The Fantasy of American Decline

American Decline has been the background music of my life. The spiraling fortunes of a once-great superpower provides popcorn and panic for citizens and onlookers alike, as do all great powers in their time. But in these latter days, a particular genre of horror narrative has acquired too grim a currency amongst public intellectuals struggling to describe the American trajectory through the fallout from the Cold War. The increased bombast of the doomsayers has risen in tandem with equally unhelpful counterweight. The replies to these thinkpieces tend to nitpick the superficiality of only some parts of American Declinism, ending up as cheap in analysis as the potshots they seek to address, straying all too easily and frequently into jingoism. Against this background, when the Atlantic writes that we are no longer the country we like to think we are, the intonation rings both deep and hollow in the same instant.

The messiness of language harms us here. We say “decline” while thinking of the kind most familiar to us: our bodies. We waste our youth, mature, flourish, then tread a descending path into the grave, shedding irreplaceable vigor, capacity, and dignity at every step. But “decline” also carries a mundane meaning: that things can get worse at something they were previously good at. Muscles atrophy if you neglect them, whether you are ten or a hundred. Countries can lose their ability to fight wars, build infrastructure, conduct successful politics, etc., decades or centuries after they were first founded. Once vibrant capacities can be lost before you know it. Despite the singular word carrying them, these are categorically different things: the former an established pattern that dooms something, the latter something that any existing thing knows and can prevent, mitigate, or reverse. I will distinguish between them with a mere, mighty capital letter: Decline vs. decline.

Culture plays a major part in our sense of Decline, which is American as baseball and far older. We are so very Protestant, doubly Declinist: the Reformers snatched the failing Church from Babylonian whoredom on top of a world slouching ever towards Gomorrah. Precipice opens our story. Desperate revolution. The Founders had to justify a republican experiment to a world of mostly absolute monarchies, who asked, reasonably, why this failed form of government, entombed in pagan Athens and Rome, was now the path forward. The answer was, indeed, Decline: Republics can work, but always slouch toward failure without safeguards, railings, and ever-vigilant wardens. A Republic, ma’am, if you can keep it. Outside America, the fates of Powers are a bright, familiar lamppost in history. In the West, Rome’s fall is our guiding star, the greatest calamity its identity has ever known, one it has never truly recovered from. Those less blessed by the West’s hegemony can cite such stories with more meaning to them than those around some distant inland sea. Powers come and go; it is the order of things. 

This narrative has practical benefits. We have enough to worry about in our own lives before considering what troubles our government, let alone a Great Power. A Decline soothes dissatisfaction by inevitabilizing it and highlighting its ephemerality. Complications and subtleties, the frustrating friction of reality, can be sidestepped. If you are concerned for America’s fate, Decline imbues that concern with clarity and volume, naturally aligning with those aforementioned cultural instincts that stride partisan lines. American movement conservatives tend to be “prouder” of America’s strength than liberals, but from a crooked place, preferring to deny or paper over the sharpening salience of the criticism levied against the object of their affection. Pat Buchanan simply insists America is not lagging peer nations in the many ways it clearly is, hoping flag-waving will take over. John Bolton has the mind of a spike-helmed Prussian, for whom any notion of Decline is easily soothed by a glance over the shoulder at Minuteman missiles. Then there are more “sophisticated” Transatlantic conservatives, such as Anne Applebaum, who subscribe to a different form of American Declinism, one less eager to buy its national mythmaking and more concerned with “America’s place in the world” as it relates to their own experience. This anxiety reaches leftward to Matthew Yglesias, who uses it as a base to argue for tripling America’s population, and Noah Smith, who remains optimistic and committed to believing in America, but troubled by these spreading signs. To leftists frustrated with America—or happy to see it fall—American Decline is irresistible. How could the fall of the American Empire be bad news? These just desserts let one skip the exhaustion of fighting for a more perfect Union, indulge in venerating other countries, and experience being rid of the idiocies of the Pax Americana. It matters little what the thing is or whence it came if it is about to die.

American Declinism is awash with such motivated reasoning, from natural human proclivities to sinister intentions. There is little cost to playing into it, and all this fuels its dearth of evidence and rigor. It is, in short, a fantasy manufactured for consumption, foreign and domestic. One of its mainstays is the Rise of China, which has deliberately painted itself at home and abroad into an antipole to the West: free of political infighting and the chaos of democracy, united under a totalizing vision, knit by discipline and self-sacrifice. In the propaganda floated by both the Chinese and ourselves, China serves as a neat, yin-yang counterweight speaking to the sins with which we preoccupy ourselves in our own backyard.  It has feasted on our counter-chauvinism, weaponizing our own cruel, crude stereotypes against us, our rampant bias that the outsider necessarily possesses that which we lack. They’re so respectful of authority, while Chinese history is replete with bloody rebellion. Their leaders are educated and clear-eyed, not like Ours, untrammeled by bickering, delusion, ambition, cowardice, boorishness, and stupidity.

But upon closer inspection, its sins are the same as those levied against America to explain its descent. China is a power built on unrepentant racism, jingoism, aggression, and colonialism, a legacy unbroken for millennia, which it has made no attempts to rectify. It believes itself exceptional, One of the First Ones, with an imperial birthright. It acts unilaterally and with increasing impunity in defiance of the international community, wasting energy and treasure on conflicts that are mere points of pride. If these are why America ails, China should too. Yea, it is: from existential demographic decline, a vast and widening wealth gap, worse social mobility than America’s, and opportunity clustered in select cities suffocated by skyrocketing costs of living. Every ill America has, moral or economic, China bears in equal or greater measure. 

This is mostly a shared and human fate rather than a tale of two Declines. The bitter truth is that these are general problems that apply to everyone. We are entering an age of famine in which such bedrock assumptions as the climate and reproductive patterns are foundering. Claims that X is falling inexorably while Y is rising inexorably cannot withstand the rapidly shifting realities of our era. All lands, all nations, all peoples, are in deep trouble, no matter how good things may seem in the moment. We can point to nations in serious Decline due to them—China, South Korea, and Japan—where the demographic arbitrage created by reducing infant mortality is closing as the contraceptive incentives of modern life catch up. But even this Decline was preventable, or might at least have been checked or moderated. Far from inevitable, it was a collective policy choice by these nations, who eschewed very uncomfortable conversations on immigration, gender equality, and other cultural values until bearing their costs, with interest, became unavoidable. These deeper issues are now totally eclipsing the wise, enviable investments made in infrastructure and urban design. In other areas, they are even worse off: Japanese society has generationally retained unhealthy trends and is paying dearly for it while less flashy social infrastructure frays. How many of you know about shibal biyong, the senseless hedonism in which South Korean youth indulge to momentarily escape the hopelessness engendered by their prospects in their country’s own two-tiered employment market?

The asymmetric nature of hegemony feeds into this. The volume of our presence drowns so much else out. With its intimidating language and opaque culture, Americans struggle to judge Japan with clear eyes; the reverse is much less difficult given American cultural and linguistic dominance worldwide. Of course those who live in America’s shadow are going to be more casually familiar with its warts, flaws, crimes, and sins than the reverse. But now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Things like the horrible reality of American suburbia are worthy of our anger and discontent, in context. They are a symptom of lower-case decline, the kind of atrophy that results from neglect and coasting. They are an instrumental indictment of our past rather than a metaphysical indictment of our future. America’s capacity to teach children, build roads, enrich its people, or work through political problems has not departed forever like the vigor of youthful fingers. America is not regressing to barbarism simply because Germany’s trains or Denmark’s education have done better by comparison. The “America is not a developed country” shtick plays cute for memes, but it is not true and it does not help us fix anything, nor is it right (or analytically other than misleading) to toss out the many areas where America continues to lead. The power of American culture remains second to none. We continue to be a bold vanguard on race, pluralism, and social justice, with laws frequently and literally decades ahead of our supposedly progressive European comrades (look at a US vs. EU timeline on gay marriage, trans rights, or the War on Drugs!). A growing majority of Americans are rejecting the simplistic cultural tropes and original sins we have clung to for so long. Obsession over the entirely fixable holes in our healthcare and transportation infrastructure, while ignoring the flourishing and reimagining of our potential and spirit, is the ultimate and ultimately short-sighted triumph of presentist doom over justified hope. We are ahead and have even widened our lead in ways that don’t show up in life expectancy statistics. America remains a good place to live, the walkability preferences of more affluent liberals like myself notwithstanding. We have a very long way to go, but we are coming a very long way still.

States are not bodies, etched in biological stone. They do not “live,” “age,” or “die.” In truth, we know little about them. The story of each has been peculiar, informed harshly by circumstance and luck. We still do not understand what happened to Rome; citing it as an example of a rise and fall has become a cliché, more distracting than informing. The Ottoman Empire fell over a very long time and was carved up at an opportune moment by predators. Byzantium went through extended periods of decay and renewal. The Mongols were a flash in the pan. The Aztecs and Incas were clad in glory when doom washed ashore. Just as many states, such as France in the Hundred Years’ War, Prussia after the Battle of Kunersdorf, and America before and during the Civil War (as well as the Great Depression), have survived times of chronic and acute crises only to experience revival and dominance. Examine the tapestry of empires and you will find yourself left with a morass of disparate threads weaving more questions than answers.

Our one peak—the well-established absurdity of such a notion notwithstanding—has not passed us by, in either moral or practical authority. Remember that half of us tried to violently secede rather than accept a President who merely failed to look kindly on slavery. Fifteen years on, American government succumbed to white sedition and terrorism. A hundred years later, half the body politic—our parents and grandparents—voted for Nixon and got enraged by black people being allowed to use the same restroom. Our economy was in deep trouble in the 1930s and 70s. There was never any Golden Age. Likewise, the permanent collapse of a state into something else is exceedingly rare. Political power abhors a vacuum. The French state technically “collapsed” in 1958, but France did not disappear. The collapse of the empires of the twentieth century, including the Soviet Union, was possible because there were constituent entities for them to collapse into, or, in the unique case of the Ottoman Empire, powerful external actors able to carve new boundaries out of whole flesh. America is nowhere near such a scenario. The fetish of a Second American Civil War belies a poor understanding of the first, glossing over the need for coherent sections of the populace able to pivot into collective postures against each other. The diffuse nature of America’s modern polarization, population, and economy precludes this. There are no realistic threats to the existence of an American state able to project large amounts of power abroad. That is rooted in America’s geography and lack of powerful neighbors, which is not changing. Consider the behavior of those with stakes in the matter. Nobody in Latin America is acting like the beast to their north will at last be sapped of the power to rampage about. No one in Africa or the Middle East is behaving as if America’s tide is about to leave them in peace forever. In the real world, America is not going away. 

In the real world, America is not some backward pond of inbred gringos and ignorant dopes that stumbled into hegemony in defiance of some meritocracy. The caricature of a self-absorbed empire, convinced of its own superiority in the face of a knowing world watching in sadness as it gasps, unable to save itself, is a delusion crafted by self-interested parties. None of these describe the real country of America. It speaks to the unreality of this Decline that we should be rubbernecking the ruin of a vibrant centerpiece of our civilization like peeping voyeurs, as if this is just musical chairs for the board of directors at some cereal company. America’s collapse, balkanization, or permanent atrophy would be an unmitigated disaster. None in the whole earth would go unscathed. The world economy would take generations to recover. Representative government would lose its oldest and most compelling standard bearer. A reliable gadfly would go extinct. It speaks deeper that our saviors are to be skittish Eurocentrism, hypercapitalist Chinese nationalism, or the exhausted models of ethnostates and multipolar diplomacy acquiescing to “interests” / “realities”—all equally tired routes wholly insufficient to meet the  epochal challenges of climate change and the post-industrial demographic bust. They too are Cold War relics, rebrands of the promises of détente or the Non-Aligned Movement, still based on a model that the past thirty years have long swept away.

America is far from invincible. All states are indeed mortal, which has become misleadingly interchangeable with “fragile.” Anything can be killed in an instant. But American representative government is almost two hundred and fifty years old. It has survived a civil war, grinding economic depressions, and long stretches of unaddressed inequality and injustice, crises that have felled countless monarchies and despotates in its time. We even made it through a coup this year. Armed men stole into our Holy of Holies, yet we are still here. It takes more than that to slay a democracy. Even if they had succeeded, America would have continued. We know this, because they have ruled us many times before. We are not in a glass menagerie dreading a strong wind.

Every country is indulging in fantasies about where they are, where they came from, and where they are going. We are unexceptional after all. I am not underselling the threats to America as neo-Confederates return. I am not one of the merchants who greets you past the doors of enlightenment, offering to replace the beloved you just lost. Interrogate your motives for believing in this story. It is often easier slumbering in a hopeless dark than stepping into a painful, clarifying, unhideable light and its beckoning to labor, but we know from experience that days are better and healthier faced upright. Things are not as dark as they seem. These fascists are a shadow of what they once were, a reviled and disreputable minority fading before our tide. We have won the conversation on healthcare, race, LGBT rights, drugs, the Forever Wars, American exceptionalism, and climate change, each of these tidings our past selves would be overjoyed to hear. Close that Google search of America’s symptoms and go to an actual medical professional, who will tell you that they are serious and complex, yet treatable. The educated masses of America cannot be described as “happy with the status quo” or hypnotized by some zombie-like admiration for its Constitution. They are agitating for change, the only way to thread the needle between life and death, for things that are to pass away without simply ceasing to be. You have to spend life to make life, to accept a little death to defeat the great one: that of hope.

A Decline is an apologia, a synonym for Despair. You do not get to throw up your hands and say “now, here, we are truly fucked.” China and South Korea are much nearer to a real Decline than we, and there is still so much they can do; we have by comparison no excuse. America is here to stay. No getting off the merry-go-round, neither in an individual, political, nor cosmic sense. We live in the world made by the actions of others before us. Your actions will determine the world to come. The wise man plants a tree knowing he will never sit in its shade because he has learned there is no human difference between the planter and the sitter; they are contiguous. When the world finally ends, we will be long gone together with the trees we have planted. Apocalypses have no need for audiences.

The Weary Colossus

I’m tired. No, not of 2020. I’m tired of hearing how America Sucks™. There’s a big difference between “hey, racism and the Declaration of Independence contradict each other” and “lawl why don’t you have high-speed rail like the rest of the boys?” There’s an even greater gulf between fundamental atrophy and the vagaries of policy performance metrics. Germany was the “sick man of Europe” not twenty years ago. Keep that in mind while reading this week’s articles on America’s demise.

This is not to say we don’t deserve the beating the virus is giving us: we do. We saw multiple competent national responses to pandemics in the previous administration. We know America’s government is capable of handling this scenario. No state-of-the-art engine can compensate for a poor driver, while a poor driver does not indict the engine. However, it’s also true that America’s civic institutions have atrophied since I was a kid, that it’s high time we updated them. Many of its features, like the Electoral College and the Senate, are either vestigial or questionable, and you’ll hear no objection from me in dispensing with the cult of the Founding Founders. But none of the agony and soul-searching on display today is remarkable; it is merely an extension of the American story. 

This rending of our own garments is no peculiar deficiency, any more than European cities, walkable since medieval times, are a unique virtue. America is struggling and lagging because it is at war with itself, split by a fundamental disagreement on where we are in relation to the words “more perfect” in our Preamble. One part thinks we’re still very far away; the other, despite all the evidence, thinks we’ve shot past the mark and are undoing an existent perfection. As recent events have sharply highlighted, across the slate of issues that continue to dog the nation—housing, healthcare, infrastructure, labor rights—the single header is the continuing stain of racism: America for some, not for all. The consequent victimhood does not strictly respect the lines of color or class, like a good little bully, but its skew is undeniable. We know where those tendrils lead back. And do not think, ancient lands, that your calm in this matter will last. The world changes, and what was once certain swiftly seems unsure. You who stand in judgment should have learned that lesson by now.

America is exceptional as a pioneer in this undesired but necessary war, not as a saint. You’ve been looking for its virtue in the wrong place. There are no post-racial paradises among the nations, merely better-cordoned bigotries than we see Stateside. The shadows and struggles that you see here are real, cast by the harsh light of ideals meeting the sharp crags of circumstance. The same bigotries remain to be fought worldwide; they are simply subtler in their visibility through dimmer ideals or softer situations. 

Make no mistake: the old ideas of race and ethnicity have not depreciated. In Europe (to say nothing of China), ethnic minorities remain largely infinitesimal and disempowered, eclipsed by junior political parties, yet any slightest waxing has sprouted new weeds of hatred across its plains. Your discomfort over Syria speaks for itself. The Balkans are still littered with blood-stained wrecks of buildings from a war between people outsiders couldn’t tell apart if they tried. More finally, the baseline ethnic mixture of the Continent remains unchallenged. Gazing beyond, it wouldn’t be outrageous to claim that the average state on Earth remains an ethnostate, however polite and civil.

Europe has never had to face true demographic change. It kept its plantations on distant shores, took the extracted capital home, then washed its hands of them when the scheme blew up, ritualistically cleaving itself away from its bastard colonial children. The solution, though, remained the ethnostate. The Jews had to be sent away; who could trust a goyish scepter any longer? And now the very children of the Shoah repeat that refrain, a proper scepter in hand, its temptations no less cloying for the chosen, the baptized, the righteous. Evil is a fruit, and life finds a way.

In your eyes, though, we committed a stupid error, a paragon of American naivete. Our plantations became our houses. We brought our slaves home. We took the strangers in and made poetry of it. We made them all our neighbors. Now here they stand, asking us if we meant those verses. Alas, yes. America has always been an idealistic trailblazer, earnest enough to etch its founding principles everywhere without shame, confident in the strength and virtue of having them, of striving for them, regardless of how we measure up. More “mature,” “serious” nation-states, of course, know the deeper “truth”: statecraft is a circus of War-By-Other-Means, wielding power against power for the sake of power. Do note that everyone else pays lip service to freedom and equality, too. Russia’s constitution declares itself an explicitly secular state with a free and fair press. China claims it’s communist and very concerned about the plight of its workers who slave to build our iPhones. France shouts its beloved troika while asking immigrants to go back to Africa. Italy hunts for refugee boats in broad daylight. The shadow of the past dogs our heels in the present. 

A quintessentially European shadow, if you’ll row past the rapids of memory. We tend to downplay how late “democracy” and the “rule of law”— political accountability and popular, peaceful transfer of power —came to the Continent. It was not the norm in 1914. Spain finally unshackled from post-fascist authoritarianism in times my parents well remember and at which their generation marveled. We Americans were not the first experiment in democracy, republics, constitutions, or parliaments. We were the first modern state of heft to make those things its explicit foundation and purpose: to actually mean what it said on some level. The idealism was the point, and it has grown in our time from seeds of red, white, and blue. That idealism sparked the curiosity of many monarchies and despotates in 1776, then their dread upon the fall of the House of Bourbon in 1793, then, late in the game, glee in 1861 when American idealism neared the brink of destruction. Now those realms are gone, and we are still here.

Such transatlantic comparisons found a home here as well. The Mexican-American War, among other sins, was agitated via comparisons to European peers: we were already very close to perfect, but lacked strength, which of course meant imperialism, colonialism, mercantilism, ie., the metrics familiar to them. Treaties, promises, or principles be damned. Contemporaries recognized this for what it was. So said Grant himself:

I was bitterly opposed to the measure [to annex Texas], and to this day regard the war [with Mexico] which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.

I can’t help but see the parallels when we and others wring our hands over America’s “deficiencies”. I admit that Europe at the moment exceeds us in the core competencies of governance, but with the qualification that said competence lies in territory America carved out. Building better cities for your citizens is a rather easy task; expanding the idea of who your citizens are and what you owe them is not. When American conservatives remind American liberals that the Nordic countries are small and homogeneous, they have a point, though one that tells on themselves more than they’d like. Denmark works so well because, well, it’s mostly Danes. They’ve not moved past the old idea of what that is; they’re just lucky that almost all its citizens already fit.

We instinctively hold America to its stated ideals because we know it believes them. It isn’t Fake™. If it were, we would smile knowingly and pass in cynicism, as we do when someone like Vladimir Putin proclaims his commitment to freedom and democracy. We’re jealous for American sincerity, sensing its rareness and fragility, ever imperiled by the familiar and exhausting instincts of cynicism and pragmatism, which have little to offer us in this brave new world. We need a rugged, intrepid tamer of wild frontiers, not another scheming player in another round of the Great Game. This is hard to see, understandably, in light of recent memory. We remember 9/11 and afterwards, when we lashed out with no one to stop us. The consequences of unchecked American pride are acute, whereas Russia and China have been quiet and well-behaved, so it seems. We live in an American world, and we’re tired of America’s bullshit. 

But if America isn’t exceptional, no one is, and we should all just do whatever the hell we want, right? Genocide the Uigurs? Fine, go ahead. Nobody really believes in human rights anyway, amirite? It’s all fake, a trick, a gimmick. What about the Trail of Tears and Iraq? You’re lying to get ahead, just like us. This is the real prize for autocrats and why Trump excites them: he might, at last, defang America, permanently denude appeals to morality and principles, shorten the reach of higher ideas in the geopolitical colosseum, dragging us back toward the good old days when cynicism ruled and you could just buy or cajole anyone.

We have many tasks before us, some graver than others, but I’m not so sanguine that even addressing climate change is worth accepting a resurgence in ethnonationalism. If or when we find climate change behind us, bigotry will be waiting. Not lightly should we throw bones to it so it doesn’t bother us for a while. We in America wrestle with an enemy that waits for you on this dark frontier. You wonder, puzzled, why we’re thrashing against nothing. “Why don’t you have universal healthcare yet?” But you, Europe, marched for Floyd. Why did your young souls come out and shout the same words? Why did they topple your statues that lionized slaveholders and conquerors, saints of the empires you’ve swept under the rug? Though you had no Confederacy, its cousins are found among your ranks.

Sooner or later, we must agree that there are no other races among the single one we are, or not. We must decide whether we truly believe in the worth of aspirations; whether perfection is worth imperfection; whether ideals mean something beyond points on a scoreboard of tactical influence. The climate will punish us and our children for our transgressions against it, but we know no divine hand reaches out to strike us for cruelty towards our brethren. We slouch toward pragmatism because it’s easier: it enforces itself. Principles don’t. As the human spirit is inexhaustible, so is the pain it can bear and the energy that it can be made to produce. There will always be weaker siblings to exploit, always excuses of circumstance to justify it, and always enough profit to make it worth the while. This will lure us until we grind the lesson into our bones. That will not be done through policy, on a platform of walkable streets and single-payer. It will be done through caring and believing.

I’m tired of hearing otherwise, and so are you. America doesn’t suck. It needs work, work that’s well within our power. We’ve survived much worse. We can fix all of this. We can make America much more perfect and help the world while doing it. What saps our energy so is this self-destructive standard of all or nothing. Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. It’s better to brush your teeth for thirty seconds than not at all. That personal revelation is both liberating and invigorating. The same we can say for our deeper beliefs. We see now how desperately and deeply America wants to be pulled towards those. Our failures so far are but more cause to advance.

I’m tired of this worthless despair, of pretending to watch things fall apart. That’s how things fall apart. We’ve shown we have the spirit and desire to slay these gorging parasites. What’s left is the will. Boundless energy is on the other side, even more when they are dead. Succumb, and our reward will be more exhaustion. A giant we yet remain, free to choose. Choose wisely.

It Wageth On

Joe Biden’s massive surge into a near-decisive victory on Super Tuesday is a sign of the times, bright and fell for us in the spring or summer of life. The stranglehold of old lower-case-c conservatives around our politics remains strong, and they’ll not release it until Death comes reaving. With it, they’ll do whatever they can to meet their priorities, the chief being soothing their own anxieties, between which and ours yawns an unbridgeable chasm. In this endless war for a better world, they are now and forever allies, never friends. Amen.

The climate collapses. Siberia melts. Australia is scarred. Moscow and New York just had their warmest winters, California among its driest. Pestilence rides again with a just-forged scythe, honed to eviscerate the fraying fabric of our patchwork, racist healthcare system that has suddenly found socialized medicine quite reasonable and not at all communist. Of course, the work will lean towards the aged and white, the affluent and advantaged, Floridian retirees in their hideous walled gardens, quarantined from Zeit & Zeitgeist, while the young, the brown, and the poor will be left to toil and twist for themselves in the wind, their agony dissipating into the Void, or (with luck) becoming a joule or two of economic heat for a yacht or McMansion. But wait: the data points to this plague strongly favoring them in its harvest while sparing us. Finally some justice, perhaps. I, one of those narcissistic Millennials I’ve heard so much about, will do my civic duty, but shed no tears for any general havoc among older demographics. If that’s what it takes to bring you a twinge of fear and helplessness, to feel what we and so many others are now old friends with, to put the shoe on the other foot for a little while, to remind you of what you truly are and what you’ve forgotten with such conspicuous glee: amen. War is hell, and all’s fair in’t.

Over here in Blueland, we started this primary with the most diverse cast in history. Hundreds of burnt millions later (get it?), before us stands a bowl of familiar pale gruel. Wow. That was all worth it, wasn’t it? The dozen debates, the viral moments—remember when Kamala Harris clawed Biden’s mumbling eyes out for his centrist racism on national television? She’s now being floated as his VP according to some!—, a year spent wolfing down hot dogs across Iowan plains? Why bother? Bring back the smoke-filled rooms and save us the circus. In its most desperate hour, the Party Decided it needed Joe Biden after all to beat Sa—I mean, Trump. Yes, that’s it. Unfurl the banners. See how they read in bright, bold letters: we have to beat Trump. Not understand Trumpism, still less what made and allowed it, still least the growing titans stirring in the world below, shifting the ground beneath our feet. Indeed, what business of ours are they? We’ll not see them, let alone fight them, these vague threats on a distant horizon. As much as Death takes, it grants, and to us? A final privilege.

“There’s no substantive difference between the two parties” remains a blatant falsehood, but the grain of truth at its core is much larger than I thought. With Biden and (mainly) co. at the helm, focus will shift back to the sensibilities of his generation. Take any issue—healthcare, housing, taxes, welfare, the economic contract—the priority will be on defense and preservation, not expansion or improvement. Conservatism. There is no emergency, no real challenges looming over the ORDO SECLORVM, no climate catastrophe worth tangible sacrifice. What separates the two parties is the allocation of leftover resources to those outside the gardens: the Republicans a miserly pittance, the Democrats a respectable tithe. A sizable difference in substance, one that does help many, many people, but meager in spirit. The reliable haves, however defined, are the priority, the rest an afterthought. I see now what they mean.

This battle is lost. My advice is to stop caring, to save your strength and spit. Don’t follow the rest of the primary or the general election. Do your duty and vote Democrat in November, but do not spend your time agonizing over stakes or margins beyond that. Whatever activism you find appealing ought to be focused on the state or local level, where individuals and ideals have much more power. The national level requires a machine and operating, like Sanders has, in its presence. The moment it realized he could actually win, it moved. He cannot win now, even if he somehow recovered a lead over Biden. What’s left is the sound of Joe and the fury of Bernie. Conserve yours. Nurse and shelter it in these looming years of famine. Remember who sowed its seeds.

This is the lesson: Boomers don’t care about us, have no reason to care, and have far more power to resist being made to care than we can hope to muster. Microsoft Word yet baffles them after thirty years of our tutelage. They cannot be taught to heed much greater things that directly implicate them and their stewardship. They will not listen, nor is any revolution coming, not yet, and not in the guise you crave. Sanders has succeeded twice in decisively winning the youth vote, but not in expanding it. There are too many systemic barriers to that. Youth have to spend their youth getting their lives in order, while the American political system caters to older, established members of society with lots of time and clout on their hands. In this place, they’ve the mastery. 

To salt the wound, Biden still sucks. He failed upward in a classic manner. He did nothing to earn his new position. The party pulled off an impressive comeback for one of their own without considering the cost, or the properties of the actual values they were inputting into the equation. Biden is a terrible candidate who hadn’t even won a primary until a week ago, after my lifetime of trying. He needed all the help and luck he could get too. The man has no pitch besides “Frontrunner,” which leans hard on “REMEMBER OBAMA?!!!” He is a counterpart to Trump, not an answer or antithesis, an embrace of the selfsame nihilistic creed: the candidate doesn’t matter, their values or vision don’t matter, nothing matters. What matters is winning, gaining power. In this brave new age, the best way to do that is to appeal to the feelings and fears of the old (a return to normalcy, amity in politics, bipartisan cooperation, deliberation), not those silly feelings and fears of the young (calamitous climate change, the ballooning inequality of wealth and opportunity, racism and bigotry). This sad truism shall remain true until the scythe reaps enough of them out.

Here’s a bitter bow to wrap up the pill: even if Biden wins, even in a landslide, he and his host have no desire to understand the world that is and is becoming, no reason to alter their course in its looming wake, no impetus to care about its residents, and no vision to meet that challenge should they, by some weird serendipity, overcome the former three. They live in a bubble, a glass dome suspended in the 60s and 70s, when they were young. Through this pleasant, pleasing lens they will govern, biding their time, idling, fiddling while Rome and MVNDVS burn, as if they’ll live forever. They’re not wrong:  life and death are two sides of the same coin, infinite in their own ways. Maybe this agitation will work. Maybe it won’t. It’s their problem, not ours. War is hell.

Our priority is to survive and prepare for the future they’re abandoning. The best revenge is a life well lived. Go forth and meme. Improve your station. Foster hobbies. Find friends and keep them. Exercise. Play video games, draw, write, live, love. Claw forth and build a foundation for yourself in the fight against the true enemies that wait in the dark. These are more edifying than internet cheerleading and investing yourself in idols. The kids are all right. They understand that our politics are out of their hands, that there’s nothing they can do until they are rooted and established themselves, so they turn to higher things, those that girdle and transcend life’s foibles: the enjoyment of its pleasures and kindness towards others. In this, based on my own experience and so many of my peers, I have endless faith and hope. We are a great people, gentler and nobler, standing far above these powers that yet be. Their vanquishing shall be deafening.

In the political arena, even in this terrible defeat that will reverberate for years and years, there is a victory: Sanders’ critique is proven correct. The parties exist first and foremost for their own sake, and good causes and passions must be subsumed to this while bad ones play by different rules. The progressive pressure of the past three years has evaporated, slain with purpose, and already come the calls for unity for the sake of victory in this round. If that’s true, then it too is a transaction, something that goes both ways. For those of us youngins lucky enough to be in safe enough positions to engage in politics, it ought be only as necessary for the true cause, to force history to spring back towards its long arc. No allegiance to a banner is necessary, nor desirable.

The old have taken the reins, so let them feel the fatigue of holding them. Let them fight among each other. Let them angst and squirm and tremble. Let them fret over small things and bumps in the road: shifting the frontlines of Obamacare and Medicaid expansion, efficiency percentages, funding for more highways and roads for automobiles into further-flung subdivisions. Meanwhile, beat the drum about climate change and the American dream. Scream in protest. Remind them of the sins they are committing, aiding, abetting, and abiding. Let spite sharpen spite. Set before them, again and again, the simplest and most bitter of truths they’re desperate to deny: they have failed us; they could have done better.

Oh yes, they know. “OK, Boomer.” “How dare you!” Observe the ire such little words have ignited. If there’s one thing the human brain excels more at than rejecting information that clashes with its core beliefs, it’s noticing such information, a perfect cradle for cognitive dissonance. They have drawn a line, their pending corpses as material. It’s tempting to think their malice is invincible, that you cannot defeat someone ready to drag another down into flames just for the kicks, but it is not so. All it takes is a mustard seed of doubt, planted in good, tempestuous soil, waiting for some small, quiet hour—minute, second, moment—to sprout and bloom. Age has a funny way of eroding the mightiest delusions. Some will escape that erosion, as most cells in the body escape a victorious pathogen. No matter. We’ll take some of that final privilege back, so that they might go to their graves with even a kernel of doubt planted in their hearts, pilfered of the satisfaction of their smug certitude in their beloved advantage. That “fuck you, I’ve got mine” might be ruined a little, and ruined in total. 

Good and truth are more powerful than any evil or lie. The only reason we think it tilts the other way is we’ve been taught—and teach ourselves—that the latter is exempt, the magic exception to Things Fall Apart. It is a passing thing, their shadow. Yes, others will come, and we’ll bring ours with us. Some caution that “they’ll die out” is something they’ve heard for a long time. I’m sorry to respond that this time is different. We have never seen this kind of stark political and ideological polarization based on age. Not only is their order far diminished from the last time in the cycle, there’s strong evidence it’s failing—spectacularly—to reproduce. Loops are both strong and brittle. They need break only once. Ishamael’s Wager is sound. 

Take heart. One day, soon, they will lie in the dirt, and upon that dirt we shall stand, smiling upon the epitaph, trophies in hand, a better world won, with all the time to spit.

Homeschooling is a Lie

Oh ho ho, a provocative title! (Though that’s the very point of a headline, you pedantic philist—)

“Homeschooling is a lie” in that the term is extremely dishonest. The giant elephant in the homeschool room is how rare it is for a kid to be tutored entirely within their own home throughout K-12 or whatever, and usually those kids are, how did Liz Lemon put it, crazy. (As one would expect.) Rare is the homeschooled kid that hasn’t stumbled through some variation of what is, for all intents and purposes, some form of traditional education. This is what my own experience was like. We did, what, two or three years of Abeka VHS training in our house? Even then we had a school day and homework and a curriculum. Then I started taking college classes at 11 and did a simultaneous co-op (a mini private school based on social circles) for most of what we’d call “high school.” How is that “homeschooling?” Because that’s what we called it so we could avoid talking about the elephant.

Think about it. It’s impossible for your parents to provide you what we consider a modern education. By definition, a modern education is a very broad knowledge base taught to you by specialists, either in how to educate and handle a mob of tots or subjects like math and geography, a base we expect everyone to have just to be a productive member of society. Such a thing didn’t exist in 1620. We created an education system to make that happen. It’s incoherent to try to do that, but differently. You can try to make paper on your own, I guess. Most of the time it’ll be crappy; some people might get lucky and get it right, but the reason we systematized it is to take luck out of the equation and make crappy paper a rarity. We want the most number of people to as educated as best they can. Trying to homeschool kids is missing the forest for the trees in perhaps the most pristine way possible.

Now, setting aside illegitimate reasons for wanting to homeschool your children—namely religious/ideological ones hiding behind legitimate complaints about the public school system, or a wicked desire to control every possible aspect of the rearing of ANOTHER LIVING BREATHING HUMAN LIKE YOURSELF as if they’re some pottery vase you’re trying to perfect, or laziness, or sheer fear and ignorance—, the most common reason for parents to “homeschool” their progeny boils down to something like “I think they could do better in a different environment.” Schools, private and public, specifically those common in the developed world (YES, I KNOW FINLAND EXISTS, BUT IT’S 5 MILLION WHITE PEOPLE WITH A CRAZY LANGUAGE. WOULD YOU STOP TRYING—) are kind of zoo-like, often stifling children’s creativity, focusing way too much on metrics, tests, and the quantifiable aspects of education, fostering bullying, cliques, bad social habits, etc. Legitimate, as I said, although please make sure (really, seriously, no honestly, check yourself) that those are your actual concerns for trying to wing one of the most important parts of your child’s development. Being worried doesn’t qualify.

As an aside, it should be noted that, indeed, some children with learning disabilities might not do well in a more traditional classroom. That’s a thing, yes. Still, A) go back to the previous paragraph and make sure that’s relevant to your concern, B) a highly developed school system with a long history and lots of resources is a lot more likely to be able to find a happy medium between educational needs and specific learning limitations than your own household. This isn’t an argument against the traditional school system per se, only for expanding its ability and performance in accommodating such needs. Stick to your lane.

Now back to the lane. You know those issues are par for the course, right? Parents have been complaining about them since public schools came into existence. Nobody likes seeing Junior struggle with multiplication tables they couldn’t care less about. Fine. But…what are you going to do? Not have them know their multiplication tables? Do you think they shouldn’t know multiplication tables? Then make that argument. (I’ll wait.) If you do think they should know them, how are you going to teach them then? Wait around for them to decide they want to? Great parenting, that. If not when their five, at the most crucial time in their physical and mental growth, then when exactly? And how are you going to structure your approach to this? How are you going to organize their day? How are you going to get them to stick to task when their mood swings? In short, how are you going to get s— done? It’s not going to do itself. Walk down that path and you’ll find yourself making many of the same decisions as those evil, soulless teachers who just won’t leave those kids alone.

No matter what, schooling requires some amount of rigor, some amount of scheduling, some amount of discipline, some amount of control, some amount of focus, and some amount of give-and-take in what things you want the curricula and philosophy to emphasize. Yes, kids don’t react to that as well as adults—because they’re kids. They’re full of energy, their bodies and brains developing at an astonishing rate. You can’t just let them run around in fields sniffing flowers all day. They won’t learn anything in the end. Learning is a skill. It’s work. You have to do sit down and do it. It’s the same thing as teaching them how to sit still quietly, to take no for an answer, and be nice to people. They don’t naturally learn these things. They have to be taught. Being taught is more than worth it.

One larger motif in this line of thought is that we’ve recast growing up and “adulting” as some sort of miserable injustice that shouldn’t be foisted upon innocent young souls in the prime of happiness. One, that’s projection—your early years aren’t coming back—, and two, it’s called infantilization. Childhood is not the point of life. It’s supposed to go away. You can’t build a civilization on children. My God, man. Think of what you speak. The mess, the chaos! When Junior is in first grade or fifth or whatever, they’re not even remotely mature. They’re useless. They can’t function on their own. They don’t know enough about the reality around them to make sense of it, to go out into the world and own themselves. That’s why we sit them down in these zoo-like buildings. Left to their own devices, kids don’t magically turn into scholars, engineers, writers, or even worthwhile laborers. Education is a massive infusion of worth. It’s not all they amount to, yes, but yikes, it’s pretty crucial, don’t you think? Please, argue this point with me. I’d love to hear about how being school-smart is somehow a bad thing. No, an overemphasis on school-smarts isn’t healthy, but neither is eating French Fries at every meal. This is obvious. Debate class was ages ago.

It’s good to be an adult with a broad scope of knowledge and capability. It’s good to be be able to do your own laundry without (much) griping, to socialize and interact with people of very different backgrounds and worldviews, to be knowledgeable, smart, and wise. These things are virtues. We as a society have spent untold amounts of effort making sure the next generation receives the fruit of the toil of the previous one. Kids don’t do that. If we’re being honest, they’re mostly little idiots who haven’t learned how to behave. That process never stops, by the way. Remember the kind of person you were ten years ago? Wow, were you stupid. So was I.

Back to homeschooling, it should be pretty obvious a better term for it is “ad hoc schooling,” as my friend Rob put it. No two homeschooled kids have the exact same experience, because the crux of the enterprise remains throwing different books, programs, teachers, and schools at the wall and seeing what sticks. You don’t want to shove them through the traditional system (boooo! hiss!), so you form one by the seat of your pants, yanking them in and out of stuff that doesn’t seem to work (far too often just based on a gut feeling or how much you’re pitying them in the moment), ignoring the serious downsides to that approach, then hoping your socioeconomic status will take care of the rest.

Yep, that’s the gist of it. Don’t lie. Do you see lots of single black mothers among the ranks of homeschooling apologists? No. Most glowing stories are of kids who would’ve almost certainly come out fine going through the public school system anyway, because their parents had the ability and, just as importantly, the desire granted by that ability, to guide their child’s development with a strong, steady, loving hand. Just as war is mostly determined at the outset by those boring macro-factors of economics, demographics, and logistics, just as parenting comes down to mostly how stable and loving a home environment you can create, the range of your educational outcomes for children are determined overwhelmingly by your socioeconomic status. Parents like to concoct Great Men Theories about how they were the deciding factor in why their Junior is so special and awesome. Individual actions do have an impact; sometimes they can be a deciding factor. But scale is a thing, and scale brings all valor and cowardice low. Sorry, Eustace and Margaret, but putting kale in Junior’s cereal and deciding to enroll him in the Parkside Afterschool Program for Excellence did not make or break his path to success, just as one more bayonet charge didn’t decide WW1. I know you know this, Homeschool Success Story. If you don’t, that begs an inconvenient question.

Aye, sure, there are lots of great homeschooled kids out there. There are also, what, eight billion people on planet Earth at this point? If you’re a homeschooler or parent wanting to tout the virtues of your tribe (that’s what it is) and the esteemed caliber of your education, maybe, I don’t know, avoid making such basic scholarly mistakes in public. It doesn’t matter how many potential scripts for a Lifetime movie you can reference off the top of your head. What’s relevant is the overall breakdown of success and who benefits from it. Spoilers: we don’t have that. All we know is that homeschoolers represent maybe 1-2% of the educational population in the US, i.e., a very small fraction. The rest is largely speculative nonsense, tainted by a mountain of pro-homeschooling organizations with every impetus and motivation to inflate the prowess of their particular shtick. The HSLDA is notorious for playing up every possible public school horror story, protecting parents blatantly guilty of abuse, and tainting the whole idea of public schooling for their own obvious selfish gain. They aren’t looking out for you, and they sure aren’t making sure whatever literature they publish extolling the virtues of their cause are rigorous and accurate.

Speaking of which, are you citing rigorous studies in your defense of homeschooling? No, because there basically aren’t any. And if you aren’t citing rigorous studies, then cease and desist. If you really are an amazing HS student who’s As Good as the Rest, odds are you got lucky. That’s not an argument for an educational paradigm. There are just as many (if not far more) homeschooled students whose parents didn’t make a combined $250,000 a year and who had serious gaps in their upbringing, adults who will now carry that burden for the rest of their lives. Those kids are ignored, forgotten, and outright erased from that gilded narrative. If you don’t take into account the full horizon of outcomes, to include the failures—the myriad of abused, neglected homeschoolers—you’re doing yourself, them, and your cause a disservice, not to mention selling someone else’s snake oil. In this day and age, you have no excuse. Their stories are a Google search away. Here’s one. Now go find another. Do your homework.

Finally, if you want your child to be raised in the Finnish education system, just move to Finland. Here’s a chart of all fifteen Finnish grammatical cases. You’d better start Junior on them now! They grow up fast, after all.

Dear Blue – I

Dear Blue,

We won last night.

No, we didn’t clinch the slaughter we hungered for. That was always a distant dream, best used for motivation, not a serious performance metric. The true prize was the House, which we have. With it we’ve paralyzed Trump and his Red minions until 2020 at the worst. Obamacare is safe. Most of Barack’s legacy lives intact (for good and ill). That long battle is over. Rejoice.

All this is only as much of a “defeat” as you make of it. It’s only a disappointment in the sense that we didn’t get everything we wanted, if you frame total victory–seizing both House and Senate with iron claws quick-rusted in the spent blood of our enemies–as the only victory. That’s not how you win a war. Remember how poorly the first half of the Civil War seemed to go for the Union. Self-inflicted despair, treason of the spirit, is our greatest foe. Rome didn’t give up after Cannae. This was Fabius’ first stroke.

Setting aside irresponsible historical metaphors for a moment, we won big on the policy front, one of several rising bastions that will lift us to the ultimate victory: Florida re-enfranchised its felons, Medicaid expansion surged forth in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah (our enemy’s heartlands), Michigan defeated gerrymandering and voter suppression, more states decriminalized marijuana in some form, on it goes. Our vision has become reality. It hasn’t yet come to full ripeness, nor may it ever in some crueler fields, but it’s survived a harsh frost..

A quick, easy lesson you should learn, Blue, if you haven’t yet somehow, is that narratives are a double-edged sword, vital and dangerous. Like all guides, they can go astray. We need them and our own eyes, ears, hands, and legs. There’s cause for frustration and hope in everything we see. So many of our bitter defeats were within a hair’s breadth in places we had no right to threaten: Georgia and Florida, for one, but one can find a plethora of contests all across the country within a 5-point margin, shedding further light on the existential crux of voting rights, which we’ve long neglected. Red persists in it because it still knows this better than us. In the deepest crooks of its cunning, it grasps how just much it must cheat to survive. It’s why they’ve trudged away at it for generations and why we must do the same. Our enemy remains strong, but so do we.

Instead of narrative, focus on reality. There now exists an undeniable check on Trump’s power, our check, to drag his grosser excesses into the pitiless light of day, to dismantle the charlatan’s image propping up his standing in the eyes of fools. We already know he doesn’t stand up well to actual scrutiny, while his success has painted him into a corner from which he can’t easily dart, his trademark survival tactic. It may seem unwise to focus so much on the person of Trump instead of things that seem to have more weight, like pet policy issues, but again, consider reality: Trump’s image is his policy. He’s the epitome of a rich, white bigot, the kind that flouts the most basic norms, says the terrible things his racist kind has wanted to say for so long, makes stupid, selfish decisions with wild abandon, all while getting away with it. By showing the way, he lets others do the same. To its benefactors, it’s as concrete a policy as any other, the only one he has, a mighty one indeed, and now the Republican Party has cleaved unto it. There’s no going back. The die is cast.

Is that disgraceful to our country and its professed ideals? Of course it is. Still, remember that those have been a convenient facade from the beginning. America aspires both to equality and a vicious racism that has inspired many. It remains a Great Experiment, worthy of love and praise, now fanaticism and fawning. As for their hate, it’s wicked, still wickeder for the fury and power it gives their limbs, letting them punch far above their rightful weight. It’s wickedest, though, in that it’s an untruth. These always have their due. “Nothing matters?” No. Everything matters, this most of all. Those who truly love him will never leave him, not even perhaps when the river rises. Those that use him have their limit, and those who hate him outnumber him on every level. It’s a gamble on genetics, culture, and socioeconomics, hoping that chance will have rendered someone vulnerable to its lies, just enough to cobble an army together.

But they remain lies, sound and fury, signifying nothing. They will pass and are passing. I take this as an opportunity to address the forlorn hope of Demographics is Destiny, which we’ve abused. What is meant by that is so simple: the old bigots aren’t replacing themselves. The polarization of the country continues unabated: the farms and wide spaces rush right, the suburbs and cities, the beating heart of our nation, flee left. It does not and has never meant that we will win the day by automatic math, because Latinos and Blacks and women are ours to command, without minds and feelings of their own, whose oaths to us they must respect. It means that those capable of holding forth the banner of modern conservatism are decreasing unto its doom. Red has mortgaged its future to win its present.

Understand, Blue, that this doom may not come in a form you or I expect. Before us lie many defeats unlooked-for and victories unforeseen. As I say, this is a war, of words and ideas. In such wars, things shift. What was “conservative” and “liberal” yesterday in America isn’t that today. We may see tomorrow’s climate “conservatism” as being pro-nuclear and opposed to a harsh carbon tax in the face of a bold Green New Deal. That’s a good future. Should a new Red Phoenix arise, one that shifts left and embraces our greater causes–universal healthcare, gay rights, etc.–we ought to welcome it with open arms. We destroy the Republican Party not to blot out the word “Republican” from every text in the universe, but to erase what it’s chosen to represent. When they remind us that “Democrat” used to signify slavery, they make this point for me.

None of this is to lull you or me into complacency. War is a hell fraught with risk. However, this one is no evil. Ours is a holy war, most holy, for we know our cause is true, not through faith in tomes and saints, but the stronger knowledge of science, reason, and judgment, the careful, disciplined uncertainty of evaluation and reevaluation that gives rise to true certainty, reinforced by the preponderance of the evidence, strictures mightier than any commandments of hate. They win every time because they aren’t that: they don’t rely on having to whip idiots into a frightening, fragile furor, because they don’t have to expend that energy in the first place, because they’re their own witness that stands the test of time. All we have to do to keep them alive is to practice them.

Here’s a most instructive illustration: do you remember how bad things were when Germany had conquered Europe and Britain stood alone? Imagine how much worse things might have been had Hitler stood back, consolidated his gains, and asserted what he’d won in a calm, confident manner? He didn’t have to commit the Holocaust. He could have written a Novus Ordo Seclorum, accepting Jews and others into his cause, rolling back the dreaded tide of revolutionary communism and other feared hordes on the horizon. But he couldn’t, could he? Crafty and cunning, formidable and fearsome, yet when all was said and done, when all the theories and speculation as to what he was really up to passed into history, he was a plain and simple bigot. He believed in his hatred with heart and soul, in the fevers of his mind with an unwavering conviction. He couldn’t resist invading the Soviet Union, in pushing his luck, making mistake after unnecessary mistake, until he died at his own hand in utter humiliation. Evil is both devilishly wily and incredibly stupid, capable of such comical errors Good could never imagine. Fear most the Evil that hasn’t yet fallen so low. Trumpism has.

Keep faith, Blue. Never stop. Never give up. Take your victories and know what they look like. Hope lives. The Republic fights another day, in the form of you and countless others. We won and will win, if only you want it.


Politics, Violence, Centrism, and Guillotines

I wrote a thing the other day on my Facebook that ended up causing some consternation:

2050 comment

It should be first noted that this was little more than a casual, random thought, a variation on a theme I’ve shared before. Take this lazy meme-a-thingie I posted long long ago on November 22, 2016:


I should think the basic sentiment is obvious: politics is the continuation of violence by other means, to echo von Clausewitz. In the universe which we inhabit, force is the only method by which things may happen. They must be caused, not willed, and the best way to do this has often been to randomize the mass in critical areas of other people’s bodies and acquire their stuff. Through a massive (and comical) amount of trial and error, we’ve slowly discovered violence isn’t a particularly efficient form of getting things done and ought to be used more sparingly. As an alternative, we’ve turned to Politics *dramatic music*, creating a new battlefield out of whole cloth that has at least as much consequence as the old, but is fought on with ballets instead of bullets.

I am a very clever writer.

The problem is that people forget this basic history and seem to want to think that violence is a dirty relic of a ancient era of barbarism, a cadaver of Voldemort we mustn’t ever name again. I will remind them that we in the First World killed, like, 100 million people in our last major war less than a century ago. We’re not so far from violence as we like to believe. The clean, polite, gentlemanly political systems we’ve worked so hard to build over the centuries are, like everything else we’ve ever built, very fragile things. They rest upon an abstract sense of “legitimacy,” a scholastic word that means “buying into nice-sounding bullshit.” None of this “democracy” stuff is objectively real. Ballots are just pieces of paper. Their power, influence, and authority exist entirely in our minds. Ergo, it’s very important to ensure our political systems remain something people can continue to buy into without feeling like chumps or suckers. If we’re going to continue playing this artificial game of politics in order to not play a slightly less artificial game of killing each other, enough people need to think the game is fair and has sensible rules. Otherwise that relic might seem appealing to them again.

Which brings us to that Theoretical Republican Senator of 2050-something I mentioned. Let’s call him, uh, Don Eagle, because freedom or something. Don Eagle is part of the Republican Party, which is currently really keen on putting a fifth judge on the Supreme Court of the United States so that they’ll have a majority out of nine judges, which they can then use to force their ideological vision of America onto a huge majority of Americans. The more popular topic of discussion of the moment is Roe v. Wade, but given that Americans support that ruling by a solid 2-1 margin, I’m a little skeptical as to whether their potential cabal might actually pull that lever instead of bunting the question to the states. What worries me about this cabal is more, you know, global warming, that thing we have maybe ten years to really do anything about before we enter completely uncharted territory, dealing with climate parameters no human has ever dealt with before. Can you guess what a hardline conservative majority on SCOTUS would say to, I dunno, magical bipartisan legislation in 2024 (which will definitely happen) that might move the dial a bit away from utter disaster?


Again, a decade.  Meanwhile in the decade, SCOTUS conservatives strike down every attempt to reduce the effects of climate change at any level: federal, state, local, and it’s pretty obvious as to why: it’s not because they sincerely believe in keeping Big Bad Brother from butting into your very private affair of spewing carbon into the atmosphere that everyone and everything else depends on, so obviously nobody has any legitimate reason to be interested in it ever, certainly not the GOVERNMENT, but because they’re ideological hacks who couldn’t care less if that’s a reasonable position to hold on such a vital issue. Couch it in whatever legal gobbledygook you like, but eventually people will catch on. This would turn SCOTUS into nothing more than an arm of the Republican Party for a lot of people, i.e., not an independent watchdog of the law. Guess where that goes after enough mistakes.

So when I say that, yeah if you remove yourself 30-odd years into the future, where global warming is likely to be much more Serious Business with increasingly longer, more brutal summers, Miami under water, and China finding out the hard way that aging is a thing that happens, you can imagine the people of that era being sick and tired of our crap. I’m gonna be sixty in 2048. I wouldn’t be surprised if my great nephews or whoever might be a little pissed when they ask me why we didn’t do anything to stop this and all I have for them is this lame “Well, you see, rules were rules at the time.” If we screw it up so badly, they might decide to kill us all, especially Don Eagle crowing haughtily lifetime appointments for their guys in fancy robes who keep hindering every attempt to address the problem that’s making everyone miserable and/or dead. Should ballots stop working, they’ll go back to bullets. And why wouldn’t they? What rational person would persist with something ineffectual that no longer serves even its ostensible purpose? Returning to violence as a tool for resolving social disputes wouldn’t be a good thing, but it would make perfect sense to the people doing it, and none of the arguments from our time would mean anything to them. What good is politeness or civility if this is where it got them?

So, can we not bring back guillotines? Can we not let things get so awful to the point where that seems like the sane alternative? By the way, that doesn’t mean being more nice to people. It means getting off your cozy fence and putting your feet down on some uncomfortable ground. There’s a growing consensus around many important issues that’s going to leave a lot of people out in the cold: climate change is real and we need to act; women and minorities still aren’t getting a fair chance; the rich don’t pay what they should; big companies have too much power. There are a myriad of ways to go about fixing these problems, but the problem isn’t that we’re too mean to each other when discussing that myriad. The problem is that too many people don’t agree these are problems in the first place. They think they’re lies or hoaxes. What do you say to that? Like, what’s the compromise? Seriously, what is it?

Remember how I said politics is a battlefield? Well, what’s happening in our country right now isn’t a new era of incivility we ought to lament, but the culmination of a protracted war between two opposing sides whose views are incompatible. This isn’t the first time this has happened: we used bullets once instead. We’ve only gotten to this point because all attempts to find common ground have failed. None of this would be happening if there were any left. Too many people in too many important positions think global warming is a Chinese gimmick or something, and they can’t be reasoned with. They have to be defeated first and driven from the battlefield. Once that camp isn’t a viable political force, then we can hash out how much of the free market and government we want to use to stop the world from burning.

Until then, being too fixated on the mere ugliness of politics just brings us one step closer to Don Eagle’s unfortunate date with a giant French bread-slicer.


This is one of Giphy’s search results for “guillotine” and now nothing makes less sense.

The China Problem

Argument: China is already undergoing a demographic shift unparalleled in both speed and scale, transitioning from a young country to an elderly one within a single generation. Its vaunted “rise” is fraught and likely doomed, but this is not something to rejoice over. The many terrible crises China will soon face will be the story of this century. Our story.

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But Caesar, for God’s in His Heaven

Another day under Trump, another journalist wonders how it’s possible for white Evangelicals to support him with such zeal and passion.

One of the enduring puzzles of contemporary American politics is why white evangelicals, who loudly proclaim their devotion to the teachings of the Bible, continue to support the thrice-married, six-times-bankrupted, multiple-times-unfaithful, chronically lying president, who has, at the very least, violated three of the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt not steal,” and “Thou shalt not bear false witness”) and arguably several others.

As someone who came from the Church, what’s far more remarkable to me is how people continue to be shocked by this.

Look, kids. Here’s the dirty secret about Christianity: there are no real Christians.

First off, this is something you can infer directly from Scripture itself. The Bible speaks quite plainly to how only God will be able to separate the “tares” from the “wheat” when Judgment Day comes, whatever “Judgment Day” means. It was precisely these kinds of verses that led me down the blessed path of full deconversion, away from Calvary: nowhere is complete, 100%, absolute, foolproof salvation ever stipulated within Christianity. None. It’s not there. You can be as virtuous as Christ Himself and still be a tare as far as He’s concerned. You might even earnestly believe you’re among the saints, but only God will truly know when the time comes. Salvation is a complete crap-shoot by Christianity’s own standards. There’s no way you can lock it down, no way you can believe and/or work hard enough to know you’re among that number. That’s why Calvinism gained any sort of popularity in the first place: it solves this fundamental problem, only at the expense of Christianity’s soul. It’s the fundamental downside of an omnipotent, omniscient Creator: He can do whatever He wants, pick whomever or whatever He wants to be in His particular 700 Club, and if He decided at the last minute to just change all the rules and condemn you, earnest, fearful believer, to eternal damnation, there’d be nothing you could do about it, because you’re a tiny gnat before your Maker.

All of that is neither here nor there, of course, because God doesn’t exist. But even if He does, God doesn’t matter, which is why the bickering over His existence is a giant waste of time. We can still measure the impact His ostensible touch has on human behavior–rather, the complete lack thereof. Christians are indistinguishable from their heathen brethren. They eat, drink, sleep, pee, poop, and fuck. They like socializing. They like having things and they like enjoying things, especially that sex thing. There is no behavior of any subgroup of Christianity, from the poorest to the elite of the elite, that falls outside the confines of anthropology. Scientists can detect variances and draw strong conclusions about the nature of the universe based on the tiniest variations, the most infinitesimal specks in a picture of the observable universe. Whatever Few True Christians out there would be very noticeable, even if the success rate of Christianity was something pathetic, like 0.0001%. That would still get you into the millions based on sheer math.

Now, Christians know this, far better than anyone. They have eyes, ears, mouths, and functioning nervous systems. It’s the reality they have to deal with, one with a complete absence of God in any practical, useful sense. They have to work with a Church and culture inhabited by and run by those same humans from top to bottom, no exceptions. Nope, not even Sir Awesome Hat up in Rome, despite two millennium of writing on the topic that boils down to a giant yuh-huh. The Pope is elected from within a tiny group of men who dutifully worked their way up the corporate ladder, complete with paper-trail. It happens on camera in front of the whole world. He’s just some guy. God has nothing to do with it. Any of it.

That means Christians–every last one of them, just like everyone else–are making this shit up as they go along. 

See, the crux of Christianity is Witness. Christians are supposed to be different from other people, to be distinct and undeniable, to reflect God before the world. But you can’t do that without, you know, God. There has to be some Divine Spark somewhere: your friends, your pastor, his superior, whoever, somewhere, someway the Spark has to trickle down so people can work off it, no matter how small.

Here’s an example: Christians buy insurance. Why? Because there’s risk in their lives.

“But wait, why is there risk? God is God. I should be protected if I’m saved.”

“Weeeeeeeeeeeeell,” says the Church, “I know we sold you on that, but reaaaaaaaaaally, there’s no way to guarantee either your salvation or God’s protection at any time.”

“Why not?”

“Well, for one, you’re not living up to the standard.”

“How am I not living up to the standard?”

“Well, I mean, come on, you’ve gotta be doing something wrong.”

“No, I didn’t. You know I didn’t. God as my witness.”

*God bursts in like the Kool-Aid Man* “BITCH ARE YOU QUESTIONING ME?”

“No no no, of course not! I love You!”

“Oh, cool, just checking. Here’s some more stuff now, ’cause I feel like it.”


You know what that’s from?

The Book of Job.

Yep. The whole point of the Book of Job, since none of you bothered to read it, is that Job is sinless but God can, surprise, do whatever He wants. The Book’s lesson is that no amount of righteousness, even complete perfection, is any basis to presume you’re shielded from bad stuff from happening to you. Conversely, your commitment to Him shouldn’t be contingent on whatever material boon He deigns to grant you, as that’s just not gonna work out well. “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.” So why is such a depressing lesson even in the Biblical canon, not that far from Ecclesiastes? Because practical experience informs us of this. Job is Christianity’s answer to a very simple question:

If God’s on my side, then why is He still fucking with me?”

Well, because He can and does. It really undercuts the whole Witness thing, which would logically lead to you forgoing the concept of insurance altogether. There are some Christians who do this, but 99% of the rest of the Church severely criticizes them for being fools, and rightfully so: they all end up being struck by normal disaster and get screwed. Job was right.

But this is a minor example. If God were really on your side in any appreciable way, then Christians would appear absolutely nuts to all other humans. They wouldn’t care about money, or politics, or what society was doing, or what anybody was really doing. They wouldn’t even care about particular moral foibles like premarital sex or lying. They certainly wouldn’t invent a cosmic travesty like Contemporary Christian Music to try to attract fellow kids. They would be radically different, their Witness completely undeniable, which would also mean it’d be very effective. It’d work. Christianity wouldn’t be beleaguered or in trouble or even remotely concerned by anything temporal. They’d be a supermajority born out by simple effectiveness. Who wouldn’t want to be Christian if the Fruit of the Spirit were real and demonstrably attainable by an average person? Who doesn’t want love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance, against such there is no law?

That’s what the Faith insists, but reality is completely different. Christianity is beleaguered. Christianity is marred. It’s inhabited by weak, filthy, shameful, disgusting, greedy sinners who have never had any right to lecture anyone. It attracts televangelists and charlatans. It attracts hypocrisy and deceit like flies to honey. It promotes abuse and pain. It’s unpopular and lame. Most devastating of all, it’s helpless. The Rock is tossed about by the vagaries of the World, its most hated Foe. Christians know exactly how much Christians suck, and Christianity most of all. What is God if He can’t step in and squash these icky gays and keep our kids from bumping uglies together in the woods? What is God if He can’t let me pray in schools? What is God if He can’t fix my marriage? What is God if He can’t tell me how to get my kids to like me? What is God if He can’t pay my rent? What is God if He can’t make my bones stop hurting?

Christians want an answer to these questions, relief from the immense burden of cognitive dissonance they carry every second, the cross that makes them all so miserable deep down inside. They just want something tangible for their struggle, not just Sunday promises and platitudes. Like any sane creature, they want some results. Everything should be going their way, easy peasy lemon squeezy, but it’s just…not. They pray and God doesn’t answer. They preach and no one listens. They try to stand up for their faith and no one respects them. You can’t call black people the n-word anymore. You can’t keep those Muslims out of the public square. The gays are everywhere. Everything and everyone is changing, but God sits up on His throne, silent as the grave, and I’m down here watching it all, waiting.

What’s that?

Mexicans are rapists? Yes, finally someone speaks the truth. Muslims are dangerous? Yes, a man after our own heart. He’ll put our people in the courts and put them back in their place? Yes, sign me up. Yes, Caesar, strike back in God’s name. Yes, do His will. We’ve been waiting for you. Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!

How is that surprising?

How is that shocking?

How is that puzzling?

Christians are people. And people, if given a choice between power or principles, will always take the former. Power gets you what you want. Principles get you nothing, except some vague salvation some way off in the future after death, but I’m here now and my heart’s in the right place. After all, Jesus didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword.

What’s a little blood?