Playing from way behind

It is strange living in this moment, watching the capture and corruption of the most powerful institutions in our society, at the same time as day to day life mostly continues as though completely unconnected.

That’s an illusion. A few weeks ago a friend, who knows better, casually said something about how “well, life goes on, anyway.” I could have made a lot of responses. One which I didn’t make, but might have, is a comparison with The Lord of the Rings films. For all that “The Scouring of the Shire” is an important part of the novel, its absence from the films combined with Meriadoc’s warning about the possibility of such an outcome is haunting on its own. He was absolutely right that the safety of the Shire was in danger, and significantly, it was in danger from something that most of its people would never even notice until it was absolutely too late.

Had Sauron secured the One Ring, it would have meant the end of the Shire. Unstoppable armies would have burned it to the ground within months, or at most a year or two, inevitably. But that fate was being decided, with finality, while most of the persons at issue were carrying on normal life in total ignorance of the peril.

In a sense, Americans have had comparatively ample warning, yet most don’t really notice it, and “normal life” carries on. Even though what’s happening right now is locking in severe negative consequences.

This is difficult to summarize, and I’m not sure there is a point to attempting it, here. This and this are good, recent updates on how the system is being corrupted right now, in ways that will disable the comforting systems of honest dialogue and democratic feedback; by such time as many more people feel a sense of urgency, the expected tools for response will have been sabotaged.

In a way, we’re already at an early stage of that, and have been since November 2016, at least.

Ages ago in another lifetime, I did things like spend hours playing through immersive video games, such as Ni No Kuni, which introduced me to the term “post-game content”; the phrase came to mind in late 2016 as I tried to make sense of the horrible situation confronting us. After you complete the adventure story arc in some games, you can continue roaming the virtual world and even going on some additional bonus missions. Everything since the 2016 election has felt like post-game content except it’s after you lost, rather than after you won.

Obviously, there is no absolute, binary won-lost status for the real world, at least so long as people still exist with goals and some possibility of achieving them.

But it feels like we have reached a point where the word “possibility” is doing a lot of work, there.

The interlocking, reinforcing effects of vote suppression, malapportionment, unrestricted campaign spending, judiciary capture, epistemic corruption, etc., combined with a malevolent overmighty executive, create a system which makes reform from within increasingly implausible.

In a lot of ways, it feels like much of the right response is happening—just a dozen years too late. If all of these things that mushroomed in 2017 happened instead in, say, 2005: the grassroots activism, the efforts to recruit and support candidates for down-ballot races, the attention to the judiciary, redistricting, and other “wonky” complexities of power. If Democrats had introduced the For the People Act in January 2007, instead of January 2019. If a presidential candidate had run on big structural change in 2008, instead of now. If we had woken up and organized, instead of gratefully receiving the handsome, reassuring anesthesiologist’s needle. If we had done some of this, sooner, we might have made some lasting repairs to the system, whatever else happened.

We didn’t, and now here we are, trying to fight a substantially advanced fascist takeover with signs, postcards and clipboards. While those with access to genuine power which is still substantial are always reluctant to make full use of it, because… I can’t even really explain it. With years of experience of utterly bad-faith opponents who constantly twist the maximum possible interpretation out of any authority they possess—and often more—Democratic leaders with any power to respond in kind consistently act as though they must uphold norms and courtesies anyway.

Every time they finally, grudgingly, concede that their patient good-faith response has met only abuse, said abuse has won for the right even more power, which will require even more drastic countermeasures to overcome; the cycle repeats.

Meanwhile, the political disparity between urgency and response is made more disastrous by a corresponding ecological disparity. Last month I read Alastair Reynolds’ novel Permafrost, about a future in which Earth’s biosphere has collapsed, and basically everything has died except for a dwindling population of humans surviving on a finite supply of preserved food. What struck me most is how it didn’t even seem like a worst-case scenario. The collapse of the biosphere is happening, right now, and even more so than political sabotage it won’t be possible simply to opt out of the process whenever more people notice it. Even setting aside Permafrost’s time-travel fantasy by which humanity’s doom is averted, the novel’s starting point seems also relatively optimistic: humanity’s condition is terminal, but it has responded by organizing for itself a peaceful, gentle hospice ending. I suspect that a descent into resource wars, barbarism and depravity is at least as likely.

So I vote and organize and write letters and make calls, etc., and demonstrate some, though in answer to everyone crying “when do we erupt in protest already” I would say that I was there two and a half years ago, and kept at it as the number of other participants dwindled and dwindled.

I do things, all the same, because I think that’s the only response which makes sense to me. The other night a friend asked me “you have an escape plan yet” and my response was, to where? Between the impracticality of escaping the real problems that I perceive, and the feeling that I ought at least to try fighting them, that’s where I end up.

Which still leaves me in a situation in which nothing really seems to make sense: I can’t work out a realistic possibility of hope, I can’t imagine that my small efforts make a real difference to those odds however much I do, and there’s an inescapable unreality in the life which continues in the meantime.

I switch back and forth, between trying to spur action for the future of a just society and a habitable planet… and trying to win a suburban city council election or deciding whether or not to spend $20 on a book that I want.

Going back to my hometown and hanging out with family and old friends is almost more unreal than I can deal with.

At the same time, I suppose that for all that I have always been given to thinking ahead, looking at the big picture, worrying—and for all that I think these are important things which more people should do at present—living in the face of looming disaster has taught me to also live in the moment some times.

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