Insiders & Outsiders

“There are two kinds of political actors in this world: insiders and outsiders.

Outsiders are free to speak their truth, Summers explains. But the price of such freedom is irrelevance in the halls of power. Insiders, by contrast, have a seat at the table where history is made. But to keep those seats, they must take care not to criticize other insiders. So, Summers asks his dining companion, which are you?

-Eric Levitz, “Was Larry Summers Right All Along?New York: Intelligencer. January 24, 2022.

Outsider. Irrelevant, and prefer it that way.

The New York Times Problem, Exhibit: Abortion

“The Supreme Court seems all but certain to rewrite the country’s abortion laws when it rules in coming months on a case from Mississippi. But the real-world effects of that ruling will differ enormously depending on how far the justices go.

In one scenario, only a small share of abortions now being conducted in the U.S. — less than 2 percent, perhaps — would become illegal. In another scenario, the ruling could lead to sweeping changes in abortion access and a large decline in abortions.

-David Leonhardt, “A Portrait of Abortion.” The New York Times: The Morning Newsletter. December 14, 2021https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2021/12/the-fda-just-made-medication-abortions-a-whole-lot-easier-to-get/

Every weekday morning and Sunday, I read David Leonhardt’s The Morning Newsletter to my wife. Her politics are Democratic Party liberal politics, and The New York Times is the paper of record for liberals in the United States. So, this newsletter explains the thinking of that demographic.

While I enjoy talking to my wife about the issues of the day, I find the framing of these issues by the The Morning Newsletter bordering on incompetence. As you can see from the quote above, the framing of the issue is a false dichotomy, between less or more restriction, with an understanding that abortion is some surgical procedure done by a doctor, or by some illegal clinic harkening back to Prohibition. But, I’d say there’s a key element missing in The New York Times discussion. There are modern medical abortifacients, i.e., mifepristone and misoprostol, that can end a pregnancy. Together, they are an “abortion pill”. Here’s Planned Parenthood providing an overview:

“Abortion pill” is the common name for using two different medicines to end a pregnancy: mifepristone and misoprostol.

First, you take a pill called mifepristone. Pregnancy needs a hormone called progesterone to grow normally. Mifepristone blocks your body’s own progesterone, stopping the pregnancy from growing.

Then you take the second medicine, misoprostol, either right away or up to 48 hours later. This medicine causes cramping and bleeding to empty your uterus. It’s kind of like having a really heavy, crampy period, and the process is very similar to an early miscarriage. If you don’t have any bleeding within 24 hours after taking the second medicine, call your nurse or doctor.

-“The Abortion Pill.” Planned Parenthood.

So, you no longer have to have a surgical procedure to have an abortion. You simply have to take two medications, within 48 hours of one another.

Now, the implications of that fact are profound. This means that stopping abortions is as practical as stopping people from taking drugs or drinking alcohol. Decades of a U.S. “Drug War” and the experiment of Prohibition illustrates a simple fact. The minute you prohibit a legal means of getting something done, you create an illegal market for it.

The implications are obvious. The level of restrictions that the Supreme Court allows and individual states implement will create illegal markets in mifepristone and misoprostol. As with other drugs, it will be impossible to prevent these drugs from reaching the people that want them.

So,, prohibiting surgical abortion might have the counter-intuitive effect of creating a illegal market for abortion drugs that will make abortion more accessible, not less. And, when the Pro-Life movement understands this fact, they will then try to go after women using these medications, except instead of draconian drug laws, they’ll create abortion specific laws or try to make using these medications an action that can be charged as murder.

Action, reaction. All very predictable, and all not even hinted at in the The New York Times dichotomy of more restrictive and less restrictive options.

Perhaps, we should give David and the other writers at The Times the benefit of the doubt. It is a daily, and they are limited in the amount of detail they can put in. However, this doesn’t change the fact that their efforts are more likely to misinform people than provide them with a useful framework for understanding the world.

Fake news is everywhere because most of the thinking presented in mass media is bad, top to bottom. It’s not a problem of a particular political point of view. It’s a problem across the board. The real question one should be asking is: who benefits from viewing the abortion issue as a dichotomy hinged on the decisions on The Supreme Court? A question left as an exercise for the reader.

Update: Not even two days after writing this Mother Jones reports:

“The Food and Drug Administration announced on Thursday that it will loosen restrictions on the abortion pill mifepristone, allowing people to receive the pill via mail or pharmacy instead of having to appear in person at a clinic or hospital.” 

-Lil Kalish, “The FDA Just Made Medication Abortions a Whole Lot Easier to Get.” Mother Jones. December 16, 2021.

Action, reaction.

The Attack: Before, During and After

“President Donald Trump’s assault on American democracy began in the spring of 2020, when he issued a flurry of preemptive attacks on the integrity of the country’s voting systems. The doubts he cultivated ultimately led to a rampage inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when a pro-Trump mob came within seconds of encountering Vice President Mike Pence, trapped lawmakers and vandalized the home of Congress in the worst desecration of the complex since British forces burned it in 1814. Five people died in the Jan. 6 attack or in the immediate aftermath, and 140 police officers were assaulted…

…This project is based on interviews with more than 230 people and thousands of pages of court documents and internal law enforcement reports, as well as hundreds of videos, photographs and audio clips.”

-Jacqueline Alemany, Hannah Allam, et al.” The Attack: Before, During and After.” The Washington Post. October 31, 2021.

Read this The Washington Post series along with this fact from a recent Marist poll:

“Looking ahead to 2024, 36% of Democrats and Democratic leaning independents say their party will have a better chance winning the White House with Biden at the top of the ticket. 44% want someone else, and 20% are unsure.

In contrast, asked the same question about Trump, 50% of Republicans and GOP leaning independents say a Trump ticket has the best chance of recapturing the presidency. 35% want someone else, and 14% say they are unsure.”

NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist National Poll: Trust in Elections, Threat to Democracy, Biden Approval, November 2021.” Marist Poll. November 1, 2021.

If you are one of 50% of Republicans on Team Trump, fuck you.

Mass Movements & Affinity Groups

“You don’t have to have a deep and intimate knowledge of the left or any of its manifestations to be part of its future. If you disagree with my values, if you think the left should change from what it has been, the path is simple: do the work. Convince people. Convince me. Organize. Get off of social media and into real-world spaces, otherwise known as your actual community. Do the shitty grunt work that real activism entails, the boring, dispiriting, exhausting trudge to slowly winning over one convert at a time. Lose and actually experience losing, by which I mean experience the pain and humiliation without dulling it with the numbing poison of irony. Organize with people who are not like you, people who you have fundamental disagreements with, passionate disagreements with, but who you recognize as sharing a significant degree of self-interest with you. Articulate your values and why they’re superior. But don’t show up online, sneering at everyone else as a way to hide your lack of confidence, and snidely make assertions about a history you know nothing about. And stop fucking asking “what happened to you?” like you know or care how people used to be. That’s just bullshit internet social control and I have no patience for it.

I love newcomers to socialism and organizing. I always have. But I also know my history, and ours, and will not let myself or my movement be defined by anyone else. Sorry. Not here, not about this. I am a leftist, a socialist, a Marxist, and will remain so. I was born here, and I’ll die here.”

-Freddie deBoer, “I’m Still Here.” freddiedeboer.substack.com. November 1, 2021.

I enjoy Freddie deBoer’s writing, and I’ve been thinking about this piece for a bit since I read it. The conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s not my job to convince you. I’m not interested in a mass movement, where we all collectively convince each other on some course of action and take it. Ultimately, I think that’s what’s wrong with leftist politics.

If you want to change the world, you start on the ground you are on and find fellow travelers. You find people that, in the main, agree with your political point of view. In anarchist circles, these are called affinity groups:

“An affinity group is a small group of 5 to 20 people who work together autonomously on direct actions or other projects. You can form an affinity group with your friends, people from your community, workplace, or organization.

Affinity groups challenge top-down decision-making and organizing, and empower those involved to take creative direct action. Affinity groups allow people to “be” the action they want to see by giving complete freedom and decision-making power to the affinity group. Affinity groups by nature are decentralized and non-hierarchical, two important principles of anarchist organizing and action. The affinity group model was first used by anarchists in Spain in the late 19th and early 20th century, and was re-introduced to radical direct action by anti-nuclear activists during the 1970s, who used decentralized non-violent direct action to blockade roads, occupy spaces and disrupt “business as usual” for the nuclear and war makers of the US. Affinity groups have a long and interesting past, owing much to the anarchists and workers of Spain and the anarchists and radicals today who use affinity groups, non-hierarchical structures, and consensus decision making in direct action and organizing.”

-Shawn Ewald, “Affinity Groups.” The Anarchist Library. 2008.

Affinity Groups are a completely different model from major party, first past the post politics of liberal “democracies” that impose various forms of tyranny of the majority on the world they inhabit or the communism with its vanguards, opening the path for the hoi polloi.

I don’t have any illusions that there is anyone on this planet that is going to agree with my politics. But, there are enough people that might get close, who believe in decentralized organization, home rule, direct action and who have views that large governments, on balance and looked at over the course of their entire histories, are probably more a force for harm than for help for the vast majority of people. Say this to any person that identifies as Democrat / Liberal / Labour or what have you, and you’ll immediately get labeled as some variety of conservative. Maybe, but not the kind you are thinking of.

If you are busy, like Freddie, trying to convince Trump supporters and people like me to join your political cause, whether that cause is socialism, party politics, abortion or your political action of choice, then it’s unlikely you’ll spend a lot of time developing an affinity group because you are looking to be part of something larger.

This is why affinity groups aren’t more common. The politics of the day are designed to suck out the energy that would go into creating small groups and forming the bonds where the politics we wish to see in the world manifest and can be used to create real change for the people in those affinity groups. It’s not dependent on the will of Congress or your local politician, who are beholden to moneyed interests that fund their campaigns and get them elected.

When’s the last time you’ve seen a political argument that you should focus on the 5 to 20 people nearest and dearest to you and try to remake the world in some small way with them? We don’t because our lives have been atomized to the point that most of us probably don’t have five people in our lives we would want to form an affinity group with. That’s not an accident.

Too Far Left, or What Does It Mean to Be “Radical”

“On Tuesday, a Florida judge sentenced Daniel Baker, an anti-fascist activist, to 44 months in federal prison for social media posts that called for armed defense against possible far-right attacks on the state’s Capitol in the wake of the January 6 riots. Baker, a 34-year-old yoga teacher and emergency medical technician trainee, had no previous criminal convictions and has already been held for 10 months of harsh pretrial detention, including seven months in solitary confinement. He never brought a weapon near a government building; he amassed no armed anti-fascist forces; he made no threats on a single individual.

Baker will, nonetheless, face considerably more prison time than most January 6 defendants, including those who crossed state lines, small arsenals in tow, with the aim of overturning a presidential election…

…Baker was convicted at trial earlier this year on two counts of “transmitting a communication in interstate commerce containing a threat to kidnap or injure another person.” The threat of kidnapping charge stemmed from a feverish public Facebook post in which Baker put out a general call for anti-racists and anti-fascists to encircle the state Capitol, should far-right groups attack it “on or around inauguration day,” and “trap” right-wingers inside with cops. In the very next sentence, though, he wrote, “we will drive them out of Tallahassee with every caliber available!” The right wing militiae were thus to be trapped in and driven out at once, on an unspecified day, by an unnamed collaboration of counterprotesters.”

-Natasha Lennard, “A Florida Anarchist Will Spend Years in Prison for Online Posts Prompted by Jan. 6 Riot.The Intercept. October 16, 2021.

I find this interesting on two levels.

One, there’s a saying: “The e in email is for evidence.” Same is true of Facebook and other social media. Using Facebook to advocate for any kind of radical societal change is an exercise in trying to use a tool of totalitarianism against itself. It’s unlikely to work, and very likely to land you in prison.

Two, the advantage that the right have is that they, on the surface, support the institutions of the state. Many are police officers, served in the military and so forth. However, the January 6th riots show that if any of those institutions get in the way, they are more than happy to push them aside. Radical leftists are more obviously against the state and its institutions. So, the state is also more obviously against them.

In fact, this brings us to a helpful definition to determine who is and is not a radical. Ask yourself: does this person think that the state is the solution to many of the problems of society or the cause of many of the problems? If they believe it is the cause of the problems of society, do they believe the state can be reformed to address those problems? If the state is the solution, then you are dealing with a traditional leftist, liberal or conservative in their political opinions.

If a “leftist” supports state solutions, whether Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Dennis Kucinch, George McGovern, or whomever, then there is nothing radical about their position. They are only “radical” in so far as they are leftists in a fundamentally and moderately conservative society, where radical is defined as anyone to the left (or occasionally, the right) of the majority or more often, the person making the judgment.

Leftists are advocating to use the government outside of the limited government fiction and the great lie of conservativism that you can have a global war-fighting capability and still maintain a small government with low taxes. The true goal of the limited government lie is to prevent the government from being repurposed to leftist goals, i.e., serving the citizenry rather than elite interests (or at least different elites). From the perspective of someone that believes the lie of limited government, this position is radical.

However, it’s also not radical because much of the justification for modern government is that it protects the citizenry, from providing clean water, consumer protections, national security and so forth. So, it’s clear that limited government, Originalism, and some of the modern tenets of conservativism are actually a reframing of the debate. Calling traditional liberals “radical leftists” is just another way to put them on the defensive and of closing the Overton window around these new conservative ideas.

But, the framing that Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and so forth are radical leftists, “socialists”, and so forth are relativistic arguments. Better to have a clear definition of what makes someone radical that works across both right and left perspectives than define radical relativistically. Being against the state serves that function rather well.

Federal Vacancies & Senate Dysfunction

“Biden is hardly the first incoming president to struggle with filling key positions. Any new administration faces hundreds of openings at the same time it’s grappling with other urgent challenges. Biden’s pace of nominations is faster than Donald Trump’s, slower than Barack Obama’s and about the same as George W. Bush’s — though unlike any of those three, Biden has decades of Washington contacts to draw on.”

-Tyler Pager, Ann E. Marimow and Laurie McGinley. “Vacancies remain in key Biden administration positions.” The Washington Post. July 10, 2021.
 

It’s interesting that the story The Washington Post ran with is that Biden is not filling positions. But, if you look at this graphic, it’s clear that he’s on track with previous administrations. The real story is why are the numbers of Senate confirmations so low? For Trump, I’d assume they were low because he nominated patently unqualified people more than any other reason. But, for Biden? It points to Senate dysfunction, which The Washington Post mentions as a Democratic talking point, but it doesn’t want to make the point itself.

Also, only one of these guys took office in the middle of a pandemic. You don’t have to like Biden to think this narrative is ridiculous.

Understanding QAnon’s Connection to American Politics, Religion, and Media Consumption

“A nontrivial 15% of Americans agree with the sweeping QAnon allegation that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation,” while the vast majority of Americans (82%) disagree with this statement. Republicans (23%) are significantly more likely than independents (14%) and Democrats (8%) to agree that the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.

Similarly, one in five Americans (20%) agree with the statement “There is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders,” while a majority (77%) disagree. Nearly three in ten Republicans (28%), compared to 18% of independents and 14% of Democrats, agree with this secondary QAnon conspiracy theory. Trends among demographic groups are similar to those of the core QAnon conspiracy theory.

Fifteen percent of Americans agree that “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country,” while the vast majority (85%) disagree. Republicans (28%) are twice as likely as independents (13%) and four times as likely as Democrats (7%) to agree that because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence.”

-PRRI Staff, “Understanding QAnon’s Connection to American Politics, Religion, and Media Consumption.” prri.org. May 27, 2021.

I think the most interesting thing about this polling information is in Table 1, Factors Contributing to QAnon Beliefs:

  • being a White/Hispanic who subscribes to evangelical/Catholic religion
  • being a person of color
  • young, less than 30 years of age
  • no college
  • being Republican/Conservative
  • a media diet of Fox News, far-right networks, and not much else
  • lower income
  • resides in a rural area

When you read the quote above, it’s pretty tempting to just leap to the conclusion that 20% of Americans are morons. But, when you look at the list of factors contributing to QAnon beliefs, it’s pretty clear that these beliefs are partly a reaction to limited opportunity. If you look around and notice that you don’t have any prospects, the political and religious belief systems you subscribe to are waning, and there’s media offering the perspective that it is not your fault, but the fault of evil actors that will soon be overthrown, then it’s an attractive belief system. It gives you hope that your circumstances will change and that you’ll be returned to a better, your rightful, place. It’s certainly easier than looking at yourself in the mirror and thinking: “Perhaps, I’ll have to do something to change my environment or myself.”

On one hand, systemic exploitation is a problem. If you are poor, a person of color and/or live in rural area, your environment acts as a serious constraint on your opportunities. And, if you are struggling to make ends meet in a rural community, is it really possible to just move to a urban area that is more expensive and where you don’t have social connections? So, aspects of this are immutable and are a function of historical trends, systems of exploitation and other factors. If these can be changed, it can only be changed on the timescale of decades or longer.

And, there’s a social dimension. People go to churches, subscribe to political ideologies, and so forth because they want to be accepted as part of a group. A shared belief system binds together groups. One of the most common beliefs people have is that the problems they have are caused by someone else, The Other. It’s evident in every kind of X-ism. You can see it in commonly expressed ideas like:

  • Women: can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
  • Poor people are poor because they don’t like to work.
  • Stereotypical views of ethnic groups, e.g., Shylock as an archetype for Jewish people.
  • Rural people are hillbillies.

And, the funny thing is there is truth to the belief. If someone thinks you are a hillbilly, they tacitly don’t think you are as good as they are or their circle of friends and might exclude you from opportunities. So, you are being oppressed. But, at the same time, there’s also some truth to the stereotypes. If you haven’t had the same educational opportunities, then it is likely you don’t have the same kind of skill sets either.

But, what is to be done? Adopting a belief like QAnon is to hope for a savior. Sadly, this savior is never going to come, but perhaps, the hope for one is enough to get through today, which, for some, might just be enough. It is certainly easier than changing our social milieu, our friends, our church and our sense of self. But, as is frequently the case, the harder path is probably the better path. When what you stand for is dead, there’s no choice but to resurrect yourself as someone different.

Sifting the Internet for Gold

“…which of my beliefs remain unchanged? What assumptions will remain in place? What trends will be accelerated, which delayed, and which stopped entirely? What do I care about that has become newly relevant, and what no longer matters?

-Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, Edouard Urcades, “Premonition.” subpixel.space. March 25, 2021.

Something about the phrase “lifestyle performance and participation” bugs me, but I agree with the thrust of the commentary, i.e.:

  • More culture is shifting online
  • It will continue moving away from giant aggregators like Facebook
  • Much of it will not be generally accessible, moving away from clear net to more private modes
  • Smaller communities, by definition, introduce more variance in behavior, that is, they are weirder
  • The death of retail will open up spaces for small culture and these small communities formed online will reconstitute themselves in meatspace, making meatspace downstream of online life
  • There will be a general flight from most cities as work-from-home becomes a legitimate option. This will give birth to a new suburban culture

However, there are obvious places where they are wrong too. For example, retail is going to be devastated, but it isn’t because of a recession, it will be because they have been made redundant by online stores and to your door delivery that is already impacting general retail, pharmacy, restaurants and practically every other area of retail you can think of.

“More self-organizing friend groups and professional networks are using video calls and enterprise chat as a way to socialize. As a result, many individuals will suddenly begin to experience their interactions as content that can be public and monetized, and will feel more pressure to externalize their communications for an audience.”

Specialist physicians, for example, can create “journal clubs” and presentations for little cost for Continuing Medical Education credit, which will probably will help in the cross-pollination of practices and lead to better health care.

“We are still exiting an era of defunct political parties that are failing and fragmenting, and making our way into an era of discovery and realignment.”

Possible, but I think the existing political parties in the United States are a Coke/Pepsi duopoly that serves elite interests. It’s possible these new movements will be captured, but if it goes off in a truly new direction, you can be sure that the old guard will protect their lunch.

“The culture war between the East Coast and West Coast, which has been going on for some time, is now all but over. It has self-evidently been lost by the East Coast.”

About as right as saying the United States is declining and China is replacing it, which is to say there’s a surface truth here that falls apart if you think about it for five minutes.

Some of the ideas here are truly horrible. A digital graveyard? Want to imagine what your digital grave is going to look in a century in a culture like the U.S. that doesn’t believe in filial piety or worshiping ancestors? One is the loneliest number, indeed. There is something deeply sad about wanting desperately to be remembered and the reality that very few of us will be. Personally, I think it is better to think about this moment, this life as “tears in the rain”, lost forever once it is over. The transience of it, of the moment, is what is valuable about it. We are thinking about this issue all wrong.

“Breathe. Read the air. We are all going online in a new way, and we will never entirely leave again. In this new era, cultural literacy is a baseline requirement for making technology, for making policy, for living and for dying. Squad up. The real knowledge work begins now.

Let me say, with all sincerity, “Fuck that.” I’m going to stick in my own little weird subculture of one, and while I take an interest in the broader culture, since it is fascinating, let’s also understand Sturgeon’s Law applies, i.e., 90% of it is crap. The real knowledge work isn’t cultural literacy, it is taste making. In the deluge of terrible that comprises much of the Internet, who can distill all of that dross and find the nuggets, the pearls? No one can find them all, obviously, but there’s gold in them there hills! Well, reader, it’s probably as good of a description of what I’m up to with the site as any.

New sites I learned about from the article:

  • Figma helps teams create, test, and ship better designs from start to finish.
  • Notion: One tool for your whole team. Write, plan, and get organized. So, maybe a Slack/Roam?

Our Cults Become Our Culture

“A false theory of culture is worse than a false theory of the heavens. The planets stick to their orbits no matter what we think, but culture becomes what we believe it is. Conditioned by the prophets of data and nostalgia to imagine no further than the evidence of the past, we forget that people are self-aware and their actions shaped by a self-aware culture. Our explanations are not independent of our behavior but constitutive of it. As such, our cults of thinking become our culture.”

—Greg Jackson, “Sources of Life.” The Point. March 24, 2021.

This essay is so good, and this quote is probably not the best excerpt. Worth reading in its entirety.