Empty Thunder

In the aftermath of the Civil War (once also called the War of the Rebellion), many people were certainly concerned, uncertain, and baffled about the future. The purpose of the war had been the preservation of the Union. That statement, that explanation, however, contains within it manifold intentions and issues with which we evidently struggle to this day.

Chief among them being the question, Union of What?

Lee’s surrender at Appomattox gave a formality to the end of the war which was deceptive. Hostilities raged on in various places for years. Look at any war and it is obvious that formal declarations of surrender, victory, etc, are only that—declarations. State intentions. Conflagration continues in the aftermath, small conflicts, what we call brushfire wars, go on over unresolved questions of territory, national identity, ideology, all to some extent driven by the refusal to acknowledge that it is over.

If we look at the events of this past January 6th and take them as evidence of a civil war, then it might be legitimate to say that the successful inauguration of Joe Biden marks the formal end of that war, and it would be about as true as any other such declaration. It might be well for us to examine all the elements of that event to see where it might lead.

Firstly, is there a Civil War?

Let’s look at the prior one and see how it compares.

Our Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery.  (Issue number one, among many “issue number ones” this time, is the accuracy of that claim. Despite the wishes of naysayers, it is indisputable that the secession movements of the 1860s were centered on that one issue. They said so themselves. The desire to claim otherwise in recent years is one of the hallmarks of our current difficulties and in a significant way the reason the current movement lacks any credibility.)  Dress it up any way you like, slavery was the issue. I can say this regardless of claims to the contrary even without the written proof by the hands of the secessionists by a simple formula. States Rights is the less odious claim. But States Rights to do what? To be a state? That right already existed and was not under threat. The drive to secede must therefore have been spurred by a sense of threat to a perceived right that was at issue. The “state right” under threat was the right to hold human beings in chattel bondage. Period. That was the defining issue for those states, that they claimed the right to maintain the one institution that they saw as essential to their very identity, i.e. slavery. 

All through the Trans-Atlantic Slave period, there were people arguing that slavery was immoral, inhumane, and ultimately despicable, so it was not that they didn’t know any better, it was only that those practicing it believed in their own self-interest more. Inasmuch as we regard this as at least in some part a class issue, the assumed superiority of the slaveholders is demonstrable across social lines. If they could have found a way to enslave the poor of any ethnic group, they would have (and in many ways did). The racist aspect becomes evident when the clearly-stated and institutionally pernicious differences between the various forms of bondage are examined.

How does this relate to the present?

That desire for self-superiority has never been fully dealt with and drives most if not all of the current politics informing those who participated in the insurrection on January 6th.

What the states that formed the Confederacy possessed that the present agglomeration of socially and economically disaffected reactionaries lack was a concrete set of conditions over which to separate themselves from the Union. Concrete but ultimate insupportable. Slavery as an economic system had limits, and was reaching them. The only thing that would have allowed the South to maintain the system in any economically sustainable way was expansion and that was severely threatened politically by the actions of the North. Even without that, the South was in many ways trying to maintain a dying system that could not be sustained either environmentally, morally, or economically. At some point it would have become clear that the slaveholders would not have been able to afford to maintain the system. The returns were already trending in that direction, hence the urgency in expansion. They were on the long road to bankruptcy. Outlawing slavery outright would have brought that about much sooner. 

By comparison, what do the present crop of the disaffected have to fear?

Going down a list of issues, few have the kind of concreteness faced by the antebellum elite. And yet, there is a similarity that is tragic in much the same way.

The casualties (on both sides) of the Civil War fell most heavily upon the poor. Men drafted into service to fight for a cause of which they had no real stake. The average Confederate soldier did not and never would own a slave. 

In the same way, the people in Washington D.C. who invaded the Capitol are not and never will be independently wealthy.

And yet in both instances they were coopted into fighting for those whose ranks they could never join—in both instances, the rich.

Before going into that, though, consider the issues presently fueling this movement. Most of them are entirely fabricated. QAnon is entirely nonsense, and yet it has dangerous momentum. The libertarian aspirations on display are at most distractions. The protests against LGBTQ rights are informed by the worst kind of misapplied identity tropes. Abortion is the one issue with any real traction and even it is projected in opposition to secularism and questions of gender equality which on their face require one to ignore so many ancillary realities as to be little more than antiquated prudery dressed up as a moral crisis.

These are all wedge issues, existing for only one purpose—to divide people into camps that can then be manipulated into fighting each other. Reasonable solutions are available to answer differences of opinion, but they are cast as betrayals to some kind of fundamental morality and undermines American Exceptionalism.

The tagline for the movement gives it away. Make America Great Again.

That begs so many questions.

Now, this is the kind of thing that seems to annoy the reactionary the most, the request for definition. They know what they mean, and see your inability to understand what they mean as a sign that you are part of the problem. That you would ask the question automatically defines you as their opponent in a struggle for the unquestioned emergence of the wonderfulness they support. It should, it seems, “go without saying.”

It must be asked, though—what good is anything that cannot be said? And is the lack of definition just a mask for that which has no reality?

Greatness, however one defines it, is only legitimate as an emergent property. If it is a set goal, with predefined shape and expectations, it is both unachievable and illegitimate.

Those who seem to be Trump’s loudest and most energetic supporters seem not to understand this. They seem to regard Greatness as a prize to be won, a condition with evident benefits that can be bought, a state of being understood by the adulation it commands. This is clear in Trump’s case by any casual look at the produce of his life—if it looks great, that’s enough, never mind what substance it contains. He is, above all, a promoter, and the promoter never has to produce, he only has to sell. The “promotion” comes into play when what is being sold is not quite what it is claimed to be.

Consider: the insurrectionists invaded the precincts of the Capitol. They invaded, they took the halls, the floors, had run of the building. They rushed in there believing they were about to achieve their goals. And then what? They acted like children. They wandered around, they collected trophies, they took selfies. 

They had no plan.

What if they had captured some congresspeople? Some were clearly prepared to arrest those they had been told are the source of their disaffection. What then?

What demands might these people have made? And on whose behalf?

Many are now lamenting how they had been misled. They blame Trump, certainly, but that misses the point, which is that had they not prepared themselves to be misled, he would never have been able to draw them in. They were there because they wanted to be.

But wanted to be for what?

Among the various signs on display, a variety of bigotries were evident. Antisemitism. Ethnic exclusiveness. Libertarian protestations. QAnon messaging. As one digs through the morass of ideological motives, it moves from ancient hatreds to contemporary fantasy. A melange of distortions, absurdities, and petty insecurities. It is not difficult to find ample information to debunk and delegitimize each and every position. But it has all found common ground among people who would rather attack the institutions defined for them as their enemy than consider reexamining the bases of their disaffection.

One woman recently charged by the FBI posted about her intention to find Speaker Pelossi and “shoot her in the friggin’ brain.” This is evidence of a profound disconnect with any reasonable picture of reality. 

Again, though, the question must be asked—over what?

So far, no one has been found with any after-takeover plans. Nothing has been revealed about the intended replacement of current institutions with something different. Given that the complaints about the government have become surreal and that of the people who chose to go to Washington and who participated in the insurrection, an answer to this question is a bit more than academic. The stated intention to abduct representatives (not only federal but state officials), in some cases kill them, in every case render the government as it is unable to function requires an explanation. And at some point at least an idea what would take the place of what would be destroyed.

Instead, we see the fire and fury and no plan. No intention to govern in place of. No one stepping up to the plate with a set of ideas on what to do instead of what has been done. 

Largely, this is because we have a method, a plan, a set of procedures here to put forward changes. It’s called an election and representative democracy. The insurrectionists seem unable to make that work for them. Essentially, because they cannot get what they want, they feel the entire system is a failure and should be burned down.

But what it is they want, other than not to have to deal with what is? 

If this were only a problem of a rabble it might not be such a problem. But in fact, the Party that presumably represents them the most—the GOP—exhibits the same frustrating condition. They block, they oppose, they condemn, the filibuster, they deny, they appoint judges, challenge legislation, and except for one tax cut after another, they do not put forward substantive plans as a Party to replace what they clearly seek to tear down. So the model is there, writ large, for the rabble to follow. Just tear it all down and the “right thing” the thing that will “Make America Great Again” will simply emerge.

For decades now we have been subjected to an erosion of public trust and a decimation of public programs fueled by the antagonistic politics fomented by people who are increasing their market share by virtue of the violence and division created with the intent to destroy. It was learned long ago that chaos can, in some instances, allow profit-taking at an elevated rate. Greater prosperity across the board can be created only in periods of greater unity and cultural amity, but that is neither fast nor easily funneled into the narrow channels that currently feed the so-called 1%. We have been led to places where it seems the only rational response to change and to people different from us is exclusion, intolerance, hatred, and rebellion.

The pot boiled over. We have just been through a battle of the current Civil War. 

And for what?

As odious as the institutions the Confederacy sought to defend were, they were substantive. There was something to them. They needed to go, but the battle was not over fantasies and mirages.

This current battle is over…

“I don’t want to.”

There is a petulance about it all that, despite the intensity of violent imagery and posturing and the cacophony of belligerent rejection, cannot be denied or ignored. Anti-maskers trying to make their refusal to cover their mouths and nose for the sake of public health into a First Amendment issue, which it is not. Anti-vaxxers trying to elevate folklore, self-entitlement, and ignorance to the level of responsible citizenship, which it is not. Anti-immigrant sentiment couched as “border security” rather than what it is, bigotry and the tribal howl of fear of the outsider. Anti-tax sentiment that somehow assumes that taxation is the chief impediment to an economy that will allow greater prosperity, which it is not. Anti-safety net, pretending to be a principled stand against “socialism” rather than a species of political resentment toward people believed to be receiving aid “unfairly,” which is really just class envy and fear of losing privilege.

Petulance. We have a civil war going on over petulance.

There is no plan because any plan can only be another version of the same set of systemic resentments that are presumably the current problem.

All thunder and no rain.

For those who understand this, those who for a long time have been tolerating the lies, the targeted destruction, the flouting of all standards of evidence, and the assumption that all opinions are of equal validity, it is perhaps time to stop allowing the space for it. Nonsense is nonsense and the more it is allowed to go unchecked, unchallenged, and unaddressed, the harder it will be to find solid ground when we need to come together.

There will be no secession this time because there is no Lost Cause at the heart of this. There are only the Lost. The problem is, they are armed and they are angry and they believe that as long as they can shout reason and reality down, then they are right.

Now that Trump is off the playing field, they are milling about and feeling betrayed. All they had to give them focus was him. A blowhard who played them for the benefit of his brand. 

His entire legal team has just quit on him. There is nothing left for them to make any bank on. It is a hollow cause, devoid of substance, and yet of such density that it will suck those still in attendance down into a mire to drown. 

The question now is not, what did they actually think they were going to do? but rather, what are we going to do with them now? Millions of people, many of them the likes of Representatives Greene and Boebert, believe in substanceless conspiracies, false theories of government, and the apparent right of people to separate themselves from everything in order to live according to standards that are only supportable within a community, the very kind of community they reject, are among those believing in…

Well, that’s the problem. Believing in what?

We have four years to figure this out before it all comes back to try this nonsense again.

Old (New) Image

I’m getting acquainted with the new scanner and having to learn its tricks. File size being one of them.  But.

There are some images a photographer goes back to again and again, trying it one more time, reinterpreting, finding a new or better way of bringing it out.  This is one such.  From New Mexico

Enjoy.

 

 

 

We Have Toys

Finally, after two trips into the wilds of computer land, I have my new scanner, all set up and ready to go. Below it my first scanned image.

 

I will get better at this, once I learn the various buttons on the new ‘chine. This is an old image, a 4 X 5 negative. To my pleasant amazement, the detail is still astounding in these things.

So in the space of a week, I have the ability now to once more make use of my (huge) library of negatives (only 50 + years of photography), and I have sold a new story—a novella, no less—to Analog. Not a bad start of a year that could have turned out a lot worse.

The Day After The Rebellion

Mark Twain (presumably)* said that if one does not wish to appear foolish, it is best to keep silent rather than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. Sound political advice as well.  Advice far too many Republicans failed to take.

I say “failed” but really, they didn’t fail in this—to fail at something implies you tried to do something but just couldn’t make it work. No, they never intended to do anything else.  They’ve been riding high on a rhetorical wave assuming their quasi-populist Everyman shtick would stand them in good stead with the voter, who they clearly believe is an idiot.

Trump appeared to be a godsend to a category of charlatan that believes the voter should be ignorant, unaware, preferably stupid, so that the voter will never interfere with what the charlatan intends to do.  In this case, conduct business that excludes the average voter from any say whatsoever. Partly, this is a species of elitism, assuming the average person cannot possibly understand the things done at a high level. Mostly, this is a desire to act without oversight, rule without criticism, and enjoy power without accountability. Behind the screen Trump supplied, the GOP has become a party of clerics tending to the mysteries of the temple, jealous of their access to the secrets of state and success.

The average American, if I may speak generally, wants very simple things—security, a feeling of place, and access to degree of self-determination.  It is, I think fair to say, a slate of expectations neither party has been adept at supplying, because the one thing that underlies all of this is a recognition of human equity and the rights incumbent thereto. Equity and rights, in the simplest terms, are power. And power is the one thing the powerful will not willingly share.

But we’ve been trying to move in that direction.

Since shortly after World War II, the powerful have been trying to maintain their privilege. They found a method and have been applying it consistently, basically fomenting resentments between groups of people in order to create the conditions whereby their mouthpieces could win elections and achieve positions from which to serve the powerful. Too abstract? Let me put it this way: the Koch Brothers and their associates have seeded resentments and aggravated disparities (many of which they themselves created) in order to achieve their tax agenda. They finally produced a block of Americans who consistently voted against their own best interests because they were convinced they were voting to preserve their “values” and their “country” and their “heritage.” All the powerful (i.e. the rich) wanted was lower taxes.

Which translates into power.

They probably did not wish to foment a rebellion.  Rebellions are fickle things and as likely to get the powerful killed as anything else. No, they wanted to keep the country at a simmer, disrupting coalitions that might become effective counters to their agenda.

Now, this does not require conspiracy.  All it requires is a set of common interests and goals. No secret meetings to lay out complex plans, just dinner and conversation and tacit agreement among equals, as it were. We tend to overcomplicate such things here as a matter of narrative consequence, that things which can unfold of their own accord must necessarily be done by the machinations of a cabal.  The reality is more banal and harder to manage, which is the nature of institutional predisposition. This is the basis of institutional racism. Institutional sexism. Institutional classism.

They were managing. Since Reagan, the flow of wealth has gone pretty much in one direction, till today it is, without exaggeration, obscenely uni-directional.

But then it went a step too far.  The simmer went to a boil and now we have a mess.

What we witnessed in the Capitol is the result of finally losing control of that narrative. In recent years we have seen a number of the primary movers pull back, deny they wanted this. Trump was supposed to be their puppet, but once off the leash, so to speak, he was anything but. And he fed the beast till it came to our political doorstep and demanded meat.

There are those who argue that this is all a matter of style—look at what he has accomplished rather than at the façade. Fair enough. But then we must take the next step and ask:  have these accomplishments happened uniquely because of him? Would they have happened under anyone else? The hallmarks—his brag points—have been the Wall (failed), Muslim ban (mostly failed), the tariffs (not complete failures but hardly raging successes), and the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East. Did any of these depend wholly on him?

A response to China has been in the works for a long time. The hammer blow he brought down did as much harm as good. But any president with congressional support could have begun this. He started a trade war which has had, at best, mixed results. The Wall was one of the most ill-advised acts in recent memory and served nothing but to feed the resentments and prejudices of his base, at exorbitant costs, diverting moneys in possibly illegal ways from other projects that would have had more efficacy. It will fall down of its own (sections of it already have) and overall fail to address a problem that has been allowed to fester because of the optics and campaign material. Withdrawing from the Middle East has become fraught with ethical and moral peril, but again, the draw-down was begun by Obama. The ban on Muslims….well, that was simply pandering.

Everything else, most of which goes on beneath the surface of the public gaze—not because it is secret but because it is complicated and not very sexy and only bores people—in any administration, depended on a civil service that he has decimated by categorical firings, departmental closures, and the appointment of sycophants who have no clue how to run the bureaus they have been charged with overseeing.  Betsy De Vos?  Her entire purpose was to hamstring the Department of Education and lay the groundwork for private education for profit.  Why is this bad? Because the one place where some kind of egalitarian recompense can start and possibly succeed is public education. Private education doesn’t care about that, whether admitted or not.  It cares about who can afford it, which is by definition anti-egalitarian.

In summary, the only thing that has made Trump unique is his vitriol and his “populist” cheerleading of the worst aspects of our culture. The proof is in what has happened in the Capitol. He egged them on with false claims of voter fraud (the most debunked lie of recent times) and when it got out of hand he urged them to go home with a familial “We love you.” We love you? Who, may I ask, is this “we” of which he speaks?

Trump has always been about the brand, the optics, the soundbite, and the ratings.  He has run his office like the set of a reality television show and as long as the news was covering something that was consequent upon his actions, this was success. It didn’t even have to be favorable coverage, in line with the old adage that even bad press is good. Armchair diagnoses abound regarding his personal problems—sociopath, narcissist, what have you—but it all comes down to someone who cannot abide being ignored. The price we’re paying for his insatiable need for attention is an unstable union, an endangered democracy, the humiliation of the country in the eyes of the world, and the highest debt in history.

And at the end of the day, he is the de facto leader of a cult that has no point. The mob broke into the Capitol, drove congress out, did some pillaging, and then…what? They had no plan, no goal, no end game.  Nothing but the clichéd rantings of the self-afflicted burdened with illusions of oppression. Like their idol, all they seem to want is to be noticed.

I knew a man once who before our eyes became a Nazi. He had stepped onto the path of conspiracy-driven alternate-history myth and little by little it ate into him. He could not seem to grasp where the lies and reality parted. He was not unintelligent. In fact, he had gifts and had he applied himself in more productive pursuits he could have been a success at life. But he chose a path that for some reason fed his insecurities, teased his suspicions, and made him feel, however absurdly, that he Knew The Truth. It empowered him in a way he could not reject, like a drug addiction. Going any other way would have meant…I was never sure, but perhaps dealing constructively with reality was simply too mundane. It would not have made him feel special.  Finally, his wife left him, took the children, he lost his home, and the last I saw of him he was handing out Nazi pamphlets outside a Steak’n’Shake poorly-dressed and wearing an armband with a swastika.

Such delusions eventually empty the soul. Like a narcotic, they seem to make the user feel wonderful, in control, superior. Then slowly it becomes apparent there is nothing to sustain the user and little by little vacancy supplants substance, stupor replaces awareness, and decay overcomes growth.

Listening to the “protestors” it is clear they have nothing but the moment.

It would be easy to see them as victims, but we should not. Victims have no choice, their circumstances overwhelm their will. These people chose this path.

False comparisons abound. Blame is being heaped on Antifa, BLM, all the social justice movements. This will not stand scrutiny.

But scrutiny is being assiduously avoided.

We have tolerated a condition wherein legitimate authority has been conflated with demagoguery, disinformation, and jingoism, to the point where we see that a significant part of our society has simply been allowed to reject reality in the name of their well-nurtured grievances and unexamined prejudices. We have seen idiocy and delusion take the stage with reason and responsibility as if they are equal. We have primed ourselves for this moment, perhaps thinking that somehow in the contest, that which is worthy of trust will somehow emerge, like a boxer from the ring. Well, it doesn’t work that way. Left to its own, idiocy and delusion can outpace and overwhelm reason and, for a time, displace reality, unless we choose the latter and confront the former.

Finally, Trump, in my view, represent—embodies—everything we must stop admiring and see for the destructive perversion of American values he is.

With that said, I believe he should be forthwith removed from office and his enablers stripped of their powers and charges of insurrection and sedition be made against the perpetrators of the four year fraud we have lived through.

And those who turned out in record numbers to vote this election cycle, do not ever fail to show up again.  This has been enabled as much by the apathy of the voter as by anything else.

Have a better 2021.

____________________________________________________________

  • My mistake. Abraham Lincoln said this. But I will leave the original as an example of what to do when one misspeaks.

 

Onward

We stayed up till past midnight, so heard the revelry, stepped outside in the cold and saw some beautiful firework bursts, and retreated back inside where we toasted each other, wept, laughed, and made stabs at promising to have a better year. Some excellent bourbon and he late hour and I feel a bit…strained.

But it is the first of a new year, and while I am not much for symbols, I respect them to the degree that they enable rather than encumber.

This morning, we had this:

 

Tomorrow? Who knows?  I exhort you all to find beauty, turn away from bitterness, do something fine in the world, and indulge your dreams (where possible).  Harm none, smile a lot, and be the solution rather than the obstacle.

May we find ourselves on the far end of this year with our friends, homes, and sanity intact.