Alright shitheads, bereavement period’s over. Time to get serious. Here’s what we’ve learned – by which I mean here’s what we already knew and have been lying to ourselves about:

  • The media is completely useless

There has been quite a lot of introspection about whether the media was doing “enough” to “stop” Trump, or whether it was “enabling” him. This is not the point. The issue is not how often the media got it “right” or “wrong”; the issue is that none of it mattered either way. I mean, they did get things right, for the most part. The media is made up of educated people. They knew what was going on and there were all kinds of investigations and things. They got the facts right and most of their arguments were correct. No one cared. Every newspaper in the country endorsed Clinton in the strongest possible terms, and none of that ink moved one single vote. Clinton was declared the definitive winner of all three debates. Didn’t fucking matter. Everyone was all anxious about whether Trump would try to skip the debates, but he might as well have, because they had absolutely no effect on anything.

All that shit about Clinton’s “ground game” and the “Obama Coalition” was also meaningless. There is no “vetting,” there are no “qualifications,” the debates are not “job interviews.” All just made-up terms inflated by professional hacks to justify their paychecks. The election spectacle has no actual function. This past year has been a complete waste of everyone’s time and money. This is the thing that Trump was the most right about. It is now a proven fact that there was no reason for him to play the game as dictated by the David Brooks contingent, because those people are irrelevant idiots and their game is bullshit.

(This is also the thing that Clinton was the most wrong about. Her entire political life has been hobbled by the mistaken impression that she was required to play pattycake with the gatekeepers of Seriousness and hire a bunch of dull campaign hacks to make sure that everything was being done The Right Way. Even as someone without natural charisma, she would have been better off without them. And it should be pretty clear by now that none of it protected her from sexism in any way.)

Also, what the fuck was all that polling shit for? The amount of yammering about polls was completely insane. Every fucking day it was some new set of arbitrary percentages that supposedly meant something. There was a whole fucking Game of Thrones-level dramatic arc about whether FiveThirtyEight‘s methodology was still valid. All meaningless. Like, what was even supposed to be the point of it? Was there supposed to be some perfect, magical poll that would somehow have locked the election for Clinton? What is the purpose of telling people what the results are supposedly going to be when those people are the ones who are actually going to be making the decision? All the time spent preparing and running and rerunning and analyzing and analyzing and analyzing those polls was time that could have been spent fighting.

Relatedly, the media is a tiny niche population. There are 325 million people in this country. The media speaks for about twelve of them. Which is a real problem when you combine it with the fact that media types fucking love to hear themselves talk. All day, every day, the media is constantly chattering to itself, about itself, and the only people listening, aside from other members of the media, are idiots like me who have nothing better to do with their time. Immediately before the election, everyone in the media was writing pieces under the assumption that Clinton was going to win handily. There were actually debates about whether it was going to be a blowout or just a landslide. How many voters did the people writing these pieces represent? Not fucking enough. We like to make fun of the “right-wing echo chamber” in which hardcore conservatives live, but it is actually us “informed” media-consumers who occupy the smallest and most distorting bubble. The people applauding each new “takedown” of Trump were suffering from just as severe a case of epistemic closure as anyone reading Breitbart or InfoWars. It’s a hell of a drug.

(If we can get slightly technical for a moment, one of the big problems with the internet is the way it facilitates the “small world” illusion. Even as it seems like there’s an incomprehensibly huge amount of stuff going on, you’re really only communicating to your tiny group of friends, while the rest of the world has no idea what the fuck you’re on about. The way you feel about flat-earth theory is exactly the way most people feel about your opinions on most topics. You might know what I mean if I ask you which set of pronouns you prefer, but upwards of 99% of the world would literally not understand the question even after having it explained to them slowly and repeatedly. It is not interpretable within their worldview. You can scroll through page after page of tweets supporting a sexual assault survivor without realizing that they represent about 0.01% of the real-world population. The world is a big place.)

(Also, the fact that Clinton won the popular vote is nice (as well as being genuinely important to remember for the purposes of analysis, especially regarding people who think the problem is that Clinton was a terrible candidate and everyone hated her), but it has no bearing on any of this. Even if she had won the election, the fact that anything approaching 50% of the population looked at Trump and said “yes” or even “sure, why not” contains the entirety of the problem. The fact that Trump is actually going to be president is certainly its own category of disaster, but we lost the battle as soon as he was accepted as a general election candidate. That alone proved that no one who mattered was willing to fight when it counted. Y’know, as painful as this all already is, we have to remember that Trump is not the worst-case scenario. There will come a night on which the glass finally breaks, and when that happens the Responsible Adults will all be down on their knees, poking thoughtfully at the shards. The story of 2016 is this: America allowed Trump to happen.)

Perhaps the most pitiable aspect of all this is the fact that the media was very, very serious about the whole thing, and that seriousness specifically was nothing but empty posturing. People don’t take things seriously just because the media says they should. This whole thing was and is a joke to most people. They’re wrong, but the punchline was delivered anyway.

  • The American political system is completely useless

A Trump presidency is exactly the situation that the entire American political machine is designed to prevent. A large mass of uninformed people made a rash decision based on limited and confused information. The electoral college, the primary system, the Congress, the courts, the media, and the party apparatuses are all designed to safeguard against this, to restrict the ability of the people to make sweeping changes based on momentary whims. Instead, they all indirectly conspired to achieve the exact opposite.

It is easy to understand the basic reason this happened: specific procedural details do not have general effects on outcomes. Sometimes they work one way, and sometimes they work the other. It was initially thought that the Democrats had the electoral college advantage this time around, with Clinton only needing one or two big states to clinch it. And that could very well have been the case; votes could have been distributed slightly differently to achieve the inverse outcome. But in neither case does the process confer any sort of legitimacy on the results. There is no connection between moral or even factual correctness and political victory. The actual outcome of this election was a draw; Trump essentially won on a coin flip. (The fact that this is the second time in living memory that this has happened and the final results favored the Republicans both times is potentially suspicious.)

So not only is there no point in defending the specifics of one particular process, the opposite is true: what we must fight for is dynamism, the ability to change the process as needed. All those people talking about how important it is to respect the process in tumultuous times are worse than wrong; they aren’t even part of the relevant conversation. They’re completely out to lunch, filling out checklists as the world burns.

(Oh, by the way, a Trump presidency guarantees that the U.S. will not respond to global warming in anything approaching an adequate manner. That probably wasn’t going to happen anyway, but now we can all rest assured that we’re definitely going to burn to death. We are past the critical point of action, so the destruction of the planet is now a certainty.)

  • America is not one country

Both sides were completely convinced that they were going to win, and both of them were correct. Within each subculture, there was no debate. The only issue, this whole time, was how many voters were going to turn out for each side. No one was ever going to be “persuaded.” There are, of course, the famous “undecided voters,” but they’re the exception that proves the rule: only a tiny percentage of people are not already in one camp or the other. The celebration of the increased diversity in Congress is all well and good, that’s certainly an improvement, but it’s not a consolation. It’s more evidence that America consists of two trains running on completely separate tracks.

Frankly, it’s starting to look like the Confederacy was on the right side of history. I mean, the Civil War was never really resolved; it ended in the temporal sense, but Reconstruction was thwarted, and we’ve been fighting that battle ever since. There is increasingly little point in pretending that we actually have any kind of “union” going on here. The obvious problem is that, if we accept a division, we are abandoning half the population to a situation that we believe to be immoral. But while force may be justified where something like slavery is the case, there’s little point in trying to save people from a hell they’ve chosen for themselves.

  • The Republican Party is alive and thriving

The speculations about whether Trump was going to destroy the Republican Party were bad enough when he was losing – even without being able to win national elections, the party would still wield massive, agenda-setting power on the state level and in the Congress. But now that whole angle is just downright comical. The Republicans are not “relics” who are being “left behind” because they’re “on the wrong side of history.” This sort of teleological complacency is exactly why the Democrats are such a bunch of losers (see also the use of “this is 2016, why are we still debating this” as though it were an argument rather than an admission of defeat). There is no “march of progress,” no moral arc inscribed onto the universe. “Progress” is a story we tell ourselves after the fact; it has no claim on the future. The first black president, married to a descendent of slaves, has been succeeded by someone who would probably be a literal Klansman if that weren’t bad branding. History does not move in a straight line; it is a tangled mess. Good things happen, but things do not gradually “get better” of their own accord. The corpses keep piling up. This is a war, and we are not fighting it hard enough. While we’ve just been trying to run out the clock, the other team has been constantly scoring behind our backs. If we don’t start getting our shit together with extreme severity, “history” is going to start looking a lot worse than even the pessimists among us have fantasized.

  • America is fucking racist

No one who genuinely opposes racism could possibly have considered supporting Trump. Even if you assume (pretend) that his campaign was not primarily about racism, the raw volume of it should have been a dealbreaker. Unless of course that was the deal you were looking to make in the first place.

Also, religion doesn’t matter, at all. There was never any such thing as the “Religious Right.” They were always just bigots. There are no “values voters,” in the sense where “values” means things like humility and integrity and all of that fluffball shit. In exactly the same way, “conservative principles” were never anything more than the self-important preening of a tiny handful of pompous pseudo-intellectuals. People do, of course, vote based on real values, and the realest of those values are, more often than not, racism and sexism.

  • America is not ready for a female president

I normally wouldn’t discuss things in these terms, but the conclusion seems to be unavoidable. There’s a book (or at least a pretentious blog post) to be written about the exact mechanics by which Clinton’s gender destroyed her, but it’s hard to doubt that it did. She’s basically a human checklist for the ideal presidential candidate, and, if the common media understanding of the situation is correct, her gender should have been an added bonus, a chance to make history. That understanding is not correct. We still live under patriarchy, and a woman still takes a step too far when she attempts to claim the mantle of rulership – even when she is someone who has devoted her life to preserving the existing social order, even when she is specifically expert at walking the finest line through the minefield of gendered expectations, and even when her opponent is as though chosen specifically to let’s say “heighten the contradictions.” Nothing is enough to overcome the fear of a female planet. It remains the overriding concern of a great many people – including women – that the center of the universe be a dick.

One specific fun fact that we are all now inescapably subject to is that sexual assault is not disqualifying behavior for the most important job in the world. Most people are, in fact, totally fine with it, and this group, again, includes a lot of women. This is another example of something the media class agrees on and most other people don’t. While the media whipped itself into a frenzy over the deeply troubling implications of The Tape, parsing and reparsing it endlessly to determine What It Means For America, everyone else was simply hearing normal masculinity, and it was their interpretation of the situation that was correct.

It’s been much noted in much despondency that white women went for Trump, but there’s nothing unexpected about this. Feminists have their own brand of epistemic closure: they believe that all women are naturally sympathetic to feminism. Not true. The real feminist insight here is that men and women are not so different in this regard. Most women are sexists (meaning sexist in the normal sense, against women – yet another thing that’s become clear is that people cannot be relied upon to correctly interpret basic factual statements). White women went for Romney and McCain as well; white women have always gone Republican, because race is what politics in America is about. Gender is not. The recent popular upsurge in feminism has achieved cultural acceptability by abandoning its political content, and these are the wages of that sin.

Actually, America isn’t ready for a black president either (which would be the other half of the reason this happened). Obama was obviously exceptional – his legendary charisma (and ideological chameleonicity) superseded the normal dynamics of the situation. While we’re reminiscing, let us recall that Obama’s 2008 campaign was run on 0% issues and 100% rhetorical razzmatazz. Trump actually did stumble into real issues on occasion; he had more substance than Obama. Which is not surprising, because . . .

  • Elections have always been reality shows

I read something somewhere calling Obama “the first celebrity president.” Come on. Reagan? Kennedy? Roosevelt? Hell, Washington himself was nominated solely on the basis that he was a war hero and people liked him (which itself was mostly because he was tall). The notion that this election had a notable absence of policy discussion, or that Trump introduced reality-show style feuding into politics, or that our discourse has degraded to the level of insults and implications, is entirely mistaken. All of these things have always been the case. Which is to say that . . .

  • Trump is not an anomaly

All the talk about Trump destroying “democratic norms” is completely backwards. What has happened is that Trump has demonstrated (entirely on accident) that those norms don’t actually exist. But of course this is how norms work in any case: they only exist to the extent that people convince themselves that they exist. Other than that, they don’t actually do anything.

Remember how het up the media was about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns? Probably not, because literally no one in the country cared. I’m dead serious about this: does anyone really think there is even a single person who voted against Trump because he didn’t release his tax returns? Given this, what’s the point? Why should any candidate bother releasing their tax returns, ever? How is the process anything other than an establishment-class circle jerk?

Understanding this compels some unfortunate conclusions. If Trump’s unusualness was entirely aesthetic, then there’s no “excuse” for why he won. His “abnormality” didn’t cost him the election, but it’s not why he won, either. He won on the merits. The people comparing Trump to Brexit were entirely correct: Brexit did not succeed because of lies, and Trump did not succeed because he’s a con artist. They both won because more people wanted them to, and the fact that this impulse has triumphed twice so far (and is generally growing in strength everywhere) forces us to reject the comforting notion that these things were flukes. This is the new wave of horror poised to sweep over the 21st century. Face it.

  • Democracy is a real thing and a real danger

All the people hyperventilating about the unprecedented threat posed by Trump to democracy seem to be forgetting that Trump was supported by ordinary morons and opposed by a shadowy cabal of hyper-educated, unaccountable elites. The Founding Fathers may have been a bunch of slavefucking lawyers, but at least they understood that democracy was a threat that needed to be contained and not a magical wish-granting unicorn princess. Every idiot who’s ever rhapsodized about the power of “the people” has now received what they were asking for.

(This is also why we’re double-fucked on global warming. People will never vote to lower their own standards of living in order to save the planet.)

  • Structure decides

There was an article somewhere by some political scientist talking about how structural factors such as which party holds the White House and how the economy is doing correctly predict the outcome of every modern presidential election, and how the factors for the current election predicted a Republican victory. I’m sure most such theories are just as wrong as everything else, but something along these lines is certainly the case. For example, it has almost always happened that a two-term president has been succeeded by someone from the other party, likely as a result of the fickle mushhead contingent wanting “change” or something (this is part of why the two-party system is a greater evil than either party). Trump is an agent of historical and material forces exactly as much as Clinton is a victim of them. They’re both puppets. Which, again, means that everything the media does every election is a complete waste of time. None of this shit about temperament or experience or gaffes or any of it matters at all.

This suggests a somewhat more optimistic interpretation of the results. During the primaries, Clinton was never polling well against any of the potential Republican candidates. We all know how much polls are worth now, but it’s conceivable that she would have lost to any Republican. Someone reasonable-seeming and non-alienating like Kasich could very well have flattened her. So the fact that the election was a virtual tie indicates that Trump actually underperformed expectations. He was such a bad candidate that he almost blew a gimme election. The only reason he won was that he was ultimately a typical Republican – or at least close enough for government work. (Not that there’s anything okay about a typical Republican being president).

This is also why the whole exhorting-people-to-vote ritual is a particularly obnoxious waste of everyone’s time. You will never move significant numbers through individual hectoring. If you want to move numbers that matter, you have to move the structure. For one thing, indirect voter suppression is a critical issue that has not been given its full due. Which leads us to the most depressing interpretation of the results: Trump won because of Shelby County v. Holder; in other words, he won because Jim Crow isn’t actually dead yet.

This dynamic also implies a strategy: given that “electability” has been revealed as an empty shibboleth, the Democratic Party would do better to run candidates who are as far to the left as possible. An extreme leftist, even one as insane and incompetent as Trump, could have won in 2008. Of course, no one who is in a position to implement this strategy cares; quite the contrary, the Democrats are always highly concerned to make sure that no one with scary ideas gets any significant amount of party support. This is among the many reasons why supporting Democrats does not help.

There, that’s it. That’s the situation. Decide what you’re going to do about it. Now.

Wisdom is wasted on the old

Something about the Brexit vote is still nagging at me. I’m honestly not sure why I care – well, aside from the fact that we’re probably watching the opening act for the next generation of racism. I’m not particularly well-informed as to the dynamics of the situation, and the actual consequences of it are likely to be fairly boring after the government jostles and slumps its way into a comfortable position. It’s easy enough to conclude that 52% of any population are uninformed idiots, but this feels like more than just a bad decision. Something about it feels wrong.

The most notable aspect of the voting demographics is the age gap. 73% of 18-to-24-year-olds voted Remain; 60% of those 65 or older voted Leave. The conventional wisdom is that people get more conservative as they get older, but that doesn’t apply here. The conservative choice was Remain; if old people are set in their ways and want to keep things the way they are, that’s how they should have voted. Leaving is precisely the sort of dramatic change that’s considered characteristic of naive young people who want to shake things up.

So what we’re actually looking at here is a values split, and the obvious interpretation is that old people are racist. This is statistically accurate, but it’s a fact that’s never really given its due. We frame racism as a matter of ignorance: racist people supposedly don’t know that there aren’t really major behavioral differences between people of different races. But this is exactly the sort of opinion that should be overcome by the wisdom of experience. The science isn’t difficult to understand, and the topic has been discussed to death; surely anyone who’s been alive for 60 damn years has had enough time to figure this out.

Furthermore, the longer you’ve been alive, the more opportunity you’ve had to be shaken out of your preconceptions by formative experiences. In America, anyone who is in the vicinity of 70 years old today was a young adult during the civil rights movement. As the story goes, this was when Martin Luther King, Jr. calmly and patiently explained to white America that they shouldn’t judge people based on their skin color, so the people who were just becoming politically aware at the time should have internalized this lesson very deeply. Indeed, seeing as today’s young people have not yet experienced a major anti-racist movement, they ought to be the uninformed ones; the demographic situation should be the exact opposite of what it actually is.

From what I understand, British history hasn’t followed the same pattern. Immigration has come up as a big issue only recently, so it seems that even old people have the excuse of inexperience. But then, the same is true of young people, so why the age gap? Again, shouldn’t the situation be the opposite? Shouldn’t young people be reacting naively to immediate events, while old people are able to fit things into a well-developed political framework? The gap, then, must be one of values: regardless of how well-informed anyone is, old people believe in racism and young people don’t (as much). But this is a deeply unfortunate conclusion; it can only mean that values are completely separate from knowledge and experience. If we can’t educate people out of racism, if values fundamentally don’t accord with the truth, then what hope do we have of ever getting this right – of ever getting anything right?

That story about the civil rights movement is indeed the bad kind of myth. What actually happened was that successful political organization resulted in laws and structural changes that made society function in a less racist manner, without changing most people’s minds about it. The result was that subsequent generations were raised under less racist conditions. For example, they were more likely to have childhood friends of different races, interracial relationships were not illegal, and increased financial and educational opportunities meant that adults ended up with more diverse peer groups. The effect was not that anyone’s mind was changed at the time, but rather that a new, less racist generation was created while previous generations stayed the same. The reason people in general are now “less racist” is simply that more racist people have died and less racist people have been born.

(Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying that no one ever changes their values based on experience, just that the effect is dramatically less significant than it’s commonly portrayed to be. Two people can have exactly the same experience and draw opposite moral conclusions from it. Also, I’m not claiming that young people aren’t racist, just that the age gap isn’t merely aesthetic, that it does have some amount of substance behind it.)

This, in fact, is the actual engine of progress: old people fail to indoctrinate the next generation with their ideals, and then they die. The great democratic drama where everyone comes to a rational consensus through reasoned debate is worse than a fantasy; it’s close to being a malicious lie. In the end, the only way to get rid of harmful ideals is to kill the people who believe in them. Right now we’re, uh, fortunate enough to have time taking care of this for us, but if the utopians ever live up to their bluster and do something about death, this would become an immediate issue. Even without resource consumption being a factor, there are certain sets of ideals which simply cannot coexist. We would not be able to avoid choosing who lives and who dies.

Actually . . . this issue isn’t particularly theoretical. There exist people right now who are enforcing ideals that prevent other people from living their lives. If they can be argued out of it, super. If not, well. There are times when moral behavior is not merely desirable, but imperative.

Even with that aside, though, there are still some unsettling political implications here. To be blunt, what the hell are we doing letting old people vote? I mean, it’s sort of a common joke that old people are big voters, but this isn’t just some wacky coincidence. Electoral results are being decided by the people least qualified to be deciding them. To be even blunter, old people aren’t going to get to live in the future, so why do they have any right to decide what it’s going to look like? Given that the Brexit vote was close and the actual implementation is going to be a multi-year bureaucratic process, it’s entirely possible that the vote was decided by people who won’t live to see any of its effects.

There’s a magnificent scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner where, after the boyfriend’s father tries to push him around by going on about how hard he worked and how much he sacrificed to raise him, the boyfriend finally snaps and informs his father that he doesn’t owe him shit, that everything he did for his son was merely the fulfillment of his basic responsibilities, and that he and his entire generation has the further responsibility to die and to let the next generation get on with their lives, with the “dead weight” of the past finally off their backs. (Yeah, I’m not doing this justice. Click the link.) While I don’t hold any particular antipathy towards previous generations, I was deeply struck by this scene, as it was the first time I’d encountered the idea that it is parents who owe their children deference, that part of the wisdom of age ought to be the wisdom to know when something is not your decision to make. If we’re talking about fixing democracy, this might, paradoxically, be a good place to start: don’t let people stick their noses into things that are none of their fucking business.

And yet, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Old people are supposed to have precisely this wisdom; they should be the ones telling us this stuff. America is on the low end, but pretty much every culture has at least some notion of respecting the accumulated lifetime knowledge and highly-developed judgment of the elderly. And yet our current model for old people is basically Grandpa Simpson piecing history together from sugar packets. So, like, what happened?

Presumably, the concept of the “elder” came about because old people used to actually know shit, and, when considering simpler forms of social arrangement than what we’re currently used to, this makes intuitive sense. People used to have to survive in smaller units under particular environmental conditions; people who had done so for a long time would naturally have better knowledge about what worked and what didn’t. But today, for those of us comfortable enough to spend our time writing speculative blog posts, survival has stopped being an issue, replaced by prosperity. And the way you become prosperous in a society like this is by finding a functional niche and filling it, by becoming an effective cog in the machine. Hence, the comfortably retired are those who have spent their lives avoiding moral problems and focusing on a single, narrowly-defined task, which is the exact opposite of the conditions required for the development of wisdom. When we talk about old people being “set in their ways,” then, we are talking not about a natural phenomenon but about a constructed dynamic. And we are talking not about a simple status quo preference, for conditions such as staying in the EU, but about traditional values, such as supporting racism.

I don’t know if there’s anything “to be done” about this, exactly, but I do think this means we need to keep our guard up. There’s a real threat here: the future must not be sacrificed to the past. This may be a bit melodramatic, but I really am reminded of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s a rather important story, since it asks something that is very close to being the only question that matters: if god commands you to kill your son, do you do it or not? That’s basically most of morality right there. The original story, though, pulls its punch, which is rather unbecoming for a story about the mystical profoundness of faith. The fact that Jehovah doesn’t actually want Isaac to die means there’s no moral conflict; the only problem is that Abraham guessed wrong about his god’s will. And even that doesn’t get the story anywhere, because to believe there was a real decision being made here, you’d have to believe that Abraham would be punished for “disobeying,” meaning he would be punished for making the choice that Jehovah agrees to be morally correct. So the story as it is is incoherent. Faith isn’t merely about obedience, it’s about loyalty to the truth that lies behind individual acts.

There are two possible ways to fix the story such that it actually makes a substantive moral statement. In one, Abraham disobeys Jehovah, saves Isaac, and is punished for his transgression. He bears the burden of his decision for the remainder of his life, but he believes without question that he did the right thing, that his god would never truly command a child sacrifice, that he acted in accordance with the true will of the divine. He dies in agony, unforgiven, with only the implicit comfort of having protected his family, of knowing in the deepest part of himself that, god or no, he did the right thing.

In the other, Abraham kills Isaac, Jehovah declares him to be truly faithful, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end.

Nature isn’t magic, it’s just a mystery to us

I went to see case/lang/veirs last week, basically just out of loyalty to one particular part of that equation (go on, guess). It was a solid show, especially for being the second time they’d ever performed. The differences in their vocal styles filled out the songs really well without feeling superfluous. Also someone threw a bra onto the stage. They surprised me by doing “Man,” which is a little harder than I thought they were going. The band really nailed it, though, and that song has some extra significance coming from a collaboration of women.

They also covered “People Have the Power,” which definitely has some extra significance re: recent events. It’s not like the best Patti Smith song or anything, but it has its merits. The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt like this whole understanding of progress being a matter of “the people” standing up for themselves is getting to be rather behind the times. What we’ve been seeing recently is actually the opposite: successful populist movements are the ones fucking everything up. The people really do have the power, and that’s the problem. Sure enough, I was awakened the next morning by a text message from my sister, informing me that a populist movement in Britain had voted in favor of racist nationalism.

The standard evasion here is that things like this happen when “uninformed” people are “mislead” by “demagogues,” which isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s pretty facile to pretend like this is a real explanation. It’s actually the bad kind of conspiracy theory: an explanation so totalizing that it doesn’t explain anything. All bad decisions are made by evil shadowy elites; all good decisions are made by virtuous ordinary people. This puts you in the anti-analytical and very convenient position where the things you support are the things the people really want, while people who vote for things you don’t want are “voting against their own interests.” The irony, of course, is that this ends up becoming a populist argument for elitism: the people can’t be trusted to make good decisions on their own, so they need the right kind of people as their leaders.

(Sanders fans have been fucking up pretty badly on this front by refusing to accept the fact that their candidate lost in a fair fight. I really don’t think anyone was “mislead” into thinking that Clinton was more liberal than Sanders was.)

The Brexit decision is a pretty clear demonstration of the problem. It’s an instance of the people throwing off shackles that were placed on them by the elites for the purpose of global economic management, but the actual motivation for it was a confused mix of biases and half-baked theories, and the only reason it was even at issue in the first place was because of politicking, resulting in an unnecessary decision that almost everyone agrees will ultimately be harmful if not catastrophic. I mean, it’s kind of obvious that people don’t generally know what they’re doing, but this isn’t a fucking Dilbert comic, it’s a real political problem. Almost everyone takes it as an article of faith that “the people” are the only valid source of moral justification, and I think we have to confront the fact that this probably isn’t true.

Pro-Brexit voters had a number of different motivations. The most obvious was racism via anti-immigrant sentiment, but there were also leftists who supported it as a blow against neoliberalism, and there were even people who didn’t actually understand that they were voting for a real-world action to take place. So the question is: why does this slight majority composed of conflicting and nonsensical motivations have any moral significance? What is the actual justification for the claim that society should do whatever 50.1% of the population thinks it should? There’s nothing magic about a majority. In America, amending the constitution requires 2/3rds support, because it’s “more serious” or whatever, but there’s nothing magical about that number either; it’s exactly as arbitrary as 50.1%. And everyone actually knows this: the filibuster is an American tradition that is respected because it is blatantly anti-democratic; it prevents an issue from being decided by a straight up-or-down vote. That is, it’s respected when it’s our side doing it. We’re fine with claiming moral authority when 50.1% of the population is on our side, and we’re just as comfortable claiming it when we’re the virtuous underdogs battling an ignorant majority.

Gay marriage was opposed by a majority of people until it wasn’t; the answer to the moral question didn’t change over that period of time. When the great state of California voted to ban gay marriage, it was widely regarded as a perversion of the democratic process. At the same time, polls showing majority support for gay marriage were leveraged as an argument in its favor. So, like, which is it? Do the people rule or not? Scalia’s buffoonish Obergefell dissent raised the objection that nine people who had followed one particular path of elite development were deciding the issue for the entire country. Obviously, this was hypocritical as fuck: Scalia wouldn’t have been whining about the tyrannical power of the court if it were on his side. But that’s just it: the only reason we got gay marriage is that the court happened to have the right composition at the right time. In fact, what happened was considerably worse than that. The actual direct cause of the Obergefell decision was that one fickle mushhead wanted to go down in history as having written a big important civil rights decision, and this is actually what everyone had expected all along. After learning about Brown v. Board in history class, we all assume that the Supreme Court will take care of civil rights issues for us, overruling the annoying prejudices of the unenlightened populace. But Scalia was inadvertently much more correct than he knew: court decisions are ultimately as arbitrary as anything else, and no one really cares. When the elites are on our side, they’re representing the will of the people; when they aren’t, they’re Machiavellian schemers.

(Extra credit pro tip: Brown is a terrible example of justice-via-judiciary, because it didn’t work. Schools are still segregated.)

The “people vs. elites” framework omits at least one important part of the scenario, which is expertise. Lumping rulers and experts together as “elites” is a significant analytical failure; there’s huge difference between people who happen to hold power and people who actually know what they’re doing. Unlike rulers, experts actually matter and are necessary. It’s not possible for anyone to know enough to make an informed decision on every issue. And something like Brexit is complicated enough that its consequences are not really understandable by ordinary people, so even in a “real” democracy, there’s no reason to expect that people would be able to figure it out. Of course, the real killer example here is global warming. The expert consensus is quite clear, and it is largely being ignored by the ruling class because it has inconvenient implications (i.e. capitalism sucks). But pawning this off as a problem of the “elites” is too easy, because the rest of us aren’t actually doing our job either. Even now, with the projections widely known and the effects beginning to be felt, people aren’t going to give up their cars and their lawns and their two-day shipping. We know for a fact that a majority of people just doing what seems right can literally destroy humanity. I shudder to imagine the results of a world referendum on global warming.

But simply putting the experts in charge, a theoretical arrangement which is commonly referred to as “meritocracy” or “technocracy,” is less of a solution than it is an evasion of the problem. Experts can, ideally, be trusted on knowledge, but not on values. In fact, the very process of attaining expertise accrues bias. This is most obvious in the case of economists. Expert economists are experts in the operation of the current economic system, capitalism, and are therefore necessarily only going to be interested in working within that system, making their abilities useless to anyone opposed to it for moral reasons. They can warn you about all the terrible economic consequences, but a vote against Brexit is still a vote in favor of neoliberalism, even if it is better than the alternative.

So the idea is supposed to be that these problems are balanced out by a separation of roles. The people express their values, which are then administered by the rulers, with the experts informing them as to the best way to get it done. But all three of these roles are based on fallacies. The part that everyone knows is that rulers are not disinterested administrators, they’re rulers; their goal is to increase their own power; their relationship to the people is purely rhetorical. The technocrats’ blind spot is that fact that expert knowledge is not neutral; all knowledge is contingent on ideology. Expert recommendations are not simply pearls of wisdom to be taken or left; they are formed with embedded assumptions and motivations. And finally, the real problem: “the people” aren’t any better at morality than any other idealized grouping. Racism is currently undergoing a renaissance as a populist phenomenon that the elites are actually trying to resist. Of course, the elites aren’t actually on the right side here; they’re still trying to maintain white supremacy. But their current goal is to promote inclusiveness as a bulwark against systemic change, and that’s a damn sight better than mass deportations and refugee crises.

Back at the show, they also did “Margaret vs. Pauline,” which k.d. lang introduced as the song that made her fall in love with Neko Case. Which is understandable; it’s a probing and deeply sympathetic piece of work. It’s a song about privilege: about the invisible lines that divide the lives of otherwise similar people. Two girls ride the Blue Line and walk down the same street, but one of them leaves her sweater on the bus while the other loses three fingers at the cannery. But it’s important to avoid the trap of romanticizing oppression; losing those fingers does not impart any particular political wisdom. Those invisible lines are as arbitrary as they are vicious; the horror is not simply that some people are fated to live under the gun, but that their suffering is meaningless. The real conclusion, then, is that nobody has a privileged epistemic position on anything; each person is merely an idiosyncratic mess of random experiences and pointless prejudices; there is no such thing as “the people.” Obviously, the phrase is primarily a rhetorical device, but if this is true in a substantive sense, then popular consensus is a phantom, and the concept of democracy loses its meaning. Putting things to a popular vote does not result in a consensus opinion, it results in an arbitrary decision chaotically determined by a writhing mass of misinformation and prejudices. It’s literally worse than nothing.

I may be a conceited motherfucker, but I’m not quite arrogant enough to pretend like I have a real answer here. But there’s a line from “People Have the Power” that struck me: the idea that remaking society involves “redeeming the work of fools.” This conception of the ruling class as “fools” cuts against the usual narrative, whereby rulers are hypercompetent master-planners whose problem is that they’re “corrupt.” In fact, rulers are mostly just a particular type of nerd, ambitious but otherwise boring, and for the most part they really do think they’re making the world a better place. The catch is that being embedded in systems of power has a severe distorting effect; what looks good from the inside tends to look pretty fucked up from anywhere else. Their foolishness lies in their inability to understand their own perspectives as limited. Meanwhile, the myth of “the people” is that true goodness lies in the decency of reg’lar folk with no particular hopes or dreams. In fact, the opposite is true: ignorance and myopia are not conducive towards morality; the people we respect from history are the ones who went against the common sentiments of their times.

I really hate to say this, but rich fucks are people, too. They aren’t actually a different species; they are vicious lizards, but so are the rest of us. The structures of oppression were not created by anything outside of humanity; we did it all by ourselves. They’re in our blood. Specifically, oppression is naturally occurring, it’s how people organize themselves by default. Most people will vote in favor of a society that doesn’t work for most people. Fixing this is not as easy as getting rid of the bad influences and going back to the good old days when everything was fine. There were never any good old days; justice is an undiscovered country. A just society will be something new, something that we have to invent, and then build, using the tools we have available right now.

Which brings us to the corresponding ideal of “redemption.” Despite its many, many crimes, our society has created a lot of things which are important to people. Things like amphitheaters where people can see music they care about and transportation systems that can take them there. It’s no good to aim for some kind of ideal revolution while ignoring what makes the world worthwhile in the first place. This is addressed in a couple of the new case/lang/veirs songs. “Down” points out that there’s beauty even in something as banal as driving down the highway. Indeed, there has to be: if the basic experience of day-to-day existence isn’t worth it, then nothing is worth anything; ideals can only exist as instantiated in mundane reality. But this does not license us to ignore the larger issues. “I Want To Be Here” addresses the bifurcation between the things we care about and the practical operation of society, asserting that the grind cannot quell the flame: “surely they can’t ruin everything.” This is true in general, but not in specifics: economics really does kill people; every day is the end of the world for someone. “Being here” may be what we’re truly aiming for, but if just being here were enough, we wouldn’t have to fight.

So the things we care about have to be preserved, but more than that, they have to be redeemed. A concert stage can also be used to distract people, to placate with cheap escapism, or to sell shit, and we really shouldn’t be allowing any of that to happen. But it’s not as easy as just doing the right thing, because we’re in a situation where things have already been organized incorrectly. The right motivations acting within the wrong structure can be just as harmful as explicit evil. We have to maintain the content of society while changing the structure to point in the direction of right things rather than wrong things.

Again, you tell me how this is actually going to work. There shouldn’t be anything impossible about synthesizing expertise and populism while eliminating the ruling class, but relying on “the people” isn’t going to get us there.

Mr. Fix-it

Anyone who tells you that an institution or social system is “broken” and that they have a plan to “fix” it is selling you a bridge. The terms “broken” and “fixed” imply a function, so someone who wants you to support their “fix” is asking you to do what’s good for them, without actually telling you what that is. The whole point of politics, in particular, is to reconcile the fact that people want different things, so anyone who says they want to “fix” the government without telling you what they want to fix it for is eliding the entire conversation.

In this interview, Lawrence Lessig makes the common claim that “the government is broken.” Lessig, unlike most people who make these sorts of claims, actually does get into the details of what he’s referring to: the fact that the government’s actions accord with the desires of rich fucks rather than the desires of the general population. He calls out three specific issues as causes: politicians being owned by billionaires via campaign funding, gerrymandering, and the fact that lots of people don’t have a functional right to vote. These are all obviously things that prevent the will of the people from being reflected in the actions of the government.

Lessig is currently running for president for the sole purpose of passing one bill which will supposedly “fix” these issues. What’s odd about this is that, by his own analysis, his plan is impossible. Lessig describes the importance of his bill as follows:

“Look, you want health care reform? You’re not gonna get health care reform until we deal with this issue. You want to deal with the problem of living wage, minimum wage? You’re not gonna get that dealt with until you deal with this issue.”

This is correct, and the reason it’s correct is that which bills get passed is determined by what rick fucks want. Rich fucks make money off of privatized health insurance, so we’re not getting universal heath care. Rich fucks don’t want to pay their workers, so we’re not getting a minimum wage increase. Given this, the critical contradiction is Lessig’s platform is obvious: rich fucks want to be able to control the government through money, so we’re not getting any of Lessig’s proposed reforms.

For some reason, the interviewer doesn’t actually ask how Lessig expects to get his bill passed, but Lessig does provide a sort of half-explanation:

“There’s a tradition the president gets a signature legislation quickly. Obama got stimulus in three weeks. There’s the standard idea of the hundred days.”

So basically he thinks that Congress is just going to do him a favor out of respect for the fact that he got elected. A stimulus is actually the worst possible example to use here, because it’s the kind of thing that rich fucks actually need to have happen for functional reasons. While the current ideological position of the Republican party obligates them to make a show of opposing things like this, they’re things that actually need to get done in order for the money to keep flowing, so they get done. Also, as a comment to the interview points out, Lessig is factually wrong: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 passed with Yea votes from three Republican senators and zero Republican representatives. This was obviously because Obama, but the point is that Congress has no obligation to be nice to the president.

More importantly, though, if the general principle is that only rich-fuck-approved bills can get passed, why on Earth would rich fucks approve a bill that specifically removes their power to determine which bills get passed? Obviously, they wouldn’t, so the question then becomes: why can’t Lessig figure this out? One possible explanation is that Lessig’s campaign is just a stunt for the purpose of getting the issue out there, but this doesn’t appear to be the case. That is, I’m sure he’s aware that he’s not going to win, but his plan appears to be serious. If it weren’t, there would be no reason for him to muddy the waters by promising to resign after passing his bill. That just raises a bunch of questions that distract from what he’s trying to say. The only reason for him to propose something like that is that he actually thinks it’ll work.

Given that Lessig has a handle on the basic dynamics, the only explanation for his blind spot is that he doesn’t want to draw the unavoidable conclusions of his own analysis. This isn’t just a mistake; the specific reason Lessig is doing what he’s doing is that he does want to believe that the problems he’s diagnosed are things that can be “fixed,” particularly if that fix happens to involve a smart man from Harvard implementing his big idea.

The other thing about the “broken/fixed” paradigm is that calling something “broken” implies that it used to work. Lessig is actually explicit about this:

“Well, 20 years ago exactly, Newt Gingrich became speaker, the first time Republicans took control of the House in 40 years. So every two years, Congress is up for grabs.”

Darn that Newt Gingrich! Seriously, think about what Lessig is claiming here: when he says that the government has been rich-fuck-controlled for the past 20 years, he’s saying that, before 20 years ago, this wasn’t the case. Thus, it’s clear that what Lessig means by “fixed” is merely a return to the years of, for example, Reagan’s presidency, a time when the voice of the people was truly being heard.

America was, of course, founded on the idea that the government ought to be controlled by rich fucks. Not only was that vast majority of the population excluded from voting, but the American system of government was designed precisely to keep the rabble as far away from the actual levers of power as possible. A lot of people get confused about this because of our whole silly middle-school mythology about how the American Revolution was all about common people not wanting to be ruled by a king or whatever, so to be clear: the Revolution was, like most major changes in government, an instance of the second highest class in society rebelling against the highest. It was about a new class of rich fucks (merchants, lawyers, plantation owners) seizing power from the old class of rich fucks (royals), on the basis that the old class was no longer needed and the new class wanted their fucking money (hence “no taxation without representation”).

So, given the historical continuity of rich fucks controlling everything (and by “historical continuity” I mean literally every civilization in history), what is the meaning of recent developments such as Citizens United? Do events such as these represent victories for the ruling class that give them even more power to control society than they already had? The answer may very well be “yes,” but I submit that this is the wrong way to understand the issue. What these events represent is the changing form of rich fuck dominance as a response to changing material conditions.

Basically, the problem rich fucks have right now is that because of all that civil rights nonsense that happened there are actually formal mechanisms in place by which the general populace can (theoretically) advance their own preferences over those of rich fucks. All of the things Lessig calls out are ways of dealing with this problem: Super PACs remove the limit on how much money can matter in an election, gerrymandering makes large numbers of votes meaningless, and obviously indirect disenfranchisement does the same thing. But while getting rid of these things would be nice, it ultimately wouldn’t matter. We’re talking about people who have enough money to do literally whatever they want regardless of the circumstances; things like Super PACs are just the tools they happen to be using at the moment. If this stuff gets outlawed, they’ll come up with something else, and they’ll get it implemented because they have the money to make it happen. When you have the kind of money that we’re talking about here, you don’t just sit on your hands and wait for the government to tell you what you’re allowed to buy with it. You use your money to make the government buyable, and then you buy it. The fundamental problem is that wealth is incompatible with justice.

When Lessig says that democracy is “broken,” he’s assuming that the government is trying to reflect the will of the people, but failing, resulting in things like super PACs and gerrymandering. But in fact, these things are precisely examples of the government working. Given that these things were implemented in the first place, they’re obviously things that the ruling class wanted. The people in power are by definition the ones who could change things like this if they actually wanted to; since they aren’t doing so, it’s obvious that they don’t want to.

Thus, the actual cause of Lessig’s blind spot is that, not only does he want to believe that the situation is “fixable” though “reforms,” but on a more fundamental level, he wants to believe that the American system is basically just and that the swathes of obvious injustice that we all slog through daily are merely the ways in which the system is “broken.” But what’s actually scary about the government isn’t the fact that it’s broken, it’s the fact that it is working as intended.