Sunday, December 19, 2010


With the repeal of DADT, gay and lesbian people can now proudly and openly murder civilians along with the rest of our armed forces. Equality and civil rights!

However, since the DREAM act was defeated, illegal brown people can not become citizens through their military service. They have to be tracked down and deported as soon as they're done shooting other brown people. But the long arc of the sniper's bullet bends towards justice, and we can all hope that soon everyone who serves in our imperial legions will gain full citizenship.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sanctimonious purists

Ha! If anyone gives me trouble for leaving the Democratic Party for some poorly defined variety of anarchism, I'll just call them a sanctimonious purist. After all, their own party leader does.

How bad off are progressives in the U.S. right now? I'll go through the main paths for the immediate political future, assuming no catastrophe:

1. Obama loses in 2012.

In this case, it will all be progressives' fault, because they didn't support him enough. The left wing of the party will be blamed for everything the Republicans do for the next four years.

2. Obama wins in 2012.

In this case, he'll have demonstrated that he can insult his base and it doesn't matter because he doesn't need their help. No one will ever bother listening to progressives again.

3. Obama is primaried from the left in 2012 and wins the primary.

In this case, he'll actively bear a grudge against progressives. He's already shown that he's a lot more angry at them than at the GOP. Is he the type to let his personal vanity affect politics? Sure -- he just did.

The left is then stigmatized as a group of losers who weakened the party by splitting it, after which go to 1. or 2. above.

4. Obama is primaried from the left in 2012 and loses the primary.

This is the best outcome for progressives, certainly, but it's almost certainly not going to happen. If it does, then the new candidate wins or loses the general election. If the new candidate to the left loses, 1. above gets especially bad. If he or she wins, well, again that's the best possible outcome, but seems very unlikely. And in that case, assuming that there is still significant centrist support for Obama -- he's still a popular President -- there really will be a split in the party.

Wow am I glad that I bailed before this happened.

Monday, December 6, 2010

You can't leak out a social relationship

Of the recent flood of Wikileaks articles, this one at 3 quarks daily by Robert P. Baird is like catnip to me for its references to langpo (did my three readers know that I think of myself as a poet? probably). But at any rate, it sets out quite well three possible theories of what Wikileaks could be doing:

1. "the blend of technological triumphalism and anarcho-libertarian utopianism that takes 'information wants to be free' as its gospel"

2. "The traditional argument for transparency is that more information will allow a populace to better influence its government."

3. "What Assange asks of leaked information is that it supply a third-order public good: he wants it to demonstrate that secrets cannot be securely held, and he wants it to do this so that the currency of all secrets will be debased. He wants governments-cum-conspiracies to be rendered paranoid by the leaks and therefore be left with little energy to pursue its externally focused aims."

I think I've criticized the first of these two sufficiently already. For the first, I'll just note that Wikileaks has a copy of the hacked CRU Emails. They weren't the ones to release them, as far as I know, so it hardly matters -- but still, when people go on about the benefits of techno-libertopia, I didn't think that they had in mind as one of those benefits that right-wing politicians would generate a storm of lying propaganda whenever a climate scientist used the word "trick" in an Email to another one. Naturally, people who actually have to fight against corporate propaganda in that area take a dim view of this kind of triumphialism. For more, see The Limits of Techno-Politics post here. The release of information is, by itself, apolitical, and doesn't make political content until someone uses it for something.

For the second, it should be obvious to everyone now that information is not power. Everyone knew that e.g. the justification for the Iraq War was a sack of lies. No one could do anything about it. Those levers of democratic power have long since been broken, if they ever existed. This article, for instance, takes Wikileaks to task for interfering with within-the-system public advocacy (before it, amusingly, becomes a press release about FAS's accomplishments), but what has that advocacy really accomplished? It talks about stockpile secrecy, for instance. All right, the size of the American stockpile of nuclear weapons has moved from open secret to acknowledged fact. Does that bring us any closer to getting rid of any of those weapons? No.

But I don't know if I've addressed the third. This is really the theory under which what Wikileaks is doing makes the most sense. As Baird writes: "If this sounds like sabotage, well, that’s sort of the point." Josh Marshall, in a post that reminds me what an establishment reporter he's becoming, writes "this seems more like an attack on the US government itself than an effort to inform American citizens about what their government is doing on their behalf."

At first glance, this seems like a common form of radical activism: "things must first get worse before they can get better." Everyone knows the problems with that: things get worse and stay worse. Or they get much worse than anyone anticipated. Making the American government even more paranoid than it is may not be a good idea. That would be the first line of criticism if you thought that this was likely to be effective in the form proposed.

But will it be effective as sabotage? I don't think so. I don't think that the important secrets of the government really were in the system that the leaked cables came from, which 3 million people reportedly had access to. But more importantly, I don't think that contemporary systems of power really rely on secrecy in any decisive way. Leaks are part of the ecosystem, and often appear as a tactic in attempts to embarrass people within the hierarchy. But no leak has the power to change policy. Power is held through arrangements of financial and military power, not through conspiracy. Sure, people find it comfortable to buy a media apparatus to put some glitter over the bare workings of the machine. But the hallmark of politics in our time is the non-denied truth. Did the last President of the U.S. openly have people tortured? Yeah, sure. He says so in his book. What are you going to do about it?

The title of this post is taken from "You can't blow up a social relationship", a somewhat well-known anarchist tract. In that sense, it's about my belief that it's futile to try this kind of informational sabotage. The government of the U.S. depends on people continuing their habitual social relationships, not on beliefs that can be changed by the revelation of the contents of diplomatic cables. And the government does not depend on protected channels of conspiratorial information in order to achieve competence at reacting to circumstances. It's quite clearly incompetent and is bungling every challenge of the contemporary era already. We will be out of Afghanistan not because our government will conspiratorially decide when that would be best, but because we will be driven out as the rest of our empire implodes.

Does it matter that I think that Wikileaks will be unsuccessful at this form of sabotage? No, not really. There are many recent articles criticizing Wikileaks for being newcomers, amateurs, for not knowing what they are doing. For instance, Greenwald here has a dialogue with a critic of Wikileaks, and Greenwald's defense basically agrees with the charge of amateurism but involves saying that Wikileaks is getting better at redacting the names of informers from its released documents and so on.

Well, of course the people who do Wikileaks don't know what they are doing. No one knows what they're doing! Some people know how to act within the expectations of the system, that is all. And they confuse this with knowing what they are doing. I don't think it's important that Wikileaks may be acting under what I think is an incorrect premise. They are still taking nonviolent action in something that might well turn out to be a right direction. It's better than doing nothing.

Wikileaks is, at least, helping to demolish the more important myth, the myth of American government in general. Look at all of the media and political gasbags calling for Assange to be arrested, killed, jailed for treason, or whatever other violent and stupid fantasy occupies their heads. No one can possibly justify that within the framework that American politics runs on in theory. It's tribal politics. Once people get over their Two Minute Hate, one more little bit of the facade of American exceptionalism will have fallen and shattered. And that's all to the good.

Edited to add: this event around Wikileaks is also revealing the hollowness of the capitalist Internet as enabler of change. Every familiar large company for Internet transactions -- Amazon, Paypal/Ebay, Visa, Mastercard -- has frozen or banned Wikileaks.

Also, oh please:

WikiLeaks coined a new type of journalism: scientific journalism.

If Assange wasn't currently imprisoned without bail on some trumped-up charge, this would be a "get over yourself" moment. But he is, so he can bloviate about scientific journalism if he likes. No one else can though.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Is Wikileaks an embarrassment for the U.S. government and nothing more? Well...

Look at this article, for example. It uncritically lists two of the things we've learned from the Wikileaks release of diplomatic cables as "North Korea supplied Iran with long-range missiles" and "Iran used the auspices of the Red Crescent to smuggle spies and weapons into war zones." True, the text of the article uses more accurate "the U.S. government believes that" language. But that subtlety appears to have slipped the minds of many of the commenters, who are now musing that here is new information that they didn't know.

If only Wikileaks had been around before the Iraq War. Then it could have been leaked that the U.S. government believed that Iraq was stockpiling biological weapons, and funding the 9/11 terrorists. And it would have been a leak, something that they didn't want people to know -- so of course it's correct, right?

Lest people think that I'm positing some conspiracy theory, I'm not. But diplomats and other spies routinely write back things that they confidently believe that are in fact not true. Diplomats and other spies who want to rise through the ranks also develop a talent for writing back things that they know that the politicians in charge want to hear. These leaks are pretty much worthless from the point of view of determining whether the events in question actually took place.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Doctorow's Little Brother

Shorter Little Brother: Whatever you do, don't torture the white kid.

This is a deeply irksome YA book by Cory Doctorow -- irksome in the sense that it's one of those books where the author sees perfectly well what he's writing and then writes it anyway. Markus is a 17 year old white kid. The friends who we see him interacting with are all properly multicultural in various ways, but he's their leader. Marcus engages in some adolescent rebelliousness around a Department of Homeland Security squad that's been amped up by a nearby major terrorist attack and Marcus gets put through all of the by now familiar to us minor tortures: stress positions, isolation, threats that he will be disappeared, etc. Marcus then is released and swears that he'll get the DHS, especially since they disappeared one of his friends. Marcus ends up in "Gitmo-by-the-Bay" -- this happens in San Francisco -- but just as he's being waterboarded, local cops informed by a muckraking reporter burst in, arrest the DHS agents, and save him. Then the DHS is effectively kicked out of California due to the public scandal of local teens disappearing into the gulag.

They had me chained to five other prisoners, all of whom had been in for a lot longer than me. One only spoke Arabic -- he was an old man, and he trembled. The others were all young. I was the only white one. Once we had been gathered on the deck of the ferry, I saw that nearly everyone on Treasure Island had been one shade of brown or another. (pg. 352)

Let's consider that for a moment. Everyone immediately calls the prison on Treasure Island Gitmo by the Bay. Why? Because they are all familiar with the real Gitmo, of course. The book is set is a post-9/11 imaginary America that is supposed to be ours. Was Gitmo a scandal for these people in the book? No, no more than Gitmo has been a scandal in real life. I mean, it's been a scandal, but it's still holding prisoners. No one bothered to do anything about it, really. So why was Marcus' story so scandalous?

Well, because he's a local teenager. Teenagers were, of course, routinely tortured by our forces in Iraq, but he's a local kid. Local kids in California are routinely sent to prison on minor drug charges, or shipped off to somewhere if they are illegal and brown, but hey -- this is a middle-class, white teenager. We aren't supposed to do bad things to them. The reaction of the people in the book makes sense if you tacitly assume that people in California couldn't care less about torture as something happening to Others, but do care if it's a kid who looks like one of the kids of the important people.

That seems fairly realistic, actually. Good for Doctorow, for writing a grittily truthful, unpleasant book -- but wait. It's not gritty, or truthful, or unpleasant other than a few well-done torture scenes. No one really confronts this at all, not authorially and not within the world of the book. Marcus is just the natural leader of his group of non-white friends, most of whom spent significant parts of their screen time embarrassing him by telling him how awesome he is, and when his captivity and that of his white friend who got taken at the start of the book is discovered and publicized, it's just instant scandal and DHS stopped and that's a wrap.

Why do I find this irksome? Doctorow is a competent writer. His heart is clearly in the right place. I find it irksome for the same basic cluelessness that's in too much of techno-libertarian agitprop. Because that's a large part of this book: bits about crypto, and Linux, and trust networks, and all the rest. And faith that if the truth comes out, it will mean something. Will it?

What really happens in this book is that the security forces made the mistake of victimizing a child of privilege. All the rest of the book could have pretty much been short-cut if Marcus had told his parents about what happened to him when he got home, they'd told the reporter they contacted, and on from there. But instead we get lots of bits about hacking game machines, as if that would have made a difference if Marcus had instead been his Latino friend.

What's the current real-life equivalent to this book? Let's take Wikileaks as an example. Of course I support Wikileaks. They're doing good things. Historians will have a much better picture of what happened in our era because of the material they archived. But have their revelations changed anything? No. People in America really already knew that our armed forces murdered civilians in Iraq with impunity. They didn't care, and they still don't care. No anonymizer or encoding scheme or clever hack is going to get them to care. No revelation of the truth is going to matter to people who already know the truth. Evasion of our security systems will not let you evade what's in people's hearts.

Let's leave Marcus' whiteness aside for the moment. Would people really care about Gitmo by the Bay? The families of the people imprisoned would, of course. Would anyone else? Our society already has little Gitmos all over. It's quite normal for people to suddenly be sent to prison. The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, and the highest documented prison population in the world. Yes, this is a method of controlling the underclass, but sometimes a middle-class white kid has to be put away as an example. I think that Gitmo-by-the-Bay might have ended up as just as much of a nonscandal as Gitmo has been, really. Could it happen that it's a politics-changing scandal as presented in the book? Sure. But it wouldn't happen so overwhelmingly, so easily. The lesson of the Bush years, and now the Obama years, is that the truth will not set you free.

So this a book with its heart in the right place, and it's also thoroughly, although unintentionally, dishonest, or at least misleading. Irksome.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Legality theater

"Security theater" has become a more and more popular phrase, especially in connection with airport security -- measures visibly taken to make people feel secure, not because doing them actually makes people more secure.

I should resist too much blogging that is simply re-citing Greenwald, but we just had an example of legality theater. An accused terrorist was put on trial in a civilian court amid much administrative self-congratulation. To quote Greenwald:

Most news accounts are emphasizing that trying Ghailani in a civilian court was intended by the Obama DOJ to be a "showcase" for how effective trials can be in punishing Terrorists. That's a commendable goal, and Holder's decision to try Ghailani in a real court should be defended by anyone who believes in the rule of law and the Constitution. But given these realities, this was more "show trial" than "showcase" since the Government would simply have imprisoned him, likely forever, even if he had been acquitted on all counts.

Yes, the Obama administration claims "post-acquittal detention power", which means that this person was going to be sent to jail indefinitely no matter what. The trial was meaningless.

Or was it? Here's where I disagree with Greenwald: the goal of showcasing how effective show trials can be is not commendable. The trial did have a purpose: to convince the public that we still live under rule of law when we do not. It was legality theater, the replacement of actual rule of law with a formal show intended to represent it.

That is the sorry pass that advocates of Constitutional protections have been brought to. "Please have the show trial, because showing the brutal reality would let the dream of justice die." Some dreams are better off disposed of. Or rather, when the reality behind them is dead, they begin to stink.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Netroots memory hole

"Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, founder of the influential Daily Kos blog, said the netroots played a major role in the special election victories of Reps. Ben Chandler (D-Ky.) and Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.) in 2004 and were also prominent (and early) backers of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) during his 2004 campaign." -- Crying Foul, Netroots Note Some Big Wins, March 30, 2006

"I went through and compared his predicted Democratic losses to the membership of the Blue Dogs, and got the following list: [...] Herseth-Sandlin [...] If the worst-case scenario comes to happen, we can enjoy this silver lining -- the brunt of the losses will be felt by the very same people who helped obstruct the Democratic agenda, who fought middle class tax cuts and the Public Option, and who fueled the "Dems are divided" narrative. We'll get rid of the hypcorites who, like their Republican BFF's, scream about "fiscal responsibility" while fighting desperately to cut taxes on the wealthiest." --Dem Blue Dogs obstructionists set to bear brunt of losses, October 28, 2010

I have a good deal of respect for what the netroots tried to do. They were really the only sign of life in the Democratic Party for some time.

But I haven't seen any explanation from Kos or any other prominent netrooter of why they should be happy to get rid of the same people that the netroots struggled to elect only one cycle earlier. Or, rather, I can understand why people would be happy to get rid of Blue Dogs -- I can't understand how that also means that in the next cycle people should go out and again try to elect "more and better Democrats", as the saying is. The netroots make a point of their loyalty to the Democratic Party. This is a good thing, in the U.S., since U.S. electoral rules mean that really only two parties can exist. But the Democratic Party is not loyal to them. How many cycles can this continue -- jubilantly electing Democrats in places where there hadn't been Democrats before, and then finding out that they are actually harmful?

I don't think the Herseth-in-2004 and Herseth-in-2010 kinds of comparisons can stay in the memory hole forever. I don't expect what worked for the netroots before to really work again. I expect that they'll start to focus more and more on primaries. If they're successful, they'll be just as successful as the Tea Parties have been for the GOP -- in other words, a net loss of seats. Places like North Dakota will never elect a Democrat who is better than the Blue Dogs.

This problem could have been finessed with old-fashioned party loyalty, enforced from the top. It can't be done from the bottom. Obama and the Democrats generally really screwed over a lot of their supporters, but the netroots, I think that they've done a real job on.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why I'm no longer a liberal

I was born in 1964. Therefore, my first political memories are of the aftermath of Nixon. By the time I got to vote, the U.S. was into the Reagan years. Since then it's been what I understood at the time as a long period of reaction. I didn't feel betrayed by Clinton, as many on the left did: it was too clear that he really was restricted in what he could do.

What was the political ideal of liberals in those years? Well, obviously there were many different ideas. But I don't think that many people really were waiting for a charismatic leader. At least in the circles in which I moved, it was a combination of community organizing and technocracy. One day the dam of reaction would break, and we'd be able to implement policies that actually made people's lives better. Then they'd see that which politics they supported really did make a difference.

That dam broke with Obama's election. Oh, it wasn't because of anything we did, or anything he did, it was because Bush screwed up so badly. Still, we had the Presidency and both houses of Congress. Yes, Obama is really a centrist, not a liberal, but he was as liberal as we were ever likely to get.

That's the last I want to mention Obama in this post, because what happened next really, I think, wasn't just his individual failure. What did we get? Well, let's just look at one really important fact. We got coverups of and immunity for torture. We got, in fact, continuing torture of people in the custody of the state, justified with the full Bush era legal justifications that amounted to anything that the President said was legal, was legal.

Don't believe me? Try here. It's the Kafkaesque news of torture victims who could not pursue torturers in court, because the fact that they had been tortured was a state secret, because it made the U.S. look bad. Or want more on Executive power more generally? Try this, about our official assassination program.

Why did this happen? Let me dismiss a few of the arguments I've heard. It wasn't because of GOP pressure. The GOP was already calling the President a traitor and soft on terror and, for that matter, a Kenyan, so they had already reached maximum rhetorical saturation and clearly weren't going to back down no matter what he did. It wasn't because of Congress. These were executive decisions, ratified by our judiciary. It certainly wasn't because no one understood that the issues were important.

And it wasn't really an individual failure either, I think. It was too widely supported. It was one of those moments that reveal the truth about political systems, via an inexplicable failure for something to occur. Somehow, despite everyone in power saying that they were against torture, we got torture. This is one of the moments when you have to realize that the system is running into a constraint that people don't want to talk about but that nevertheless exists.

America needs to torture people. Our system literally can not function without it. There can be no crackdown on it by elites, because our security apparatus is thoroughly implicated in it, our military is thoroughly implicated in it, and, to tell the truth, a near majority of ordinary people really want other people to be tortured. It's been a method of social control in America right from the start, with slavery, and continued through Indian genocides, lynchings, the Philippines, the Cold War, and the way we treat criminals in our prisons. Reagan had people tortured, mostly in Central America, so did Bush I, so did Clinton (the beginning of "renditions", if I remember rightly). Bush II made it official policy. Obama -- I suppose that I have to mention him again after all -- continued and reinforced it as official policy, making it thoroughly bipartisan.

What's been the liberal response to this? Well, take it away, Brad Delong:

Social Studies 50th Anniversary Symposium: Is There Hope for the Rule of Law in America?

That was the question asked by Denver University Professor Alan Gilbert during the morning panel.

Here is the answer I gave, as best as I can reconstruct it:

The question is: "Is there hope for the rule of law in America?" My answer is: No.


By 2001 with a Republican as president John Yoo had reversed field 180 degrees. He was making a very different set of false claims about what the law of America had been. He was then claiming that the president's commander-in-chief powers contained within them prerogative powers to torture and kill outside of legal procedure that would have astonished George III Hanover, and even exceeded those of William I Conqueror. When William I Conqueror tortured or killed, he agreed owed his barons at least an after-the-fact accounting of why if not any before-the-fact procedural checks.

Backed by John Yoo and company, George W. Bush claimed that he did not owe even an after-the-fact accounting. And Barack Obama holds to the same line.

So I see no hope.

Now, one of DeLong's often repeated phrases is "The Cossacks work for the Czar", meaning that you can't blame political decisions on underlings. Given that, I don't see why anyone should care about Yoo. He's been a convenience for two administrations, that's all. If not him, someone else would have been found. But pass on. Is there hope for the rule of law? No. That's the opinion of a middle-aged, middle class, respectable economics professor.

So, why liberalism? Everyone knows that it's failed. But they hold to it ... why? Without rule of law, really, why bother?

I don't think that there's anything to be gained by holding on to liberalism after it's failed in such a way that reveals that it never could have succeeded. I don't see anything in our remnant of a Constitutional order that is worth defending. I'm not going to spend the rest of my life working for liberal ideals that are fruitless.

Has conservatism won, then? No, of course not. No variant of conservatism is going to get anything that conservatives want. Not a smaller government, not the establishment of religion, not the suppression of non-white people. All of that is impossible for various economic and demographic reasons. Effectively, what happened is that everyone in my generation failed, all of us together. The only people who won were a tiny sliver of the super-rich -- but although they certainly have a political ideology that supports them, they don't have a political philosophy as such. Only an economic interest, one that their own success is going to subvert.

Leftism lost, for a variety of reasons, in the generations before.

What's left? Personally, I suspect that I'm going to end up as some variety of anarchist. I see no point in going into what exact type: politics is meaningless for me unless it involves practice, and I don't know of any group of anarchists I can work with locally, yet. Of course anarchism is quixotic. It has no chance, and even if it did succeed in America, the immediate effect would be to let a thousand death squads bloom. No matter. My being a liberal quite clearly had no practical effect either. The actual events are at this point turned over to the next generation. If I'm not going to affect them, I might as well not bother to be respectable, or pretend to believe in something that I no longer believe in. I always had an attraction to a form of (oh, all right) anarcho-socialism, but I figured that if it happened, it was probably going to happen a long time from now, after productivity had gone so high that it was really too much trouble to exclude people from the necessities of life. Better to be a liberal now, I had thought, and be involved in politics that had a chance of making some difference in the short term. But it doesn't have that chance to make any difference.

It's annoying, becoming a 46-year-old anarchist. I could deal with it better if I'd been one from my youth, but now, face it, it's both silly and annoying, having to start over with basic political books... I mean, these are the days in which I'm supposed to comfortably live off the seed corn I'd planted and settle into being a pillar of the community.

So much for that.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Don't vote

I suppose that I have to get this in before the election, along with all the Vote posts on other blogs.

Don't vote. I'm not going to. Anyone who says that the "enthusiasm gap" affects the apolitical unemployed, and not the activist base, is wrong by at least one person. Nor will my family be donating our usual couple of hundred dollars per election cycle (unless my wife really wanted to, of course, and as of this writing she doesn't).

The people who say that in order to be serious about liberal or progressive politics, you have to suck it up and support the party at this point, are exactly wrong. If Obama and the rest of the Democrats don't feel any fear that they're losing people on the left, they will give away even more after this election. The bogeyman of the awful scary Tea Party people -- supposedly worse than all the other right wing nut jobs who have been legislators throughout my lifetime -- coming to power doesn't work. If Obama doesn't want to veto them, if the Democrats in Congress won't filibuster them, why should it be up to us?

This state of affairs is mostly Obama's fault. I don't really know where to start. Finance? "Millions for bankers, not one cent for people." The economy? "A stimulus that's adequate might cost us political capital!" Health care? "Let's lie and tell people we're supporting a public option, they're suckers." Torture and executive power? That will have to wait for a later, more serious post, if I have the energy for one.

But perhaps a mini-tour of an issue area that I know something about, environmental politics around climate change, will be illustrative. What has Obama actually done in this area? It can be summed up in one hyphenated word: hippy-punching. His main action on the climate bill was to blame environmental groups for not getting it passed because they couldn't get a single Republican Senator to vote for it. In other words, GOP party loyalty was the environmental groups' fault; Democratic disunity was evidently not Obama's weakness. Obama's idea was to unilaterally open up a lot of the coast to offshore drilling, accompanying that with a lecture, directed at environmentalists, that they had to grow up and accept reality. It was intended to be part of a bargain to get support for energy policy around climate change; Obama neglected to get any commitments from people before doing so, and of course this support did not materialize. Shortly after that, the BP well started to leak. Obama refused to use this event to pressure industry. Instead, as a crowning insult to his supporters, he finally removed his own moratorium on new drilling because an oil state Senator said she'd remove her hold on a mid-level OMB appointee if he did. He cancelled the moratorium; she did not remove the hold, saying that the cancellation was insufficient.

Obama's entire style consists of failure to lead. In a recent interview with bloggers, he said that after the election he'd continue to try to find solutions along with the GOP, and told people that he's an executive, not a boss who can do things unilaterally. Of course, an actual leader struggles against opposition and tries to alter constraints, he or she doesn't just accept them and keep on going calmly within a narrower and narrower compass. Of course people know that Obama isn't a dictator. Is he a political leader? Political leaders show loyalty to the people who work for them, they don't adopt a grandiose pose that as leader of the whole country they now need to work with everyone and their inconvenient supporters need to get lost. Ask Shirley Sherrod what Obama's loyalty is like.

In answer to this Obama points to his accomplishments. Accomplishments? He's carefully destroyed every issue he touched, wasted every chance. It took decades to agitate about the failures of health care. Obama stepped in at the one historical moment when change was possible -- not because of him, but because of GOP failure -- and made that change the minimum that it could possibly be to keep the system going. The same with the banks: he preserved the system for the elite and screwed over everyone who'd been waiting for this chance for real change. He can claim the largest progressive accomplishments in decades because he came in when the dam that had existed since Nixon finally broke. And his first action was to build it back up again.

The next objection, if anyone were reading this which I doubt, would be that not voting does nothing because the Democratic Party will never hear about it anyways, or if they do, the number of people lost will be so small that it won't matter. Yes, I'd say that's true. I don't think there will be any practical effect if I don't vote or if 1.000 people don't or 10,000 people don't. For the same reason there will be no practical effect if we do. But I'll be telling people how Obama lost me. Other people should too. It's the serious thing to do.

In fact, that's all that we have, as activists. Our individual votes are meaningless. But we tell people things and they tell other people. Let the Democratic Party know that you're displeased. Don't volunteer, don't contribute, and tell them why.

And don't fall for the scare stories about how this is putting the extremist right in power. Obama has been very lucky in his enemies. But I can tell scare stories too. Unless the Democratic Party starts to understand that they're losing people, we're going to lose Social Security. The GOP has no power to do that, but the Democratic Party does. That's the way it is with everything. The GOP failed for decades to get more offshore drilling. But Obama did it in an instant. Don't be fooled.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Coda: A Play in One Act

(a post vaguely in the style of Acephalous *)

[A MAN and A WOMAN are at the science fiction section of a Barnes & Noble. A MAN is 45-ish and is dressed in the drabbest possible outfit of undecorated T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, A WOMAN is apparently in her 50s and is in a dress and sandals. They have just done that strange social interaction in which two people who don't know each other happen to slowly walk through the section, peering at the titles, more or less at the same speed and in the same direction. Although they are 3/4 of the way through, neither of them is holding a book.]

A MAN: Whoever's been buying science fiction for this store hasn't been doing a very good job.

A WOMAN: [looks displeased, makes hand motion to encompass shelves] Yes. It's ... too many vampires. There shouldn't be so many things with vampires, you know?
There should be, well, real SF... I like Neil Stephenson.

A MAN: [slightly encouraged] You know who you might like? Adam Roberts. He's a British writer. He's pretty good ... um, his day job is as an English professor. So, you know, he knows how to write. **

A WOMAN: [nods] Robert Adams you said?

A MAN: Adam Roberts.


[A MAN realizes that this Barnes & Noble has no books by Adam Roberts.]

A WOMAN: Robert Jordan. I really, really like Robert Jordan.

A MAN: Mmm-hmm!

[Both turn back to the shelves. Boggled, A MAN covertly glances to see if a liking for Robert Jordan means that she's wearing anything that might indicate that she likes to be spanked. She's leaning forward to see the books with her hands behind her waist, wearing many fake-gold bracelets. Hmm.]

* If this really were an Acephalous post, it would be better written and would include not only a claim that this really happened, but would also be followed by a claim that there is some kind of ill-defined documentary evidence that it really happened. This did really happen, although I of course have no documentary evidence.

** I am fully aware that being an English professor does not mean that one knows how to write.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

Encouraged by a comment of Adam Roberts' on my last post, I'm going to write more about the Ursula Le Guin short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Here's a link to the full text of it, for as long as that lasts.

It's a difficult short story for me to look back at. On the one hand, it's an artistic and moral failure -- one that I recognized, instinctively and angrily, the first time that I read it as a young teen. On the other hand, it deals with the aesthetic and moral issues that I've been concerned with my whole life. Therefore, it stands as a particular sort of symbol, not only a personal one, but also for an American left that has largely been a failure at articulating the very same problems over the period since the mid-70s.

1. Bland utopias

"Yet I repeat that these were not simple folk, not dulcet shepherds, noble savages, bland utopians."

That's what Le Guin tells-not-shows us. But what does she actually show us? The first paragraphs of the story show people, in theory, but they are people statically going about their roles, sprinkled with authorially desperate adjectives that try to spice them up just like the scenery. Then Le Guin tells us that she is struggling to describe happiness, and brings us through a number of attempts. Coyly, against what she calls her own puritanical thoughts, she tells us that if we like we can imagine these people having sex and drugs. (Therefore prefiguring pretty much all of Iain Banks.) Is there any human contact in the sex described? No.

"Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas--at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh."

In other words, for these semi-divine already half in ecstasy souffles, who you are and who they are doesn't matter in the least. You consume them, just like food, and there isn't any person-to-person contact at all, no like or dislike, no relationship however brief, no growth.

Does anyone say anything to anyone else in Omelas at all? Well, there is one direct quote (other than the words of the child, which I'll get to later.) "Quiet, quiet, there my beauty, my hope..." -- That is said to who, a lover? No, a horse. The only human speech of these great people is said to a horse, before a race. A race which is prepared for, but which never occurs in our sight, because everything is static.

Le Guin refers to this very problem:

"The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can't lick 'em, join 'em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe happy man, nor make any celebration of joy. How can I tell you about the people of Omelas? They were not naive and happy children--though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! But I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you."

But she can't. Why can't she? Well, in part this is a general problem, one which the left has struggled with for a long time. How can you describe utopia without making it sound boring and lifeless? In that sense, it's a universal problem. And the more-or-less acknowledged failure of the artist is also universal. It's what I call the problem of Demiurgy, the consciousness -- especially within science fiction, in which the world needs to be built as well as the people -- that the creator must work within human limitations, must be in some sense a failure. (Here Le Guin prefigures China Mieville, who would like to describe life after the socialist revolution but who really can't, since he feels that you can only describe it after you've lived through the transformation of it, and who must therefore freeze his revolution in The Iron Council and kill the scapegoat character who froze it.)

But Le Guin has her own particular problems. After the bit about sex, she writes: "One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt." Really? None at all? That's a picture of inhumanity, of people without a core human emotion. And of course there is guilt in Omelas; the entire story ends up being about guilt. But perhaps she means merely sexual guilt. Still, though, it just doesn't work: every relationship, since we are mortal, means less attention paid to some other relationship. Even in utopia, there is going to be the guilty feeling that in being with someone you're ignoring someone else. To speak nothing of those people who wouldn't be, even in utopia, quite as vanilla as all that. Le Guin has a particular failure here as well as a general one.

2. The Ones Who

The second half of the story is about the abused child whose existence in some way permits the existence of the city of happiness. And here's where the authorial lies pile up really quickly. In essence, I think that this whole section comes down to flattery: self-flattery of the author smoothed over and made attractive through flattery of the reader.

The child is maximally sentimental. Its only speech is "'I will be good, ' it says. 'Please let me out. I will be good!'" This child can't curse its captors, in fact, it cant' really say much at all, as Le Guin closes down anything else with "It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect." It speaks less and less often, she tells us.

How do people react to this simplified figure of pity? They get disgusted, angry; they feel shocked and helpless. Then they rationalize it away -- with a particularly bad rationalization that I won't bother to quote -- since doing anything for the child would magically destroy the happiness of Omelas. And therefore their frustrated sympathy makes them compassionate, makes possible the nobility of everything else that they do.

That might be an interesting ending for this story. Those people are so disagreeable, aren't they? And they are us, of course, minus the bit about the nobility. Because if you're allowed to see the child as plural rather than singular, and as adult as well as childish, this is a story about the middle class and its dependence on the many others who make possible their lives.

But no. There are individual heroes in this story. They take action. They are the only ones who do anything, in fact.

"At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or a woman much older falls silent for a day or two, then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman.

Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow- lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

Perhaps, re-reading this, the story would not work after all without this lie. Because this is the ultimate fantasy, isn't it? Just walk away! The people walking away may not know where they are going -- the author certainly doesn't -- but they are clearly better than any of the people whose happiness is dependent on those horrible rationalizations about their scapegoat.

What else is noteworthy about them? They are alone. They are "the ones who". They don't have a revolution, or an uprising, or even a communication with any other person. They just individually vanish from society.

Le Guin offers this fantasy to the reader -- these are the only active people in the story, and therefore invite reader identification. So of course the reader would be one of them. The reader would be one of the virtuous, risk-taking people who walk away from boring happy lives that are based on exploitation, even though they don't know where they're going. In this Le Guin echoes a whole host of bohemian fantasies that the children of the middle class hold. And as the author offering this to them, Le Guin is making herself something wonderful, giving her readers a momentary feeling of wonder and escape. Not being an authorial failure at all, right?

This short story, with its central lie, really does hold something important about our time. Le Guin wrote, in part, in reaction to a "Golden Age" of SF that I now find pretty much unreadable. She's one of SF's best writers, and some of her work is undoubtedly going to survive. But some of it is going to join what it reacted to as works that can no longer really be read.

Update: a similar read here, as linked to from here. One of the things that I didn't make clear is how Omelas stays with you. Or of course I made that clear, with this post and the last, still arguing with a short story read decades ago. It's worth arguing with: so many short stories are not.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Ones Who

for Michael Bérubé

Hello in 2010 this is the poem     
This is the poem     
That argues (isn't that annoying?)     
They were the ones who walked away     
From Omelets no Omelas stupid story     
There was a perfect city and     
There was an imprisoned child and     
The first depended on the other     
The child can't really talk     "feeble-minded"
You know how that goes, don't you?     
You know how that goes in stories     
They're always sweet angels or perfect sad cases     
And at the end some people walk away     
They walk away from Omelets     little oubliettes
     every village has one
Where do they walk to, these good people?     
The author can't describe that place it must     
Exist oh yes the world being Omelas would     
"It is possible that it does not exist"     
But they know where they are going, do they?     
The world being Omelas would be     
When you leave a place you find another place     
Just like the first     not that hard to say
The world being would be     go around, return to start
     do nothing, you do your part
     you can't walk away
The world being Omelas, no, omelets     
No one got that big O after all     
We have lots of broken eggs. All over!     
We make that omelet every day     
Middle-aged people with children     
Like you and me, that's what we do     
If we didn't try to say "Look, a broken person!"     
"There's been a break!" then those deaths would     
Be for nothing     
It would be     
A waste     
     The transformation of waste is perhaps the oldest
The transformation of waste     pre-occupation of man
There must be a way to take the remains     
And make it whole (again?)     
And make them whole again     
Oh shit     
Here's how the second story goes     
And it's even true!     
Once there was a country (and we know,     
We know better than to say exceptional)     
But a country in which some suspects were     
Prosecuted justly. It was back in 2001     
     that there were 2 million people in prison   
Back in 2001 that prosecutors tried     
terrorists justly     
     and two years later six hundred thousand   
genuine and legitimate! There was credibility     
and integrity, then there was a radical break     two years later we built a mountain
That hasn't been fixed but we can     of six hundred thousand skulls
Yes we can     
They were good people, the prosecutors     
And did good, civilian trials are good,     
And that's what goodness means in an omelet     
It means that you can make more good omelets     
And all of us would like to be good     
And that's what good does it makes it good     
For the people who say that we are good     
And since we are good      can't stop cooking, can't step back
We can build a city on a mountain     eggs arrive, already cracked
     making omelets, nowhere to turn
     all you can do is LET IT BURN
No, we can't let it burn     
The fire if it comes would be darkness not light     
And anyways, middle-aged people with children,     
We may not be good but we persist     
We're not allowed to give up     
     the transformation of waste
So yes the transformation of waste     
People like the lie that once we were good     
Before the break and so we will tell that lie     
And maybe that will get them to be good     
The living are more important than the dead     
Well, the woman I knew from El Salvador     
Isn't really dead but whatever!      
I'll go and say that once America didn't torture     
Or rather that we didn't torture openly and     
Formally and perhaps that made a difference     
To her when she heard the head torturer     
Speaking English-accented Spanish     
And I'll go spit on the grave of a Salvadoran child     
(Well not the grave, they never found the body)     
Who was tortured (more tolerably?) by proxy     
What's a little spit?     yeah, you and what spitting army
That's a problem.     
Does anyone really care what we say?     
The One who matters says America doesn't torture     
And that's how it is     the first lie of Omelas: there's somewhere to go
     the second is that these are children, you know
Does it matter what we say?     
We aren't rescuing children      
They aren't children in our prisons      
(Well yes some of them are) but the bad scary     
Terrorists that our America depends on     
That America depends on to make us feel good     
Are doing what people always do in prison,     
Or when they hide out in the hills somewhere,     
People who can talk: they are writing,     
Writing that our system is unjust     
And I think that they don't really care about     
Our noble, useless spit     
Or are we lying for America, for "us"?     
I'd rather not lie then kthxbye     
The third story is mine I don't see why not     
Poetry in the first person is annoying but it is mine     
why should I care about truth     the truth will never really set you free
and the lying homilies we tell about truth     it's what you do that matters, not what you see
     see what you like as long as you're yoked
My daughter's 1st grade teacher waves an     and speaking truth to power is a joke
American flag for the class, teaches a song     
And my daughter sings John Lennon's "Imagine"     
At the music festival two massive lies all lies     
You can say there are dreamers, they are not     
The only ones, but there are so many more      
People dreaming approvingly     
Of hellscapes she could not even imagine     
I lie to her too     
I tell her that things are basically going O.K.     
Maybe when she's older      
I'll tell her that there was a radical break     
Just before she was born     
When we formally approved of torture     
And there's still the hope of fixing it     not even Obama can strangle hope
Why should I care? It's a hobby I guess. Like      no this is a lie too why not admit
Science fiction. Not everyone has to like it.     there don't seem to be many chances at all
     since no one knows what will make the thing fall
     might as well not be lying when standing in shit
     since none of us knows what the future will bring
"Freedom never existed     I can still be attached to true naming of things
And there's even less of it now"     
Freedom is what we take, or make     
While we frolic around the junk pile     memories of garbage cans and
It's not what we're given, formally     memories of garbage
Not in Omelas     
If one of us sees someone about to be thrown      
To Moloch then sure, say any lie you like     
About how we used to not throw people     
To Moloch quite in that way     
(Yes not formally a lie, formally true)     
And if it works, great!     
The living are more important than the dead     
We are the people who persist     
We never give up     Did this poem work? Was my sense preserved?
But the omelets are still being made afterwards     America, you get the fucking poets you deserve
And I don't think it's a contrradiction     I don't have the time for any more tries
To say that someone was saved from the frying     Even the best of us can only apologize
With our talk of fair trials this once     When my kids ask what I did in this time
But really we'd be better off without it     I'll say that I laughed and made a stupid rhyme

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Some criticism of Iain Banks' SF book, Matter

Although this book was published in 2008, and I bought it in hardcover, I haven't read it till now. Why? Well, I've written a whole lot about Iain Banks' work, mostly of Usenet back in the late 90's. I watched his Culture series go from some of the books that I thought were really among the best ever to be written in Sf (Use of Weapons) to some that were really rather bad. After Look To Windward in 2000, I'd predicted that that might well be the last of Culture: Banks seemed exhausted, the contemporary political atmosphere (for these are political books) was quite discouraging for the European libertarian left, the book had an air of finality... and that's how it stood until Matter came out.

I was relieved to see that several Banks tics that had become gradually more annoying were gone from this book. No one gets righteously tortured to death in revenge for some rightist atrocity. (This was so common in previous books that I'd called it the ODV scene: Obligatory Deadly Vengeance). The aristocratic characters are not instantly type-castable as dissolute and useless. And most of all, there's finally a book where Banks does not seem to be making an attempt to write a new "dark side of the Culture", a sinister secret or flaw that will give them more drama.

What replaces this encouraging absence of writerly crutches? Well... it's a very competent novel. Serviceable. Um... very pleasant in an ordinary SF kind of way.

I feel bad for writing that. The novel really does have its good points. Its core is a fairy tale, really, which I always think is a good choice. The tale goes something like this. (Oh yes, spoilers.) Once upon a time there were three princes. Their father, a strong king, had raised the first to be a warrior, the second to be a diplomat, and the third to be a scholar. And here's the first variation from the classic tale: the first prince died, and his place was taken by his sister, a woman who went to a far land where women could be warriors far stronger than any their land could ever make. But then the king died treacherously and the land was threatened by dire foes, foes it would take combined military force and diplomacy and scholarship to defeat. In an additional fairy tale touch, the youngest of the princes became King, the others being missing, and since he was a studious youth, his enemies expected him to fail easily. But he confounded their schemes.

So far, so familiar, right? But, this being an anarcho-socialist novel, the princes and princess are not going to rule happily ever after. All three end up sacrificing their lives, more or less gracefully passing from the scene and preserving their land so it can progress to its next stage, a republic, which will be led by their former servant.

The three nobles are all somewhat played against type. Ferbin, the middle brother and the first viewpoint character, seems at first to be cut from standard Banks whole cloth. He's ineffectual and dissipated, someone who sleeps with a lot of women and runs back to the protection of his social status when he gets them and himself into trouble. But he's saved by his self-knowledge. At the beginning of the book, he's already telling us that he knows that he would be a bad king. At the end, when one of their group needs to be sacrificed to stop the lead bad guy, he throws himself in, knowing that tis a far, far better thing that he does etc. (Aided, admittedly, by brain chemicals that keep him from worrying too much. Quite a boon for cowards in general, those would be.) Anaplian, the princess, fits into the Culture with no problems at all. As an ex-royal, she's already used to not paying money for anything, already uniformly suspicious of people seeking to use her. There isn't any of, say, Zakalwe's (the agent in Use of Weapons) passive-aggressive almost middle-class "I can make it on my own" refusal to incorporate all of the Culture's benefits into herself. She's the ideal Special Circumstances agent.

Oramen, the youngest brother, is always a half-step behind. The plotter against the throne expects him to crumble immediately, and he doesn't, rather unconvincingly being able to do things like deliver convincing orations in front of real crowds without practice, because he remembers similar ones from plays. He survives one assassination plot after another through forethought, quick reactions, and a bit of authorial grease. But after telling himself to be decisive and to not be ashamed to take precautions that might look foolish, Oramen does exactly that -- although suspicious, he doesn't do anything about his suspicions at the critical moment, and he's mortally injured, though he survives long enough to warn his brother and sister.

This plot takes place within a galactic setting that sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. It doesn't work when Banks gives pages-long infodumps that are intended to tell us who is mentoring who is mentoring who within the complex, stacked hierarchy of civilizations at different levels of advancement. It does work when the effects on the lower-level civilizational leaders are presented -- they know that they are small players on a large stage, and their reaction is convincingly rather optimistic-predatory in that they feel they have somewhere to go and something to do, not the standard SF one of despair at being out-developed.

The main characters live on a sometimes-deadly piece of space junk. Oh, it's a huge, impressive artificial-hollow-planet artifact, and its perfectly understandable why all sorts of people would end up squatting on it once its builders left. But someone from a real top-level civilization, like the Culture or other Involveds, would never move onto something like that en masse. They'd just build their own artifact to whatever spec they wanted. So the civilization where the action takes place is, in a larger sense, rather like a tribe living on top of a huge junk pile, which has a certain engaging quality. Even their god, a huge and high-tech alien, is senile.

The book's title, Matter, is rather a puzzle. It's taken from an incident in which Ferbin meets an ex-Culture agent, and they have the now-age-old-within-SF discussion, or rather, college bull session, about whether the universe is a simulation, or whether it's really made out of matter -- whether it is the base reality. The ex-Culture agent opines that it must be the real world, made of matter, because such horrible things happen that any simulationeer creating the scenario would have to be an ultimate bastard, morally worse than their ability to create such simulations would imply. Or so I remember the scene. It really doesn't have any wider significance within the plot.

Here's where I queasily wonder whether I'll look like a complete jerk for having wondered whether I influenced the book somehow, because I used to write about this concept a lot and someone pretty convincingly seeming to be Iain Banks once indicated that he'd read some of my jottings. This is what I call, following James Branch Cabell, a problem of Demiurgy. The world of the novel is not the real world. It's not a world of matter, not really. The simulationeer, the creator, is one Iain Banks. If horrible things happen in that world, well, they happen because Iain Banks wrote them to happen.

And it's immediately apparent why those horrible things happen. They happen so the world will be dramatic. I vaguely remember an Iain Banks interview in which he was asked about why he didn't he write about an ordinary, non-violent Culture person going about an ordinary Culture life. He replied something to the effect that it would be like a soap opera. And there you have it! Problem of evil not so hard to understand after all, eh?

Of course, this is an artistic failure, and authors -- good authors, even great ones, as Banks has sometimes been -- have to know it at some level. If you want to write about an anarcho-socialist future world, and you really believe that anarcho-socialism is good, then you really should be able to depict an ordinary, happy life in that world as interesting. Otherwise, you implicitly agree that we need bad things to happen for life to be worth living. Which, no, Banks really does not, or so he's said. The author as Demiurge is always, inevitably, in some way a failure as a creator, and there is always some authorial guilt about that failure. I think that's as good an explanation as any for why the scene and title are there.

So, finally, back to the political part of the book. Banks didn't try to subvert his utopia for dramatic purposes this time. But is there really any reason for it to be there? The Culture, in this book, isn't really that distinguishable from the other Involved cultures. They are all advanced to the point where there are no conflicts over resources, energy, or living space; they can all afford to give their citizens as much, materially, as they really could want. So the Culture has a few quirks. They have this thing about missionary work, they're ideologically rather expansionist, and they're more touchy about full citizenship for machine intelligence and about lack of individual social restrictions than most Involveds. But you really don't get the feeling that living under one of the others would be that different, all told.

And that's rather a weakness of the book. When resources and energy and space don't matter, what matters is ideology. The real, best, ultimate Culture villains were the Idirans, the species that the Culture had its only really major military conflict with in the first Culture book. The Idirans, if I remember rightly, had a sort of religious belief that each people had a place and should stay there. And otherwise? They weren't monsters. They didn't engage in any of the Grand Guignol that far too many Banks villains engage in, committing genocide and torture and rape out of raw sadism and power-lust. They thought their system was right, and it really, really wasn't.

If there are to be other Culture books, I'm still hoping for one that has as villains standard, liberal, personally mostly well-intentioned and well-behaved politicians. To the Culture, those are really just as bad, aren't they? Look To Windward features the Chelgrians, who come complete with a caste system in which certain caste servants are routinely mutilated. Which is a cop-out. A remaining caste system like contemporary India's would be quite bad enough, for the Culture. There's something about the depiction of conflict without staged horrors that Banks captured, right at the beginning of the Culture's published works. (Use of Weapons and The Player of Games, his two best books in my opinion, aren't as directly concerned with that, being in my reading a meditation on the action hero and a bildungsroman respectively). I hope that he can capture that again.
...Read more

Monday, March 22, 2010

Health care passed

Duncan Black, quoted in full from here:

My marker for Obama was whether he'd get a health care bill with a public option. He didn't. A year ago passage of some sort of health care reform seemed inevitable, and not a tremendous challenge. Only a year of dithering and bipartisaning and gangs of wankers and pre-compromising and, frankly, failure to put forward something simple and popular jeopardized it.

The bill's more good than bad, but it isn't what we should have gotten. It isn't what we voted for.

I tend to read blogs written by academics, who are verbal and smart and write long, often witty pieces. And about politics, they're almost always wrong. Duncan Black has the best record I know of for any public commentator for always being right.

To add to his summary, which I fully agree with, I'm very glad that we got health care. Many people will have their lives saved by it who otherwise would have died. Many people will have much less miserable lives because they won't get substandard care, or won't have to always worry about where they are going to get medical help for themselves or their family members. There is still going to be an immense amount of work improving and maintaining this against various political challenges. (Including the Supreme Court, I'd guess.) But the situation is far, far better having won.

Obama managed to win. That's more important than anything else. There's a lot that would have been unforgivable that is forgivable now that he's actually gotten people health care. At the same time, this illustrates just where his limits are. He gave everything away right up to the point where it would have sunk his political career. Then he saved himself. Everyone else who voted for him, who worked for him, got DFH'd or dealed away or ignored. That happened right down to the end, right down to the Executive Order that got him anti-abortion votes that he probably didn't even need, at the cost of reinforcing the idea that there should be less health care for poor women. That's who he is.

As for the people who opposed health care, who wanted people to die for their own "freedom"? Let the scum whine. They lost. And for the first time since the 1980s in the U.S., there is a good chance that they are going to continue to lose, over and over, and they will never get the racist, theocratic hierarchy that they wanted back.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Obama, failed President

When Obama came to office, I predicted that there would be a crisis point right about now. What would happen when Obama tried to be bipartisan and it become clear that his initiatives were going to be blocked by the GOP in the Senate? There were two basic paths that I saw. He could either want to succeed badly enough so that he became an actual, partisan political leader. Or he would refuse to adjust to reality, and fail.

The inaction around the recent hiccup in the health care bill, and the state of the union address, make it clear that it's most probable that he's going to fail. If he can't start to push, one year in, with his biggest initiative on the ropes, he's never going to. And the state of the union address included the amazingly pathetic

"We can't wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side -– a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of -- (applause) -- I'm speaking to both parties now. [...]

And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town -- a supermajority -- then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let's show the American people that we can do it together. "

So, the GOP has been obstructing every single bill, because they can. Their strategy is to let Obama do nothing. And it's working. And his response is what? To call on their better nature? It would be comical if so many actual people's lives weren't riding on it. Real leadership, at this point, has to involve shoving them out of the way. Getting rid of the filibuster, using Reconciliation for everything, stripping out their earmarks. Becoming an actual partisan, listening to and rewarding the people who trusted you and brought you to power, not indulging in yet another false equivalence of blaming your own party as much as the GOP. Real leaders are willing to make themselves look bad by actually leading.

But Obama isn't going to. So, most probably, what's going to happen? Well, of course I don't know, but these are my guesses:

1. No major legislation will pass. Neither health care nor something on global warming. A "jobs bill" will pass, but it will turn out to consist of giveaways to multinationals, with a fig leaf of clean energy put over it.

2. Most comparatively minor legislation won't pass. Overrule the Supreme Court on corporate money in politics? Yeah, right. And since Obama is going to leave Don't Ask, Don't Tell to congress and the military, that's not going to happen either.

3. At the end of Obama's term, we'll still be in a war in Afghanistan. But I'd guess that we'll pick up another war, too. It's the standard response of American Presidents whose domestic policies founder.

4. Obama's people are barely competent enough to keep the economy from completely crashing on his watch. But there's going to continue to be 10% unemployment. His use of staggeringly damaging gestures like a spending freeze when more stimulus is needed is going to keep him from doing anything else.

5. As a result, the GOP is going to take the next Presidential election, probably with someone like Jeb Bush. At that point, the economy will crash. What people forget about wingnut policies is that they aren't just morally wrong, they also don't actually work. We'll see a quick return to Hooverism, and all the accumulated damage will come due.

What will we get after that? Who knows. But Obama has systematically destroyed the Democratic Party's credit. How can we, for example, claim to be the party in favor of civilization? Obama has adopted and confirmed Bush's use of torture, black sites, and surveillance. It's no longer a GOP aberration; he's mainstreamed it into something that both parties seemingly agree on.

What consequences does this have for activists? In the short term, it's back to the regulatory agencies. Obama has changed their leadership at the top, though they remain largely captured by industry or constrained. In the long term, the creation of alternative structures within the Democratic Party to hollow it out, since third parties are impractical under U.S. rules, and a shift insofar as possible to non-US politics. Change is still possible, far more than -- let's say -- under Bush. It's just that most of the types of change that are likely just got a lot more negative.

This was always the most likely result for Obama. I voted for him as the lesser evil, and he has been that. Things would have been worse had anyone else won. Still, history is going to look back at him as someone who, in a time of great challenge, failed his country.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

What's going on

For the two people who noticed that I haven't been commenting on blogs as was my wont, I've been busy. Rather, the entire local system within which I'm embedded has been busy. Oh, all right, maybe not, but let's pretend for the moment that it isn't just me overcommitting myself.

Most political blogs don't seem to have caught what's going on in the U.S. right now. There are a lot of people in America who wrote about politics in the age of Bush because they were, rightly, very concerned about where the country was going, who don't themselves work in politics. And they seem to have generally treated this administration as more of the same. Current events to keep track of -- Republicans and lunatic, blogging, right-wingers to mock -- damage control to do -- stupid things that politicians say. And it's really not that any more.

Not because Obama is a great progressive, or anything like that. He's not. It's simply that right now, progress is possible. Ever since Reagan, everyone I know at work, often for their entire political lifetimes, has been engaged in a bitter delaying action to keep past gains from being lost. Now the system has shifted to the point where we can win new ground. And that's tremendously different.

Of course, the system I work within isn't really suited to this change. As always, we all fight the last war, using the skills polished in the prior era. For my part, I've been engaged in a flurry of what is probably best described as librarianship. Ever since sometime in July or August, when everyone I regularly work with all called at the same time and asked me to work on some project, I've programmed Web sites that allow public access to data on toxic pollution, chemical accidents, governmental finances, especially around the economic stimulus... And this material has duly been used to help people inform themselves, do activism, write news stories, aid in writing reports that conceivably may influence legislation. I have to believe that it's good work, and of course it's what I'm good at. But librarianship as a response to politics always seemed like a sort of last-ditch gesture. It's "The barbarians are coming, so let's write everything down and send it out so that someone somewhere will find out about it." It's not what is most needed now. But it's what I do.

At any rate, I'm hoping that I've finally caught up to the point where I can write non-work-related things again. Poetry, SF criticism ... blog comments.