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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Unions, liberalism, and a tragic age

Last week, labor organizers finally won a vote to unionize an Amazon warehouse. Amazon, of course, spent multiple fortunes attempting to bust the union before it began (and is still trying to get the election result thrown out).

Organizers are, justifiably, very proud of their effort. They have fought and fought, losing again and again, with the unionbusting abuses by Amazon growing more and more outrageous. It is quite understandable they should feel like this is their achievement.

Yet as people celebrate victories like this, I keep feeling like something is getting left out. Even as working Americans are becoming eagerly pro-union, in relative terms, the whole foundations beneath organized labor are under an assault which has little standing in its way.

Our political system, including too much of the Democratic Party, has either dismantled collective bargaining protections or permitted their dismantling for decades. It is, again, very understandable that a lot of people fighting for these unions feel like they’re doing it on their own, without help from government, without allies among politicians. The fight is unreasonably hard, the elections are absurdly unfair, corporate employers violate rules basically with impunity.

But the very existence of rules at all, of elections which can be won, of the specific prize for which they judge the fight to be worth it—all of this is policy infrastructure which was created by politics and which politics is taking away.

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How our fight is and isn’t like Ukraine’s

I definitely think there are connections between Ukraine’s fight against Russian attacks, and liberal democracy’s fight against Republican attacks. I have written as much, a number of times.

There are direct links, for one thing; long before Trump began flaunting Putin as his own modern day ring-giver, the American right has had partnership with Russian oligarchs. The NRA is just one example among countless.

There are also the conceptual similarities which motivate that partnership. Not only are the politics of Putin and of Republicans oppressive, predatory and definitely antidemocratic, they point toward complete intolerance of anything which exists independent of their faction. (Putin is definitively there, but there’s no reason to think Republicans won’t catch up.) Not just me saying that, either.

But there are differences which are at least as important.

Looking at the surprisingly effective resistance by Ukraine and seeing an example for Democrats anxious about midterm elections really, badly, misunderstands a lot.

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Extermination

March 23, 2022, stands out somewhat from the standard of this ongoing nightmare, for various reasons which I will go through in a moment. There have been worse single days, and really, when the standard is as bad as it has become, it feels somewhat meaningless to measure one day against another. But an important theme connects a number of notes from Wednesday.

The theme is organized extremism with absolutely fanatical intolerance for anything independent of it even existing—and a larger community which just remains unable to process such fanaticism.

One of my first reads, Wednesday morning, was a fascinating letter to the editor, in which a retired British defense attaché denounces the flabbiness and corruption which led his country to ignore and even enable the monster of Putin’s government for so long. While this has broader applicability than just Britain, the inclusion of a quote from Sherlock Holmes naturally caught my eye as well. From “His Last Bow,” it’s just about the last thing, chronologically, which Holmes says in the entire canon, spoken just before the start of the carnage and devastation of World War I.

Overnight, Politico Europe published an essay on “The failed world order” which makes a very effective bookend, essentially surveying more broadly the failings of the “Western” alliance and its institutions, which resulted in them ignoring and even enabling the monster of Putin’s government for so long. Mentioned within the essay, Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N., likened Russia to a poisonous mold, spreading rot through the structures of the international body.

In between, the day delivered now essentially standard news and analysis from Ukraine, where there seems less and less to be any credible purpose to Russian attacks besides injuring and, to the greatest extent possible, simply destroying Ukraine. The day also delivered multiple demonstrations of the similar fanaticism within the United States, and the failure and flab within America’s own liberal order.

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Re: “Socialism or Barbarism”

This is a sketch idea still taking form, but it occurs to me that Russia’s shattering of (what we thought of as) the post-Cold-War world order may be the era’s most popular argument against the accompanying exploitative economic policies. This may have long-term significance, but in the short term I mostly just have to marvel at the historic joke that (at least in the US) the socialists want nothing to do with this argument.

I’m not sure how much time to spend on something which possibly no one besides me would appreciate, even if they read it.

But, Democratic Socialists of America has, I guess, for some time called for the US to withdraw from NATO. DSA has actively reaffirmed this stance since Russia launched its assault on Ukraine, along with finding other reasons to bothsides the unprovoked invasion which is turning into a spite campaign of plain destruction. I regard this as gross, though not really more stupid or disqualifying than all kinds of more mainstream politics and culture. I would basically just “whatever” it.

Except that as I start thinking about the prospect of a long-term disconnection of America’s and allies’ economies from Russia, and the re-engineering which ought to accompany that, it occurs to me that the proximate motivation to “stand up for Ukraine” amounts to a very popular argument against capitalism.*

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Cato, Tacitus, and Ukraine

This weekend I concluded, in tandem with various neighbors in the twittersphere, that Ukraine has very probably thwarted Russian ambitions to impose vassalage. It looks like Putin’s government is, instead, increasingly focused on simply reducing Ukraine to a desert.

The invasion has been taking on such a character for some time. Russian activity has gradually looked less and less like an invasion for conquest or regime change, and more like a punitive expedition. I have thought repeatedly of Tacitus’s remark that “they make a desolation and call it peace.”

Tacitus aside, I’m not sure that history includes many major, really close parallels with what’s unfolding in Ukraine. Armies destroying what they can’t hold is by means new, as a tactic. But the scale, here, is eye-opening. A large nation so rotten that it launches an unjustifiable invasion, without achieving any really credible pretext, then fails badly to impose its will upon a smaller neighbor, but has and is using automated destructive tools so extensive that it can level the neighbor even though the invading troops lose. The potential for that has existed for generations, at least, but I think examples of such a revolting spite campaign at this scale are few.

There are seemingly ample good reasons for such campaigns to be few. It looks monstrous, and it looks weak in important ways when such a maximalist punitive campaign is obviously resorted to as a Plan J or something, after every hope for imposing control or influence has failed or stalled. Much of the world will react to this, harshly, despite shrugging off lots of “ordinary” atrocities. Despite which, in this case, deterrence seems ineffective.

I’m not sure how many people are really processing that, yet, but if the upper levels of Russian government are set on leveling Ukraine out of spite, regardless of cost, it is in their power to do so. We need to think more about how to respond.

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Flag-waving for Ukraine

In a direct, practical sense, I generally know what I think about Ukraine. Whatever the purpose or expectations of Russian government, the invasion of Ukraine is barbarism and butchery, by what has been a criminal rogue state for years anyway. I don’t support America starting a war over it. I definitely support sanctioning the criminal rogue state, and its crime bosses, into oblivion. I think the Biden administration has performed credibly, here, and that European* governments have surpassed very low expectations. I think Republicans are scum who have, directly and indirectly, enabled Russia’s crime bosses and placed Ukraine at risk for many years.

I think we definitely didn’t “win the Cold War” in any permanent sense 30 years ago. I think Europe has become too flabby, generally, while the United States has been more than excessively bellicose in a lot of the wrong directions while enabling Russia and many other criminal rogue states.

My thoughts and feelings about the reactions by American society, and to some extent the rest of the “Western” world, are more complicated. But I’m definitely getting really embarrassed by the volume of conspicuous yellow-and-blue flag-waving.

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