Tag Archives: Conceptual Infrastructure

Perspective on Groupthink

A recent thread by Kamil Galeev is so amazingly good. People are familiar with the concept of “groupthink,” yet Galeev essentially proposes that this is not so much an error into which people can fall, as it is the normal human default, from which exceptions are possible but very challenging, and that there are reasons which explain why this is the case.

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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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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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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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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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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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Magical thinking around democracy

I have this album, from an obscure band, which includes a lot of sampled speech from movies etc., most of which I don’t recognize. I have no idea where they got the bit which begins “nobody in the music industry knows anything about the industry.” But it has been on my mind for some time as a useful insight into American politics.

Hardly anyone in politics seems really to know much about politics, beyond shallow ideas and practices adopted from those already in it. I’m not sure much of anyone within American democracy really thinks very deeply about the concept at all.

That seems harsh and probably conceited, and yet. There is so much evidence of even elites who purport to be very concerned with and active in the realm of democracy, all the time, yet demonstrate childishly shallow and nonsensical thinking about it.

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The limitations of getting the facts

I have written that investigators are doing the best job of just about anyone at responding to the January 2021 Capitol putsch. I find Marcy Wheeler, and her rebuttals to many particular complaints about the Department of Justice, very credible.

I think that no outcome of even the most successful investigation is, by itself, going to save America’s democracy. I also think that the standard for “getting the facts,” “establishing beyond reasonable doubt,” etc., as applied to so many things seems much like a mirage, forever visible on the horizon but never actually closer no matter how far you go in its direction.

Republicans’ effort to pressure Georgia’s election officials into fraud, more than a year ago, seem like an illustration verging on caricature of this reality.

Trump’s telephone harangue of Brad Raffensperger on January 2 seems like it amounted to illegal solicitation of election fraud, or else nothing ever could. But more to the point the phone call lasted one hour. The whole call was recorded, and published almost immediately. How much time can you spend investigating a one-hour conversation?

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Coups, procedure, & cultural senescence

Picking up from “Systems are living forms… They, too, are born and die,” I want to make a few notes related to the recent “reveal” that Trump sought to overturn the presidential election.

Where even to begin, though:

  • Uh, we know that Trump sought to overturn the presidential election; how many times can this be “BREAKING” news?
  • In any meaningful sense, Trump already did use arcane procedural mumbo jumbo to overturn the presidential election in 2016, when he lost by nearly 3 million votes.
  • George W. Bush used arcane procedural mumbo jumbo to overturn a presidential election even 16 years before that, and even if you’re determined to look for sinister scheming, that’s where to look, since after that point America just normalized using arcane procedural mumbo jumbo to overturn presidential elections.

Seriously this is just ridiculous that even “experts” in these matters won’t see past the obsession with Trump to recognize that everything alarming in the Pence/memo/coup story is long-established and accepted.

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