Sat Jun 20
America is in a state of crisis. It's actually worse than that; we're facing a crisis within a crisis within a crisis within a crisis. How many layers of crisis are we even on? The future mocks us -- you are like little baby; watch this.
Americans born after 1980 were raised in a very peculiar environment compared to the world average; the later stages of the pax americana. We have no collective experience or memory of hunger, strife, widespread violence, or true civil decline. Everything has been vastly safe and easy compared to life in other places and times. The closest we've come to serious national calamity are 9/11 and the 2008 crash. We are like little baby.
9/11 was notable almost primarily for its normalcy. It was a terrible, tragic event that changed the shape of America; the patriot act was signed, we got entangled in the middle east, and it ushered the beginning of the end of -- if not the American empire itself -- the spirit and ideology of "spreading global democracy" that propelled it forward.
It was also not that bad for almost all Americans. Except for New Yorkers directly affected by it, and servicemembers who fought and died afterward, a vast majority of us made it through the event essentially unscathed. Three properties saved us from mental and material turmoil:
The 2008 crash was also bad. Many families, homeowners, and businesses were devastated financially by the housing crash; a good number have still not recovered. But we were saved by the magic of bailouts and printing money, at only the cheap long-term cost of torpedoing the legitimacy of institutional capitalism over which we fought the cold war in the first place. A vast apparatus of systemic corruption expanded from the top, and the pretense of principled fairness and economic justice vanished in the eyes of serious observers. The now-vestigial praxis of neoliberalism -- less an ideology than a duct-tape set of "go brr" heuristics -- took hold, with the central message and rallying principle of just keep the system running that we begrudgingly accepted for the time being.
In 2020, we have entered act three of the post-Cold-War era. This is the most dire situation we've seen ourselves in since at least 1973 (but still probably less dire than 1941). A quick recap of where we're at:
I could go on and on. The scope and complexity of the issues facing American civil society today are beyond comprehension. But don't hold your breath; it gets far worse.
The last bullet point is perhaps most important. I would say a majority of young Americans remain grossly ignorant to the breadth of problems that threaten a lethal breakdown of the American republic. In addition, few ruminate on how these issues compound each other; or, phrased from a historical sense, how thin the veneer of civilization is.
The Collapse of Complex Societies is an academic view by Joseph Tainter in the 80s which defines collapse as "a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity." (Jared Diamond published a coffee table version in 2004; I have no idea if it's any good). For a more visceral view, consider this recent piece by Adam Elkus:
The weakest constraints of all are social constraints. Without norms, conventions, and institutions, humans would constantly need to evaluate their surroundings to get a sense of what their neighbors are doing prior to selecting actions. When these structures constrain behavior, humans can be "thoughtless." We do not think, we simply do. Because it is the way things have always been done, and we do not need to think about it. We can take things for granted, and project out stable patterns for the duration of our lives. Social constraints flatten, canalize, and domesticate human behavior, and they are what largely make "social science" possible. The social scientist searches for stable regularities to document, but everyday citizens depend on them to go about life without worry.
When social constraints are weakened, the aggregate predictability of human behavior diminishes. Why? The weakening of constraints generates confusion. Things have always worked until they suddenly break. Things have always been decided for you until you have to suddenly decide on your own. Another way of thinking about social constraints – with a very long history in social science – posits them as involuntarily assigned expectations about the future. Prolonged and severe disruption of expectations without immediate prospect of relief accordingly should create greater variance in potential outcomes. The simplest way to understand the omni-crisis is as the sustained breaking of expectations and disruption of the ability to simulate the future forward using assumed constraints.
None of this is anybody in particular's fault -- it sure as hell isn't the fault of us young people. But it is here, it is now, and it is overdue for us to reckon with.
The main reason people remain oblivious to systemic problems is that we're, like, pretty busy with stuff, man. We have jobs, relationships, hobbies, and other patterns of living and coping with the world that we must (and should) sustain. Keeping a job in particular is highly stressful; we're excusedly pressed out of concern for big picture issues because if we fail to continue the get money, pay rent, and eat food cycle, we'll be pretty SoL, and we wouldn't know what to do next. I, for one, should be doing work for my job instead of writing this essay.
I'd like to forward the proposition that we might just be SoL anyway.
As children of the pax americana, food, clothing, and medicine exist like air to us; summonable by performing the ritual of job -- if that fails, to the invocation of asking our parents for help -- if they won't help, we beg charitable institutions -- or, finally, we can always turn to the welfare state. Very few of us know how to make electricity, how central heating/cooling works, anything about the vast chain of international business partnerships that procure clothes for us, or how hard it is to grow a stable crop on a homestead.
Identifying important issues and informing people to take civic action is supposed to be the job of the media. Well. I won't get into this here. Matt Taibbi has a good write-up of the current state of "leftist" outlets. "Rightist" outlets remain far worse. And of course, nobody ever reads "neutral" outlets (How can you remain neutral on a moving train? What spineless nerds they must be). Suffice to say that News has been Fake for as long as I can remember, and it will provide no solace here.
Underlying the long-since-decayed corpse of journalism is a pervading mode of cynicism toward democracy among our elites. Earlier I referred to this as "go brr neoliberalism" -- Just keep everything running, don't bother with guiding public opinion fruitfully, and avoid spiking anxieties as much as humanly possible. This seems to have been the default modus operandi of elite philosophy at least since I was born, in 1991.
It might have actually worked; it might have actually been the good thing to do. But it didn't work. It failed. I would say our anxieties are pretty fucking spiked right now.
So, where are we at? As of today, things are still "mostly okay"; we're not yet considering eating our neighbors. Social order and rule of law have taken a vicious bruising, but still have not yet totally disintegrated. The zombie apocalypse is still far off.
The truth is, the above problems are just the tip of the iceberg. On our current trajectory, and with the intractable polarization that has taken root at the heart of the American soul, things can potentially get far, far worse.
It's impossible to predict what could or might happen, but here's a short list of possibilities:
It's almost not even worth considering exactly how, why, or when further breakdowns will occur. The likeliest crucial moment will be in November, when unity degrades to the point where nobody trusts the voting system (In Soviet America, politicians vote you!). And we're not yet ready to talk about what can we do about it. This essay will be long and incomplete.
For what it's worth, there are brilliant hardworking men and women across the country who have dedicated their lives to preventing such apocalyptic shatterings of American civility; servicemembers, bureaucrats, and leaders representing the core of our nation's enduring charter. There are a great many neutral and good-hearted people working tirelessly to protect us, themselves, and the American way of life, and I give sincere thanks to them as often as I can.
But they are almost exclusively older people, at least over the age of 35. And even they are straining. They have protected us and shielded us from the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, thankless labor of managing the intricacies of problems in the real world. And sometime in the future -- perhaps sooner than we are ready -- that burden will fall to us. Who, I have to say, thus far seem both unprepared and uninterested in the job.
And don't get me wrong; I'm not immune to this in the slightest. I'm only writing this because I want the system to go brr again so I can get back to playing videogames, watching anime, and hitting on cute girls at bars. Dealing with reality is necessary and noble when it presents you with non-ignorable challenges, but it should not be valorized or canonized into "everyone has to be maximally real and terrified at all times". Fuck that. When we get through this shaky transition, we're gonna have robots that make us food; we're gonna have automated, accountable security systems; we might even achieve a system true digital democratic representation. I'm very excited to see that world for us and our children.
To summarize: America has problems, and they are deeper and more real than the problems you think it has. And soon they will not be abstract problems on your computer screen; they will come to your doorstep, you will be forced to confront them, and they will be the ultimate problems of our collective survival.
So, let's talk about the last three weeks. It's been a tough year for America, and so far June has been the toughest. Things seem to have calmed down a little bit; narratively, it feels like we're taking a bit of a beach episode to cool off in the middle of a plot-heavy season. This is much needed; the amount of fear, anger, sadness we've experienced has been considerable, and I'm glad we're able to pause for a breather and some reflection before things kick off again (hopefully, developments will wait until we approach November).
To get you back in the mood, let's watch this video together. This will be challenging; as the Youtube warning says, viewer discretion is advised. If you think you get the gist, you can stop whenever; the video doesn't contain much new information.
If you have a heart, it is very hard to watch this. It doesn't matter what your politics are. If you feel "triggered" by it, you are having a normal and healthy response shared by many people (if it doesn't affect you at all, there might actually be something wrong with you).
I want to avoid picking this apart politically as much as possible, but here are a few things I observed:
I don't really want to keep talking about Tucker Carlson. I don't think he matters that much. But his audience and message is real; it's not going away any time soon.
For what it's worth, his audience are American citizens; many of them are kind to their families and neighbors. This is the group I refer to as "aging boomercons", a group I can safely say is categorized by bitterness and meanness in the public sphere, but also a group that has been suffering in their own way for a long time. For practical purposes, they seem immune to reason. I also think they are entirely justified in being appalled and horrified at the widespread destruction and violence that Tucker calls out.
I worry about this group, but I don't have anything to offer on how to persuade them, help them, or interact with them in any way. I'm not worried about violent right-wing militias or terrorist groups; if they violate the rule of law, nobody will shed a tear when they are put down, and they understand this very well. The best thing to do is vote them and their representatives completely out of serious policy considerations.
What I am worried about is this:
As with everything our President says on Twitter, this should be taken with a quarry's worth of salt. He tweets stupid ridiculous shit all the time that has nothing to do with anything. Nobody knows what "Antifa" is, or what "designate as Terrorist" means, or what being "designated as a Terrorist" would entail in terms of national security or law enforcement.
The simplest meaning is that the President is making a vague threat to use the vast surveillance state to combat violent left-wing militias or terrorist groups as he defines it. As President, he is able to do this.
At least, he thinks he is able to do this.
Enter Four-star General James Mattis; a widely celebrated military officer, all around spectacular human being, and probably the closest thing we have to a war hero. On June 3, he penned a letter published in The Atlantic strongly denouncing our President's actions and rhetoric. It's unprecedented in American history for a retired general to criticize a sitting commander-in-chief in such a direct way. In addition, it's one of the coolest fucking things I've ever read:
It's hard to add any commentary here; plus, my arms are busy, involuntarily saluting the nearest American flag.
When I read this, for about 15 minutes I was worried that some kind of coup was taking place. Upon reflection, reading some more perspectives, practicing self-care, and otherwise calming the fuck down, I'm no longer worried about this.
For starters, other members of active duty military leadership seem to be on board with the whole "not doing civil war thing":
In addition, it's actually pretty reckless and stupid for civilians to comment or speculate on civil-military affairs; the Mattis piece may have been a significant political move, but things at this level move far slower and steadier than any of the media-staged slap fights we're used to. There are actual adults in charge here, and I have faith in them.
Finally, there are civilians, reporters, and historians who do pay attention to this kind of stuff. There's precedent for everything in history, and if you're still concerned, there are perspectives out there you can dig up to add sensemaking and context when "real" shit happens beyond your experience or comprehension.
So; on top of impeachment, the ridiculous third-grade ego of our President, and the worst level of polarization in our country in many decades -- Suffice to say, we're facing a serious political crisis. I won't even comment on Congress, cabinet officials, or the vast government bureaucracy; they all suck total monkey balls.
The next big area of concern is the economy. I actually studied economics in college, and I'll be the first to tell you that most of it is over-wrought academic mumbo-jumbo. What ultimately matters is that the job-money-rent-food cycle continues "working" for most* citizens. Very serious threats like hyperinflation, devaluation of currency, or mass defaults of households and businesses are now on the horizon. When James Carville said "it's the economy, stupid", he was referring to this; if most* people cannot sustain their livelihoods through the economic system, and order cannot be kept through the judicial / military system, that's when the zombie apocalypse starts. Nobody wants the zombie apocalypse to start.
By the way; The * and scare quotes around "works" is meant to be comical; one critical issue that young people have largely kept on is how broken this system is for the bottom 20% (the "precarious class"), who have been barely scraping by for decades. It's a big source of all of these problems, but it's about to be a bigger source of bigger problems when the precarious class percentage creeps up to 30%, 40%, 50%...
I don't even have to mention the whole "pandemic killing people by the hundreds of thousands thing". By the way, there's a pandemic killing people by the hundreds of thousands. As bold as it sounds, I honestly think this is the least of our concerns. I have nothing unique to contribute, because young people already know what to do: Test, trace, clean things, social distance, and wait it out.
I could go on and on; this is just a taste. I don't want to spend the rest of this essay belaboring the idea that things are really bad; hopefully you've gotten the point. If you want to scare yourself more, here's a smattering of more reading I've collected over the last couple of weeks; knock yourself out. I haven't even read most of these; at this point I just glaze over URLs with words like "democracy die 150 days" and "banks careening implosion" and throw it into my "use this shit in my essay about how bad things are" collection.
In short: Things are bad, they could get worse, they're mostly fine now, and young people need to start doing something.