Defund or die

There isn’t a lot of new stuff that needs to be said about police brutality, which is itself most of the point: this shit ain’t new. But seeing as we’re having riots again the least we can do is make sure we’re properly focused.

To say that riots are “the language of the unheard” is in one sense to say they’re justified, but it’s also to say they aren’t actually a plan. Rioting is the last resort that people undertake when they’re desperate and they don’t have any other options. If there were any kind of democratic institution that people could use to make policy changes, they obviously would have been doing that this whole time. But there isn’t, because there are in fact almost no democratic inputs to the United States political system that actually do anything, so there simply does not exist any “responsible” way to address this issue. There comes a point when the available options are reduced to giving up or fucking shit up.

So, first of all, by the very nature of the action, rioters aren’t really going to give a shit about whether you think their actions are “justified” or “tactically sound.” More importantly, the moral valence of any particular act of rioting has absolutely nothing to do with the question of what we’re going to do about the incident that provoked it. Even if you assume that riots are necessarily reckless and counterproductive, the solution is still to fix the actual problem that caused them. Anyone who wants you to spend any amount of time judging the rioters is someone who doesn’t want to fix the problem.

But precisely because there aren’t any levers available to pull on this issue, rioting defaults to being the most productive of very few available tactics. It’s clear that the riots are generating enough pressure on the system to require some form of resolution. The cops who murdered George Floyd very obviously would not have been charged were it not for the intensity of the protests. But then, concessions of this sort, valuable as they are in and of themselves, are made precisely because they don’t change the way the system operates. They don’t prevent anyone else from being murdered in the future. There is in fact no “justice” available for Floyd, because he doesn’t exist anymore. Real justice means changing things so that people don’t get murdered in the first place.

A situation like this, where the response to each individual incident ends up not really mattering that much because the underlying mechanisms that caused it remain operational, resulting in the same thing happening over and over again, is what we in the business refer to as a systemic problem. It’s important to understand how this works, because this is the part where it actually is really easy to fall into a counterproductive kneejerk reaction that ultimately ends up making the problem worse – particularly as the phrase “systemic racism” has devolved into a buzzword meaning “finger wagging at the naughty racists,” i.e. the exact opposite of systemic analysis.

The sense in which cops are necessarily bad is not that each of them is as an individual a maximally immoral person. It is that policing as an institution is bad, and therefore anyone operating within it can only have bad effects. It’s easy to understand why this has to be the case. If it weren’t, if each instance of police brutality were the result of a flaw or an external factor impeding the proper operation of the system, the police themselves would be the most eager to correct it and get back to business as usual. People normally have a pretty strong interest in not having racist murderers as coworkers. This is actually the simplest form of the argument: a “good cop” would in this situation quit, and therefore not be a cop anymore. Ergo, there are no good cops. And not only does this never happen, it’s always the exact opposite: the cops are always in lockstep formation allied against any potential fixes. This is obviously not because each individual officer somehow had the exact same set of opinions beamed into their head. It’s because they’re all doing their jobs, and this is in fact what those jobs entail.

Again, this has been going on for decades, so “explaining” the whole thing would be a truly heroic feat, but we can at least sketch the general outlines. All levels of government have consistently been cutting social services while pursuing “war on crime” policies that have massively expanded the scope of what policing is expected to accomplish. This basically amounts to creating a bunch of problems that social services would otherwise have dealt with by actually helping and then hiring more cops to instead deal with them by force. The police are also overequipped due to spillover from a constantly-producing imperial war economy. This makes them highly disinclined to ever deescalate since they know they can resolve any situation through overwhelming force, as well as the general hammer/nail effect of having access to all that stuff in the first place. This arrangement has also resulted in the police having outsized political influence, which they naturally use to immunize themselves from any potential consequences and lock in the policies that empowered them in the first place.

All of this results in precisely the situation we’re seeing now with the protests: a huge number of cops show up to “deal with” something that’s not even a problem in the first place, they’re ridiculously overequipped and they know that they can do basically whatever they want without worrying about facing even the slightest consequences. The situation proceeds naturally from there.

This is very clearly a situation where reforms are not only “not enough” but are in fact not anything at all. It’s not like murder isn’t already illegal. The problem isn’t that cops somehow don’t know that they’re not supposed to be killing people, it’s that they have practical immunity, which means they don’t bother with whatever regulations they’re supposed to be following and they feel perfectly comfortable responding to any situation where they feel even slightly threatened or inconvenienced by just fucking killing whoever they’re dealing with.

Worse, reformist policies tend to have the perverse effect of supporting the thing they’re trying to prevent. Like, if you’re going to give the cops more training and more regulations to follow, then you’re going to have to give them more money to do that, right? And if they have the practical capacity to just ignore all that shit anyway, well, do the mother fucking arithmetic.

So the crucial thing to understand here is that pushing for reforms is not at all a “pragmatic” or “incremental” approach; it is actively counterproductive. It will make the problem worse while alleviating pressure to act. This is not a matter of theoretical speculation, it is a conclusion mandated by the available empirical evidence. This has all happened before, and every time – particularly when Obama was in charge – we were assured that the government was taking the problem seriously and was going to do all sorts of smart policy things to deal with it. So we got body cameras and implicit bias training and bans on this or that technique, and none of it did a single fucking thing. Most of the reforms that Campaign Zero has been pushing are already in place; the chokehold that was used to kill Eric Garner had already been banned for more than a decade. The rate of police murders has been constant the entire time.

The genuinely unrealistic position at this point is to continue to imagine that anything other than defunding will have any impact on the problem, against the available evidence. It is at this point simply a fact of the matter that reforms don’t do anything, and anyone pushing them as any kind of solution – particularly professional activists and politicians who absolutely know better – is not at all “trying to help,” but is actively and intentionally impeding progress. They do not want to fix the issue, they want the protests to end and everyone to go back to sleep while the bodies keep piling up.

In just the same sense, the concept of police abolition is not at all “idealistic” or even “aspirational.” It is simply the only thing that will have any effect here. Like, if you really wanted to, you could argue that the phrasing is off in that it encourages people to imagine the police not being there when they’re needed, but the key intervention that’s required right now is to get people to understand that, in situations where the cops currently show up brandishing military-grade weaponry, they can just not. Not only was there no need for the police to show up at the protests, they shouldn’t even have been able to. They shouldn’t have the manpower to mobilize that kind of response and they shouldn’t have access to things like tear gas and “rubber” bullets that serve no purpose other than brutalization. The simple fact of the matter is that police have too much power, so regardless of where this is eventually going to end up, the necessary first step has to be reducing that power.

Thus, the demand to defund the police is the central concept of this moment. Not only is defunding the only thing that will have any effect on the immediate problem, it is also the best way to combat the original source of the problem, which is the dismantling of the welfare state. Not only can we remove cops from situations where they’re inclined to kill people, we can also resolve those situations in more productive ways. Instead of paying cops to harass homeless people, we can pay to build shelters. Instead of paying cops to arrest drug addicts, we can pay for detox programs. Instead of paying cops to go into schools and “discipline” children we can pay for more teachers and counselors. Instead of paying cops to point guns at someone having a mental health crisis, we can pay for therapists and social workers. There’s also the valid concern that defunding by itself will simply end up meaning privatizing, as it does with so many other things in this society, so specifying that defunding must also include redirecting the same money towards useful programs is key to the concept. Like, what happened in the first place was that after the Reagan Revolution the welfare state was dismantled and turned into a police state, so it’s really the least we can do to dismantle it back. To truly insist that “black lives matter,” it’s not nearly enough to simply not murder people. We have to create a functioning, supportive society in which those lives can actually be lived.

Also, defunding the police is the demand that is actually in the streets right now. When the mayor of DC tried to score PR points by painting a “Black Lives Matter” mural even as she was busy increasing police funding, protestors countered her by instead painting “Defund the Police.” When the mayor of Minneapolis tried to talk to the protestors, he was asked specifically if he would commit to defunding the police, he said no, and they ran him out on a fucking rail. This is the furthest possible thing from a high-handed academic intervention. This is an idea whose time has come.

The crucial thing that each and every one of us is morally obligated to do right now is to hold the line for defunding and against reform. Anyone who supports defunding is on the right side of this issue and anyone who supports reform is on the wrong side. Any politician who commits to support defunding can be supported and any politician who does not must not be. Like, Sanders is against defunding, so fuck him, he’s done. We don’t have time for this shit.

This is why the absolute most pathetic smooth-brained scumsuckers in this situation are the people insisting that the solution to this is to VOTE. The whole fucking problem here is that everyone in the government is in on this. Pretty much all the big cities with the worst police departments not only have Democratic mayors but are entirely Democrat-controlled, and basically all of those Democrats have responded to this moment by making excuses for police brutality while still trying to increase police budgets. Quislings like these who talk big and then do everything they can to make the problem worse are exactly why this thing blew up in the first place: because the fact that nobody in power is going to do anything about any of this has become completely unavoidable for anyone who actually cares about the substance of this issue.

While we are going to need people in office to formally execute this stuff (that is, we don’t need people to “lead,” we need people willing to stop bootlicking for five minutes and do what we fucking tell them), there simply aren’t people like that available right now – specifically because the Democratic Party has done everything it possibly can to keep any such people as far away from power as possible. There are some notable exceptions, such as the members of the Minneapolis City Council who have pledged to dismantle their police department, and this is the sort of standard we have to insist on in order to change anything. Voting in fucking Joe Biden, one of the primary people responsible for creating this situation in the first place, will constitute at most 0% progress. (There’s honestly a good argument to be made that Biden will be worse than Trump on this issue, since Trump, despite his big talk, is a useless loser who doesn’t know how to do anything, whereas a Biden administration would consist of people who are committed to expanding the police state and know how to get that done.)

I don’t generally think much of “cultural” solutions to this kind of problem – the base does in fact determine the superstructure – but in this case there probably is also a necessary cultural component. Resistance to the idea of defunding comes from the feeling economically comfortable people have that the police are “there to keep us safe,” and we’re probably not going to be able to build the kind of broad political pressure we need without getting through this assumption. When people ask “but what are we going to do about violent crime?”, it doesn’t do much good to point out that more cops don’t really have much of an effect (on the issue of rape they clearly perpetrate more than they help), because the argument is based on the feeling of security rather than any actual incidence of it.

That is, the specific way in which the base has determined the superstructure here is that decades of destroying every social institution except the police has led people to assume that the only way to deal with any problem they have is to “call 911.” Some of this paranoia is justified. Even the most blinkered bubble-dwellers know on some level that being poor in America is a near-death sentence, so without a social safety net it makes perfect sense to act as viciously as possible to defend what little you’ve managed to acquire. Cops and citizens don’t have to be Klansmen to support and benefit from this system, they just have to be normal self-interested people going about their days.

That’s another reason why reinvesting in social infrastructure is such an important part of this: we need people to stop being afraid of each other and start acting like citizens. Indeed, even the most opportunistic instances of self-interested looting actually serve a positive function here, which is to de-legitimize the concept of private property as it is currently deployed. In theory, private property is a perfectly sound moral concept if it means that people can’t be forcibly deprived of things they need, but of course in reality it’s used in the exact opposite way. Rich fucks hoarding resources that could be used to keep people alive justify doing so by recourse to property rights. But the thing about “rights” is that they’re made up and they’re only justified if they’re conceptualized in a way that actually helps people. A moral conception of property rights would be the opposite of the one we have now: starving people have a right to food, sick people have a right to health care, homeless people have a right to housing. It is in this sense that poor people looting an insured megacorporation with warehouses full of stuff it’s never even going to sell is actively moral behavior.

Another thing we can understand from this is that “the police” as the particular institution under discussion at this moment is not at all identical with the general concept of law enforcement. If anything, abolishing the police may be one of the best things we can do to start actually enforcing the law. When the government makes cuts to agencies like the IRS or the EPA, this isn’t considered “defunding the police,” despite the fact that they very much do go after criminal behavior and prevent it from happening. The crimes they target are far more consequential than muggings or drug deals, and because they employ specialists working on targeted areas of enforcement, they’re also far more effective than thugs roaming the streets with guns. The people worried that defunding the police will leave them unprotected have the situation exactly backwards: we’re all being severely exploited by vicious criminals right now, and this might be the only way we can start doing something about it.

The other aspect of the problem is of course straight-up racism. The “us” who are the good hardworking folks just trying to protect our families are implicitly white, and the “them” who are opportunistic savages out for a quick buck are implicitly black. Just as the police state was justified through imagery of “superpredators,” the welfare state was delegitimized by coding it black via “welfare queens.” The entire history of America has basically been white people murdering and pillaging everyone else and then being constantly terrified that those people are coming to take back what’s theirs, and this is basically the same psychological dynamic that underlies fears of “thugs” and “looters” and “home invasions.” And of course all of this rests on the general ideology that certain types of people don’t matter and can therefore be bulldozed over in order to make way for “progress,” which is of course the ideology on which America was founded in the first place.

Particularly with modern anti-racism having been co-opted by neoliberal identity hustlers, the boring old conventional concepts of not dividing ourselves into warring tribes and realizing that we’re all in this together still apply. As much as I’d love to blow your mind with a radical conclusion here, this is ultimately just about working together to build a society that works for everybody and that directs resources towards what people need instead of what makes stock numbers go up. Defunding the police won’t even get us there, it’ll get us about halfway back to the post-war consensus, but it is at this moment the necessary standard on which we absolutely cannot compromise. As charged with potential as this moment feels, no one really knows where it’s ultimately going to go. But it definitely won’t go anywhere unless we refuse to be snowed by useless cowards like DeBlasio, charlatans like McKesson, or, yes, smooth-talking imperial managers like Obama. Anyone taking this issue seriously knows by now what our goal has to be and who our enemies are, and by that fact necessarily adopts the minimum moral responsibility to hold the fucking line.

Deathmatch 2020

Alright, look, I really don’t want to do this, but this is the situation we’re in. The sky has cracked open and the fires of judgment rain down upon us. False prophets rise to glory, brain-eating parasites infest our homes and cities, beasts of the deep rouse from ageless slumber. Tiny sparks of hope gather and flash in the darkness, prevailing upon us exactly one course of action. For the sake of everything that lives, Bernie Sanders must be elected president in 2020.

For as much ink as has been spilled on this topic, the case for Sanders is radically simpler than anyone’s really making it out to be. There is exactly one thing that has to happen right now as a precondition for anything else – most importantly, for addressing global warming with any level of seriousness – which is that we need to form a political party capable of acquiring and wielding state power that is responsive to the needs of ordinary people, which necessarily means being actively opposed to the interests of rich fucks. Sanders is the only person who is even trying to do this, which is why it doesn’t matter how “good” he is or whatever. He’s literally the only horse available to bet on.

The One Rule of American politics is that you aren’t allowed to do anything that inconveniences rich fucks. In addition to this just obviously being the case, studies have demonstrated that, regardless of what politicians say they care about, the actions that in practice end up being taken by the government are those that accord with the desires of rich fucks and not the desires of anyone else. If, for example, you want to spend more money on education, you can do that, as long as you spend it on privately-owned charter schools where corporate consultants have their fingers in the till. You are not allowed to take the same amount of money and just give it to existing public schools, because that doesn’t give anyone the opportunity to extract profits.

It is sometimes possible to pass good policy in this situation. Passing Obamacare, for example, was probably better than doing nothing, in that it allowed more people to get health coverage. However, the policy was designed to maintain the economic power of insurance companies, which is why part of the result of implementing it was that premiums and deductibles went way up. Insurance companies had to cover more and sicker people, so they raised costs in order to maintain their profits.

Thus, on net, the effect of this type of policy is always going to be mixed: while the final sum might come out to be positive, it’s going to improve things for some people and worsen things for others. But we’re not in a situation where these sorts of tradeoffs are actually necessary. They aren’t happening because of scarcity or a lack of intelligent policy ideas; they’re happening because rich fucks have captured the political process and are using it to hoard resources. This is what it really means to say that 1% of people hold half the wealth: it means that we can make things much better for everyone else by only mildly inconveniencing the people at the top.

Now, it is coherent, in theory, to maintain that the best we can do with this situation is to acquiesce to it and continue to extract whatever tiny advantages we can, although I wouldn’t say that recent history provides any particular amount of supporting evidence for the proposition. However, there’s one case in which this is not even a plausible argument and we are absolutely required to come up with a substantive alternative, and it also happens to be the one that will kill everyone if we get it wrong: global warming. As you know, the amount of oil reserves currently owned by all of the oil-extracting companies and countries is several times more than the amount we can afford to burn if we wish to avoid total catastrophe. Because of this, even if we were to completely cease accruing new sources of carbon-emitting fuels tomorrow (which we won’t – emissions have been going up recently), no amount of green development would suffice to address the problem. The only way to preserve the existence of civilization is to keep it in the ground, which, because this stuff is already on the balance sheets, unavoidably means destroying a huge portion of the wealth of all the richest people in the world.

This dynamic is why the Democratic Party has taken no significant action on global warming, despite constantly crowing about how they accept “the science” and the need for “structural change” and slobbering all over Greta Thunberg. It’s because it is structurally impossible for them to do what is necessary. A party structurally dependent on its rich donors is never going to be able to advance policy which directly attacks those people’s wealth. The only tools available are hammers, but the problem has nothing to do with nails. We had plenty of advance warning about global warming, but we squandered decades of opportunity by allowing rich fucks to set the agenda, and now we’re out of time. We have about ten years left to get serious, which basically means one more president. If the next president is another do-nothing liberal who talks big and allows the oil to keep flowing, we’re all dead.

Also, the scale of the problem means that it can only be addressed by seizing and utilizing state power. That’s why we have to have a political party that does not maintain its existence by giving handies to rich fucks and is committed to doing what is necessary. We could, in theory, start a new party for this or use the Greens or whatever, but the entrenchment of the two major parties presents huge obstacles against doing so. There’s no inherent property of the Democratic Party that causes it to operate in the way that it does; the parties have modified their alignments in response to changing conditions before and they can be made to do so again. We’re also out of fucking time, and taking over existing infrastructure is a hell of a lot faster than building it up from scratch. Thus, the best available solution is to hollow out the existing leadership of the Democratic Party and replace it with people who don’t care about rich fucks and are only accountable to its base of voters.

The obstacle to doing this is not some kind of shadowy conspiracy or whatever. It’s the structure within which politicians operate. Rich donors provide basically all of the resources politicians require in order to run viable campaigns. (Again, rich fucks have so much unnecessary wealth that they can just straight up piss millions of dollars away on fucking political ads for the sake of slightly lowering tax rates that they were probably just going to evade anyway.) If you want to run for office as a Democrat, the DCCC will literally go through the contracts on your phone to see if you know enough rich fucks to be considered a real candidate, after which you will be expected to spend most of your time calling them up and schmoozing them for money. This dynamic has two equally important effects. First, because your existence as a politician is materially dependent on the largesse of your donors, you will be systemically disinclined to do anything they won’t like. If you were to try anyway, you would most likely be cut off and replaced with someone more pliable. Second, because you’re spending all of your time talking to rich fucks and hearing about their problems and their perspectives on things, you’re naturally going to come to understand issues in the way that they do and conceive of the same sorts of solutions that they would. Not only would you not be able to support nationalizing the energy companies, the idea would never occur to you in the first place.

This, then, is the true significance of Sanders’ small-donor fundraising operation. It is not that taking money from poorer people is more virtuous – in fact, it’s less, since you’re taking money from people who actually need it. Rather, it matters because it means that the Sanders campaign, and any campaign that follows the same model, does not talk to rich fucks, is not materially dependent on them, and does not take their interests into account when formulating policy. It is dependent on the approval of large numbers of ordinary people, which means it is only viable to the extent that it advances policies that people actually want.

Of course, the correct solution to this problem is for all elections to be publicly funded, so that this isn’t an issue in the first place. But that can’t happen right now precisely because rich fucks have already captured the process and they obviously won’t permit that sort of change. Thus, the only way to change things is from outside of the existing system: mass public pressure must be brought to bear on all politicians, such that those who remain on the side of rich fucks are either run out of town on a rail or have the fear of god put into them so that they vote correctly anyway. Doing this is explicitly the entire purpose of the Sanders campaign. It’s not just something he’s coincidentally adjacent towards; it’s specifically what he’s referring to when he talks about starting a “political revolution” and being the “organizer-in-chief.”

This is also the meaningful distinction between Sanders and Warren. Again, this is a lot simpler than people are making it out to be. Warren, as a smart person who was not always a politician, does have a decent understanding of what needs to be done to fix things. But she explicitly intends to work within the existing system to convince the current party elites to adopt better policies. She has in fact had some success with this, such as when she convinced the Obama administration, against its usual inclinations, to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But we’ve already seen how this strategy can easily be undone by adverse events and fails to penetrate to the underlying causes of the political dysfunction that makes it necessary. Warren could potentially be extremely effective as like Secretary of the Treasury or something, but her “plan for that” approach to politics simply will not work under current conditions.

Sanders, by contrast, is trying to change how things work such that it becomes possible for good plans to happen. You can see this distinction when, for example, Warren talks about abolishing the filibuster, while Sanders talks about enfranchising prisoners. Warren wants to change the rules so that the existing political establishment can more easily achieve its desired goals, while Sanders wants to fundamentally redistribute political power so as to change what those goals are. The reason Sanders is sometimes criticized for not having enough of a “plan” is because he realizes exact details of that sort are presently beside the point. As long as the Democratic Party itself is not willing to pass the sorts of policies that are necessary to address the problems we’re facing, the rules by which they would counterfactually do so are irrelevant. Sanders’ political revolution is a prerequisite to any of Warren’s plans actually being implemented.

The standard counterargument here is that this line of reasoning is self-defeating: if this is true, then it doesn’t matter who gets elected president, because there has to be a mass movement anyway. This argument is basically correct and also completely stupid. The fact that electing Sanders would constitute only one step in the process and not by itself achieve anything is the entire point. If there were already a mass movement there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. The fact that there isn’t is why we need some sort of dramatic intervention – something along the lines of electing someone with an absolute commitment to doing this exact thing to the most powerful and visible political office in the country. And because we have to start addressing global warming yesterday in order to retain some non-trivial percentage of a habitable environment, we need someone who is here right now, and Socialist Jesus isn’t here right now. Sanders is.

I’d like to be clear about how little I want to be making this argument. I don’t “like” Sanders. I don’t even understand what that’s supposed to mean. He’s a politician. Liking or disliking a politician is a category error. They either support policies that will improve people’s material conditions or they don’t. I really thought people understood this back when “George W. Bush seems like the kind of guy I could have a beer with” was a running joke, but it’s only gotten worse since then. It does not fucking matter whether Sanders reminds you of a guy you knew once or someone calls you a name. I can assure you that my hatred for bros, people who spend any amount of time on Twitter, and people who treat politics like sports fandom is uncompromised, but dorks on the internet are just not relevant data, even without taking into account the gravity of the actual situation we’re facing. As long as Sanders is not proposing to appoint Joe Rogan as Secretary of Political Incorrectness, this is just not stuff that matters, at all.

I don’t even think badgering people about how they’re going to vote is all that effective. People aren’t actually responsive to arguments and data; they form their opinions based on underlying ideological assumptions (which is in fact the correct way to do things, as otherwise it is much too difficult to avoid being bamboozled by selective data presentation. You actually would be susceptible to fake news, in that case). In order to change people’s behavior you have to either change their material conditions or change how they understand the world. But again, we absolutely do not have time for that shit. It would be great if we could hang around for 20 years building the ideal political movement with perfectly calibrated messaging that appeals to everyone equally, but if we’re actually trying to make something happen the arc of history is going to have to be a fuck of a lot shorter than that. We either take this chance now or we’re fucked.

So that’s it. I really am constitutionally opposed to telling people what to do, but in this case it actually is required of you as an individual that you go to the place and vote for the thing. Unless, of course, you’re some sort of purity-obsessed idealist who won’t vote for an imperfect solution to a real pressing problem, but I can’t imagine that’s the case.

So many cowards, so little time

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The fact that Joe Biden is running for president at all, let alone leading the pack, is properly horrifying. It’s honestly kind of worse than Trump winning in the first place. Like, freakish things happen, but it’s always possible to respond to even the most grotesque of adverse events with intelligence and dignity. This has not been happening.

I’ll skip the rehashing of his record, especially since it’s completely irrelevant. Literally the only argument for Biden advanced by anyone at all, including his own wife, is that he’s “electable.” It’s firstly important to note how pathetic this obsession is given the actual situation. While Trump is certainly capable of winning again – both because he really does appeal to a lot of people and because simply being the Republican nominee automatically gets him almost all of the votes he needs – he’s a notably weak candidate. He has no accomplishments, no ideas, he doesn’t understand anything and he’s completely incompetent. Everything that’s happened under his administration has directly undermined the heterodox promises he made that gained him most of his non-base support: he’s transferred more money from the poor to the rich, he’s harmed working people with incompetent trade policies, he’s further stagnified the swamp, he’s preserved the endless war machine in its entirety and only made it more chaotic and dangerous, and now he’s even going after Social Security. If this is the person who has you running so scared that you’re willing to sacrifice everything you believe in just to not have to think about him anymore, you really need to step your game up. Literally anyone is perfectly capable of beating him through mere competence, so we might as well make it someone good. Furthermore, since creating media spectacles is literally the only thing Trump does, counter-programming him with a more boring spectacle is extremely poor strategy. If there was ever a time to cast vanity to the wind and stand up for real values, this is it.

More than that, though, the idea that the “most important thing” right now is to “defeat Trump” is the sort of thing that sounds like a rational strategic calculation, but is actually quite the opposite. Trump’s grotesqueness is itself proof that nothing about him is sui generis – someone like him could only have gained power through extremely strong support from underlying conditions. As long as all that stuff stays the same, the next president is all but guaranteed to be succeeded by another Trump. We’re actually pretty lucky that the person doing this stuff right now is a total loser, because if someone serious ever figures it out, we are absolutely going full fascist.

Given all of this, supporting Biden at such a crucial juncture indicates exactly one thing: cowardice. It is choosing the safest, numbest option – the thing you’ve heard of before, the comforting shibboleth, the promise that nothing will fundamentally change – over anything that might have unexpected results or create new possibilities, no matter how vitally necessary those things are. It isn’t wisdom to counsel caution in times of crisis, and it sure as hell isn’t pragmatism to pit against Trump someone who replicates all of Hillary Clinton’s disadvantages. It’s just fear, and it’s fear of the dumbest possible thing at the most important time.

But much more than Trump himself, what so many people are actually afraid of is real politics: genuine clashes of value where ordinary people matter. Despite his best efforts, Trump represents a real value system and occasionally even brings up relevant, substantive arguments against his opponents. Having, to the extent that his feeble abilities and decaying mind have allowed him to, shredded the veil of Reasonable Discourse and presented his policies in their rawest form, he has forced everyone not completely choked out on West Wing fantasies to take genuine stands for or against those policies’ true implications. Thanks to Trump, you can no longer blithely ignore immigration policy and rest easily on the assumption that everything is being managed competently like you could under Obama; you now have to decide whether you support immigrants or not. The people in power want to keep you as far away as possible from those sorts of dangerous thoughts.

Because of course the political establishment’s support for Biden is genuine. They most definitely do not support him because they think he’s going to be the most practical advocate for progressive values; they support him because they’re actively in favor of all the horrible stuff he’s done throughout his career. This is why it’s all the more important for the rest of us to refuse to play their game. As long as we allow ourselves to be terrorized by their condescending lectures and know-it-all bullying, Biden’s incoherent anecdotes and shit-eating grin will represent the limits of our political horizon.

This would all be the case even if cowardice worked, but it also doesn’t. Like, being maximally charitable, the theory of electability is that you have Goal A, and you have Candidate X who supports Goal A and Candidate Y who doesn’t, but you’re supposed to vote for Candidate Y in order to stop the evil Candidate Z who is actively opposed to Goal A. Therefore Candidate Y supposedly represents “incremental progress” towards the point where Goal A might potentially be able to be started on. But this logic is going to keep applying in every election, against every successive Candidate Z, which means you’re never going to elect the person who would actually try to do Goal A. Furthermore, you are, in actual circumstance, not always going to win, which means there are going to be times when someone gets elected and makes substantive progress opposing your goals, and you’re going to respond to this by becoming even more committed to electing the “safe” candidate who, at best, does nothing and allows all the horrible stuff you’re supposedly opposed to to keep happening. Sound familiar at all?

Furthermore, if the more electable candidate is not also the one with the best ideas, all that means is that you aren’t doing your job. The only reason the best candidate would not also be the most electable is that people misunderstand them, and if that’s the case, don’t you want to have the best possible argument available to convince them? Don’t you need to convince people to vote for your candidate anyway, and shouldn’t you therefore insist on being able to make a positive argument that you actually believe in? Aren’t you tired of having to qualify everything you say with, “sure, the people I support are all terrible, but…”? Do you have values or don’t you?

If there were ever a decent religion, cowardice would be its cardinal sin. Cowardice is the thing the prevents anything else from happening; it is the first trial that must be overcome in order to accomplish anything at all. As long as you’re playing it safe, you are, no matter how fervently you believe or how passionately you feel, betraying your beliefs and selling out everyone’s future. This is why cowards die a thousand deaths: each of their seeming victories is, in actuality, a substantive defeat.

Say it if you mean it

The fact that impeachment is finally heating up isn’t actually a good thing, since, as with everything these days, the right thing is being done for the wrong reasons and therefore having all the wrong results.

The two fundamental facts of the situation are a) Trump is both a wanton criminal and unfit for office in every possible way, and b) the chances of him actually being removed from office are presently negligible. Therefore, since impeachment cannot realistically accomplish its nominal goal – no matter how necessary one judges that goal to be – it must be approached tactically. The question has to be what the act of filing impeachment charges can actually accomplish, as well as whether doing so is the best way to accomplish that.

This is supposedly the calculus by which Pelosi has been operating. Impeaching immediately upon gaining control of the House would have validated the narrative that the Democrats are merely on a partisan witch-hunt, convoluted or legalistic charges would fail to draw the public interest, and a drawn-out process would distract from more important priorities.

So of course when Pelosi finally did decide to press for impeachment, she did in a way that maximizes every possible downside. The issue doesn’t materially affect anyone in America, it’s happening during the primary, which is the most important time for the Democrats to be making a positive case for themselves, and it’s blatantly obvious that the only thing that roused the establishment to give a shit was the fact that Trump was going after one of their own and damaging their electoral chances. Attempting to avoid the appearance of political gamesmanship had precisely the opposite effect, for the simple reason that doing so is itself political gamesmanship. Furthermore, acting like this one incident is finally the thing that’s beyond the pale sends a clear message that everything else wasn’t, which pretty dramatically undermines the case that impeachment is necessary because of Trump’s unique awfulness. If the only way you can get him is to rules-lawyer him over a technicality, how bad can he really be?

This is all a consequence of the thoroughgoing and rather pathetic obsession of liberals with playing “11-dimensional chess”; that is, of trying to find One Weird Trick to con people into supporting them rather than making an honest case for their beliefs. The motivation for acting this way is partially understandable. As mentioned, the parameters of the current situation prevent impeachment from being approached in any other way, and this applies generally. The mere fact of telling the truth offers no guarantee that you’ll be believed or even heard, so tactical considerations are never avoidable.

But all this means is that the truth is a real thing that exists in the real world, rather than a magical wish-granting fairy. The value of the truth is not metaphysical; it is precisely that true arguments are better than false ones. They aren’t perfect – they don’t necessarily prevail – but they offer distinct advantages. True statements adhere to reality; people can independently verify true things. Consistently prioritizing the truth over immediate surface appeal demonstrates to people that they can trust you. You can more effectively highlight dishonesty and bad faith in your opponents when you aren’t subject to those same charges yourself. Perhaps most importantly, insisting on honesty keeps you honest with yourself, preventing you from taking convenient shortcuts or being swayed by your own biases.

And of course if you actually win, winning based on the truth will give you the chance to actually accomplish something rather than merely incrementing a scoreboard. Obama, for example, was able to win strong victories based on his talent as an advertiser, which has misled his aspiring successors into believing that the only way forward is to replicate that strategy. But his victories were, in rather short order, proven hollow, simply because they were never based on anything, and the same claims made without the glamor justly ring false.

So the irony here is that trying to game the situation to find the thing that “works best” is generally the thing that works worst. Again, the temptation is that, because true statements can be misrepresented and misinterpreted just as easily as false ones, adhering to them feels like a disadvantage; if there’s a less true statement you can make that would be a more effective message, you’re obligated to forgo it. The problem with this is that less true statements can only be more effective for false reasons. For example, if the media is structured in a certain way which causes it to present things with a certain bias, it might seem that the necessary thing to do is to frame your ideas in a way that plays into that bias in order to get a fair hearing. But if your ideas actually do go against that bias, and the bias remains intact, then you’re going to remain at a disadvantage until you deal with the bias problem itself, i.e. accept the truth, and then present your ideas truthfully. Thus, problems of this nature cannot be gotten around, but must always be gone through. The constraints that the truth places on you are positive constraints: the things they force you to do are the things you were ultimately going to have to do to succeed anyway.

A basic example of this is the recent contrast between Sanders and Warren on the issue of using taxes to fund healthcare. Warren, knowing that the media has a psychotic obsession with demonizing anything that can be framed as a “tax increase,” tried to dodge the issue and reframe it to be about “costs,” and then released a plan designed to trick journalists into describing it as not having any “middle-class tax increases.” Despite being correct on the merits (“costs” would in fact go down, since the amount of taxes required would be less than the amount people are currently paying in premiums, and the taxes would also be progressive), this is still a dishonest answer, because it’s designed to avoid the relevant question. Sanders, by contrast, spelled out everything plainly: taxes would go up, premiums and deductibles would stop existing, and this would be a net benefit for everyone except rich fucks. In this case the Warren approach appears to have failed even in the immediate term, which illustrates the basic hazard of trying to be clever: sometimes people just don’t fall for it. But the real importance of the Sanders approach is that accepting the usefulness of public funding and getting over the childish idea that there’s a spooky monster called “big government” that’s always bad is going to be necessary in order to pass literally any legislation that benefits anyone other than hedge fund choads, so any serious attempt to change things starts with being honest about that.

Note that this very much does not mean being polite and reasonable all the time (and it almost never means “fact-checking”). For example, Labour in the UK has been having problems with baseless accusations of antisemitism. The mistake they’ve made here has been taking the accusations seriously. This is dishonest behavior, because acting as though there’s a real problem that needs to be addressed conveys the perception that there is – it makes “Labour attempts to deal with its antisemitism problem” an accurate headline. The correct response here is to be a total asshole about it: act indignant that anyone would dare accuse you of such a thing, insult anyone dumb enough to fall for it, and attack the accusers’ motivations. This conveys the correct perception that the issue is a smear and the people propagating it are either stupid or evil. “No, you’re the real racist” is a true statement when the people you’re dealing with actually are the real racists.

Furthermore, the most salient issue of the election was Brexit, on which Corbyn took the position of holding a second referendum. While this is the rationally correct thing to do (there was no actual plan on offer during the original referendum, so once one is developed, people ought to be able to vote on whether that’s what they want. It may be the case that, even though most people prefer Leave to Remain, there exists no possible Leave plan which most people would specifically prefer over Remain, in which case Remain is the democratically legitimate result), campaigning in this way is still dishonest, because Corbyn obviously does have an actual position on whether and how Brexit should happen, and he didn’t advocate for it. You have a moral obligation to tell people what it is you actually believe.

Just so, the correct strategy on impeachment has always been the obvious one: file impeachment charges every time Trump commits an impeachable offense. The first time this should have happened was in fact on day one of his presidency, at which time he had already been credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple people (remember, impeachment is an investigation, not a conviction). Doing this would have actually blunted the accusation that Democrats were just waiting to impeach at the first opportunity. Impeaching immediately when an issue arises, when the moment is not opportune, demonstrates that the issue itself is what you care about.

Furthermore, the problem of Trump constantly committing impeachable offenses should have been dealt with by impeaching him on all of those counts, immediately upon each issue arising. He should have been impeached for the emoluments thing as soon as he refused to divest himself from his business, for obstruction of justice as soon as he admitted it on TV, for poisoning the environment as soon as he appointed a corporate executive to head the EPA, for torture as soon as he started putting children in cages, for inciting violence on numerous occasions, and for failing to take care that the laws be faithfully executed on even more numerous occasions, including but not limited to issuing the Muslim Ban with no rational justification other than racism, deliberately sabotaging Obamacare, reneging on the Iran Deal, failing to expediently process refugee applications, and attempting to make policy on Twitter based on Fox News gossip. Again, doing all of this is the only way to demonstrate that these issues are actually serious; the complaint that there’s too much to pay attention to doesn’t hold a lot of water if you’re not even going to try.

The fact that the Republicans would have immediately shut down each of these attempts is also a point in favor of this approach. It’s more than a little peculiar to argue that the reason not to worry about impeachment is that the Republican Party is a completely lawless organization that will stop at nothing to maintain their grip on power. If that’s the case, it kind of seems like you need to do something about it! And the thing that you can do about it is reveal the truth: every time an impeachment inquiry gets shut down, mobilize every available person to send the message that the Republicans are facilitating criminal behavior and violating their duties to the United States. That’s why this strategy should have been pursued even before Democrats had control of the House: House Republicans shutting down the inquiry would have highlighted the problem just as well, and served just as well as an opportunities to highlight the underlying offenses. That’s the thing about relying on the truth: the only obstacles that can impede you arise from things which are also true, and which you therefore also need to deal with.

The catch is that the truth cannot be adhered to piecemeal. Saying only the true things that are convenient for you in the moment and leaving out the rest is in fact a classic form of lying. This does not mean that the truth dictates your tactics – you are not obligated to say every true thing related to your topic every time you speak (and in fact doing so is an ineffective way to convey the truth) – but it does constrain them. If you know something relevant to the situation and you fail to bring it up, you’re being dishonest. Bad faith arguments can only be called out from a position of good faith – if you’re guilty of the same thing you’re accusing someone else of, you can’t actually be opposing them on the merits.

This is part of why the bothsidesism of the present situation refuses to die: because the Democrats actually are corrupt and deceitful, they lose the ability to call the Republicans out on this – regardless of how much worse the latter really are. It’s been noted that the narrative of Democrats and Republicans “living in separate realities” on impeachment is bullshit, given that the Democrats plainly have the facts on their side. The problem is that both parties are in fact taking the same approach to the situation: neither of them actually cares about the law or the constitution or the moral capacity of the person controlling the planet’s largest military; they’re both simply trying to game the situation for their own short-term benefit. This is what makes the folk belief that “they’re all just a bunch of crooks anyway,” while lacking the recognition that the Republican Party is presently an explicitly criminal organization, nonetheless substantively correct on its own terms.

It’s also what allows people like Trump to present themselves as crusading outsiders based on superficial distinctions – and often, significantly, on accurate criticisms. Even as Trump only ever belches out whatever random notion worms its way into his moldy old brain, he’s often on point for the simple reason that there’s so much to work with that he’s bound to hit eventually. He was correct, for example, to attack Clinton for supporting the Iraq War, Warren for pretending to be a Native American, the political establishment in general for screwing over working people with rigged trade deals, and Jeb Bush for having no real reason to exist. The fact the Trump himself is no better on any of these points doesn’t actually amount to an argument in favor of his opponents. Rearguard actions can sometimes protect you from a rout, but being honest in the first place is what prevents people from being able to impose those sorts of narratives on you at all. “Sure, I may be a murderer, but at least I’m not a serial killer” is not a particularly compelling argument in favor of oneself – but if you actually are a murderer, then that’s the only true statement you can make.

And this is of course why there was never any chance of the Democrats following an honest impeachment strategy: they were only ever interested in political gamesmanship. The Democrats won’t impeach Trump for waging secret wars, torturing migrants, poisoning the environment, or selling out working people to vested interests, because past Democratic presidents have done all of those things and they intend for future ones to continue the trend. The power of adherence to the truth is not only that it can act as a sword and shield, but also as a mirror. It can show you when people who claim to share your goals and motivations do not in fact do so. Vampires can often present themselves attractively, but when you turn from their glamour and focus on reality, you find that there is nothing there at all.

The postness of truth has been greatly exaggerated. The only thing preventing the truth from working is the refusal to use it. More noise and more lies may make advancing the truth a more difficult proposition, but they do not diminish the power of doing so. More to the point, adherence to the truth is and always will be the only to win victories that are substantive rather than spectacular and to do things that affect the real world rather than merely playing well on TV. It’s not so much that honesty is the best policy as it is that it’s the only policy that’s actually a policy.

Red glare

Y’all motherfuckers really need to shut your various holes about Russia. I’ve been trying not to care, but this shit has gotten entirely out of hand.

People keep using the term “skepticism” here, but that concept is entirely inapplicable, because everything that’s been alleged so far has been completely ordinary. All major world governments run disinformation campaigns and interfere in each other’s elections. While it’s obvious and boring to keep bringing this up, it bears repeating until people start to get it through their fat heads: America has forcibly overthrown democratically-elected governments, several times. Rich fucks being in bed with foreign oligarchs is also entirely normal. All of those motherfuckers are all up in each other’s assholes all the time. The only thing different about Trump is that he’s a lot less competent at it. I’m not even going to bother with the notion that American political campaigns are totally clean and above-board except when those nefarious Russians get involved. If you weren’t already assuming that these things were the case, you basically don’t know anything about how the world works.

Furthermore, the actual substantive claim being made here, that Trump is for whatever reason acting on behalf of Russian interests, doesn’t hold up. Trump fawning over Putin is not a mystery that requires some special secret explanation. Trump has fawned over every military strongman he’s met and pouted at every democratic representative, and this is obviously because Trump is an idiot boy-child who likes big strong action men and hates it when lame old schoolmarms try to make him do basic arithmetic. Shockingly, Trump’s habitual mouthing off does not in fact accord with the real policy of the Republican-controlled executive branch of the United States government, which has in fact been as antagonistic towards Russia as one would expect it to be. Indeed, it’s almost as though Trump doesn’t know anything or do anything, and his entire life has just been a constant process of going on the TV to distract everyone from anything that’s really going on. You’ll note, though, that in order to understand this you have to actually check the facts of the matter instead of just watching the spectacle from the front row of the theater, which is how you know that anyone peddling this line is not actually doing politics, but rather acting in a reality show. The people who criticize Donald Trump in this fashion are the same person as Donald Trump.

And not only is this the correct argument factually, it is also the more sensible argument politically, because it gets at what’s actually wrong with Trump as a person, and by extension the entire American conservative movement as an ideology, rather than hinging everything on one coincidental connection that may or may not have happened one time. If your argument is that the main thing wrong with 2016 was Trump and the main thing wrong with Trump is that he’s compromised, then you are implicitly arguing that the normal Republican party is fine, and that a non-compromised version of Trump would also be fine.

Listen. Here’s the thing about this.

One ex-troll told a Russian independent TV network that his job included writing incendiary comments and creating fake posts on political forums: “The way you chose to stir up the situation, whether it was commenting [on] the news section or on political forums, it didn’t really matter.” In 2015, well before the 2016 election, the troll-factory network had more than 800 people doing this kind of work, producing propaganda videos, infographics, memes, reports, news, interviews and various analytical materials to persuade the public.

America never stood a chance.

Can you even imagine what it’s like when EIGHT HUNDRED PEOPLE, ON SOCIAL MEDIA, are posting stupid shit during an election year, or also at literally any other time? Clearly, there exists no recourse the richest and most powerful nation to ever exist could ever bring to bear against such unrelenting horrors.

Also, “stirring up the situation” is a good thing. Like, if Russia was attempting to “divide” us over Black Lives Matter, they were doing us a favor. It’s an important issue! We should be divided over it! The people who want this to not happen are the people who don’t want the issue to ever get resolved, who want to keep it in storage as a prop they can use whenever they want to gin up ratings, who fundamentally care more about their own comfort than about the fact that people are dying.

I’ll tell this story again: when I was watching the election results come in and saw that Trump was getting normal numbers, I knew at that point, before any results were official, that we had lost. But I was actually being delusionally optimistic to think that things could have been any different, because we lost a long time ago. The mere fact that Trump was accepted as a legitimate presidential candidate, let alone the fact that he isn’t in jail but has in fact been rich and famous his entire life, proves that there aren’t really any standards, we don’t really have a political process, and that America is and always has been the country that Trump believes it to be.

Of course, Trump could very well have lost the election itself for any number of reasons. It’s even possible, in the most basic technical sense, that Russian efforts may have made the difference in nudging Trump over the edge. That doesn’t make them matter. What matters is all the other stuff that brought things to the point where a routine rinky-dink hacking operation (or an uninspiring opposition candidate, or an October Surprise, or data-driven ad targeting) was enough to push them over the edge. You’re placing all the blame on the straw that broke the camel’s back and ignoring the mountain of other shit that was on there.

And that shit has been there, the whole time. Trump lost the popular vote by about three points, which means that the Electoral College by itself is responsible for invalidating at least that many votes (it’s actually more, because the existence of the Electoral College causes campaigns to plan around it rather than simply trying to appeal to the most people, which changes which votes get cast in the first place). Is there seriously any credible claim that any of this spy-movie bullshit moved more votes than that? Because if there’s not, but you still spend all your time talking about that, you’re fixing your wagon to a pretty lame horse. And that’s not even getting into the overwhelmingly more obvious issues like the fact that the media doesn’t actually cover issues.

“Of course the Electoral College is a problem,” you’ll whine, “but that’s just how it is; it’s just not politically feasible for us to do anything about it.” Well, you can’t do anything about Putin either, slick. It’s extremely unclear what all these people demanding that we “take Russia seriously” want us to actually do. More to the point, the fact that “that’s just how it is” is itself the problem. If the Electoral College is a major problem, then the fact that we can’t do anything about it is an even bigger and more fundamental problem. And the same applies to everything else that got us here: it applies to voter suppression, and to the ways in which most voters are ignorant and confused about specific relevant topics, and to how the media generally misleads people as to the state of the world and to how things work in the first place, and to the fact that most people just don’t vote anyway. If your concern is that “the American government should be responsible to the American people,” then you should be spending approximately zero energy on Russia, because literally everything about domestic American politics is a vastly larger impediment to that goal than is anything Russia is ever going to be able to do. To the extent that “Russiagate” actually refers to real political issues, those issues have nothing whatsoever to do with Russia.

Thus, the real function of all this isn’t just to provide desperate liberals a palatable excuse for losing to an overgrown fungus or to beat up on a newly resurgent left (though it is also both of those things). It is to continue to perpetuate, in the face of undeniable and overwhelming counterevidence, the fantasy that the world is basically an okay place where sometimes bad things happen, mostly due to malicious actors. The truth that any intellectually honest person is now forced to accept is that it is the other way around. The world is fundamentally wrong, and the structure of it acts generally to promote bad things and suppress good things. It is only through extreme personal effort that we are able to make some things okay, some of the time. People, particularly the kind of people who can get their long-winded lectures printed in the paper or go on TV to vomit up talking points, don’t want to believe this, because they want to believe that the fact that the world works for them means that they are good people. But it is again the other way around. The reason the world works for these people is that they are bad people, and the world works for bad people. If you’re in this or any similar position, then, you must conclude that your life is wrong, and that your only moral course of action is to take unsparing account of yourself and of the real effects of your actions, and to make fundamental changes in who you trust, what you believe, and how you understand the world. Or you can blame it on the Russians.

Contempt of court

The Supreme Court’s recent upholding of the Muslim Ban is significantly worse than a mere “unconstitutional” violation of “religious liberty.” Indeed, the problem is precisely that it is not those things; it is entirely justifiable on legal grounds while also being plainly evil. It is, therefore, not a mere failing of the present composition of the Court, but an indictment of its very existence.

Arguing against something by calling it “unconstitutional” is facile in the best of cases (as with laws and standards in general, the mere existence of something says nothing about whether it’s right or wrong. Slavery was constitutional for a pretty long time), but here it’s just plainly false. What the constitution actually says about religion is the Congress shall make no law respecting its establishment. The executive branch is not Congress, and an executive order is not a law. In fact, the Constitution doesn’t really say a whole hell of a lot about any constraints on immigration policy, which is part of why various governments have pretty much made it up as they’ve gone along. We’ve had quotas before, you know. And in the absence of explicit legal standards, questions such as whether a face-neutral policy that was clearly motivated by religious resentment qualifies as “religious discrimination” or whether a particular action is justified in terms of national security ultimately have to be judgment calls.

Of course, this isn’t a slam-dunk case in favor of the ban, either. Just because an action is within the purview of the executive doesn’t mean that any such action is beyond reproach. And this is precisely the issue. As long as there is not a specific law addressing the exact case in question, the Court is, in a very fundamental sense, free to do as it wishes. And they’re not actually required to adhere to precedent, either, so ultimately the only thing preventing any given case from descending into a free-for-all is personal restraint. The question of whether to ban Muslims becomes simply the question of whether five lawyers want to ban Muslims.

Obergefell is an even clearer example. Scalia was entirely correct that the case was decided not because a particular decision was required by existing law, but simply because the majority wanted to legalize gay marriage. The reason he was full of shit is that the exact same argument applies to his own opinion. While he claimed that he didn’t care either way about the political question, the argument at issue was that gay people have the right to get married, so what this actually means is that he believed that gay people did not have such a right. This is exactly as much of an ideological position as Kennedy’s was – the only difference between the two is that Kennedy was a mushhead while Scalia was a liar. The only way to decide the case was to bring in a political opinion from outside existing law, and that’s exactly what both the majority and the dissenters did.

Given what’s been happening, this might seem obvious enough, but the problem is that it completely delegitimizes the existence of the Supreme Court, as such. That is, it is not the case that the Court is now illegitimate because it has become politicized. Its very conception is illegitimate a priori.

The reason the Supreme Court is an undemocratic and unaccountable body with lifetime membership is precisely because it is not supposed to address political questions. Its composition is explicitly intended to be unresponsive to democratic pressures. It’s supposed to be a technical institution, which is why it’s the only one staffed by actual professionals. And as far as the typical nitpicky lawyer case about whether a taco counts as a sandwich goes, this is all well and good. Cases with defined legal standards and without obvious political implications can in fact be adjudicated technically, by field experts.

But, while there are many such cases, their existence is ultimately a coincidence. Laws affect real-world material outcomes, so there’s never actually an “apolitical” law. It’s just that in some cases the political effects are narrow or obscure, and in others they’re obvious and far-reaching. In some cases, a legal question about whether a particular standard for operating a medical facility is justified is a simple technicality, while in others it is a fundamental judgment about whether abortion should be accessible or not. What distinguishes these cases is not the law itself, but the social circumstances surrounding it, which is why this problem is unavoidable. You can’t pick only the “non-ideological” cases for the Court to hear, because it is not the case itself that determines its political significance.

Thus, it is necessarily the case that the Supreme Court cannot function as intended. The question of whether this or that judge is a “moderate” or an “ideologue” is entirely beside the point. It is a logical impossibility. There will always be some number of cases whose outcomes are unavoidably political, such that the only way to judge them will be on the basis of political ideology. Which is exactly what happens.

It is important to emphasize, repeatedly, that this is not a matter of “corruption” or “decay” or “extremism” or what the fuck ever. It’s a matter of design. The “Founding Fathers” fucked this up: they designed a system that can’t work as intended, because they weren’t smart enough to figure out the stuff that I just described. I obviously have the benefit of hindsight, but wrong is wrong, and the design of the United States government is in this respect objectively wrong. You’re not going to get anywhere until you give up your childish fantasies about the “wisdom” of “great men” and start looking at how things actually function.

Except that’s not quite true either, because, despite the fact that the actual operation of the government today is quite far removed from how it was when it was first designed, there’s a significant sense in which we really do have the society that the founders wanted. “Democracy” for them meant something completely different than it does to us – there’s a reason they felt no compunctions talking big about it while denying the franchise to the vast majority of the population (and also raping slaves). What it meant for them was, rather than the rule of a specific class of elites (royals), rule by the elites in general. Non-elites did not, for the sake of political representation, qualify as people.

The reason we have a society dominated by businessmen and lawyers is that the founding fathers were businessmen and lawyers who wanted to dominate society. That’s the order they created, and it’s the order we still have today, with the Supreme Court acting as one of its most powerful enforcers. So, from one point of view, the founders were even wiser then they’re given credit for: even after thoroughly misunderstanding, distorting, and bastardizing their vision, we’re still pretty much doing what they wanted. (On the other hand, creating a new order just to re-replicate the same patterns that have existed for all of human history isn’t, like, particularly impressive.)

To be fair, though, there really isn’t a solution to this problem. If you have a society of laws, you do have to have some sort of body for adjudicating them, and doing so is unavoidably going to be a political endeavor a lot of the time. The solution for us, though, once we’ve cleared away the obfuscating fog, shines though with painful clarity. Because the Supreme Court cannot ever be relied upon for anything, it must never be the case that it matters at all to our political activity. The whiny liberals screeching about how important it is to Vote Democratic for the sake of the Supreme Court have it exactly backwards: if all you can rely on to advance your agenda is friendly judicial rulings, you have already lost. You are relying solely on rearguard actions that will never allow you to claim new territory.

The looming fate of Roe is the perfect example here. The only reason that decision matters is that abortion is already inaccessible, so its technical legality is the only thread it has left to hang on to. By contrast, this isn’t a problem for birth control in general. The same zealots would also love to ban birth control, but that aspect of their cause is a complete non-starter, because the battle for birth control has already been won. It’s a normal thing that everyone uses openly in their daily lives. Despite noble efforts from many quarters (well, one quarter), the same cannot yet be said of abortion. But that’s the only way to actually resolve this; a technical legal argument in favor of abortion doesn’t do anything for anybody. Avoiding the fight by adhering to the garbage status quo is a coward’s plan. The only moral option is to win the war.

Also, we really need to admit that Roe was a shit decision in the first place. Establishing a touchy-feely sort-of-right to abortion that came with built-in restrictions ensured that actual access would inevitably be chipped away by a bunch of bullshit pseudo-regulations while obligating absolutely no action toward helping people actually utilize their supposed rights. The correct decision is for abortion to be established as a positive right that the government is obligated to provide, based on the fundamental right to bodily autonomy – which is not enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Also, this is identical to the argument for universal health care, which is the only workable way to implement it. The Constitution won’t tell you any of that, though. You have to figure it out for yourself.

Jurisprudence is not going to save you. The political institution that is responsible for the advancement of values is you.

On cages

This immigration thing is exactly what I was just talking about. Trump and Obama both have the same goals regarding immigration policy; the thing that makes Trump worse is simply that he’s a moron, which results in him doing a bad job of meeting those goals, which causes additional unnecessary human suffering.

The thing about DACA is that it’s actually just prosecutorial discretion, which is a normal thing that always exists. Prosecutors can’t do everything at once, so they have to pick the cases that they think are the most worth prosecuting. This applies most strongly to immigration, since in that case you’ve got a ton of people just hanging out and living here, so you have an extreme luxury of choice as to which ones you want to try to deport. What DACA is is just the acknowledgement that people who a) came to the country as children and therefore did not themselves make the decision to immigrate and b) have been living and working here their whole lives, just like everybody else, represent the absolute lowest priority for deportation.

But the thing about this is that you can only get DACA if you are already proceeding from the assumption that your goal is to deport as many people as possible as efficiently as possible. It’s entirely distinct from amnesty: “deferred action” is right there in the name. DACA is not the “left-wing” immigration policy, it’s just the least stupid version of the right-wing immigration policy. It’s an anti-immigrant policy, because it’s based on the assumption of deportation.

Of course, this doesn’t make it a bad thing by itself, and that’s exactly the problem that people have: they have to sort everything into “good thing” or “bad thing.” This is not, as defensive liberals would have it, a matter of “deflecting” from Trump by “blaming Obama,” or a “false equivalency.” It doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is or whether one thing is “just as bad” as another. Answering those questions doesn’t help anybody. What does help is figuring out how and why things are happening, and what can be done to change them. It’s a matter of the underlying logic of the situation: of how things happen. That’s what you have to know in order to stop it. It is precisely because child separation is such a vicious policy that we can’t understand it in isolation: without understanding the causal chain that created it, you can’t fix the thing that you’re claiming is so uniquely horrible that it has to be fixed right now.

In short, the myopic focus on individual media-friendly outrages is exactly how politics doesn’t happen. The most common example of this is the persistent focus on the Supreme Court. Everyone’s all atwitter about Roe v. Wade potentially being overturned, but the thing is that wouldn’t actually change the status quo on abortion all that much. Abortion is already practically inaccessible in areas that are hostile to it, so allowing states to formally outlaw it would simply change the situation from “almost unavailable” to “completely unavailable.” And areas that already have accessible abortion clinics would just stay that way.

This doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t matter, it just means that it’s one thing at the very end of a long chain of things that matter. Focusing solely on this one last piece of the puzzle means ignoring 99% of the issue. Furthermore, it means focusing on the one thing that we’re least able to affect. We don’t have any real control over what the Supreme Court does, and in fact that’s supposed to be the point. The reason the Supreme Court has no democratic accountability is that they’re not supposed to be setting policy. The constant liberal droning about how much the composition of the Supreme Court matters completely misses the point: it shouldn’t matter. The Court only matters when everything else has already gone wrong, such that it becomes the last resort. If abortion is already accessible everywhere, then not having formal constitutional protections for it doesn’t change much. Whereas if abortion isn’t practically available anywhere, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s theoretically “protected” or not.

This is also exactly what happened the other way around with Obergefell. A majority of states had already legalized gay marriage, and that trend would have continued either way. Indeed, the decision only became possible due to decades of hard political work advancing the proposition that gay people were not “sodomites” but were in fact people. There is no way in hell that mushhead Kennedy would have written that opinion had the tide not already decisively turned. And the cake thing shows that it in no way “resolved” the issue; this is still a site of active conflict. Again, this doesn’t make Obergefell meaningless. It’s still a good thing. And overturning Roe would be actually horrible, just like child separation is actually horrible. But these things are what they are at the same time that they are not deus ex machinae, that they are properly understood as the logical culmination of underlying dynamics.

Both things are true. Not everything is equally as bad as everything else, there are real worthwhile distinctions to be drawn among existing political alternatives, but the fact that these alternatives are distinct does not mean that they are actually opposed to one another. They function symbiotically. As long as we’re concerned about Roe being overturned, we’re not thinking about how to make abortion available to people who need it. As long as we’re horrifying ourselves with recordings of children crying, we’re not taking a real stance on immigration. If you only care about things when they get dramatic portrayals in the media, you aren’t actually a moral person. You’re a child, and you’re locking yourself in a cage.

Hard choices

Those who yearn for the halcyon days of empirical statements and complete sentences in politics will find Barack Obama’s defense of the Iran deal a long-awaited balm. As well they should; Obama is an intelligent person with a genuine command of the issues and the ability to explain them clearly and concisely. Unfortunately, he’s also clever.

Read this passage carefully:

Second, the JCPOA has worked in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. For decades, Iran had steadily advanced its nuclear program, approaching the point where they could rapidly produce enough fissile material to build a bomb. The JCPOA put a lid on that breakout capacity. Since the JCPOA was implemented, Iran has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium; removed two-thirds of its centrifuges (over 13,000) and placed them under international monitoring; and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium — the raw materials necessary for a bomb. So by any measure, the JCPOA has imposed strict limitations on Iran’s nuclear program and achieved real results.

Now answer this: before the Iran deal was established, was Iran building nuclear weapons? It sure sounds like it, right? It was “steadily advancing,” “approaching” the point where it might have achieved “breakout capacity.” Scary! Also, 13,000! That’s a big number!

The correct answer, however, is no. There’s no evidence that’s Iran’s “weapons program” was ever anything more than a bogeyman conjured up by people with political interests in facilitating an invasion of the country. One does not need “access to the intelligence” to be able to state this with relative confidence. Because the U.S. has been constantly scaremongering about this for years now, we can be sure that, if there really was hard evidence, we’d have heard all about it. You’ll note that Obama’s statement above is composed entirely of weasel words. The “raw materials” for a bomb do not constitute a weapons program, saying that something is “approaching” the point where it could be “rapidly produced” specifically means it is not being produced, and the whole thing is based on the conflation of “nuclear program” with “nuclear weapons program.” None of this is a mistake; Obama is obviously apprised of the real intelligence on the subject, and he is choosing these words deliberately.

(By the way, for anyone who’s not aware of this: the reason the U.S. government hates Iran is that they overthrew our puppet government there. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with theocracy or human rights or terrorism sponsorship, since we’re still BFFs with Saudi Arabia, which is way worse on all possible counts. And of course it would be perfectly rational for Iran to choose to pursue nuclear weapons now, since it’s been demonstrated that the American mind only understands force.)

So this raises the critical question of what the hell Obama thinks he’s doing. Presumably, the argument in favor of the Iran deal is that Iran is not in fact part of an “axis of evil” and should simply be negotiated with normally. Indeed, one might have imagined that this was the entire point, that the deal was built on the recognition that the United States and Iran have no real reason to be in conflict with each other and should be working together towards deescalation and a normalization of relations. Should one hold such a belief, though, one would be in for some pretty strenuous disagreement from, for example, Barack Obama:

Because of these facts, I believe that the decision to put the JCPOA at risk without any Iranian violation of the deal is a serious mistake. Without the JCPOA, the United States could eventually be left with a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East. We all know the dangers of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. It could embolden an already dangerous regime; threaten our friends with destruction; pose unacceptable dangers to America’s own security; and trigger an arms race in the world’s most dangerous region. If the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program under the JCPOA are lost, we could be hastening the day when we are faced with the choice between living with that threat, or going to war to prevent it.

While I don’t normally recommend that anyone pay any attention to politicians, I really wish all the people slobbering about how rational and thoughtful Obama is would actually read what he’s saying here. He is explicitly saying that, if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, the U.S. would be justified in launching a war of aggression. In fact, he’s saying more than that: by framing the situation as a “losing choice,” he’s saying that the U.S. would be required to do so. (It’s always pretty hilarious whenever someone uses the phrase “all options are on the table,” because there’s actually only ever one option on the table.)

This is important because it illuminates what Obama’s actual goal here is. It is not peace. If it were, he’d be responding to the present situation by arguing that there’s no reason to invade Iran. Instead, he’s doing the opposite: he’s specifically arguing against the possibility of “living with the threat.” So the question is why exactly the two choices he presents are both supposed to be “losing” ones. The reason Obama thinks war is a losing choice is that he’s smart. He knows that war is the worst thing and, moreover, that, for all the destruction it causes in the name of “necessity,” it generally doesn’t even achieve it’s own explicit immediate-term goals (the Iraq War, for example, exacerbated the spread of terrorism rather than containing it). But the reason he thinks a nuclear-armed Iran is a losing choice is that, in that case, the U.S. government’s dominance over the region would be weakened. In both cases, then, that is what he’s actually after: the successful expansion of U.S. imperialism.

And Obama genuinely does deserve credit for being smart. I actually want to emphasize this. The Iraq War was evil in terms of intention, but it was also badly executed, which made it worse. So the fact that Obama took the “smart” approach to Iran is not something to be underestimated. The Iran deal was by far the best thing Obama did as president. It was an unambiguously positive development that prevented one of the worst available outcomes from occurring – the U.S. government’s constant saber-rattling means that war really was an immediate danger, and unfortunately now still is.

But objecting only to the “stupidity” of war means you agree with its goals. The tide of official opinion has shifted against the Iraq War, but not out of morality. Almost everyone objects only to the fact that Iraq became a “quaqmire,” and Obama is one of those people. Maybe he would have been smart enough not to go into Iraq in the first place. He did speak out against the war, but he was a political unknown at the time, so he wasn’t really under any pressure not to. More to the point, we know full well what he really believes from what he actually did as president: he not only maintained but accelerated the state of perpetual warfare by expanding targeted assassination and surveillance programs and constantly engaging in unilaterally-declared undebated military actions. In this sense he was actually a far more effective imperialist than George W. Bush, because he expanded the franchise without provoking any opposition – despite the fact that all the things everyone was supposedly opposed to were still occurring. “Smart” imperialism may not get us Iraq, but it does get us Libya and Syria.

The situation with the Iran deal is frequently framed as a matter of Donald Trump trying to “undo” all of Obama’s accomplishments, but it’s actually just a matter of him being a moron. He lacks the mental capacity to assess either the merits of the deal or the consequences of withdrawal. (For example, a lot of people noticed that reneging on the Iran deal would make negotiations with North Korea untenable, meaning it was a bad idea regardless of the merits of the deal itself. It’s clear that this problem never even entered Trump’s mind.) He isn’t capable of processing the situation on any level other than labeling the deal a “bad thing” and therefore getting rid of it.

So what’s critical to understand is that, while this is a real difference – we’re worse off without the Iran deal – it’s a difference of execution rather than intention. The motives on which he’s acting here are the same as Obama’s: he’s trying to advance U.S. imperialism. During the campaign, a lot of political analysts thought Trump was an “isolationist,” basically because they’re incapable of doing political analysis. His objections to the Iraq War were entirely circumstantial: it wasted a bunch of money and caused bad things to happen (specifically, it had become unpopular and it was indirectly associated with both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, so it was a convenient attack vector). They were not moral; he was quite clear that his preferred approach to foreign policy was to “bomb them and take their oil,” which is precisely imperialism expressed in its crudest terms.

(I don’t totally understand why people think Trump is “evasive” or has “no ideology.” He’s entirely transparent. On second thought, I lied, I understand it perfectly well. The reason is that Trump only has the basic underlying ideology that most of the people talking about him implicitly share, so they don’t understand it as an ideology. (For example, Trump is obviously in favor of capitalism, and since most people don’t realize that capitalism is optional, they don’t understand that this is an ideological position. Same with imperialism.))

On Iran, Trump’s interpretation (generously defined) of the deal as a “bad deal” meant that it didn’t advantage America enough, and therefore did not exert the necessary dominance over Iran. This is the same motivation that lead Obama to pursue the deal in the first place: Iran having nuclear weapons would have allowed it to exert its own influence. This is the only reason anyone in the ruling class cares about anything. It’s exactly the same thing with North Korea: it’s only now that they’re beginning to acquire nuclear capacity and can therefore threaten our dominance over Asia that there’s suddenly a “crisis.” For anyone with the goal of peace, there was never an “Iran issue” in the first place, because Iran is not a threat to anyone – it has not been the instigator of any of the regional conflicts currently transpiring, and its involvement has been entirely defensive. Note that this is not something that the United States can claim.

Indeed, nuclear proliferation really is a vitally important issue, but not for the reasons you’ll hear from anyone in the media. For most of us, the reason nuclear weapons are a serious issue is that they can be used to murder millions of people in the blink of an eye – and they can just as easily do this accidentally as intentionally. The reason this matters to me is that Los Angeles is a priority target for anyone who wants to nuke the U.S., and there are a small number of people here whom I care about, and I refuse to accept that they can be instantly annihilated by the random whims of a tiny handful of sagging fleshpiles failing to play geopolitical checkers. (Also, blinding followed by irradiation doesn’t quite make my top 10 list of ways to die.) That’s my personal reason, at least. To be clear, the overwhelmingly more likely threat is the U.S. nuking someone else. Any other country that used nukes would be committing suicide, but the U.S. could potentially justify it and/or resist a beheading by the international community, not to mention we’re the ones with enough nukes to black out the sky, as well as the ones doing such a shit job of securing them that accidental global annihilation is actually a salient possibility. While I strongly resent my life being under this stupid of a threat, anyone being honest about this has to admit that America is the monster here, and it’s therefore everyone not being “protected” by America’s nuclear umbrella who has the real moral authority.

For politicians, though, none of this has anything to do with anything. They’re already murdering people on a constant basis; they don’t care about that. They’d be perfectly happy to kill everyone in Los Angeles if it would benefit them and they thought they could get away with it. We know perfectly well from the immediately available historical evidence that they will kill whoever they want for whatever reason they want and they will use nukes to do so if they think they can justify it. The only reason they care is because of power. Countries with nuclear weapons have the ability to resist U.S. dominance. Nobody can beat the U.S. in a straight war, but we can’t stop nukes, so a country with nukes can credibly threaten us – which is to say they can make the costs of invading them outweigh the benefits. Nuclear weapons give other nations the power to assert their own desires against the will of the U.S. government, and this is never acceptable under any circumstances.

Obama doesn’t actually want war. At least that much can be said for him. He’s not John Bolton salivating for violence, nor even John McCain singing about bombing Iran. But he is Barack Obama making jokes about killing people with drone strikes. What Obama wants is American dominance. He’s smart enough to realize that it’s better to have dominance without having to resort to war, but if we do end up having to kill a few million people here or there, he’s not going to lose any sleep over it. He’s “anti-war” only tactically, as a result of being moderately intelligent. Unlike the rest of the slack-jawed crocodiles that this country calls a government, he at least realizes that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” But he’s totally cool with taking that refuge. Let’s dispel with this fiction that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

The thing about Trump is that opposing him is easy. Indeed, it’s difficult not to, which is why so many objectively terrible people are now doing so. This is because Trump is the worst possible person. It’s actually kind of amazing, like something out of the Twilight Zone. Almost everybody has at least something that could be said for them. Y’know, Hitler loved his dogs or whatever. More to the point, Hitler had real goals that he felt passionately about and he was skillful and determined in pursuing them. Obviously, this made the consequences of his life much worse than they could have been, but it remains the case that these are respectable traits to have as a person. One can at least view Hitler as a formidable villain.

But the thing that’s amazing about Trump is that he has nothing like this going for him. There are a few things about him that would seem to be positives, but he manages to make them into negatives anyway. For example, he doesn’t actually “speak his mind” and thereby get through the “media filter,” because he’s only capable of thinking in media tropes in the first place, and he only talks to draw attention to himself, not to express ideas. So he actually uses his impulsiveness and irreverence to play into existing media narratives, resulting in him being an even more conventional and obfuscatory speaker than the typical talking-point parroting politician.

Similarly, while it may seem that Trump is a dynamic person who takes action and makes a difference in the world, he doesn’t direct his energy at anything that actually matters. He started a whole bunch of different businesses and ventures and so forth, but none of them actually did anything  – none of the products he hawked are still around and none of the buildings he promoted do anything significant, so what his “high-energy” personality actually means is that he wastes more time and money than someone who just sits around and does nothing.

This is even clearer now that he actually has formal power and is doing absolutely nothing with it. If he actually cared about doing anything, he could have, among other things, made an immigration deal such as the DACA-for-wall proposal that had bipartisan support or pushed for the big infrastructure bill he likes to talk about sometimes. These things would have broken out of the political stalemate and precipitated actual changes in the country, but because Trump doesn’t actually know how to do real things, they never even came close to happening. His “energy” is instead spent playing golf and yelling at the TV. He was entirely energetic and committed when he was running for president, and this was a bad thing, because presidential campaigns are bullshit spectacles that eclipse real issues. So the practical result of this was not that anything “changed,” but that Trump simply made the 2016 campaign an even bigger and more bullshit-filled spectacle than ever before. He only knows how to do things that aren’t real things.

Yet all of this actually makes Trump a less bad president than a lot of others, at least so far. He’s at least going to stay ahead of Bush Jr. as long as he doesn’t start a major war. And his total lack of policy understanding might actually lead to him not fucking up the South Korean president’s efforts at a peace treaty, which, given the current context of U.S. foreign policy, would qualify as a significant passive achievement. But this obviously doesn’t reflect well on Trump – it’s just a coincidence, or what philosophers call “moral luck.” It’s actually part of why he’s the worst possible person: being ineffective in an immoral situation results in better outcomes.

By contrast, Obama has plenty of admirable character traits, but these don’t necessarily lead to good results. I mean, Obama isn’t nearly as good of a person as people make him out to be. The fact that he immediately cashed in upon exiting the presidency really does reflect quite badly on him – anyone making excuses for Obama on this front is presumably unaware that Jimmy Carter exists. I mean, he’s, like, “nice,” but he’s clearly not any kind of moral paragon, so there’s really quite a lot of wishful thinking going on here. It would be nice if the “first black president” were a deep moralist and a bold, original thinker, but things that would be nice tend to not actually be the case.

Anyway, the point is that Obama applied his admirable skills towards the execution of his goals, so the actual results of his actions depend on what those goals were. In response to the financial crisis, Obama’s goal was to preserve the stability of financial capitalism, and that’s exactly what he did. A less skilled individual might not have been able to pull it off. But Obama did, so the speculators kept speculating, the entire value of the recovery went to rich fucks, and we now have a less equal society that retains all of the same problems that caused the crash in the first place, along with a “healthy” economy where no one can afford housing.

Of course, stabilizing the economy was better than not stabilizing it, but that’s not much of a laurel to rest on. This is clearer in the case of Obamacare. While the law had a lot of negative consequences, such as the rise of high-deductible plans, the situation was already pretty well fucked, so it’s probably better that it passed. But while we may want to defend Obamacare on a tactical basis, we should still be opposed to it on a moral one, because it still supports a system in which people live or die based on how much money they have. This isn’t about demanding perfection. It’s perfectly rational to take what you can get, but it would be entirely irrational not to then continue on to pursue something that’s actually good. Indeed, it would precisely be an insistence on ideological purity at the expense of engaging with real conditions in the world.

And the thing is, if you try to do something like this, Obama is going to be against you. He’s against war with Iran, so if you’re engaged with the specific issue of trying to prevent a war with Iran, he may be effective as a situational ally. You know what they say about politics. But if you then move on to trying to stop U.S. imperialism, he’s going to be just as opposed to you as he is to Trump. More so, in fact, because in this case he will actually disagree with your goals rather than merely your methods.

Being against the worst thing in the world doesn’t make you a good person, and being the preferable alternative to the worst thing in the world doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than that you’re the second worst thing in the world. More to the point, there’s opposition, and then there’s opposition. If you’re against someone because you think they’re doing a bad job of implementing your goals, what that means is that you’re on their side, you just have some constructive criticism for them. Barack Obama is on Donald Trump’s side, not yours.

This is a hard thing to convince people of, because the superficial differences are so great – and, as mentioned, they’re things that actually matter, so you can’t just ignore them. But acting in the real world rather than merely indulging in comfortable fantasies requires doing things which are hard, such as drawing distinctions that aren’t readily apparent, and making choices other than those that are explicitly presented to you. Sometimes you have to cut against people’s instinctive personal reactions rather than indulging them. We don’t always have the convenience of our enemies manifesting themselves as sneering grotesques, broadcasting their vileness for all to see. Sometimes the ones who smile are the villains. The lines aren’t always clear or straight, either, and the complexity of any significant issue makes it easy to get things wrong. But I can say this: if you care about progress, if you care about equality, if you care about justice – indeed, if you care about anything at all other than the continued stability of the American Empire – Barack Obama is your enemy.

Everything is permitted

The decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis has a clear, unavoidable, and devastating takeaway: the system doesn’t work.

Supposedly, we have this thing called “society” which organizes everything to allow for normal people to live happy and productive lives, as long as they follow the rules. If you behave and get good grades in school, you’ll be able to go to college, and then get a good job, which will allow you to participate in the market economy with the money you make and thereby pursue whatever goals you might have (because of course the market provides everything you could ever want). And if anything in this process goes wrong, there are also rules for how to resolve it. If someone steals from you, you can call the police in order to get your stuff back. Even in the case of outright unpredictable and unavoidable disasters such as tornadoes or earthquakes, we have insurance and emergency management services.

Naturally, nothing’s perfect, so there are plenty of times when things don’t go as they should: when cops kill the people they’re supposed to be protecting, when corporations don’t pay the amount of taxes that the law says they’re supposed to, when people make electoral decision based on false or misleading information, etc. But these things aren’t necessarily system failures. They may just be unintended consequences, or mistakes in how a law was drafted, or new technological developments that haven’t been accounted for yet. So the natural recourse here is to reform: fighting fake news, closing tax loopholes, and retraining the police. This is also built into the rules: we have various mechanisms for making these sorts of changes when it’s recognized that there are problems of this sort that need to be corrected.

It’s important, therefore, not to respond to these types of things by changing the structure itself, because the structure is what allows you to respond in the first place. If, for example, you were to respond to police violence by delegitimizing the police, you would a) no longer have their protection, opening you up to more violence, and b) implicitly create a new structure without police protection in general, meaning no one would any longer have any recourse against unjust violence. (This is essentially the argument that cops have tried to make in response to Black Lives Matter, except that they’ve been too stupid to make it correctly; they’ve instead gotten defensive and petty and thereby conceded the moral high ground.) This means that more important than any particular violation of the rules is the rules themselves, because as long as we have the rules, we have a functioning society. It’s all well and good to try to fix things, but this must always be done through the proper channels, and never by attacking the channels themselves.

What the Epic decision demonstrates is that this is formally not the case. The rules are intentionally designed not to work for you, and this includes the rules that are supposed to account for the times when the rules fail. The case specifically concerned the fact that the company wasn’t paying overtime. In other words, they were stealing from their employees, meaning they were both breaching the contract they had with them and breaking the law. So this is already a failure of the normal rules. The recourse for this is supposed to be that the affected parties can file a lawsuit, and the only thing that an arbitration clause does is to remove this recourse; it specifically prevents the rules from being followed. Arbitration clauses are an explicit power grab by corporations, and the only reason they exist is that corporations have the power to make it so: they dictate terms that are not open to negotiation, and these terms include the clause that, if you get fucked, there is nothing you can do about it. And what the Supreme Court of the United States has just decided is that this is absolutely correct. Powerful people should indeed have free reign to ignore the rules for their own benefit.

So, as it turns out, there really is no such thing as society. There are individual teeth and claws. The thing that Hobbes was wrong about was the idea that the social contract gets us out of the state of nature. It doesn’t. The state of nature is still there, the whole time, waiting. Nothing can actually stop someone from murdering you; all society can do is provide sets of incentives and disincentives to affect people’s behavior. The kind of “law” that says you can’t murder people is qualitatively different from the kind of “law” that says that if you get shot in the face, you die.

Furthermore, the social contract itself is just another state of nature on top of the default one, because nothing prevents it from being exploited. A court of law can potentially arbitrate a dispute to reach a just resolution, but it can also allow an unethical lawyer with a vindictive client to destroy someone’s life just because they want to. And anyone capable of preventing this will necessarily have the power to commit the same abuse themselves (this is the “who watches the watchers?” problem: whatever the highest level of authority is in any given situation, someone at that level can simply choose to do whatever the fuck they feel like). Regardless of what kinds of “rules” and “regulations” there are, there’s always going to be underlying material conditions that determine what people can actually do, and what will (or won’t) happen to them as the result of particular actions.

This dynamic has seen some surface-level discussion recently in the guise of “norms,” but this has mostly been cheap handwringing about the fucking filibuster or whatever. The real issue here goes all the way down: to the home you live in, the clothes you wear, and the food you eat. You do not have a “right” to anything: you either have the ability to steal or the luxury of noblesse oblige. Your very existence is contingent on the random whims of senile jackasses and stunted sociopaths. The only reason you are alive is that no one has yet chosen to kill you.

This is cause for one type of fatalism: it means that utopia is logically impossible. Any possible society will include avenues of exploitation. More practically, in our current situation, it means that we never were and will never be in a situation where the “rules” and being “followed” and we are therefore “safe.” “Normalcy” is only ever a pocket of delusion created by fortuitous circumstances. Every atrocity ever committed was a free choice made by someone who had the power to do so, and the worst thing that will ever happen is locked, loaded, and ready to go, just waiting for someone to pull the trigger.

But this is also true of everything good that has ever happened. Nothing worthwhile was ever supposed to happen; it happened because people made it happen, the hard way. It happened because someone was willing to bloody their hands, or willing to scar themselves. But I’m not sure anyone has ever really learned this lesson. Pretty much everyone goes back to sleep as soon as they get an official proclamation or a law passed or a president elected or something. Indeed, the vast majority of the time people settle for almost nothing: they’re happy to get bread crumbs and call it a banquet. No one ever pushes the knife all the way in.

It’s not enough to simply have a court system and to say that it allows people to resolve disputes. Contracts don’t matter if one side can dictate terms that the other must accept, courts don’t matter if powerful people can force arbitration, and laws don’t matter unless something actually happens when you break them. In order for any of these things to do what they’re supposed to, we have to fill in the other side of the equation, and by the very nature of the problem, this cannot be done with “rules.” It must be done with force.

I don’t know how to do this. Like, I can assure you that I am not making a self-interested argument here. This is the worst possible conclusion for me. I am a child of order, and I do not know how to live wild. But I have to accept this, because the highest court in the land just told me that it’s not going to countenance any alternative. This is a war, and the only rational response is to act like it.

Circus of values

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There was recently a, um . . . I don’t even know what to call these things anymore; it doesn’t rise to the level of like “controversy” or “scandal” or anything, but it’s a “thing that people on the internet get offended about for ten minutes.” You know. Anyway it was about how The Simpsons is totally racist, and it was notable for its display of near-complete point-missing in all available directions.

So the usual thing happened where someone was expected to “respond” to something and they did a bad job of it, and this caused “outrage” and etc., but the thing about this is that nothing else was ever going to happen. The thing that is currently being called “The Simpsons” is not a good show, by which I mean it is not a worthwhile show, by which I mean it is not worth anyone’s while to see what it “has to say.” Paying attention to it right now is equivalent to huffing the fumes that it’s running on. By extension, there’s no point in criticizing the current iteration of the show, either, because there’s nothing there to criticize.

Of course, the original criticism about Apu being a racist caricature was mainly directed at the actual show back when it was an actual show, because that’s the part that people actually watch and therefore know the character from, so that’s an entirely worthwhile endeavor (I’m judiciously avoiding adjudicating the substance of the criticism itself here). But precisely because this endeavor is worthwhile, it’s also non-trivial. It’s not enough to merely point out that the character is a racist stereotype, because the fact that the show was well-written means that it did something with the stereotype (actually, pretty much the entire show can be described as “doing something with stereotypes.” Homer is also a stereotype, obviously), which means you have to go a step further: you have to argue against the thing that the show actually did. So a lot of people have responded to this by pointing out the ways in which Apu went against stereotype or was just a well-portrayed character in general, but this is only a valid defense against the simplistic (which is not to say incorrect) argument that Stereotypes Are Bad. It can be overcome by the stronger argument that a well-written and intentionally positive portrayal can nonetheless insidiously advance racism.

And succeeding in making this argument is a real achievement: it changes people’s understanding of the situation and refines the lens of analysis that we can then use going forward. (I mean, this is the only possible purpose. You can’t go back and un-write the show and reverse the influences it’s already had on people. You can only do better in the future.) But in the same sense, succeeding with the trivial version of the claim only results in a trivial achievement. You can successfully advance the proposition that Bad Thing Is Bad, but this doesn’t actually help anyone or change anything in any significant way.

This is why it’s crucially important to not merely attempt to position yourself on the right side of an obvious bright line, but to make an argument that’s actually worth making. For example, people have pointed to the fact the Apu was in an arranged marriage and had eight kids as examples of how he’s a reductive stereotype, but the reason these things happened is specifically because the show was out of ideas and therefore resorting to hackneyed bullshit to keep people attention. Of course they’re reductive, because the show was precisely being reductive at that point. This isn’t evidence of how racism works or anything like that, it’s just evidence that hacks are hacks. This is the furthest thing from aesthetic snobbishness; it’s a strong contrast with the argument against the good version of the show. If you have an argument against the show when it was good, you have an argument about how racism perpetuates itself even when people are doing a good job with things and even trying to be actively anti-racist, which means you have an argument that matters, because it can actually be used to help people do anti-racism better in the future.

In short, two things that initially look like slightly different versions of the same thing – the argument against Real Apu and the argument against Hack Apu – are in fact complete opposites. One of them maintains everyone’s existing understanding of the situation by arguing against something everyone already knows is an Official Bad Thing, and one of them advances the existing understanding by demonstrating that something people were assuming was good actually has practical negative consequences. Thus, choosing the wrong thing to argue against here does not merely weaken your position, it inverts it, such that your efforts end up having the opposite of their intended effect.

This is such a major problem that there’s actually a significant sense in which the internet has reduced the total amount of discourse happening. There’s plenty of talking going on, but so little of it is about anything relevant to anything that the net elucidation has been reduced. People think they’re arguing about things, when what they’re actually doing is preventing those issues from being argued about. I mean, it’s too much to claim that this always happens and that internet discussions never go anywhere, but it definitely is a real and serious problem that no one’s really trying to do anything about. And at any rate you can’t un-invent the genie, there’s no actual “anti-internet” argument to be made, which is why you – meaning you, personally – have to make a serious effort to talk about things that matter and ignore things that don’t, to eschew easy targets and make the effort to reach higher ones, and to cease to avail yourself of convenient arguments and accept the constraints of making correct ones. Only you can prevent garbage fires.

So let’s work an example. We’ve got a convenient one right now, because we’re right on the tail end (Eris willing) of a vomit cyclone exuded by one the true masters of the form: Kanye West. If you haven’t heard (in which case I envy you more than words can convey), it turns out that West is a supporter of the Bad Politics Person, which by extension makes him a Bad Politics Person, which means it is the solemn duty of all Good Politics People to respond with Stern Moral Denunciations. I can assure you that my dickishness here is sincere. What I just wrote is the actual substance of the event. There isn’t any “underlying meaning” or anything to “interpret” or “analyze” or “understand.” There’s a completely clueless person being completely clueless and a bunch of thirsty social-climbers building their Twitter brands in response.

I want to make sure we all understand what’s really happening here in technical terms. Politics matters. It is a supremely practical subject that directly impacts the daily lives of everyone who’s alive. So the fact of Donald Trump being president is among the most important of our current issues – it is perhaps the defining intellectual challenge of our time, and its resolution may well determine the future course of human history (if any). So what paying attention to the wrong thing here does is prevent this challenge from being met.

If, by promoting certain types of stories and advancing a certain narrative, we understand Trump as, for example, a Russian plant, then that’s necessarily going to lead to actions that respond to that understanding – for example, starting a new Cold War. So the thing about this is that a lot of the Russia claims are probably true; just given the facts of who Trump is, he’s more likely than not in hock to Russian gangsters (and of course the claim that Russia “interfered” with the election is trivially true; every large country does this all the time). But mere fact that a fact is true isn’t actually enough of a justification for saying it, because saying something is an action, so the question necessarily has to be: what are the results of your actions going to be? (This also includes the opportunity costs of not taking different actions.) And the more prominent of a platform you have, the more salient of a question this is, and the more variables you have to consider in order to answer it correctly.

The more important an issue is, the less effective it is to throw the kitchen sink at it. The kitchen sink approach works fine for trivial issues precisely because they’re trivial: you only need the one good hit to knock them out. But hard targets require more than that: they require focused effort against their specific vulnerabilities. Any effort that isn’t correctly targeted is effort that isn’t being applied where it’s needed. Worse, hard targets are complex, which means feedback effects: something that seems like it ought to be effective can easily trigger counterproductive responses. So the more hardened the target is, the more important is is to attack from all correct angles, and from only those angles which are correct.

If there actually was anything at all going on with West’s politics (that is, if he actually had politics), then that would be worth addressing: it would be among the correct angles. But the problem with West is not that he’s getting involved in politics, it’s that he isn’t. He isn’t actually talking about Trump or the underlying political situation or history or America or race or anything. He’s talking about dragon energy. So the practical consequence that transpires from talking about Kanye West talking about dragon energy is that attention and energy that would otherwise be spent on addressing the most important issues of our time are otherwise being spent on nothing.

It is also not the case that West has “lost his way” or gotten “confused” or anything along those lines. The fact of the matter is that West said one sort of on-point thing one time and has just been a provocative jackass the entire rest of the time.1 Statistically, the only rational conclusion is that the one good thing was a fluke. And what really mandates this conclusion is the fact that the one good thing wasn’t even any good. It’s actually a shame that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” is such a classic line, because it’s entirely beside the point. What George Bush does or doesn’t care about has nothing to do with what happened in New Orleans or with anything else. I mean, Barack Obama presumably does care about black people, and his administration oversaw a massive destruction of black wealth. That’s not how any of this works. Talking about things in this manner specifically means understanding things wrong.

This is not a call for naive intellectualization. Sometimes the stupidest explanation really is the real explanation, and figuring it out requires you to look at and properly analyze the stupidest available evidence. Maybe Trump supporters have thoroughly-considered grievances against globalization and modern liberalism, or maybe they’re a bunch of racists who fell for history’s most obvious con. (The real explanation generally requires taking a little bit of everything into account. It’s a big world out there.) What being a real intellectual means is not picking the explanation that seems the “smartest,” but figuring out which one is actually real. Either way, though, West is the absolute least representative person to look to for insight on this issue. One could, in theory, figure out what West actually believes and why he believes it, but precisely because West is an “exceptional” person, this information has no bearing on anything besides West himself. This is the part where the “real Americans” cliche actually has its merit: if a person is a clueless sucker, but is also a representative example of a large number of clueless suckers, then the question of why that person is a clueless sucker matters, because answering it tells us something we can do about the situation. Paying attention to people like West takes us further away from this goal: what we learn from his situation, if anything, is incorrect when applied to almost any other situation. It’s a test graded with the wrong answer key.

This also doesn’t mean that the only valid response is stone-faced just-the-facts asceticism – in fact, that’s almost always a version of the wrong response. It’s worth shaming someone for their opinion on an issue when that opinion is actually based on a particular understanding of the issue and they’re actually capable of shame, neither of which applies to West. It’s even, on occasion, worth issuing a Stern Moral Denunciation when there’s actually a substantive issue on which moral clarity is useful, which is not the kind of thing that West has ever engaged with. And there are plenty of times when cultural or aesthetic events point the way to deeper understanding of important issues. Arguing about the portrayal of Apu during the good episodes of The Simpsons really is useful anti-racist praxis. Indeed, there are also plenty of times when stern discussions of policy and economics function precisely as means of avoiding real discussion. The entire Hillary Clinton campaign, for example, was about “qualifications” and “pragmatism” and was in precisely this way not about any actual issues. Talking much about policy can also be a means to conceal policy. The point is simply that there are useful things to talk about and there are useless things to talk about, and picking the useless thing isn’t a simple inefficiency or a matter of preference. It’s a serious error that causes real harm.

It’s also important to understand that we’re talking specifically about public discourse here – that is, we’re talking about The Media. Obviously, chatting with your friends about whatever random bullshit you happen to find enjoyable is entirely laudable behavior. The problem is that bullshitting on the internet looks like a casual conversation, but it’s actually not – it’s actually what The Media is now. When you have a platform – when a certain number of people are guaranteed to read what you’re writing simply because of where you’re writing it (this is the specific things that it means for something to be part of “the media”: it mediates) – you have a responsibility, because what you’re writing creates the context in which other people have discussions. Any media piece that claims to be “responding” to what “the media” is doing is fundamentally lying: said piece is itself doing the thing that it’s pretending to respond to.

For example, the only reason anyone thinks that there’s a “campus free speech” issue is that a bunch of prominent columnists keep writing about it – it is the columnists and not the protesters who create the issue. You also see this any time anyone claims that something is happening “on Twitter.” What actually happens is that writing about Twitter is itself the thing that draws attention to and frames a certain sector of activity and therefore creates the event that is claimed to be happening “on Twitter.”

Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. A lot of people would argue that they have to “respond” when someone like West starts mouthing off, simply because he commands attention; that is, even though what he’s saying isn’t at all relevant, the fact of him saying it is. This isn’t totally a defeatist argument. It’s true that if the situation is such that people are already engaging in a bunch of useless gibbering about something, or if you can accurately predict that that’s going to happen, then ignoring it doesn’t accomplish anything, so you might as well try to up the average by saying something slightly more useful. But the thing about this is that it doesn’t justify just any response. It justifies exactly one response: to convince everyone else to stop paying any attention to Kanye West, and in so doing redivert attention onto the real issue. Trying to explain what he’s saying or argue against him has the opposite of the desired effect: it doesn’t elucidate anything, because there’s not actually anything being talked about, and it draws more attention to West and to what he’s saying, and therefore necessarily diverts attention away from the actual substance of the issues that are supposedly so important that they must be responded to immediately.

The real reason this is important is that the media’s power to create issues can also be used positively: it can create real issues. A strong example of this is the opioid crisis. Because this is largely a regional phenomenon, a lot of people don’t have direct experience with it. Also, the people who do have experience with it are generally not in much of a position to raise the issue themselves. It actually is the media’s job here to create this issue: to inform people that something as bad as the AIDS crisis is happening right now, and to insist that they care about it. So hyping trivial bullshit isn’t just a foible or an annoyance: it has the total opportunity cost of the difference between the negative value of the useless vector of discussion and the potential positive value that could be realized by discussing the same thing along a worthwhile vector. For example, every time you read an article about some dumbass thing Trump says about North Korea, you’re both damaging your brain in the amount of how dumb it is and missing out on learning something about what’s really going on with the Korean conflict.

You can obviously go on all day with this; to take just the most obvious examples, global warming and nuclear weapons are our two main civilization-level threats right now, and they get almost no accurate coverage. Nuclear weapons coverage is always about what might happen if those bad people over there start building nukes, and not about the people who actually possess and are potentially willing to use world-destroying amounts of them – such as, for example, any of the times the United States itself has almost blown up the world, and how our constant warmongering is making nuclear accidents more likely. And all of the stentorian prattling about “accepting the facts” of global warming doesn’t really help as long as any discussion of anything serious that could actually be done about it is preemptively removed from the table (not being a denialist doesn’t really count if you’re still in denial about any way to solve the problem). So this isn’t, y’know, “media criticism.” This is fucking serious. It’s not just that it’s within your abilities to avoid falling face-down into the mud at every opportunity, it’s that you could be saving the world, and instead you’re choosing to eat garbage.

Going after easy targets is one thing. It’s dishonorable, but we’re only human, and in a situation like that it’s at least possible to make worthwhile arguments. But going after inaccurate targets is another thing entirely – it’s actively counterproductive. The only person you’re clowning in that situation is yourself.

 


  1. Also, it’s highly likely that West’s behavior is not the result of him being “provocative” or even being an out-of-touch rich fuck, but is in fact the result of serious mental illness, which isn’t being treated because everyone thinks he’s a wacky savant or whatever. So in this case specifically there’s actually a whole other level of harm that this is causing: everyone treating West like a provocateur is preventing him from getting the help he needs, and also preventing us as a society from treating metal illness with the seriousness it deserves.