  I even went so far as to confidently assert that Barack Obama, for all his flaws, would never engage in the same kind of rent-seeking after he left office.  Unfortunately, I underestimated the extent to which pursuing one’s own self-interest in this country is not only regarded as inevitable, it’s actually considered to be the necessary and decent thing.

Obama inspires a lot of loyalty, and as a result a great many people have defended him against the criticism that has come his way after this news broke.   The general theme of this defense has been: Of COURSE he’s cashing in.  Wouldn’t you?  Others have engaged in impressive fits of fancy, whereby they imagine Obama going to this conference to speak truth to power and dress down the Wall Street Bankers for wrecking the economy.  In this telling, he’s taking the money, but only because he knows it’s the only way to access these guys to defend the American people.  Some have taken it yet further, arguing that the only reason people are upset is because they can’t handle the idea of a black man making a large amount of money.  So within a 24 hour time span, defending Obama morphed from the serious, furrowed-brow adult opinion into the morally upstanding position that all non-racists must have.  Even in this day and age, that’s a pretty quick turnaround.

All of this, of course, misses the point.  There is a deep level of distrust in our political system right now.  Republicans have had electoral success despite the fact that every single one of their non-racist policy proposals are deeply unpopular.  As a party, they’re transparently corrupt, and only interested in finding ways to funnel government largesse to their friends and political supporters while immiserating the poor.  Democrats, on the other hand, are the party of effective management, whose platform is basically “You don’t have it so bad, and we’ve got the charts and graphs to prove it.”  They don’t have a positive policy vision because they think things are pretty much fine the way they are.  The two parties really are different in some important ways.  But here’s the thing: for the average voter, these differences do not matter.  Your typical “uninformed” voter believes – not without evidence – that the parties largely exist to represent the interests of the ruling class.  So the question for Democrats is:  Do you have even the slightest interest in changing that perception?  It looks like we have our answer.

By and large, the people you’ll see defending Obama are from a similar set.  They’re generally younger, educated, middle class folks who tend to vote Democratic come election time. (I count myself as part of this group) And it’s not coincidental that many of us from this subset are going through a time in our lives where we are making choices that involve giving up on some of the more idealistic ambitions that we had in our 20s.  We are, for a variety of perfectly legitimate reasons, pursuing our own interests, trying to start families, yearning for a predictable, regular paycheck.  As we navigate the job market, we are bombarded relentlessly with a crystal clear message:  It’s time to give up your idealism.  You thought you were going to work in public service?  Too bad – the pay is shit and those stable public jobs we told you about are being systematically destroyed.  You thought you’d find a job in the private sector that is both invigorating and rewarding?  Too bad – you’re now an independent contractor with no benefits who can be fired at any moment for no reason.  You want to work at a non-profit?  I hope you like kissing up to rich people!  Every day, the market for our services presents us with small choices:  we can do the right thing, or we can do the thing that is expected of us. And every time we decide to do what is expected of us, we give up a little piece of ourselves in service of our own bottom line.  

Over the years, these choices compel a kind of conversion inside of us.  This isn’t just the cliched and inexorable march from idealistic liberalism to pragmatic conservatism, it’s the story we spin for ourselves about that conversion. You see, it’s just not possible for us to go through life convinced that the choices we’ve been forced to make have been the wrong ones.  We come to believe that those choices were a result of our superior agency.  We’ve decided that not only is sacrificing the right choice for the necessary choice the adult thing to do, it’s the right and virtuous thing too.  Over time, answering the question of whether or not something benefits us becomes the central consideration in determining whether or not we are making a moral choice.  

Its no wonder, then, that people from my subset of society find themselves jumping to Obama’s defense for cashing in.  We’ve been conditioned to treat the pursuit of one’s self interest as a virtuous quest.  It’s not as if we, who are also virtuous, have been broken by a system of perverse incentives that have led us to be cogs in a horrible machine of large scale death and immiseration.  No, that’s not it – we are wise and virtuous, we know things.  Above all, we know this: If we were in Obama’s shoes, we’d be doing the exact same thing.  Wouldn’t you?