Tag Archives: Pessimism

Ohio, America, and corrupted culture

It feels like our situation is deteriorating rapidly, in America.

Many eyes are on Portland, OR, and the challenging reality that the president of the United States is very explicitly dispatching secret police to beat up political dissenters and “disappear” them. The U.S. Attorney General now characterizes federal agents disappearing people in unmarked vehicles as “standard anti-crime” and “classic crimefighting.” This is really happening and it’s very bad.

Understandable that even my reasonably well-informed mother, three states away, barely heard of what seemed like a Vesuvian eruption within Ohio politics this week. I have already tried summarizing the scandal around Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, elsewhere, and perhaps the most relevant information in the big picture is that arbitrary and even ironic technicalities seem to have transformed massive corruption from business-as-usual into a scandalous crime.

The reality is that anyone paying honest attention knew, all along, that a big utility was using political spending to buy desired state government policy. The well-intentioned suggestions of reformers that “dark money” is the problem and that transparency is the solution miss the forest for the trees, I think. From what I can tell, transparency is in a real sense how Householder landed himself in legal jeopardy. Had he relied more on coded language and implication, he probably could have worked much the same scheme without meeting the absurd standard of a direct plain-language “quid pro quo.”

Reality is, purchasing public policy with money is business-as-usual in America and “transparency” is ineffective as a deterrent, because forces like shame and restraint are crumbling.

Householder has provided a second example of this, in the possibility that he may be able to shut down the Ohio House for an indefinite period. If it turns out that our rules and laws provide no resolution for a House Speaker whose arrest on public corruption charges prevents him from contact with many colleagues—and who refuses either to resign or schedule a House session during which legislators could remove him—the explanation will probably be that no one ever really imagined a politician would do something so grossly offensive.

Surprise, lots of politicians including very powerful ones are committing grossly offensive abuses of power, and it is unclear what can stop them.

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Corrosion, Dysfunction and Pushing on a Rope

Just about every day, now, I watch what’s going on in America with a kind of horrified fascination.

I definitely do not mean popular protests to insist that Black Lives Matter. That’s very good.

Not much else is. America completely mismanaged, is still mismanaging, a deadly pandemic. A recession is spreading throughout the economy, applying pressure to the enormous dominoes of state and local government budgets. Many cities’ police departments are pretty clearly feral. Industry is turning Earth’s climate toxic. Etc.

Beneath all of this, there’s a pretty glaring lack of effective solutions being implemented. I think a growing number of people sense this, to some extent. But I also think that very few are fully capable of conceiving how far we are, at this point, from even a fundamental degree of societal functioning which seems to be an unquestioned, popular assumption.

A lot of people seem like Captain Willard on the Do Long Bridge—demanding a response from whoever is in authority—before the penny dropped and he realized that the expected responsive system of authority simply didn’t exist.

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The Epistolary Illusion

I experience a lot of voter contact, these days. Texting is high-volume contact, and supervising others for a texting program is even higher-volume. It’s intense—because a lot of people are fairly blunt in this impersonal medium—and it’s also repetitive. Patterns emerge quickly and tend to repeat, repeat, repeat.

The conclusions to which they lead are certainly not encouraging.

The notions that political choices are driven by policies, or issues, or values—or that they are responsive to information—seem increasingly fanciful.

A recent direct exchange with someone I know, personally, may however be even more discouraging.

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“Dark Age Ahead” by Jane Jacobs

The last significant work from the late Jane Jacobs, written just a few years before her death, Dark Age Ahead seems like an odd anomaly in the fossil record.

I recall it being critically panned, as indeed was the general reception, to the extent it was really noticed. Perhaps some critics who felt awkward, about being too harsh on an elderly figure whose earlier work they considered important, found politely ignoring Dark Age Ahead easier.

More recently I have noticed one or two reappraisals, though I don’t recall the details offhand. They got me thinking about the book, though, and curious to check it out now that I have a bit of time available.

It is, I think, an interesting and odd historic artifact.

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The technology to save Earth’s climate

Today I saw this on Twitter, and really as far as I know there’s nothing farfetched or new, here:

I got into a brief back-and-forth with someone about the suggestion that “new technology” is where to look for hope. This notion bugs me; basically, it amounts to saying “I want this hard problem resolved for me by a new factor which doesn’t currently exist.”

This is the reality of most “technology” responses to the climate crisis. They aren’t responses, at all, but instead attempts to sidestep the issue.

That said, it occurred to me that in some sense, the reality is that we do need some incredible advancements in “technology” to survive the climate crisis.

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The Hurricane Warning

The extent, and the momentum, of corrosion in our society seems increasingly beyond rational problem solving.

I extend the recent string of deep pessimism, here, without enthusiasm. It would be nice to concentrate for a while on something else, again.

But I try, try to keep up with major events of the day, and lately this has been both very high-volume, and increasingly horrifying as they seem to gather into something like a destructive force of nature.

I’m not sure how much detail to go into, here. I’m not sure whether or not I can persuasively explain the impression of recording the reports of society going off the rails, daily for two and a half years, to someone who has not gone through the same experience.

Suffice to say that, with this experience as background, I am lately losing the ability to see relevant solutions to scale with the problems, which can credibly be accomplished by any kind of rational planned response.

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Post-Election Thoughts Nov. 2018

The Economist examined the question of whether or not America is “ungovernable” nearly nine years ago. At the time they concluded no, and blamed Barack Obama. By four years ago, their tut-tutting confidence had slipped a bit. I have documented that slide before.

Another cycle of presidential and midterm elections has now passed. I don’t know what The Economist may have to say at the moment; I don’t read the site regularly now that it’s tightly paywalled.

I, however, am left with a stronger than ever sense that America is ungovernable, at any rate in the sense of a capacity to organize at large scale and lead a substantive program of reform.

What is the point of any of the shouting, struggling, attempted organizing and counter-organizing, etc., etc.? I realize that things take time, but what has been the point of anything during the past 20 years in American politics?

In the 1990s, I can perceive the entrenchment of a neoliberal program, in broad terms. I may not approve of it, but I can at least identify a possible program of reform which (starting some time earlier) was still viable across multiple elections.

Since then…?

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First 15 Lives of Harry August

It has been another interesting year, and broader notes about that are coming.

Among the many interesting experiences in 2015, though, I feel like recalling one remarkable book in particular: The First 15 Lives of Harry August, by Claire North aka Catherine Webb.

This was excellent on multiple levels. First, I found it a simple compelling page-turner. It’s also very cinematic; I can picture vividly the lead-in scene as the first few seconds of a movie trailer. “I almost missed you, Dr. August. I need to send a message back to the past…”

Beyond this, the conceit is one of those things that comes close to being something new under the sun. North basically asks “what if a small number of people all experienced something like Groundhog Day, except for their entire lives rather than 24 hours?” The consequences are challenging; you basically have to imagine a series of timelines in sequence, which mostly follow the same course except that certain individuals always begin their lives remembering all that they experienced in each previous timeline. It pretty much works, though. The resultant world and its more detailed, human consequences are fascinating.

What impresses me most of all, though, is how these have stayed with me now for many weeks since I finished the book. Themes and ideas have kept coming back to me, and I have gradually concluded that—by explicit intent or not—The First 15 Lives of Harry August is an insightful metaphor for life itself.

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Doom vs Hope (Dr. Doom, that is)

Dr. Doom was one of my favorite comic book villains almost from the very start.

I have forgotten whether Fantastic Four #200 was the first or second issue of the series that I acquired, but it was certainly among my earliest purchases, generally, when I began collecting comic books beyond the Transformers series. It was a splendid superhero book, and obviously I perceived greatness in its villain, and I still do. Many have written appreciations of Dr. Doom over his half-century existence, and I could happily reiterate the character’s established strengths. Instead, though, I want to focus on an aspect that I’m not sure I have seen highlighted before, at least not from this angle.

Cover of FF 200 by Kirby and Sinnott

I bought this as a back issue of course, probably around 1990

A couple of weeks ago, fellow alumnus of Fantastic Four fandom Sean argued that recent adaptations have mislaid the optimism which is as much a key to the concept as elemental superpowers or familial bickering. I thought it was a very valid observation about the Fantastic Four as characters and series. (I have not seen the films, though I suspect the analysis hits its target there as well.) More recently, this proposal inspired a sort of corollary involving the series’ premier villain: part of what makes Dr. Doom a great foil for the FF is a contrasting pessimism intrinsic to his own character.

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That far shore

I have very possibly lived half my life, now.

I don’t know why birthday #37 has prompted so much reflection on the finite, but it has. In addition to realizing that “young adult” status is now firmly over, it has dawned on me recently that this is probably as close to the midpoint of my life as it’s ever going to be possible to determine, in advance.

Obviously one can’t know with precision, so there’s little point getting into arguments, but the suggestion that I have something like four decades remaining to me does not seem wildly unrealistic either way.

In some ways it’s a relief, too, honestly. When I suggest that the prospect of living through 10 more presidential campaign seasons is horrifying enough that I don’t even want to imagine another 15 or 20, any humor in the remark is incidental rather than fundamental. I’m tired, of many things.

The idea of significantly extended lifespans is usually more a dread than a dream, nowadays… which is why it seems just as well that I won’t see them.

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