Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Bothsiderism

I’ve had the New York Times bookmarked for a couple of decades, and followed it behind the paywall long ago, but I’ve detested its political reporting since its cheerleading for the Cheney Shogonate’s warmongering, and particularly for its Clintophobia. I take particular exception to the paper’s pious pose of “objectivity,” which requires it, apparently, to report upon the criminal cabal now holding office as though this was just one more administration.

The graphic posted here consists of a screengrab from this morning, and my own imagined webpage depicting how the NYT might have reported D Day, by its current editorial standards, in 1944.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Not that future—the other one

Noted commercial illustrator Syd Mead, the “visual futurist,” pegged out at the end of last year. Most of his work had the vibe of the Sixties dialed up to eleven: sleek, stylish, streamlined, almost antiseptic in its modernity; the twenty-first century as James Bond might have imagined it, partaking much more of The Jetsons than of Blade Runner—although of course Mead had a considerable hand in the design of that dystopia. At least he made it past November 2019.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Living in still another future

Welcome to “The Twenties.” It’s a relief getting back to a decade naming convention that rolls off the tongue, unlike the last two. On the other hand, it appears likely to be a dire one content-wise, and there’s a not-inconsiderable possibility, at my age, that I won’t feature in the opening credits for “The Thirties.”

“Science fiction” has historically tended to be blinkered by the era in which it’s written, so that, for example, descriptions of spacecraft controls used to feature a lot of buttons, switches, and needle gauges. Sociologically, likewise, there wasn’t much thought—making the honorable exceptions stand out that much more vividly—given to, say, how gender roles might evolve. But even a blind squirrel, et cetera, and I’m struck by the prescience of Year of Consent, an otherwise unmemorable mass-market paperback in which the implications of applying modern advertising techniques to politics, pioneered just two years earlier by the Eisenhower campaign (I like Ike, but we’re still living with the consequences of a lot of questionable decisions made in his name, starting with that year’s VP pick and, most recently, with the 1953 interference in Iran) are pondered.

I picked this up for fifteen cents under its original purchase price when a small bookstore went out of business a few years ago (the proprietor was a good guy, but perhaps temperamentally unsuited for retail: when I’d place my pile of purchases on the counter he would spontaneously discount them: “Seven dollars?…I dunno, maybe four?” “No,” I’d explain, “that’s the way it works when you’re buying”). Published in 1954, Year of Consent depicted the dire world of 1990, when the seventy-four United States of America are governed by marketers, psychologists and “social engineers”:
The administration wanted to know as much as possible about what everyone thought and felt. What people ate, where they spent their vacations, what they talked about—all of these things were added up and passed through SOCIAC to produce complete pictures of individuals and groups. Thus, when the administration wanted to make a new move, they knew exactly how to condition the people so that it would be backed. Or they knew exactly what sort of man to put up to win a popular election. This, then, was government by consent.
Remarkably, this apparatus of manufactured consent is coordinated by a massive computer with approximately the horsepower of a first-generation “IBM PC.”:
Even in the elevator I was conscious of the vibrations, like an inaudible hum, of SOCIAC at work. The giant electronic brain filled up the first ten floors of our building. There were additional memory banks in several subcellars and in another nearby building. It was impossible not to be in awe of it [Try me —Ed.] Just as an example, it contained about 500,000 electronic tubes and about 860,000 relays. Not counting the extra memory banks, it had 400 registers totaling 6,400 decimal digits of very rapid memory in electronic tubes and about 6,000 registers totaling 120,000 digits of less rapid memory in relays.
Needless to say, punched cards are involved. Well, even Vannevar Bush’s remarkable “memex,” which was envisaged as having something like the capabilities of a modern personal computer with the Wikipedia homepage open, was conceived, in his 1945 essay “As We May Think,” in terms of microfilm and conventional projection. The hardware of Year of Consent’s dystopia is anaemic, of course, and its political environment monolithic, with a single governing authority wielding these powers of mass manipulation rather than the anarchic struggle for influence that rages around us today—although see modern China for something closer to Crossen’s vision and, perhaps, our future.

Kendell Foster Crossen worked in a number of genres over the course of his career, and also created the “Green Lama,” a Buddhist(!) superhero who was featured in stories, comics and radio programs (“The Green Lama is an alias of Jethro Dumont, a rich resident of New York City, born July 25, 1903, to millionaires John Pierre Dumont and Janet Lansing. He received his A.B. from Harvard University, M.A. from Oxford, and Ph.D. from the Sorbonne; he also attended Drepung College in Tibet. He inherited his father’s fortune, estimated at ten million dollars, when his parents were both killed in an accident while he was still at Harvard; he then spent ten years in Tibet studying to be a lama, acquiring many mystical powers in the process. He returned to America intending to spread the doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism, but realized that he could accomplish more by fighting crime, since Americans were not ready to receive spiritual teachings”). Crossen lived long enough to see the Eisenhower campaign’s crude techniques refined and deployed by Roger Ailes on Nixon’s behalf in 1968, and further extended to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. One feels that he might not have greeted our “social media” world with unalloyed enthusiasm.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Living in the (alternate) future

I have dwelt in coastal Northern California for going on half a century, in Oakland since 1977, and worked in San Francisco for forty years prior to my retirement. The region (in terms, specifically, of my place within it) is in certain respects an enclave. Had I been born in Appalachia to parents less determined to secure an upward cultural mobility for their children, had I skipped college and mined coal, I might in retirement—assuming I’d been able to retire at this point in my life; assuming the mine hadn’t closed or that I hadn’t succumbed to a respiratory ailment by now—have a different and considerably more bitter take on the hand I’d been dealt.

But I’m a “coastal elite,” as my West Virginia doppelgänger might regard me, and well pleased with the station in life to which circumstances have summoned me. Nevertheless, it behooves us to recognize the hopelessness that informs the lives of many among Trump’s “base.” I have long been irritated by the pious trope, uttered by presidents of both parties, that “America’s best days are yet to come.” Broadly speaking (I exclude from consideration sundry demographics who then existed with the boot of cultural hegemony hard upon their necks; hence “broadly”), America’s best days were the decades during which it held global economic primacy, its industrial competitors having been bombed flat during the unpleasantness of 1939-45. The jobs aren’t coming back. The plant won’t reopen. Late-stage capitalism will follow the money, and that includes lands where the cheapest labor is to be had. Part of the genius of late-stage capitalism (nobody said it would be pretty) lies in its ability to point the proles’ resentments downward, and not toward their betters.

What will we do with them, these feral voters who yearn for a Herrenvolk democracy that will acknowledge them as “real” Americans—sodomites, foreigners, dusky folk, coastal elites need not apply—even as it squeezes the last dime from their desiccated carcasses? Fuck if I know, but this demographic will be with us for a long time, and frankly, their plight should be addressed, somehow. Leaving them to stew in desperate poverty, ignorance, resentment and opioids is not good for anyone, not for the disenfranchised proles, not for the plutocrats, not for the coastal enclaves. Because if these people are left to continue as the seed crystal of a fascist movement, this will not end well for them or for us.

I don’t pretend to have a solution. In bleaker moments I am put in mind of Mark Ames’ pessimistic take on things from eight years ago:
If the left wants to understand American voters, it needs to once and for all stop sentimentalizing them as inherently decent, well-meaning people being duped by a tiny cabal of evil oligarchs—because the awful truth is that they’re mean, spiteful jerks being duped by a tiny cabal of evil oligarchs.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

More light verse

Do not throw Rudy under that big bus,
Old fools should dodge and weave and softly say:
“Evade, evade all this impeachment fuss.”

Though bagmen, caught, are scarcely beauteous
Who go on CNN unwisely, they
Should not go gentle under that big bus.

Such men, enablers all, surround us, thus,
Why sacrifice one pitiful roué?
Evade, evade all this impeachment fuss.

A clown who sought to suborn Kievan Rus’
To make of “Sleepy Joe” Trump’s lawful prey
Should not go gentle under that big bus.

Lawyers, high-paid, will warn their client, “Just
Stonewall, or plead the Fifth, and then you may
Evade, evade all this impeachment fuss.

“And on the news, Mayor G., do not discuss,
But merely hint at pardon, and you’ll stay
Far from the path of that advancing bus
And thus elude all this impeachment fuss.”

Aftermath

Regular readers of this blog—that would be me—know that I’m of a sunny and optimistic disposition, but even with some auspicious signs and portents lately, I’m having a tough time believing that we get out of this fix without some grave and irreparable harm, beyond what’s already been inflicted, to the polity. Well, “oceans rise, empires fall.” Houses burn and are rebuilt, even as heirlooms are forever lost.

Let’s proceed as though we exit this administration in some plausible best-case scenario, that Trump is removed or resigns, and that Pence runs and is defeated, or that Trump hangs on for another thirteen months, is soundly defeated, and actually leaves office without fomenting insurrection. It’s 20 January 2021 and Chief Justice Roberts, audibly gritting his teeth, swears in President-elect Warren, who took the election along with House and Senate Democratic majorities. We’re not talking filibuster-proof in the Senate—I said “plausible”—but timid institutionalist Senators who might hesitate to abolish the practice would do well to reflect that the GOP will, in a heartbeat, should Mitch McConnell or some future Majority Leader conclude that it’s to their significant advantage.

So: two branches of out tripartite system—in this vision, that may not be quite the lollipops-and-unicorns model that the BernieBros or the Steiniacs would want—which nevertheless constitutes (heh, heh) a marked advance over the chaotic and malignant misrule we presently endure.

But are we talking actual reform here, or merely a reprieve? Because Donald Trump did not spring full-formed from Murdoch’s brow. By the time he leaves the stage, pelted with produce and dragged off with a hook, influential voices will be raised insisting that the man was an aberration, and not the culmination, of poisonous currents in the Republican party going back for decades. Unless the next administration and the 117th Congress understand what has been burned down and what structural changes must be made in the rebuilding, a Democratic victory next year will grant us only a stay of execution. McConnell, or another “grim reaper” as he has proudly called himself, will presently be back, and pissed off. We ought to have learned this with the Obama presidency, and he ought to have learned it from Iran-Contra: “Let’s look forward, not back,” is bullshit when you’re dealing with these people, because they’ll bank the proceeds from their theft and set about stealing more. And we-the-people bear a share of that blame, because Democratic voters routinely exhale after prevailing in the general election, sigh “Well, thank heaven we’ve finally fixed that mess,” and let lapse their attention from the distracting and dirty business of politics. Pro tip: that doesn’t work, and the Republicans figured this out half a century ago.

We as a nation have been sleepwalking into this swamp of Caesarism for decades, and some people are only just waking up to discover our collective selves sternum-deep in fetid waters, with alligators eyeing us meaningfully. Successive slothful Congresses have yielded their powers incrementally to the Executive Branch, and now that branch, in the person of a jumped-up criminal developer from Queens, has quite clearly declared that it intends to take and to keep all such powers as remain, in which case, if he succeeds, self-government endures only as a brittle shell enclosing a near-vacuum, its former essence, such as this ever was, having been first poisoned and then leached away. And while the knuckle-dragging Dominionist Trump-enablers in the House of Representatives may for the moment be ignored, the Washington Post reports that thirty-nine Republican Senators are, as of today, solidly behind him.

But my scenario is supposed to be a ’appy occasion! Somehow the forces of righteousness prevail next year against gerrymandering, against Russian and domestic ratfucking on social media, against hacking of e-votes. The witch is dead! Do I hear a ding? Do I hear a dong? (We’ve been hearing the dung for years.)

Yes, and speaking of witches, Paul Campos made this point over at the “Lawyers, Guns and Money” blog earlier today as I write this:
I suspect, by the way…that it’s going to be OK to treat Trump differently, because it may well prove very convenient to everyone to rehabilitate the Republican party by burning this particular witch. 
If Trump is driven out of office before next November — which at the moment still seems very unlikely but suddenly no longer impossible — it will be precisely for this reason. Suppose next summer rolls around and it becomes blindingly obvious that Trump is going to get routed, and that he’s likely to take the Republican majority in the Senate with him. Under those circumstances, the fantastically powerful lust among the great and the good to get back to “normal’ — to pretending that Trump is some sort of inexplicable aberration, and that we can all get back to enjoying our nachos in Jerry Jones’s box if we just rid ourselves of this turbulent parvenu — is going to be truly overwhelming. Can you imagine the day Trump is ejected from the sacred precincts of the White House, and civility returns to America? David Brooks will have to write his column with one hand.
That’s going to be a problem, the reflexive impulse to declare that the Trump presidency was a “black swan” event—who could ever have predicted such a thing, really?—and that nothing in the soil from which he sprang could possibly account for the toxic blossom that unfurled its garish and deadly petals in 2016. Error! Error!

We have to acknowledge the structural weaknesses in our ancient Constitutional system that have permitted a mad king to assume and abuse the office referred to by the Founders as “Chief Magistrate,” because while Trump is erratic and barely sane, there are surely other, colder, more rational, more calculating authoritarians-in-embryo watching his regime, mapping the rot running through the norms, institutions, barriers, recording what works and what does not. What remains of the Constitutional order is ripe for overthrow, and such a coup will have the enthusiastic support of something like forty percent of those who turn out at the polls—“feral voters.” Absent significant reform—which, it should be noted, the Federalist Society-stacked courts at every level will do their best to thwart—any Democratic presidency will be at best an interregnum, a Weimar administration, before the virus of fascism lays waste at last to the society.

Geez, I appear to have talked myself down from optimism.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Rich and strange

I have not compiled an impressive record, political prognostication-wise. In 1976, after Ronald Reagan failed to wrest his party’s nomination from Gerald Ford, I remarked to friends, “Thank god we’ve seen the last of that clown.” Four years later I still could not believe that this genial fraud could ever make it to the White House, and the late John Anderson’s well-intentioned vanity candidacy received my vote, a self-indulgent fecklessness I would cheerfully take back. I have kept in mind ever since that it is never a good idea to underestimate the potential folly and depravity of the American electorate. Also: to spurn the perceived “lesser of two evils” serves only, under our system, to engorge the greater. And you know, one of the appeals of the lesser evil is that it’s less evil. I’ve seen enough greater evil since the beginning of 2017 to find that notion rather seductive.

Although three years ago I could not quite bring myself to believe that the GOP would actually open its thighs to Trump and yield up the nomination, I did at least contemplate the possibility of this happening, and even of the candidate prevailing in the general (see “Fidgeting in the Cheap Seats”). On the way to dining out on election night in November, I checked a news feed on my phone, and saw that the Senate was not tending our way. During dinner, to my wife’s irritation, I looked in on the coverage with mounting horror. And here we are.

In the aftermath I gloomily predicted that the Trump regime would prove worse than we could imagine. I will amend that: it has been worse than I imagined we couldn’t imagine.

Keeping in mind my mediocre win-loss record in these matters, just now, a week into October 2019, I sense a great disturbance in the Farce, as if dozens of complacent officeholders suddenly became uneasy and were suddenly disposed to support impeachment, if only tacitly. Trump’s latest erratic international behavior, tossing the Kurds to the sharks (what is it with the Kurds? Everyone fucks them over), has alarmed even some of his hitherto complacent allies in Congress and the tame media, and even the execrable god-botherer Pat Robertson warns that the short-fingered vulgarian risks forfeiting the “mandate of heaven” over this (has someone told the Rev that the mandate of heaven is of Chinese origin, and subject to a punitive tariff these days?).

Certainly there will remain among the public a hard core (apparently about 27% of voters) of Trump supporters who would not merely excuse but cheer his shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. Hell, Trump could rape and strangle an entire daycare center on Fox & Friends while setting alight a basket of kittens and knocking the crutch out from under a disabled war veteran without worrying about what this lot would think. But somehow I think, hope, that a sea change might be in prospect, that the Republic’s immune system, after much prodding, may actually be kicking in. Events are moving fast, and this entry is a mere photograph, and my political intuition may prove faulty for the nth time. But I do think, today, that the quicksand is shifting beneath 45’s feet, and that when the end comes—will the rats conclude that it’s better to toss the captain off the ship?—it may be sudden.

For the rest, though, the damage that has been done to the polity, to the country’s international relations, to the entire postwar order—we will none of us live to see all this redeemed. The USA is never coming back from this, even in any plausible best-case scenario.