Studying the news

For about five years I have been “studying the news,” you might say.

After the 2016 election, many of us myself included were grasping at ideas for what we should do in response. I joined organizations, attended protests, got a VPN, started calling Congressional offices… I also took the advice to “keep track of what’s changing around you,” a warning to us that the unthinkable can become “normal” without us even noticing, absent an effort in that direction.

I didn’t actually start until early January, 2017 the file which eventually surpassed half-a-million words of news and events, but over time I entered many earlier occurrences and now is probably as good a time as any to reflect on the experience.

I guess that to start with, I don’t think that there is really any substitute for doing something like this. Plenty of people don’t really pay attention to news, politics, government, etc., but I think even for those who do, the default is essentially passive consumption. I have used the phrase “studying the news,” here, because I think that it’s fundamentally different to spend time taking notes, organizing them, and living with this day after day after day for years.

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Hell is the impossibility of reason

Counterarguments to my theme seem to be losing their force, gradually but steadily.

My theme is all too well established, here. I have written repeatedly about an irreparably poisoned political system, about an ungovernable America, about the seeming pointlessness of the political rituals, about the deeper hollowness of the culture, and about the nightmarish reality that the processes don’t work or make sense yet people keep going through the motions and about how the repetition is maddening.

I would like a practical way out of this doom-loop to demonstrate that I’m wrong. But that really isn’t happening. To the contrary.

What seems missing from all the popular reactions to the narrow but high “red wave” at work in yesterday’s Virginia and New Jersey elections is the possibility that it has next to nothing to do with events, policies, or issues.

I have written some version of this before, too, but it’s worth being more direct: America has now gone about 20 years in which the large minority of not-totally-committed voters votes to destroy the sitting president’s party at midterm elections, and it really strains credibility to insist that this pattern simply happens to be the result of a politics which is still meaningfully about events, policies, issues.

Again and again since the mid-00s, voters have on-net voted to annihilate the president’s party in non-presidential elections. Is it really the likeliest explanation that the recurrence is just a coincidence, and that each of those elections was about its own story, issues, etc.?

I don’t think that it is.

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Facing the Present

Thinking more on ROM’s final testament, in Dead Memory: “if you could only learn to read the present, your memory might be of some use to you.”

I dread the future, I live every day in anxiety. Lately I’m thinking that America likely approaches a point when the whole idea of elections with specific, factual outcomes just disintegrates. It looks very likely that in future national elections, hundreds if not thousands of county and precinct election officials will reject as fraudulent any outcome other than a big vote for Republicans. No one is prepared for that and I’m not sure that there even exists a meaningful way to be prepared for it. That scenario isn’t a bug or a hack of systems of authority, it’s the disintegration of authority through mass opting-out.

Of course, I don’t know that will happen, let alone when. If Democrats’ coalition feels no compelling stake in the 2022 elections, Republicans will likely declare the results very legitimate.

Yet the most important reality here, as with my larger dread, is not with what could happen but with what has already happened.

Consider some of what happened following the 2020 election:

  • Texas electors voted 34-4 to call on Legislatures in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin to appoint their own electors to overturn the election
  • Armed protestors threatened Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson
  • Republican election officials belatedly, and very reluctantly, certified the reality of Wayne County MI vote totals, and almost instantly afterward declared that to have been the wrong decision
  • Ronna McDaniel privately told “multiple confidants that she doubted there was any scalable voter fraud in Michigan.” But she said she had to parrot Trump’s narrative to prove she was willing to “fight.”
  • It was treated as “Breaking News” that “Michigan lawmakers said they would honor the outcome of the state’s election process,” that’s how bad things got

The above is just a small survey of news from one state. In the year since, Republicans have embraced the Big Lie mythology, and moved nonstop to replace the improvised flailing of late 2020 with trained and drilled operatives. Hundreds of them, thousands.

Meanwhile in the much bigger picture, a huge flaw in efforts to save American democracy is that at their core, there is no solid explanation of what they are intended to save and why. That isn’t the only flaw, of course; the machinery is very far gone and that matters too. But even in theory, even the proposed remedies just aren’t really a coherent vision.

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Garbage Time

I have thought a time or two, recently, of the “first they ignore you…” bit, and how failing systems of authority may experience it in reverse. First people respect and feel part of the system, then people bump up against unworkable features of the system, then people laugh at its continued pretense of authority, then people just ignore it.

This is as close as I can get to a theme for what’s going on now.

Steady rot, maddening slowness of even attempts at constructive response, and more opting out.

Of the steady rot, well, good grief. This post’s featured image is of a protester in February 2017, and I suspect her sign could actually be more true now, not less. I wrote this post almost 29 months ago, and could just about repeat every word of it today. The big picture is dismal, and while one may find bright spots in the darkness here and there, from a perch next to Cleveland, Ohio, it’s just awful.

Yet leaders and institutions mostly seem, perhaps inevitably, deeply attached to accepting the system’s limits no matter how ridiculous they become. Pick an example. Congress is almost too obvious, yet it’s perhaps worth pointing out that it should be obviously unthinkable that about 50% of a legislature with vast responsibilities is permanently committed to blockade any and everything, even policies which are genuinely very good as well as wildly popular with the public. Yet this is just normalized. Working around the bad sectors and “out-organizing” them, accepting that impossibly bad rules and what they are, aw just try harder, is broadly accepted by leaders and institutions.

Liberal democracy, certainly in America, just seems to have no idea whatsoever what to do about an organized enemy which is inter-weaved with a traditional political party. It is just not done, apparently, for liberalism to actually fight to shut down a political party no matter how toxic it becomes. Instead liberal leaders and institutions just endlessly monitor the bad behavior and point at it, waiting for some other authority to take responsibility. The courts, which are too slow at best, or the voters, who pour votes into systems which just throw them out because those systems are already corrupted. Liberalism is forever determined to win the argument; even if it conclusively wins the argument and systems don’t respond, the answer is always to try winning it even more.

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Spider-Clone Halloween 25 years later

The 1990s Spider-Man “Clone Saga” went on, and on. Too long by many estimates, and I won’t disagree. I enjoyed it (I admit here publicly) but I certainly didn’t buy/read all of it. That would have been quite a lot by any estimate, given that the “Clone Saga” (de facto more than by intent) ultimately encompassed nearly every Spider-Man comic book published for years. Which was five or more per month at the time.

It’s a little odd, then, that—while one can point to this or that as an extension or coda or suchlike—the Spider-Man Clone Saga eventually had one endpoint which stood out from the whole mess very clearly as when it ended. Naturally, this was still a crossover with multiple comic books and one or two tie-ins.

Yet Halloween 1996 was when The Spider-Man Clone Saga ended, and 25 years later it still feels like an Event to me, as far as fictional developments go.

I don’t remember every detail. But there’s a vividness and intensity to the memory of that Autumn Wednesday, my freshman year in college, which has only a small number of comparisons in all my years reading comic books.

It was an interesting time for me, and for comic book fandom.

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Redistricting Minority Reports

I had an idea this week, which I’m sketching out just for whatever. Please note, this is not a recommendation, just a thought-experiment. The best approach for redistricting, short of reconsidering the whole concept of geography-based democracy, is probably still very independent commissions kept as far away from politicians as possible.

But, what if the backstop for legislative district maps supported by only the party in power was a kind of “official minority report” along these lines:

In Ohio, for example, current redistricting rules call for maps to be supported by at least half of the second-largest party in government (i.e. Democrats), but allow the party in power (i.e. Republicans) to enact four-year maps on a party-line basis, subject to antigerrymandering rules. In practice, Ohio Republicans are just ramming more gerrymandering right through the rules, and it seems to me like any real solution must involve taking the map-drawing pen away from the gerrymanderers at some point.

So how about, instead, if (when) Ohio Republicans ram through gerrymandered districts on a party-line vote, Ohio Democrats get to re-draw part of the map, say 40%.

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The Republican Party is pro-COVID

I have been thinking about the substantial and, apparently, still growing pro-COVID energy among Republicans.

For one thing, I don’t think any other term is really adequate. When Republicans are simultaneously “antilockdown,” “antimask,” “antivaccine,” “antimandates,” etc., etc., the big picture is effectively pro-COVID. Republicans are pandemic accelerationists.

Masks make a difference. Republicans gleefully want to discourage them, with both policy and stigma. Vaccine mandates have been working really well! Republicans are busily working to thwart them, through preemption or riddling them with exemptions.

Above all, vaccines work, yet the Republican Party is letting crackpot antivaxxers pull it their way rather than making any attempt to celebrate vaccines as a triumph of the Trump administration.

None of this is shocking, it’s just of some interest, if only as a reference point within the stampede of daily events.

I recall, with some effort, a few fleeting days in July when Republican elites were supposedly attempting a new, pro-vaccination message; that went basically nowhere. Among other things, it’s quite obvious that neither Republicans’ voting base nor the party’s middle ranks support that message.

What strikes me is that the overall pro-COVID energy among Republicans seems like a boundary marker between rational sabotage, and irrational self-destruction.

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Getting a grip when nothing works

I was mentally drafting a post this morning about how nothing seems to work, then this afternoon the irrepressibly optimistic Amy Hanauer shared this Prospect article with a different perspective. Robert Kuttner makes enough good points, therein, that for now I feel like examining them instead.

In general, I consider “Get a Grip: There Will Be a Budget Resolution” a very sound response to two, related, current problems:

  1. I have refused to pay attention to regular updates from the budget standoff in Congress. I think the whole thing is not only a fiasco which was practically manufactured by Democratic leadership—as I wrote months ago, dumb schemes like the “two-track approach” always do the opposite of defusing brinkmanship—it’s also a perfect example of how I just can’t take all this shit literally. Kuttner writes a good explanation of why there’s no reason to make an exception here.
  2. Although I still go through the motions of sending messages to Congress and the White House, what do I even say? So many things are crisis-level all at once and I do not want to get swept up in “this is what’s heating up this week so direct your comments there.” Kuttner writes a shortlist which I think addresses the biggest big-picture issues with as few items as possible.

I’m not really convinced of various details, though, or of the conclusion that we have the enemies of democracy and justice on the ropes, so “Enough defeatism! We can do this.”

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Coups, procedure, & cultural senescence

Picking up from “Systems are living forms… They, too, are born and die,” I want to make a few notes related to the recent “reveal” that Trump sought to overturn the presidential election.

Where even to begin, though:

  • Uh, we know that Trump sought to overturn the presidential election; how many times can this be “BREAKING” news?
  • In any meaningful sense, Trump already did use arcane procedural mumbo jumbo to overturn the presidential election in 2016, when he lost by nearly 3 million votes.
  • George W. Bush used arcane procedural mumbo jumbo to overturn a presidential election even 16 years before that, and even if you’re determined to look for sinister scheming, that’s where to look, since after that point America just normalized using arcane procedural mumbo jumbo to overturn presidential elections.

Seriously this is just ridiculous that even “experts” in these matters won’t see past the obsession with Trump to recognize that everything alarming in the Pence/memo/coup story is long-established and accepted.

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“Dead Memory,” a prescient story

I must have acquired Dark Horse’s English translation of Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s 2000 graphic novel, Dead Memory, more than 15 years ago. I’ve pulled it off the shelf to read several times over the years, I’m sure. In general a somewhat quirky, interesting, slightly vague work of science fantasy very much in the European style.

Upon the most recent re-read, however, I was surprised by what feels very much like a graphic novel for our own time.

The early sequence in which a conversation is visually implied to be a traditional meeting, then after a page-turn revealed as basically a Zoom meeting, really got my attention. Videoconferencing was by no means a new idea even in 2000, but discovering its use by such humdrum pedestrian people as was the case here is—from the perspective of 2021—a little surprising.

Also, everyone in Dead Memory is inseparable from a smartphone every bit as creepy as our own have become. The “black box’s” UI differs a little in detail, but people’s relationship to it is functionally much like that of ourselves with the smartphone. The story even implies that going anywhere without your black box is literally against the law, and when a couple goons of the state stop the main character and demand ID, naturally his black box is what they mean.

All of this seems pretty impressive foresight for the year 2000, when smartphones didn’t even exist and even cellphones were still mostly a specialist item.

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