Burning Down the House… of Commons & Lords

Brexit. Even though the people narrowly voted for it, it now seems like no one wants it. The British government is desperately either trying to put together a deal that doesn’t lead to absolute crisis or begging the EU to give them more time… to come to a deal that doesn’t lead to absolute crisis. How is it that the party that campaigned for this idea, the party that called for the referendum on this deal not seem to have any plan on how to carry out this deal?

Because they honestly didn’t think it would happen. But their base, inflamed now for decades in a cynical ploy for votes, took the political theatre seriously and now stand poised to set the curtains alight.

I’ve made no secret in my writing that in the global right’s not-quite-slow-enough slide into fascism they had had to resort to more and more inflammatory rhetoric to gin up votes for oligarchy-enriching policies that, if they actually ran on those and not the unfounded fear of someone trying to steal your job or your race or your hamburgers, would never actually get them elected. It has served the right well for the past 40 years now and allowed them to essentially cultivate a base that doesn’t care if the oligarchs rob them blind, so long as folks aren’t surrendering their “western values” which I suppose means people chewed up & spat out by an exploitative system not getting the food they need to keep on living? The best example of this mindset was put into sharp relief in a recent New York Times article, where a voter for the current American Mussolini-in-training whined of the would-be dictator “He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”

That’s the lay of the land for the right: three decades of continually poisoning the well with harsher and harsher rhetoric (because the same old stuff loses its sing after a while, so you have to keep upping the ante) until your main voter base not only believes gay frogs are a sign of cultural Armageddon or that the government is looking to imprison people in abandoned Walmarts, but also that in the fight of socialism vs. barbarism, it’s barbarism all the way, so long as they’re not the ones being eaten.

The only problem with this continued pouring of gasoline on the fire is that, eventually, you have to start burning important things to keep the fire going. Eventually, you end up burning yourself. Ergo, Brexit. Ergo, the Trade War. Ergo, the US losing its place as an economic leader. All of these are the result of trying to blend reactionary far-right social policies with technocratic centrist status-quo financial policies. You can only exploit primal fears for so long before it starts to cut into the system of psychocapitalism that you’re trying to keep afloat. Ironically, this system of psychocapitalism, a system that prizes short-term earnings above all else is always doomed to be undone by the fact that no one running the system, whether it’s economically or politically, ever looks past the next quarterly earnings report or election. Because of that, they always fall victim to an unsustainable system that is directly undermined by the rules of the system itself. You can only cut so deep before you start cutting the throats of the people you rely on to keep you in power, and as soon as you start hurting the wrong people, the whole thing collapses because you lose the only thing that was keeping people voting for your garbage policies that were designed to fail.

The smartest among the psychocapitalists knows this, and that’s why you’re seeing so many naked power grabs and bluntly obvious admissions that yes, the game is up and it was always the point to extract wealth from the working classes. Those who aren’t complete fools who actually think they are doing a tremendous, bigly job are the ones looking to cash in and get out before the entire thing collapses. Brexit is a perfect example of stoking up this sort of blind rage in the voting population, but being unable to control the fire once it rages out of control and ends up burning your house down. As billionaire Jeff Greene told New York magazine back in 2012: “You’re in Palm Beach, you’re in the Hamptons, you think you’re so secure…Do you really think if you had 50,000 angry people coming across the river, you think you’re safe?” Play with fire and you get burned, and the global right movement is starting to need some bandages. The biggest issue is however, whether or not the right will be sent off to heal and possibly come back smarter from their ordeal, of if they will shamble forward like the living dead, content on consuming everything in a fiery hellscape. Given the attitudes of leaders today in Hungary, Brazil, France, the Phillipines, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States, among others, it would not be a completely foolish endeavor to believe the latter is coming.

It’s going to be the job of the Left to both fight off the zombies of bad ideas and also try our best to bring this world back from the brink as we have done before. In fact, there’s a disturbing trend in modern history of the left patching things up just in time for right-wing or right-wing-friendly “centrists” to wreck the shop again. It’s not going to be easy, and there’s going to be a lot of sacrifice, but you don’t wind up on the Left if you want things to be easy. The best parts of the left are not sustained like a fire but like a spring, endlessly bubbling with hope and optimism for what can be done instead of hoping to burn down the house before it changes into something you don’t personally recognize. It is those best parts, the parts that want the same rights guaranteed for all, that must lead the way forward with malice toward none and charity for all as Abraham Lincoln said during his second inaugural, with the Civil War still raging all around him. It is sometimes true that we can be at our best when the house is burning down, and how we all come together to rebuild it.

A matter of (bad) faith

This article originally appeared in the Fillmore County Journal on February 26, 2019

You may have heard the phrase “bad faith” or “bad faith arguments” shooting across the TV news lately (or at least what passes for news lately) and the phrase is a bit… high-minded. In everyday English it’s as simple as that one person who’s always trying to find some way to “get” you every time you have an argument, to the ridiculous point where you just dread every time you have to talk to them. If, for example, a new employee asks how to use the copier, that’s coming to you in good faith. However, if the slimy so-and-so gunning for a promotion in your office starts asking very pointed questions about how to use the copier the day after you presented a well-organized report to the boss… well, that’s obviously in bad faith.

In my last column we discussed how we live in a postmodern nightmare, which translates into “the truth is whatever enough people bark about for long enough.” Add to that the nasty habit of this late-stage psycho-capitalism system we live in where everything has to be a chance to get one over on everyone else, scrambling for crumbs while the richest among us get fatter and fatter… and you can see how this is a recipe for destruction. Let’s say, for instance, you’re a man with some clearly awful ideas about people who look different than you. If you can put a lie out there, and either hire enough trolls to repeat or say it so often people shrug and say “well, maybe it IS true,” you have a bad faith argument that is not being presented as fact. No one wants to challenge these clearly awful ideas, because as mentioned before, you have a well-paid army of talking heads and anonymous online attack dogs to sic on anyone who does, so your awful ideas go unchallenged.

Behold, the free marketplace of ideas.

So, we’ve got to fight this. For folks on the left, stop buying into some right-wing huckster demanding to know every little in and out of every policy down to the punctuation, because he’s not operating in good faith. For folks on the right, stop taking the bait when people want to catch you saying something horrible about migrant children or poor people, because they’re not exactly operating in good faith. One would think it would be fairly easy to say “just don’t be terrible to children” but these days it seems to be a struggle for some. Fight the temptation to post an unsourced story because it sounds right. Fight the temptation to post a story that is just dunking on someone you don’t like. Operating on bad faith, whether it’s claiming everyone is a Russian Op or claiming everything is part of a grand Deep State conspiracy, doesn’t help anyone or anything.

And if you’re noticing that both the talking heads on the left and right are resorting to bonkers conspiracies to keep up their ratings, you might have noticed that the issue isn’t left or right, but oligarchy vs the rest of us. Folks at the top know they are running out of ways to keep saying giving all the money you worked for to billionaires is a good idea, so instead they resort to bad faith arguments and yell “boogedy boogedy the bad man is coming for you” on the evening news, no matter if your flavor of choice is Democrat or Republican. Don’t fall into this trap: you have the internet, possibly in your pocket right now. Look up sources. Get multiple sides to the story. Don’t just listen to Fox, or MSNBC, or even supposedly neutral outlets like NPR. Maybe you even find some of those options on the internet to hear their side of the story, but always doublecheck they’re not, you know, insane.

A world full of liars operating in bad faith is how you get things like Juicero, a company that sold $400 juicing bags you could squeeze with your hands for free, or Theranos, a company that gobbled up millions of dollars in investments promising a magical blood test to answer all sorts of life’s problems… which turned out to be a giant scam. If you want to live in a world that’s essentially one giant late-night infomercial, that’s your right, but keep your TV tuned to QVC and leave the rest of us to enjoy a non-nightmare kind of life, okay?

Lies and cats and lies about cats

This article originally appeared in the Fillmore County Journal on January 28, 2019.

My older brother went off to college in 1995 with a Brother-brand desktop word processing unit. No, not a computer, but a little thing that did word processing, nothing but. However, he did go off to a school that had an internet connection, and he would come home over holidays and breaks to regale us of tales of that primitive web. Now, this may come as a shock to some of you, but even in those giddy days of early internet one of the first things I remember hearing about was 100% percent fake. It was called Bonsai Kitten, which combined the Japanese love of carefully-pruned tiny trees with, of course, cats.

And thus was born the first two pillars of our modern internet culture: lies and cats.

Bonsai Kitten was a hoax created back in the year 2000. By this point I had just barely gotten dial up internet back in the old homestead in Canton, while my brother had had five years of internet citizenship to marinate in. I remember him explaining the website with a grin that I can only describe as impish: an MIT student had used what was then fairly cutting-edge technology to manipulate pictures to make it look like adorable kittens had been forced to grow in, and take the shape of, glass cases, much like the square watermelons of Japan that were all the rage at the time. After my brother finished the story, the question was of course asked.

“Is that real?” How young I was.

To which my brother laughed and answered that no, it wasn’t. First rule of the internet, folks: assume everything is fake until proven otherwise. Now, for folks like me who grew up in those hazy, crazy, Wild-West days of the early internet, we often learned this the hard way (I still see things when I close my eyes, dear heavens…), some folks who are older or younger than me haven’t seemed to accept this sort of framework when browsing. This is how you get obviously Photoshopped pictures, provably wrong memes, and absolutely bonkers worldviews suddenly presented as legitimate. Remember: assume everything is bunk before you can prove it, without a doubt, or risk being mocked on the internet… or voting for a carnival barker who, it turns out, can’t make the world better with a snap of his tiny fingers like he promised.

Beware of what the smartypants call “confirmation bias” which is a fancy way of saying “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Check your sources, assume everything is hot garbage until you can prove it’s not, and browse safely. Thankfully, those of us bleeding hearts over here on the left side of the fence have been hoodwinked so many times by pretend progressives serving big business that we treat everything with suspicion as default. But, for those of you who aren’t weirdos and are content not to spend your spare time researching marginal tax rates, be careful out there.

The internet is full of liars, and they want your money. And, thanks to a lack of common sense regulation or monopoly policy, they can do darn near anything hey want to get it. Practice safe clicks, develop a healthy sense of skepticism until you see it happen, and if all else fails just find your Millennial sibling, child, or coworkers and have them explain it to you. They’re easy to find: they’re usually the one browsing memes about how climate change will fry us all to a crisp by the time Social Security kicks in but hey, at least we won’t have to worry about retirement!