Tag Archives: Reality Check

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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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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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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COVID Summer 2021

The sense that a Theory Of The Case is generally missing, including from purported leaders, is thriving lately.

I continue to think back on one of the earliest COVID prognoses that caught my eye as one of the best. I wish I had clipped a source URL. But I recall back near the start of all this, someone advising that eventually everyone would be exposed to COVID and (this being way before vaccines) most people exposed would get infected. This was, as far as I can tell, always the theory of “flatten the curve”—even if that escaped people—i.e. don’t all get COVID at once and thereby overload the hospitals, not do this so that you don’t get COVID ever.

With vaccines’ arrival, some theoretical possibility seemed to exist that thoroughly vaccinated societies could achieve that so-much-abused concept, herd immunity.

That’s just no longer even within reach at this point.

As someone else forecast fairly early on, COVID is endemic now. There is no credible scenario for how this worldwide, extremely transmissible virus gets removed from circulation. This is not so much because it’s “mutating around the vaccines,” as ongoing lurid speculation anticipates, as it is because there are a lot of people who will never get vaccinated. Vaccines are available in America. It isn’t really an access problem other than for children or the immunocompromised. For millions of people in this country and many more in other countries, it’s basically just a Bartleby the Scrivener situation.

Few people seem even to be confronting this reality, honestly.

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VALIS

Philip K. Dick’s novel VALIS is, 40 years after its publication, a bit like watching one’s self live on video: what seems bizarre is actually what’s there all the time, revealed by the unfamiliar reflection of the familiar reflection which we see in mirrors.

VALIS is a bizarre work, made more bizarre by the way it challenges the concept of fiction. Many of the thoughts and experiences in VALIS are allegedly those of the author. This is recorded in most standard accounts about Dick’s life, as well as within the novel itself, although the novel also includes the character “Horselover Fat” as, at various points, 1) a mask worn by the author, 2) a self-delusion which the author sees through, and 3) an independent entity who interacts with the author. VALIS does not seem to me like it’s simply a pantomime exercise in freaky shit, for what that’s worth. The gnostic musings as well as the reported experiences seem, in combination with external writing about the book and the author, to be coming from sincerity—although the author makes considerable allowance for some of the experiences to be hallucinations or other cognitive-only experiences, sincerely reported.

Taken all together, VALIS seems like a tour of delusions, myths, and conspiracy bunk, provided by a guide partially aware that some of it is incredible and may not be strictly real, but not at all certain what alternative is real.

In 2021, in America, this also seems like a prime example of the literary characteristic of applicability for which J.R.R. Tolkein expressed appreciation.

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Reality and self amid the maelstrom

Thinking lately about what’s real and what’s important—neither of which overlaps completely with the other—and how to hold onto them amid all the dysfunction, real dangers and misleading indicators.

I have been writing plenty about the false and misleading, this year. Every day seems to be a downpour of dishonesty, delusion, wrong directions and la la land pretending. I can see this, and while it’s a struggle to go against the grain when hardly anyone else seems like they’re going to, I think I can make it that far.

But where am I going to, and where can I go to; what revised expectations of real and important should replace the old?

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Honesty about disaster

Several years ago, I wrote in Cotton’s Library about the political breakdown which flummoxed the Jacobean antiquarian and courtier, Sir Robert Cotton:

In evaluating his political career, Cotton comes across as a Jacobean Cicero. Like the influential senator at the end of Rome’s republic, Cotton stood in the very middle of a constitutional system buckling and splintering under strain, yet never saw any possible solution but voluntary moderation of the competing forces. The relatively respectful and effective interplay between Elizabeth and her parliaments during Cotton’s early life always remained his model of how English government worked. As political relations deteriorated under the Stuarts he did not see a failure of the system; the system was perfect, and the need for change lay not with it, but with the people within it.

I have since concluded that, in a sense, Cotton’s attitude was both wrong and right, about a political paradox which may be universal. I feel confident that some political systems are so flawed as to be unworkable, but I have begun to suspect that there may not be any set of rules and institutions so perfect that they remain effective when too many people simply stop believing in them.

That’s now happening right in front of us, in America.

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Law, like politics, is stories

Here’s some very broad political advice: don’t confuse proving misconduct with pursuing victory in electoral politics. Though they may overlap, they are distinct things, and the distinction is very important.

I write from personal experience, here. Five years ago, my life transformed forever as the result of joining a frantic, grassroots attempt to prevent the liquidation of my city’s publicly owned charity hospital. We failed, utterly, and while there are many reasons, the most generally applicable is probably the lesson that “but that’s against the rules!!!” should not be assumed a cause’s strongest argument. Even when it’s against the law. Even when you can prove it with facts. Even when they admitted it.

An example: in 2015, Lakewood City Council met in one closed-door session after another. Public deliberation on the city’s hospital, by city council, was almost nonexistent. They got away with it anyway. Despite state open-meeting laws. Despite being sued. Despite their legal counsel—the city’s own law director—admitting during the court proceedings “that a violation has occurred.”

Plentiful other rule-breaking and evidence of rule-breaking characterized our feral local government’s fight to liquidate the public’s hospital. In terms of formal enforcement of rules, they got away with all of it, too, aside from one court ruling which obliged the city to cough up some redacted documents long after the votes had taken place and the hospital was a shuttered hulk.

That outcome, I’m entirely certain, could have been prevented politically. It wasn’t a hard sell. But the grassroots campaign did many many things wrong, including becoming near-obsessed with rule-breaking at the expense of campaigning for political support.

Ultimately, try though we may to make it work otherwise, law and enforcement thereof are a product of politics. Influence can run in both directions, but politics is always present; rules and laws are only enforced when and if political incentive to do so is sufficient.

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Paris terrorism reality check part two

See also part one.