Tag Archives: Pessimism

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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