The Canard of the “Liberal Threat”

You’ve got to hand it to America’s right wingers. They try to overthrow the US government in a violent coup d’état, one fomented by the highest levels of their political leadership, an act that they continue to defend even now……and yet they would have us believe that pronouns are the greatest threat to the republic. 

For sheer chutzpah, that’s tough to beat. 

Of course, it’s not surprising, given the oft-demonstrated Republican capacity for shamelessness. The conservative media, from fancy pants magazines like The Economist down to sewer dwellers like InfoWars, are engaged in a concerted campaign to try to convince America that the most pressing danger we face are trans kids who want to be addressed as they/them/theirs, teachers who have the temerity to believe there’s racism in America, and public health officials who want to bludgeon us with this sketchy thing called “science.” 

Yes, it’s batshit. Yes, it’s beyond outrageous—stupefying in fact. But this is the Orwellian, up-is-down, freedom-is-slavery world in which contemporary Republicans live. And I got no problem with that; they can live in any old world they want. 

The problem is that they want the rest of us to live in it with them. 

THE BEST PROTECTION IS GOOD PROJECTION

Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s a reminder that the FBI and other Homeland Security experts continue to assess that white nationalist extremism is the greatest terrorist threat to the security of the United States. Not hybrid cars, Nikole Hannah-Jones or, pumpkin spice lattes.

But page one of the fascism handbook is to accuse your enemies of your own crimes. 

We need not debate whether the Trumpist GOP does in fact deserve the “f” word (short answer: it does) to understand that Republicans have seized on projection as their best and perhaps only form of self-defense. That is why they are desperate for us to believe that woke college students are going bring on the American apocalypse, not the people who, I repeat, literally tried to mount a violent coup d’état just last winter, and on the whole have not recanted or abandoned that cause, nor seen their leaders punished for it.  

Let’s begin our survey of this concerted propaganda campaign with what passes for credible, reason-based thinking in the modern conservative movement. 

The Economist recently had a cover story screaming, “The Threat from the Illiberal Left,” subtitled, “Don’t underestimate the danger of left-leaning identity politics.” (Referring to liberalism not in the partisan American sense of Republicans and Democrats, but of Enlightenment-based Western democracy as a whole.)

What its editors seem to have their panties in a bunch over is a mode of thought that (wait for it) “has recently spread from elite university departments.” 

As young graduates have taken jobs in the upmarket media and in politics, business and education, they have brought with them a horror of feeling “unsafe” and an agenda obsessed with a narrow vision of obtaining justice for oppressed identity groups. They have also brought along tactics to enforce ideological purity, by no-platforming their enemies and cancelling allies who have transgressed.

In other words, a bunch of old white guys don’t understand kids today.

In that same issue, the magazine laments,“Left-Wing Activists Are Using Old Tactics in a New Assault on Liberalism,” and  “How Did American ‘Wokeness’ Jump from Elite Schools to Everyday Life?” Ho-hum, grandpa. 

(But it could be worse. Two weeks before, that same magazine ran a piece by 98-year-old Henry Kissinger assessing the failure of the US campaign in Afghanistan….part of its periodic “What War Criminals Think” column.)

This is an absurd waste of ink—and pixels—not to mention brazen misdirection. Even the convocation of Statlers and Waldorfs at The Economist admit that “the most dangerous threat in liberalism’s spiritual home comes from the Trumpian right.”

Populists denigrate liberal edifices such as science and the rule of law as façades for a plot by the deep state against the people. They subordinate facts and reason to tribal emotion. The enduring falsehood that the presidential election in 2020 was stolen points to where such impulses lead. If people cannot settle their differences using debate and trusted institutions, they resort to force.

Yet they don’t put that on their cover, do they? After all, they’re trying to sell magazines. 

To elevate political correctness to the level of “threat to the republic” equivalent to people wearing balaclavas and carrying AR-15s is not only ridiculous and misleading but wantonly irresponsible. Yeah, PC-ness can go too far, but this is worrying about a freckle on you arm when you’ve got a grapefruit-sized goiter growing out of your neck….a goiter that believes the election was stolen, we didn’t land on the moon, and fluoridation is sapping our precious bodily fluids, and violent rebellion is in order in response.

The authors even have the gall to engage in shameless bothsidesism, claiming that “populists and progressives feed off each other pathologically. The hatred each camp feels for the other inflames its own supporters—to the benefit of both.” 

As if the people who wanted to lynch the Vice President and the ones who think Black people ought not be murdered by the police are on an equal moral plane. 

ANNIE GET YOUR GUN

The longstanding conservative hue and cry over “political correctness” (recently re-branded as “wokeness”) boils to down to one very simple thing: powerful people—largely white, and mostly male—angry that they are being asked to behave in a decent and civilized manner toward others, instead of doing whatever the fuck they want, with impunity, a state of affairs to which they’ve been accustomed their whole goddam lives. And I know, because I’m a white male myself.

Accordingly, whenever I hear complaints about PC culture, or wokeness, I go into automatic snooze mode at this laziest and most dishonest of beefs. 

Nearly every development toward a more progressive society has been met with anger and ridicule at first, from the term Ms to Title IX to an end to “whites only” drinking fountains. But eventually these things all come to seem routine and normal and even inevitable in their manifest justness and common sense.

“But Stalin!” cries the right wing intelligentsia. (Oxymoron? You be the judge.) “It starts with the collegiate thought police and ends with the gulag!”

Sigh. 

Yes, we all know there have been horrific totalitarian regimes under the mantle of “leftism”; whether or not they represent “the left” as we currently understand the term, or have circled all the way around to authoritarianism more characteristic of right wing regimes, is a book length topic in itself—library length, in fact. But in the context of our discussion, the terms “left” and “right” have less to do with Marxism and capitalism than with democracy and autocracy, regardless of ideological trappings. 

Even conceding that a left-wing regime—however you define it—has the potential to slip into autocracy, to suggest that liberals present the most pressing danger to Western democracy at present is beyond absurd: it can only be deliberate smoke  and mirrors. Violent, right wing populism (personally I reject the very term, for those of you scoring at home) has been on the rise for more than a decade, from the Philippines to Hungary to the US, characterized by hypernationalism, xenophobia, jingoism, and all the other textbook trappings of “f-word” states, whether we use that tag or not. 

I don’t think Rachel Maddow is an equal threat. 

Still, this faddish notion of an “illiberal left wing scourge” has found traction in the chattering classes. 

Two weeks ago I took issue with a hawkish article by The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum that derided the idea that there is no military solution for the US in Afghanistan. It pained me, because as I stated at the time, I am a fan of Ms. Applebaum’s work. Now she has sent me rending my garments again with a piece for that magazine headlined “The New Puritans” (archived under the title “The Return of the Scarlet Letter”), a screed against what the right likes to call “cancel culture,” to which news outlets like MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” have devoted an eyepopping amount of airtime. (One thing the left does well is eat its young.) 

Oh, Anne: I was such a fan, but I’m just a simple man, and I don’t understand your plan, both on this and Afghanistan. It leaves me wan. 

While The Economist hyperventilates about the macro effects of wokeism, Applebaum’s focus is almost purely on academia. Largely she is bemoaning the lack of due process in what are not, after all, legal proceedings but social judgments, which are notoriously hard to police, as she herself concedes. She also takes admirable pains to distinguish her critique from the usual right wing blather about liberalism run amok in the academy.

Applebaum brings to the topic her considerable expertise on authoritarianism in Russia and Eastern Europe and elsewhere. But it’s ironic that the “whisperers” in academia that she decries as an extrajudicial mechanism for identifying transgressors—students especially, whom she compares to the revolutionary committees of Mao’s Cultural Revolution—are not unlike the citizens deputized by Texas to inform on women who seek abortions and anyone who helps them, or even thinks of helping them. 

The logic of who gets canceled can indeed be hard to parse. Recently I heard Michael Jackson on the radio—“Off the Wall” I think it was—and I thought, “Why is Michael Jackson not canceled but Al Franken is?” The scope of their crimes is not even remotely comparable. Maybe it’s because Michael is dead; no doubt that is part of it. But really it’s because people love his music so much that they aren’t willing to cast it into oblivion, no matter what horrors he committed, and taking into account the physical and psychological abuse he suffered as a child himself. (This is a whole different debate.)

I do have sympathy for people in the midst of this great pendulum-swing who are falsely accused, or culpable but over-punished with penalties that don’t fit the crime. What I object to is the elevation of this problem to an unjustifiable level of hysteria where it can be used by the neo-authoritarian right as both a shield against accountability for its own far more serious crimes, and as a cudgel to counterattack its enemies. 

It’s clear that we are still figuring out how to deal with new norms and mores regarding what is socially acceptable behavior, especially when it comes to race and gender, the workplace, and the rules of engagement for romantic interaction. There have been excesses, certainly, and injustices and inequities. There were a hell of a lot of all three, and far worse, in the opposite direction under the ancien regime as well.  

I’m fine with this being explored in The Chair. I just don’t need it put on a par with people who wanted to lynch Nancy Pelosi.

THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS FOR THE REAL VICTIMS

In less august right-leaning media, you can hear a cruder and even more extreme version of this argument, in which conservatives (especially white men) are the real victims of persecution, and the “Democrat Party” is an authoritarian cult bent on taking your guns, instituting sharia law, and turning the NFL into a flag football league with its Dr. Mengele-devised concussion protocol.  

This self-pity is deep in the right wing DNA. For a group of people who like to throw around the word “snowflake,” they sure are fucking fragile. 

The same Republicans who just passed a law that subjects women in Texas to vigilante enforcement of its Atwoodian anti-choice laws are now foaming at the mouth at the alleged “tyranny” and “oppression” of a vaccine mandate for federal workers and businesses with over 100 employees. I presume these same folks have issues with measles shots, seat belts, Health Department inspections of restaurants, and the mere existence of OSHA too.

Hewing to the directive “know your enemy,” I have been on a Trump mailing list since the 2016 campaign, just to see the things they are saying. I recently got an email solicitation from them stating, with No Discernible Irony: 

Joe Biden just announced a sweeping mandate that is designed to FORCE you and your family to undergo medical procedures whether you want to or not.

That is why the GOP is fighting back and planning to SUE the Biden administration for their un-American federal overreach, and we need your help.

Driving around the Jersey shore last weekend, where right wing talk radio is rife, I heard one of the many, many Christian channels (“Your station for faith, family, and freedom!”) telling its listeners that Dr. Anthony Fauci harvests the organs of live babies. Not long after I was in Bucks County, PA, north of Philadelphia, where my father lives, an area where strong progressivism co-exists cheek by jowl with some pretty extreme examples of what we call “Pennsyltucky.” In the latter camp: the guy with the sign on his rear window that reads “PLANDEMIC,” and the homeowner with the handpainted sign in his front yard reading, “Fake Pandemic, Real Tyranny.”

And this is a recurring pattern, fed both by the right’s innate predilection for Hofstadterian paranoia, and the opportunistic conservative elites who feed and exploit it. 

Even as those of us on the left feel like the right has a chokehold on our democracy (because, gee, I dunno, we control the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives and yet Mitch McConnell gets everything he wants), the right sees itself as perennially under assault, or at least its mandarins paint that picture to fire up the rubes and keep the donations flowing. 

As I say, that may be a function, at least partially, of the chronic paranoia that runs through American conservatism, but it’s also a strategy. Their advertising, their fundraising appeals, their nightly Fifty-Two Minutes Hate on Tucker Carlson are all organized around the notion that the liberals are coming, and Real America is up against the wall. Spurious online periodicals like City Journal, masquerading as mainstream journalism, specialize in horror stories about political correctness run amok in our schools, stories designed to scare the khakis off upper middle class center-right (and even center-left) parents who would not be so easily fooled by similar stories in Breitbart or Fox.

In the Washington Post, Greg Sargent seized on another standard Republican ploy, and a dirty and dishonest one it is: Sow doubt among conservative voters about Issue X, from the efficacy of the COVID vaccine to the legitimacy of Biden’s election, then cite that very doubt as justification for opposing common sense measures regarding the problem. 

“A lot of people are skeptical about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine, and we need to respect their fears!” Yes they are skeptical—because you fed that skepticism. 

“A lot of people think there’s massive election fraud in America (except in elections I won), so we need to suppress the vote!” Yes they do think there’s fraud—because you told them there was fraud.  

This disingenuous plea for “understanding for all sides” and “respecting the choices of others” gives ammunition to anti-factual Know Nothings who reject empiricism and want to cast their selfish, reckless endangerment of our collective public health as “freedom of choice.”

Another of the right’s favorite new tricks is to make a specious argument on the grounds of “religious freedom,” seeking exemptions from the law that would allow them to, say, abrogate a woman’s right to control her own body, or discriminate against LBGTQ+ folks, or forgo routine immunizations and still want to avail themselves of public schools, or deny service to Black people in restaurants, or refuse to rent apartments to Jews. (Or Muslims. Or Unitarians.) And so on. 

The furor over “critical race theory” is another doozy. In this reboot of the brouhaha over evolution, white people who are terrified of losing power are apoplectic at the idea that their children, or any children, might be taught that there is such a thing as racism, and that it has played a seminal role in the history of this country and the journey to where we are today. 

Next up, outrage over teaching our children that water is wet, the sun is hot, and the Beatles are better than Nickelback.   

THE MARTYRDOM OF MARK MILLEY

Here’s another example where there’s been a lot of linguistic confusion, if not deliberate up-is-down, day-is-night, disinformation. So let me set the record straight:

The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th to murder US government officials and try to overturn an election are NOT patriots, martyrs, or political prisoners, and certainly not heroes, even though the GOP has begun treating them that way. (See: the right wing rally in DC today in support of those being prosecuted.)

General Mark Milley who worked within his constitutional authority to forestall a coup and prevent the outbreak of “Wag the Dog” -style wars against Iran and/or China, IS a hero. Full stop, period dot, out here.

If you want to know what’s wrong with United States today in a nutshell, consider what it means that Mark Milley is under far more fire for his actions surrounding the events of January 6th and its aftermath than Donald Trump is. (It means that we are maxed out on disbelief at the depths to which Trump will sink, that his followers would find a way to excuse it—in fact, applaud it—even if he wiped his ass with the US flag, and that there is no God.)

My friend Erick Kelemen notes that “The uproar (over Milley) is largely manufactured by people wanting to obscure the fact that only days before, he had discovered that Trump was trying to go around everyone in his own national security offices to order the US out of Afghanistan.” And what was Milley’s response to that, and to Trump refusing to accept the results of the election? “To call everybody together to re-read the rules and make sure everybody followed them? To phone nervous adversaries and assure them that we would follow the rules and not be swayed by the whims of someone trying to cling to power in his last days? The outrage is ridiculous.”

Any conflict between civilian and military leaders is dangerous terrain, and questions remain around the context and details of General Milley’s actions. He has promised to answer those questions when he and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin—himself a retired four-star—testify before Congress at the end of the month, an event Republicans are sure to turn into a circus.

But whatever the answers, Milley can be forgiven for pressing up against the boundaries of his office considering the extraordinary circumstances he was in, with a dangerous and unhinged commander-in-chief desperately clinging to power and capable of doing almost anything. Famously, Mattis and Kelly—two more retired four-stars—had a “babysitting pact” throughout their tenure in the Trump presidency to keep him from setting the world on fire. Or recall August 1974, when SecDef James Schlesinger ordered the Pentagon not to obey any nuclear strike orders from a drunken and unstable Nixon in his final days without going through him or Kissinger first.

Could a rogue general take similar action to go around the President and try to start a war, rather than stop one? Of course; that is the nature of power. But the same demographic that is furious at Milley over this loved it when MacArthur defied Truman, and Singlaub defied Carter (both over Korea, as it just so happened). 

Some—including retired LTC Alexander Vindman, whom I greatly respect—have suggested that Milley should have resigned instead. But the whole point was that someone needed to stand in Trump’s way; would it have been better, in that critical time, to give Donald the opportunity to install a lackey as CJCS, as he had already done with numerous other key officials in the national security apparatus, the exact kind of indicators one would seize on in anticipation of a coup?

The Republican hypocrisy is, as usual, mindblowing. Their tyrant manqué puts American democracy in lethal jeopardy, then they howl bloody murder when anyone takes any steps, any steps at all, orthodox or not, to protect it and mitigate the damage, accusing that person of—you guessed it—undermining democracy. Quite a neat trick.

It’s rich to hear the right wing complain about the military being politicized, when no one in American history did more to politicize it than Donald Trump, with his talk of “my generals,” his demand for a May Day-style military parade in his honor, and his repeated use of the armed forces as props. Now that the embattled US military has been forced to use politics to push back, suddenly conservatives are clutching their pearls? I don’t recall them being worried about General Milley “playing politics” when he found himself accompanying Trump on that reprehensible photo op at Lafayette Square, an act that Milley was caught up in almost accidentally, and was so mortified by that he considered resigning over that, and subsequently issued a public mea culpa.

For Marco Rubio to accuse Milley of fomenting a coup—or Trump to cry “treason!”—is the height of irony. 

WILL YOU TAKE ME AS I AM? (WILL YOU TAKE ME AS I AM?)

There was some good news last week, as reason prevailed in California and Gavin Newsom survived a recall attempt with a resounding 63% to 36% victory. Whatever one thinks of Newsom, as a referendum on science and reason versus the paranoid style, it was at the very least a reassuring sign that the majority of Californians are not in fact insane (and perhaps a blueprint for Democratic strategy in the midterms).

After losing, the leading Republican candidate Larry Elder told his supporters to be “gracious in defeat.” That is remarkable at a time when falsely screaming “fraud!” in a crowded movie theater has become de rigueur for Republicans, and doing otherwise risks excommunication from the party because it undercuts the Maximum Leader’s own specious claims of having been robbed. 

Writing in The Week, Damon Linker notes, “A recent CNN poll reveals that fully 59 percent of Republicans consider it ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ important for members of the party to affirm that Trump won the 2020 election.” The pressure that puts on GOP candidates at all levels to toe the party line is immense, and is pushing that party even further into Cloud Cuckooland.

But this is how far the bar has been lowered. Conceding defeat used to be the norm, of course, and is in fact essential for democracy. As Heather Cox Richardson writes: “If losers in a democracy refuse to accept the legitimacy of elections, the system falls apart.” Which is fine with the GOP, which has been flogging the mantra that “government is bad“ for decades, and doing everything it can to make it so.

Elder’s welcome comments are all the more remarkable because they come after he had sown doubt about the legitimacy of the vote ahead of election day—also de rigueur for Republicans these days, thanks to The Former Guy. 

So two cheers for Larry, and let’s be grateful that the voters of California had the good sense not to put him in office.

In that same piece, Linker called these Republican lies about election fraud “a ticking time bomb,” asking pointedly, “How do they think this will end?” 

This is hands down the most dangerous political development in recent American history—a civic time bomb placed smack dab at the center of American democracy. It’s more dangerous than a reality-show demagogue ascending to the presidency. Or partisan gridlock in Congress making governing and passing legislation extremely difficult. Or constitutional disagreement about the scope of women’s reproductive rights. Or conflicts surrounding masking and vaccine mandates. 

All of those issues are important, and some of them contribute to the degradation of American democracy. But none of them degrade it more than spreading the lie that elections in the United States are systematically untrustworthy and rigged against one of the country’s two parties. That’s the kind of claim that could ultimately make American self-government impossible.

That’s because this is a battle over the rules of the political game—the rules that enable the US to function as a democracy that is deemed fair by everyone, the winners as well as losers, in any given electoral contest. Once faith in that fairness has been undermined and obliterated, the peaceful transfer of power is bound to break down entirely. Where will it end? Nowhere good.

When it comes to threats to our democracy, seems like the wholesale delegitimization of the integrity of the vote in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans might be something genuinely worth worrying about. 

Unless you’re on the team promoting it.

The increasingly radicalized, Trumpist GOP is precisely such an organization as Linker describes, no longer recognizable as a conventional political party at all, but only as a death cult-cum-neo-fascist insurgency. And people are noticing.  

On the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 last weekend, George W. Bush gave a speech that compared the 1/6 Insurrectionists to the 9/11 hijackers. Good on him. I will never forgive Bush for Iraq, but of late he has not only looked good compared to Trump (NB: so does a rotting tree stump) but actually walked the walk, a little. 

And that wasn’t the only head-spinning turn in Old Republican World. 

The new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Peril, the same one that got Milley in such hot water, also revealed the role Bush the elder’s vice president Dan Quayle played in dissuading Mike Pence from going along with Trump’s plan to reject the results of the Electoral College. If you told me 30 years ago that I’d be praising Dan Quayle for anything, I’d have turned off my C+C Music Factory cassette and laughed in your face. But, believe it or not, as some wit wrote on the Internet, “Dan Quayle stopped a coupe.”

Meanwhile Trump himself used the occasion of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 to make a speech attacking Biden on Afghanistan, and to collect a paycheck doing commentary on a pay-per-view fight between a 58-year-old Evander Holyfield and former UFC champ Jordan Belfort. 

All class, that fella.

For an encore, two days before this new MAGA rally in front of the Capitol, Trump issued a statement siding with those terrorists, a statement that began: “Our hearts and minds are with the people being persecuted so unfairly relating to the January 6th protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election.” (File under: “Florida retiree pours gasoline on the fire.”)

And why shouldn’t Trump feel entitled to do so? He’s never suffered any meaningful consequences for any of his actions throughout his entire life. (Losing reelection doesn’t count.) As many wise people said from the very beginning, if there are not repercussions for the people who incited this insurrection—not just the cosplaying Q believers who did the actual insurrecting, but the muckity mucks who sent them down Pennsylvania Avenue—we will surely see it happen again. 

That process is already underway…..and it worries me a lot more than the Washington Football Team having to change its nickname.

WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS TO THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS

The experts tell us that one of the most difficult and maddening things about trying to combat fake news is that repeating it at all, even to debunk it, only spreads it further. So in calling out this right wing disinformation, am I only abetting it?

Maybe. But how else to fight it? Besides, I trust my readership—tiny as it is, but intelligent—to be able to think critically. We are not afraid of the other guy’s ideas, and can readily dismember them. No misdirection, disinformation, or sleight of hand required. 

Meanwhile the right wing gaslighting festival rolls merrily along and shows no sign of being shut down any time soon. There’s too much money to be had for the grifters, too many eager marks out there to be had, and too much at stake for whitey and the plutocrats (my favorite Southern rock band) as they try to make us think we’re the evil and crazy ones, not them.

Yeah, well,  I was born at night….but it wasn’t last night. 

Autocracy on the March: The Texan Front

Let us begin with the obligatory—but still sadly necessary—blast at Texas’s devious and sickening new law that for all practical purposes outlaws abortion in that state, in violation of what the US Supreme Court has previously ruled, and deputizes vigilantes to enforce it. 

The same GOP that believes in “my-body-my-choice!” when it comes to anti-vaxxers refusing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will now force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, even in cases of rape or incest. That same party will mandate that a 12-year-old girl raped by her stepfather must go through with the pregnancy, but not that that girl must wear a mask in school, because that’s “governmental overreach.” The same Republicans who are terrified of fictional “vaccination squads” directed by Oberführer Fauci going door-to-door somehow managed to pass the most intrusive kind of governmental policy imaginable, one which incentivizes Texans to spy and inform on their neighbors for cash. 

No one will be shocked to learn that the Texas law says absolutely nothing about the men who impregnate these women, not even rapists, all of whom are completely absolved of any responsibility or legal repercussions. 

I write screenplays for a living, and they would throw me out of the Writers Guild if I pitched this as a movie idea. That’s the realm of Atwoodian science fiction, amirite? 

Texas is a state that hobbled its own infrastructure to the point where over 200 people died when it couldn’t provide heat and power during an ice storm last winter (while its junior Senator fled to vacation in Cancun), and four months later had to beg its citizens not to run their air conditioners when a heatwave overwhelmed that same power grid. It’s a state where nearly 1 in 5 children live in poverty; a state that ranks 51st (including DC) in children’s health care; a state whose allegedly “pro-life” legislators have consistently opposed funding for child care, education, help for needy families, and even tried to abolish the state’s Child Protective Services agency.

That’s how you know that this new law has nothing to do with “protecting the unborn,” much less the born, and everything to do with demonstrating and maintaining male control over the female of the species. That’s how you know it’s part of a war on women, one that’s deeply baked into the conservative movement, even including the (mostly white) conservative women who are part of it.

Texas is also a state where it’s now legal to carry an unlicensed firearm; a state whose governor recently issued an executive order directing state troopers to stop and frisk anyone they suspect of being an undocumented migrant; a state consistently on the forefront of efforts to restrict the teaching of things its conservative mandarins don’t like, such as evolution, or the history of civil right movement; a state that recently passed some of the most restrictive voter suppression laws in the country, designed to keep Democratic constituencies (including people of color, working women, the poor, young people, and the handicapped) from voting.

As the Internet wags say, the lone star on Texas’s state flag must be its Yelp review. 

BOBBY FULLER PREDICTED IT

So what exactly is in this new Texas law? 

In effect, it outlaws abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, well before most women even know they’re pregnant. It offers a $10,000 reward to citizens who snitch on anyone “aiding or abetting” such a procedure, such as the provider, a doctor who makes a referral to a clinic, or even a friend who gives the woman a ride (payable by that person, plus legal fees). Even a person who contemplates rendering such aid, but doesn’t, can be sued.

The $10K is a minimum, by the way; “There is no cap on the amount of damages a court can award to a citizen who sues to enforce the law.”

As Jezebel’s Laura Bassett describes it, writing in The Atlantic, this is “the most extreme abortion ban the United States has seen in half a century.” It is a thorough, effective, de facto reversal of Roe v. Wade—the very thing the GOP has dishonestly been claiming it is not pursuing (wink wink), and deviously designed to pass legal muster by outsourcing enforcement to private citizens rather than the state. 

But make no mistake: we all know what it is. 

In her dissent, a furious Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote:

In effect, the Texas Legislature has deputized the State’s citizens as bounty hunters, offering them cash prizes for civilly prosecuting their neighbors’ medical procedures. 

Or as a Twitter user called John Slayer writes, “A state is now putting a bounty out for women who don’t comply with a religious belief. Let that sink in.” 

That use of vigilantes is perhaps the most despicable part of the law, even as it is the part that anti-abortion zealots praise for its “cleverness.” But as The Week’s Jill Filipovic writes, “Whatever you think about abortion rights, deputizing any person in the United States to be their own little secret police is an incredibly dangerous approach, less ‘pro-life’ than ‘American Stasi.’” That is especially appalling when you consider that, as Filipovic says, “The right has been on a tear about what they say is the massive threat of liberal totalitarianism, from the classroom to the boardroom to the federal government.” 

Justice Breyer was unimpressed with this too-clever-by-half trickery, writing in his dissent that American women have “a federal constitutional right to obtain an abortion during that first stage” of pregnancy, and that Texas’s delegation of the power to prevent it to private individuals does not offer a way for the state to abrogate that right. Citing a previous opinion, he wrote: 

….we have made clear that ‘since the State cannot regulate or proscribe abortion during the first stage… the State cannot delegate authority to any particular person… to prevent abortion during that same period.’ Texas’s law does precisely that.

The US Supreme Court was not asked to rule on the law’s constitutionality—yet. But in a shadow docket ruling that shocked most observers, it has let the Texas law stand while that process unfolds. Of that refusal to step in, Justice Sotomayor wrote:

The Court’s order is stunning. Presented with an application to enjoin a flagrantly unconstitutional law engineered to prohibit women from exercising their constitutional rights and evade judicial scrutiny, a majority of Justices have opted to bury their heads in the sand.

Ironically, in the same week, the Supreme Court of Mexico, a staunchly Roman Catholic country, ruled that it is unconstitutional to punish abortion as a crime, putting it one up on Texas when it comes to being a civilized society. I suspect we will soon see desperate Texans fleeing in through the out door over Trump’s partially built border wall, seeking help in our more forward-thinking southern neighbor. (On the holy rollers’ side, God did punish Mexico with a 7.1 earthquake since then.)

The United States is now on the road to having abortion laws far more restrictive than Ireland, another deeply Catholic country, which in May 2018 held a referendum in which the Irish people overwhelmingly voted to end their longtime ban on the practice, reversing centuries of repressive tradition

Think about that for a moment. The US and the rest of the developed world are headed in opposite directions. 

And as Heather Cox Richardson writes, the implications of this flagrantly unconstitutional law, and the Supreme Court’s cowardly, dead-of-night 5-4 refusal to stop it from going into effect, go far beyond just reproductive rights and the war on women, terrible as both of those are. 

The new anti-abortion law in Texas is not just about abortion; it is about undermining civil rights decisions made by the Supreme Court during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. 

A state has undermined the power of the federal government to protect civil rights. It has given individuals who disagree with one particular right the power to take it away from their neighbors. But make no mistake: there is no reason that this mechanism couldn’t be used to undermine much of the civil rights legislation of the post–World War II years.

What’s to stop Texas—or Georgia, or Mississippi, or any other fellow traveling Republican-controlled states—from enacting legislation that, say, denies constitutional rights to people of color, or LGBTQ folks, or hell, Democrats? From allowing business to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, creed, sexual orientation, or country of origin, hung on the specious, ass-backwards claim of “religious freedom”? From opting out of 80 years of New Deal protections, union rules, or child labor laws?

Merrick Garland’s DOJ has vowed to intervene in Texas. So, Eisenhower-era like, are we about to see federal troops or US Marshals accompanying women into Planned Parenthood clinics and other providers, the way they did for Black schoolchildren integrating Southern schools in the Fifties and Sixties in defiance of segregationist efforts to stop them? That’s what it took the last time a bunch of regressive states decided that an entire class of American citizens didn’t deserve their constitutional rights. 

The Texas law, then, is not just an attack on reproductive freedom, or even on women full stop, though it is both of those things. It is part of a broader, retrograde attack on New Deal /  civil rights era progressivism in favor of the white nationalist theocracy that the American right craves. 

And these folks are just getting started. 

HAIL MARY, FULL OF GRACE

There are seven Catholics on the Supreme Court, six of them conservatives appointed by Republican presidents. (See here for the nuances of Gorsuch.) Five of them formed the core of the decision to let the Texas law stand. 

Three years ago, almost to the week. I published an essay in these pages that touched on that fact, called “Blessed Be the Fruit”—Patriarchy, Tyranny, and the Supreme Court.” Sadly, it is absolutely pertinent still.

These guys will have the power to decide the future of reproductive rights in this country and to dictate what an American woman can or cannot do with her own body, to include the authority to make abortion illegal if they so wish. And those five men very likely will do exactly that, even though roughly 70% of Americans oppose the idea.

To that end, the Court’s Catholic majority won’t criminalize abortion by blatantly overturning Roe; in this day and age that’s too obvious, even for them. What they will do is cut the heart of that ruling without even having the courage to admit what they’re up to. 

In that regard, we might say that evangelicals made a winning devil’s bargain in 2016 by backing Donald Trump, who put three of the five justices on the Supreme Court who formed the core of this non-decision. We might say that, except that it was no devil’s bargain at all. Evangelicals didn’t hold their nose over Trump’s racism, misogyny, lack of piety, cruelty toward children, and myriad other ills just in order to get Supreme Court justices: they loved it all.

In Slate, veteran SCOTUS watcher Mark Joseph Stern wrote:

Perhaps it was inevitable that this Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, not with a momentous majority opinion, but by doing nothing. That’s all it took for the Supreme Court to let Texas’ six-week abortion ban take effect on Sept. 1: silence.

At a bare minimum, the monumental conflict over reproductive autonomy deserved a full and fair hearing in open court. Instead, the Supreme Court has let an established constitutional right die in the shadows.

Singling out Kavanaugh and Barrett in particular, he cited their comfort with “manipulating the court’s procedures to reach radical results,” and proficiency  in overruling precedent without acknowledging it

SCOTUS has already taken a case that will probably gut abortion rights by June 2022. But with its new law, Texas handed Kavanaugh and Barrett a gift: They could eviscerate Roe months earlier without writing a single word. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did the dirty work for SCOTUS by preventing a federal judge from blocking the ban or even holding a hearing on its constitutionality. All the justices had to do was nothing.

Stern notes that “the court’s inaction is especially galling in light of its aggressive intervention in cases it deems important,” including emergency rulings to challenge blue states’ COVID restrictions, end the CDC’s eviction moratorium, and reverse lower court decisions blocking Trump’s assault on legal immigration. But abortion? Nah. 

By refusing to lift a finger, the Supreme Court has telegraphed to the states that it does not view an illegal assault on abortion rights as a pressing matter requiring immediate attention. It gave the green light to impatient red states that won’t wait for SCOTUS to reverse precedent. These states can pass blatantly unconstitutional laws, persuade far-right judges not to block them, and count on the Supreme Court to stay out of it.

SIX FLAGS OVER “CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR”

A number of pundits have suggested that with this Texas law—being copycatted as we speak in other Republican-controlled states, such as Florida, South Carolina, Arizona, and Ohio, with others likely to follow—the GOP has become the proverbial dog that caught that car. For four decades the party has been able to gyrate its base over abortion without having to deliver much in the way of results. Now that promise is gone—fulfilled you might say, but no longer available as a GOTV strategy, especially for anti-abortion fanatics who are one-issue voters. 

In The Atlantic, David Frum writes that “Pre-Texas, opposition to abortion offered Republican politicians a lucrative, no-risk political option,” in which “they could use pro-life rhetoric to win support” at low political cost.  

Pre-Texas, Republican politicians worried a lot about losing a primary to a more pro-life opponent, but little about a backlash if they won the primary by promising to criminalize millions of American women. That one-way option has just come to an end. 

Now Republicans may have simultaneously forfeited a core right wing voting bloc while energizing a left wing one. Frum speculates that it’s possible that “anti-abortion-rights politicians are about to feel the shock of their political lives. For the first time since the 1970s, they will have to reckon with mobilized opposition that also regards abortion as issue No. 1 in state and local politics.”

Instead of narrowly failing again and again, feeding the rage of their supporters against shadowy and far-away cultural enemies, abortion restricters have finally, actually, and radically got their way. They have all but outlawed abortion in the nation’s second-largest state, and voted to subject women to an intrusive and intimate regime of supervision and control not imposed on men. 

The GOP’s uncharacteristic absence of gloating in the wake of the SCOTUS ruling suggests that they know the spot they’re in, as did the stealthful means by which the Court’s conservatives pulled the plug on Roe, which was already on life support. 

Stern again:

Initially, the New York Times and the Washington Post treated the court’s inaction as a below-the-fold story. It took several hours on Wednesday morning for much of the media to catch up with the fact that SCOTUS allowed a state to ban abortion. And this, we can assume, is exactly how the conservative justices wanted to end Roe: not with a bang, or even a whimper, but with silence, confusion, and queasy uncertainty.

So might this backfire on the GOP, electorally speaking? Maybe. Maybe it will indeed be the end of driving evangelicals to the polls without provoking an equally passionate turnout from the pro-choice side. (Yes, I know there are plenty of women who are rabidly anti-choice, but it’s not an issue divided strictly along gender lines.) But others have argued that it’s much more complicated, and that this notion of a silver lining is deluded wishful thinking by Democrats. We shall see.

In any case, Texas Republicans, and Republicans in general, aren’t taking any chances. They clearly know how unpopular this policy will be with tens of millions of Americans, not unlike lots of other GOP policies (more tax cuts for the rich, anyone?) which is why they have twinned it with a relentless campaign of voter suppression and electoral subversion. That campaign is especially crucial in a state like Texas that almost turned blue last time and whose demographics are continuing to trend in that direction.

Frum again: 

(T)here’s already compelling evidence that Texas Republicans understand how detested their new abortion law will soon be—not only in New York City and Los Angeles, but also in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Fort Worth. They took the precaution of preceding the nation’s most restrictive abortion law with one of the nation’s most suppressive voting laws. It’s as if they could foresee what Texas would do to them if all qualified Texans could vote. 

The question now will be whether the angry passion among Democratic voters ignited by this draconian new law and others like it will be enough to overcome the outrageous anti-democratic battlements that the GOP has put up around them. 

Frum argues that the oppressive new Texas voting law “only impedes voting; it does not prevent it. The 2020 election showed that voter suppression can only do so much to protect a sufficiently unpopular incumbent.” True, but the law we are talking about was enacted post-2020, and places far more severe restrictions on voting than were in place to help Trump. Indeed, his loss is the precise reason why the GOP felt the need to enact such laws.

If pro-choice passion is not sufficient to put Democrats in power, or if Republican rigging of the system prevails enough to prevent it, Frum suggests that we might be heading into a situation on abortion comparable to Prohibition, wherein “for a dozen years, metropolitan America lived under rules imposed by non-metropolitan America. Then the whole experiment utterly collapsed. Alcohol prohibition failed so dismally, both in practice and in politics, that even the prohibitionists had to surrender. Only then could the United States move to a stable equilibrium of national legality bounded by locally acceptable regulations.”

Perhaps the same will happen after Americans have to live for a few years under a religiously-driven medieval foreclosure of reproductive rights. Cold comfort to the women with unwanted pregnancies during that interim, however. 

MASKED AND NO LONGER ANONYMOUS

Whether they pay a price at the polls or not, one thing is clear: Republicans will no longer be able to pretend that they are not out to end Roe v. Wade once and for all. Ironically for a bunch of people who have made a fetish of their opposition to masks, the mask is now off Republican hypocrisy over reproductive rights, and they stand bare-faced with their monstrous misogyny. (Ooh, I do love a good metaphor. Also a bad one.)

Laura Bassett writes in The Atlantic of how the Texas law means the jig is up on this longstanding Republican charade:

For half a decade, Republicans—especially self-described moderate members of the party—have been gaslighting America on the issue of abortion rights, pretending they didn’t know that Donald Trump’s Supreme Court picks were always planning to overturn Roe. A central goal of the conservative judicial movement that these justices came out of is overturning Roe. The Federalist Society handpicked them for that reason. It’s a transparently phony act, one that’s now been exposed as such.

Sitting before the Senate during his 2018 confirmation hearings—before he broke out in a tear-stained hissy fit over how unfairly he was being treated—Brett “I Like Beer” Kavanaugh, in full Eddie Haskell mode, insisted Roe was “settled law.” Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska called women “hysterical” for fearing that the federally protected right to control their own  bodies was in danger. (Phrasing, Ben, phrasing.) 

In that aforementioned 2018 essay for the blog, I wrote this ahead of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings:

Kavanaugh will surely put on a ferocious Apache dance in claiming how he can’t possibly speculate about how he might rule in some hypothetical future case such as, oh I don’t know, abortion. He will also go full Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in implying that he has the utmost reverence for legal precedent and is anything but an activist judge looking to overturn Roe v. Wade. Perish the thought! In fact, he already began that charm offensive with his remarks at his nomination, stressing his allegedly female-friendly bonafides. (He coached his daughters’ basketball teams! Rest easy, feminists!) All of this will be carefully calculated to reassure middle-of-the road voters and centrist(ish) GOP senators like Collins and Murkowski that he is not going to gut that landmark ruling.

Then, once on the bench, he will do precisely that.

A year before that, way back in 2017, Mark Joseph Stern wrote in Slate:

(T)here is little doubt that Kavanaugh will gut Roe at the first opportunity. Indeed, he has already provided a road map that shows precisely how he’ll do it….

A conservative state will pass a draconian anti-abortion restriction—one that shutters all abortion clinics, perhaps, or outlaws abortion after a fetal “heartbeat” is detected. With Kavanaugh providing the decisive fifth vote, the court will rule that the state law does not pose an “undue burden” to abortion access; after all, the government has an interest in “favoring fetal life,” and women who truly want an abortion can go to another state. The majority may not admit what it is doing. But in practice, it will be overturning Roe.

Kavanaugh is the ideal candidate to cast that fifth vote and even write the opinion. He has already proved that he can pretend to adhere to Roe while hollowing out its core holding. He has revealed a striking aptitude for intellectual dishonesty, pretending to follow precedent while enshrining anti-abortion dogma into law. His disingenuousness will be an asset on the Supreme Court. And within a few years, the United States will be a country of Jane Does.”       

HUT TWO FOUR THREE

And so, with the Texas abortion law, the forces of right wing autocracy in America march steadily on. Control of the courts is just another front in that war, along with voter suppression and subversion, all of them battlegrounds on which the American right has been waging a slow-burning but relentless insurgency for decades while Democrats slumbered, naively putting their faith in the strength of our institutions and the goodwill of their opponents.  

That may well be democracy’s epitaph.

It’s one thing to enact laws like the one in Texas; it’s another to enact them in defiance of the will of the majority. That’s what the GOP is doing, and not just on this topic. Nationally, Americans support maintaining Roe 58% to 32 %. More broadly, 80% of Americans believe abortion should be legal under some circumstances (including 32% of who believe it should be legal in all circumstances), while only 19% say it should be illegal no matter what. 

In Texas, the issue splits the citizenry pretty evenly, but the new law’s failure to make exceptions in cases of rape and incest go too far even for most pro-life Texans.

But you might have noticed that Republicans’ whole megillah these days is countermajoritarian rule, given that they can’t win national elections outright, a reign to be established and maintained through the aforementioned electoral suppression, gerrymandering, disinformation, legislative obstructionism, and other skullduggery. 

Filipovic again:

This is the strategy for a party that increasingly cannot win fair and square: Rig the game. Make it harder for people to vote so that an ideological minority can maintain its grip on political power. Claim political opposition is the real authoritarianism, while using the courts and legislatures to enact authoritarian laws that serve your aims. Keep women and those who love and support them scared, ostracized, and under the very real threat of having their lives ruined—and in refusing women abortions, keep them poorer, more tethered to abusers, and less able to pursue their dreams and aspirations.

Let’s play out just how cutthroat this will be, and the stakes in play. 

If Republicans re-take the House in the midterms, they will immediately move to impeach Biden, because of course. They were set to do so regardless but now will use Afghanistan to dress the effort up in the mufti of legitimacy. (Never mind their own culpability for that debacle, and never mind that this same party did not think that a president accepting covert aid from a hostile foreign power, or blackmailing an ally for personal gain, or fomenting a violent insurrection to remain in office, merited even a polite throat-clearing by way of complaint.)

I don’t imagine for a moment that the GOP will get 66 votes to convict in the Senate, but it won’t matter. They will succeed in gumming up the works for the next year or more heading into the 2024 presidential race, furthering the paralysis of our democracy—exactly the outcome that the “government is bad” con men of the Republican Party have been peddling since 1932. And they will have engineered it to be so.

In our hyperpartisan climate, will impeachment then become the new normal? It might, but the very question reeks of bothsidesism. The two impeachments of Donald Trump could not have been more in order if they had been hypothetical examples laid out by the Founding Fathers themselves in “The Constitution: An Owner’s Manual.” (If an autogolpe isn’t impeachable, what is?) He could have been impeached for a couple more things as well. An impeachment of Joe Biden, by contrast, would be a partisan farce, unless he tries to sell Alaska back to Russia between now and then.

No, this would not be the fault of some mythical “divided America” in which both parties are equally vile; it would be the fault of Republican scorched earthism going back at least to the early Nineties. (Thanks Newt Gingrich, gravedigger of democracy!)

A Republican-controlled House might also well make Trump Speaker (who, constitutionally, doesn’t have to be an elected member of that body). Not that Trump has the cognitive skills or attention span to handle the managerial demands of the job, but he would be a troublesome figurehead, foisted back into the public eye to rouse the MAGA base. (And his installation would be just another humiliation that the invertebrate Kevin McCarthy will eagerly accept. I guess Kevin must like the taste of Trump’s shoe polish on his tongue.)

The California gubernatorial recall is another example of the current dysfunction, and one that presents dangers at the national level as well. If Gavin Newsom is recalled, and the frail 88-year-old Diane Feinstein dies in the next 17 months before California’s next election, the state’s new interim governor—likely Republican talk show host Larry Elder—will be able to hand control of the US Senate back to the GOP even before the midterms. 

Polls currently tip Newsom to hang on by the skin of his very straight white teeth, but should he lose, Feinstein ought to retire and allow him to appoint a younger Democratic replacement in his lame duck period. Would Republicans scream like their testicles were caught in a beartrap? You bet. Boo hoo. Were the tables turned, they’d do the same, gleefully, and sneer at Democrats for daring to voice objection. 

RACING/FIGHTING IN THE STREET

I have long feared that Biden’s win and these first two years of his term while his party controls Congress (not that it feels like it) will prove to be but the eye of the storm, a brief respite before neo-fascism comes roaring back with a vengeance. We already see the Republican sorcerers trying to conjure that outcome. The midterms will be the first test, and the presidential race of 2024 the next. 

Afghanistan is tailor-made for the GOP to campaign on, allowing them to unjustly reclaim their mantle as the macho party of national security, even though they bear far more blame for that debacle than Biden or the Democrats. They will also pummel Joe for not getting COVID under control, even though it’s their own anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers—egged on by malignant Fox News propaganda—that are hindering the valiant effort of public health officials and responsible Americans. They will savage him for not getting more done, on infrastructure and everything else, even though they themselves blocked that legislation, or if he does succeed, blame him for not being sufficiently bipartisan, when they all voted against it and tried to sabotage it in every way.

We all know the playbook.

And Donald is poised to either run again, or play kingmaker, which might be even worse. 

In 2020 Trump was the incumbent—a liability for him, given his shambolic mismanagement style and ghastly record, including hundreds of thousands dead in the pandemic. But in 2024 it will be Biden defending his performance to a fickle public cursed with the memory of a goldfish, while Trump will be back in his natural role as loudmouthed, bombthrowing outsider promising the moon like the con man he is. 

It’s madness, of course, to think that the American people might return this cretin to office only four years after chucking him out on a Mavericks-sized wave of blood, but it could happen. He remains toxically unpopular, it’s true: indeed, for the GOP, a Trump run might be the same kind of unforced, self-inflicted wound as the Texas abortion bill, in terms of harming Republican prospects at the polls. But don’t rule it out. In addition to our short memories, we Americans are highly susceptible to the grifter’s pitch that “I alone can fix it,” even after recently watching him bollocks it all up in the first place. 

Trump of course need not be on the ticket for Republican horror show to be sufficiently nightmarish in ’24. Even without him, the GOP has so thoroughly—and willingly—remade itself in his pustulent image that a DeSantis or Abbott or Cotton or Haley candidacy would be just as bad. In fact, a Trumpist candidate without hideous scarlet “T” of actually being Trump might be far more dangerous, by which I mean, electable. 

And given the GOP-engineered distortion of the vote, that Republican standard bearer may well win….and if he or she doesn’t, Republican loyalists (via their structural gaming of the system) may by then be in place to hand the race to him or her anyway, or at the very least create chaos by insisting—again—that the election was stolen. More dramatically, after four years of being fed that lie about the 2020 election, and having tried and failed to mount a coup without suffering any negative repercussions, they will be emboldened to resort to mob violence again, or worse, to get what they want. 

GILEAD CALLING

Texas offers a preview of what an America under unchallengeable Republican rule would look like. There are lots of hideous angles to it, from guns to institutionalized white supremacy to a venal and unfettered kleptocracy, but one trademark aspect is sure to be the resurgence of the patriarchy.

It would be journalistic malpractice, or at least a violation of the bylaws of the Cliché Slingers’ Guild, not to note hereFlorynce Kennedy’s quote, often misattributed to Gloria Steinem, that if men could get pregnant abortion would be a sacrament. (Steinem and Kennedy say they first heard it from a salty female cab driver in Boston.) In that regard, the GOP has shown its hand in the ugliest possible way. It’s up to us make them feel the punishment, even if it means scaling the walls of outrageous voter suppression that Republicans have erected.

The alternative, come 2022 and 2024, is a whole country that looks a lot like Texas.

***********

Photo: “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Unveiling New Uniforms.” Satire by Paul Leigh. Enough people were taken in that Snopes had to clear the air….because satire is dead when things happen like what happened in Texas last week.

Anniversaries Are for Remembering

It is framed by airplanes.

On September 11, 2001, I stood with a bunch of other New Yorkers on a street corner on the Lower East Side, gazing up at the surreal sight of smoke billowing out of a gaping hole in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and a cloud of what looked like glitter—shattered glass—floating in the sky around it. No one knew exactly what had happened, but talk was that a plane had hit the building. A small private plane, we assumed. An accident. Nothing else was conceivable, or crossed our minds. 

Soon after, as we watched, a fireball erupted as a second plane crashed into the South Tower. Not a small private one, and not an accident either. Neither was the first, it turned out.

This week it was another airplane that dominated the news, the last US Air Force transport to fly out of Afghanistan as our bungled twenty-year war there came to an ignominious but necessary end. It was fitting, as our Afghan misadventure had of course been kicked off by that terrorist attack on New York and Washington twenty years ago. 

When the Biden administration chose the symbolic date of September 11, 2021 for the end of US involvement in Afghanistan, I’m sure it did not have this sort of symmetry in mind. 

Already we are witnessing the establishment of a counterfactual narrative about Afghanistan, much like the one told about Vietnam: the risible claim that we “could have won the war,” or at least departed it more gracefully, if only we had bombed the country more, sent in more troops, been more psychic, yada yada yada. And this hypocritical rush to condemn Biden comes not only from the predictable troglodytes and shameless opportunists on the right, some of whose own hands are red with blood over the matter, but also from various naïfs on the center-left. 

When they gaze upon its anarchic twilight, these critics are furious that, in their view, Joe Biden “lost” the war because he didn’t do these things. But what they are really mourning, without knowing it, is the imperialist delusion that the US can readily impose its will on countries around the world by force, a persistent fantasy that three times in my lifetime has led us into bloody quagmires of precisely this kind. 

What is it that Pete Seeger sang? Oh yeah:

“When will we ever learn?”

OPINIONS AND ASSHOLES, ONE PER CUSTOMER

The iconoclastic conservative Andrew Sullivan seized on a similar, even more macabre parallel in a recent Substack piece called “Two Men Falling.” In it, he noted the infamous image of what became known as The Falling Man, widely believed to an employee of the Windows on the World restaurant, who was among those desperate people who leapt to their deaths from the top of that burning skyscraper on 9/11. (The identity of the exact individual is in question.) Sullivan twinned it with the image of a desperate Afghan refugee—also one of several—who was photographed falling thousands of feet from the exterior of a massive USAF C-17 to which he was clinging as it flew out of Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul last week. 

In some ways, Sullivan is a kind of Christopher Hitchens in reverse—a conservative turned quasi-liberal by war—and he writes eloquently about the  “the Potemkin emptiness of the entire project” in Afghanistan:

Leaving Afghanistan…is not the blow to American power and prestige these pundits are claiming. Staying in Afghanistan is.”

Everyone who has ever tried this Sisyphean task has failed. We lost the war long ago, and had conceded defeat already. Despite extraordinary sacrifices by Americans and Afghans and Brits and others, a viable, stable, less-awful alternative to Taliban rule existed only so long as it was kept on life support by the West—and not a day longer.

It was not long ago that many on the American right agreed…..until Joe Biden actually pulled us out. Now Biden is being assailed by the full range of critics, including America Firsters who enthusiastically cheered the idea of withdrawal when Trump initiated it; the neo-cons who led us into this debacle, then bungled it (with the distraction of the pointless invasion of Iraq in particular), and now shamelessly blame Joe for their mess; and a whole range of others who didn’t give Afghanistan a thought until this week. 

(Here again we see the difference between the two ends of the American political spectrum. The right defends their guy even when he tries to murder them and overthrow the government, while the left feels free to attack their leader even when he’s doing the right thing.) 

Sullivan:

(T)here is something about the unreal huffing and puffing this week from the left-media, the neocon holdouts and the opportunistic Republicans that seems far too cheap and easy. It’s as if they have learned nothing—nothing—from the 21st Century. They are acting now as if we are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, rather than finally ending the dumbest, longest war this country has ever fought.

They say they’re just decrying the way we left; but of course, this is the motte, not the bailey. Read any of their screeds, and you’ll see they still want us to stay. They still think they are right and that the American people are wrong, still believe they have the moral high ground, even as their morality has led to strategic blunders, and hundreds of thousands of innocent deaths. 

Sullivan concludes, “We are not a very grown-up country these days. Mercifully, we have a president who is. Who did the right thing, when others refused to. And who is mercifully not backing down.”

In a piece called “The Bloodlust of Joe Biden’s Afghanistan Critics,” The Week’s Ryan Cooper praised Biden for “continuing to hold stubbornly to what is very obviously the only realistic course of action, despite a mindless frenzy of condemnation from the media and the GOP, and little support from his own party,” calling it “the strongest act of political courage I have seen from a president in my life.”

(T)hese blood-crazed critics have no arguments or even suggestions that do not involve getting more American soldiers killed, except genocidal slaughter of Afghan civilians. 

Not a single one of these cretins has even bothered to outline a medium-term plan.

These armchair generals don’t care about any of that. They don’t care about working out a viable plan to do anything in particular, or defending any conception of American interests, or respecting the sacrifice of Our Troops. They want to leverage the shock, horror, and pain of American soldiers getting killed to whip up a good old war frenzy, just like they did after 9/11, and get hundreds or thousands more troops injured and killed in the process of yet another madcap imperialist crusade. The American military is a plaything for these people in their crusade to seize domestic power by driving the citizenry into a frothing desire for vengeance.

In an op-ed for USA Today, the foreign policy thinker David Rothkopf wrote that “the intellectual dishonesty in critiques of how President Joe Biden is handling the US departure from Afghanistan has been off the charts.” (He then tidily decimated the full menu of complaints.) Continuing his argument in The Atlantic, Rothkopf wrote of how the haters have been “incandescently self-righteous in their invective against the Biden administration,” saving his most scalding contempt for the oft-heard conventional wisdom, bandied by both sides, that “Biden owns this.”   

America’s longest war has been by any measure a costly failure, and the errors in managing the conflict deserve scrutiny in the years to come. But Joe Biden doesn’t “own” the mayhem on the ground right now. What we’re seeing is the culmination of 20 years of bad decisions by US political and military leaders. If anything, Americans should feel proud of what the US government and military have accomplished in these past two weeks. President Biden deserves credit, not blame. 

Unlike his three immediate predecessors in the Oval Office, all of whom also came to see the futility of the Afghan operation, Biden alone had the political courage to fully end America’s involvement. 

On that point, many of the people who are screaming the loudest about the loss of Afghanistan are the same ones who assured us that the war was won back in November 2001, and who blithely took us into Iraq under false pretenses (sometimes called “lies”), dooming what slim chance we ever had to hold our gains in that first war. It astonishes me that in the gnashing of teeth over Afghanistan, the role of Iraq is not more frequently or prominently mentioned. Even now these Republicans would have us believe that we could still “win” this misbegotten crusade—like Iraq before it, and Vietnam before that—if we would just stick to an obstinate non-strategy that hasn’t yet worked despite two decades of violent, financially exorbitant effort. 

I’m beginning to question their judgment. 

Bush and Cheney must be laughing their asses off that the national debate is over who’s to blame, Biden or Trump. (For that matter, the US is responsible for creating the Taliban in the first place, as a proxy force to fight the Soviets after their 1979 invasion. See Kai Bird’s terrific new biography on Jimmy Carter, The Outlier.)

Or as former Under Secretary of State Richard Stengel put it on Twitter: “Blaming Biden for Afghanistan is like saying the last batter in a 9-inning 10-to-nothing rout was responsible for the loss.”

LAST TANGO IN KABUL

I am generally a fan of the writer Anne Applebaum, but in a recent piece she derided the notion that “there is no military solution in Afghanistan” as the laziest of cliches. Like Rothkopf’s article, it ran in The Atlantic, but it read like the sort of right wing sneering you’d find in National Review. 

She then went on at length about the usefulness of military power, and the times when it is the only possible recourse.

Was that up for debate? 

To say “there is no military solution in Afghanistan” is not to say there is never a situation where military force should be applied, and I’m not aware of anyone but the Quakers making that claim. Ms. Applebaum sets that up as a false equivalence allegedly made by those she criticizes, then spends a lot of time making a bad faith argument against it. 

When we talk about the limits of military power in Afghanistan, what we mean is that we could not impose democracy there by force alone, particularly with an ill-conceived strategy that failed to take into account the people, history, and conditions in question. (Our enemy, however, very much could impose tyranny that way. How long they will be able to maintain it is a separate issue, as ISIS-K will attest.) Moreover, I am not sure what Applebaum would have us do in Afghanistan, either now or over the preceding twenty years, because she never lays that out. 

Are there situations that demand military force? Of course. But the problem is not usually our reluctance to use it, but rather, our tendency to think it’s a literal magic bullet.

The opposite tack is taken in a recent New Yorker piece by Robin Wright headlined “US Retaliation for the Kabul Bombing Won’t Stop ISIS or End Terrorism.” One might say that title is laughably obvious, almost Onion-worthy….except that we as Americans continually fail to learn it.  Wright:

(T)he central flaw in US strategy is the belief that military force can eradicate extremist groups or radical ideologies. On Friday evening, a senior Biden Administration official acknowledged that the United States “can’t physically eliminate an ideology. What you can do is deal, hopefully effectively, with any threat that it poses.”

“The bottom line is that kinetic action by itself cannot significantly counter terrorist organizations,” Seth Jones, a former adviser to US Special Operations forces in Afghanistan, told me. “It is very limited in what it can do. It can disrupt operationally and take people out. But tactical and operational impact is very short-term.”

Airpower, like the recent drone strike on ISIS-K in retaliation for its suicide bombing at the Kabul, is particularly feckless in this regard, since our enemy in Southwest Asia—not unlike the Viet Cong—is geared for asymmetrical warfare and by design uniquely resistant to those kind of high tech attacks. Indeed, Wright goes on to note that airstrikes like that one, while doing relatively little operational damage, can actually serve the enemy’s needs—particularly a heretofore marginal insurgent group like ISIS-K—by raising its profile and street cred. 

That is the sort of thing that has made it rather challenging for the US to win hearts and minds throughout this whole fucking crusade. The “quick and easy” surgical strikes that many Americans imagine are within our power are rarely either. 

Especially when we kill innocent civilians including children in the process. 

Ironically, Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers now find themselves in the Russian / American position of fighting a counterinsurgency, against the smaller, even more ruthless Islamic State-Khorasan, which it brands as a “terrorist group.” And they may find that they cannot defeat ISIS-K by force alone either, only by destroying its appeal to any appreciable number of Afghans. 

“ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US”

One popular right wing fairy tale is that there really was no more shooting war in Afghanistan, and that we could have held off the Taliban with just a small military presence that would suffer an “acceptable” level of “minimal” casualties, presumably ad infinitum. Among those advancing this view were former US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the New York Times’ designated conservative columnist Bret Stephens. 

But in The Week, Joel Mathis wrote witheringly of this view:

There is something disturbing about the casual disregard for American lives underlying those statements: ‘Minimal’ casualties means only a few soldiers killed or maimed, only a few families back home devastated by the loss of their loved ones. Even if you accept that idea, Crocker and Stephens and the other hawks aren’t really arguing that the sacrifice is worth it, but rather that there won’t be any real sacrifice at all.

To be fair, I do understand the impulse here. In two previous blogs about Afghanistan (“Banging On a Window That Long Since Closed,” back in April, and “Now Ain’t the Time For Your Tears,” two weeks ago), I’ve mentioned what might be called “the Berlin option,” stating that I had favored it, with caveats. In short, this was the idea—popular in the military and intelligence communities, and advanced by people like the much-respected former NATO Supreme Commander Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis—that a small cadre of US combat troops garrisoned in Kabul could stave off a total Taliban conquest by acting as a kind of tripwire, like the US Army’s old Berlin Brigade.

I want to be clear that I believe this approach might have eased our exit from Afghanistan, but could never have been a long term solution. After all, the Berlin Brigade analogy is not quite right. The Soviet army wasn’t closing in on the Kurfurstedamm in active combat over 45 years; it was holding fast in a permanent stalemate. 

By contrast, the status quo in Afghanistan was not tenable. The low level of active combat was due not to military success on our part, but to a deal with the Taliban to hold its fire on the promise that we would soon be gone. They surely would have ramped the bloodshed up dramatically if we’d changed our minds and decided to stay. (Even the Never Trump conservative Max Boot, who is otherwise supportive of Biden, reverted to his hawkish neo-conservatism and bought into the idea that all was well in Afghanistan until last week, fooled by the Taliban’s strategic pause while awaiting the US withdrawal.) In that scenario, a US combat brigade hunkered down in a Green Zone while Islamist insurgents slowly took over the rest of the country would not constitute victory, or even a draw, and could not be maintained indefinitely. 

In other words, there might have been marginally better ways to have gotten out of Afghanistan, but all of them were going to be ugly; the only question was one of degree. As the Carnegie Senior Fellow Stephen Wertheim says, “You don’t get to lose a war and expect the result to look like you’ve won it.”

And MAGA Nation was always going to blame Biden no matter what.  

MEANWHILE AT MAR-A-LAGO

To that end, tribalism is naturally at the core of much of this criticism of Biden.

As the Internet wit Jeff Tiedrich tweeted: “If you sat silent when Trump abandoned Syria and evacuated exactly zero of our Kurdish allies and handed over our military bases to Russia, kindly sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up and spare us your fake outrage over Afghanistan.” 

Even as the MAGA minions are shrieking that “this tragedy would never have happened under Trump!” it’s risible to think that the former guy would have done better in managing the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is an article of faith in conservative America. You will be shocked to learn that, in order to traffic in this delusion, Trump’s pinwheel-eyed disciples are willfully ignoring a few pertinent facts. (So unlike them.) To wit:

Trump is the one who made the decision to pull out of Afghanistan so hastily, and has continually taken “credit’ for it, bragging as recently as June that Biden couldn’t reverse the decision if he wanted to. Trump made a deal with the Taliban last year to keep hostilities low while he ran for re-election, and gave them everything they wanted in exchange, including the release of more than 5000 Taliban fighters from prison. The Trump administration arranged the release from prison of the new Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, even as Trump further inflamed the Islamic world—and thrilled his white nationalist followers—with his racist, xenophobic, and sectarian rhetoric and policies. Trump failed to reckon with the rise of other insurgent groups, like ISIS-K, reduced US troops levels incountry which allowed the Taliban to accelerate its gains, and slowed the screening process to bring Afghan refugees into the US, part of Stephen Miller’s racist campaign against any kind of immigration whatsoever. So much for the sanctimony about abandoning our allies. 

Indeed, Trump put this endgame in motion, arguably speeding the very collapse of the Afghan government that took almost everyone by surprise. Doug Lute, a former ambassador to NATO who led Afghanistan policy in the Bush and Obama administrations, told The New Yorker’s Robin Wright that after “Trump took office and vowed to leave Afghanistan, the Taliban told tribal leaders and local governments to make a choice—ally with them or stick with a corrupt central government that would soon no longer have US protection.” A slew of cease-fire arrangements-in-waiting commenced, paving the way for the Taliban to take Kabul months faster than US intelligence predicted. 

Arching over all of this, of course, Trump howled for four years about putting “America First” and ending wars exactly like this one—including this one by name, in fact—while the same supporters who are now eviscerating Joe Biden rubbed their hands raw applauding. 

Despite all that, Republicans would have us believe that somehow Trump would have carried out an efficient and effortless end to US involvement. To no one’s surprise, Trump himself feels no shame in making that same claim in between rounds of golf and cheeseburgers at Elba-Lago.

Back here on Planet Earth, however, there’s no evidence he could successfully manage a lemonade stand, let alone a strategic withdrawal under pressure. I refer you to his performance presiding over the deaths of some 400,000 Americans—more than we lost in all of World War II—through his jawdropping mismanagement of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the most horrendous display of criminal incompetence in US presidential history. 

But on the bright side, he did try to stage a violent coup d’etat here at home. So there’s that.

ONLY THE POPE IS INFALLIBLE—ACTUALLY, NOT EVEN THE POPE

The dishonest, hypocritical, and vastly unwarranted criticisms of Biden over Afghanistan do not excuse the valid ones. 

Biden made some crucial errors in failing to anticipate the speed of the Afghan collapse (so did I, but I’m not president), the early stages of the pullout were terribly chaotic, and the delay in beginning the evacuation of US citizens and Afghan allies was a black mark on America’s honor that we will not soon live down (notwithstanding individual acts of great valor). If that smacks of cheap and unearned hindsight, on my part this time, I am only judging by the tales of credible figures on the ground—senior military personnel, State Department and other governmental officials, journalists, NGO personnel, and others—and the consensus they are reporting. 

In the New Yorker, David Rohde—who in 2009 spent seven months as a prisoner of the Taliban—wrote movingly of the anarchy of the US withdrawal, and above all the lack of a coherent system for trying to rescue the tens of thousands of Afghan civilians who had worked and fought alongside US. (The Taliban leader who headed the faction which abducted Rohde is now the security chief for all of Kabul.) That is perhaps the principal, indelible stain that Biden will have to bear, far more than delusions that there were things he could have done to “win” the war. 

But as I’ve written before, this is the difference between Biden supporters—and other sane Americans—and the Trump cult. We don’t believe our man is infallible. We don’t fly giant BIDEN flags from our vehicles as we blast down the highway (especially months after the election), or believe him when he says to trust him rather than our own eyes, or think he can redirect the path of a hurricane with a Sharpie. If I err on the side of defending him, it’s because he remains infinitely preferable to his opponents, who have shown us that they will consistently do all the wrong things in every possible way, and gleefully. 

While there is now Monday morning quarterbacking aplenty from the safety of home, even some of the people on the ground have had a hard time envisioning the details of a smoother exit. In another New Yorker piece, Robin Wright quoted a US official in Kabul as saying that “in the end, there was a consensus among the exhausted American military personnel and envoys that they just wanted out, even as they questioned the frantic chaos of how it was done.”

Among people who risked their lives to fulfill the ever-evolving directives, there was a final sorrow that the US campaign in Afghanistan would never have worked, whatever the commitment by one of the largest military coalitions ever assembled. “How were we going to fix it?” the official said. “It was time to cut our losses. People out there said, ‘We need to go—but not like this.’ The problem,” he added, “was that no one knew what better looked like.”

It is, of course, quite possible to accept that Biden has done a courageous and pragmatic thing in carrying out the US withdrawal from an unwinnable and unwise war, and at the same time believe that he botched his moral duty to stand up a working system to get out as many of those who helped us as possible. Life being a complex and non-Manichean thing, he may go down in history both for his remarkable political bravery and for the mismanagement that led to so many valiant people being left behind. 

Even so, he gets the benefit of the doubt, if only by virtue of the moral bankruptcy of those who oppose and excoriate him. 

Sullivan again:

Between these think-tank critics who helped create this nightmare in the first place, and Biden who fucked it up but actually did it, I’m with the president. 

(V)iolent regime collapse is always chaotic….There was never going to be a smooth or orderly transition; or any result that didn’t bring the religious fanatics back to power. Never. If the last few days do not persuade the pious think-tankers and Blob stenographers of that, they are a lost cause. The least they can do as we witness the end of their delusional disaster of two decades is to shut up.

I mean: how many of us were closely following developments in Afghanistan this spring? How many read any stories about the place? How many segments did CNN devote to Afghanistan in June and July? And how many of us who cheered the original invasion have been able to acknowledge candidly how deeply wrong we were since, and retain a modicum of humility and shame as we watch the inevitable end of our own hubristic dreams? 

Speaking of courage, the Washington Post recently carried a gutting story of Biden meeting with the families of the final thirteen American servicemembers to die in Afghanistan, as their remains were returned to Dover AFB in his native Delaware. 

Many of these family members were not Biden voters, and were understandably furious with him. Some of the angriest ones nevertheless came away with some grudging respect amid their pain. Others did not. Biden just had to stand there and take it. That is the burden of leadership, though some shirk it. (Trump never met in person with any Gold Star families, and spoke by phone or mail with only a few, though he did make a habit of insulting them.) 

The searing grief of these American family members is heartbreaking. But as commander in chief, Joe Biden has clearly asked himself whether he can in good conscience carry on with a futile war that will send still more silver coffins back to Dover for years to come. One might accept that—as even some of these grieving family members did—and yet still say that Biden partially mishandled the endgame. I am sure that people who were on the inside will, in the coming years, tell us the details that will allow history to judge.  

THE THIN KHAKI LINE

Perhaps the only good thing that can be said about the fall of Afghanistan is that its timing forces us to reckon with 9/11 in a more somber way, and not in what might otherwise have been an orgy of nationalistic self-pity on its 20th anniversary. 

Normally on this anniversary, I repost a piece I originally published in this blog in September 2017 called “The Voice of the Prophet,” about Rick Rescorla, a US Army officer who fought in Vietnam alongside my father, and three decades later, as head of security for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, saved the lives of some 3000 people in the World Trade Center before sacrificing his own life by going back into the building to look for stragglers shortly before it collapsed. I invite you to read it in honor of Rick and the other anonymous heroes of that terrible day. 

But the timing of the Afghan collapse compels me to focus more narrowly on some of the things Rick said in that 1998 interview I filmed with him on the 44th floor of the South Tower, three years before he gave his life there. (I cut that interview into a documentary short, also called The Voice of the Prophet, which was shown at Sundance 2002, and which can be seen online here.)

Rick began our interview with a scalding critique of the wrongheadedness of the Vietnam war in which he fought. (An Englishman by birth, he had fought in Cyprus and Rhodesia before emigrating to the US.) Turning to what was then the present, he went on to describe the context in which terrorism would arise in the 21st century, indicted the Gulf war and its oil-soaked motive, and condemned US involvement in Nicaragua and other places where we were “backing the wrong people” and propping up dictators for the benefit of corporate interests. He argued that if the US instead lived up to its professed values, the rest of the world would applaud and follow suit, eliminating much of the anti-Americanism that motivated problematic US military interventions in the first place.

He concluded with these words:

Military power is completely secondary to national will and national morality…. 

We in America have been very fortunate. We’ve been blessed with a wonderful country and everything, and wonderful resources, but don’t let us think that we can be the world’s top cop. (We are now) first in the front line troops fighting wars that we don’t understand, in places that the people in the United States have never heard of and can’t pronounce, let alone know why we’re there. And American blood is being spilled. 

Finally I would say that the residue of hatred this is creating in these foreign countries, where we’re going these things and we don’t think there are any repercussions—those people should think about the (1993) World Trade Center bombing and things of this nature. Things will come home to roost—and they may be twenty years later—of cavalier actions that we’re taking now out there…

We think we can go out there and be the world’s top cop? It’s impossible.

In closing, amid the politics surrounding the US exit from Afghanistan, let’s pause to note the incredible bravery and dedication of the members of the US Air Force’s Air Mobility Command—and the members of the other armed services and civilian US personnel assisting them—in carrying out one of the largest, most dangerous, and most remarkable airlifts in human history. Pictures emerged of C-17s loaded with as many as 800 passengers, challenging the laws of aerodynamics, and attesting to the skill and bravery of the American aircrews. (For perspective, the C-17 is designed to carry a total of combat-loaded 102 paratroopers. Even if you count each paratrooper and gear as two empty-handed people, that plane was still at quadruple capacity.)

Such is the individual heroism that attends even the most fucked up foreign policy shitshow.

We were right to go into Afghanistan in late 2001 to seek out the people who had attacked us, and those who gave them sanctuary. We were wrong to think we could occupy that country afterward and remake it in our image, largely for—let’s be honest—our own purposes. Unfortunately, that nationbuilding phase was integral to securing a lasting military victory, which speaks to the limits of military power alone.

A conundrum for sure.

Some of the US Marines killed in the recent ISIS-K suicide attack were infants when Al Qaeda attacked the US on September 11th. For some nations, twenty years of war is not unusual; in the US, however, we prefer quick victories, ideally with a minimum of American sacrifice. That may be in part because the foreign wars we fight are not usually against existential threats, let alone on our own soil. Our enemies, whether they are the Vietnamese or the Iraqis or the Afghans, often have more motivation to stand and fight. 

But in the end, no superpower—not the US nor any other—can simply impose its will by brute force alone if that brute force is not part of a broader, multi-pronged strategy of the kind we were never able to develop in Southwest Asia. (Nor Southeast Asia before it.)  When the US went into Afghanistan after 9/11, it was with a sense of national unity and a righteousness of purpose that I’ve rarely seen in my lifetime, at least not for genuinely honorable reasons. That we let that mission devolve into debacle while distracted with a separate, venal, and wholly unnecessary war next door was a crucial mistake, but sadly not the only one, or the last. 

The grim results were on display this week, made even worse by the shameless partisanship of American reactionaries. 

Twenty years is a long time to come away having learned less than nothing.  

*********

Photo: A US Air Force C-17 flying out of Kabul in the final days of the US occupation, late August 2021

Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears

In April, when Joe Biden announced that he would follow through with Donald Trump’s impulsive decision to withdraw all US forces from Afghanistan, I wrote a blog about that decision called “Banging On a Window That Long Since Closed.” The gist of that piece was that the window for any kind of American “peace with honor” in Afghanistan, or even anything that could be lipsticked-onto-a pig to pass as such (if you squint), had long since slammed shut. As I wrote back then:

Victory in warfare is like art or pornography: it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. What we have in Afghanistan is not victory by any definition, though it’s pornographic in that plenty of people got fucked. 

So as we watch the sudden, unexpectedly rapid end of a failed military campaign that sprawled over twenty brutal years, here’s what I got right and what I got wrong back in April.

Right first, because everybody gets a trophy. 

I was correct that our cause in Afghanistan was lost and that the Taliban would regain power. That did not require the talents of Nostradamus, Kreskin, or even Madame Kavorca who reads palms in a storefront in between the vape shop and Ray’s Pizza on my street. I was correct that reaction to that collapse would cut across the usual ideological lines, and that the right wing would blame Biden no matter what, willfully ignoring Trump’s fingerprints on the mess. 

I will also take credit for identifying what remains the fundamental lesson at the core of this whole two-decade-long debacle: “The real lesson that the literal no-win situation in Afghanistan ought to teach us—again—is the limits of military power.”

Is that super duper obvious and not worth bragging about? Maybe so, but it’s a lesson the United States seems to have a lot of trouble learning. And by “United States” I mean not just our government but the American people as well.

Now here’s what I got wrong: 

I vastly underestimated how quickly Afghanistan would fall. In that I am in good company, along with the White House, the CIA, State Department, Pentagon, and the US press. (Reliable sources now report that the speed of that collapse is largely due to a slew of cease fire pacts—surrenders, if you will—pre-negotiated between the Taliban and government forces in various regions.)

I was also overly optimistic in terms of how much Biden would avoid the blowback, and how much he could piggyback on Trump’s decision as a means to get us out of an unwinnable and unpopular war without shouldering too much of the blame himself. I wrote: “Biden’s choice to withdraw under cover of Trump’s folly, even with all its drawbacks, may prove to be the most prudent available course.” 

So Madame Kavorca I’m not. More on that in a bit. 

What is most interesting now is the way that this tragedy should come as no great surprise, and what it says about us that it somehow still does. (To that end, I’m going to recycle some parts of that piece from April—the correct ones, updated where necessary—because they bear repeating.)

SAIGON IN THE SAND

Many column inches are being devoted to what the US did wrong in Afghanistan over the course of twenty years, and what we could have done differently. It’s the same post-mortem that followed Vietnam. I can only touch here very briefly on some lowlights, but the silver lining of that long, terrible misadventure was supposed to be that we had learned our geopolitical lesson—that there would be “no more Vietnams.” But it’s clear that we did not learn that, because there have been.  

The veteran war correspondent Jon Lee Anderson, who covered the US invasion back in 2001, writes in The New Yorker that in Afghanistan “the Americans did not merely not learn from the mistakes of others; they did not learn from their own mistakes, committed a generation earlier, in Vietnam.”

The main errors were, first, to underestimate the adversaries and to presume that American technological superiority necessarily translated into mastery of the battlefield, and, second, to be culturally disdainful, rarely learning the languages or the customs of the local people. 

By the end of the first American decade in Afghanistan, it seemed evident that the Western counterinsurgency enterprise was doomed to fail, and not only because of the return of the Taliban in many rural parts of the country: the Americans and their NATO allies closed themselves off from Afghans in large regional bases, from which they operated in smaller units out of combat outposts, and distrust reigned between them and their putative Afghan comrades. 

Incredibly, as in Vietnam, we again rotated personnel so frequently that no institutional knowledge could be accrued; hence the famous axiom that we didn’t fight a twenty-year war, but a one-year war twenty times. 

We tried to build an Afghan military that looked like our own, ignoring the specifics of the situation, and equipped our partner forces with high tech Western weaponry that required a foreign infrastructure to maintain. 

While the Afghan air force and special forces were reportedly solid, the rank-and-file was never a force that could stand on its own, even after twenty years of military assistance. In part that is because it’s much harder to build a standing army than a small air force and an SOF capability, and in part because that was the warfighting paradigm the US favored, going all the way back to the Rumsfeld-championed “Revolution in Military Affairs” in that original 2001 invasion—unironically titled Operation Enduring Freedom. (America’s history of seeing airpower as a magic bullet is long and ugly, but has never resulted, on its own, in what is recognizable as victory.)

Above all, from the very beginning the US pursued a shortsighted vision in Afghanistan that was also reminiscent of Vietnam in that operational success was the metric of choice, untethered to its political ramifications. 

Here’s Professor Jason Dempsey of the Center for a New American Security, who served as a US Army infantry officer both in Afghanistan and Iraq, and as a civilian adviser to the Afghans, writing in the military affairs website War on the Rocks in 2019:

In the eyes of America’s uniformed leadership the United States was “winning militarily” in Afghanistan for the entirety of the conflict. For nearly 18 years, American military commanders declared solid progress as they rotated through Afghanistan. These positive assessments became so standard, and seemingly so out of line with reality, that in 2018 even the normally staid Military.com wrote (an article about) Gen. Mick Nicholson’s farewell remarks….titled “Outgoing US Commander Continues Tradition of Hailing Progress in Afghanistan.”

A headline worthy of The Onion.

Ultimately, again as in South Vietnam, the fundamental flaw in Afghanistan was that there was never a substantive, sustainable democratic government that could lead the country. As with Nixon-era “Vietnamization,” the Pentagon had been focused on standing up a national army capable of defeating the enemy on the battlefield without recognizing that that is but one part of a functioning, viable state: necessary but not sufficient. 

In Dempsey’s words, we were “building a military for a nation that did not exist.” Or as Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, writes: “The US designed the Afghan state to meet Washington’s counterterrorism interests, not the interests of Afghans, and what we see today is the result.” 

Per Clausewitz’s most famous aphorism, war is the extension of politics by other means. In that regard, force alone is highly limited in what it can achieve in the interest of national objectives. Simply put, we could not bomb and shoot our way to democracy in Afghanistan, much as we tried.  

It also didn’t help that we were fighting a second war at the same time.

THE DOUBLEHEADER THAT SHOULDN’T HAVE BEEN

You want to blame someone for the fall of Afghanistan? Don’t blame Joe Biden. Don’t even blame Donald Trump.

Blame George W. Bush.

Way back in September 2001, the idea presented to the American people was that the Taliban was a ghastly, totalitarian junta with no appreciable public support, savagely oppressing the majority of Afghans, and that its forcible removal by the United States would allow democracy to flower in that country, with the help of postwar nationbuilding. (The United States’ culpability in creating the Taliban in the first place, during the 1979-89 Soviet war, is a separate story.)

The problem is that we didn’t carry through on the second half of the equation. After evicting the Taliban with shocking speed and relative ease in late 2001, we patted ourselves on the collective back and shifted our attention to invading Iraq for no apparent reason, at a time when we should have been pouring our energies into ensuring security, stability, and the painstaking establishment of nascent democracy in a place where the odds were stacked against all three. That postwar phase of the Afghan invasion was, in fact, the far more difficult and time-consuming part of the job—never the United States’ strong suit. By bollocksing it up as we did, we ceded whatever victory we had won, and gave the lie to notion that we were in the “postwar” phase at all. (In fact, subsequent events tarnished even the pride we took in the quick military victory in the first place. Some would say that the Taliban merely beat a strategic retreat, knowing that they could wait us out. And they did.)

In his speech Monday, President Biden made the argument that our mission in Afghanistan was complete ten years ago, when Al Qaeda was rendered combat-ineffective and Bin Laden was killed. “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nationbuilding. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.”

But it’s semantics. “Nationbuilding”— “pacification,” as they called it in Vietnam—was the necessary process of creating a state in Afghanistan formidable enough to prevent the Taliban or someone like them from regaining power, and the region from again becoming a haven for terrorism. That proved a lot harder than taking down the country in the first place. 

We had a very small window to secure our military foothold in Afghanistan and begin that difficult process. That window closed with a definitive slam when we irrationally invaded Iraq. Distracted with a separate, pointless, and totally avoidable quagmire, in Afghanistan we found ourselves allied with some of the most corrupt and incompetent elements available, while fighting a slow, grueling war of attrition against a very very patient and experienced enemy, and without the resources or bandwidth to win it. 

Over the centuries, Afghanistan has successfully resisted invasion by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Persians, the British, the Soviets, and now us. Not for nothing is it known as “the graveyard of empires.” It would have been plenty difficult to pacify Afghanistan even if it had had all our attention. While waging a second, disastrous war in another country, it was impossible.

IF I STAY THERE WILL BE TROUBLE, AND IF I GO IT WILL BE DOUBLED

As I wrote in April: 

An argument over whether we are prematurely pulling out of Afghanistan elides the bigger question of whether our current strategy there would ever work, no matter how long we stay, or if indeed any workable strategy even exists. If we had a such an approach, matters would be very different, but over twenty years of fighting we’ve never been able to develop one, suggesting that something is deeply wrong with the DNA of the entire endeavor.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the US is propping up an unreliable regional partner that can’t stand on its own, while making no appreciable progress toward building a stable democracy that can. On balance, that argues for an end to the pursuit of a lost cause, even if it is only the lesser of two evils. 

Of course, when the Taliban regain power, which they almost inevitably will, there will be blame aplenty to go around, and it may be President Kamala Harris (or still Joe Biden, or maybe the odious Tom Cotton) who will have to deal with it. Then the fingerpointing and “who-shot-john” will really begin….what we in the Army used to call the desperate search for the low man on the chain of blame. 

But ugly as that will be, in and of itself, that fact does not justify staying a losing course.

In his speech Monday, President Biden affirmed this belief that the fundamental nature of our involvement in Afghanistan, at least as it stands circa 2021, is untenable: 

The events we’re seeing now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, secure Afghanistan….What’s happening now could just as easily happen five years ago or 15 years in the future.

“If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision,” Biden argued, echoing former Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and others who have cited the speed with which the Afghan government collapsed as evidence of just how hollow it was. Given that, the President correctly pointed out that there would never be a good time to withdraw US forces. (He was also quite correct that “China and Russia, would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.”)

….(I)f Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now, there is no chance that one year—one more year, five more years or 20 more years—that US military boots on the ground would have made any difference.

How many more American lives is it worth, how many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery? I’m clear on my answer. I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past, the mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, of attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of US forces. 

I cannot and will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another country’s civil war, taking casualties, suffering life-shattering injuries, leaving families broken by grief and loss. This is not in our national security interest. It is not what the American people want. It is not what our troops who have sacrificed so much over the past two decades deserve. 

I’m onboard with all that. Some military people I know will be too, and some will not. 

But notwithstanding the corruption of various post-2001 Kabul regimes, The New Yorker’s Steve Coll is hard on the reductive notion that the Afghans themselves bear the blame for not getting their shit together: 

(T)o suggest that the Afghan people haven’t done their bit is a kind of blame-shifting that I think is not only unjustifiable but outrageous. 

The Afghans now have suffered generation after generation of not just continuous warfare but humanitarian crises, one after the other, and Americans have to remember that this wasn’t a civil war that the Afghans started among themselves that the rest of the world got sucked into. This situation was triggered by an outside invasion, initially by the Soviet Union, during the Cold War, and since then the country has been a battleground for regional and global powers seeking their own security by trying to militarily intervene in Afghanistan, whether it be the United States after 2001, the CIA in the nineteen-eighties, Pakistan through its support first for the mujahideen and later the Taliban, or Iran and its clients. 

To blame Afghans for not getting their act together in light of that history is just wrong.

So was there any sort of feasible middle course between total withdrawal and what the great Dexter Filkins dubbed “the forever war” (and he dubbed it that twelve years ago, in 2009), aimed at the unlikely goal of total destruction of the Taliban and establishment of Jeffersonian democracy?

In April I wrote that “If this were an American version of Brexit, I would cop to being on the side of ‘Remain’—with a severe qualifier.” The qualifier I had in mind was along the lines suggested by the former NATO SACEUR Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis, who proposed that keeping even a battalion of US combat troops incountry might be a wise move, as a kind of tripwire to deter Taliban aggression, not unlike the role of the old Berlin Brigade (1961-94). 

In some ways that was not very different than the US approach over the past several years, as Coll writes:

The decisions of the Obama Administration, and the Trump Administration in the first couple of years, reflected a rare political consensus in the United States that there was a willingness to sustain a relatively small troop deployment and expenditures in Afghanistan for a path out that would not lead to what we are watching now. 

But even remaining with a small footprint and constrained ambitions is not a long term solution for a country where there is no appreciable homegrown counterweight to monsters like the Taliban. Even Coll, comparing the process to negotiations with FARC in Colombia, admits that that might have taken another twenty years. And America is not known for that kind of patience.

WHAT DUTY AND HONOR DEMAND

It is of course possible to believe that withdrawal from Afghanistan was the right thing to do, and also believe that we could have handled it, ya know….better. 

Per the Stavridis plan, Coll has posited that the real objection to the Biden-led withdrawal is not that we should have remained, but rather, the haste with which the administration “pulled the plug on what was not a large deployment, and one that was not incurring a lot of casualties.”

Writing in The Week, Joel Mathis quoted retired General (Ret.) Douglas E. Lute, who told The New York Times. “The puzzle for me is the absence of contingency planning. If everyone knew we were headed for the exits, why did we not have a plan over the past two years for making this work?” Mathis adds: “Even if you believe it was important for America to finally get out of Afghanistan, and even if you believe things were always going to end badly, the way we’ve chosen to leave has been ugly and harmful.”

The images of desperate Afghans trying to cling to the outside of a giant US Air Force C-17 Globemaster as it took off from Kabul airport inevitably recall the searing images of Vietnamese trying to get on Huey helicopters on the roof of the besieged US embassy in Saigon in April 1975, and of other American helicopters being pushed off the decks of ships like the USS Midway, and Kirk, and Okinawa to accommodate the incoming aircraft bearing those refugees. (Human remains were subsequently found in the wheel well of one C-17.)

These images do bring up some memories for me. 

In 1991, my parachute infantry regiment of the 82nd Airborne was laagered in southern Iraq, in the spot where we had halted our advance when the cease fire was announced. Forbidden to intervene, we watched helplessly as Saddam turned his surviving forces on his own people to suppress the discontent rising in his cities. Nightly we could hear the artillery being fired in nearby towns like An Nasiriyah. Dissidents and rebels came to our checkpoints with tales of atrocities by government troops, begging for asylum or pleading for help, which George H.W. Bush had promised as he encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam. The rebels expressed their dismay that the United States now declined to assist them in their cause, and they weren’t comforted by nuanced explanations of geopolitics, the limits of the UN mandate, or realpolitik. Meanwhile our medics kept busy treating an increasing torrent of civilian casualties. Hysterical Iraqi mothers came to the aid station with bleeding and burned children, and the medics held the dying babies in their hands, bundled them onto helicopters, did everything they could, their best efforts only a wall of sand against a tidal wave of pestilence and death and destruction. It was gutting, but our orders were to stay out of the civil unrest. So we stood by helplessly as the remnants of the Republican Guard limped north to put down the Kurdish rebellion, passing right by US checkpoints manned by itchy-trigger-fingered paratroopers who could do nothing but watch. 

It’s a similarly helpless feeling now to watch that sort of thing happen again, writ large, and arguably far worse.

Afghanistan is now in the throes of a major humanitarian crisis that promises to continue for some time. As part of that, America has a moral responsibility to evacuate and resettle in the US as many of the Afghan nationals who worked alongside our forces as humanly possible: warriors, interpreters, officials, and others. The plight of these people, who are now being hunted like dogs by the country’s new rulers, is heartbreaking, and our duty to help them is both ethical and pragmatic. (In a gutting interview with The Bulwark, a US-trained Afghan pilot now in hiding pleaded: “Please don’t leave us behind. Please. We will be great Americans.”)

As Charlie Sykes says, it is “a fundamental test of our national honor and decency.”

The failure to organize this better—and sooner—is the most egregious failure that can rightly be laid on the Biden administration, and it has an obligation to un-fuck it most tic. We as American citizens have an obligation to demand it. It is particularly inexcusable as this nightmare was foreseen by many in the know. (George Packer offers a blistering indictment in The Atlantic.). 

The future for women and girls under this hateful medieval theocracy is especially grim, as we all know. But I’m not going to sit still for lectures on feminism from the GOP—a cult of personality to a serial sexual predator, for which misogyny is a core value, and which itself promotes a viciously anti-female domestic agenda under the guise of its own religious fundamentalism. As gutting as those images are—and the grisly thought of what the Taliban will do once back in power—they don’t change the calculus that there was and is no solution here that the US can impose at the point of a bayonet. 

The Afghan crisis will present many of the same refugee and immigration issues that plagued Europe during the Syrian war, and the US cannot justifiably shrug and turn away, even though a great many—especially on the right—would like to. As with the plight of Afghanistan’s women and girls, I’m not prepared to have the “Build the Wall” demographic lecture me about how Biden has forsaken these refugees, though mostly they are lobbying for him to do just that. The likes of Charlie Kirk are already claiming that Biden wanted Afghanistan to fall because he “wants a couple hundred thousand more Ilhan Omars to come into America to change the body politic permanently.” Tucker CarlsonJ.D.Vance, and Stephen Miller made similar points. 

So the GOP at once wants to blame Biden for abandoning our allies, while actively advocating to make that abandonment as awful as possible. 

INSIDE BIZARRO WORLD

On the subject of domestic repercussions, it’s beginning to look like I had it totally backward with my earlier assessment that Biden was cleverly using Trump as cover. In the end, Biden may get all the blame even though Trump initiated the pullout, a function of how fast and ugly the endgame was, and how willing Trump’s supporters are to believe any old nonsense he spews.

Again, Madame Kavorca’s market share seems secure. 

All but forgotten—and certainly ignored by the GOP—is the fact that the Trump administration made eye-popping, self-serving concessions to the Taliban to keep them from killing Americans ahead of Donald’s 2020 re-election bid, concessions that helped create the conditions Biden must now contend with. But we have long known that Trump & Co. are very keen to make side deals with our enemies. 

(That Trump deal is part of the reason Biden carried on with the planned withdrawal, knowing that the alternative might well be a renewed campaign of Taliban bloodshed that would target US troops, and make the current fiasco look like a church picnic.)

But I’m still not convinced it will hurt Biden that much, for that very same reason, which is how calcified partisan loyalty is in these United States. If a third of the country gives Biden absolutely no credit for getting us out of a pandemic and restarting the economy, are they going to despise him any more because of Afghanistan? Nothing he does will win him any points in MAGA World….but neither will he lose any, since the hate-o-meter is already pegged. 

Conversely, it’s hard to see many Democrats switching sides to Team Trump because Kabul fell, even as ugly as it was. Of course the GOP will hammer Biden over it, dishonestly, but how many Americans are not already hunkered down in their tribes and available to go over to the other side? Is there a significant sliver of swing voters, Never Trump foreign policy hawks, and others who will be so upset about Afghanistan that it will push them into the GOP camp? We shall see.

Meanwhile, I’m sure the Lincoln Project is already at work on an ad featuring Trump speaking at a rally just this past June, taking “credit” for the Afghanistan withdrawal, saying he “started the process” and that Biden “couldn’t stop it” even if he “wanted to.”

It goes without saying that the assertions this week by Donald Trump that if he were still in charge the withdrawal would have gone swimmingly are risible beyond belief. (He also promised Infrastructure Week would start soon, that he’d release his tax returns, and that he would unveil his Much-Better-Than-Obamacare health plan.) Naturally, Trump sycophants like Hugh Hewitt, with his lip prints firmly embossed on Donald’s butt cheeks, are promoting this “I alone can fix it” fairy tale, which no one who hasn’t been comatose since 1983 ought to swallow for a minute. Over four years Trump showed that he could not successfully manage a lemonade stand, let alone a strategic withdrawal under pressure from America’s longest war.  

But because I’m a masochist, I dipped into some right wing social media this week to see for myself what MAGA World is saying. Hold on to your hats: it’s astonishingly….hmmmm, what’s the word? 

Oh, yeah: deranged.

Everything was fantastic in Afghanistan while the great patriot and Christian warrior Donald Trump was in charge! It was only when Joe Biden took over that things went to hell! (Also: Trump can bench press 700 lbs, dunk from the top of the key, and make love to seven different Eastern European prostitutes at the same time!) The comments are riddled with willful distortions, inaccuracies, and outright lies, as you would expect from folks who believe Trump won the election, COVID is a hoax, and lizard people are running a secret Satanic sex ring. Most of it is just red-faced ranting about Joe and Kamala and libtards in general. 

You know: Trumpism.

I didn’t notice much concern for the war in Afghanistan in that community for the preceding two decades. On the contrary: it was all America First and “bring the troops home.” As David Frum writes in The Atlantic:

Over the next weeks, pro-Trump critics of Biden will astonish the world with their shamelessness, as they convert from attacks on endless wars to laments for the last helicopter out of Saigon. That shamelessness will prove more effective than it deserves to.

This is utterly predictable, of course, but it’s going to be the narrative that will last for generations in the fever swamp that is right wing America, like the notion that the press lost Vietnam, or that the only thing Nixon did wrong was get caught. But it has about as much connection to reality as a seminar hosted by Mike Lindell. It is tribalism at its worst, pure and simple.

Another sign that Afghanistan is just a maguffin in MAGA World’s regularly scheduled Two Minutes Hate is the vitriol directed at General Mark Milley, including calls for his resignation. Memo to America: The CJCS is not in the chain of command and has no operational role in the Afghanistan withdrawal. Demanding Milley resign is like calling for the surgeon general to quit because you’re mad at your family doctor. Needless to say, the bile here has more to do with GEN Milley’s slapdown of Matt Gaetzhis efforts to stop Trump’s coup d’etat, and his subsequent demonization by Tucker Carlson than anything rational. 

THE SHAMELESSNESS OF THE NEO-CONS

Redhatters venting on Facebook don’t merit a millisecond of our time, except anthropologically. But there are credentialed voices on the right who are promoting the same narrative, which is equally insidious, if not more so.   

In The Bulwark, the Iranian-born neoconservative writer Shay Khatiri offered a savage indictment of the horrors that, in his view, Biden has wrought by letting Afghanistan fall. Setting aside the question of who really bears the blame, those horrors are true enough. But there is no alternative universe in which the US, in 2021, could prevent that situation, short of some sort of permanent military occupation, which Mr. Khatiri overtly favors. Apart from that open-ended commitment, he does not offer much in the way of concrete proposals for what we ought to have done differently or should do going forward. He does weigh in with praise for Trump in ordering some feckless airstrikes on Syria in 2017 (adjective mine), which, like the headline itself—“Blame Biden for Afghanistan’s Return to the Dark Ages”—hints at the real agenda here, which may have more to do with elections in America than combat in Afghanistan.

A graduate student at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins (fitting for those who remember Nitze’s own record), Mr. Khatiri writes in his bio on his website that his “studies are centered around the application of military power and war to politics.” Yet one very much gets the feeling that he holds a pre-Vietnam War, counter-Clausewitzean vision of military power as an omnipotent force in all political matters. His cred takes a further hit when one sees in that bio that he counts Paul Wolfowitz, Elliot Abrams, and Scooter Libby among his mentors. 

These, of course, are some of the chief bozos who led us into Iraq. 

When it comes to the neo-cons, I was gonna say, “Have they no shame?” but I think by now we know very well that they do not. 

BUT YOU WHO PHILOSOPHIZE DISGRACE

I’ve now rambled for 5000 words and not even scratched the surface of the strange and terrible saga of American involvement in Afghanistan. So I’ll wrap up by quoting a Mr. Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota, who wrote a song called “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” about another American cancer, wanton racial injustice. The hubris of American exceptionalism and the blind faith in military power is a different but equally toxic strain in our country, and his words apply there as well:

“Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for your tears.”

You don’t get the Nobel Prize in Literature, as Mr. Zimmerman did, for being dim. The time for weeping over our strategic errors in Afghanistan was in the spring of 2003, when we pointlessly, stupidly invaded Iraq, and in the years that followed, when we continued to pursue a strategy that emulated our last great foreign policy debacle, in Southeast Asia. What we are witnessing now is only the all-but inevitable result. The recriminations will go on and on, but these expressions of shock, either genuinely naïve or Captain Renault-like, ring hollow. 

We have seen this movie before, and ought to have known how it ends.

*********

Photo: Framegrab from smartphone video of desperate Afghans clinging to the exterior of a departing USAF C-17 as it takes off from Kabul airport, August 15, 2021.

The Insurrectionist On My Street

I live in a very progressive part of Brooklyn, and if you think that’s a redundancy (like hot water heater, or tuna fish, or ATM machine), I’ll take you on a walk through Bay Ridge or Crown Heights. 

My neighborhood is a racially, religiously, and economically diverse community that retains a fair amount of old school Brooklyn flavor, even as it admittedly embodies some of the most comic stereotypes about the borough post-gentrification. Ax-throwing bar? Check. Artisanal rubberband shop? Check. Vegan Peruvian fusion sushi? Check. Flyer for band seeking mandolin player (Influences: Tom Waits, Partridge Family, Megadeth….glut of guys respond to ad, all with the same handlebar mustache)? Check. 

Politically speaking, the community comes down hard on the Democratic side. Barack, Hillary, Bernie, and Biden bumper stickers are prevalent. It’s not a place where you’re apt to see any “Make America Great Again” or “All Lives Matter” signs in windows.

So it struck me as very odd when, a few years ago, I noticed a car regularly parked on my street with an Oath Keepers license plate. It was there so often that it was clear it belonged to one of my neighbors. 

At the time not many people were familiar with the organization, but I was, in part because it panders to the community I came from, which is the military and law enforcement. 

Since January 6th, of course, the whole country has learned who these guys are. 

The Oath Keepers are a far right wing extremist group founded in 2009, the same year the so-called Tea Party movement emerged in reaction to the election of the first Black US president. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes them thusly:

The core idea of the group is that its members vow to forever support the oaths they took on joining law enforcement or the military to defend the Constitution. But just as central is the group’s list of 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey,” a compendium of much-feared but entirely imaginary threats from the government—orders, for instance, to force Americans into concentration camps, confiscate their guns, or cooperate with foreign troops in the United States. 

These supposed threats are, in fact, part of the central conspiracy theory advocated by the antigovernment “Patriot” movement of which the Oath Keepers is a part—the baseless claim that the federal government plans to impose martial law, seize Americans’ weapons, force those who resist into concentration camps, and, ultimately, push the country into a one-world socialistic government known as the “New World Order.” In 2013, the group took on a more aggressive stance, announcing the planned formation of “Citizen Preservation” militias meant to defend Americans against the New World Order.

Understanding that, it’s no shock that on January 6, 2021, members of the Oath Keepers were prominent among the terrorists who stormed the US Capitol in an attempt to murder government officials and overturn the election in favor of Donald J. Trump. The notion that these malicious clowns are somehow “keeping their oaths” to defend the Constitution by acting as self-appointed brownshirts is the cruelest joke of all, but by now we ought to be used to living in this Kafka/Orwell/Idiocracy mashup.

Thirty-one Oath Keepers thus far have been charged with crimes related to the events of that day. The group’s involvement seems to be far more extensive, pre-meditated, and centrally coordinated than almost any other organization implicated in the attack.

And yet, that car and its pro-Insurrection license plate are still there on my Brooklyn street.

(The car has out-of-state plates from somewhere that, unlike New York, doesn’t have both front and back tags. Because, as my friend Aaron Naperstak notes, “Nothing says patriotism like insurance fraud.”) 

Hilariously, it’s a Prius, perhaps the most stereotypically bleeding heart liberal car on the American market. I guess Insurrectionists like getting good gas mileage too.

But if it was always disconcerting to have a neighbor sporting the emblem of a radical right wing militia, one keen to infiltrate and radicalize the armed forces and law enforcement communities, it is much more unnerving that it is still there after that organization has been exposed and publicized as openly seditious and violent, and complicit in an ongoing domestic insurgency.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

I can’t say I was surprised when, earlier this spring, the Oath Keepers car was vandalized. It was keyed along the left side, and someone had scratched “FU” on the driver’s side door. 

It stayed that way for a while, unrepaired, until recently someone added a second “FU” right next to the first, in the same scratchiti “handwriting,” suggesting that it came from the same commentator. Subsequent to that, several big dents have lately appeared in its body, as if kicked. (Nothing implying a hammer or other Kubrickian “Dawn of Man “ implement of destruction—a measure of graduated, Herman Kahn-style response, perhaps. This is a liberal vandal, remember.)

I continue to wonder: how much more of this abuse will the owner take before he gets the message? 

Maybe the repairs are financially prohibitive. Maybe he is sticking to his, er, guns, as a show of defiance. Or maybe he has no idea why this is happening. 

Several people have suggested to me that the owner may have bought the car used, and didn’t understand what that Oath Keepers plate meant and didn’t bother to remove it. That strikes me as odd: Would you leave a random license plate on a car you bought, especially if you didn’t understand what it means? (Also working against that theory: the multiple radio antennae on the car, suggesting someone monitoring police frequencies, CB, etc. Very Oath Keeperish.)

But maybe. Human beings, I’ve noticed, do all kinds of weird shit. If so, the fella must be really confused about why he keeps getting vandalized. Perhaps someone should leave him a note. 

But all of this offers a teachable moment, as it was once popular to say; a chance for a thought experiment in freedom of expression, community, and the limits of comity.

So for the sake of argument, let’s turn the tables for a moment. 

If I lived in deep red Staten Island, or one of those other conservative Brooklyn communities that I mentioned, and kept getting my car keyed because I have a Biden/Harris sticker on it (which I do), I would be disgusted, and angry, and would rant about the need for respect for freedom of expression. I would go on at length, sanctimoniously. Might even write a blog about it.  

Likewise, if this were 2012, and my moderate Republican neighbor in San Francisco (they do exist) was getting her car vandalized because it had a Romney sticker on it, I would feel the same outrage, even though I was very much on Team Obama. We don’t cotton to mob rule in America. Tolerance for differing opinions is the bedrock of democracy.

OK. 

But what if some white dude living in Harlem had a Klan sticker on his car? Should he expect that to go unnoticed or remarked upon? Should he expect his neighbors to smile and nod and say hi to him when he walked by, to invite him to block parties, and to solicit his participation in community board meetings? 

What about someone living in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood like Skokie, Illinois whose car (German, I presume) sports a swastika decal and the slogan 6MWE (“Six Million Wasn’t Enough”)? We still in the realm of reasonable political discourse that calls for civility and goodwill?

These are extreme examples, admittedly, but they speak to the issue. How much civility can you expect when you announce that you would like to see your neighbors disenfranchised, treated as second class citizens, or even rounded up and murdered? 

Conversely, should the community be expected to put up with it?

When it comes to domestic political protest, I don’t advocate violence—either against property, or, far worse, people. Absolutely not. The Oath Keepers and other Insurrectionists do advocate that, of course, so they have little standing to complain when it is employed against them. That does not open the door to an eye-for-an-eye free-for-all, or imply that we ought to descend to their level, but it does make their whinging pretty hard to take. Not to put too fine a point on it, but keying a car—even repeatedly—is a lot milder than storming the Capitol to lynch our lawmakers and overturn an election. 

We are not talking here about ordinary political differences, like my Biden and Romney examples. We are not talking about people who share a communal belief in Enlightenment ideals of representative democracy and whose differences dwell within that agreed upon ethos. We’re talking about a group of people who reject the fundamentals of democracy altogether, who want to seize and retain power by force, and oppress those groups whom they find distasteful.

The magnanimous refrain I’ve heard from some—including progressive friends who are equally opposed to this dude’s politics—has been: “What about this guy’s First Amendment rights?” A fair point. But when you publicly align yourself with an organization that openly advocates violent revolution, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, autocracy, or other such poisons, can you reasonably expect meek acquiescence from those whom you are openly declaring unworthy of the same respect? Freedom of speech is necessarily tempered by concerns for public safety, particularly when one advocates and incites violence, or worse, actively engages in it, as the Oath Keepers have done.  

Funny how those who demand civility often have a truncheon gripped in the hand that they are hiding behind their back.

This was the whole crux of the media’s woeful inability to comprehend Trumpism when it emerged in 2015. Treating a terrorist movement that is an existential threat to our system of government by the same rules that you treat ordinary political players who act in good faith is exactly the kind of naivete that those terrorists hope to exploit. The US media has barely gotten better at it even after six years of practice. 

NOTES ON CAMP (WITH APOLOGIES TO SUSAN)

As a sidenote, it irks me that the Oath Keepers emblem shamelessly mimics the US Army Ranger tab in color and design. Right next to the Biden/Harris decal on my car I have an American flag—the idea of my friend Justin Schein, who gave me both stickers—as a reminder that Republicans and right wing assholes don’t own the Stars & Stripes, even though their ostentatious displays of it endeavor to make us think otherwise. (It’s gotten to the point where—tragically—like many people I know, when I see someone flying the flag I tend to be suspicious of their politics.) Next to my Biden and US flag decals, I have Airborne wings and the Ranger tab, which I sweated a bit to earn, a rebuke to the reactionary attempt to hijack the whole concept of patriotism, and a reminder that plenty of people who served this country have no truck with Trumpist scheisse.

It just so happens that this past weekend my wife and I picked our ten-year-old daughter up from sleepaway camp in upstate New York. The region where her camp is located is serious Trump country, and the number of TRUMP 2024: TAKE AMERICA BACK signs was chilling……to say nothing of the occasional house that sported not just one or two Trump signs (pikers!), but had been turned into gigantic Christmas-decoration-level shrines to the Donald. 

The mind reels. 

After we picked her up we treated our rollercoaster-crazy child to a visit to a Six Flags amusement park upstate. (I’ll pause here to note that the Six Flags brand, which originated outside Dallas, refers to the six national flags that have flown over the Lone Star state: those of Spain, France, Mexico, the independent Republic of Texas, the Stars and Stripes, and—lest we forget—the flag of the Confederacy. Fitting.) 

At the entrance to the park there was a sign that read “NO PROFANITY / NO OFFENSIVE CLOTHING.” So inside the park, what was I to make of the kindly grandfather in the electric wheelchair, cradling his infant grandchild while wearing a black t-shirt with huge lettering that read FUCK BIDEN? Does that not count as offensive, or profane, or obscene? Not in that community, I suppose. 

There were a great many other patrons in the park with hyper-patriotic (faux patriotic, I would say), quasi-Blue Lives Matter, and other right wing t-shirts and hats. Nearby, at a diner, I saw a guy with a star-spangled t-shirt bearing the legend “Just an Ordinary Dad….Trying Hard Not to Raise Liberals.” With him was his sweet little crewcut son, maybe four years old. Childhood is not predestination, but as Philip Larkin reminds us, that sort of thing doesn’t exactly bode well for that unfortunate kid. 

By contrast, there were but a handful of people of color among the visitors to that park that day, likely a function of the racial homogeneity of the region, but perhaps also a reflection of their desire not to be surrounded by people who so openly and proudly display their open hatred for them. And those haters do so, I hasten to add, without the slightest apparent fear of confrontation. Or shame.  

They would be in for a rude awakening if they were to park in my neighborhood.

“LEAVE THE REST TO ME”

The question of facing down Insurrectionists is not an academic one. As I have noted many times in this blog, echoing a chorus through the mediasphere, Trump’s self-coup may have failed, but Beer Hall Putsch-like, it has merely set the stage for the next attempt. 

The threat of violence from right wing radicals who reject Biden’s legitimacy remains dangerously high, as Frank Figliuzzi, former assistant director for counterintelligence at the FBI, writes, a threat that is connected to a whole range of other reactionary grievances. Already angry, spittle-spewing right wingers, enraged at being asked to wear a mask to help stop a deadly pandemic, have physically confronted public health officials and threatened bodily harm. (The Venn diagram of those who think Biden is not the legitimate president and those who think the COVID-19 vaccine is a government mind control plot is a near-perfect circle.)

And it is not just some lunatic fringe that is engaged in this gangstercrat effort to undermine democracy. Even as we speak, the Republican Party is attempting to seize power in defiance of the will of the majority through voter suppression and electoral subversion. That slow-burning guerrilla campaign, a form of what the US Army once called “low intensity conflict,” will only intensify as we lurch toward the midterms, when a Republican retaking of the House might be sufficient to throw this country into utter chaos even worse than late 2020 and early 2021. 

What this slow motion Republican coup d’etat bodes for the 2024 presidential election is even more terrifying, especially when we look back at how close we came to disaster last winter. 

In the Daily Kos, Laura Clawson writes:

Donald Trump isn’t just a sore loser. He isn’t even just a sore loser who indiscriminately lashed out and encouraged his supporters to riot. Donald Trump was at the head of an actual, methodical coup attempt last December and January, a fact that’s starting to draw more and more notice as details emerge.

There was “an actual, cognizable plan to overturn the election, an actual strategy to get Donald Trump declared the winner of the election, not just throwing stuff against the wall and tantrum tweeting and easily dismissed farkakte lawsuits,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said Thursday night. He added, “Now it’s clear that by late December, they had arrived at an actual plan in place they were trying to execute.”

Clawson goes on to explain how, in the interregnum between election day and the inauguration, Trump called his acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and acting deputy AG Richard Donoghue and pressured them to announce that the election was illegitimate. According to contemporaneous notes Rosen took, Trump told him: “Just say the election was corrupt + leave the rest to me and the R. Congressmen.” 

By now we ought not be shocked by revelations of anything Trump did, yet he continues to astound. 

The next day, December 27, at Trump’s direction, a Justice Department official named Jeffrey Clark drafted letters trying to get state officials to overturn the results of their states’ elections. Rosen and Donoghue refused to send those letters out, prompting Trump to consider firing Rosen and putting Clark in his place. As Clawson writes, “If that had happened, Clark could have sent out those letters, giving state-level Republicans the excuse they needed to trash the election results and put in new electors for Trump.”

(Bill Barr, on whom I’ve been very hard in these pages, had also refused to participate in the “Stop the Steal” con job, which is part of the reason Rosen was in that “acting” role in the first place. When a reprobate like Bill Barr thinks you’ve crossed an ethical line, watch out.)

Trump’s infamous call to Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger came soon after, on January 2, during which he pressured Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” that would swing the state into his column, or at least create a sufficiently useful shitshow he could exploit. (Clawson notes that on December 31 and January 3 phone calls were also “made [but not answered] from the White House to the Republican chair of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.”) Famously, Raffensperger’s refusal to cooperate is all that stopped that plan; had a more complaint bootlicker been in that job, Trump would have gotten his way. 

Since these latest revelations, Rosen has met with the Department of Justice inspector general, and spoken to the Senate Judiciary Committee for more than six hours. Donoghue has also agreed to testify, as have other DOJ officials. As Heather Cox Richardson notes, “What this means is that congressional investigating committees now have witnesses to Trump’s efforts to overturn the election.” What, if anything, Congress and Merrick Garland’s DOJ will do about it, remains to be seen. 

But we know this much: Clearly, Trump’s strategy was to generate enough doubt and disinformation that he could throw the election into chaos and have a plausible chance of getting Republican lawmakers to refuse to certify it. Not coincidentally, the January 6 mob attack—just four days after the Raffensperger call—was aimed at the same thing.

And he came damned close to pulling it off.

As many have noted, what are the odds that we will be so lucky next time? If our system depends on the integrity of just a few random Republican officeholders in key positions in a handful of swing states—people whom the GOP is now methodically removing and replacing with loyal foot soldiers for that very reason—we are well and truly fucked.

The GOP-controlled Georgia legislature has since stripped Raffensperger of his power, and ensured that it, not some rogue official with an irritating sense of integrity, will be in place to make that call next time. Those Republican legislators also recently took steps to seize control of the Fulton County Board of Elections—which is to say, Atlanta—enabling them to remove board members they don’t like and replace them with their own minions, thus controlling the count in that otherwise overwhelmingly Democratic county, which accounts for about a fifth of all votes in the entire state.

If Republicans succeed in these efforts they won’t even need a Rosen or a Raffensperger to overturn the results of the next election, should it not go their way. Nor will there be any need for cosplaying Oath Keepers in tactical gear to storm the Capitol. Because the Republicans will have already put the fix in upstream.

THE PUMPS DON’T WORK CAUSE THE VANDALS TOOK THE HANDLES

Which brings us back to Brooklyn. 

Someone openly advertising their support for the violent overthrow of the US government is no small thing, especially when they are not some rando outlier but part of a very real and very dangerous national movement that commands the loyalty of tens of millions. 

Of course, every redneck flying the rebel flag is gleefully siding with the traitors who took up arms against the USA 161 years ago. But we are not talking here about events in the distant past, even as flying the Stars & Bars has become a totem of present day seditionism as well as the Civil War-era variety.

One poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Capitol put the percentage of Republicans who approved of the Insurrectionists’ actions at 45%. Six months later, even after the gory and horrifying details had emerged, another poll reported that 47% of Republican respondents still consider it “a legitimate protest.” 53% of Republicans think Biden is an illegitimate president and Trump actually won the election. 

And these folks have made it clear that they don’t put further violence off limits. On the contrary: they revel in it. Just dip into right wing talk radio, social media, and the reactionary press and you will find a tsunami of juvenile valorization of the idea that “patriots” must “take back our country,” by force if necessary. They relish the idea, for the same reason that they flocked to Trump in the first place: because it is an outlet for their white rage, because it speaks to their desperate need to feel heroic and connected to some larger purpose (might I suggest joining Habitat for Humanity instead?), and because it gives them permission to vent their irrational hatred of various fellow Americans on the basis of things like skin color and cloak it in the guise of something legit. 

Make no mistake, folks: We are still in the thick of the Insurrection, and January 6th was but one battle in a long campaign.

In the meantime I won’t shed any tears for the pro-coup d’etat Prius owner on my street. 

************

Photo: Oath Keeper outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on January 5, 2021, the night before the attempted coup at the Capitol. 

Credit: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images. Originally published by NPR.

Piggy’s American Adventure

A few weeks ago, apropos of Republican efforts to subvert fair elections in this country, I wrote in these pages about the rising danger of autocracy in the United States. 

File that under “dog bites man.” That has been a running theme in this blog for the entire four years of its existence.

And it is not merely the danger itself but its source on which I am fond of harping, which is to say: the extent to which tens of millions of Americans wholly support the authoritarian movement that is Trumpism, and how that strain in the national DNA—far more than one gaseous, orange-hued game show host-cum-tyrant manqué—represents the greatest threat to what we like to think of as “America.” 

By now it should be painfully clear that Trump and Trumpism would not have risen without the support of this swath of our countrymen: a minority, to be sure, but large enough to do serious damage. And it is that same dangerous minority that is now enabling the Republican Party to carry out its wantonly anti-democratic attempt to disenfranchise millions of Americans and install itself in permanent power in defiance of the will of the majority and of basic principles of representative government.

But in a recent piece in The New Yorker called “What We Get Wrong About America’s Crisis of Democracy” (re-printed from its original publication earlier this year), Adam Gopnik reminds us that this formulation of democracy-under-attack is actually backwards. 

He writes:

Lurking behind all of this is a faulty premise—that the descent into authoritarianism is what needs to be explained, when the reality is that . . . it always happens

The default condition of humankind is not to live in broadly egalitarian and stable democratic arrangements that get unsettled only when something happens to unsettle them. The default condition of humankind, traced across thousands of years of history, is some sort of autocracy.

He is quite correct of course. 

From tribal chieftains to the crowned heads of Europe to tin-pot despots in various ideological garb, authoritarians of one type or another have always dominated human governance. Indeed, that’s what makes the American experiment—still in its infancy at a mere 245 years old—so unique and inspiring. Most of human history is like Lord of the Flies, with the bulk of the species cast in the role of Piggy, fighting off the Jacks of the world. Even amid our pioneering national experiment in liberal democracy, and despite the chauvinism of flag-waving, Lee Greenwood-singing American exceptionalists, the United States is no different, and has always had to contend with this same dynamic. 

Gopnik again:

America itself has never had a particularly settled commitment to democratic, rational government. At a high point of national prosperity, long before manufacturing fell away or economic anxiety gripped the Middle West….a similar set of paranoid beliefs filled American minds and came perilously close to taking power. The intellectual forces behind Goldwater’s sudden rise thought that Eisenhower and JFK were agents, wittingly or otherwise, of the Communist conspiracy, and that American democracy was in a death match with enemies within as much as without. (Goldwater was, political genealogists will note, a ferocious admirer and defender of Joe McCarthy, whose counsel in all things conspiratorial was Roy Cohn, Donald Trump’s mentor.)

Goldwater was a less personally malevolent figure than Trump, and, yes, he lost his 1964 Presidential bid. But, in sweeping the Deep South, he set a victorious neo-Confederate pattern for the next four decades of American politics, including the so-called Reagan revolution. Nor were his forces naïvely libertarian. At the time, Goldwater’s ghostwriter Brent Bozell spoke approvingly of Franco’s post-Fascist Spain as spiritually far superior to decadent America, much as the highbrow Trumpites talk of the Christian regimes of Putin and Orbán.

To be clear-eyed about it, the US has always been a plutocracy, shot through with the cancer of racism to boot, and at best only tempered by the democratic mechanisms we revere (and a lot of idealism that we have only intermittently lived up to). Those democratic mechanisms require constant reinforcement, as they have frequently—if not constantly—been under assault from within as well as without.

(I’m speaking in terms of contemporary mores. We all know that the original form of American democracy enfranchised only white male landowners, with Black people not gaining the right to vote for almost another century, and women of all colors only within the lifetime of some living Americans. It may not have been fully autocratic, but it certainly was not egalitarian in the way that we define representative democracy today. The contemporary GOP seems keen to go back to that sort of system.)

It’s true, of course, that we have never devolved into a state of total jackbooted oppression approaching that of some other industrialized nations. Tom Wolfe once wrote mischievously about how the dark night of fascism was always said to be descending upon the US, yet somehow only ever managed to land in Europe. Fair enough. But the long tradition of liberal democracy in America, imperfect though it is, and perhaps only aspirational, is precisely what makes any kind of authoritarian in-roads on these shores so worrying. 

WE’RE NUMBER ONE!

That authoritarianism has never taken hold here is more likely a lucky accident than a testament to any special virtue on our part. The enthusiasm with which those millions of Americans even now thrill to Trump’s hatemongering, eagerly accept his mendacity, and stubbornly refuse to acknowledge his manifold hypocrisies, failures, and criminal behavior bluntly gives the lie to such juvenile self-regard. 

In fact, much as we would like to think otherwise, there are some ways in which the US is especially vulnerable to an autocratic regime, though we have never flirted with it so openly as the past five years. Among these are parochialism, monolingualism, geographic isolation, the legacy of Puritanism, and above all, the pervasiveness of repressive and oppressive religiosity. 

In other words, America is indeed exceptional among industrialized nations and Western democracies…..just not in the positive way that we flatter ourselves to think. 

No other First World democracy has the number of guns per capita that we do (by a mile), or the bloody trail of gun violence

None incarcerates its citizenry to the appalling extent that we do. In that category, the US vastly outpaces even such garden spots as Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.

None has a healthcare system as deliberately Dickensian as ours, or that purposefully ties healthcare to employment in a capitalist-friendly form of almost feudal indentured servitude.

We are also a society whose political system can be held hostage by a small number of bad actors among our elected officials—the Senate filibuster being the prime example. As Peter Nicholas writes, also in The Atlantic, “In most democracies, a stubborn minority party cannot stop the majority from debating the nation’s worst problems, much less solving them. McConnell is one reason the United States remains an exception.”

When it comes to ways in which the US is an outlier among developed countries, we might also add vacations, sports, and the metric system.

The US also is, and long has been, rife with folks who believe in all kinds of batshit crazy conspiracy theories. In his book The Delusion of Crowds, William Bernstein notes that Americans are far more susceptible to wackadoodle conspiracy theory than almost any other industrialized nation, and cites the aforementioned religiosity as the reason why. That segment of the polis, and the reactionary belief system that animates it, is the very epitome of Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style,” a strain that has been in the American soul even before we were an independent, sovereign state. 

How bad is it? A new piece on cults in The New Yorker reports that “A survey published in May by the Public Religion Research Institute found that fifteen per cent of Americans subscribe to the central QAnon belief that the government is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles and that twenty per cent believe that “there is a storm coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.”

So, yeah, pretty bad.

While these factors have not (yet) brought about a true autocracy in the US, they have conspired to make the US considerably more conservative than most of our fellow First World nations, and the nature of that conservatism more extreme. In my previous blog entry, “Suppression and Subversion” (June 30), I noted a recent piece in the Morning Consult which found that American conservatives skewed harder right than their counterparts in the British Commonwealth countries, with 26% of the US population overall qualifying as “highly right-wing authoritarian,” twice the percentage of Australia and Canada, the co-silver medalists.

In that same essay I also quoted Robert P. Jones, author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, who seconds Bernstein in arguing that, as with conspiracy theory, the crucial factor that sets the US apart is the prevalence of white evangelical Protestantism, which has what he calls “a theological proclivity toward authoritarianism.” In its most extreme form, Jones writes, that Protestantism “is fundamentally anti-democratic and theocratic”…..that is to say, it hews to a white nationalist, patriarchal, Christian supremacist worldview that favors a “strongman” style of leadership.

Both the Bernstein and Jones observations came from a piece in the Washington Post by Jennifer Rubin, who offered the blunt assessment that encapsulates all of this: “The truth about many in the GOP base (is) they prefer authoritarianism to democracy.” 

And we are seeing the toxic impact of that fact play out before our very eyes. 

JANUARY’S CHILDREN

Throughout the Trump administration, including the election of 2020 and its aftermath, we have seen myriad examples of right wing America’s willingness to go full bull goose neo-fascist. Many of these examples—like the kidnapping of children as matter of national policy, the establishment of a gulag archipelago along our southern border, or the desire to turn the US military against American citizens—were previously unthinkable.

But when it comes to the unthinkable, there may be no better or more vivid example of the autocratic strain in American society than the Insurrection of January 6th, and even more so, the Republican Party’s attempt to whitewash it in the six months since.

Because there has been so much disinformation surrounding it, let’s be clear about what happened, ICYMI: A bunch of Trump supporters, encouraged by the dude himself, tried to violently overturn the election, and the Republican Party has since decided that it’s totally cool with that. (“Nothing to see here folks, move along.”)  

Republicans are keen to compare the Insurrection to the BLM demonstrations of last summer, as if a violent attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of presidential power—fomented by the defeated head of state—is somehow equivalent to garden variety street protest, even those that involved scattered but limited property damage. But Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), one of the only sane Republicans left in office, made short work of that clumsy attempt at misdirection:

Some have concocted a counter-narrative to discredit this process on the grounds that we didn’t launch a similar investigation into the urban riots and looting last summer. I was called on to serve during the summer riots as an air national guardsman. I condemn those riots and the destruction of property that resulted. But not once, did I ever feel that the future of self-governance was threatened like I did on January 6th. There is a difference between breaking the law and rejecting the rule of law. Between a crime, even grave crimes, and a coup.

Based on my highly unscientific survey of right wing talk radio and other media, the alacrity with which Republicans are now setting their collective hair on fire over the House select committee suggests that they are REALLY worried about what is being aired there, as well they should be. An honest accounting of the events of that day in January—and the months and years that led up to it, and what has happened since—will reveal the bloody trail leading right to the GOP’s door. That’s why they’ve tried to block such an accounting at every turn. 

The moving testimony of Capitol Police officers last week painted a gut-wrenching portrait of brutal violence by Trump supporters, vile racism, and mind-bending irony (e.g., the beating of police officers with Blue Lives Matter flags, the signs that said “Jesus Is My Savior and Trump Is My President”). It was, as some have observed, as close to an “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” moment as the modern Republican Party is likely to face.

Elaine Godfrey in The Atlantic:

This morning’s testimony (July 27) was the first time Americans have heard such a vivid and agonizing account from the front lines of the attack—the officers’ growing panic as the mob surrounded them, how the rioters called them “traitors” and threatened to kill them with their own guns, the realization that they might die right there on the marble steps of the Capitol. 

It was a stinging riposte to the grotesque Republican insistence that it was a “peaceful protest” by a “loving crowd” of “people who love this country” and who behaved like “normal tourists.” (Alternate explanation that somehow co-exists in the GOP narrative: it was a false flag operation by antifa.)

Godfrey notes that “just as striking as the officers’ testimony is Republican lawmakers’ refusal to engage with it. The GOP response has been to minimize or even scoff at what occurred.” That, of course, is merely a continuation of its response since the fateful day itself. The GOP’s current attempts at damage control consist largely of trying to ignore the hearings, claiming that the committee is partisan (after they rejected a fully bipartisan commission set up according to rules they demanded, then turned down when Democrats agreed), and risibly insisting that Nancy Pelosi, not Donald Trump, somehow is responsible for the Insurrection. (Yes, I remember when she exhorted the crowd to march on the Capitol and “stop the steal.”) 

Godfrey again:

But the GOP’s sweep-it-away approach will be difficult to sustain. According to Cheney, the select committee plans to investigate “every phone call, every conversation, every meeting leading up to, during, and after the attack,” which will keep the issue in the headlines for the coming weeks or months. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s decision to pull his appointees from the committee after Pelosi refused to seat Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana seems like it might have been a political miscalculation. Now the GOP has no one on the panel to counter or challenge the investigation. The only two Republicans on the panel are Trump detractors appointed by Pelosi—Cheney and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois—which will underscore that there are still members of the party who hold the former president and many of their colleagues responsible for the insurrection.”

To that end, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democratic leadership cannily seem to be following the exact  strategy James Carville advised some months ago in an interview with Vox: Do not let the American people forget for even one moment the horrific events of January 6th, and just how horrific they were, and the Republican Party’s responsibility for them. 

And I don’t mean that in a partisan/gamesmanship way. I mean it in an “Are we gonna save our democracy or not?” way.

But in attempting to rewrite the history of January 6th, many Republicans want to go much further than even the notion that it was a church picnic that just happened to get a little rowdy. In their version, the people who stormed the Capitol (terrorists, as Capitol Police officer Daniel Hodges correctly described them, by the dictionary definition) were not just misguided or a little rambunctious, but actual heroes

We all knew that was where this was heading, right?

Among those promoting this Bizarro World vision—surprise!—are such monstrous clowns as Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Andy Biggs, and Paul Gosar, the usual suspects, who held a farcical press conferenceto denounce the “mistreatment” of 1/6 insurrectionists who have been charged with crimes, people whom they want us to believe are “political prisoners.” (This of a piece with the effort to turn Ashlii Babbitt—who was shot dead while trying to break into a section of the Capitol with a group of people who wanted to hang Mike Pence—into some sort of martyred heroine.)

Should we be surprised that the GOP—and not just these cretins but the so-called leadership as well—has moved from merely downplaying the Insurrection, to denying it happened at all, to now actively championing the actions of those who stormed the Capitol to murder the Vice President and overturn the election? That is the Trumpian pattern for all scandals, and we are seeing it yet again.

Because at the end of the day, the modern Republican Party is not the party of law and order that it claims, or the great defender of “freedom” that it laughably poses as, or even an adherent to core democratic values at all. It is a party that thrills to precisely this kind of brownshirt-style political violence, and wants uncontested control of the levers of power, which it intends to gain by any means necessary. We are kidding ourselves, with potentially lethal consequences, if we are foolish enough to think otherwise.

ROLLING THE ROCK UP THAT HILL

Recognizing that democracy is the exception and not the rule doesn’t make the struggle against autocracy any easier. It may, however, alter the way we view that struggle, and the means and methods we use to wage it. 

(The fight also may get a little easier if Republicans continue to commit suicide-by-COVID-19 in massive numbers due to their anti-intellectualist, Know Nothing rejection of basic science.)

Gopnik again:

The way to shore up American democracy is to shore up American democracy—that is, to strengthen liberal institutions, in ways that are unglamorously specific and discouragingly minute. The task here is not so much to peer into our souls as to reduce the enormous democratic deficits under which the country labors, most notably an electoral landscape in which farmland tilts to power while city blocks are flattened. This means remedying manipulative redistricting while reforming the Electoral College and the Senate. Some of these things won’t be achievable, but all are worth pursuing—with the knowledge that, even if every box on our wonkish wish list were checked, no set-it-and-forget-it solution to democratic fragility would stand revealed. 

The only way to stave off another Trump is to recognize that it always happens. The temptation of anti-democratic cult politics is forever with us, and so is the work of fending it off.

So in addition to addressing gerrymandering and the Electoral College (good luck!), what does this Sisyphean task look like in practice, in our current moment?

Republican efforts at suppressing and subverting the vote must be resisted with every peaceful means at our disposal. (Note: I say “peaceful,” not “legal,” as non-violent civil disobedience may be required.)

The massive right wing disinformation machine must be called out and countered, difficult as that is when the experts tell us that even debunking disinformation tends to spread it

The Democratic Party must stick together, implement the Biden/Harris agenda, and in word and deed make it clear to the American people that there is only one political party in the United States that is in its right mind, and is actually accomplishing things that benefit the American people, from public health, to the economy, to the climate emergency, to returning us to a cogent foreign policy, to addressing inequality, to all the things that affect American families at the most visceral level.

And last but not least, the sins of the past, both recent and distant, must be reckoned with. That is why the right wing is so desperate to attack “critical race theory,” which is just a fancy way for them to deny that there is systemic racism in the USA. They might as well deny that the Earth is round. (Which some of them have done as well.) In that regard, their campaign is very much like their previous campaign against the teaching of Darwin’s Origin of Species and the theory of evolution. Though to be fair, some of them may not have completed the evolutionary process, so their skepticism is understandable.

In terms of accountability for more recent crimes, the House committee on January 6th is a start, as is the Manhattan DA’s investigation into—and indictment of—the Trump Organization and its former CFO Allen Weisselberg, along with the criminal investigation into Trump’s election tampering in Georgia, and other inquiries. One hopes those legal efforts will soon expand and broaden. In a piece called “Future Proofing the Presidency,” the editorial page of the Boston Globe recently called for the criminal prosecution of The Former Guy himself, stating, “Saving American democracy for the long run requires a clear condemnation of the Trump presidency. That means making clear that no one is above the law.”

Right on. Notwithstanding the risky precedent of prosecuting former heads of state (fyi: France is doing it right now), to let Trump off scot free—yet again— would send the worst possible signal to would-be future despots. And a failed coup that meets with no appreciable repercussions is just a dry run. 

Autocracy may be humankind’s default mode, but you best believe that doesn’t mean we have to put up with it. 

********

Illustration: Cover art for the 1980 edition of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, by Barron Storey

Suppression and Subversion

By now, only the willfully blind are unaware of the aggressive and unconscionable campaign by the Republican Party to undermine the American electoral system and rig it in its favor. 

Unable to win the popular vote in a presidential election (Republicans have done so only once in the last eight elections), and with the nation’s demographics trending heavily against them, the GOP has only two options: 

  1. Change its platform to attract more voters, or
  2. Cheat

(There is actually a third option, which is to go gently into that good night. But we’ll set that aside, for now.)

No one who has observed the GOP’s wanton lack of principle over the past five years ought to be surprised that it has chosen Door Number 2. (I’m being generous. It’s really more like fifty-six years.) But the Republican Party has now embarked on a concerted and unprecedented effort to subvert the will of the people, eviscerate the foundational principles of our representative democracy, and install itself in permanent power. It is doing everything within its considerable power to ensure that Democratic voters cannot make their voices heard in numbers that accurately reflect the polis, to enable its own minions to control the electoral process, and even to give itself the unilateral power to overturn elections that do not go its way. What could possibly be more un-American?

Like they say in the horror movies, we ought to be afraid. We ought to be very afraid.

But the electoral expert Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, recently gave an interview to the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner in which he made an important distinction between the two aspects of this campaign, voter suppression and election subversion. Hasen:

(V)oter suppression (involves) things that make it harder for people to register and to vote, like the provision of the Georgia law that says you can’t give water to people waiting on line to vote. That’s a different concern than this idea of election subversion, which is trying to manipulate the rules for who counts the votes in a way that could allow for a partisan official to declare the loser as the winner. This was, for example, a concern when President Trump called the secretary of state of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, in the period after the election, to try to get him to “find” the 11,780 votes.

Suppression and subversion are of course just two sides of the same coin. The former—limiting access to the polls, demanding voter ID, eliminating early and mail-in voting, and perverting of an accurate reflection of the public will via gerrymandering, to name just a few of its techniques—may be a little more sophisticated, while subversion is a little more blunt, but both aim at the same goal, and both still bother with a veneer of legitimacy, however farcical. The next step is outright seizure of power by force, though in most countries where that takes place even that it is still usually cloaked in the mufti of democratic authority, and accompanied by some attempt at claiming legal legitimacy.

In this case, Republicans have seized on the canard of widespread voter fraud: that is to say, the Big Lie as propagated by a certain orange-hued Florida-based retiree, which is really just a metastasized version of a hoax that the GOP has been peddling for years. 

It goes without saying that this is absolute horseshit, unsupported by even a shred of evidence, and a transparent con that only the Kool-Aid drunk denizens of MAGA Nation would buy into. Notice that none of the elected Republicans howling about voter fraud and how Trump wuz robbed think that their own victories on that same Election Day were fraudulent, despite using the same ballots, the same tabulation, and the same certifications.

Prof. Hasen goes on to explain that much of the For the People Act (as well as the less expansive John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act) “is aimed at stopping voter suppression. Stopping election subversion requires a different set of tools, and, ideally, you might want to have federal legislation that attacks both.”

But we have seen how hard it is to legislate against even suppression when one side is so venal and so unwilling to protect free and fair elections which it stands to lose. But subversion is even harder to legislate against, as any kind of legislative remedy requires players who are acting in good faith, and institutionalized means of election subversion are bad faith incarnate. In other words, you can make armed robbery illegal, but that won’t stop armed robbers who are willing to break the law…..not to mention armed robbers who are in power and, Nixon-like, change the laws so that it’s not illegal when they do it. 

Hasen notes that “there are some fixes that would make election subversion much more difficult, but, to truly deal with the problem, it requires not just strengthening law but strengthening norms.” Here is where I throw my popcorn into the air and clench the hand of the person sitting next to me in the movie theater, because the whole concept of “norms” is that they are intangible matters of consensus, and not something that can be codified…..and when it comes to what we mean by “democracy,” and the extent to which we as a people collectively believe in it, I fear that consensus is something that is rapidly vanishing in America. 

CHILL OUT

To stop voter suppression, Hasen suggests measures like requiring every state to use a paper ballot (to reduce uncertainly about the outcome), reforming the way Electoral College votes are physically counted and how objections can be raised in Congress (to avoid a repeat of January 6th), and changing the provisions for how the vote count is validated—or can be questioned—in the courts (to streamline and secure the process for adjudicating disputes).

Hasen admits that these measures will not deter Republicans from raising outrageous and unfounded challenges anyway. Of course they won’t. Are you kidding? Republicans will blow through those guardrails like a bazooka round through tissue paper. 

He is optimistic, however, in noting that it was Republicans like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger who stood up to Trump and refused to undermine the vote. But with all due respect to the professor’s expertise, which I greatly admire, I think this is naïve in the extreme. Witness the way that the Republican Party at the state level has punished those very members like Raffensperger who refused to comply with Trump’s pressure (and bribery), and has taken draconian steps to ensure that no future GOP Secretaries of State can exercise similar integrity that gets in the way of Project Autocracy. 

And the message has come through loud and clear: Raffensperger himself is now publicly backing Georgia’s new voter suppression laws.

That, folks, is what we call a chilling effect.

Hasen recognizes the implications of the problem, citing Raffensperger’s fate, and raising the alarm:

(T)he biggest concern I have right now is what happened in Georgia, where……the secretary of state has been taken out of any authority as to how the state election board does its job, to be replaced by someone handpicked by the Republican legislature. This board now has the power to do temporary takeovers of up to four counties. You could easily imagine the state boards taking over how the election is run in heavily Democratic Fulton County, and then imposing rules or messing with election counts in ways that could affect the outcome in the now very purple state of Georgia.

Here we see a perfect embodiment of the problem. 

The only reason that Trump was not able to steal the election in 2020 is because individual Republicans in key positions of power stood up to him, exactly as Hasen says. But what kind of system is that? One that relies on the goodwill of the players and has no kind of ironclad provisions to ensure legitimacy and prevent criminality, that’s what. (Perhaps, as Hasen says, that is ultimately impossible, in terms of creating an airtight system impervious to attack.) That is a highly fraught arrangement…..and as we have just seen, the Republican Party is doing everything it possibly can to make sure that no free-thinking, independent people of integrity are in any position to thwart the party’s venal ambitions going forward. 

In other words, Republicans are giving themselves the authority to overturn any election they don’t win. It sounds absurd, like something that would never be allowed to happen in America, and even if it was somehow allowed, something that no political party would dare try for fear of massive public outrage.  

But do you doubt for a New York minute that Republicans would  try to do it? 

Don’t make me laugh. 

Chotiner raises that very point, which Hasen concedes:

Chotiner: But if you did have a party completely set on subverting an election, would it be hard to legislate against it?

Hasen: Sure. Then, of course, that’s the end of the American democratic experiment, and we’re in deep trouble.

THE SLIDING SCALE OF REPUBLICAN HEROISM

At the beginning of June, a group of roughly a hundred esteemed scholars, political scientists, and other experts published an open letter titled “Statement of Concern,” warning of the ongoing threat to US democracy from the GOP. I’m glad they did, but as I have written elsewhere, “Statement of Concern” sounds the like ironic title of a book some future historian will write about how hand-wringing American liberals failed to act to save their democracy. (Alternative title: “Bringing a Strongly Worded Letter to a Gunfight.”)

How far is the GOP willing to go? As far as criminalizing even attempts to make it easier to vote. A lot of press has gone to Georgia for making it illegal to give water to people standing in blistering heat for hours on end while waiting to vote (those deliberately long lines a form of suppression in itself). Less baroque but more pragmatically worse, in Iowathe GOP-controlled state legislature has made it a crime to send out pre-filled out absentee ballots request forms. 

This is hardly “securing the vote,” even by the fake standards of the GOP’s own rationalizations. It is solving a problem that doesn’t exist….unless the problem isn’t “voter fraud” at all but the fact that your party can’t win a fair fight. Another goal of the campaign, clearly, is to dissuade honest citizens from wanting to be election administrators in the first place, so that the GOP can fill those jobs with its own lackeys.

So let us now briefly survey the moral landscape of the Republicans who would put themselves in sole control of American elections. 

Bill Barr is another whom some have cited as a shining example of Republicans who refused to go along with the Big Lie. In an eye-opening piece in The Atlantic, Barr himself told reporter Jonathan Karl: “If there was evidence of fraud, I had no motive to suppress it. But my suspicion all the way along was that there was nothing there. It was all bullshit.” 

(The account of how a furious red-faced Trump screamed at Barr and berated him over his stance, referring to himself in the third person—“You must hate Trump!”—makes for astonishing reading. Barr himself compared it to a scene from Dr. Strangelove.)

Karl notes the irony that it was Barr’s very reputation as a toadying mob consigliere for Trump that lent power to his surprising refusal to back the Lie. “Nobody seriously questioned Barr’s conservative credentials or whether he had been among Trump’s most loyal Cabinet secretaries. His conclusion sent a definitive message that the effort to overturn the election was without merit.”

But as Charlie Sykes writes in The Bulwark, “Recognizing that the Jenna Ellis/Rudy Giuliani/My Pillow Guy conspiracy theories were a shit show in a clown car was the bare minimum level of responsibility we should expect from an attorney general.” 

Apropos of this revisionism that casts Bill Barr as a great American hero, CNN’s Elie Honig also reminds us, “Barr tells tales of denying the big lie after the election, but he omits that he aggressively promoted that lie in the crucial months before the election.”

Even more to the point, per Sykes: “Despite the credibility that Barr had built up as a Trump loyalist, his open and forceful rejection of the lies about the election seems to have little or no impact on opinion the MAGAverse.”

Res ipsa loquitur.

Karl’s piece also contains surprising reportage about Mitch McConnell pleading with Barr to help stop the Big Lie as early as mid-November…..but not on principle, only because McConnell thought the insanity of the Lie would hurt the GOP’s chances of holding onto the Senate in the upcoming January runoff in Georgia, which it did. He himself declined to disavow it because he feared angering Trump, whom he needed to rally Georgia voters.

That’s what passes for integrity in the modern GOP.

So the notion that we can relax because principled, patriotic Republicans who would never dream of cheating are at the electoral wheel is risible. As Hasen himself says, “just imagine if Kevin McCarthy had been the Majority Leader rather than the Minority Leader on January 6, 2021.”

CHTO DELAT?

So what do we do about all this?

As Prof. Hasen says, there are some practical measures we can take, including the voter protections that Congressional Democrats are fighting for and that Republicans are opposing tooth and nail. (Unless one is an uncritical, pinwheel-eyed consumer of Fox News propaganda, does that not say it all about who’s on the side of the angels here?) Along with that we need to raise the alarm about what’s going on, and well before the midterms. We need to make it clear that we, the majority, will not stand for this perversion of our democracy. We need to pressure powerful corporations to bring their might to bear against these efforts (looking at you, Toyota, the number one corporate contributor to Republicans who objected to certifying the 2020 election). And, if need be, we have to be prepared to get out in streets and make our voices heard. This is very much the same playbook that was under discussion when, several months ago, when we were concerned that Trump would succeed in stealing the 2020 election. 

Luckily, we are getting some help. The voting rights protections before Congress face an uphill battle, but the DOJ is beginning to push back, as in Georgia, where it is suing over the new voting laws, charging that they are deliberately discriminatory on the basis of race. 

Hasen also notes the pressure that is on the Supreme Court:

It is now pretty clear that there’s not going to be comprehensive voting legislation coming out of Congress. You’ve got hundreds of suppressive bills that are in the wings in various states. If the courts are not going to serve as the backstop, you’re losing a major tool that could be used to stop voter suppression. The Supreme Court has got to be aware of what the stakes are.

But does he mean it’s “got to be aware” in the sense that it’s impossible that the Court could be unaware? Or does he mean it prescriptively, as in, “Hey Supreme Court, wake the fuck up”?

(“You can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor.”)

Where we can’t stop voter suppression at the state level, we need to find ways to outflank it so that the right wing’s never-ceasing efforts to skew the playing field are consistently met with never-ceasing countermeasures to make it level again. A prime example is voter ID.

As the Washington Post notes, voter ID—like many other suppression measures, predicated on the aforementioned lie of non-existent voter fraud—is indeed “an insidious method of keeping minorities from the ballot box.” But it’s a losing battle in the PR war. Most Americans instinctively think having to show an ID to vote is common sense, and don’t grasp the obstacles for the poor, elderly, people of color, the disabled, and others. I myself did not grasp that when the issue first arose decades ago, until I got educated me on that fact. 

But since most of our countrymen don’t see it that way, and insisting otherwise only reinforces the stereotype of progressives as wild-eyed radicals—a stereotype the right is keen to spread— perhaps we should approach this in a smarter way.

Hasen writes that a voter-ID requirement “could be fine if it were implemented fairly, the way most advanced democracies do, not the way most American states do it.” Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) concurs, and summarized it well

I don’t know anybody who believes that people shouldn’t have to prove that they are who they say they are. But what has happened over the years is people have played with common sense identification and put into place restrictive measures intended not to preserve the integrity of the outcome, but to select certain voters. That’s what I oppose.

So this may be one battleground where we would be well-advised to beat a strategic retreat. It may make sense to concede this point and put our efforts and our resources into getting everyone an ID card of some kind, thereby obviating this Republican objection. (P.S. A national ID card is the exact kind of thing conservatives would normally decry as “governmental intrusion” and the first step toward autocracy, except when it serves their purposes. In fact, they have historically done just that.) 

Once we have leapfrogged over this latest attempt keep Democrats from voting with a thinly disguised 21st century poll tax, we can then focus on the next transparently dishonest and self-serving obstacle Republicans will inevitably come up with to try to suppress the will of the people. 

And we can be certain that they will. 

Note that after coming out against the For the People Act, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) included voter ID in his compromise voting rights bill, as a sop to Republicans. Even Stacey Abrams was willing to support that. But Republicans, predictably, were unswayed. Are we surprised? We could give them everything they ask for—as Democrats did in the proposal for a bipartisan commission to investigate the insurrection—and they would still refuse to take yes for an answer, because none of their demands are serious nor intended to achieve any reasonable protection of voting integrity—only to nullify Democratic votes.

Some on the right have objected to the For the People Act as “federal overreach,” that infringes on “states’ rights.” How 1860. If the act is overstuffed, the GOP has shown zero interest in compromise or paring it back to something it finds acceptable, as its rejection of Manchin’s counterproposal has shown. And there is a reason for that: because there is nothing in the area of protecting voting rights that it finds acceptable. Their entire goal is quite the opposite, to disenfranchise a huge swath of the electorate for their own partisan gain. That is why the federal government must step in, as it did in the Fifties and Sixties when various southern states wanted to carry on with segregation and Jim Crow efforts to keep Black citizens from voting. 

Rather than talking about the alleged overreach of the FTPA, we ought to be discussing this fundamentally un-American crusade by the GOP. For there is no end to Republican hypocrisy and obstructionism. 

POGO WAS RIGHT

But as bad as it is, Republican hypocrisy and obstructionism is not the heart of the matter, only a manifestation of it. In order to truly face down the right wing attack on the vote, first we have to understand the real problem—and the real problem is not that a small cabal of Republican mandarins are trying to Ocean’s Eleven US democracy. 

The real problem is that tens of millions of Americans are totally fine with that. 

It became a truism (but that makes it no less true) that Trump was but a symptom, not the cause, of the sickness that took hold of America in the last six years. No shit. Much as some “mainstream” Republicans—but not enough—would like us to believe he was an aberration, it is painfully clear that he is in fact the natural result of decades of moral debasement among conservatives, which is itself a manifestation of a longstanding cancer in the American soul. It is a strain that pre-dates our founding as a country, one that has surfaced and gone dormant and re-surfaced again multiple times in our history: from slaveholding to Andrew Jackson to the Civil War, from America First to nativism to the rebirth of the Klan, from Jim Crow to segregation, McCarthyism, Reaganism, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, and now Trump. It has been periodically stronger and weaker and stronger again, but it has never been fully eradicated and never will be, barring some exponential evolution in the nature of humankind. 

In its latest incarnation, as we speak, a significant number of our fellow Americans are fully onboard with a wholesale obliteration of basic principles of democracy. They are a minority, lest we forget, but a worryingly large number nonetheless, and terrifyingly well-placed in key positions. 

Voter suppression has long been with us in the United States, and is terrible enough, but open electoral subversion is relatively new, and portends a dark future for American democracy if it is allowed to take hold. If Prof. Hasen is correct, and he surely is, subversion is difficult to combat—and impossible fully eradicate—so long as there are nefarious forces willing to engage in it, backed by a significant swath of the American people.

Writing in the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin puts it well when she says, “The truth about many in the GOP base (is) they prefer authoritarianism to democracy.” Rubin quotes a poll in the Morning Consult, in a piece with the even more alarming headline, “US Conservatives Are Uniquely Inclined Toward Right-Wing Authoritarianism Compared to Western Peers.”

A scale measuring propensity toward right-wing authoritarian tendencies found right-leaning Americans scored higher than their counterparts in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. 26% of the U.S. population qualified as highly right-wing authoritarian, Morning Consult research found, twice the share of the No. 2 countries, Canada and Australia.

Rubin also reports that the American right’s “descent into authoritarianism to a large degree is religiously-based,” and quotes Robert P. Jones, author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity:

The most striking difference between right-wing politics in the US and other countries such as Australia, Canada, and [Britain] is the dominance and influence of white evangelical Protestants, who have a theological proclivity toward authoritarianism. The evangelical worldview in America has historically been built on a set of hierarchies that have been defended as divinely ordained—Christian over non-Christian, Protestant over Catholic, white over non-white, men over women. In its strongest forms, this worldview is fundamentally anti-democratic and theocratic….It demands deference particularly to white male charismatic leaders (even when they themselves violate communal norms) and builds identity through a politics of aggression to a shifting array of perceived out groups.

Most notably it gives no quarter to critical thought or dissent, defending its own views as divinely ordained and beyond question.

Sound familiar? Someone call Margaret Atwood.

In order to keep the American experiment alive, we will eventually have to reckon with this pro-authoritarian strain in our nation’s soul, the one that facilitates and gives oxygen to efforts like Republican Party’s campaign for countermajoritarian power. And the future, as George Allen used to say, is now.

Rubin correctly concludes that “if a significant faction of the Republican Party adheres to Christian nationalism rather than the democratic civic religion (equality, the rule of law and the aspiration to perfect the American experiment), the rest of us cannot embrace them as good-faith partners in democracy. As disturbing as it may seem, today’s GOP cannot be entrusted with power and cannot play the role of the ‘loyal opposition’ if it continues to operate outside the democratic compact.”

Preach.

FUTURE SHOCK

Should the GOP succeed in putting a chokehold on the vote that renders our elections a charade and establishes permanent, minoritarian Republican rule, we will be in a position that political scientists technically refer to as “fucked.” What we will do then is a tough question. Ideally, the measures we take now will prevent that grim outcome in the first place and preclude the need to contemplate even more drastic action. 

But what if they don’t?

It would of course be a very difficult position to find ourselves in, which is part of what is so insidious about the Republican campaign. For us to howl in 2022 or 2024 that the election was stolen, and to take any measures at all to combat that theft, would invite charges of hypocrisy, with the right wing furiously denying us the very means of recourse that it eagerly embraced in 2020. (The right is itself completely immune to and unbothered by charges of hypocrisy—one of the chief advantages of being absolutely without a shred of shame.)

I am by no means advocating violence or a left-wing version of the January 6th insurrection, even if such a thing were prompted by a truly stolen election rather than a total falsehood like the Big Lie. For anyone who is really interested in democracy, that sort of recourse is self-defeating, at least in the United States of the early 21st century. But I do think we need to be prepared to get out on the barricades in peaceful, but forceful, sustained protest, the kind that people suffering under other autocracies have successfully used to free themselves.  

For many of us, Biden’s victory last November felt like a massive sigh of relief—a bullet-dodging in the extreme. It was, in many ways. But it was far from the final word. My fear is that, if things go badly, we may look back on the Biden period as only a brief respite in between periods of pitch darkness…..and the one to come may be even worse than the one from which we just emerged.

Let’s give Prof. Hasen the last word, as his New Yorker interview, and the distinction he raised between suppression and subversion, was the impetus for this whole piece:

The No. 1 thing is having fair and transparent vote counting with independent review by the judiciary, to assure that fair accounting is taking place. It’s really a sad commentary on American politics that we even have to have this discussion about vote counts in the United States in 2021.

********

Photo: A heartwarming moment from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)

Paint a Vulgar Picture

Did I think about calling this post “Bigmouth Strikes Again”? 

You bet your ass I did. 

Too easy.

THAT JOKE ISN’T FUNNY ANY MORE

I was a huge Smiths fan, beginning in the late Eighties, which admittedly made me a little late to the party. My initiation—courtesy of my friends Martere and Frazer—was the song “Panic,” released in 1986. The first time I heard it, it already sounded like a classic that had been burned into my memory, the lyrics at once surprising and yet inevitable, as if they were something I’d known my whole life:

So burn down the disco 
And hang the blessed DJ 
Because the music that they constantly play 
Says nothing to me about my life

I instantly went batty on the band, the same way millions of others did. Over the next several years I devoured everything they ever recorded. Soon tired of pestering DJs at crowded clubs (and I’m sure they feeling was mutual), my friends and I had business cards made up that said, simply, PLEASE PLAY THE SMITHS.

I remained a fanatic as the band broke up and Morrissey embarked on a solo career that has now lasted about seven times longer than the group’s. (It takes nothing away from him as a lyricist, singer, and frontman to note that fair credit for the Smiths’ glory also goes to guitarist Johnny Marr, who wrote most of the music, bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce.)

On his own, Moz roared out of the gate with a string of great solo albums in the late Eighties and early Nineties (Viva HateKill UncleYour ArsenalVauxhall and I), went into a bit of decline, then emerged with at least one powerhouse comeback, 2004’s You Are the QuarryIf his output since then has been a bit uninspired, that of course is not at all unusual over a career of that length, and I held out hope that at least one more fertile period—and likely more—awaited. 

Sadly, that was not the turn that his career took. 

Morrissey had made his name on controversy. To say he was opinionated and outspoken was like saying Keith Richards liked a drink now and then. Still, few were prepared when, in May 2019, he appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” with its audience of millions, wearing a button with the emblem of For Britain, an openly racist, white power political party that Fiona Sturges, writing in The Independent, called “so far to the right that even Nigel Farage has distanced himself from them.” 

No one who has paying attention could have been totally off guard. Morrissey had first expressed support for the party back in April 2018. More to the point, there had always been worrying racist undertones (and overtones) in his work. Still, it was a stark escalation of his willingness to promote an open racist organization, and a brazen provocation, even for him.

Loads of Smiths and Morrissey fans were crushed, to say the least…..and this is not a group given to Gary Cooper-like stoicism in the face of disappointment. 

Immediately lambasted for the gesture (uh, it didn’t escape public notice), the famously combative Mancunian characteristically doubled and tripled down on his new politics, writing, “There is only one British political party that can safeguard our security.”

Since then the backlash has been rightly severe, and only grown. The world’s oldest record store, Spillers, in Cardiff, Wales, stopped carrying his records. The Council on American-Islamic Relations called for a boycott of his concerts. The Merseyrail train service in Liverpool removed ads for his latest album, prompting Moz to compare them to Nazis. Gallons of metaphorical ink has been spilled on the topic, becoming almost a cottage industry for rock critics.Morrissey is now effectively a pariah in pop music, even as he retains significant base of fans who aren’t bothered by his newfound right wing politics, or worse, like him even more because of it.

It’s a sorry tale, and one that leaves us still trying to unspool how this once-heroic artist came to this pretty pass, as well as how we are to grapple with it. 

That is a question that becomes much more disturbing when we begin to explore the ways that it did not come out of thin air, but rather, was part of an ugly pattern we had long ignored or wished away. 

IT’S HARD TO WALK TALL WHEN YOU’RE SMALL

Morrissey was the finest lyricist of his generation. His work was dark and sardonic and literary, full of witticisms, and of scathing and original turns of phrase, and of his trademark blunt assertions that were almost prose-like, which I mean as a compliment. (At one point I contemplated crafting this essay entirely out of repurposed Morrissey song titles, which is actually easier than it sounds. He used to be a sweet boy, and he was good in his time, but he’s maladjusted and still ill, and will never be anybody’s hero now. I know it’s over. That’s entertainment.)

Of course, his lyrics could and often did veer into wanton narcissism, self-pity, spite, sanctimony, hyperbole, and high HIGH drama. Both in his music and in his public pronouncements, Morrissey could really get on his high horse: about vegetarianism, about the monarchy, about the musical abilities of former bandmates, about schoolmasters and lovers and Cromwell. But that was part of the fun, and it all felt slightly knowing and ironic. 

Morrissey’s politics, too, were always reliably left of center: after all, this is the man who wrote of Thatcher, “The kind people have a wonderful dream / Margaret on the guillotine.” His entire oeuvre reflected identification with life’s downtrodden, its iconoclasts, its shat-upon, its abused and rejected. Lots of rockers speak to outsiders and misfits—it’s practically the heart of (any decent) rock & roll—but Morrissey did it with a directness, a depth, a poignancy, and a sense of humor that few could match. His fans, accordingly, responded with a passion that is rare to find, and I was one of them.

So the transformation into a racist, right wing shitbag is hard to understand, and to take. 

Was this just some sort of weird John Lydon-brand contrarianism? (No one is surprised, or saddened, by the erstwhile Sex Pistols frontman’s pathetic shock jock-style ploys for attention.) That would be in character, for sure. But it felt like more than that. Was it just another pedantic case of somebody growing old and conservative, even to the point of embracing neo-fascism—an old white Englishman, in this case, a demographic highly susceptible to that phenomenon? Maybe. But if so, it really hurt. 

On the British anarchist website Freedom, the writer Darya Rustamova asked: 

Is he just committed to an out-dated Punk trend of being as outrageous and offensive as possible? Or is this just a blundering error by a 60-year-old man who still cuts the top four buttons off his shirts?

Rustamova telegraphs the answer to her own questions with the title of her piece, which is “Morrissey Isn’t Senile, He’s Always Been a Racist”:

This isn’t just an ageing old man sliding into the simmering bitterness and racism typical of many elderly Brits. Since the start of his career, Morrissey has been outspoken against multiculturalism and immigration, citing his fears of a threatened English identity. He has a historic hatred for foreigners and his fans need to do more to recognise his views and fight these messages.

“Bengali in Platforms,” “England for the English,” “Asian Rut,” and “This is Not Your Country” are quotes you’d expect from the mouth of Boris Johnson; but they are song titles by the king of alternative playlists, the heart of British indie, or the “second-greatest living British cultural icon” (according to the BBC in 2006).

Rustamova reminds us that as far back as 1992 Morrissey told Q Magazine “that he didn’t ‘really think, for instance, black people and white people will ever really get on or like each other.’” That same year he released “National Front Disco,” a song automatically presumed to be a tongue-in-cheek critique of British neo-fascism, but which becomes very slippery when he performs it draped in the Union Jack, and when skinheads adopt it as an anthem. (And you thought American conservatives’ co-opting of “Born in the USA” was bad.) 

In 1984 Morrissey famously said “all reggae is vile” in what may seem an innocent comment in isolation, yet it takes a more sinister form when considered amongst his consistent diatribe of bigotry. For example, a biography of the early formation of The Nosebleeds points out that around the same time Morrissey declared, “I don’t hate Pakistanis, but I dislike them immensely.”

Cherry-picking? Maybe, but when there are so many cherries to pick from, the defense starts to lose its credibility. 

As some wag recently noted, perhaps the best way to understand the New Morrissey is to read all of the Smiths’ lyrics as if they were written with no irony. I guess they weren’t.

I DON’T MIND IF YOU FORGET ME

In The Independent, my fellow aggrieved former Smiths fan Fiona Sturges takes us back to 1988, noting Morrissey’s “grim pronouncements on music by black artists—including the assertion in a Melody Maker interview that “a black pop conspiracy” was preventing the Smiths from fulfilling their potential.”

As the years have passed, he has become ever more brazen in his anti-immigration stance, telling NME in 2007 that England had been “thrown away,” that “the gates were flooded” and complaining that in London’s Knightsbridge “you’ll hear every accent under the sun apart from the British accent.” 

Here’s Morrissey in his own words in that 2007 NME interview:

England is a memory now….Although I don’t have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England, the more the British identity disappears. So the price is enormous. Travel to England and you have no idea where you are. It matters because the British identity is very attractive. I grew up into it and I find it very quaint and amusing… You can’t say, ‘Everybody come into my house, sit on the bed, have what you like, do what you like.’ It wouldn’t work.

(Writing recently in the Guardian, Tim Jonze, who did that interview, reports how NME initially tried to excise Morrissey’s offending remarks. When they ultimately didn’t, he sued for libel, and won, without denying the accuracy of the quotes.) 

It must be noted that for a man with such a xenophobic bent, Morrissey is the son of Irish immigrants to the UK and himself moved to LA in the Nineties, where—weirdly—he has a fanatical fan base in the city’s Mexican-American community. (Check out the cover band Mexrissey.) 

Even Morrissey’s adamant vegetarianism has caused him to traffic in xenophobic tropes about various foreign cultures, calling the Chinese “a subspecies” and railing against halal food in the UK), and comparing the meat industry to Auschwitz (and pedophilia to boot). For good measure, he’s also dismissed mass shootings like that in Norway in 2011 as nothing compared to everyday business in an abattoir.

Fiona Hughes goes on to run down some other recent lowlights:

There was an interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel in which, discussing allegations of sexual abuse related to Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, Morrissey said there were times “when the person who is called the victim is merely disappointed.” There was last year’s comically mad interview on his own website where he mocked shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, and mayor of London Sadiq Khan, and claimed Hitler was left-wing.

Morrissey’s remarks on Mayor Khan are worth reading verbatim to fully appreciate his venom:

London is debased. The Mayor of London tells us about ”Neighborhood policin” What is “policin”? He tells us London is an “amazin” city. What is “amazin”? This is the Mayor of London! And he cannot talk properly! I saw an interview where he was discussing mental health, and he repeatedly said ”men’el ”…He could not say the words “mental health.” The Mayor of London! Civilisation is over!”

I could go on. (You can find a tidy list of Moz’s outrages here.) 

YES I AM BLIND

You won’t be surprised that the former Steven Patrick Morrissey has not exactly turned the other cheek over the criticism leveled at him. In a 2018 interview posted on his website, he said:

It’s just a way of changing the subject. When someone calls you racist, what they are saying is “Hmm, you actually have a point, and I don’t know how to answer it, so perhaps if I distract you by calling you a bigot we’ll both forget how enlightened your comment was.”

Defending himself for the Tonight Show episode in a June 2019 interview, also on his website, Morrissey said, “The word (racist) is meaningless now. Everyone ultimately prefers their own race—does this make everyone racist?” He went on to say, “Diversity can’t possibly be a strength if everyone has ideas that will never correspond. If borders are such terrible things then why did they ever exist in the first place?” 

In that same interview he further defended For Britain, calling its leader Anne Marie Waters “extremely intelligent, ferociously dedicated to this country….(and) very engaging.” 

Right. Waters was filmed in the ITV documentary Undercover–Inside Britain’s New Far Right, saying the following: 

The idea that these fuckers can just come along and take it all. Stop all Muslim immigration now…..My thinking is we need to reduce their birthrates now. You cannot dismiss the idea, that there are, that most kids are called Mohammed, most kids born in … boys born in Britain now are named called Mohammed, and you cannot discuss that as meaningless without being as thick as shit. I’m sorry, it’s stupid, it’s dangerous.

That’s not just a one-off caught on hot mike. For Britain began as an even more right wing offshoot of Nigel Farage’s already far right, Trump-aligned UKIP. It is a white nationalist party linked to various neo-Nazi movements, one that advocates a de facto ban on Muslim immigration to the UK, traffics in COVID-19 conspiracy theory, and has associated itself with Holocaust deniers. (For Britain’s ostentatious pro-animal rights stance is surely part of the appeal to Morrissey, even as it’s part of the party’s general Islamophobia.) 

And if you don’t know, now you know.

But since so many of Morrissey’s offenses preceded the For Britain bullshit, by decades in some cases, why did we forgive it—or ignore it—until now? Speaking only for myself, and not that it’s any excuse, but I suppose I wrote it off as mere theater. Morrissey’s entire brand was self-absorption and outrage, so were we supposed to be surprised? 

Until recently there was also some calculated ambiguity in his work and his public statements, or at least we wanted to believe that there was. But now it has become impossible to maintain that self-delusion. The accumulated weight of his offenses has become too much, especially when he stakes out an even more outrageous stance during the volatile era of Trump and Brexit. I will cop to having been willfully blind. But I can’t do it anymore.

SHAME IS THE NAME

Artists operating in troubled times frequently have to make hard decisions about collaboration, accommodation, and resistance as regards the tyranny du jour. (For a lovely portrait of that dilemma—to name just one—see István Szabó’s 1981 film Mephisto.) But part of the mystery here is that Morrissey does not really stand to gain much, practically speaking, by his fascist-friendly stance. (What idiosyncratic psychological benefits he accrues is another matter). He is not a citizen of an autocracy where the ruling authority demands obeisance from its artists and dishes out rewards for collaborators and punishment for rebels. If anything, his racist right wing stand is costing him fans, and squandering decades of critical approbation, and doing lasting damage to his legacy. 

In that sense then, we can at least say that he is not acting opportunistically, but rather, expressing his genuine beliefs. Unfortunately, that is not a compliment. 

Indeed, the fact that he has embraced the fasces voluntarily, without being under any kind of duress, makes his actions even more contemptible. 

But this is as much farce as it is tragedy.

“The Simpsons” recently satirized Moz’s rightward turn in an episode called “Panic on the Streets of Springfield,” guest starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and including a note-perfect song parody called “Everyone Is Horrid Except Me (and Possibly You)” co-written by staff writer Tim Long, who penned the episode, and the brilliant, Oscar-winning, diminutive half of Flight of the Conchords Bret McKenzie. Hilariously, the episode prompted an equally note-perfect, megalomaniacal response from Morrissey, who seemed less infuriated that he was portrayed as a racist hypocrite than that he was portrayed as fat. 

(A statement from his manager, posted on Facebook within hours of the show’s broadcast, complained with No Discernible Irony: “Poking fun at subjects is one thing … but when a show stoops so low to use harshly hateful tactics like showing the Morrissey character with his belly hanging out of his shirt [when he has never looked like that at any point in his career] makes you wonder who the real hurtful, racist group is here.”)

Continuing the war of words with a family of beloved yellow-skinned cartoon characters (racist!), and reminiscent of Eminem attacking Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Morrissey himself wrote on his website:

You are especially despised if your music affects people in a strong and beautiful way, since music is no longer required to. In fact, the worst thing you can do in 2021 is to lend a bit of strength to the lives of others. There is no place in modern music for anyone with strong emotions….

I’ve had enough horror thrown at me that would kill off a herd of bison. Accusations usually come from someone with a crazed desire for importance; they don’t operate at a very high level. Writing for the Simpsons, for example, evidently requires only complete ignorance. But all of these things are too easy for me to say. In a world obsessed with Hate Laws, there are none that protect me….free speech no longer exists.

The response is classically self-pitying—almost Trumpian, in fact—in its insistence that he is the real victim. But how the neo-fascist, For Britain-supporting, 2021 version of Morrissey is lending “a bit of strength to the lives of others” eludes me. 

THERE IS A PLACE IN HELL FOR ME AND MY FRIENDS

So what to do with all this? How bad do an artist’s politics have to be before we say fuck off?

It’s the old question of how—or if—we can separate the artist from the art, and more to the point, whether we ought to do so. Over the years it’s been asked of a numbingly long list of geniuses with problematic personal views, behavior, and other baggage: Celine, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Wagner, Polanski….the list goes on and on. 

It’s an especially pertinent question in the era of #Metoo and the Age of Trump. In the past five years, it’s one we’ve all had to ask not only of our musical heroes and other public figures, but of our friends and acquaintances as well. In some cases it has meant ending friendships and abandoning artists and entertainers who have taken a side that is unconscionable. 

But I can live very easily without the artistic contributions of Scott BaioPat Boone, and Ted Nugent. I will miss listening to The Queen Is Dead a lot more. 

Lots of artists are shitty people. What consequences they ought to pay for that is highly subjective, a matter of degree and timing and context, and perhaps best handled on a case by case basis. Are we judging a long deceased historical figure who lived and worked under the standards of a very different era, or a contemporary individual who is still alive and active and operating under the current rules of engagement? How bad was their offensive behavior, and was it isolated or part of a longstanding pattern? And how integral is their person to their work?

With some of these folks, the art and the artist are fairly distinct and don’t overlap much, making bifurcation easier. I will always love watching Dennis Quaid in Breaking Away, or The Right Stuff, or Postcards from the Edge, even if it saddens and disgusts me to know that he’s now a Trump supporter. I don’t want to watch anything new he does, but I can appreciate his performances from the distant past, because they are so distinct from his politics. (His brother Randy is a slightly different matter, mental illness wise.) It’s a bit like the way I can appreciate the skill of the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin while ignoring his open admiration for Vladimir Putin. But it doesn’t make me want to root for him. 

The issue becomes thornier, however, when the individual’s work is directly connected to his or her vile views. 

In “Pretend It’s a City,” her new Netflix collaboration with Martin Scorsese, Fran Lebowitz describes how she once refused an invitation to attend a private dinner for Leni Riefenstahl. (In fact, she says she was livid that anyone thought she would ever accept.) In that case, the empirical aesthetic beauty of Riefenstahl’s film work is impossible to separate from the hateful ideology it celebrated and served. 

Would it be different when it comes to, say, Leni’s still photography of Nuba people in Sudan in the 1970s? Ask Fran. 

Sometimes the issue is positively byzantine. Wagner is permanently stained by his posthumous association with the Third Reich, even though he’d been dead for fifty years before Hitler came to power. That certainly makes him harder to listen to, but he would have a better case for absolution if not for his own virulent anti-Semitism, such that it makes him feel like a willing co-conspirator before the fact. Yet none of that has stopped contemporary orchestras and opera companies from performing his work. (Not often in Israel though.)

Indeed, if anti-Semitism was a dealbreaker, whole centuries of artists would be canceled. I love Roald Dahl’s stories, but I read them now with the knowledge that he was a vicious Jew hater. Even Shakespeare has taken his lumps for Shylock. Is it fair to judge these people by the standards of the present day? Sometimes it is. From there it is not a big leap to questions about Thomas Jefferson and some other Founding Fathers, who, contrary to the rationalizations of some folks in the current moment, knew very well that owning other human beings was deeply wrong, even way back in the 18th century.

Jumping ahead two hundred years, I’m a fan of NWA, but how do we reckon with the abhorrent anti-Semitism—and even more so, homophobia—of a song like Ice Cube’s solo hit “No Vaseline” (1991)? And I choose that at near-random from the hip hop canon, which is rife with that stuff—as is rock & roll—to say nothing of misogyny. Hell, if we start scrutinizing dodgy lyrics and bad behavior in pop music, not many musicians would be left standing except Cliff Richard

Lately we have seen the once-great Van Morrison, another of my adolescent musical heroes, trashing his legacy with a series of bitter new songs railing against the COVID-19 lockdownTeaming with him on some of those tracks was Eric Clapton, a former junkie who now blames the vaccine, rather than years of heroin use, for his health problems. Clapton, of course, is lugging around some even more rancid albatrosses, going back to his praise for Enoch Powell and an eyepopping racist outburst at a concert in Birmingham in 1976, and repeated equivocation about those remarks in the decades since. 

LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?

Which brings us back to Morrissey.

Answering a question posed on Twitter about whether it is possible to divorce the man from the music, Billy Braggtweeted, “No. There was a light but it has now gone out.” Nick Cave, like Bragg, a man well-known for his humanity and integrity, was slightly more philosophical in answer to a similar question posed by a fan, defending Morrissey’s right to his political views even as he expressed staunch opposition to the views themselves.

But no one is disputing Morrissey’s right to his opinion, nor his right to state it publicly (except Morrissey himself, with specious Fox News-style screeching about “censorship”). By the same token, we are under no obligation to endorse his views by giving him our dollars or attention. That is not “censorship”: it is our right to freedom of expression ourselves, as fans and as consumers.

Per above, Cave argues that an artist’s “views and behavior are separate issues”:

Whatever inanities (Morrissey) may postulate, we cannot overlook the fact that he has written a vast and extraordinary catalogue, which has enhanced the lives of his many fans beyond recognition. This is no small thing. He has created original and distinctive works of unparalleled beauty, that will long outlast his offending political alliances.

Perhaps it is better to simply let Morrissey have his views, challenge them when and wherever possible, but allow his music to live on, bearing in mind we are all conflicted individuals—messy, flawed and prone to lunacies. We should thank God that there are some among us that create works of beauty beyond anything most of us can barely imagine, even as some of those same people fall prey to regressive and dangerous belief systems.

But this is not a matter of Ovechkin’s puckhandling, which is wholly separate from his politics. Given that his songs frequently function as social commentary, Morrissey’s views are inextricably tied up with his words and music. This isn’t Thin White Duke-era Bowie making a stupid, outlier comment admiring of British fascism and calling Hitler “one of the first rock stars.” This is a relentless and ongoing pattern that is impossible to ignore or compartmentalize from the music itself, which it increasingly overshadows.

As Rustamova writes, “We need to vote with our ears and call Morrissey out. We can’t separate art from the artist when the art sings ‘England for the English.’”

Whether he is displaying some mid-to-late life reactionary transformation, or expressing long held beliefs, or merely playing the provocateur, Morrissey’s perverse turn to the right is—to put it mildly—both odious and sad for all parties. In overlooking and excusing his actions over the years, we have all been complicit: the fans, the record labels, the music press. Everyone. 

But while we don’t have to have a debate about free will here, in the end Moz has no one but himself to answer for it. As for the responsibility of pop stars for their actions, let me throw his words back at him:

You could have said no 
If you’d wanted to 
You could have walked away 
Couldn’t you?

When it comes to choosing my pop stars according to their decency as human beings and the admirability of their politics, I think I’ll listen to some Billy Bragg.

*********

Photo: Morrissey wearing “For Britain” badge on “The Tonight Show,” May 2019. NBC/Getty Images.

The Tyranny of the Minority

Where does Joe Manchin go to pick up his Man of the Year award from the Klan?

Unfair, you say! A cheap shot, you say! A vast and snide over-simplification that elides the nuances of the situation.

Maybe. 

But here’s the fact:

In opposing the sweeping package of voter protections known as the For the People Act, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is all but singlehandedly blocking urgently needed legislative action—action that is overwhelmingly popular with a majority of Americans, even in his home state, by the by—that would protect voting rights at a time when they are under a degree of vicious attack not seen since the days of Jim Crow. In so doing, he is all but singlehandedly providing Republicans cover as they try to disenfranchise tens of millions of American voters—disproportionately people of colorwomen, and the working poor—in order to install their white nationalist party in power permanently, in countermajoritarian violation of the most basic principles of a representative democracy. 

Call that what you will, but I assure you that the Klan is applauding. 

(And the tradition of Manchin’s homeboy Robert Byrd lives on.)

But Manchin has good reasons, you say! 

OK, what are they?

Here they are in his own words, from his recent op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

(P)rotecting (the right to vote), which is a value I share, should never be done in a partisan manner. 

Unfortunately, we now are witnessing that the fundamental right to vote has itself become overtly politicized. Today’s debate about how to best protect our right to vote and to hold elections, however, is not about finding common ground, but seeking partisan advantage. Whether it is state laws that seek to needlessly restrict voting or politicians who ignore the need to secure our elections, partisan policymaking won’t instill confidence in our democracy—it will destroy it.

Senator Manchin is correct that partisan policymaking will destroy our democracy, but his absurd bothsidesism is wildly at odds with reality, suggesting that he is either jaw-droppingly naïve (hard to believe in a professional politician of his experience) or despicably dishonest and self-serving. His reference to “the need to secure our elections,” a healingly cynical sop to the batshit right, strongly suggests the latter. 

(C)ongressional action on federal voting rights legislation must be the result of both Democrats and Republicans coming together to find a pathway forward or we risk further dividing and destroying the republic we swore to protect and defend as elected officials.

Do we really want to live in an America where one party can dictate and demand everything and anything it wants, whenever it wants?

Hell no: and the party that’s doing that is the GOP. To even imply that Democrats—of which he is one—are engaged in anything even remotely similar is beneath contempt. As voting rights expert Ari Berman tweeted: “I don’t recall Republicans asking for bipartisan support before they introduced 400 voter suppression bills & enacted 22 new voter suppression laws in 14 states so far this year.” 

Shame on you, Senator.

Manchin goes on to speak of the need for “compromise.” Give me a break. Compromise? From a Republican Party whose Senate Minority Leader has stated that 100% of his energy is devoted to blocking everything Biden wants to do? (Echoing his priorities during the Obama administration.) From a Republican Party that refused even to back an investigation into a violent attempt to overthrow the government? (Naturally, since it was complicit in that effort.)

Manchin goes on:

I have always said, “If I can’t go home and explain it, I can’t vote for it.” And I cannot explain strictly partisan election reform or blowing up the Senate rules to expedite one party’s agenda.

It’s actually very easy to explain, and it’s not “one party’s agenda.” It’s a defense of democracy against an opposing party that has made it very clear it has no interest in that. 

Or as Heather Cox Richardson writes, “Essentially, Manchin appears to be blaming the person calling the fire department, rather than the arsonist, and then saying the firefighters need to work with the guys holding the gasoline cans and matches.” 

FANTASY AND DECEIT

In the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson writes:

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has the right to live in a make-believe wonderland if he so chooses. But his party and his nation will pay a terrible price for his hallucinations about the nature of today’s Republican Party. And even this sacrifice might not guarantee that Manchin can hold on to support back home.There’s no way to spin this as anything other than awful. Manchin’s decision is a catastrophe not just for this particular bill, though he has almost certainly doomed the legislation…..thanks to Manchin’s decision, Biden doesn’t even have a 50-vote Senate for what many Democrats see as an existential fight against the GOP’s attempt to gain and keep power through voter suppression. 

Worse, Manchin is asking Democrats to respond to ruthlessness with delusion. 

On Twitter, A.R. Moxon writes: 

Manchin’s politics boil down to “no matter what the results of any election, no matter the mandate, no matter the clear and present danger, for Democrats to govern, Republicans must first be asked permission.”

“Not one member of the opposing team has agreed to help us win this football game, therefore our strategy must be flawed.” “Not one hijacker has agreed to work with us to regain control of this airplane. We simply need to be more convincing, or the strife may increase.”

Because please note: Manchin is not just opposing an end to the filibuster, as expected, which would be necessary to overcome Republican opposition to the For the People Act…..he is the lone Democratic Senator voting with the GOP against the act itself.

On that count, the WaPo’s Jennifer Rubin offered perhaps the most thorough obliteration of Manchin’s stance, noting that the senator has not cited anything objectionable in the content of the bill itself, only lack of GOP support. 

He does not state what provisions he likes or doesn’t, nor does he suggest what compromise bill might reach 60 votes. So his objection is that Republicans object? Many bills that he supported came without Republican support—the American Rescue Plan, most recently, and of course, the Affordable Care Act. The notion that Republicans win simply by refusing to agree to any of the majority’s legislative proposals makes a mockery of democracy, and specifically of the Senate. Indeed, Republicans’ filibuster of the Jan. 6 commission legislation showed that we lack 10 Republicans willing to operate in good faith.

To that end, Manchin’s protection of the filibuster makes even less sense. Rubin again:

Elevating the filibuster to the sine qua non of our constitutional system is absurd. It is not in the Constitution. It protects no constitutional principle. It does not constitute a check or balance on the other branches as, for example, a veto override or the Senate’s advise and consent power on nominees. It does not protect minority rights when it is used to thwart voting rights protection for disfavored minorities….

Manchin argues that renewing the lapsed 1965 Voting Rights Act (in its new incarnation as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act) would be a better solution, writing, “Since its original passage, it has been reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan votes five separate times.” Yeah, but that was then and this is now. Since Joe’s op-ed went to press, Mitch McConnell has already said he won’t support reviving the 1965 law, because there’s no threat to voting rights: “The Supreme Court concluded that conditions that existed in 1965 no longer existed,” McConnell told reporters. “So there’s no threat to the voting rights law. It’s against the law to discriminate in voting on the basis of race already. And so I think it’s unnecessary.” 

Note: He said that with a straight face. 

That means Manchin, again, would need ten Republicans to cross the aisle. Does he really think there are ten Republicans who will do so? As Eugene Robinson notes, “So far, there is one—Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). The other nine must be in some parallel dimension, visible only to Manchin, where all the leprechauns, tooth fairies and unicorns are hiding.”

So much for Manchin’s fantasies and his laughable counter-proposals. But fantasy is the wrong word, because surely he already knew all this. So let’s just call it shameless deceit.

Rubin astutely asks what Manchin will do “when 10 Republicans do not emerge for cloture on (H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act) either—just as we saw on the Jan. 6 commission bill—does Manchin simply give up?” She then suggests, per the title of her piece, that we “call Manchin’s bluff”:

It’s time for Manchin to put up or share blame for Republicans’ subversion of democracy. 

Let him come up with 10 Republicans for H.R. 4 and for a slimmed down H.R. 1. Let him find four more Republicans to support the Jan. 6 commission. If he cannot, then his thesis that the filibuster promotes debate and makes way for compromise collapses and his role in promoting the tyranny of the minority is laid bare.

Manchin insisted that he will not “weaken or eliminate” the filibuster. He should be compelled to spell out what reforms he would accept. Is requiring Republicans to hold the floor (i.e., demanding a talking filibuster) “weakening” the rule? It is well past the time to start pressuring Manchin to answer some basic questions: If the filibuster is simply a means of thwarting any reasonable legislation, why is it worth preserving? What if the integrity of our democracy is at stake?

Manchin’s bland platitudes suggest he prefers stalemate to taking hard votes. The status quo leaves him with latitude to make holier-than-thou pronouncements to decry both sides.

THE MYTH OF BLAMING THE BASE

The defense of Manchin goes like this: 

He’s a rare Democrat from a deep red state, which means has to walk a fine line in order not to offend his constituents and hang onto his seat. That means staying on the conservative side of the Democratic caucus, and not backing ideas that are perceived as “too progressive,” like this bill. Blue state liberals may howl self-righteously, but that’s the pragmatic state of play. 

Maybe so. But undermining democracy just to hold onto your seat is not exactly a defensible position. The favor he’s doing for the GOP is so huge that Trump himself went out of his way to praise him for it.

Say no more.

In short, for the sake of retaining his seat in the Senate, Manchin is poised to go down in history as a self-serving hypocrite who crossed party lines for the sole purpose of standing on the battlements of white supremacy…..or at least the key actor who enabled others to do so, for the sake of his own self-interest, which might be even worse. If the GOP manages to successfully eviscerate voting rights and establish a chokehold on American democracy in the early 21st century, that crime will look even worse to posterity.   

Moreover, setting aside principle (easy to do for Joe!) it’s not at all clear that this utilitarian, self-aggrandizing description of the circumstances is even correct.

In reality, the For the People Act is very popular in West Virginia. A recent poll had 79% of West Virginians in favor of it. Puppies don’t even poll that well. It’s polling at 76% even among Republicans alone. Nationwide, the political consulting firm Lake Research Partners reports that 68% of Americans support the act, including a majority of Republicans. In fact, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker reports that the GOP high command is outright terrified of how popular it is. (This goes to Joe Biden’s preferred definition of “bipartisan,” based on what a broad cross-section of the American people support, as opposed to what a tiny cabal of Republican mandarins in Washington DC will allow.)

And there are other outliers too. West Virginian support for Biden’s jobs and infrastructure bill is at 68%, but Manchin has said he won’t vote for that either unless Mitch McConnell says he can.

So Manchin’s whole “pragmatism” case falls apart—unspoken though it is, since his spoken rationale is even less coherent.   

It’s true that over a long career at both the state and federal levels, Manchin has proven himself a canny political operator: as a Democrat, you don’t get to be both the governor of West Virginia and one of its US Senators without knowing your voters, so I won’t second guess him. Still, there’s reason to doubt his calculation and his tactics.

Robinson again: 

(I)nsisting on bipartisanship in all things might not be a magical talisman against defeat. 

The self-identified non-conservative Democrats who provide Manchin’s strongest base of support, with 59 percent viewing him favorably, are also the most skeptical of the filibuster Manchin has pledged himself to protect. Twenty percent of them say the filibuster should be eliminated, and another 45 percent say it should be reformed. 

That is just one poll, and Manchin’s history of winning suggests he knows his state. But even Manchin has to hold on to his strongest supporters. Blocking Biden’s agenda and allowing GOP voter suppression are not stances that will help him win his next election or change Washington’s increasingly twisted laws of politics. 

In this fairy tale, Manchin is setting himself up to be the villain.

I’M JUST A BILL, YEAH I’M ONLY A BILL

Even though Manchin himself hasn’t bothered to argue the merits of the For the People Act before rejecting it over this mythical quest for Republican good faith, it’s worth taking a moment to consider criticisms of the legislation itself. 

The knock on the bill—outlined by Charlies Sykes at The Bulwark, among others—is that it constitutes federal overreach. Perhaps…..and I generally agree with Charlie and The Bulwark, one of the last bastions of sane conservatism in America. But in this case I think a little federal overreach is called for, don’t you, when Republicans in 43 states are trying to undermine democracy at its very core? 

Once the party of spurious “states’ rights,” a phrase forever tied to the Confederacy, the GOP invokes it only when convenient. The rest of the time it’s the party that does things like letting Texas—led by its AG, Ken Paxton, currently under indictment for securities fraudgo to federal court to interfere with how Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin conduct their elections. 

States’ rights? What states’ rights?

Meanwhile, The New York Times Editorial Board, while sharing Sykes’s sentiment that the House version of the bill, H.R. 1, is “poorly drawn,” also notes that it fails to go far enough in preventing partisan control of the vote count at the state level, and the ability of Republican state legislatures to overturn results at will. But that is a reason to revise the bill, not reject it outright.

Of course, Manchin isn’t the first lone wolf to break with his party and doom a piece of legislation with a single vote. (As recently as 2017 McCain did it to the GOP over the repeal of Obamacare, and Republicans were just as furious with him as Democrats are with Manchin now.

Of course, John did it to preserve affordable health care for tens millions of Americans; Joe did it to deny voting rights to a similar number. 

EXTREMISM IN THE DEFENSE OF LIBERTY

Washington insiders expected this: apparently, behind closed doors, Manchin had long made his position clear well before he codified it for public consumption in that op-ed. Still, it is infuriating.

So what can be done? Well, the DNC can give Traitor Joe the Liz Cheney treatment: strip him of his seniority and his power, starve West Virginia of any money he could direct to it, and make him largely ineffective as a senator, hitting him where it hurst most in terms of his re-election prospects. 

But what then? He gets primaried, or beaten in the general election, and West Virginia sends some

But what then? He gets primaried, or beaten in the general election, and West Virginia sends some Republican shitbag to Washington who’s even worse? Manchin might even switch parties right now, at the start of his current six-year term. (The horrid WaPo columnist and Trump fanboy Marc Thiessen has already suggested that Donald call Manchin and try to persuade him to do so, in order to oppose the Democrats’ “radical agenda.” You know, like the radical idea that Black people should be allowed to vote.) 

Yes, Manchin may as well be a Republican as it is, but that “may as well” matters. He votes with his caucus enough to make a difference, even if the times he doesn’t are maddening beyond belief.

So even as I take issue with Charlie Sykes on this particular point, his Bulwark colleague Jonathan V. Last has some excellent advice:

A lot of people are upset. I get this. But I want to concentrate your mind on what does, and does not, matter. And let’s start with the mission statement: 

“The best version of HR 1 is the version that (1) has the key protections and (2) can pass.”

That’s it. Everything else is a nice-to-have.

So let’s start with the things that do not matter and which no one should spend even five minutes thinking about:

+ Manchin’s motivations.

+ How to get rid of Manchin.

+ Why Provision X from the bill was really great and would have made life better.

JVL goes on to suggest that Democrats strip the bill down to its most essential provisions needed to protect voting rights (what he calls “the minimum viable product”). This may be the onbly way to bring the necessary majority along, which will include both Manchin, and progressives, and ideally a couple of Republicans too. (Not ten.) 

Oh, and also:

Passing any sort of voting rights act will almost certainly require changing/reforming/ killing the filibuster. So you have to create the conditions that will put so much pressure on Manchin the next time around that he’ll cave. 

What does that pressure look like? It probably starts with infrastructure. Give Manchin a big say in infrastructure and see how he feels when he can’t get 10 R votes for something he’s driving and cares about. 

It also probably requires reframing the filibuster change as “reform” and not nuking. Come up with some fenced-in version of the reform that gets you to voting rights, while keeping it in place for other stuff. Call it whatever you have to so that Manchin can say he isn’t changing his mind, but that he’s been presented with a different option.

It’s sad, I know, that these are the workarounds required, but like the man said, politics is the art of the possible. (The man being Otto von Bismarck, who knew a thing or two about reactionaries.)

Last again: 

If it turns out that there is no world in which voting rights legislation of any sort is achievable with the current fact set, then Biden needs to move on to other strategies. And if you can’t strengthen democratic institutions, then maybe you can create conditions on the ground that might forestall the next authoritarian attempt.

What does that look like? In our post-Truth world, it has to be more than just doing such a good job that MAGA Nation sees the light. Accordingly, I would heartily support aggressive, FDR-like use of executive orders, even if they get challenged in the (largely Republican-controlled) courts. Republicans have shown us that they are willing to do far more outrageous things to promote their agenda, both legal and illegal, with and without precedent….and our efforts will have the added advantage of actually being good for democracy, and for a majority of the American people, and not just for a plutocratic elite. 

I would also suggest a massive PR campaign that hammers the GOP relentlessly over its hypocrisy, anti-democratism, racism, misogyny, refusal to send relief dollars to hurting Americans, epically botched response to the pandemic, and oh yeah, complicity in a violent coup attempt. No Trumpist minds will be changed, of course, but we’re not aiming at them. We’re speaking to the sentient segment of rational Americans who will listen to common sense and are capable of being swayed. A small group, but a vital one nonetheless.  

To be clear, I am not advocating anything untoward. Only that we stop bringing a strongly worded letter of complaint to a gunfight. 

ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST 2022

So per JVL, I am trying to focus on the future, and how we get things done despite Joe Manchin. And one of those scenarios involves a future in which the man from West Virginia is infinitely less relevant. 

Like many progressives, I am hoping that we can not only hold onto the Senate in 2022, but increase our majority by a couple of seats, severely slashing Manchin’s power. (And you, too, Kristen Sinema.) It will require an electoral campaign and get-out-the-vote effort to dwarf 2020, and in a climate that promises to be even more logistically challenging, thanks to Republican ratfucking. Which is the whole crux of this crisis.

We need to hold onto Warnock in Georgia and Bennet in Colorado and Kelly in Arizona and Cortez Masto in Nevada and Hassan in New Hampshire; flip the seats of retirees-to-be Toomey in Pennsylvania and Burr in North Carolina and Portman in Ohio; and oust Johnson in Wisconsin and Rubio in Florida. 

I know it’s a tall order. But it’s a battle we have no choice but to fight, and what’s more, it’s one we stand a chance of winning. 

Yes, the president’s party routinely loses seats in the midterms, but these are not routine times. The GOP is doubling down on Trumpism—you know, the ideology that cost them the White House and the Senate in the last election?—on the presumption (or delusion) that it’s the route back to power. It may be, and that would be a grim statement about our nation, and about how deep the QAnon Kool-Aid runs. But it may just as likely prove Jonestown-level suicidal for the Republican Party. 

This will be the latest acid test for the soul of America. 

We can reflect till the cows come home over just how much damage one intransigent, self-serving hack can do if placed in just the right position. But our problem is no more limited to Joe Manchin than it was limited to Donald Trump. Neither Manchin, nor Trump, nor McConnell, Cruz, Hawley, nor Marjorie Taylor Greene for that matter could get away with what they are doing were there not millions (or in some cases tens of millions) of Americans who are totally onboard with this malicious degradation of democracy. That is almost to be expected from a country born to a strange marriage of Enlightenment ideals and brutal human bondage, one that fought a bloody civil war over that very paradox 150 years ago, the repercussions of which we are still reckoning with.

We must never forget that this group is a minority and we are the majority. But due to a series of flawed 18th century mechanisms built into our political system, that minority has managed to grab our republic by the throat and hold it hostage. We must both address those systemic issues that allowed this state of affairs to arise, and simultaneously face down the racist, anti-democratic, authoritarian-friendly John Bircher mindset that infects a significant subset of our fellow Americans. 

Until we do, Joe Manchin will be just a symptom, not the disease, and the least of our problems.  

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Photo: Reuters

Fran and Spalding

The recent success of Martin Scorsese’s new Netflix documentary series about Fran Lebowitz, Pretend It’s a City, put me in mind of another project from twenty years ago that featured Fran, the late Spalding Gray, and dozens of others. As it is now out of print, I thought it was worth revisiting, given the renewed interest in the intrepid Ms. L., and the poignancy of what Spalding had to say in light of his tragic end five years later. 

These are interviews that have barely been seen by the general public, and never in their entirety, until now.

The film is a feature documentary called Yesterday’s Tomorrows (1999), directed by Barry Levinson and produced by Richard Berge. It was part of an initiative by Sandra Itkoff and Showtime/Disney, which commissioned a group of famous narrative filmmakers to make a series of documentaries collected under the title The 20th Century: A Moving History, to commemorate the upcoming turn of the Millennium. Each director was given an identical budget and free rein to tackle the topic of his or her choice. Levinson’s documentary is about how people in the past imagined the future, loosely based on the book of the same name by Stanford professor Joseph Corn, who appears in the film. (The other topics included comedy, marriage, sex, drugs, and the American Dream.)

In addition to Fran, Spalding, and Joe Corn, the other interviewees included John Waters, Martin Mull, Walter Mosley, Richard Belzer, Carrie Fisher, Ada Louise Huxtable, Philip Johnson (age 93 at the time of filming), Octavia Butler, Robert Klein, Ralph Nader, E.L. Doctorow, Matt Groening, Robert Heilbroner, Isaac Mizrahi, Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Phyllis Diller, Andy Rooney, Victor Navasky, Charlton Heston, Alvin and Heidi Toffler (authors of Future Shock), Ford Motors auto designer James Powers, and Syd Mead and Hampton Fancher (the “visual futurist” and screenwriter, respectively, of Blade Runner). “One of Barry’s ideas was to have serious people be funny and funny people be serious,” Berge recalls. “And that kind of happened.”

The film was shot—on 16mm—by Michael Chin and associate produced by Kenn Rabin. Richard and Kenn wrote it; I was the editor, and the production coordinator and assistant editor was Megan Mylan (who went on to become an Oscar-winning documentary director in her own right). I cut it partially in San Francisco and then on an Avid that we set up in the kitchen of Barry’s guest house in Marin County, while his longtime narrative editor, Stu Linder, was cutting his feature Liberty Heights (on Lightworks!) in the main editing room. 

You can see the full film here, as well as a supercut of just Fran and Spalding’s parts.

For the sake of posterity, I’m also posting their raw, unedited interviews; see links at end of post. (These rushes are transfers from VHS window dubs with burned-in time code, and therefore lower resolution than the finished film.)

WE WERE PROMISED JET PACKS

Yesterday’s Tomorrows traces popular visions of the future from the turn of the 19th century, through the optimism of the pre-war period when technological “Progress” with a capital P was widely seen as an unquestioned good, to the pinnacle of that belief at the 1939 World’s Fair, through the darkness that followed, and into the postwar, commercial-driven American love affair with “all mod cons” that even the shadow of the Bomb—the ultimate, sinister manifestation of the dark side of technology—could not completely douse. 

The film touches on architecture and urban planning, telecommunications, computers, robots, flying cars, cloning, genetically modified food, and that enduring symbol of a future that never arrives, jet packs. (Sections we wanted to include about the Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who was stranded in the Mir space station while his country ceased to exist back on Earth, and the Disney-created town of Celebration, Florida as a sterile, contemporary vision of the future, didn’t make it into production.) 

The documentary ends with the dystopian visions that were prevalent in the cinema of the late Sixties and early Seventies—Planet of the ApesOmega Man, and Soylent Green. We even got Charlton Heston, the star of all three of those movies, to repeat his famous, climactic line of dialogue from that last movie. (Spoiler alert: if you don’t know what it is, don’t watch it over dinner.) 

Maybe the most enjoyable part was the vast trove of rollicking archival material, especially the corporate promotional films of the Fifties and Sixties, as curated by Archive Producer Kenn Rabin, who was also the chief archival consultant for the entire 20th Century series. (Kenn also pieced together the raw, unedited rushes included here, which until recently I presumed were long lost.)

One of the fascinating things we learned in making the film was that even when prognosticators were correct in predicting future developments, their vision of them was still laughable. We have clips from industrial films by the likes of Ford, GM, IBM, Bell, et al that accurately predicted the Internet, Skype, online shopping, routine air travel, and multiple other things that actually came to pass……and yet their depictions of each are still “Jetsons”-level ludicrous. (Exception: Blade Runner, which may have influenced the look of what is now the present more than any other piece of contemporary cinema, and still looks cutting edge even today.)

For that reason, I lobbied hard to call the film People Were Stupid…..and felt sure I was going to prevail after we interviewed Martin Mull, who quipped that all the great prophets of progress and futurism who promised us a bright new tomorrow “didn’t take into account how stupid people were going to be. America’s greatest natural resource, still to this day, is the moron.” 

He didn’t know how right he was. 

GUNSLINGERS IN GRAMERCY PARK

Fran and Spalding were interviewed on the same day in October 1998, back to back, at the Players Club in Gramercy Park. For that reason, the two interviews look twinned, in their earth tone palette. (“We just turned the camera around,” says Berge.) 

Richard recalls that the two wits eyed each other like gunslingers across the room in an Old West saloon. “My memory is that we finished up Spalding and he was getting ready to leave, and Fran shows up and they sort of crossed paths as she was coming in, and they did this odd head nod.” The mutual respect-cum-rivalry is understandable, as the two shared a sensibility as cultural commentators, albeit from two distinct worlds, one New York City Jewish and the other New England Yankee.

Speaking to that, and how he was viewed in the entertainment industry, Gray told the critic Edward Vilga this in 1997:

I would say that my major problem with Hollywood is this—I sometimes paraphrase Bob Dylan—Bob Dylan says “I may look like Robert Ford, but I feel just like Jesse James.” I say, “I may look like a gynecologist, an American ambassador’s aide, or a lawyer, but I feel like Woody Allen….I appear to be a WASP Brahmin, but I’m really a sort of neurotic, perverse New York Jew. 

When I was performing one year ago at this time in Israel, a review came out in Hebrew about Monster in a Box, and it read, “Spalding Gray is funny, sometimes hilarious, wonderfully neurotic for a non-Jew.” Only the Jews can say something like “wonderfully neurotic.”

FRAN WAS ON FIRE THAT DAY

Fran Lebowitz probably has more air time in the film than any other single interviewee in the documentary, and even so we left loads of footage on the metaphorical cutting room floor, simply in the interest of balance. Almost every word that came out of her mouth could have been used, unedited. It has always baffled me that some find her an acquired taste, and even polarizing, as I myself would be very happy to have a tape loop of Fran playing in my head 24/7. 

Berge recalls that for a famous curmudgeon, Fran was amiable and friendly and even stuck around chatting with the crew while they were breaking down after the interview. “She has an outgoing attitude, and she’s opinionated and talkative,” he says. “She clearly loves life, and she has good energy, even if the words are coming out are sort of downbeat.” 

“You could tell she had joy in telling stories and getting people’s reactions and hearing laughter. She was in the middle of the room and everybody was working around her, and she was just sort of turning around, talking to everybody, like theater-in-the-round. It was so delightful. And I remember at the time thinking, ‘I can’t believe she hasn’t left yet. She actually enjoyed this and she doesn’t want to go.’” 

You can see that joie de vivre in her interview, particularly when she gets off an especially good bon mot—which is often—and for a split second amid her trademark deadpan delivery, allows us to see a twinkle in her eye, because she knows that was a good one. 

In fact, when it comes to her infamous writer’s block, it could be that, as great a writer as Fran Lebowitz is, hearing her say the words is part of what is so pleasurable, and the written page can’t match. Whether the interlocutor sitting across from her is Scorsese, Spike Lee, Frank Rich, Richard Berge, or Ziwe, her real art form is probably “interview subject.” 

Fran wanted to smoke during the interview, but Berge feared the wrath of Disney: “I didn’t want to come back to San Francisco only to find out I had an interview I couldn’t use because there was a cigarette in it.” So—out of abundance of caution—he asked her to keep it out of the frame. The problem was, throughout the interview we see smoke wafting up, but never its source, so it looks like Fran is on fire. 

On re-viewing the rushes, I saw that Richard and Mike Chin realized the problem at the time, because at one point they tell her exactly that, and—reversing themselves—specifically ask her to bring the cigarette up so we can see it, which she does. (No complaints were heard from the Mouse.)

In the interview itself, Fran speaks nostalgically of a time when the government was separate from soda companies, how wanting to go to the 1964 World’s Fair was like wanting to own a horse, the racist subtext of the Westerns of the ‘60s and the science fiction movies of the ‘70s, of John Glenn being straight from Central Casting (“No one else could have been John Glenn”), and how the protagonist of Peggy Sue Got Married should have bought an apartment in Manhattan. 

On the topic of the World’s Fair, she recalls how it marked her transformation from an innocent and unquestioning child into the dyspeptic Fran we know and love when she saw how Michelangelo’s “Pieta” was displayed:

I was quite a little art buff at that age, and it was my first encounter with kitsch. I was flabbergasted. It was on a revolving platform, lit like something from Star Wars. I remember green light and music playing and I was horrified. I instantly went from being this character almost from a Mark Twain novel, this corny, patriotic child, to being this haughty condescending snob. It was a tremendous change in me. “How could they do this?!”

She talks of the terror of nuclear war that shrouded her childhood, and the makeshift bomb shelter she secretly constructed in the crawlspace of her family’s New Jersey home. Describing herself as an “immensely patriotic child,” she explains that she thought of the Bomb “as a manifestation of communism, not as a manifestation of science.”

Of women and the future, she says:

All the things that were proposed that were going to be this kind of utopia were things that were meant always to aid the housewife. There would never be a notion that they would aid a man, because men didn’t do this kind of work. 

I never saw in my whole childhood a man wash a dish. I would have been absolutely shocked to see such a thing. It would have been flabbergasting to me. So all things were invented with the idea that the housewife’s lot would be an easier one. 

You won’t be surprised to learn that she was very hard on television (apparently not anticipating the success of her own Netflix series twenty years hence): 

Television turned out to be far worse than even the greatest and most cornball prediction of a kind of standard Fifties intellectual. People kept talking about the effects of TV, and how would it act on us? I don’t think anyone imagined that we would go live inside that box and that there would be no “us” anymore. 

On one of her trademark topics, New York City, she called its 1999 incarnation “a puritanical environment” with “all the disadvantages of that kind of tiny suburban sensibility and all the disadvantages of a big, noisy, expensive city.” Way ahead of her time, she describes then-mayor Rudy Giuliani as “Mussolini without the charm.” 

By contrast, the New York she favored “was close to lawless—which is good, not because I favor crime, but because I favor debauchery.”

I moved to New York when I was 18 years old. I didn’t come here because I heard how clean it was. So things like cleanliness, which are American obsessions, and the notion that the future will be cleaner and cleaner and cleaner, more and more germ-free in every respect, both literal germs and symbolic germs: now we seem to have achieved that. So now (New York) is an incredibly dull but very expensive place.

This surprisingly touching notion of lost innocence runs throughout her interview:

Children had a lot of time (in the Fifties), which they don’t have now, I notice. Children laid around a lot. No one was constantly forcing children to get ready to become investment bankers or whatever they’re trying to make them do now. Children were kind of scattered all over the lawns of America, just lying around, looking up at the sky. That was a big thing you did: you lay on your back, you looked up at the sky. 

Hearing of Fran’s youthful idealism, and the extent to which she felt betrayed by the Eisenhower-era con job that had been perpetrated on her, explains a lot about the person she became, and lends her gimlet-eyed adult persona a real poignancy. 

Lastly, and a bit more on brand, here is Fran on progress and human nature:

You can’t think about the future if you take human nature into account, because human nature doesn’t change. Human nature has no future—the future of human nature is the past. So as bad as people are, we will always be, and we have demonstrated that consistently. There has been no change for the better in human nature at all, and there never will be. 

So yes, it would, it would certainly behoove the people who think about the future or who invent these things to keep in mind human nature. But of course it is human nature not to do that.

Words to live by, my friends, words to live by.

TWO THOUSAND ZERO ZERO—PARTY OVER

“Of course, storytelling has been around since humanity began, but Spalding basically resurrected the monologue singlehandedly with Swimming to CambodiaMonster in a Box, and the rest,” says Berge. “And it took off; now it’s a thing that everybody does. Arguably even TED Talks are based on it. That was him.” I would add that the art form that Spalding invented, or re-invented, has now mated with a certain breed of standup comedy from the likes of Eddie Izzard, Mike Birbiglia, and Hannah Gadsby, whose long form stage performances are structured more like Spalding Gray’s pieces than like conventional comedy acts….not to mention the renaissance of audio storytelling on radio and pdocast, The Moth, and a million other monologists who came in his wake. 

That genius is fully on display in his Yesterday’s Tomorrows interview

Spalding describes his upbringing in the “very beautiful, upper middle-class Republican” town of Barrington, Rhode Island, and similar to Fran (born nine years later), refers to the future that was presented to him as “a dustless fantasy—a Sears & Roebuck Studebaker dream.” But the dark side, also as for Fran, was the dread of nuclear war, as depicted in the films of atomic testing on mannequins and uninhabited “towns” in the Nevada desert. 

But at the tender age of 14, young Master Gray already demonstrated his keen grasp of the absurd: 

I can remember my mother driving me up to this particular boarding school in Maine, and we didn’t talk about much, it was a long drive—three, four hours—and we got there, and the principal said, “I see from your report card that you’re failing almost everything in school. What’s the problem?” And I hadn’t even thinking about this, just out of me came this statement. I said, “Well, since they invented the hydrogen bomb, there is no future. Not only will all Beethoven’s symphonies disappear forever, but anything I might do will have little effect. It wouldn’t exist in the face of that.” 

And the principal took a long pause and he said, “Well, that’s what they said when they invented the crossbow.” 

And I knew that there was a difference between a hydrogen bomb and a crossbow. But I was too intimidated to tell him. 

He goes on to describe the sexual opportunities afforded by the Cuban Missile Crisis while he was at Emerson College in 1962….how hard it was to get a hamburger in the 18th Century….taking the controls of small plane in the company of Timothy Leary, even though he didn’t know how to fly…..the car as a symbol of anti-communism…..and fleeing to the easternmost end of Long Island to seek the sort of pastoral life he had as a child, only to find Sag Harbor threatened by chemical pollution and nuclear waste. Also like Fran, he is hard on TV, even as he is filmed for a documentary to be shown on it. 

He speaks at length of his search for the “eternal present” via psychedelics and Zen Buddhism among other pathways, noting that “thinking too much about the future or the past is escaping from the only thing we have, which is the present. So it’s a devilish thing.”

Of the increasing depersonalization of human experience, he relates this ur-Spalding Grayian anecdote:

All I can think of when I’m getting cash out of a cash machine now is (singing) “Where have all the tellers gone? Long time passing…” (laughs) You know, I hear this song. Where have all the telephone operators gone? I know the little florist shop in Sag Harbor—it’s the only one on Main Street—and I’m out of town and I want to send Kathie flowers, so I’m just calling information and I say, “You know, the shop on Main Street, the florist shop, I just need the number.” And she goes, “I’m in Phoenix.”

Eerily, he even seemed to anticipate the pandemic:

I think of the new resistant bacteria. When polio went down, that was a big thing for me as a kid, particularly as a Christian Scientist because I had to go out and get my own shots, because my mother wouldn’t condone them. I had to take it on myself; it was a big responsibility. We now have enormous bacteria. I mean, microbes and bacteria and viruses don’t have a moral system, they’re just completely out to get us and they’re going to figure out a way, and we have to think of another way to stop them. 

This is happening already with the deer tick up where I live in the summer in north of New York. I never thought that in the future I couldn’t walk in the grass in the summer. It’s like we’re living in some weird country where there’s this hostile microscopic bug the size of a grain of pepper that ruins your entire summer. 

And the virus is evolving and will kill you. And it can’t be one shot just like with AIDS: it’s a multi-headed death force, one shot to cure the deer tick. And all of this of course is going to be overcome by science, or it isn’t.

The darkness of which he speaks is evident as he tracks his own view of coming to maturity and the increasing complexity of modern life: not romanticizing the past, but rather, noting how its true nature was hidden from his generation:

When I was growing up in the Fifties, Ike was a rosy guy. President Eisenhower was this like great androgynous, sexless father figure, just a sweet old uncle that beat the bad guys in the war. And it was a very relatively simple time. And I can see the complexity in my stepdaughter and two sons now at a very early age. They’re already very complicated people. My stepdaughter is 12 and she’s more complicated than my mother ever was at 50, or that I am at 57. (laughs) 

So I’m not…. (pauses) Hey, I’m almost ready to go. (smiles) I’m almost ready to lay it all down. Not yet because of my family.

He ends with the words that haunted me, and made me think of this lost interview. Even at the time, even without the foreknowledge of his terrible fate, they were powerful enough that we gave them the penultimate spot in the movie, right before the closing words of Philip Johnson, a man born in 1906 who had lived through almost the entire 20thCentury.

Spalding looks into the camera with his sad smile and says: 

I think of us, the human race, as a glorious accident. And I’m ultimately pessimistic, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean it in a realistic way, because this glorious accident is ultimately doomed, because the sun in time will go out, and the earth will collapse on itself and just be a briquette, a charred briquette floating in space, and there will be no one to remember us and therefore we might as well not have existed. 

Now, within that, there’s a lot of joy to be had. (laughs)  I mean, I’m not about to kill myself. 

GRAY MATTERS

In 2001 Spalding suffered a terrible car accident while traveling in Ireland, resulting in what we now call a traumatic brain injury, akin to what soldiers suffer in battle, along with severe damage to his hip and leg. Brain surgery was necessary to remove bone fragments pressing on his right frontal lobe and to replace part of his skull with titanium plates. The neurological damage and attendant depression necessitated further hospitalizations, anti-psychotic drugs, and electro-convulsive therapy in the years that followed. (Oliver Sacks recounts the sorrowful tale masterfully in a 2015 piece for The New Yorker. See also Steven Soderbegh’s 2010 documentary about Spalding, And Everything Is Going Fine.)

Gray’s wife Kathie, children, and friends reported that he no longer resembled his old, vital, endlessly creative self. He became irrationally tortured with regret over selling their house in Sag Harbor, as well as with the idea of suicide, including elaborate, macabre planning for it and several harrowing attempts. 

His own mother—who had suffered psychotic episodes on and off since his childhood—had committed suicide in 1967 when Spalding was 26, after a lengthy obsession over selling the family home in Rhode Island. He had fictionalized those events poignantly in his 1992 novel Impossible Vacation, and told Sacks and others that he now felt he was reliving them.

After almost three years of suffering,  Spalding Gray took his own life in 2004, jumping off the Staten Island Ferry. 

The October 1998 interview for Yesterday’s Tomorrows was the old Spalding, pre-Ireland at his finest: brilliant, incisive, witty, inquisitive, playful, hilarious, human. I am glad to be able to bring it to a wider audience. 

The glorious accident that is humankind is much the lesser without him. 

**********

Fran Lebowitz and Spalding Gray — stringout from Yesterday’s Tomorrows, 12 min

Yesterday’s Tomorrows (1999)— full film, 100 min

Based on the book by Joseph Corn; Directed by Barry Levinson; Produced by Richard Berge; Executive Producers – Barry Levinson, Tom Fontana, and Sandra Itkoff; Associate Producer/ Archive Producer – Kenn Rabin; Written by Richard Berge and Kenn Rabin; Cinematographer – Michael Chin; Editor – Robert Edwards; Production Coordinator/Assistant Editor – Megan Mylan

**********

Fran Lebowitz — full interview, 41:51 min

Subcuts:

A Child’s View of the Future

The Bomb

World’s Fair

Computers

The Future Is Female (Sort Of)

Pretending It’s a City

The Disadvantages of Human Nature

The Up Side of Little Boyness

Racism, from the Old West to Outer Space

“No One Else Could Have Been John Glenn”

A Mall on Mars

**********

Spalding Gray — full interview, 47:44 min

Subcuts:

Growing Up

The Bomb

The Environment

The Eternal Present

The Sterility of the Future

Space Travel

Reality and Virtual Reality

Human Scale and American Individualism

Dystopias

Television Steals Your Imagination

Capitalism and Utopia

Optimism, Pessimism, and Entropy

A Glorious Accident

Thank you Richard, Kenn, and Megan 

Stills of Fran and Spalding by Michael Chin