The dead end above us

A recent note on Slate about Tom Gauld’s Mooncop discusses Mr Gauld’s vision of life in a decrepit and soon-to-be-abandoned lunar colony as “the residue of an older fantasy,” of the Cold War-era dream of thriving human settlements on other planetary bodies.

No doubt there is an element of this at work in Mr Gauld’s imagination, and in other visions of a future in which settlements and stations in outer space are decaying, forgotten remnants of failed enterprises of expansion. Films such as Moon (2009) and The Martian (2015,) with individual space travelers alone on the surface of alien worlds, play to the image of outer space as a realm of abandonment. Yet such visions were part of science fiction before the end, or even the beginning, of the US-Soviet Space Race. Even the founding text of space travel-themed science fiction, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865,) ends tragically, with its heroes forever separated from the rest of humanity, dying pointlessly in a metal ball orbiting the Moon. A work like Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men (1930) is steeped in an overwhelming sense of decline, introducing one species after another descended from humans, each of which meets extinction in its own way.  

Some of the most prominent science fiction productions of the Cold War days also represent space travel as a dead end. Robert Altman’s film Countdown (1968) depicts a US project to land a man on the Moon. The film ends with a lone astronaut wandering the lunar surface, finding a crashed Soviet space-craft and the corpses of the cosmonauts. The final moments of the film are ambiguous, as the astronaut finds a device that may or may not enable him to escape back to the Earth. The overall sense of loss and futility is the same as that with which Verne’s novel ends. The relationship between the cosmonaut and the planetary being in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) develops the same feeling of isolation and helplessness, though where Altman contrasts the isolation his astronaut suffers on the Moon with the professional camaraderie and relatively satisfactory married life he had enjoyed in his life in Texas, Tarkovsky’s film is openly critical of the Soviet Union as a place where the kind of social isolation his cosmonaut suffers in space is commonplace on Earth.

Arthur Clarke, a novelist strongly influenced by Olaf Stapledon’s work, returned throughout his career to a story set a thousand million years in the future. He turned this story into novels twice, as Against the Fall of Night (1953) and The City and the Stars (1956,) and explored it in many of the unfinished tales published in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (2001.)  The heart of the story is that humans had once created a vast stellar empire, an empire fragments of which perhaps still existed in some remote corners of space, but that the Earth had been separated from this empire, and its people had forgotten the major points of the empire’s history.  The abandoned empire, the isolated Earth, and the forgotten history of the conquest of space are also the background of a much more famous series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels (1942-1993.)

The two most familiar products of Cold War science fiction are Star Trek (1966-1969) and Star Wars (1977.) The image of outer space as a realm of unkept promises figures in those as well.

The background of Star Wars is a fight, not to claim new territory or develop new settlements, but to restore the liberties of a lost Republic. We meet the hero, a young man unaware of his true parentage and his lofty destiny, in the grubby place of exile which he has grown up regarding as his home. Using battered ships, antique weapons, and a plotline recycled from 1930s movie serials, the good guys score a victory for their nostalgic cause.

While Star Trek is set in the early days of an expanding interstellar federation, in many episodes our heroes encounter the ruins of lost civilizations and other traces of abandoned developments. The initial pilot, “The Cage”(produced in 1964-1965,) shows us the ship’s captain as the prisoner of a species who have retreated underground after a war found millennia before, and while there have lost so completely lost their technological skills that they can no longer “even repair the machines left behind by their ancestors” and are faced with inevitable extinction.

Many other episodes show societies that have declined from extraordinary heights of technological development into primitive conditions, conditions that suggest either control of the population by a computer mistaken for a deity (for example, “Return of the Archons,” “The Apple,” and “For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky,”) impending doom (for example, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?,” “Miri,” and “The Paradise Syndrome,”) or disconnection between intellectual and carnal satisfactions, resulting in a society of casual sadism and implied cannibalism (for example, “The Man Trap,” “Return to Tomorrow,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “Spock’s Brain,” and “Turnabout Intruder.”)

Nor does Star Trek present decline and abandonment as things that happen only in alien cultures. We meet such luminaries from the history of the Earth as a former ruler of India (“Space Seed,”) the inventor of faster-than-light travel (“Metamorphosis,”) the god Apollo (“Who Mourns for Adonais?,”) and Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan (“The Savage Curtain,”) all forgotten and imprisoned in the infinite void of deep space.  Our heroes encounter nightmarish doppelganger versions of political entities such as the Roman Empire (“Bread and Circuses,”) the United States of America (“A Piece of the Action” and “The Omega Glory,”) and Nazi Germany (“Patterns of Force,”)  showing that space is a realm in which not only individual humans can become isolated and powerless, but that whole human societies can be cut off, condemned to stagnation and historical irrelevance, by a misconceived response to technological development.

In developing an image of outer space as a realm of isolation, abandonment, decline, and helplessness, this line of science fiction writers from Jules Verne to Tom Gauld may be harking back quite far into literary history. It is often said that Lucian (circa 125-circa 180 CE)’s “True History,” a satirical tale recounting a journey to the Moon, is the first science fiction story. Lucian’s story is itself more than a little reminiscent of two plays by Aristophanes (circa 450 BCE- circa 386 BCE,) The Birds (414 BCE) and Peace (421 BCE.)  In each of those plays, disreputable characters fly to the heavens and pull off unlikely schemes.

Particularly relevant to our discussion is the scene in Peace when Trygaeus, a poor farmer, arrives in the heavens, having flown there on the back of a giant dung-beetle. Trygaeus’ goal is to arrest Zeus and prosecute him in the courts of Athens for having allowed the wars among the Greek states to go on so long that Greece is weakened and in danger of a takeover by the Persian Empire.  Once in the heavens, Trygaeus finds that Zeus and almost all of the other gods have abandoned their usual realm, going off deeper into space in their disgust at the warlike habits of the Greeks.  Only Hermes remains in his usual spot, and he is a degraded figure, so impoverished that that Trygaeus can easily bribe him with a small bag of meat, so powerless that when the god of war and some of his minions come through, Hermes hides from them.  The lower heaven from which the rest of the gods have departed is as much a realm of isolation, abandonment, decline, and helplessness for Hermes as any of the heavenly bodies are for the characters of the gloomier sort of science fiction.

A conversation

I was recently issued a new computer at my job. The one it replaced was a hand-me-down from someone more senior than me, and I’d had it for almost five years, so it was a bit of an antique. The new machine is brand new. It is also noticeably slower than the old one.

Not only is the machine slow, but its mouse is poorly designed. Left-click is a tiny portion in the corner, right-click is approximately 99.99999999% of the surface. It’s like the Cosmic Calendar in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos where the whole of human history is an infinitesimal square at the end representing the last couple of seconds before midnight on the night of 31 December. cosmiccalendar

So it’s frustrating to have to use the thing. I find myself doing a lot more work at home now so that I don’t have to fight with it.

Anyway, one day I left my office to eat lunch in a food court across the street. The only thing that looked edible was an egg salad sandwich. It cost $4.50, showing a poor grasp of the concept of an egg salad sandwich, the whole point of which is its inexpensiveness, but I was too hungry not to get anything. So I bought the sandwich and sat down at one of the tables.

An old friend of mine showed up and sat with me.  By this point, I had discovered that the sandwich was not only inappropriately priced, but was disgusting. The egg salad included fresh onions, creating the illusion that the eggs were rotten. It was a struggle to eat, but by the time I made that discovery I was no less hungry and much less wealthy than I had been when I decided to buy the sandwich, so I was stuck with trying to eat the accursed thing.

We started chatting. I told him about the sandwich’s price and disgustingness. He works as member of the university’s staff, in a position where a wide variety of researchers tell him about their work, so he always has something interesting to say. He told me that the price of the sandwich might very well reflect a change in the way foodstuffs are priced, a change that is connected in some way to global warming which is in fact an even worse problem than is generally realized. He began explaining, further, that the idea of mixing fresh onions with egg may be connected to the collapse of production in other crops that are traditional in egg salad, but that was so depressing we quickly changed the subject.

I mentioned the weird slowness of my new computer. He explained that computer hardware makers have now reached the limits of Moore’s Law, while software makers keep adding new functions, so that we can expect computers in general to get slower, not faster, for the foreseeable future. The awkward mouse is apparently the consequence of some other ineluctable trend in the decline of the technological age.

This was getting too grim. I made some remark about what a sunny day it was; that brought him back to global warming, which by the way is acidifying the oceans and triggering a mass extinction event that may yet be the greatest in the earth’s history. I mentioned something about packing my lunch in the future, to avoid inedible food and save money. The reference to saving money reminded him of a researcher who had told him about his findings that people our age (we’re now in our mid-40s) are far more likely than were people in days gone by to spend their retirement years living on the street.

By now I had choked down that entire sandwich. A supremely gloomy conversation was just the thing to take my mind off its loathsomeness. I wanted to close our conversation with something that would not lead him to share depressing information, but couldn’t think of anything. He excused himself, saying he had a meeting in a few minutes. We left it there.

Power keeps faith with power

The recent death of longtime Cuban despot Fidel Castro has led many to remark on the admiration Castro received from many who might have been expected to find in him an enemy. For example, Roman Catholic blogger Mark Shea wrote a post remarking on Castro’s brutal repression of the Roman Catholic church in Cuba; his commenters responded by pointing out that leading members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, including the past three popes, have made many signs of friendship towards Castro. Rod Dreher documents the complicity of Roman Catholic bishops in Castro’s regime in some detail; Mr Dreher is not Roman Catholic, but Russian Orthodox. However, in the same post he reports on a statement made by his own chief pastor, the Patriarch of Moscow, in praise of Castro, showing that his church is in no better a position.

That the leaders of the largest theistic organization in the world would make themselves so useful to the leader of a regime that has oppressed the adherents of that organization so fiercely ceases to seem strange if we take this as the first rule of analysis: Power keeps faith with power. If a common ideology or common social identity ensured loyalty, the hierarchs of Rome and Havana would stand with the laity, the religious, and the parish priests who have been imprisoned for their faith; yet they rarely mention these persecuted, happily consorting with their persecutors. The only ideological consideration that moves those in power to act is the belief that the institutions which maintain their position should continue to operate, which means that those who are in a position to help or hinder those institutions in matters affecting their survival must be brought on board. The only identity that influences the actions of the mighty is their identity with each other; the powerless, even the powerless among their own supporters and putative fellows, are abstractions whom they rarely encounter in person, but see primarily as figures on revenue statements, opinion surveys, and other ledgers.

Flagrantly corrupt organizations like the Roman Catholic Church and the Cuban Communist Party are easy targets for this sort of analysis. But the same principle applies everywhere. So the policies by which USA has opposed the Castro regime are unintelligible except as a case of power keeping faith with power, betraying every other trust. The two chief prongs of the economic warfare that the USA waged on Cuba throughout virtually the whole of Castro’s time at the head of the regime there were, on the one hand, a highly restrictive policy on trade between the USA and Cuba, and on the other a highly lax policy on immigration from Cuba. The trade embargo has been greatly eased in recent years, but only after it had consistently failed to weaken Castro’s grip on power for a half-century. And the “Dry Foot” immigration policy remains in effect. Though the Dry Foot policy has certainly helped to immiserate the people of Cuba by accelerating the Brain Drain of skilled professionals and other highly productive individuals from the island, it has probably strengthened the regime’s grip on power, by luring to Miami and points north the people likeliest to lead a revolt .  Both halves of the economic warfare policy were worse than useless to those who were ostensibly supposed to be its principal beneficiaries; that the embargo persisted for so long, and the Dry Foot policy persists still, is explicable only in terms of the powerful interests in the USA who benefit from their continuation, and from power’s tendency to keep faith with power.

Remembering that power keeps faith with power, we see what people may be getting at when they deride “identity politics.” Writing in Slate, Jamelle Bouie argues that Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” of the 1980s, inviting disenfranchised white working people to identify with people of color and other minority groups, is a better model for a revival of the American Left than is Senator Bernard “Bernie” Sanders’ vision of a politics that puts class first. Mr Bouie sums up his case thus:

But the history of the Democratic Party contains a model for moving forward, with an approach, honed by Jesse Jackson, that bridges the divide. And thinkers in the political and policy world have crafted solutions that reflect this approach. It respects the reality of the modern Democratic Party: a formation that represents—and depends on—the votes of women, young people, and people of color.

Mainstream Democrats have set their sights on white voters. But the path forward—the way to win them and energize those voters of color who didn’t come to the polls in 2016—might lie in the insights of black voters and black communities and a larger appreciation of how and why identity matters, in a politics of we kin, blackness in many shades. Against a political movement that defines America in exclusionary and racial terms—as a white country for white people—a renewed Rainbow Coalition is the only defense worth making.

As far as it goes, this is unexceptionable. When we get to “the reality of the modern Democratic Party,” though, we see a big trap door about to open under our feet. The Democrats can get the votes of 60,000,000 or more people in national elections, roughly half the electorate, yet hold fewer than 30% of all elected offices in the USA. Part of this can be blamed on institutional quirks such as the boundaries of the states, gerrymandering of electoral districts within states, the advantage that Republicans derive from their greater financial resources, etc.

Other parts of the problem derive from a vulnerability inherent in the structure of “the modern Democratic Party.” The great majority of African Americans may vote for Democrats, but the voices heard in the councils of the party are not those of that majority, but of the professional politicians who presume to speak for black people. Likewise for each of the other groups that make up the Democratic coalition. Often the spokespeople will come reasonably close to the views of their constituents, but even then there is an Achilles’ Heel- voters know from long experience that power, including the relatively modest power to draft portions of the Democratic Party platform and to have a say in who will be appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development under Democratic presidents, keeps faith with power.

Nonblack voters thus hear invitations to identify with blackness, when they come from the Democratic Party, not as invitations to identify with their African American neighbors, but as invitations to go along with the policy positions of the Congressional Black Caucus and similar groups. Those groups may do a fairly good job of speaking for the people they claim to represent, but are made up of human beings, and are therefore ships tossed on the rough seas of politics. As such, they are as likely, given time, as the US foreign policy establishment or the Cuban Communist Party or the Roman Catholic church to find themselves making common cause with the deadliest enemies of anyone who is so incautious as to trust them without reservation. That leaves whites open to the appeal of the ethnic bloc voting that they have long practiced in the South and that they increasingly display in other parts of the country where their numerical majority is as weak as it is in the South, perhaps less because they prefer the leaders of the Republican Party to those of the Democratic Party than because they can see a clearer path to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on them for its core support than they can see to influencing the leaders of a party that depends on everyone but them for its core support. When an ethnic group votes as a bloc, it is a power within the party it backs, and the other powers within that party dare not betray it too obviously.  When the members of a group scatter their votes, that group is no power, and its role is to be betrayed at every turn. So, in the absence of a labor movement or other force uniting people on a basis other than race, white voters are no more likely to identify with blackness than African American voters are to identify with whiteness.

Those who saw it coming, those who fear its leaving

Some observers of the US political scene did predict the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election with some success. That shouldn’t be surprising; the polls consistently predicted that the national popular vote would be close, which it was, that Hillary Clinton would win it by a narrow margin, which she did, that the vote would be even closer in states including Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which it was, and that the vote in those states would determine the winner of the Electoral College and therefore of the presidency, which it did. So, making a right prediction required only that one take the polls at face value, disregarding historical analogies and political science models which suggested that someone like Donald J. Trump (alias Don John of Astoria) could not possibly be elected US president.

Among those who can fairly claim to have shown real prescience in connection with this election, pride of place should go to Steve Sailer, who has spent the last 16 years describing how a Republican candidate running on a pledge to restrict immigration could precipitate ethnic bloc voting among whites and thereby win a national election. He’s been reposting some of his old stuff lately, for example this 2000 piece in which he first laid out “the Sailer Strategy.” Mr Sailer has been remarkably restrained with his I-Told-You-So’s; in hundreds of pieces over the years, he has outlined scenarios that have played out in 2016. As a longtime reader of Mr Sailer’s blog, I do find it a bit jarring that he, so long a voice far removed from the ins and outs of Washington politics, is now mentioning people whom he apparently knows personally as potential appointees to senior positions on the White House staff.

Scott Adams, the guy behind the “Dilbert” comic strip, has attracted a great deal of attention for predicting a Trump win; in several posts lately he’s been focused on responses to the election as illustrations of the concept of cognitive dissonance.

Mr Sailer is a Trump supporter, and Mr Adams is not a Trump adversary. Liberals, leftists, and others who strongly oppose Don John have been searching for explanations as to what went wrong Tuesday. Some of these reflections focus on the shortcomings of the sort of people who voted for Mr Trump; these could be summed up in this cinematic moment:

Some reactions have been more interesting. Quartz classifies political parties around the world as “populist” or “liberal,” and finds the populists riding a wave. The more I look at their lists, the more the “populist” and “liberal” labels look like big grab-bags of organizations that have very little in common, but there are some neat maps, and I do think they are onto something.

Atrios is angry with Hillary Clinton and her supporters for managing somehow to lose to Donald Trump, and with the elites in the USA more generally for the way they have of failing upward.

Malak Chabkoun sees in Don John’s election a case of chickens coming home to roost from the violence the USA has inflicted on the rest of the world, and in the panicked reactions of many who opposed him a political immaturity based in ignorance of what America’s empire truly is.

On Twitter, Freddie deBoer allows himself an I-Told-You-So:

While Zach Weinersmith talked about the weather election night:

Meanwhile, political scientist Allan Lichtman takes advantage of the moment in the spotlight that his successful prediction of Don John of Astoria’s election has earned him to publicize a further prediction, that he will be impeached. It’s much easier for me to imagine that Don John will warrant impeachment than it was for me to imagine, or indeed than it is for me to believe, that he will be president. So I’m inclined to believe Professor Lichtman. Professor George Hawley of the University of Alabama also predicted the elections results successfully, in his case calling 48 of 50 states correctly; he may yet see that record improve, since Michigan and New Hampshire, the two states where his forecast did not agree with the current reports, are so closely divided that their results are not yet final.

Michael Kazin, writing in The Wall Street Journal, of all publications, traces the rise of Trump to the decline of organized labor.

Jonathan Haidt is always worth reading, and his latest piece is no exception. Asking “In what kind of world can globalists and nationalists live together in peace?,” he has to make statements that sound rather obvious to anyone who reads old books or otherwise cultivates the memory of times before the 2010’s, such as the following:

Nationalists see patriotism as a virtue; they think their country and its culture are unique and worth preserving. This is a real moral commitment, not a pose to cover up racist bigotry. Some nationalists do believe that their country is better than all others, and some nationalisms are plainly illiberal and overtly racist. But as many defenders of patriotism have pointed out, you love your spouse because she or he is yours, not because you think your spouse is superior to all others. Nationalists feel a bond with their country, and they believe that this bond imposes moral obligations both ways: Citizens have a duty to love and serve their country, and governments are duty bound to protect their own people. Governments should place their citizens interests above the interests of people in other countries.

It may be difficult for some to imagine that there are people in the world who actually need to be reminded of this, but as an American academic who lives in a liberal college town I can attest that there are many, enough of them that they may well have influenced the Democrats to adopt losing campaign strategies this year.

Former New York Times reporter Michael Cieply may not have seen the election result coming, but he isn’t surprised that his old paper was so far off in its expectations. He describes how, unlike typical newsrooms in which editors ask reporters what information they’ve picked up and try to figure out what’s going on based on that, Times editors openly devise a framework and craft the news to buttress that framework.

Glenn Greenwald blames liberals for refusing to learn the lessons of Brexit, lessons which he finds stated clearly both in his own writings and in a note by Vincent Bevins of the Los Angeles Times. Writing from a perspective very different from Mr Greenwald’s, Peter Hitchens made similar points. Mr Hitchens opposes British membership in the European Union, but thought the referendum was a disastrously bad way of trying to achieve exit; he also opposes mass immigration from the Islamic world to the West, but clearly does not see in Don John of Astoria a successor to Don John of Austria or other historical defenders of Christendom whom he might be prepared to admire.

Professor Charles Camosy writes that left-of-center academics, and to some extent even college graduates working outside the academy, have so effectively insulated themselves from those to their right that they have become all but incapable of hearing what they have to say. What Professor Camosy sees in general, Professor Stephen Bainbridge sees in a particular event at the University of California at Los Angeles.

And of course there has been some post-election scrambling for personal vindication within what was once the Hillary Clinton campaign. Some of the stories that have made their way into print show surprising people seeming to try to distance themselves from her loss. Notably, Bill Clinton is named as one who advocated a strategy that would have reached out to non-college educated whites in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the voters who put Barack Obama over the top in 2012 and who swung to Donald Trump this year. Perhaps Mr Clinton did not personally authorize this leak- perhaps others within Clintonworld are trying to refurbish his image as a political wizard in order to boost the chances that Chelsea Clinton will be able to start a political career of her own soon.

Post-election wrap-up

Welp, not all of my predictions about the 2016 US presidential election turned out to be 100% correct. The Republicans did not nominate Wisconsin governor Scott Walker for president, Bernie Sanders did not lose every caucus and primary he entered, Donald John Trump did not run out of money and disappear from the race before voting took place, and Hillary Clinton was not elected president. Worst of all, the nickname which I gave Mr Trump,”Don John of Astoria,” which should be truly hilarious to anyone who knows the historical significance of Don John of Austria and the ambivalence in Mr Trump’s relationship to the Astoria district of Queens, has yet to catch on.

So I have not proven to be much of a seer regarding this year’s events. Even so, perhaps some might be interested in my recommendation of two books as illuminating about the events of this electoral year. Both were originally published in 1958, so neither includes any attempts at specific predictions of the sort I kept making.

The first was The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033, by Michael Young. Young coined the word “meritocracy” in this book, written in the voice of a complacent functionary of a regime which, in the year 2033, has turned Britain into a society where all the good things of life have been turned into prizes to be awarded by competitive examination. The narrator is mystified that the regime is now encountering stiff resistance; after all, it has been so successful that the schools for the more talented children no longer need to send their pupils home at holidays, heralding the final dissolution of that old nuisance, family life.  In later life, Young was horrified that the label he devised for his dystopian nightmare had been adopted without irony as a rallying cry for elites and their defenders.

I do think that one of the secondary contributors to Don John’s rise to the presidency is a revolt against meritocracy. Hillary Clinton went to the right schools, held high-ranking positions that made her a central figure in two of the last three presidential administrations and a leader of the congressional opposition to the other, assembled an impressive campaign organization and staffed it with the most highly-qualified professionals in the business, and consistently presented herself to the public as a competent and well-informed policy expert with a reassuring leaderly presence.  Don John had no experience in government, showed no knowledge of or interest in any aspect of public policy, did not bother to put together a professional campaign organization in the modern style, and said whatever popped into his head at any given moment, often including obscenities. By the standards of meritocracy, it would be inconceivable that any voter anywhere would support him over her.

Therefore, Trump voters’ behavior cannot be explained as an attempt to apply meritocratic standards. Rather, they supported him as a revolt against such standards. This revolt may be rational even in a narrowly bureaucratic definition of rationality, since the schooling, certifications, licensing, and standards of personal presentation that make up the qualifications to rise through the ranks of meritocratic institutions in the USA may not in fact be very closely correlated with the characteristics that make a person likely to succeed in the work that the leaders of those institutions are supposed to do. There is a good deal of “failing upward,” in which people who have held important jobs are promoted to still-more important jobs even though they haven’t done especially well in their previous positions.

Not to kick a person when she’s down, but HRC is a prime example of failing upward. After graduation from Yale Law School, she was unable to pass the District of Columbia Bar Exam, but was assigned as a staff aide to the Senate Watergate Committee anyway. As First Lady of Arkansas she was a key part of efforts to keep the Democratic Party of Arkansas as the major force in the state’s politics; the outcome of those efforts could be seen on Tuesday, when Don John beat her in Arkansas by a vote of 60% to 34%. She then became First Lady of the United States, and in that capacity led the Clinton administration’s attempt to reform the US health care system, an attempt which not only failed to produce any legislation whatever but which also demoralized Democratic voters so thoroughly that the party lost control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Then she became US Senator from New York, voting for the invasion of Iraq, the USA-PATRIOT Act, and any number of other initiatives that have spread death throughout the world and empowered the US security services to do as they please to citizens who attract their attentions for any reason or no reason. That tenure led to her 2008 presidential campaign, in which she began with the overwhelming support of the party’s major donors and other elites, and wound up losing to Barack Hussein Obama, who is of course an exceptionally talented political operator, but is also a black man named Hussein and was, as such, someone laboring under a heavy disadvantage in a US presidential contest.  Mr O made her Secretary of State, in which capacity her most notable achievement was pushing for the overthrow of the Gadhafi regime, an act of unprovoked aggression which has turned Libya into a hell on earth and brought chaos to the whole of North Africa, but which HRC defends to this day as “smart power at its best.” If our meritocratic institutions can foster a career that has proceeded from failure to failure, with steadily more dire consequences for an ever-widening circle of victims, then there may be some wisdom in deciding that all the academic degrees, resume entries, and interview skills that their members can claim are of little value.

The other 1958 book that shed light for me on the 2016 election was C. Wright Mills’ The Causes of World War Three. (I actually read the second edition, which was published in 1960, but it’s still a 1958 book.)  I was aware of that book’s discussion of “crackpot realism,” the confident assurance of those in charge that policies which can lead only to collective suicide are the only policies worth taking seriously. I hadn’t read the whole thing until this Tuesday, election day, and there were sections which seemed directly relevant to what was going on around me.

Most notably, on pages 36-47 of the 1960 paperback edition, in the chapters titled “The High and the Mighty,” “The Semiorganized Stalemate,” and “The Great American Public,” Mills argued that the USA’s political culture had undergone a profound change in the years following the Second World War. No longer did the middle class form a link between the upper and lower classes; instead, at the top could be found a Power Elite of corporate executives, senior military officers, and politicians, at the bottom a lumpenproletariat with ever less engagement in civic life or sense of investment in the country’s future, and in between a variety of classes disconnected from either the top or the bottom. No longer were the chief questions of politics, matters of war and peace, of fiscal policy and industrial policy on a grand scale, of civil liberties and the power of the security services, decided in open forums characterized by formal checks and balances and the informal competition of interest groups; instead, the Power Elite decides those matters in ways that bear no resemblance at all to the processes described in the civics textbooks, while the middle classes still have their civic organizations, labor unions, local elections, and so on, where they can decide smaller questions in more or less the traditional ways. The people at the bottom are left to go along for the ride.

That image does sum up something important about contemporary American politics.  The USA is currently fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia. There was no substantive discussion of any of these conflicts in the presidential campaign. Virtually the only references to Libya to make any impression on the US public were to “Benghazi,” an incident in which four Americans were killed. That always made me think of the old joke about The Boston Globe, that it was such an insular newspaper that if New York City were destroyed by a nuclear bomb and only one Bostonian happened to be in town that day, the headline would be “Hub Man Killed in Atom Blast.” We have murdered a nation, inflicted chaos on half a continent, and the whole matter is reduced to the fate of the four Americans among the dead. But why should it be different? If the only people with a say in where the bombs fall are the handful whom Mills would identify as the Power Elite, why should the rest of us pay attention to anything other than little stories of human interest about gallant public servants who gave their lives in frightening circumstances in an exotic land?

And if the major questions are to be decided outside the sphere of voting and public discussion, why not spend a presidential campaign season arguing about whether a former Miss Universe is more than her tabloid image, or whether an octogenarian senator followed the POW Code of Conduct while in enemy hands decades ago, or what kind of email accounts high officials should use, or other minutiae?

It goes beyond minutiae and particular campaigns. If the only questions decided within the sphere of voting and public discussion are secondary, why not organize parties based solely on those issues? If the US trade deficit is driven largely by our use of a nonrefundable corporate income tax rather than a border-adjusted value added tax and only marginally affected by trade agreements, but the tax regime is a matter for the Power Elite while trade agreements are subject to the will of the electorate, then candidates may rage against trade agreements all they like, but never mention the corporate income tax or propose a border-adjusted value added tax.

 

A lottery that has never paid out

Andrew Gelman writes a fine blog, but he shares the bizarre fixation on instrumental voting that clouds the thinking of so many in the USA. He keeps regurgitating a pained argument, based on the idea that voters are like buyers of lottery tickets. The voter wins the lottery if s/he casts the decisive vote in the election. Since Professor Gelman trots this out to discuss US presidential elections, in which over 100,000,000 votes are cast, he can apply this argument only by resorting to extremely unlikely scenarios. So, he calculates the likelihood that Oklahoma will be decided by a single vote and that Oklahoma’s Electoral Votes will be decisive as 1 in 1 billion. If the better of the two leading candidates adds a cumulative $30,000,000,000 of value to the lives of the world’s people beyond what the worse candidate adds, or subtracts that much less value, then each of the popular votes for president cast in Oklahoma is like a ticket that would be valued at $30 in a fair lottery.

This is of course insane.  For one thing, if you’re going to admit 1 in a billion chances as a basis for rational action, all sorts of things become rational. For example, there is a 1 in a billion chance that Green Party nominee Dr Jill Stein will be inaugurated as president on 20 January 2017. Say there is 1 chance in 50 that tomorrow’s election will end in a 269-269 Electoral College tie.  1/50 seems like a reasonably conservative estimate for a map like this:


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

Washington state Democratic elector Robert Satiacum has said that he will not vote for Hillary Clinton; if, as is overwhelmingly likely, Washington state votes for the Democratic candidate, let’s say Mr Satiacum has a 50% chance of voting for Dr Stein, a candidate who fits his views quite well. Now, the parties choose electors who are reliable supporters of the party’s regular candidates; Hillary Clinton is very much a regular Democratic candidate of the variety that has been on the market for the last quarter century, while Don-John of Astoria is markedly different from the usual run of Republican nominees.  So if there is one faithless Democratic elector, it is likely that there is more than one faithless Republican elector.  It seems unlikely that there is much more than 1 chance in 10, in the scenario as we have constructed it so far, that Mr Satiacum’s vote would be sufficient to qualify Dr Stein as one of the top three Electoral Vote recipients, the group from among whom the US House of Representatives must choose the winner of an inclusive election. So that gets us to a 1/1000 chance that the House will be presented with a vote of Trump 269- Clinton 268- Stein 1.

If the Democratic presidential candidate fails to win a clear victory, it is unlikely that the Democrats will gain enough seats in the House to defeat Don John. Let’s set that likelihood at 1/1000 also. That gets us to 1/1,000,000.

Hillary Clinton is a mortal being, subject to all the frailties flesh is heir to. In the interval between the Electoral College vote and the congressional vote, she may fall gravely ill, or be abducted by aliens, or have a religious awakening and decide to devote the remainder of her life to Hare Krishna, or otherwise become unavailable. Let’s set the odds of some such development at 1/1000. Little as they may love Dr Stein or the Greens, the Democrats could hardly vote to install Don John as president. That gives us our 1/1,000,000,000 chance of a Stein presidency.

Absurd? Of course. The absurdity level starts far above 1/1,000,000,000; even the 1/ 1000 long-shots are not worth a thought.

As I’ve said before, instrumental voting of the kind Professor Gelman treats as the only worthwhile kind is reasonable only in electorates of fewer than 700. Expressive voting, however, has value even in very large electorates, and there is no lottery about it. Office holders seeking reelection and other leaders of major parties do in fact look at election returns in search of votes they could gain or lose depending on what policies they support; votes cast for minor parties with clear issue profiles are among the inputs which provide them with this information. When the major parties become too much alike, this is the only way voters can signal a desire for them to move apart, as voters signal when they believe the parties have become too different from each other by switching from one major party to the other. So, the only rational vote you can cast is a vote for the candidate who best reflects your views, whether that candidate is supported by a major party or a minor one.

What would happen if the US presidency were replaced by a plural executive?

il_570xn-761091493_ix8gI’ve long advocated replacing the US presidency with a plural executive. I think that in the long run, that would drain several poisons from American political culture.

Where a single person is the focus of so much attention, the tendency to believe that the power to solve the world’s problems is in the hands of that person becomes very strong. Supporters of the political party led by a president or candidate for president then come to believe that if the president were unhindered by the restraints of the law, of political opposition, and of morality, evil and hardship would vanish from the earth. Magical thinking of this sort leads to support for wars, disregard for civil liberties, tolerance for secrecy, and other measures that have consistently produced disastrous results throughout history.  Meanwhile, supporters of the other party come to believe that it is the personal wickedness of its presidential choice that threatens the earth with the greatest woes, and under that belief lose all contact with political reality, showing ever more fanatical support for their party and its candidate regardless of the facts.

Replacing the presidency with a plural executive would eliminate the glamour and mystique that attach to the office of the chief executive, thereby allowing the clouds of magical thinking to dissipate and creating the possibility that a modicum of rationality might make itself felt in US political life.  Perhaps voters would even start to participate in elections for the most powerful bodies in all of American government, the state legislatures.

Such a rise of rationality would take time, however. In the first generation, the plural executive would probably compose a more-or-less representative sample of the existing political elite, and would organize itself around the consensus views in Washington. Of course, a country which had just managed to rid itself of the presidency and to put a plural executive in its place would probably be a saner place than is the celebrity-obsessed, war-mad USA of the early twenty-first century, and so the Washington consensus in that scenario would be quite different from the consensus that exists today. However, it is worth pausing over the thought that, if we did have a plural executive in the USA, that executive would probably be a lagging indicator of prevailing opinion in Washington conventional wisdom, since that description also fits Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Indeed, for all her undoubted talents, experience, and work ethic, as a policy-maker HRC could easily be replaced by a software program which would distill the policy recommendations of the leading op-ed pages, think-tanks, etc.  Next year, then, we are likely to have a sort of dry run of the workings of a plural executive, though in an environment still driven by delusions about a superhuman god-emperor.

Frying Pan versus Fire

The other day, Scott Alexander called on voters in the USA to cast ballots for presidential candidates who are not Donald Trump. Scott Alexander himself will apparently be voting for Hillary Rodham Clinton, though the title of his post is “SSC Endorses Clinton, Johnson, or Stein.”

I agree that Mr Trump, a.k.a. Don John of Astoria, is not suited to the presidency.  I do have a number of demurrers to Scott Alexander’s piece, however.  Let me share one of these.

Scott Alexander writes:

[O]ne of the central principles behind my philosophy has been “Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out”. Systems are hard. Institutions are hard. If your goal is to replace the current systems with better ones, then destroying the current system is 1% of the work, and building the better ones is 99% of it. Throughout history, dozens of movements have doomed entire civilizations by focusing on the “destroying the current system” step and expecting the “build a better one” step to happen on its own. That never works. The best parts of conservativism are the ones that guard this insight and shout it at a world too prone to taking shortcuts.

Donald Trump does not represent those best parts of conservativism. To transform his movement into Marxism, just replace “the bourgeoisie” with “the coastal elites” and “false consciousness” with “PC speech”. Just replace the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of the workers, with the assumption that everything will work itself out once power is in the hands of “real Americans”. Just replace the hand-waving lack of plans with what to do after the Revolution with a hand-waving lack of plans what to do after the election. In both cases, the sheer virtue of the movement, and the apocalyptic purification of the rich people keeping everyone else down, is supposed to mean everything will just turn out okay on its own. That never works.

“Don’t destroy all existing systems and hope a planet-sized ghost makes everything work out” is “one of the central principles behind my philosophy,” as well. That’s precisely why I won’t be voting for HRC.  On the one hand, the hyper-warlike approach to foreign affairs that informed her support for US-led wars in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya, and now for the Saudi-led war in Yemen represents a strong tendency to destroy all existing systems in and hoping that some mysterious force replaces them with something good. For that matter, the economic policies of the Bill Clinton administration- for example, deregulation of the financial sector, gutting of the “welfare as we knew it,” and the erection of an industrial policy that subjects all other economic interests to the transnational mobility of capital and the defense of intellectual property- whatever may be said in their favor, have been all about destroying previously existing systems, with very little specified as to what was supposed to replace them. For that matter, measures such as warrantless wiretapping and the presidential “kill list” represent a disruption of the system of judicial oversight called for in the Bill of Rights and codified in centuries of legislation and court rulings, a system that has long guaranteed civil liberties in the USA. HRC has been deeply involved in all of these acts of destruction, continues to support them, and does not propose anything that might bring an end to the age of destruction.

On the other hand, when systems that directly benefit the world’s ruling elite face a crisis, that elite has consistently tried to defuse those crises before they could force any change in the way those systems operate.  It hasn’t always been this way; 95 years ago, when President Warren Harding faced a financial crisis that would put many major concerns out of business, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon spoke for his fellow financial titans when he advised against bailouts, arguing that “the recession will find what the auditors miss,” purging bad practice from business and leaving the economy stronger in its aftermath.  The sharp downturn and even more dramatic recovery during the Harding administration would seem to be a clear example of a system strengthened by crisis.  Compare that with the Wall Street bailouts of 2008 and 2009, with the fear that financial concerns had become “too big too fail”- and with the fact that those same concerns have now been allowed to grow even bigger. By 2012, the US Justice Department was openly admitting that it was afraid that the financial system had grown so fragile that HSBC would have to go unpunished for its crimes, lest a prosecution bring the whole house of cards crashing down.  Thus the fear of the fragility of the financial system, leading as it has to bailouts, acts of impunity, etc, has served as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Vacillating between reckless interventions to destroy systems with little thought of what will follow and equally reckless interventions to prop systems up by stripping them of the parameters that regulate them, the Bushes and Clintons and their colleagues have, these last 30 years, created a political moment  in which it is very likely that Don John of Astoria will receive between 220 and 280 electoral votes for the US presidency. If, as seems likely, that number is below 270, then HRC will become president, accompanied by a Republican Congress. They will together continue the policies which have brought us to this pass. Electing Don John to the presidency this year would precipitate a catastrophe; protracting our current political arrangements for another four years might precipitate a still greater catastrophe.

I can understand why people would vote for HRC, hoping perhaps that things will somehow improve sufficiently between now and 2020 that in that election the country will not face another choice between apocalypse now and apocalypse later. That hope would be an example of hoping that the “build a better one” step will “happen on its own,” however. Such a vote, however defensible it might seem in the eyes of the one casting it, would certainly not be a sufficient response to this situation. Voting for the Green Party isn’t a sufficient response either, but at least it is a step towards building a set of movements to adjust the relationship between mass and elite to a more sustainable balance and enable a new departure in our political life. Failing such a new departure, the next few years are likely to be very dark indeed.

The Nation looks at the Green Question

cover1010

Click here for the issue

In 1999, I toyed with the idea of setting up a website called “The Nader Question.” It would have asked whether Ralph Nader ought to run as an independent candidate in the 2000 US presidential election, and have featured short statements pro and con by various commentators, as well as giving readers the opportunity to post their own replies. If it were a hit, after the election this site would morph into “The Green Question,” a forum set up along similar lines devoted to presenting contrasting views on whether US nationals who find the Democratic Party consistently too cozy with the Power Elite to merit their support ought to coalesce behind a new party under a “Green” label.

“The Nader Question” would have been in many parts. For example, should the Democrats have moved left, and if so was such a run a logical step in an effort to push them left?  The first question could have been answered negatively by someone wanting the Democrats to move further to the right, to continue on their Clinton-era course, or to go out of business altogether.  The second could have been answered negatively by someone regarding campaigns by candidates outside the two major parties as pointless, by someone regarding them as so unpredictable in their consequences that such a run would be as likely to make the problem worse as to make it better, or by someone supporting the idea of a campaign but deeming Mr Nader an unsuitable candidate. It should be easy to see that many such questions would be open to just as wide a variety of answers.

The state of blogging platforms at the end of the twentieth century, combined with my lack of entrepreneurial spirit, scanty computer expertise, even scantier connections to political and media figures whose writing might draw the public to such a site, and nearly non-existent financial resources combined to discourage me so that “The Nader Question” never got off the ground. I hadn’t thought about “The Nader Question” in many years, not until looking at the latest issue of The Nation magazine. It examines Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein’s campaign from several angles, much as “The Nader Question” would have examined Mr Nader’s candidacy.

Columnist Katha Pollitt and Nation Institute fellow Joshua Holland argue that Dr Stein is unlikely to make an impression on the race, and that voters who cast one of over 100,000,000 ballots for one of the major party candidates will somehow be more likely to influence subsequent national policy. Difficult as it might be to imagine circumstances in which this would happen, it is even more difficult to restrain laughter when Mr Holland claims that the United States opposed the military coup in Honduras in 2009. That coup was led by officers of the Honduran Air Force, a service all of whose aircraft are supplied by the US defense firms.  These aircraft cannot fly without spare parts and other materials provided at regular intervals by these companies. No officer of any air force is going to join an enterprise which, if successful, will ground his or her aircraft.  The idea that the leaders of the coup did not act with firm assurances from the Obama administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, that if successful they would continue their dealings with their aerospace contractors in the USA, is simply a joke.

Seattle City Councillor Kshama Sawant argues that there is a perverse relationship between the Democratic Party and the right wing, that the Democrats regularly provide cover for policies that the public would not accept if proposed by the Republicans and that this relationship has been a necessary a condition for the increasing consolidation of power in the hands of the financial elite in recent decades.  A vote for Dr Stein, and continued support for parties to the left of the Democrats, is an indispensable step towards breaking this link.

Other pieces that do not bear directly on the question of whether voters should support Dr Stein shed light on it indirectly. Four pieces deal with the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet: a 1976 essay by Orlando Letelier; Naomi Klein’s recommendation of the essay; a memorial by Susan George of Letelier‘s work in exile against the Pinochet regime; and Peter Kornbluh’s call for the US government to release the documents it still keeps secret which cover the assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington, DC in 1976 by agents of the Chilean secret service and the collaboration between US administrations under presidents from Gerald Ford through Bill Clinton to keep the particulars of the assassination from the public and to continue security cooperation between the US and Chile.  The active roles the Carter and Clinton administrations took in this cover-up, along with the refusal of the Democrats who held the majority in the in the US Senate for 8 of those 14 year and in the US House of Representatives for the entire period to do anything to stop it, and finally the Obama administration’s continued embargo of these documents, show that Ms Sawant is not entirely wrong when she says that the American right could not perpetrate its worst misdeeds without the assistance of the Democratic Party.

Bryce Covert argues that the welfare reform act signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 has been a disaster for low-income Americans and that we must hope President Hillary Rodham Clinton will undo its worst provisions. This does seem rather like trying to escape bankruptcy by hoping that the thief who impoverished you will refund your stolen goods. It’s true that HRC’s opponent, Don John of Astoria, has shown no inclination to make a change for the better in the welfare system or much of anything else, but neither is HRC likely to do so unless the political reward of doing good outweighs the political cost. If welfare recipients and those who are directly interested in their well-being either do not vote or vote for the Democrats no matter what they do, then they have no political incentive to do anything for them. They won’t act without such an incentive, not because they are evil, but because there are so many other things they could be doing that might perhaps be good and would certainly bring strong political rewards that they will not find the time to do unprofitable good deeds. Only a left of center movement capable of seriously inconveniencing Democratic politicians, a movement partly working inside the party to reward it for moving left and partly working outside the party to impose a costs on it for moving right, can make it rational for the Democratic Party to pay real attention to issues like welfare. That’s how the welfare state was created in the first place, in a time when the labor movement not only gave the Democrats the backbone of their party’s organization but also included major unions that regularly considered endorsing candidates to the Democrats’ left.

The cover story is an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders, who of course urges those who backed him in the primary to throw their allegiance to HRC in the general election. I had assumed that the Sanders campaign would end up like the Bill Bradley 2000 campaign, gaining some publicity and intriguing poll numbers in the early going, only to collapse when people started voting. Mr Bradley did not win a single statewide contest, losing every primary, every caucus, and every state convention to the Tennessee Turd, then-US Vice President Albert Arnold “Al” Gore, Junior. I was glad when Mr Sanders won enough votes to show that a very large percentage of the Democratic voter base was so desperate for a change from the Clinton approach that they would vote for a 74 year old Jewish Socialist with a thick Brooklyn accent and only tenuous ties to the Democratic Party.

A candidate in Mr Bradley’s mold, a party regular with a substantial record in high office, a celebrity background as a professional athlete, and no habit of donning labels that large segments of American society regard as equivalent to treason, could well have taken the Democratic Party this year away from the Finance First approach that the Clintons fastened on it almost a quarter-century ago.  I backed Paul Tsongas in 1992, because I thought the time had come for a Finance First approach; I preferred him to Governor Bill Clinton, because Tsongas tried to combine Finance First with as much of the New Frontier/ Great Society liberal agenda as he could. Had Tsongas won, I suspect that the party would have been more flexible in later years, using Finance First in the early 1990s when it made sense, but turning to other priorities as the country’s circumstances changed. A powerful force outside the party would still have been needed to actuate those turns, but at least the party’s leaders would have remembered where the intersections were.

Some good stuff on io9

You, you like whatever it is you like. But me, I think io9 is a pretty good website. For example:

A strongly favorable review of a movie about a young woman who abandons vegetarianism for cannibalism includes this paragraph:

As the film unfolds, Justine slowly becomes more acclimated. She begins to experiment with sexuality and, for some reason, starts to break her diet in really odd ways (namely the human meat thing). This is the one dark mark on Raw. Watching the film, Justine’s turn from hardcore vegetarian to something else comes out of nowhere.  There are a few hints for sure, but the transition is still jarring. Once you get over that, though, is when things go from really good to completely great.

As I say, I don’t know about you. But if I went to see a movie in which the main character begins as a vegetarian and ends as a cannibal, I would be disappointed if there were not some kind of storyline explaining why she made that transition. As in Le Weekend, for example.

Anyway, just as any one person’s culinary tastes may vary within a lifetime, so cinematic tastes vary from person to person. I realize this.

io9 also brings bulletins of astronomy news, many of them written by the estimable Maddie Stone, PhD.  So, here’s an update about geysers on Europa, and here’s one about geological faultlines on Mercury. Anyone sufficiently interested in planetary exploration to find those pieces exciting will be concerned to learn that NASA’s complex at Cape Canaveral is gravely endangered by rising sea-levels. If our current woes are too much of a downer for you, Dr Stone has some hope to offer, in the form of a theory that life might continue to be possible in several corners of the Solar System after the Sun vaporizes the Earth a few thousand million years hence.  So, if life has another 9,000,000,000 years or so to go in the Solar System, surely some relatively agreeable species will pop up along the way between now and then…