Bouncing tire

>> Thursday, November 30, 2017

The question is whether this cure is worse than the disease. For all the dangers Trump poses, his removal poses dangers too. In August, the New Yorker posted a viral piece questioning whether America was barreling toward a new civil war. In it, Yale historian David Blight warned, “We know we are at risk of civil war, or something like it, when an election, an enactment, an event, an action by government or people in high places, becomes utterly unacceptable to a party, a large group, a significant constituency.” Invoking the 25th Amendment seems, to me, like the precise sort of event Blight describes. The bitter political polarization that marks Trump’s America would look gentle compared to America if Trump were removed from office.

But this analysis leaves us in a place that seems absurd when stated clearly: Though we have mechanisms for removing a dangerous president, those mechanisms are too politically explosive to actually invoke. President Trump could order a nuclear holocaust before breakfast, but unless society can agree that he is either criminal or comatose, both America and the world are stuck with him and all the damage he can cause.

Can this really be our system?
Vox, November 30th, 2017.


The rhetorical question has a simple, awful answer: yes.  Yes, that is exactly our system.

Look, the Constitution of the United States has been failing in bits and pieces since practically its inception.  It failed to produce an effective national defense after we provoked a war with Britain in 1812.  It failed to hold the nation together in 1861.  From ratification to the Civil War, it allowed the United States to expand without addressing any of the issues raised by that expansion, especially the slave question but not exclusively.  As technology made the world smaller and the flow of events faster, and as the United States emerged as a world power following the Spanish-American War, the ways in which the founding document tried to split military and diplomatic powers between the Senate and Executive became increasingly obsolete and cumbersome, leading to the Senate effectively (and often formally) ceding its share of responsibilities to the Presidency without being able to preserve much in the way of effective supervision or accountability; meanwhile the complexity of the bookkeeping and regulation required to keep a great power on its feet and in forward motion resulted in the House of Representatives making its own concessions to the Presidency.  And all the while, the factionalism of the Founding generation quickly led to a series of Party-based political systems (something Klein does talk about effectively and at some length), so that the region-based checks and balances the Founders assumed would stabilize the system turned into our current regime wherein the political process is defined and controlled by two public corporations whose agendas are set by a mix of ideology, varying levels of corruption, and an existential impulse to define themselves simply by being the opposite of what they think the other party is.

And now we have an existential threat in the form of a President who is unfit for his office by any objective measure other than the fact he won enough Electoral College votes to be sworn in.  He is not a statesman.  He is not a leader.  He is not wise.  He is not politically savvy.  He does not have a moral vision.  He is, remarkably and ironically enough, not even especially political.  He is motivated, as best anyone can tell, entirely by vanity, childish impulse, greed, lust, racism, and an unusually petulant vindictiveness.  To the extent he's followed any kind of political portfolio not handed to him by various handlers, that agenda apparently consists simply of trying to reverse the actions of his predecessor in the White House because he's gotten it into his head that his predecessor was some kind of illegal foreigner who somehow conned his way into the country and into office, and then his predecessor responded not by producing proof of his legitimacy, but by being mean to him and publicly humiliating him at a press correspondents' dinner.

How unfit is Donald Trump for office?  He's so unfit for his office, that even when he tries to do something that might be within the scope of the overbroad powers we have ceded to the modern imperial presidency, he nevertheless manages to completely fuck it up.  The presidential power to set immigration policy, for example, which any other President could do by simply drafting a memo and yet the Occupant-In-Chief is so hapless and has surrounded himself with such ineptitude that his efforts to do what he can clearly do re: immigration policy have ended up being blocked repeatedly by courts that are generally sympathetic to exercises of executive power and privilege.

One thought that George W. Bush had unfortunately surrounded himself with hacks like Donald Rumsfeld and John Yoo; Trump has managed to somehow discover that particular barrel had a false bottom and there was another one to be scraped underneath.  And lo, the wretched bastard even went and scraped it where most men making his discovery would have backed away slowly and looked for something with which to apply purifying fire to the barrel.

And yet the terms and conditions of our system of government are such that merely being horrifyingly, incomprehensibly bad at his job are not, as Klein might like, grounds for removal.  The Constitution says he can be removed upon conviction in the Senate for high crimes and misdemeanors, and it says (as a recently applied afterthought) that there's a procedure for having him declared unable to perform his job (something that appears on its face to be different from merely being terrible at it).  

The remedy for simply being incompetent is to be voted out of office.  And, it should be noted (and Klein notes it) that in the present situation, Trump is the same incompetent he was before the election.  While the majority of voters in the country presumably took this into account when they voted against him, the system we have (where distribution of votes is what matters, because the Founders created a system in which Presidents were chosen by the states, which the states then turned over to the popular mobs), the voters who lived where it mattered nevertheless decided that having a racist, misogynistic, financially irresponsible, dishonest, amoral, beholden-to-foreign-powers, ignorant, loudmouthed yutz was preferable to a woman / a Democrat / Hillary Clinton / a woman Democrat who was Hillary Clinton.  Not knowing what the nuclear triad is isn't as important as securing that ninth Supreme Court seat; bragging about sexual assault is of less significance than having a signature for corporate tax cuts.  He was a lout, a bully, an ignoramus, a conspiracy theorist, a bigot, a vulgar prick, a joke, the punchline to that very same joke, a public disgrace, a conman, a lousy investment, a lousy investor, a disaster when they voted for him.  

The biggest difference between the man who asked the Russians to continue to perform acts of computer sabotage against American interests and the man who bragged to the Russians about American intelligence receipts in a way that jeopardized our reciprocity arrangements with Israel and possibly outed and jeopardized the life of an Israeli intel source is, perversely, that while both men display a contempt for American security, it's only the first man who possibly committed a quasi-criminal act.  I.e. it's the same asshole, but now he has the latitude and immunity that the Executive is granted by the Constitution and custom.

So, yes, he can tell the American military to launch nukes against whichever Korea we're against, or maybe both of them just to be sure we get them all, and there's nearly nothing that can be done about it because this is how we've done up our 1787 suicide pact when we were cute and innocent and more concerned about trade between Virginia and Massachusetts than we were with multilateral trans-Pacific partnerships.  (Something which, oh by the way, under the new management, it turns out we aren't that interested in anymore because the fucking moron is abdicating American international responsibilities and leadership in a way this country hasn't seen since the Spanish-American War marked our great coming out--goddamn, goddamn, goddammit.)  We are obligated to wait for him to be demonstrably incapacitated (not just dumb) or demonstrably guilty of malfeasance (not just incompetent) because that's what our rules tell us to do.  And it's quite nice and charming for Ezra Klein to suggest we set aside what the words say and are taken to mean in order to do what's necessary, but to do so is hardly constitutional.  And what I'd submit to you (not, I think, for the first time), is that the flaw isn't within our reluctance to invent a bold new interpretation of the words in which they no longer mean what they appear to mean, but rather in the words themselves.

Which, you know, effectively means we're fucked.  I mean, we might as well come right out and say it: we need a new Constitution, a new document, new rules, a new government, a new order.  But to get there we'd need women and men who would be competent for such a grand task, not the bootlickers and cumjobbers and hacks who burden and plague our politics.

The rational constitutional convention wouldn't be a lot of Republicans and Democrats arguing about Jesus and guns and how much corporate financing is too much.  We'd look to the most important elements of American culture--artistic, military, scientific, historical, technological, economic, political, whatever--and we'd pick out the most highly regarded minds in those fields, and we might throw in some wild cards to make sure we had a diverse mix of ideology, ethnicity, gender, and creed; and we'd have them look at what was working and not working in other democratic systems and work from there.  Which is exactly the kind of convention we wouldn't end up with; what we'd end up with is the Republicans would pick x delegates and the Democrats would pick x delegates, and they'd grandstand and preen a bit and we'd end up with much of what we already have except it would turn out upon close inspection to be sponsored by Verizon and funded by the Kochs.

Ezra Klein ponders future historians wondering what was wrong with us.  As if it will be that hard to answer.  What was wrong with us was that we got ourselves deeply embedded in a broken system that was carried tumbling along into a ditch by inertia until it got wobbly enough to fall over and everyone died.  The loose tire came off the broken axle and it went on down the road and there wasn't a good way to get off of it because there just wasn't.  They won't actually wonder what was wrong with us, assuming they exist and we don't end the planet (because that's certainly not completely out of the question, what with the nukes and the global warming and the poisons and the plagues and what-all); they will diagram the forces that tore the vehicle apart, like FAA investigators or historians of the Roman Empire.  They will identify a hundred causes and also just one: a dozen systems and subsystems systematically failed, also wasn't tightened and man it just fell out you know, damn.  Obviously I don't have a lot of hope.  I don't know think we can fix this.  I don't know if this can be reset.






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We are fortunate

>> Monday, October 02, 2017

I am waiting to know more, if more can be known, about a man and his guns before I say anything, if there is anything to be said, about a man and his guns.

But let it be said as a matter of first impression that we are a fortunate people, to have a Supreme Court that has found in our Constitution a sacred right to not be inconvenienced by the need to work a bolt-action, nor by being overmuch delayed in reloading a weapon, nor by any obstacles to possessing large quantities of ammunition.  Thank goodness for that.  It would be a terrible thing for a man and his guns to have to slow down or suffer any delay in his sacred rate-of-fire.  Thank goodness it is not difficult to obtain and possess a firearm in the United States of America.

If anything, let us bemoan the fact that not enough good people carry firearms of their own, with which they might have peppered the facade of a forty-three story building if someone who was not classed with the good people took a room on the thirty-second floor and took advantage of the fine view overlooking a public venue.  Let us think of how much good could have been done if only guns were even easier to acquire and possess in these United States of America.

It is good to be an American today.  We are fortunate.  I ask my fellow Americans to remember this and reflect upon it.  Such good fortune we have.  And I ask the rest of the world to take no pity upon us nor hold us in their prayers: we Americans proudly live in the country we have made, you see, and we get what we deserve.


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Where we are with Elvis

>> Thursday, September 14, 2017

He is thirteen, which nobody considers old for a cat but is nowhere near young. A wild tom wouldn't live to such a Methuselah age and housecats didn't either until Science. Sort of a lot like humans, then; thirty-five used to be middle age and I should get to the point.

My cat is dying, not too quickly (we think) but more quickly than he would be if he didn't have cancer in his belly that has spread into his lungs. We are beyond surgery or chemo, but his vet thinks he's got eight to twelve good months if we can get him eating again and holding down what he eats. So we have medicine and hope for that and no way of knowing if he will be our boy for six months or sixteen, days or years, a moment or a while. 

But probably not the while.

There's a cliché when you mention cancer that is the reason this will be a no-comments post; lots of people like to say, "Fuck cancer," and I have no criticism of that, it's just not something I feel like reading or hearing right now. I'm not angry that my cat has cancer, and to be honest I really just feel like cancer is a thing that happens because sometimes cells just gotta be cells. I'm not angry, I'm sad and impotent and grieving and not ready for the end of the story that was in some sense inevitable when I brought Elvis home; a human being's maximum lifespan is about eighty years longer than a cat's. 

If you're reading this, odds are you're feeling love and sympathy. Thank you.

It seems shallow, maybe, that the illness or death of an animal can be more devastating to me than a human's. I can only say that human beings have agency and sentience far above what most beasts possess. If I were told I had a year to live, I could cash out my retirement and drag Kat on a whirlwind world tour. Or blow all the money on bourbon instead and try to beat my own deadline. Or join a cult. Or go nuts over so-called "alternative medicine;" perhaps try to cure death with an all-smoothie diet blended from exclusively purple fruits and vegetables. Or give away all my material things and spend every waking hour in Buddhist temples. But my cat: he may have no idea he's dying, and the quality of his remaining life of whatever length is left to me and whatever wisdom I supposedly have.

So, you know, I've cried a lot today. To the best of my knowledge, Elvis doesn't know why. If he's noticed, even.



While we're here, I'd like to say I have some wonderful people in my life. Yes, of course you guys. But also. Doctor Hartge has been wonderful through this. (She's at South Point Pet Hospital in Belmont with Doctor Dobies, who has known Elvis longer than I have. Everybody at South Point has been wonderful.  They always are.)  She didn't want to tell me what the X-ray showed over the phone, an X-ray which she just sort of decided to do because his not-eating bugged her and so she had me sign a consent for it when I dropped him off for what was supposed to just be a steroid to boost his appetite), until I insisted because I needed to know.

I got her call while I was in court.  The D.A., Mark Warshawsky, and Judge Collins continued the case I had in that courtroom just as a matter of course when I came back in the courtroom, obviously upset.

I went from there back to my office, where my boss, Kellum Morris, didn't even wait for my entire blubbered explanation before telling me to give my files for today to Elizabeth Lutz, who pretty much runs everything, for him to cover.  Elizabeth was wonderful, too.

And my wife, of course.  I drove back to Charlotte to pick her up--Belmont, where SPPH actually is, is one-third of the way from Gastonia, where I actually work, and Charlotte, where I live--and drove back out to Belmont, two-thirds of the way back to my office, because I couldn't have gotten through the details of sitting down with the vet and everything else without her, just couldn't have.

And of course there's Elvis, who doesn't know what the big deal is, who only knows he had a very bad day of car rides and poking, without the least clue of how bad it really was for him.

I don't know if any of the folks mentioned in this section other than my wife would ever read this, but thank you, all of you, thank you.




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A Norm is just the guy sitting at the end of the bar

>> Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Commentary about Trump’s behavior has tended to assume that presidential norms, once broken, are hard if not impossible to restore. This can be true, but in Trump’s case isn’t. Presidents don’t embrace their predecessors’ norm entrepreneurship unless it brings political advantage, and Trump’s hasn’t. His successors are no more likely to replicate his self-destructive antics than they would be if he yelled at the first lady during a public dinner or gave a televised address from the White House Rose Garden in his bathrobe.

Another reason presidential norms will prove resilient is that Trump’s aberrant actions have been sweepingly condemned. He has been rebuked for his attacks on investigatory independence not just by his political opponents but by more-sympathetic voices in the Republican Party and on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and even, implicitly, by his own Justice Department appointees, who have continued the Russia investigation despite his pushback. Trump’s response to the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August produced a uniform outcry that will reinforce norms for future presidents about denouncing racism and racial violence. The majority of the other presidential norms that Trump has defied will similarly be strengthened by the reactions to his behavior, and will snap back in the next presidency.

The Atlantic, October, 2017.

Goldsmith's piece is worth reading in its entirety, and I think I agree with most of what he says.  But that passage bothered me and is one of the places where I don't quite agree.

I think he's right insofar as I don't expect the next president to contradict his own cabinet nearly as often, or to spend as much time on Twitter, or to be even half as dishonest, or to attempt to get loyalty oaths from Justice Department personnel, or to misbehave as much as Trump has.  But the problem isn't that the next President will act just as Trump has; the problem is that by establishing such a low bar, Trump has given future Presidents much greater latitude for misbehavior than they previously had, and that's what's hard to come back from.

When George W. Bush came into office, he didn't have to be terribly scrupulous about tiny little technicalities like truth, he simply had to not allow an intern to perform fellatio upon him and then not lie about receiving oral sex from said intern while under oath.  I don't think we can separate the Bush administration's willingness--and ability--to lie about the casus belli for the Iraq War from the fact that the Bush administration could take cover behind Bill Clinton's lapses in integrity.  And, for better or worse, the Obama administration surely received less scrutiny over targeted killings and drone strikes than they would have received had their predecessor administration not been such a shitshow of martial incompetence that the ethics of an assassination program were subordinate to plastering over the excesses and errors the Bush administration made in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In both of the last two administrations, at least some criticism could be deflected by an implicit, "Well, hey, you don't really want to go back to the previous guys, d'ya?"  (This effect declined over time and was far less true for both administrations in their second terms than in their first, I think.)

The point is, there's a consequence to lowering expectations.  It is very possible, though by no means certain, that the next President receives some level of praise and congratulation merely for not pissing on his own shoes, in much the same way one we are still afflicted with stories and editorials about how Trump might finally be becoming "presidential" if he manages to get through a meeting with a foreign leader without burning an intelligence source or gets through a speech without going off on a mad tangent about how he really won 111% of the popular vote when you factor out all the dead illegal aliens who voted eight times each or whatever the latest version is.

I want to be clear that I don't think the damage is necessarily permanent, just that it might be more permanent and subtle than Goldsmith is allowing for, and this is one of the things that's upsetting about the Trump presidency.  (Because, y'know, we were suffering from such a shortage of things to be distressed about regarding the Trump presidency, right?)  Things tend to ratchet mostly in one direction, and when they get pulled back, they often don't get pulled back to the original baseline.  The way we pull them back, of course, is to demand a higher level of accountability and to stomp our little feet and wave our tiny fists and demand that things go back to the way they ought to have been; a problem, meanwhile, being that we may have little choice in what we settle for in retracting ourselves from this mess.  Mike Pence, for example, would be a vast improvement over the current sitting President, notwithstanding the fact that Mike Pence is a man who would face such difficulties being elected President in his own right, his easiest route to the office actually is to attach himself, shamelessly and lamprey-like, to an incompetent buffoon who freakishly beats the odds and is elected to the presidency only to get impeached eighteen months into the first term.



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Fa, fa, fa...

>> Friday, September 01, 2017

source: Wikipedia
The hillsides ring with "Free the people"
Or can I hear the echo from the days of '39?
With trenches full of poets
The ragged army, fixin' bayonets to fight the other line
- "Spanish Bombs" (Strummer, Jones)




I don't like violence.  I'm not sure if I'm still the pacifist I was when I was young, but I'm still not a fan of the real stuff.

But.  You know, I've seen a lot of folks, including folks on the left who probably mean well but should know better, drawing all these dubious equivalencies between fascists and Antifa, the leftists and anarchists who have been turning up at so-called "Alt-Right" (i.e. white nationalist) rallies to engage in the once-popular and revered hobby of Nazi-punching.  And if I can't quite, quite, quite condone throwing rocks and fists as a general proposition, I have to tell you that I cannot, will not, absolutely won't condemn anybody fighting fascists even if their methods hurt my heart on the general principle that there is already too much grief in the world.

Because.  Oh, for all sorts of reasons, because.  Because there is a noble and romantic American tradition of fighting fascists going back to the 1930s and Americans crossing the Atlantic Ocean to take up arms in Spain against Franco and his Nazi string-pullers years before the United States and Germany declared war on one another on December 11th, 1941.  And then, of course, when America and Germany did go to war, the United States went toe-to-toe with German and Italian fascists and handed them their asses before we hanged the ones who didn't conveniently off themselves first (well, the ones who didn't know any good dope about rocketry, anyway; we aren't perfect).  Because Captain America punched Hitler.  Because our grandparents crossed the waters to liberate Europe or stayed home saving cans and planting Victory Gardens.  Because our grandparents reunited and said, "Never again," and held trials in Nuremburg, signed treaties and enacted laws proscribing genocide and protecting human rights, and established the United Nations.  Because it's a national shame that even the smallest few of their grandchildren are shaving their heads like morons and spouting off rhetoric that we tried to carpet-bomb into oblivion, that we toiled and suffered and sweated and bled so that no one would hear it outside of movies about archaeologists and basterds and indestructible Brooklynites punching Nazi faces, carving Nazi faces, melting Nazi faces, throwing Nazis off of trucks and trains and out of airplanes for posterity.

Because.  Because I agree with whomever it was on social media who pointed out ever-so-aptly that if you ignore a fascist, he'll be recruiting and kicking in your doors and killing you as soon as he's able, but if you ignore an Antifa, he'd rather be eating chips and playing Pokemon GO.  Because I think it's really fucking stupid to compare somebody who is actively trying to create a dystopia with someone who would frankly rather be at home but there are fascists infesting his streets and parks.  Because if you really don't like Antifa, you can't actually have Antifa without "fa," so why don't we get rid of "fa" and then Antifa can go back to posting Myers-Briggs memes to tumblr or whatever would be a better use of not just their time but anybody's?

Because.  Because I hear liberals saying that you shouldn't throw rocks and punches at people who are peacefully protesting even if you disagree with them, and when you put it like that it certainly sounds terrible; except I don't believe for one moment that the fascists are peacefully assembling for anything.  Because even if it appears that the stories about weapons caches being found in Charlottesville have been debunked, I nevertheless see guys walking around with riot shields and their ARs, and I don't care if they have fucking permits to openly carry their God-given Second Amendment firearms, it looks to me like they're out to intimidate, minimum, and maybe shoot someone, maximum.  Because it wasn't Antifa that was posting videos about driving through crowds and then, lo and behold, will wonders ever cease, here's somebody--not Antifa--driving through a crowd and murdering a young woman.

Because.  Because I also hear some of those same hand-wringing liberals saying that if, if there are bad people showing up in the white supremacist throng, we ought to let the police handle that, etc.; and I agree with this in principle but I'll be damned in practice if I can see any reason anyone ought to think that law enforcement is prepared--or even, terrible honesty, willing--to take on armed white nationalist thugs in our streets.  Because it seems to me from recent incidents in which African-Americans were shot by cops for being lawfully armed with handguns while white guys are romping and rallying while bedecked from tip to toe with paramilitary hardware and cops are just quietly milling, you might reasonably wonder whose side the police are on.  Because I'm not a fan of people taking the law into their own hands and yet I can't really fault anyone who might be thinking the law isn't protecting anyone, or worse yet isn't there to protect them from people who are infatuated with treason and a betrayal of the bedrock American values of liberty, justice, and equality.

Because.  Because I think some of those hand-wringing conservatives aren't actually upset in principle by people arming themselves and claiming violence as a prerogative that isn't reserved to the state in a form of public trust.  Because I think what these hand-wringing conservatives, some of them, anyways, are really upset about is the unpleasant (for them) discovery that the mental image they'd assembled of the left being a bunch of faggy intellectuals obsessed with self-abasement and apologizing for their own existence turns out to be not so much.  That it turns out, you know, that some liberals are in fact willing to arm themselves and/or throw a punch or a brick, and indeed always have been.  That what really upsets them is they had this idea that they could strut around with their guns and body armor sneering at the quivering libtards and snowflake SJWs, it never having occurred to them that the reason we are so loath to resort to violence has nothing to do with incapacity or impotence, and everything to do with a deep philosophical belief that the last resort actually comes last.  That some of them never imagined, I think, that we might not be opposed to guns because we're cowards, but because we're actually opposed to guns, and we didn't want it to come to this, but if you're wanting to see how far you can push it.  That there are not just a few, but a few million of us, who could be stealing that famous old line from The Incredible Hulk TV show: don't make us angry... you wouldn't like us when we're angry.

And thus and so: no, I'm not sure I can approve.  Leastaways, I didn't want to approve.

But I'm not, I'm surely not, I'm truly not going to condemn.





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The Golgafrinchan Imperative

>> Thursday, August 24, 2017

Belatedly, it occurs to me that we could kill all of our birds with one great rock--the neo-secessionists, the Confederate statuary, the white nationalists, Trump, Trump's supporters, the evil ineptitude of Congressional Republicans who want to destroy any semblance of a social safety net without even knowing how to go about destroying it, the people who prefer guns to guaranteed healthcare, the border wall, the crazed libertarians who think they'd be missed if they went Galt (please, please, don't let us stop you), the nihilistic trolls who spout fascist idioms because they somehow think it's "fun," all of it--all of it in one swell foop.  I cannot take credit for the idea, honestly: it is stolen from one of the 20th Century's greatest minds.  But it hasn't been considered in a long while, and it absolutely should be.

You see, we could designate an area--Mars seems like a nice one, or better yet Venus... or maybe someplace with a nice ocean view, like Ceres.  And we call that the United States of America.

Okay, yes, you're right.  There's an obvious problem with this plan, which is that the rest of us are going to have to do a lot of paperwork and make a number of adjustments, and it's grossly unfair that we will have to call ourselves something else like "The United States of North America" or "The United Alt-States of Alt-America" or "New Sweden" or whatever.  And we'll have to swap out all our current currency, although if you're like me and do most of your shopping with your debit card and nearly never carry cash anymore, that one's a big "enh."  We could start calling our money "Wacky Credits!" and I probably wouldn't notice.

But anyway, we tell all these people that the United States is on Ceres, or we could go farther out if you really wanted.  I mean, there's no real reason to even stay in the Solar System if you think about it--we're now discovering other planets all over the place, and surely any of them could be the United States of America, dated retroactively to July 4, 1776 or December 25, 1, whatever makes our Real Americans happiest.  Sure; 's'all good.  We probably found a planet around Betelgeuse or Aldebaran or someplace, right, somebody look that up for me?  Point is, if you want to live in the United States, oops, somehow you ended up not in the United States and you need to chase that dream, right?  All aboard for America!

Okay, okay, I can see this idea needs refinement.  Like, for instance, tech sector libertarians who made their ghost fortunes on getting investors to throw money into black holes labeled "the sharing economy" or "disruption" or "the cloud" or whatever's in these days, and who want to take all their Bitcoins somewhere tax-free where there are no restrictive government regulations like "Employees must be paid" and "Employees must be allowed to go to the bathroom" and "No, you can't hire six year olds no matter how conveniently small their hands are," those guys (and they're mostly guys, ever notice?), they may have to go on their own ship so we can tell them that their destination is one of those extraterritorial micronations, which would be technically true, you know.  "Oh sure, you never heard'a Fomalhaut?  Randian paradise.  Absolutely no feminists and SJWs within 15 trillion miles, you know."

It occurs to me that one or two of you who are raising your hands want to tell me that the necessary technology isn't in place; that we do not have sufficiently reliable rockets; that the distances involved are so vast that it would take millennia for these vessels to reach their destinations; that we do not know how to provide these travelers with conveniences like air and water for their journey; that the perils of deep space are unknown and unprepared for; that we don't know if any of these worlds are actually habitable (or that some of them obviously aren't) (or if some of them even exist at all); that only complete idiots would fall for pointing at the sky and yelling "Hey look, America is now in outer space, why are you still here?!"  I respectfully submit that such objections suggest you haven't really given this quite as much thought as I have.

Ah, yes.  I see hands going down.  Thank you for your time and consideration.






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Some thinks about the persistence of statuary

>> Thursday, August 17, 2017

So, this week it's Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
- Donald Trump and lots of other guys.

I.

So there's a perfectly practical matter here that's not inconsequential even if it's not a big moral or philosophical argument, and that would be that Washington and Jefferson, you know, won their war while Lee and Jackson didn't.  Which is important because if Washington and Jefferson had lost their war, and had fallen into the hands of the British, well, no doubt they would have been hanged as traitors and there wouldn't be any statues of them to speak of, and any commemoration of them would have been in the same vein as British celebrations of Guy Fawkes' night, i.e. a celebration of the preservation of the monarchy that gradually turns ironic; you'd probably have troublemaking artistes like Alan Moore going around saying, "Remember Jefferson!" and using this reference to a vaguely-remembered insurrectionist as a grand metaphor for the importance of repudiating Thatcherism or somesuch.

And so, also, we need to point out that treason, which in the United States is defined as "levying War against them [the United States], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort," (which is something Lee and Jackson totes did in front of literally thousands of witnesses, and not merely the two necessary to secure a conviction) has traditionally been punished throughout the world by death.  It's one of the primo capital crimes, partly because trying to destroy civilization is about as transgressive a crime against civilization as civilization can contemplate, and also because there's a long history of people who fail to overthrow the government the first time around coming back and trying again (and again and again and again) if given the opportunity.  It's probably only in the post-WWII era that countries like Britain and France that outlawed the death penalty switched to handing out life sentences for treason, because (obviously) it's hard to sentence someone to death for treason when you have no death sentences (duh).  Having pointed this out, to then point out that the United States exercised considerable forbearance after the Civil War in not hanging Confederates or lining them up in front of firing squads, as the main issue with how to deal with traitors up to that point had been whether to go with the traditional rope or the ease and convenience offered by contemporary firearms.

All of which leads us to a statement about just how crazy and screwed up the United States is, and how screwy the Civil War was, and how screwy all this stuff about Confederate statuary is: because there's actually a debate or discussion to have about how the leaders of the Confederacy were regarded after the war, and that debate or discussion is concerned with whether those guys should all have been killed or not, and was the decision not to do so moral or pragmatic, necessary or expedient, just or political, etc.?  And how crazy is it that we aren't having that debate or discussion, instead having a discussion or debate about how to honor these guys who in just about any other war in any other place at any other time would have been strung up and buried in unmarked graves with no fanfare?  Right?  I mean, that is really, really, really messed up, right there.  Just the fact these guys ended up being honored with marble or bronze instead of hemp is messed up, and then the rest of it?  Damn.


II.

Aside from the practical fact that Washington and Jefferson won, and winners typically don't get hanged for treason while losers do (or did until countries started outlawing capital punishment, anyway), we should talk about civic virtue and mythology and cultural aspiration and things like that.

The fact is that there is a necessary and important discussion to be had about Washington and Jefferson as slaveowners and, for that matter, as human beings, and how they went out and stood for one thing in public but often failed to live up to their mythic personas in messy reality.  It's kind of stupid that I have to write that sentence that way, as if that discussion isn't actually being had, because, actually, lots of people are having that frank discussion, mostly on university campuses and in academic papers and at various conferences.  These were complex guys who often failed to live up to the ideals they espoused, or to the implications of those ideals, and this isn't a shocking notion to anyone who has taken a college semester covering early American history at any time in the past, oh, fifty years or more.

Jefferson, in fact, if you want to be blunt about it, was a bit of a two-faced, lying, hypocritical cunt-dripping when you actually get down to it; I think you could make the case that the ugliness that entered into the bitter political fighting of the early Republic came not from the profound ideological, economic, and regional differences among the Founding Fathers, but from the fact that one of them, whose name rhymed with "Mommas Beffershun," was a backstabbing son-of-a-bitch who went around in public sanctimoniously announcing he was above mundane partisanship and self-interest while in private he conspired, betrayed, and hired people to slander his rivals, and if he'd dropped dead of a stroke after authoring the Declaration of Independence it's conceivable that the rest of the Founders would still have had bitter arguments about federalism, representation, slavery, and all the rest, but would have been much more polite about it.  Maybe not.  But Jefferson was a rat bastard.

A rat bastard who, you know, penned what is arguably the single greatest paean to the Rights of Man ever written, and there's the rub, that's the thing.  And this is one of the big reasons one expects statues of Jefferson to stick around despite the actual man's propensity for slandering his friends, fleeing his enemies after talking a lot of smack about "watering the tree of Liberty," owning human beings, screwing said human beings (I'm not going to even begin to touch the issue of whether having a complicated lifelong sexual relationship with your slave is rape, but I'm not saying it isn't and I want us to be clear that this is out there and we don't get to simply ignore it), and perennially defaulting on his debts.  It surely wasn't Jefferson's intention to pen the best argument ever penned for liberating the same people he enslaved, but he did it.  It may or may not have been his intention that revolutionaries from Haiti to Indochina would take up the Declaration of Independence and liberally quote him while announcing they weren't going to settle for anything less than determining their own destinies, but that's exactly what happened.

And Washington, you know... Washington.  Slave-owner, kind of a hypocrite, no, doesn't really get a pass for freeing his slaves after a lifetime of enslaving them (would have been nice to do that, you know, maybe decades earlier if it meant that much to you, guy); but also, first President of the United States, successfully prosecuted a war in the name of liberty and freedom and equality, refused to be crowned king, established the informal tradition that lasted until FDR of stepping down after two terms that was subsequently written into the Constitution after FDR broke with the conventional practice (had a good excuse, middle of WWII and all, but still).  These things matter, these things show up on the man's balance sheet.

A point that needs to be made here, with all the people saying absurd things about "whitewashing history" or "erasing history" is that we don't really put up statues to remember history, we put these things up to establish the civic mythology.  We remember that Jefferson was a slave-owner and a nasty guy; but we celebrate that he wrote that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," and this was such an amazingly clear and inspiring thing to have written down that slaves could subsequently go around saying, "What that guy said!" and quoting this self-evident truth back at the author's heirs for generations to come.  We remember that Washington was kind of not-that-great as a military leader and his presidential administration was kind of a mess, and that his war effort was salvaged by French and Prussian adventurers who thought it would be cool to join the Revolution and offer advice to its general and whip his irregulars into shape; but we celebrate that he did all he could to establish a political culture and tradition of citizenship, in which civilians would give themselves up to public life and duty so long as their nation needed their services, and then retire with grace and humility exactly as Cincinnatus was said to have done.

The superficial comparison one can make from this to Lee or Jackson falls apart like wet Kleenex, you know.  What is there to celebrate in a pair of oath-breakers who stood up against human freedom in support of... what?  Not a nation, but a region?  For a principle (anti-federalism or "state's rights") that was already faltering as the Republic's westward expansion and increasing global importance as a regional power and economic partner demanded a stronger centralized government with the authority to negotiate trade and military agreements with similarly powerful states?  I mean, what are we celebrating here, if we put a gloss on what so many of us know is actually being celebrated?

By which I mean: the answer to the question of "What are we celebrating?" with the Confederate statuary is readily answered by observing that most of them were erected in the era of counter-Reconstruction, alongside the enactment of Jim Crow laws, while a great revisionism of Civil War history was underway that re-framed the battle as a heroic effort to quash Federal overreach instead of a pathetic and desperate attempt by less than half of the country to undo the Constitution to preserve an immoral and unsustainable economic and social order dependent on racism and chattel slavery against the wishes of the remaining more than half of the country.  I just wanted to make the point that if you gloss this--which, really, you shouldn't, but let's do it as an intellectual exercise--what Lee and Jackson fought for was small and stupid, especially compared to what Washington and Jefferson were standing for.  Got it?

Like, Jefferson's out there saying, "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights," and Lee is out there saying, "I sure love Virginia a whole lot!"?  I mean, fuck that guy.  Seriously.  I'm from North Carolina.  We didn't betray our country until we were surrounded, which is a sad, small excuse, but I'd at least ask respectfully for an acknowledgement that we didn't wind up on the wrong side of history until being a Border State was no longer an option because, thanks Virginia.  So fuck Virginia, and fuck Robert E. Lee. At least in this context, because otherwise it's a lovely state and there are plenty of nice things you can say about it in other contexts.


III.

The thing with slippery slope arguments, besides being logical fallacies and all that, is that they don't really work if the threat... isn't all that threatening.  Like, remember when that Trump supporter went on TV and said that if you didn't elect Trump there would be taco trucks on every corner, and everybody who wasn't some kind of bug-eyed racist went, "Mmm, tacos, drool"?   The good old days, and I guess something else we can blame the President for is that it's lunchtime and I'm typing this and I can't just take five from it to run downstairs and outside and up to the corner and buy a delicious, delicious empanada?  Or better yet, two?  With that dipping sauce, not the chimichurri but the other kind that's, I guess, sour-cream based but it's orange?  What is that stuff?  That is just the best--

Sorry.

Anyway, you get some people saying, "Well, what's next, taking down statues of Washington and Jefferson?"  Which is supposed to be a--I really hate that this country has turned this expression into an inexecrable pun by electing that man President--supposed to be a trump card?  Because this would be utterly terrible, for... reasons?  If this happened?

I don't see it happening, because of the things I rambled about in section II.  I think Washington and Jefferson, unlike Lee and Jackson, are integral to this nation's ideas about itself as a nation of citizens who serve the public and who stand for liberty and justice and freedom from tyranny.  And also because of the things I rambled about in section I, because maybe statues of Lee and Jackson could be justified if they'd successfully founded a nation based on, oh, whatever (slavery, but did I need to spell that out?), but they didn't, so there.

But what if it did?  What if some future generation of Americans decided that Washington and Jefferson were no longer sound symbols of what America represented?  Why would that be inherently bad?  I'm not saying I would be happy if they tore down the statues of Washington and replaced them with statues of George Lincoln Rockwell, because, yes, that would make me very sad and I hope I never live long enough to see something like that.  But assuming whatever went up in lieu was some other brighter, shininger symbol of an Enlightenment-values state founded on democratic and republican principles, dedicated to the establishment of a beacon to guide the world to embracing liberty, equality, and justice-for-all, so what if for some reason it's not specifically George Washington?  I expect it will be, because traditions, but so what if it isn't?

What if it was, say, Abraham Lincoln?  Would that be so terrible?  I don't know, it sounds like it could be kind of nice.  Lincoln was good people.  We should all revere and admire that guy.  Not perfect, none of them were, but we should all like Lincoln if we aren't fascist moron bastards.

To some extent, obviously, we erect statues and memorials to establish traditions, to encourage future generations to venerate the ideals we venerate now.  Geez, that's why the Daughters of the Confederacy came to buy in the first place all these goddamn statues we're trying to figure out how to dispose of now.  They wanted everybody to remember our treasonous progenitors as people who were dashing and good-looking and just as concerned with freedom as people who wrote an Emancipation Proclamation or who invested Vicksburg to make it harder for pro-slavery people to shoot abolitionists.  There's limits, though, to how much we can pass along or how they'll take it; if future generations decide Jefferson isn't really how they want to personify human rights, that's for them.

I get, I really do get, that the idea of future generations abandoning earlier generations' symbols (and perhaps values) is a thing that people understandably get worked up about.  I get it because I would like future generations to share my values, and get horribly depressed whenever I contemplate how few of my values seem to have real traction in the present era.  But, you know, things change unless we're all dead.  That's how things work.  Mostly, slowly, they change for the better despite occasional setbacks.  Living things, including cultures, grow or they die.  That's it.  That's the iron law.

Removing a statue of Robert E. Lee now is a big deal because the statue should never have been erected, the question should be why we didn't hang the man and not how he should be honored, it sends a dubious message to present generations at best and a hostile message to many of our citizens (and not just persons of color, mind you) at worst, and removal sends a positive message of hope and change to people who have been waiting for hope and change since January 1, 1863; they're due.  We're due.  Whether or not removing a statue of Thomas Jefferson is a big deal at some unspecified point in the future in the improbable event such a thing actually ever happens is... to be determined.  I'm not scared.  Are you?  For crying out loud, why would you ever be?




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