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You will never be free of identity politics

2017 May 25
by Mandos

(MANDOS POST, people who don’t want to read things they disagree with pls stop here)

I don’t normally watch horror movies, but I made an exception and recently watched the horror film Get Out.  It’s a horror-satire movie that constructs its underlying trope from the concept of racist microaggressions, and it’s one of the best films I’ve seen all year, if not the best, period.   It’s a Stepford Wives style of horror, in which a young black man discovers that his well-meaning-seeming white inlaws-to-be believe in human improvement by the literal supplantation of black identities with white ones and the submergence of the black identity into a spiritual void called the “Sunken Place” — a literal sort of black/white solidarity where, of course, the white opinion matters more.

The privileged white horror-family in question is conceived of as stereotypical rich politically-correct liberal Obama voters, but the main character himself is a relatively successful young photographer who had access to that kind of company through his work, starting from less privileged roots and with black friends still living the working-class life, and his working-class black best friend — who correctly names and identifies the microaggressions and where they were leading — is his only lifeline in the entire story.  The illustration clearly intended by the director (well-known black comedian Jordan Peele) is that even when a black person in America manages to succeed on white terms, that in itself is not just, not sustainable, not sufficient.

That was a movie, but the point is illustrated periodically in real life — and occasionally in famous, very public rows.  Some of you may remember that a few years ago, there was a row over Oprah Winfrey’s attempted purchase of a very expensive handbag, worth twice or more than what some of her viewers make in a year, from a shop in Switzerland, wherein Oprah believed that she had been discriminated against by the saleswoman for being a black buyer in a fancy store.  Many could easily view this as a rich woman publicly bullying an innocent, ordinary-income shop attendant for a social faux pas, possibly based on ignorance of the American media landscape.  A class analysis.  But for people of colour, the incident is instead evidence that, even if one is doing well economically, one is still one of them, that the incident was no accident even if the saleswoman had no conscious intention of discriminating.

That sense that even under relatively positive overall circumstances, how one is treated in life is nevertheless conditioned on the sufferance of the majority/dominant community unless one erases one’s entire particularity (and even then) is not a trivial feeling.  It is a continuous burden, a headwind in life, and one that cannot be erased by exhortations to class solidarty and and one-sided demands to put the material advantages of class solidarity as prior to the domain of conflict called “identity politics”.  Class solidarity does not erase those conflicts, does not remedy them, does not alone create a long-term sustainable basis for rectification of discrimination.  Minority groups remain vulnerable even when the dream of a more just economy is realized.

The only way to proceed is to recognize that while the working-class American black has a cause in common with the working-class American white, she or he also has a cause in common with a rich woman like Oprah Winfrey, one that can be neither ignored, denied, or erased.  And the only way that class solidarity can take full precedence over that is when whites agree to disarm their own identity politics without demanding that blacks and other minority politics disarm theirs.

Essential Insanity

2017 May 24
by Ian Welsh
Image by Nesster

Image by Nesster

Walk with me a while and imagine you are mad. Crazy. Insane. It’s an interesting sort of insanity–you see the world as something other than it is. You are dead convinced that people are out to get you, but these people have almost no means to harm you and fear your retaliation greatly, because you’re a powerful person and they are weak.

You believe that you are hale and hearty; but in fact you’re ghastly, obese and ill. You think you’re rich, but in fact you’re poor. You think you have the best doctor around, but in fact your doctor is worse than almost every other doctor and charges 50% more than them. You think you’re tough, and you certainly haven’t let the fact that two ninety pound weaklings seem to be able to stand up to you get in the way of that.

You think that you have the most advanced technological toys, that what you have is the best, and once you did, but these days everyone else seems to have more advanced stuff.

The illness goes deeper though, a deep decay in your brain. The parts of your brain that make most of the decisions for your body think everything is wonderful. They seem only able to take in sensations from the taste buds these days, and for the last thirty years you’ve been on a rich diet. So they think everything’s great. Your once lean body, packed with muscles, has been replaced by a flaccid one, paunchy and fat, but somehow the key parts of your brain don’t know that. They don’t feel your sore back, they don’t hear the broken down breathing and they don’t see the gut hanging over your belt.

The you I’m referring to, as I’m sure many have  figured out by now, is the US. For years I’ve been writing for the US and observing it carefully, and I’ve found it one of the most interesting problems I’ve encountered in my life. Because America and Americans are very unpredictable. Now, of course, the first thing I thought was “it’s me,” and in a sense, that’s true.

Yet, here’s the thing, I have a very good record of predicting what will happen in Somalia, or Afghanistan, or Iraq. And when I get it wrong, I can look back and easily figure out why. Yet I’ve never visited any of those countries and really, know very little about them. On the other hand I grew up imbibing American media, know American history well, have visited America a number of times and spent 8 years in jobs that required me to deal with multiple Americans daily.

Odd. Very odd. And something I’ve discussed with other foreign observers of American society and politics.

The first clue to what was wrong came around the time of the Iraq war. It was obvious, dead obvious, to everyone outside of the US and to US citizens who were spending a lot of time parsing news, that the war was a joke and that Saddam had no nukes and was no threat to the US. Most Americans, however, didn’t get that. The reason, of course, was propaganda.

Fair enough. Every country whips its citizens into war hysteria with propaganda. But what was truly remarkable wasn’t that, it was that somehow the majority of Americans, over 70%, thought that Iraq was behind 9/11. Iraq, of course, had nothing to do with 9/11. Nothing.

Remarkable. Americans went along with going to war with Iraq then because they thought Iraq had attacked them and had nukes and could attack them again. A complete propaganda tissue of lies. But if you believe it all, well of course Iraq needed to be attacked.

What looked to the rest of the world as crazy was entirely logical. It was, however, still insane. If I see a tentacled monster from the fourth dimension attack me and I respond by grabbing a knife and slashing apart my next door neighbour who’s waving at me, well, I had a logical, coherent reason for what I did, but I still murdered him, and I’m still insane.

This is the first type of insanity in the US and it runs deep. I often feel like I spend more time correcting outright lies, outright propaganda, than anything else. Just this week I had to explain to a left wing blogger (who should know better) that single payer health insurance is cheaper and gives better results than private insurance system. Now in the US this is somehow still in doubt, but that’s insane–this isn’t in question, every other western nation that has single payer insurance spends about 1/3 less than the US and has as good health metrics or better either in most or all categories. This isn’t something that’s up in the air; this isn’t something that is unsettled. This is a bloody FACT.

Americans think they are the most technologically advanced society in the world, yet the US does not have the fastest broadband, the fastest trains, the best cellphones, the most advanced consumer electronics (go to Japan and you’ll see what I mean) or the most advanced green energy technology.

In the primary season Ron Paul was repeatedly cut out of media coverage and John Edwards was hardly covered. The majority of Americans thought that Edwards was running as the most right wing of the Democratic candidates. Huckabee was constantly called a populist when his signature tax program would gut the middle class and slap the poor onto a fiscal rack.

And when all is said and done, politicians are still running on slashing taxes and having that make up for itself, while the US runs a balance of payments higher than any other country post World War II has ever done without going into an economic crash.

That’s one type of insanity–thinking the world is something that it isn’t.

The second is worse, in a sense. When Diamond wrote his book on why societies collapse he came to the conclusion that it occurred when elites weren’t experiencing the same things as the majority of the society–when they were isolated from the problems and challenges the society was facing.

For 30 years ordinary Americans haven’t had a raise. And despite all the lies, Americans are beginning to get that.

But for the people in charge the last thirty years have been absolutely wonderful. Seriously, things haven’t been this good since the 1890’s and the 1920’s. Everyone they know–their families, their mistresses and toyboys, their friends–is doing well. Wall Street paid even larger bonuses for 2007, the year they ran the ship into the shore, than they did in 2006 when their bonuses equalled the raises of 80 million Americans. Multiple CEOs walked away from companies they had bankrupted with golden parachutes in excess of 50 million. And if you can find a Senator who isn’t a millionaire (except maybe Bernie Sanders) you let me know.

Life has been great. The fact that America is physically unhealthy, falling behind technologically, hemorrhaging good jobs and that ordinary Americans are in debt up to their eyebrows, haven’t seen a raise in 30 years and live in mortal fear of getting ill–because even if they have insurance it doesn’t cover the necessary care–means nothing to the decision making part of America because it hasn’t experienced it. America’s elites are doing fine, thanks. All they can taste, or remember is the caviar and champagne they swill to celebrate how wonderful they are and how much they deserve all the money federal policy has given them.

This is the second insanity of the US–that the decision making apparatus in the US is disconnected from the results of their decisions. They make sure they get paid, that they’re wealthy, and let the rest of society go to hell. In the end, of course, most of them will find that the money isn’t theirs, and that what they’ve stolen is worth very little if the US has a real financial crisis.

The third insanity is simpler: it’s the wealth effect. At the end of World War II the US had about half the world’s economy. Admittedly that’s because Europe had been bombed into oblivion, but even when Europe rebuilt the US was still far, far ahead. The US was insanely rich and powerful. See, when you’re rich you can do stupid and unproductive things for a long time. There are plenty of examples of this but the two most obvious ones are the US military and the War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs hasn’t reduced the number of junkies or drugs on the street in any noticeable way. It has increased the US’s prison population to the highest per capita level in the world, however. It has cost hundreds of billions of dollars. It has gutted civil liberties (the war on terror is just the war on drugs on crack, after all). And after 30 years does anyone seriously say “wait, this doesn’t work, it costs billions of dollars and it makes us a society of prisons?” Of course not, if anything people compete to be “tough on crime.” What’s the definition of insanity, again? Doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting different results?

Then there’s the US military. It costs, oh, about as much as everyone else in the world’s military combined. It seems to be at best in a stalemate and probably losing two wars against a bunch of rabble whose total budgets probably wouldn’t equal a tenth of one percent of a US appropriations bill. And it is justified as “defending” America even though there is no nation in the entire world which could invade the US if the US had one tenth the military.

But the US could (not can, they are now unaffordable, but could) afford to have a big shiny military and lots of prisons, so it does. Lots of people get rich off of both of them, lots of rural whites get to lock up uban blacks and lots of communities that wouldn’t exist otherwise get to survive courtesy of the unneeded military bases and prisons which should never have been built.

Insane–believing things that aren’t true.

Insane–decision makers are cut off from the consequences of their decisions and in fact are getting reverse feedback, as things get worse for most Americans and as America gets weaker and poorer, they are the richest they’ve ever been.

Insane–so rich that no one will stop doing things that clearly don’t work and are harmful, because people are making money off the insanity.

All of this is what makes predicting the US so surreal. It’s not just about knowing what the facts are and then thinking “ok, how would people respond to that?” You have to know what the facts are, what the population thinks the facts are, what the elites think the facts are, who’s making money off of it, and then ask yourself if these facts are having any real effect on the elites and if that effect is enough to outweigh the money they’re making off of failure (how many of them have children serving in Iraq? Right, not urgent to fix.)

And then you have to go back to the facts and ask yourself “what effect will these have even if they’re being ignored.” Facts are ugly things, they tend not to go away.

All of which makes the US damn near impenetrable, often enough even to Americans.

But here’s what I do know–you can get away with being nuts as long as enough people are benefiting from you being insane. When the credit cards are all maxed out, when the relatives have stolen even the furniture, suddenly all the enablers go away and the kneebreakers or the men in white pay you a visit. At that point you can live in the real world, or you can go to the asylum.

I wonder which way the US will go?

(Originally Posted at FDL January 20, 2008)

(Second repost, last one was May 5, 2009. This is, imo, one of the more important posts I ever wrote.)


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The Word Terrorism

2017 May 23
tags:
by Ian Welsh

This word still means nothing except “violence committed by non-state actors.”

Multiple states routinely target weddings, funerals, and hospitals.

I remain unable to see the difference, except that state actors kill a lot more people.

Oh, and people’s suffering is not less real or worthy of sympathy if they have less or more melanin than you–or are from a different religion or a different culture.


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A Quick Note About Single Payer

2017 May 22
by Ian Welsh

I’m seeing some Dem wonks–establishment ones–who think that the Democrats will wind up embracing single payer, possibly in the next election.

I want to state something simple about this: Do not try to be clever about this.

Offer Medicare for all, with a bill that is no longer than 20 pages. Do not try to “fix” things, because this generation of approved wonks is incapable of doing that, or of writing a bill that is shorter than War and Peace.

That’s unnecessary. The great bills under FDR were all short, the bill creating Canada’s single payer system was short, etc.

Writing too many finicky implementation details into bills is lunacy. You write principles and outcomes and let bureaucrats, regulators, and appointees figure out how to deliver.

And, in the case of Medicare, it basically works, and it works better than anything the current generation could possibly come up with. This is incontestable in practice, because the bills they have written over the last 30 years are all awful messes.

Medicare for all. Just extend who gets it.

That’s all.


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The Off-Ramps Never Used

2017 May 19
by Ian Welsh

This is an old joke:

A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbour came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”

“No thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”

A short time later, the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”

A little time later, a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder, and said: “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No thanks,” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.”

All this time, the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived in heaven, he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room, he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me! I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes you did my child” replied the Lord. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat, and a helicopter. But you never got in.”

I am watching, right now, the British, offered an off-ramp by Jeremy Corbyn, and refusing it. Corbyn has been right in his life about almost everything: He was against every bad war, he was against cutting welfare, he was against privatizations, he was against bad trade deals, and bailouts, and so on.

More than this, he acted on that: He voted against them, spoke against them, marched against them. He has not taken bribes, he has not charged the taxpayer for fancy hotels or booze. He is a man of integrity who can reasonably be expected to do what he says.

Like all men of integrity, that means he won’t always tell you want to hear, but that’s the price you pay if you want an actual honest person in charge.

So, of course, Brits are going to elect May, a truly horrid woman who is complicit in taking wheelchairs away from the poor, and a thousand other things you can read about if you have the curiosity of a turnip and access to a search engine.

Many rowing boats, helicopters, and so on have been offered throughout my life. I remember the warnings about inequality rising from the mid 80s. I remember the warnings about climate change, also from the mid 80s. (They existed earlier, but I was too young.)

Candidates ran who were good on these things, including presidential candidates like Kucinich. They were laughed at and ridiculed. Everyone knows that you can’t actually tax rich people, forbid corruption, or not destroy the ecosphere’s ability to support human life for profit.

People screamed from the rooftops. Many many books were published. People went on TV. Huge marches occurred.

But candidates who would actually reverse bad policy were jokes. “Hahahaha. Only suckers want to do the right thing. He’s not a credible candidate, we have to vote for someone evil, just a little less evil than the most evil candidate!”

Hahahahaha.

The off-ramps were there. They were offered time and time again. And we refused them, time and time again.

At some point, the off-ramps will run out. In fact, they already have. All the off-ramps now lead to “OMG THIS IS SUCKSVILLE.” But the off-ramps coming up, and pretty damn soon, are labelled “First Level of Hell.”

The current catastrophes and the upcoming ones were all affirmatively chosen and then re-affirmed repeatedly by voting majorities or pluralities, and by the elites of every major country.

When you die, if there is a God, don’t ask him why he didn’t send help. Ask him why we didn’t accept it.


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Get a Grip

2017 May 17
by Ian Welsh

And lower the drama.

Yeah, the world system is broken, and yes, we are due for a series of catastrophes which will be apocalyptic for many. It’s already been apocalyptic for a lot of species, and there’s no cosmic calculus which says that humans are immune: The top of the food chain usually dies in great die-offs, actually.

But this stuff is in the future. Today, the majority of people are substantially as well off as they were in 2015. I doubt anyone reading this is doing so from, say, Yemen.

Trump is not the worst leader to ever lead a country, and so far he hasn’t done anything as bad as what either Bush (Iraq) or Obama (Libya) did. Of course, you’re probably American and may be scared of losing your Obamacare, but war is worse than that. It’s just that, hey, you’re American, and America is supposed to do the worst crimes to people overseas or to blacks, hispanics, and poor whites in dank hole prisons where you can’t hear them scream, where you can’t see their agony and degradation.

Now, of course, if your personal life is going to shit due to your personal economy, health, or social relationships, well, that’s bad, and that may even be related to politics (in the broader sense, it almost certainly is), but most people are about as well off as they were before Trump.

As I have pointed out repeatedly, people during WWII still managed to love, find time to be happy, write novels, and so on. This isn’t WWII, it isn’t the Mongol Invasions or the An-Lushan rebellions (far worse than WWII compared to the world population at the time, by the way).

If you’re basically healthy, have food, a soft warm place to sleep, and aren’t ruled by a tyrant in your daily life, well, life is basically fine–assuming no one you love is suffering hugely.

That was true two years ago, ten years ago, and one hundred years ago.

Unless you’re reading from Yemen or Syria or something, get a grip on yourself. Things are going to get far worse than this, and if you’re not too old and reasonably healthy, you’ll likely be here for at least some of it.

If you’re flying apart at this, then how will you handle catastrophe when it actually arrives?

Use this as an opportunity to learn equanimity or toughness (the two are basically the same), and how to be good to those around you even when things are somewhat shitty. When everything does go bad for your part of the world, will you keep it together and be a source of warmth, love, and competence? Or will you be broken?

It’s perfectly human to fear, and sadly human to live in fear of a future that isn’t here yet.

But it’s no way to live.


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The Usefulness of Alt-Left, EmoProg, BernieBros, and FireBaggers

2017 May 15
by Ian Welsh

The existence of all of the above phrases brings joy to my life. I consider it like nature giving skunks a broad white stripe down their back, as an extra “bad, very, very bad” warning.

All of these phrases are, or were, used by centrists to disparage people to their left.

Emo-prog: “You have emotions about issues, which means you aren’t serious! Why can’t you debate reasonably about how many brown people we should kill, whether torture works, and how many people should be raped in prison? Having emotions mean you can’t be trusted with these decisions.”

Fire-Bagger: “You’re just like the tea-baggers because you want Obamacare to include a public option so that it can’t easily be destroyed by Republicans or gamed by insurance companies. Don’t you  understand this is the best we can do, and Republicans would never dare destroy it! We’ll build from it. People like you, you’re just like right-wing crazies who want to shut down the government!”

BernieBro: “You’re all men, you oppose Clinton because she’s a woman, and you’re racist. Racist and sexist. How dare you criticize the most qualified woman in history for Iraq and Libya. Only brown people in America count. And all you young women who support Bernie, you just want to sleep with young men. Traitors!”

Alt-Left: “There’s no difference between people who want universal health care and people who are Nazis!” (Notice that alt-left is the functional equivalent of FireBagger–name people for their exact opposite and pretend they’re the same.)

So I’m very grateful for these phrases because anyone who uses them non-ironically marks themself as my enemy (or a complete fool under the sway of my enemies). It’s that simple.

The centrists (who are really conservatives bordering on reactionaries) who bill themselves as the center left, assume that actual left-wingers have to vote for them. “I am offering a crumb, sir, a crumb, and the Republicans are not offering even a crumb.” They grow very very offended when left-wingers dare to stand up for actual left-wing principles, such as not bombing brown people to smithereens, or making sure everyone gets health care, or increasing the minimum wage to something, well, honestly, still pretty shitty.

Anyone who uses these phrases is a bad person. They aren’t as bad as actual Nazis or Republicans, but they are basically evil people. Hillary Clinton, their avatar and savior, couldn’t even bring herself to support a national $15/hour minimum wage, and they have done nothing meaningful, while in power, to stop climate change, despite acknowledging it is real.

I mean, at least Republicans have the grace to say, “No, I don’t believe in climate change. Therefore, I don’t think inaction will kill billions.”

Democrats and Labour and other “third Way” movements say, “This is a terrible, terrible problem which will kill wads of people, and, yes, I will sign a piece of paper but will do nothing that matters despite knowing that failure to act is effectively mass murder.”

So, Alt-left.

Great phrase. Use it early and often if you’re a douchebag centrist. It saves a lot of time for everyone.


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Nature Does Not Grade on a Curve

2017 May 13
by Ian Welsh

Globe on FireOne of the problems with how we are educated and how we work is that almost all of it is “grading on a curve.” What matters is what our teacher thinks of us; what our boss thinks of us. Except when it comes to sickness, nothing else matters even nearly as much.

It’s all “on a curve,” it’s all social bullshit. If you can convince your boss or teacher to pass you, you pass, and there’s no objective level required in most cases: The difficulty is set by a person.

Nature does not grade on a curve.

If a bear is chasing you, and you can’t run fast enough, you’re probably dead.

If your capitalist democratic system can’t handle climate change, a problem predicted decades ago (and in plenty of time to fix it), billions of people will die.

It doesn’t matter whether there are “reasons” why we couldn’t handle it, not to the dead.

It also doesn’t matter if there are “reasons” why we can’t come up with a better way of running the world than capitalism with a side of democracy or autocracy, depending on the country.

People are always nattering on about how capitalism is the bestest system ever. (Although what has really produced the changes they like is mostly industrialization, not capitalism, though that’s a different article.)

It’s nice that we can’t come up with something better than capitalism (er, ok, not nice), but capitalism has failed. That it hasn’t blown up yet is irrelevant to this. If my brakes and steering fail at 90 miles an hour as I’m heading towards a mountain cliff, well, no catastrophe actually happens until I not only go off the cliff, but hit the ground, but the future is set.

That’s where we are; the future is essentially set. We aren’t going to stop climate change, it’s doubtful we even can (it would, even theoretically, take massive geo-engineering at this point), so capitalism, and the political systems attached to it, like democracy and Chinese one-party autocratic rule, have failed.

It is that simple. And nature does not give a fuck if capitalism is the “bestest bestest system that we ever came up with” or if, qua Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

They have failed.

And what people are not getting through their heads is that they will be seen to have failed by those who have to suffer the consequences of our monstrous abnegation of responsibility.

They will be loathed; even as we who live in this era and especially those who were adults in the 80s and 90s, will not just be loathed, but treated as lepers, similiar to how we consider Nazis. (Yeah, I went there, deal.)

One of the problems with de-naturing (with living in almost entirely human made systems, and with pushing those bits we don’t control off into ghettos as we would illness), is that it means most people almost never experience a benchmark that isn’t set by other human beings. They feel, in their guts, that if only other people are convinced, any problem can be fixed or finangled.

No.

The bear doesn’t care that you can’t run fast enough because TV is funner than going for a jog, and nature doesn’t care that shareholders needed value and that oil barons didn’t want to be a little poorer (or whatever).

And neither will those who suffer from climate changes due to our ethical monstrosity and sheer incapability.

Capitalism is a shit system in a number of ways. It can be made to work, by people who stay right on top of it, as between the 30s and 70 or so, but it is prone to going off the rails. If all that meant was that the poor suffer what they must and the powerful do as they will, well, so be it, but it isn’t.

We must come up with better ways to run our societies. We are creating existential threats by failing to do so, and our infatuation with capitalism risks taking democracy down with it.

Worse worlds are always possible. So are better ones, and no system is ever “the best.”

And nature doesn’t grade on a curve.


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