Nemesis, or, The World of Yesterday

The book which I titled Nemesis is, at its core, about a simple idea. For three decades, a recurring vote against the sitting president’s party has been a very powerful influence within American politics, even as the culture mostly carries on as though this influence doesn’t exist.

The point of Nemesis, I suppose, is that the narratives about American politics have become badly misaligned with what’s actually going on. After setting out the case that this nemesis vote exists, and is best explained as a big vote against the sitting president’s party—rather than as a trivial thumb on the scale, or as big votes in response to policies or issues or events—the book explores what preceded this destructive force, how that old system broke down, what’s actually going on now, and what options exist now.

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This is America now

My attempted political book Nemesis (to be shared soon) has multiple themes, but a big one might be summarized as “This is America, now.”

This is not a phase, a spell, an anomaly, or a fight with some thing which can be decisively won by the America of inclusive democracy and other liberal ideals.

It’s pure hallucinatory delusion to maintain, at this point, that “in November of 2020 … We saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Well, the light is still a little further off”* but we will get there.

We are not “passing through a tunnel” or any other metaphor for temporary deviation from a safe normal which we can get back to.

This is America.

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Three-line program

It just becomes more and more and more difficult to take American political debate and processes seriously. As I have written, real changes are occurring, mostly dire, and I take those very seriously. But these are so detached from most of the rhetoric and rituals which just carry on.

I am reminded of this xkcd:

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Social Networks & Corrosion

This has been an interesting “quiet” week. Wednesday morning I created a mastodon account and have scarcely been on Twitter, since, which is a huge change to my information diet and online interaction.

We’ll see what happens, although even if this megalomaniac’s plan to buy Twitter for the trolls falls through, I don’t think I ought to go back to old habits like nothing happened. I have experienced two ridiculous account lockdowns in the past couple of years, both of which also emphasized how much of an addiction that hell site is. Twitter absolutely has added value to my life, also, but all of that rests on a very unstable foundation when one oligarch can just declare that he will take over and there’s really no recourse.

I feel like it’s disappointing but revealing how many users will not merely carry on, but imagine that their acceptance of an even more toxic Twitter is somehow an act of defiance. This week I saw multiple people, whose attitude toward a Musk makeover of Twitter is as negative as my own, post something to the effect that “but whatever, won’t drive me away, I obviously have a high tolerance for toxicity so ha ha.”

I’m reminded of Notes from the Underground: “My liver is bad, well—let it get worse!”

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Rebuilding

Brooke Binkowski seems to Get It, including the fact that “This bullshit is not cutting it.” Her suggestions include:

  • we need to truly ask ourselves what we want from our country and our leadership and especially our media.
  • we need a new Constitution and a new flag and new borders
  • big social sites need to be recognized as their own forms of nation-states
  • We need more responsive local leaders and better funded newsrooms, and everyone needs to understand the power of weaponized narratives. None of this is “just happening”
  • I advocate for unionization, mutual aid, and other expressions of solidarity, because that’s what we need the most at this time and that is what we are lacking

I don’t know that a meaningful “perfect complete program of reform” exists, but the above is a much better start than the bullshit from the obsolete liberalism which just will not respond to a challenge which demands different tools.

The pretense of functioning, legitimate authority in America is really just ridiculous at this point. I could go into some recent events but, really, it’s just playing-out of what various people have seen in motion for years. From Eric Sandy writing that “the brakes are cut,” to my own scribbled note that “the crash is going to accelerate” (along with plenty of other writing to that effect) to the random person up the street who put “it will get much worse” in the apartment window in autumn 2020 to plenty of others… 

Yet the band plays on. Parts continue grinding away within the broken machine.

The concept of a reverse “first they ignore you” seems increasingly relevant: 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.

The Empire never ended

“The Empire never ended” is a phrase which recurs throughout Philip K. Dick’s surreal testament/novel VALIS. Like the novel itself, the phrase has stuck with me; in the novel it refers primarily to the Roman Empire and discontinuity with the flow of time, but I at any rate also inferred a broader reference to futility and fatalism.

Whether or to what extent that was the author’s intent, it occurred to me this week that both significances are compatible with the actual persistence of the Roman Empire in the 21st century.

This struck me especially when I looked at a Wikipedia page, about the French parliament, which displayed an ornamented fasces labeled “Emblem of the French Republic.” Now, Wikipedia’s entry for the fasces itself traces this back through Roman civilization to Greek and Etruscan origins, which I will presume is historically sound. But that doesn’t exactly falsify the sense of such continuity, across millennia, as to suggest that the Empire never ended.

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A bit more about bipartisanship

Attorney Marc Elias seems, often, to get very close to seeing a big part of why American politics has become unworkable, without quite confronting the full implications.

Yes, in a very important sense, the Republican Party is a toxic cancer devouring American democracy. But nearly all the body’s systems regard it as a vital organ. We are making nil progress toward solving this problem; this is demonstrated very well by the ability of someone as smart as Elias to get so close to recognizing it and still not make it the whole way.

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Theory of the Case

Like a lot that I post here, certainly of a political nature, this is a visit to familiar territory. I have often mentioned Carl Sagan’s quote about being “captured by the bamboozle.” (In fact I am bemused to discover that currently, at least on Ecosia, one of my posts is the third result when searching the term.)

I have also touched on the idea that’s on my mind, today, but perhaps it deserves a feature of its own:

It seems entirely possible that things can become so bad, that existing systems can be so unworkable, that an accurate assessment will sound like defeatism. Keeping things hypothetical for a moment, imagine a situation like that, and people simply rejecting the reality of it, because describing it absolutely does sound like defeatism. That seems functionally indistinct from the situation Sagan described: “we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. … The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken.”

Now obviously, I don’t really think this is hypothetical. I concluded back in 2020 that hopes for a healed democratic America were already unrealistic.

But what is the theory of the case, for those who still reject that assessment?

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What if Ukraine submitted

I think there’s important value in thinking about an alternate scenario in which Ukraine simply conceded everything which Putin’s Russia demands.

In a sense this is farfetched. Ukraine has proved very united in fighting for its independence.

But I think the question is still important as a hypothetical. We didn’t know, beforehand, that would be the case. Many other governments were counting on Ukraine folding, in fact, maybe not willingly but folding nonetheless; had that happened, it’s fair to say that most would have accepted it as fait accompli without concern over Ukraine’s opinion. Plenty of governments still, even now, advocate Ukraine simply conceding (and their ranks may grow further).

More generally, why should it seem farfetched for Ukrainians to submit to an autocrat’s demands that they accept life without democracy, independence, rights, etc.—when so many people do so?

As far as I can tell, the main thing which makes voluntary submission by Ukraine seem unreasonable, to most center-left political opinion, is its separation from Russia by an international border. That border’s current streak of existence is just over 30 years; Russia (backed up by many other governments) now deny that said border is valid; ultimately, these are abstract things which we make up.

Is that the traditional liberal order’s only “firm” determiner for whether your claim to rights is valid, or whether you are obliged to submit when an authority figure says so? I have a strong, very uncomfortable feeling that it is.

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How and When Do Phenomena Become Reality

I’m thinking a bit about how things become real to our culture, and what seems like a process. If there is anything here I’m only at the beginning of working it out.

What set me thinking about this, now, is the “discovery” last weekend that Russia was committing evil acts, abominable acts, war crimes, in Ukraine. Here are just a few things which preceded that early April “discovery.”

  • February 28: “Kharkiv under intense shelling by Russian artillery now. Civilian objects are targeted. Preliminary reports indicate dozens of casualties.”
  • March 1: US Secretary of State Blinken says that Russian strikes “are hitting schools, hospitals & residential buildings. Civilian buses, cars, and even ambulances have been shelled. Russia is doing this every day—across Ukraine.”
  • March 3: Video verified by The New York Times shows the bombardment of Chernihiv, Ukraine, near apartments, pharmacies and a hospital.
  • March 6: Russian forces fired mortar shells at hundreds of Ukrainian civilians as they fled.
  • March 7: Red Cross says an evacuation route out of Mariupol in Ukraine was mined.
  • March 9: WHO reports at least 18 attacks on health facilities in Ukraine since the start of the invasion; also on March 9, Russian forces bombed a maternity and children’s hospital.

I could go on, easily. On March 23, the US government formally declared that members of the Russian armed forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine. Also of course back in February Russia launched an unprovoked and unjustifiable military invasion of Ukraine—no pretexts, no puppets, just over the border with guns in hand—which is pretty much the most essential war crime of all.

But last weekend all kinds of people were shocked to discover that Russia was committing evil acts, abominable acts, war crimes.

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