Author Archives: Matt Kuhns

Failed state, culture, civilization?

It feels like I am running out of genuinely new things to add about the corrosive storm engulfing us. Eric Sandy and I seem, largely independently, to be getting a stronger and stronger sense that “The brakes are cut, everybody. There is no exit ramp.”

At a guess, it seems to be staring us all in the face that the President of the United States already fully intends to pursue some kind of power play which might turn out like the beer hall putsch, or might turn out like the Reichstag fire, but is quite openly his intent.

But our systems don’t really seem to know how to handle that so mostly it’s all proceeding as it would anyway.

It’s better than nothing, certainly, that people like Greg Sargent and James Fallows have recently made clear, powerful statements that US journalism is still allowing Trump to exploit its failings as effectively as four years ago. But, realistically, the accuracy of the critique is, at this point, also a convincing argument against expecting that failure to change suddenly within the next couple of months.

I don’t think journalism is really unique in this regard, either. I’m reminded of Robert X. Cringely‘s proposal years ago that in a crisis, institutions do the same thing they do at other times, just more so.

Read More →

The Fog of War 2020

“What if Trump simply refused to concede no matter what” is not a new question. Experts and organizers have been chewing on that one for a while. But lately, it feels like more people are starting to digest it, as something not just hypothetical but entirely real.

Local blogger and alt-weekly veteran Eric Sandy advised weeks ago that “this is not an election campaign.” Then in the past few days, The Atlantic and Slate both published similar arguments that America is already outside of recognizable “politics.” Dahlia Lithwick was direct: “We have reached the point at which there is no reason to frame the 2020 elections in terms of ‘politics.’”

Also, Full Frontal reported last week that from each realistic scenario the Transition Integrity Project looked at, the result was chaos. “What we gotta do is win big” just didn’t appear relevant, and I have to agree that it may not be.

Other warning lights are flashing a similar color. So, huh.

Read More →

Decline and Fall of Iowa State University

The news, yesterday, that Iowa State University plans to host a massive COVID-19 superspreader event at Jack Trice Stadium feels like a fade-to-black moment.

I was a critic of Iowa State even as a student, and if my early criticism wasn’t always very good, with 20 years’ hindsight I still think that by graduation I was making reasonable complaints. Recent years, however, seem to reveal a trend which makes this latest destructive act less than completely shocking, no matter how appalling it is.

“Planegate” in 2016 might, by itself, have been a one-off fiasco. Yet that same year, Iowa State University of Science and Technology awarded a degree to a contemporary Republican elected official; Kim Reynolds has gone on to demonstrate that category’s dependable anti-science hackery with one of the worst pandemic responses of any governor in the entire U.S.

The following year, Iowa State cooperated quietly and fully with the state government’s Republican hacks when they robbed the university and public of the Iowa Energy Center, so that the utility industry could corrupt and dismantle it. I wrote letters at the time, protesting, but the fix was apparently in.

Seeing Iowa State University now embrace the plague state approach of disastrous buffoonery and reckless denial, right along with Reynolds and Trump, feels like turning out the last lights. The descent into darkness has been underway for quite a while. This is just arrival.

Realistically we have a lot bigger problems so I can’t even feel particularly heartbroken. The Iowa State University of the late 1990s served me well, but I have not had any real relationship with the institution since other than sentiment. I have still barely made any beginning at adapting, mentally, for the different world we’re entering, but a capacity to let go of purely sentimental ties to the past without a lot of fuss is probably the low-hanging fruit here.

I could write more, but probably, the substantive concept to carry forward is simply that there will be more like this. A few months ago a friend texted me at 1 a.m. “it’s time to pick sides.” Iowa State University of Science and Technology has decided to side with destructive recklessness and fraud.

Postscript: Iowa State University did abandon this disastrous idea, which is far better than plowing ahead. But pre-game tailgating went right ahead even as Iowa continues to set new COVID-19 records. As the late Pete Taylor would often say in exasperation, good night!

Law, like politics, is stories

Here’s some very broad political advice: don’t confuse proving misconduct with pursuing victory in electoral politics. Though they may overlap, they are distinct things, and the distinction is very important.

I write from personal experience, here. Five years ago, my life transformed forever as the result of joining a frantic, grassroots attempt to prevent the liquidation of my city’s publicly owned charity hospital. We failed, utterly, and while there are many reasons, the most generally applicable is probably the lesson that “but that’s against the rules!!!” should not be assumed a cause’s strongest argument. Even when it’s against the law. Even when you can prove it with facts. Even when they admitted it.

An example: in 2015, Lakewood City Council met in one closed-door session after another. Public deliberation on the city’s hospital, by city council. was almost nonexistent. They got away with it anyway. Despite state open-meeting laws. Despite being sued. Despite their legal counsel—the city’s own law director—admitting during the court proceedings “that a violation has occurred.”

Plentiful other rule-breaking and evidence of rule-breaking characterized our feral local government’s fight to liquidate the public’s hospital. In terms of formal enforcement of rules, they got away with all of it, too, aside from one court ruling which obliged the city to cough up some redacted documents long after the votes had taken place and the hospital was a shuttered hulk.

That outcome, I’m entirely certain, could have been prevented politically. It wasn’t a hard sell. But the grassroots campaign did many many things wrong, including becoming near-obsessed with rule-breaking at the expense of campaigning for political support.

Ultimately, try though we may to make it work otherwise, law and enforcement thereof are a product of politics. Influence can run in both directions, but politics is always present; rules and laws are only enforced when and if political incentive to do so is sufficient.

Read More →

Adapting expectations

My experiences growing to adulthood in the late 20th century did not prepare me for coping with 21st century America. I strongly believe that the same goes for most adults.

The fact that so few people are even close to realizing how far off their baseline expectations are, let alone working through the process of adjustment, is part of the problem. But the major parts are other, much larger and much worse things.

In a post earlier this summer, I summed it up as “we don’t have functioning, even quasi-rational systems of decision-making” at a national level in America. That’s looking at it from one end; the fact that national governance in America has never been a functional system except when hugely exclusionary and injust is the same object viewed from the other end.

These failings function to prevent fixes to themselves, and go right on performing that function even as the consequences get more disastrous. This is the future before us. I have been writing about this for a while, but it’s only beginning to sink in how much I ought to adjust my expectations if I’m to go on.

Read More →

The bamboozle captures itself

After thinking about it at length, I have concluded that in the really big picture, America’s deepest problem is that national governance has never “worked” as a pluralistic system. Over centuries, national politics in America has involved two choices: 1) purchase peace by accepting a brutal social hierarchy based on race and sex, or, face ceaseless warfare.

This feels like a more or less finished theory. Rapacious greed also has a major, almost inseparable role, going back to the very beginning. I think bigotry is still, for what it’s worth, the deeper story. History seems to show that the reactionary desire for social hierarchy based on race and sex is a bigger and more enduring force. It’s easily exploited by plutocrats for their own ends, for that very reason; I’m skeptical that a substantial number of bigots, however materially poor, are simply waiting for a sufficiently aggressive platform of redistribution to lure away their vote. The bigotry is a deeply held if horrible value system, remaining embedded in the culture generation after generation. New Deal Democrats won a decades long peace which was relatively redistributionist, but they did it by accommodating the values of bigotry.

It feels like I have already suggested “purchasing peace” is no longer even a practical option. This seems kind of like a minor point, anyway, because such a “peace” is abhorrent. The most obvious practical obstacle—that the Democratic coalition is now so inclusive of women and minorities that such a deal simply wouldn’t be viable—is a credit to the direction the Democratic Party has taken.

There’s also an entirely different obstacle within the opposing faction, however, which has been on my mind in recent days. Aside from the fact that America’s relatively liberal coalition is no longer likely to accept a political settlement with reactionary America, based on selling out women and minorities, a big portion of reactionary America seems to have sealed itself within conspiracy fantasies which compel unceasing warfare, anyway.

Read More →

Democracy vs Tribalism

Picking up from where my previous post left off, in the big picture it does not seem like American governance which is inclusive of a diverse population is going to work any time soon, because it does not seem like it has ever worked in America’s whole history.

America only recognized women’s right to vote 100 years ago. It was another couple of generations, after that, before substantial, practical assertion of equality for women and minorities. That coincided with a reactionary backlash which has continued up to the present day. Realistically, then, dominant culture in America was united against acceptance and inclusion of diversity until the 20th century, and the end of that internal unity was the beginning of a cold civil war of 50+ years which is still intensifying.

Instances of broad political unity in America have, repeatedly, resulted from relatively liberal whites betraying marginalized communities, to throw in with patriarchal, white supremacist oligarchy for a while. The abandonment of Reconstruction after the Civil War. The segregation-driven Reagan landslides. George W. Bush’s “coalition of the frightened” circa 2002. Even the New Deal coalition, which sponsored massive egalitarian reforms, actively preserved white privilege from disruption by those reforms, in exchange for the support of racist “Dixiecrats.” As soon as Lyndon Johnson signed basic civil rights protections into law, the racists began organizing the Republican Party into a white supremacy alternative:

When the Civil Rights Act passed, it did so with Republican votes, even as it was signed by a Democrat. The compromises of that era saved the country, but they ended that political system.

Ezra Klein at Vox

Johnson’s much quoted remark about “losing the South for a generation,” perhaps once a model of dour pessimism, now seems like riotously rose-colored optimism.

None of this is new analysis, but, I simply have to wonder what anyone is going to do about it in the foreseeable future.

Read More →

What if: President HRC’s America

Not that I need hypothetical demonstrations of how disastrously, deeply wrecked is America’s culture. There are real demonstrations all around us.

Yet over the past few years, I have asked myself numerous times whether these deep problems would be any less entrenched had Hillary Clinton won enough close-call states in the rust belt to carry the Electoral College in 2016. Not because I think Trump’s presidency has been any kind of “blessing in disguise,” as it has obviously in fact been a nightmare.

It just keeps feeling like a powerful way to check how much has really been ruined already, to ask “what if the entire Trump presidency had never been?” That seems like quite an incredible improvement compared with where we are now.

Yet, in terms of the deep and stubborn problems and what’s likely in store for us over the next decade, even this thought experiment doesn’t convincingly offer more hope.

Various examples I could find from other authors tend to reach similar conclusions as my own, in terms of “what if Hillary had become president.” Basically she would have become promptly mired in the same political cold war which has been ongoing constantly since at least 2009, with even worse prospects for reversing the losing trend.

Read More →

“Webcomics” book review

I found Sean Kleefeld‘s recent book Webcomics very interesting reading, despite being a webcomic… critic? skeptic? curmudgeon? Probably that last one.

I’m not opposed to webcomics. I have read various, including the (NSFW and age-restricted) OGLAF. But I still think Strong Bad E-mail #181 was and remains persuasive in pouring cold water on webcomics.

All of which I bring up in order to establish that, for anyone aware that the author has been an online friend going back to the previous century, FYI I was not pre-sold on his new book.

Despite which Webcomics was still a worthwhile purchase, impressive and offering much interest.

Read More →

Kirby Memorial issue of Marvel Age

This is not an old and/or obscure comics post, for the simple reason that Marvel Age was not a comic book.

Marvel Age was, I guess, basically a house-produced fan magazine, something probably near 100% obsolete in the age of the World Wide Web. But these did exist, in the Before Time. (Other examples which come to mind are Nintendo Power and something from Sierra which may have had a couple of names over the course of its existence.)

Although Marvel Age shared the size and format of a typical comic book, it generally contained minimal actual comics content. Issue #138 was no exception. It did contain, however, about as much a formal memorial as the company published upon the death of its all-time MVP, Jack Kirby.

So let’s revisit that, 26 years later.

Read More →