Conceptual infrastructure failures

It’s possible for situation to be both terrible and ridiculous at once. This has indeed been the case almost constantly for America, for at least four years.

My awareness of this phenomenon, confronting us from almost every direction, has become overwhelming.

On one hand, things are absolutely abhorrent. Where to begin? The western U.S. is literally on fire, a pandemic has killed 200,000 Americans and climbing, and the president is an authoritarian raving monster who spends his time flying around the country for organized COVID-19 superspreader events, and encouraging Republicans’ frenzied effort to “get rid of the ballots” that might oblige them to cede power in any kind of functioning democracy; they’re clearly willing to destroy what remains of ours, and are preparing to install another radical partisan operative on the nation’s highest court.

Meanwhile everyone is screaming and e-mailing and deploying every cliché in the book—red alert, all hands on deck, etc.—and it feels equivalent to yelling “pull up, pull up!” when the plane’s engines have exploded and it’s in a tailspin trailing smoke and fire.

Sure, in this case what we do could matter and at least some of it probably does, and there are very important things at stake. At this point I view this election as a last-ditch effort to forestall mass atrocities. I mean, within just a few years we have proved that concentration camps, forced sterilizations and government “disappearing” people into unmarked vehicles can happen here; if the executive at the head of all this can survive into a second term the consequences will be much more horrific, that’s as sure a forecast as one can make.

So I keep on volunteering, in hopes of making a negative electoral verdict on Republicans just that bit more severe anywhere that I can.

But the force of events “upstream,” which have already happened, determines so much of political outcomes. One example, Barack Obama’s decision 12 years ago to hitch Joe Biden’s wagon to the shooting star of Obama’s presidential campaign basically decided this year’s Democratic presidential primary, and while I have no regrets about everything I did for the Warren campaign it seems plain that the primary outcome was set in motion long before.

Another example, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s decision to stay put year after year when Democrats had control of the presidency and the Senate, despite the fact that she was already in her late 70s with a history of cancer when Obama was sworn in. Or, indeed, Bill Clinton’s decision long before that to nominate for the Supreme Court someone who would end up making that decision and being immovable by any argument or plea.

It’s extremely horrible that Republicans—accompanied by the wildest dishonesty and abuses of power—began lining up minutes after news of Ginsburg’s death to replace her with a radical partisan fiend in human form. It’s also more than a little ridiculous for so many people not only to pretend that there’s a real chance of thwarting this, but also to eulogize Ginsburg as some sort of martyr who sacrificed all for us, fighting right up to the end. Bull shit. The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s final legacy was marching right into her own completely foreseeable and avoidable death during the administration of a presidency and Senate majority 100% hostile to everything she worked for in her career. The work she did was commendable, certainly, but she herself cast it into the fire with years of reckless, selfish stubbornness.

That’s ungenerous but it’s also true and significant.

America is being poisoned by bullshit myths, obsolete but stubborn beliefs, and ridiculously unfit systems, symbols and conceptual infrastructure.

Probably it’s too late really to do much about this, but whether it is or it isn’t, I believe that much more honesty and clarity is on an important level our most urgent need.

America itself is a ridiculous construct at this point. Aside from all the specifics of systemic dysfunction, looked at as a whole it’s something like Amsterdam and the most remote, backward Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan being joined together under one very powerful central government, the functioning of which depends on broadly shared purpose and cooperation. It’s starting to feel like America is the equivalent of Manhattan and Al Qaeda being tasked to “find common ground,” even.

Retro America is completely captured by the bamboozle, and becoming steadily more so. But without going anywhere near “both sides” false equivalency—another dangerous zombie myth—it’s time to recognize that there are too many stupid and ridiculous beliefs popular in Metro America as well.

America in the years after Sept 11, 2001, was a nightmarish xenophobic test-run for fascism; it’s fucked up that so many people who lived through that have revised that history into a fantasy of unity and positive cooperation.

Another bullshit model: “when they go low, we go high.” If Michele Obama were really honest, she would tell Democrats that she meant well, but it’s time everyone wakes up to the reality that when they go low, we go high, then they disembowel us and grab more power, which they use to abuse vulnerable communities while we’re trying to pick up our guts (but so proud of taking the high road).

No one should want to match Republicans’ depravity, but endlessly permitting them to have one standard for themselves and another standard for Democrats and to benefit from both is taking us to catastrophe. We are in a cold civil war against fascists and continued speaking and thinking in clichés like “bipartisanship” and “finding common ground” are absurd.

Our Constitution was remarkable when written and, like Magna Carta, still contains things which are good and important; our Constitution is also an unworkable fucking mess. We have worsened the situation greatly with extra-Constitutional traditions, the worst possibly being the belief that five unelected and unaccountable people in black robes may wield unlimited power to overrule two other co-equal branches of government and everything else, too. The result of Marbury v. Madison was and is completely insane, yet despite the potential abuse reaching intolerable levels at least twice, after 217 years America is still in thrall to the idea that a tiny priesthood can read an ancient parchment and find answers to questions which the text does not address, explain with reference to centuries of accumulated argle-bargle, and all must simply submit.

Metro America has been clinging ever more tightly to “rule of law!” and ignoring the fact that disenfranchisement, segregation, and execution have all been the law.

TV debates are completely stupid rituals, and even on the rare occasion when some consequence follows, it’s usually for stupid reasons. What we go on calling “debates” are some kind of deranged reality-show contest in which everyone—participants, pundits, audience—is fixated on how the others are going to react rather than on anything rationally connected with reality.

Ethanol subsidies/mandates seem like a convergence of so much of the absurdity. This is a terrible policy, which nonetheless demands and receives endless pandering and the imprimatur of “bipartisan” support, sustained by factors including our Constitution’s ridiculous malapportionment which egregiously overrepresents low-population regions.

At the most fundamental level, it’s an example of our deepest absurdities that people have convinced themselves that they want ethanol mandates/subsidies, and get fiercely angry at anyone who challenges this. Who the fuck wants ethanol subsidies? Even corn growers could get 100% of the same utility from plain subsidies for growing corn, yet so many of our culture’s conceptual hangups lead people and institutions to tie themselves up with pretexts and proxies, rather than just being direct about what they want.

Our fixation with jobs, as I have mentioned more than once, feels like the ne plus ultra of this obsession with the ritual proxy over direct interaction with reality. We’re a society which has automated food production and manufacturing, and is working on automating more and more information processing work, yet the entire culture is welded to near-universal provision of 40 hours per week of directed activity as the greatest goal and barometer of society. To the extent that there are other reasons to keep “jobs” as a model for social organizing—building social ties, “the dignity of work,” most people are just incapable of running their own lives?—these things should be the main event of our culture’s concern for jobs and instead they’re just sideshows.

I have a list of words and phrases which are all in some way counterproductive and misleading; I think our society is shot through with such corrosion in every form of conceptual infrastructure. If America is in a mess and seems incapable of making its way out, it seems important that most of the signs, maps, and sociopolitical wayfinding resources to which most people refer are constantly misdirecting them.

I don’t know if there is any way to begin “debugging” this systemwide infrastructural failure. I don’t know how new it is, or how unique to America, either. I suspect that it may be oddly built-up for a culture largely begun anew within the past 250 years and steadily fed by immigrants during much of the time since, but that’s only a guess. I’m more convinced that if this is on the whole still something common to most complex societies, it’s therefore possible to function in spite of such corrosion but not in every circumstance.

It may be possible to function more or less effectively with dismally unfit conceptual infrastructure. It may also be possible to overcome the conversion of an entire political party, in a firmly established “two-party system,” to pure sabotage and endless bad faith. I’m not real sure that it’s possible to do both at once.

Meanwhile this is kind of how I feel personally about the big picture, as of September 2020:

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